Remember When Cameras Used Film?

Remember when you had to put film in a camera to take pictures?

I do.

My first camera was plastic and gray and flat and had a picture of the Go-Bots emblazoned on the top.  The Go-Bots were fictional cartoon robots that were like a poor man’s Transformers and had nothing to do with the camera’s functioning.

My Go-Bots camera, like all cameras at the time, required film to take pictures.  The film was rolled up inside of a cartridge and contained a limited number of pictures. The number of pictures ranged from 12 to perhaps 48 at the outer limits.  There were no film cartridges that took 500 pictures, at least not at the film kiosks where I was getting ripped off.

The film cartridge that my camera required was in the shape of two small tubes connected by a flat plastic piece.  It looked like a little Torah scroll.  Taking a flash picture required buying a cartridge of flash bulbs, which looked like a miniature apartment building made of clear plastic.

One memory of using my Go-Bots camera stands above all others.  In 1989 my parents took me to see the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in Manhattan.  I was not old enough to drink heavily so I really felt the cold.  The only thing that kept me from landing on Planet Whine was my Go-Bots camera and the promise it held for me of a Pulitzer Prize.

The problem was that my allowance afforded me only one roll of 27-shot film.  Even were there exactly 27 floats—and there were far more than that—I would have no chance to take different angles of a float I found particularly compelling.  So I would have to choose.  I could not take pictures of everything.

For each float that approached I employed a three-pronged analysis.  First, how many pictures do I have left?  Second, is this better than what I have already seen?  And third, given how many floats are likely to come by, is this particular float picture-worthy?  Some things, like the many marching bands that went marching by, were easy to pass up…unless there was something unique about it, like a particularly corpulent trumpeter.  Other things, however, were closer calls.

One such close call was a float of friendly dinosaurs in various colors.  “How cool,” I said to myself.  “I simply must preserve these dinosaurs.” And there went 1/27th of my film.

I regretted my decision as soon as the shutter closed.  Not even a giant blown-up Woody Woodpecker could free my mind from my bad decision.  “Why did I waste a picture on those stupid dinosaurs?” I asked myself.  “The dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago.  Those were probably just people dressed up in dinosaur costumes.”

Still unable to accept my own mistake, I started taking pictures of things that were even less picture-worthy than the people dressed up as dinosaurs, as if to show the cosmos that my original decision was correct.  I wasted irreplaceable shots on blown-up cartoon characters that did not have their own show, washed-up celebrities whose last work had been when I was an embryo, and a funnel-cake that someone had obviously found disappointing and thrown in the gutter.  The funnel cake had been stepped on, but I could not even tell if the person who had bought the funnel cake was the same person who had stepped on it.

I was still in denial when the grand finale float approached.  The float that we were all waiting for.  The float that bridged an okay holiday to the only holiday that kids actually cared about.  The shouts of children and adults alike presaged the appearance of that greatest of floats…Santa!  Mommy, I see him!  It’s Santa!  Santa!  Santa!!

It is a well-known fact that Santa Claus is the final float at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  That meant I had made it on my one roll of film.  Just one more picture and all my mistakes would be forgiven.  But when I pressed on the picture-taking button I got nothing.  I was out of pictures.  My hubris had cost me a picture of the most important float.  I had blundered at the critical moment.  During the long, long car ride home I kept replaying the events in my mind.  A hundred times I saved myself from clicking a picture of the dinosaurs and took pictures of Santa from many angles.

That would never happen today.  Had the year been 2009 instead of 1989 I would have had a digital camera with a 300 gigabyte SD flash whatever and could have taken as many pictures as I wanted, of anything, and still had plenty left over for the Big S.  I could have deleted those pictures of the dinosaurs the moment I realized I did not want them.

I now have a digital camera, and I have used that digital camera to take thousands of pictures, pictures that, along with the ones I took on film with my Go-Bots camera, allow me to relive the moments of my life, good and bad, happy and sad, again and again for as long as I live.  Pictures that I have not looked at once since I took them.

Thanks to Carly Kulig for the topic.


Filed under Technology

311 responses to “Remember When Cameras Used Film?

  1. Another digital error, I deleted my real comment’
    Here it is:”I agree with the guy who mentioned batteries.
    And how about the patch cord to the computer? Or hitting the wrong button, as a friend of mine did, and erasing all your pictures?
    Each new thing comes with its own problems.
    More people can take more wonderful photos now than before.(example: picture line link shows thousands of great shots)
    My old box camera did well when I did.
    Two old photographers I knew, said that their best were taken with box cameras.
    And what of Ansel Adams? He didn’t need digital to do well.
    It still takes some skill to make the most of our new digital world.
    I made a Squidoo Lens that points to my dot WS site”Images of the Past”.
    All those photos were taken with film cameras but transferred to the computer and to the sites via digital means, so both worlds can mix very well.”
    One man mentioned opening the back of the camera and ruining the film. I still do that at times when the auto rewind doesn’twork.
    I like everything manual best.”

  2. But, “great picture can be made with film camera / old lens” shouldn’t be thought as “digital camera / auto focus can’t take great picture” 🙂

  3. I felt slightly ashamed when I handed one of my friends my film cameras to use, and he said “how do I use this??” and then “where do you see the picture you just took??” *sigh*

  4. i love using film cameras. there’s just something about the way the image comes out that gives it an appeal that digitals don’t. i would carry around disposable cameras to get shots when no one was looking.

  5. touristjapan


    I felt slightly ashamed when I handed one of my friends my film cameras to use, and he said “how do I use this??” and then “where do you see the picture you just took?

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  8. I am from Parsons, Kansas. Doesn’t “ring a bell”, huh?
    This town was the last place on anywhere to process Kodachrome film.

  9. I love such old school cameras! What I love about taking such photos is the suspense and anticipation in seeing your photos developed! Cheers to that! In fact, Lomography has done a pretty good promotion of such film cameras and even ‘toy-ed’ with them!

  10. Hello Mark,

    I thought of reading through this post since you had mentioned that this was selected by wordpress as a recommended post. Your article brought back so many childhood memories. Even though back then the number of photos that you can take were limited, there was so much value attached to each and every photo. I suppose, it is because of that limit that every single photo was reminisced so fondly.

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article.

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