Film Diaries: Revisiting film under the pretext of creative development

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Followers of my facebook page and those who joined me for the Tokyo workshop will know that I’ve recently acquired two vintage cameras, ostensibly in the name of investment, however in reality it’s simply because I enjoy using cameras of this generation; they really don’t make them like they used to.

For the curious, my acquisitions were a 1979 Nikon F2 Titan, and what is approximately a 1986 Nikon 58/1.2 Noct-Nikkor Aspherical*. In my mind, these two represent pretty much what is the pinnacle of 100% completely manual technology. The camera body is 33 years old, and looks just as pristine as the day it left the factory floor. (I doubt my D800E will be functional 10 years from now, much less 33; I think the batteries will be long dead and unavailable, and the media and file formats either unsupported or unreadable. Hell, my D2H is already dead, and judging by the slow disappearance of cameras from just six years ago on the secondary markets, it’s likely that a lot of those have either died or entered a quiet retirement too.) Testing the shutter speeds using a digital stopwatch and point-and-shoot on long exposure with the film back open is proof that despite its age, the mechanicals are still functioning perfectly. This is actually fairly amazing given the condition of the camera, because either it has not been used, or was shot by exceedingly careful and paranoid photographer. It is unclear, though unlikely, that the camera has ever undergone a CLA. At the time of writing, the accompanying lens has not yet arrived from Japan so I will refrain from drawing conclusions; however, given the relatively simple nature of the mechanics inside lenses, I’m not expecting any issues.

*In case you’re wondering why I selected this combination, there are some simple reasons: firstly, because I’ve always wanted an F2T since seeing one – the paint finish and weight are much like a modern Nikon, but the rest of the camera is entirely classical. Secondly, it’s familiar to me because I shot extensively with an F2A before; thirdly, the camera distills everything down to the bare minimum – no custom functions or AF issues to worry about; you focus where you want, you adjust exposure manually, hell, it has no meter, let alone DX coding or exposure compensation. Part of what I want to do is retrain my eyes to be my meter – I have this skill, but it isn’t accurate enough for my liking – a stop plus minus isn’t good enough for slide film or digital. At the moment while I’m learning, my Sony RX100 has now become a ridiculously over-specified meter.

For a person whose photographic credo throughout the digital age has pretty much followed the pursuit of perfection through control, you probably are going to think that the use of film is a little unexpected, to say the least. My history and experience with film so far has been somewhat chequered. Not counting my use of film cameras in the days before I had any meaningful interest in photography, I had a brief affair with a Nikon FM3a in my early digital (D70) days; I couldn’t get along with it and in the end landed up trading it in (with one of the rare black 45/2.8Ps) for a 12-24. I think I shot all of four rolls with it. Then, when I got serious, I picked up another film camera (Nikon F2A); the majority of my learning of photographic techniques was accomplished in parallel on both film and digital. In fact, I even shot watches on slide film (of all things), manually calculating guide numbers, diffusion factors, magnification factors and bracketing just to make sure. I got so used to shooting film, that I was almost treating it like digital. This led me to put on the brakes once again; I simply could not afford to pay for the amount of slide film and processing that I was running through on a weekly basis, much less find time to do the scanning.

At this point, we enter a silver halide desert. The next time I even so much looked at a roll of film was in mid 2009, when I picked up a Leica M6TTL as a backup body to my M8. The two biggest things I remember about that experience were that I completely wasted the first roll because I loaded it incorrectly, and as a result landed up with precisely zero images on it; and secondly the feel of the horizontal cloth focal plane shutter of the film Leicas is completely different – much smoother and quieter – than the vertical-travel, metal-bladed units in the modern digital Leicas. I think I must’ve used it on and off for a couple of months, and then decided I wanted the 50 Summilux ASPH more – so off it went.

By this point, I was too preoccupied with both work and the seemingly newfound degree of control that I was able to obtain through digital capture. There were also things I simply could not easily do with film – such as dodging and burning – unless I developed it myself – and I definitely didn’t have time for that. Ironically, this is one of the reasons that I am choosing to revisit film at this point. I’m finding myself spending far too much time in front of the computer post processing. It isn’t because I’m slow – far from it; it’s because I’m trying to do more with each image, and I’m simply shooting a much larger number of images these days.

