I continue to carry film cameras long after the world has gone digital. We had a darkroom when I was growing up and I learned to develop film and print photos when I was about 10. I spent all the money I had saved in my short life to buy a battered Nikon FM when I was 12. I have saved nearly every negative I ever shot and I miss shooting film in a world where that was the only option.

In short: I love film. I believe there is something akin to alchemy, to magic in the process of shooting film. That said, I am primarily and unapologetically a digital photographer.

Medium is important, but not ever so much as the finished work.

Shooting film as a primary medium does not work for me. During the difficult years of the transition, I worked with a variety of mixed systems. I would always carry a film camera, always happy that I was exposing at least a few frames to record what had been on a more permanent medium. Finally, I found myself way out in the jungles of Honduras, near the Nicaraguan border, using my Leica M6 TTL with my new Nikon D800. One of my favorite ways of working has long been a Nikon SLR, usually mounted with a 20mm wide angle and Leica rangefinder with a 50mm lens. I found that in using a mixed film/digital rig of 35mm format cameras, I was duplicating my own work. I was interrupting my workflow to take the same image with the digital camera.

Medium is important, but not ever so much as the finished work. And so I put the Leica away and concentrated on using the digital SLR. It was the right decision. I realized that if I was to shoot film while working on projects, that it had to bring something the digital cameras were not doing (or at least it had to be small, fast, and easy…preferably both).

I did an assignment in San Salvador where I took portraits of the marginalized and homeless with a Hasselblad 500 CM. The Hasselblad is not small, nor fast, but it does make an image utterly unlike a 35mm format digital camera. As well, in this particular case, I was shooting under relatively controlled circumstances and had a secure place I could leave the heavy, slow, medium format camera while I was out doing other work.

I believe there is something akin to alchemy, to magic in the process of shooting film.

This was not the case in India, particularly while working on the ongoing Ganges River documentary. I was already carrying enough gear for the intensely crowded, hot streets of Varanasi or high up in the Himalayas when I had a single rangefinder in my bag. The Hasselblad quit working almost immediately upon finishing the portraits in El Salvador and even if I had had it fixed, I would not have carried it much in India.

I wanted to shoot some film, to have that analog record of moments on the Subcontinent and I wanted them to come from something light that produced an image unlike my digital Nikons and Leicas. I decided on carrying a 35mm point and shoot kept in panoramic mode and a camera I have used on and off for years: the Holga 120.

The Holga in particular accompanied me on all my trips related to the Ganges River and many others. It went to Varanasi, to Haridwar and Rishikesh, and up into the Garhwal Himalayas of Uttarkhand.

I would like to think it might be the only Holga ever packed to the headwaters of the Ganges where the Bhagirathi River emerges from the Gangotri Glacier at 13,500 feet. It also went with me on other trips: to Kanyakumari, the very southern tip of India where three oceans meet, to the backwaters of Kerala, to Jodhpur in Rajasthan, to Calcutta, and elsewhere.

These are a selection of the photos I took with my Holgas. They provide an alternative series of images, a parallel record to the main body of the documentary shot with a Leica M-P 240, an M9 Monochrome, a Nikon D800, a Fuji X100s, and a Panasonic LX7. They were shot on ILFORD HP5 PLUS and Kodak Tri-X 400.

It is interesting how these images, shot with cameras that are something of the antithesis of my professional digital cameras, provide a secondary, alternate narrative. They are often of the same subjects as digital frames I shot but the resulting images are very different and, to my eye, carry a different emotional content and subtext.

I would not trade the abilities of my digital cameras nor the images they produce but I am happy, as well, to have exposed film under difficult circumstances and to have produced a record that maintains, I hope, some of the magic and mystery of film and the world.

Sacred Hydrology, the exploration and documentary that Bharat Pathak and I started while in India, is very much an ongoing project. The link takes you to a preview of what is both a beautiful record of the project to date as well as the mission statement and proposal for the project.

The 2nd Edition publication here is 116 pages of photos and stories from along the river: photos and stories that bring two men’s different perspectives to the journey and views into the history, mythology, and geography of the Ganges, its headwaters, delta, and sacred sites. 

~ Andrew

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About the author

Avatar - Andrew Tonn

Andrew Tonn

Andrew J. Tonn is a photographer, writer, and explorer. He has worked for newspapers as a staff writer and photojournalist and as a documentary reporter partnering with medical and humanitarian relief organizations in Central America, Scandinavia, Eastern...

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  1. I can totally relate to this. I travel with both film and digital and it does interrupt my workflow. I also found myself taking the same pictures on both formats as I always wanted a digital record of it. Not always but if staying somewhere for a few days I often try to alternate what I shoot on each day. Helps to see if different too! Love India and the images in this piece.

  2. Very interesting and a familiar dilemma.
    I love the idea of a parallel narrative, created by pictures taken using a very different ‘technology’, but did you solve the initial problem? You said that switching between the M6 and the dSLR interrupted your flow, but surely a Holga does that even more?
    Also, how do you choose between your fleet of digital cameras on a day to day basis?
    I ask these questions because I struggle with exactly the same things…