Of course I am not shifting my commercial work back to film; that would just be stupid. There is no way, I can achieve the same degree of control and quality as I can with digital. And I’m certainly not going to take the risk of something unforeseen happening to the film in the intermediate process between shooting and client delivery. For the mall, there is simply no way I can keep up with the volume if I have to develop and scan every single print plus don’t forget this also dust spotting, retouching and color/ density correction required. Needless to say, I don’t think any of the clients these days would be impressed if you had to bill back the film costs – especially if you shot the same number of images as you normally would with digital.

For my pistol what however, I feel that it’s time to shift gears. I’m definitely experimenting and shooting more, but the improvement seems to be incremental and diminishing. Perhaps part of the problem is that I’m simply shooting too much. I need to be more selective before I take the picture; and again after take the picture. If this sounds like a breakdown in the editing process, that’s perhaps because in some ways, it is. Even though I usually throw away 98% of what I shoot in the quest for perfection every single frame, that 2% is starting to become quantitatively a very large number. Combined that with ever increasing file sizes, and the usual photographers attachment to the images which they shoot, and you have a recipe that’s going to eventually result in either of two things: you spend all of your time processing your personal work and doing nothing else, or you eventually give up shooting for yourself altogether. Obviously, neither of these is a ideal; the first results and you not having any income; the second, creative stagnation. (I’m not sure which is worse for a photographer. I suppose we’re all somewhat accustomed to the former.)

The unstriped come up with, is that I need to find a balance. A change to my shooting process that forces me to think even harder about the image before capture; to minimize the amount of postprocessing I have to do by ensuring that the critically important elements of a strong image are already in place before I press the shutter; and moreover something that forces me to think differently from a creative point of view. I need to play mind games with myself in order to improve to the next level. I suppose I could accomplish most of the former by forcing myself to shoot cameras with relatively small files, and even then only with a very small card – say 2GB, which is probably good for about the equivalent of two rolls of film in a D800E, or even 512MB, which would get me just over a roll from a D700.

The problem is really the creative portion. Although I find changing equipment does frequently force me to think differently, I spend just as much time figuring out how to get the most out of the equipment as shooting, which of course results in more experiments, more files, and even more computer time. This would just land me back in square one, not to mention significantly worse off thanks to the depreciation costs of new equipment. I even seriously considered switching to medium format at one point. However, this would have to be as much a commercial decision as a creative one, and the market in Malaysia, plus the majority of my overseas work being macro-centric simply does not justify the increased expenditure.

It seems as though once again there are good reasons to revisit film. In some ways, it’s much like shooting with a compact; you are removing an element of creative control so that you are forced into making the most of the others. This element of course is postprocessing and post-capture control**. The other added bonus is somewhat progress; every time you press the shutter it cost you money – I calculated to be around $.40 per shot, including processing. This makes you think very carefully before you push the button. I’ve met a lot of people say, that if you get one keep up on a roll you doing well; however, I think my keeper rate is far, far higher with film the digital; simply because it forces you to do everything you can to get the image right the first time. A nice bonus is that it’s also possible to try larger formats for not that much money; possibly because nobody seems to want the equipment anymore, and partially because the gear will be second hand, and therefore not lose a lot of value when you eventually move on and resell it. (You might well even make money on some of the rarer equipment – at least, that’s part of my plan with the F2T and 58/1.2; I also see a Hasselblad 501CM in my future.)

**Granted, I will be digitizing the negatives using one of the Nikons and a slide coping adapter, which of course creates the opportunity for me to intervene digitally at this point, but that’s not the objective of the exercise – there will be far fewer images to deal with, and I’m almost certainly not going to be doing any heavy duty RAW processing.

You’re probably wondering why there are no images to accompany this post. The reason why is simple; it’s because I haven’t developed any film yet. Instead of shooting hundreds of image a day, I’m now shooting perhaps half a dozen, if that. And I’m fairly sure (providing I didn’t mess up loading the camera), that the images I do eventually show will have helped my creative development. You’ll just have to wait and see. MT

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Comments

  1. Excellent article and close to home for me.. Not a pro but advanced (?) hobbyist and I recently I sold most of my Dslr gear. I now carry a good digital compact that shoots raw and a Leica M2 I got for a steal and sent off for cla. I picked up a darn mint Hasselblad with two lenses and really enjoy the pace and process using it – mirror slap can be loud, ha. All of this for my dslr and one lens. I moved to a hybrid workflow to develop film and scan into photoshop for burning and dodging as required. If the image is special purpose i have a local lab that does pro silver prints. Probably not for everyone, but it works for me! Look forward to seeing your results.

  2. Ah film, I’m not sure what it is about the emotional bond youngsters feel about this medium. Having shot nearly 30 yrs with film and 10yrs with digital I can say I do not miss the limitations of film. I never had the luxury or opportunity of my own darkroom; but I did develop my own film and prints when I could (B&W) – ughh the smell of fixer. I found storing and maintaining rafts of negatives a complete headache. Scratches, cleaning, developing, burning and dodging and cataloguing are so much easier with a lightroom, but, yes, the magic of seeing an image on paper appear is special. And the cost? Wow, in my family we used to shoot a role of Kodachrome each over a period of a about a year, not withstanding holidays… in fact my dad still struggles with the freedom of digital capture – his shutter counts are in the range of film use. Old habits… I think part of the emotion is that inkjets are a poor substitute for the archival reaction you can create in paper containing precious metals, but the irony of the digital nature of halide chemistry and the linear ‘analogue’ response of digital sensor sites is not lost on me: I do wish we could ‘print’ a digital file to silver print though. For me it was all over when mainstream cameras went over 6MP (APSC), 35 mm film was then a really really poor substitute; why? because I live in the light starved north of Europe where 25-50ASA film was always for tripods only. Extremists make comparisons about how some film can match a digital file blah blah blah but they only ever talk about 50ASA or ISO as we now call it – but anybody I know mostly shot 400 or 200 ASA film to have workable speeds and apertures (although I did love Kchrome64 when we splashed out) which is easily surpassed by a digital file at about 6MP. Take it to full frame digital territory and film for me was deader than jumbo cord – exemplified by the sensors in the 5D (my sister) and D700/D3 (moi-meme) except maybe in MF territory – which dear Ming is where I wonder why you went off half cock with the Nikon. Surely you need 6×7 or 6×9 and the restriction of only 12 shots a roll baby!?

    • Hi Tim, simple: I’ve already got lenses, and I liked the F2 I used to shoot with. Plus I’ve always wanted a Titan. I might fix that later with a Hasselblad 500C or 503C. I’ve long said that digital has both superior control and quality; I’m not even worried about print archival since I met printmaster Wesley Wong. There’s no emotional nostalgia here either. It’s a calculated psychological experiment to force me into focusing even more on doing something different in the pre-capure stage to break a bit of a creative block I’m having at the moment. I know what I can do post-capture; I just want to force myself to explore other avenues of thinking.

      • Exactly…one must mix it up now and again. Try looking at things differently and then start doing things differently. All the great ones dis in every creative field: Matisse, Irving Penn, The Beatles/Hendrix/Rolling Stones, Picasso, Avedon, Michelangelo, Steve Jobs, Houdini, Astaire etc etc. The key is to create something that has meaning for you, and you alone. As cool and intriguing as they are, the cameras are nothing more than facilitators.

        • Completely agree; I don’t understand why some people get so hung up over their tools. It doesn’t help one’s development to confuse a tool with a status symbol.

  3. “It is unclear, though unlikely, that the camera has ever undergone a CLA.”

    If the foam light seals and mirror cushions are in good shape, then the camera most likely has been worked on in the last ten years. Even if a camera sits unused in a closet, the foam commonly used for this purpose in film cameras from the 60′s on will break down chemically, generally within ten years. It will first become gooey, then hard and crumbly. If you’re lucky, a sharp technician will have replaced many of the light seals with felt or yarn, which last much longer.

    If the foam is bad or is missing, I recommend a CLA before use.

    (Not a problem in Leica rangefinders, most medium and large format cameras and others, which didn’t need light seals due to their design.)

    Good luck with your project, Ming. I started shooting digital around 2004/2005, but didn’t learn or progress much until a year later, when I started shooting film with a ca. 1937 Argus AF. It was then that the lightbulb went on and I fell in love.

    • They’re in very good shape. It’s a 1979 model, so I suppose it’s possible that the foam is a newer compound? I wonder what’ll happen to modern DSLR materials in 10 years or so. My 2004 D2H still looks good internally, but is an electronic casualty.

  4. Have been shooting (for fun) in digital and film since 2 years ago. There’s just something about film that’s both imperfect and beautiful. Finally got into MF by getting a Mamimya 645e kit (With 12 Kodak Portra 400) from eBay for around RM1.1k including shipping. Perhaps you should consider getting a MF camera as well? ;)

  5. Hi Ming,
    I have a Pentax KX 35 mm film camera (circa 1975-1977) which I had used before digital. I hadn’t used it in a while but just starting to use it again for black and white film. You are right about these film cameras outlasting digital. The batteries last for years too. Because there is only 36 shots per roll, using film cameras forces you carefully compose your shots so as to not waste film.

  6. The great Ming Thein revisiting film photography, what a delight. Looking forward to seeing your pictures.

  7. ** “Granted I will be digitizing the negatives using one of the Nikons and a slide copying adapter”

    I have mint F2As with series of Ais primes, I’ve shot a roll of Velvia 50 and had it scanned as an exposure test, the results were very good. I now have it loaded with ASA 400 B/W film. I’m used to shooting with my M9, but I’ve alway had a long relationship with Nikon F2′s. I am very interested in the “Slide Copying Adapter” method of digitizing. Would you please give some feedback on how you will equip yourself for this and what the results are?

    Rgds,
    Alan G

    • You’ll see them as soon as I a) finish the first roll b) get it developed and c) actually find something that passes muster. That gives me plenty of time to look for the actual adaptor…

  8. “The reason why is simple; it’s because I haven’t developed any film yet. ” LOL There lies the issue with film. I’m glad I shot film for about 30 years. I appreciate that many young people are embracing film now but I can’t really see myself going back especially for 35mm. I recently sold my M6 and still have a few other film cameras including a revisited version of my first SLR an early 70′s Nikkormat but the only camera that makes me want to shoot film is my Rollieflex 2.8D from the late 50′s.

  9. Welcome to the club Ming!, I pick up an F100 several months back, prior to that was an F80, for the very reason of slowing down my shooting. I would really think twice before composing a photo and pressing the shutter, the thought of wasting a film is definitely the main factor. My initial purpose for using film, is to help me in my composition. But I also plan to pick up a Nikon F, to help me develop my exposure skill.

    Currently I’m going through the different types of film, just to get the feel of it. I already developed 5 rolls of film, 4 colour negative, and 1 B&W (which is actually a colour negative – Kodak BW400CN). And now, in my camera is a Velvia 50, this is my first time with a slide so hopefully it will turn out alright (but I have a lot of confidence with the F100 metering).

    All in all, it’s been a good experiment and the change of pace is really a breath of fresh air. I can say, that my keepers with the film camera is higher than with my digital. All due to the slowing down of the pre-clicking process. And I hope to continue with film for a long time yet.

  10. We shoot nothing but black and white film. We have recently posted some prints that were made from inherited negatives that range in dates from the 1800′s to the 1920′s. They were printed in our darkroom. I don’t believe that the digital age will have the same archival properties. Also don’t believe there’s anything like Silver gelatin prints that digital can begin to resemble. We’re glad that you are shooting film and don’t believe you will regret it. You will probably ask yourself why you didn’t do it earlier.

    • Agree on the archival portion – I’m worried about the longevity of both the media and the file formats. There are CDs I’ve got from not that many years ago which are already unreadable. The only solution I’ve got in the meantime is to keep everything on hard drives that are regularly changed…

      As for film – I did shoot it earlier, but stopped because the costs were getting silly. I suppose if you lower the quantity and spend even more time thinking before shooting it should be okay…

      • We use a digital to record something that we want to revisit and shoot with film. Our negatives are archival but as far as keeping something in a digital format it would be best to invest in a Sandisk Memory Vault. It comes in 8 GB and 16 GB format and promises archival permanence for 100 years. The CD’s and USB flash drives are useless as they both degrade being made from cheaper materials which oxidize or degrade when exposed to air. External hard drives can crash. The Sandisk uses a solid state flash memory core enclosed in epoxy. So maybe that’s a solution for you.

        • Interesting – thanks for the heads up. 16GB is nowhere near enough (one job already eats up 10-15GB) and doesn’t really solve the driver/ connector compatibility issues either. Fortunately, hard drives keep getting bigger faster than I’m generating more data, so I can still keep everything on a single drive plus a backup. By the time I fill one, I can buy another one with double the capacity and just move everything over piecemeal.

      • Film seems less dauntingly expensive when you take the long view and account for the costs of maintaining digital archives and the means to read them and work with them, or of producing hard copy backups to get around that issue.

        • Absolutely. Not to mention the fact that you’re probably not going to have the upgrade bug every six months, so the one camera you buy will probably last you a lifetime. If the F2T becomes a permanent fixture for me, and you can still get film, I’ll probably be shooting with it on and off until…well, I stop shooting, I suppose.

  11. Reblogged this on filmcamera999.

  12. Ming,
    I´m on the same travel, back to analog, as you. Today I´m a owner of a Leica M4-P as well as a M9 (of course). For the moment I´ve delved into Rollei RPX 400 (black and white ISO 400) developed in Spur PXD push developer which giving me not so contrasty, sharp and reasonably grainy negs. Now I´m into Adox Silvermax ISO 100 and Adox Silvermax developer. Just to exeprience if the texture and glossy surface would be even better. Keep on exploring and keep up your good work Ming!

  13. “Needless to say, I don’t think any of the clients these days would be impressed if you had to bill back the film costs – especially if you shot the same number of images as you normally would with digital.”

    I know isolated cases don’t disprove the rule… but Eric Morin, a well-published photographer friend of mine here in central France, usually has a Leica M9 in front of his face, or over his shoulder under his jacket, at the ready for anything. He freelances for several prestigious titles owned by the publishing giant Condé Nast… but surprise, surprise, their editor of “The World of Interiors” insists that Eric (and other photographers) shoot film on all assignments for that superb showcase publication.

  14. I go back and forth between a D700 and an M6 TTL (both with a 35mm). Film definitely stops me from being lazy with composition and choice of subject.

  15. I couldn’t agree more with your approach, Ming. MF gear is quite affordable in the US at the moment for all the reasons that immediately come to mind… those who analogize using film to driving a classic car, ie with little or no electronics ( and certainly no computers, back up cameras to avoid the neighbor’s children, or voice prompts to alert you to an incoming call), have a valid point : one can quickly develop some mastery of the principles involved, if one slows down and actually thinks about the desired outcome…I shot some Fuji 100 provia today , as well as two rolls of velvia 50 which had been properly frozen. I rarely shot that many frames even when using film exclusively. As a result, I felt incredibly productive and satisfied. The exposures will be fine, as it is a camera I have been driving, er, shooting with, since 1985 or 86, and whose tendencies I know quite well.

    Did I mention that it has had no downtown since new? The digital was used to show a client the basic setup, lighting and blocking schemes, and souvenirs to take away.

    under separate cover, will forward a photo from the session…

    Keep up the fine and thought-provoking work.
    many thanks,
    Jeffrey sklan

    • Thanks Jeffrey. I’m definitely slower with film – I’ve yet to finish a roll in the first two weeks, and I’m not really shooing my digitals other than for work, either. It could be a creative slowdown, or merely a shift to increased thoughtfulness (hopefully). Now to find that Hasselblad…

      • Rather than an (always) pricey Hassy, you might consider a Pentax 645, 645N, or N II system. I have had them one since they first were introduced in the ’80s. I just bought an unused one from a large store in Los Angeles, bringing my total of these bodies up to six (6) ! Over almost thirty years, countless rolls of film, multiple airports, deserts, beaches, big cities, and my home studio, I have not experienced ONE MINUTE of downtime with any of these little workhorses. They have shot wedding, portraits, athletic events (from the sidelines, no less), rock concerts, baby showers, landscapes….etc ( hopefully, my website will be finished, soon). With practice, you can easily change film in the dark…..Anyway, the thread that runs both through your article and the comments is “thoughtfulness’ , which is always a plus. When in California, I will be glad to lend you one, Ming.

        • That’s pretty impressive – I can’t think of any camera I’ve used that hasn’t required maintenance. What got me looking at the ‘Blads was the possibility of getting a user condition one with 80/2.8 for about US$800 or so – how much do the Pentaxes run for? I’ve also heard issues with some serious mirror slap and pretty much compulsory tripod use (as opposed to the leaf shuttered ‘Blads). Looking forward to trying it out next year – thanks for the offer!

      • Another option: Mamiya RB/RZ stuff is amazingly cheap these days and (by reputation) very reliable. You can get an RZ w/WLF, back and 110/2.8 for under $500. Bellows focusing means you don’t have the MFD limitations (and need for extension tubes) of ‘blads. Bigger and heavier though…

        • Interesting. Would open it up to macro work, though I’m not really aiming to replicate what I can already do with the DSLRs – I just want to force myself to explore a different way of seeing/ thinking.

      • Macro wasn’t what I was thinking of, actually. The Hassleblad 150mm, for example, has a MFD of around 5ft, giving a FOV of 16in at that distance. For tight facial close ups, portraits of children, etc. you’ll need an extension tube. I can’t say how much this matters for your purposes, but it’s something to be aware of.

  16. Good for you. I’ve also taken up shooting some film with the goal of improving my basic skills as a photographer, particularly composition and metering. Since Leicas (digital or film) are out of my price range, I’m particularly enjoying a cheap Canonet QL17 rangefinder. It’s a very different experience than shooting an SLR… pleasantly so. I’m looking forward to giving medium format a try eventually.

    • Same. Those older Hasselblads are surprisingly affordable. I think that’s also a mark of how ridiculously conditioned we have become as consumers – compacts (and effectively disposables after a few years) sell at over $1000, but the same also buys you a pice of mechanical craftsmanship that’ll last a lifetime.

  17. Exactly my thoughts. Going back to film is like driving a classic car; in a way it’s rubbish, but oh so satisfying.
    I really do think you should develop and print the old-fahioned way to get the most out of this though. Oh to still have my F2…

    • Good analogy – you feel like you’re going fast at about 50. I suppose it becomes increasingly more about the experience. But that in itself can drive creativity, which obviously has a positive knock on effect on other work.

      I would love to develop my own, but u think the wife would make a stink about the chemicals (no pun intended).

  18. I’m behind you 100%. Looking forward to your results. The camera sounds really sweet (you could have at least given us a photo of that :-)).

  19. Looking forward to the results of your film work, Ming. I picked up a Canon AE-1 Program recently, and it’ll be fun comparing notes.

    • I have to finish the first roll before we get to that point. Interestingly it’ll equalize out the processing portion and leave only your cognizance of light and composition…

  20. GREGORIO Donikian says:

    Les take a look at The pictures !,

    Greg

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  1. [...] Although I’ve been repeatedly revisiting the whole idea of postprocessing recently – first with film, then with medium format, and as a question in and of itself – I know I haven’t taken a [...]

  2. [...] Followers of my facebook page and those who joined me for the Tokyo workshop will know that I’ve recently acquired two vintage cameras, ostensibly in the name of investment, however in reality it’s simply because I enjoy using cameras of this generation; they really don’t make them like they used to.  [...]

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