It’s now been a healthy chunk of time since I started shooting film again; enough to have a baby. What kind of child has this experiment turned out to be? Building on an earlier article of random thoughts and also from a digital perspective, I’ve had some more time to reflect on things now that a) my workflow has matured, and b) I think I’ve figured out where it fits in the grand scheme of things creatively for me. All I’m going to say is that the point I’m at now is very much not what I expected when I bought the F2 Titan in October last year.
The first surprise for me was that I really, really liked medium format; I acquired the 501C on a whim from a site reader as it was a good deal, and I was curious. Squares had never really been my thing, until now; those enormous, simply gorgeously rich negatives made me both addicted and a little frustrated with the ‘smallness’ of 35mm. I can now see why nobody really took 35mm seriously for commercial work in the pre-digital days; good negatives will go as far as 13×19″ or so before starting to visibly fall apart. That’s just not suitable for large posters or billboards etc. In comparison, the 24″ square prints I’ve made from the Hasselblad’s negatives have been utterly stunning, even when compared to a good digital file. There’s a tonal richness and texture there in the quarter tones which is nearly impossible to obtain from digital; with the right film, resolution is on par with state of the art 35mm, too – I think the Hasselblad matches or even slightly exceeds the D800E on resolving power.
Using film was never a question about resolution, however. It’s always been about creative control: firstly, are the results to my liking? Secondly, do I have enough control given the relatively fixed chemical parameters? Thirdly, where do I go from here – especially given that color processing isn’t really an option*?
*There are precious few labs left in Kuala Lumpur, and frankly, I haven’t been happy with the results from any of them of late. Self-developing is significantly more complicated than B&W – for those unfamiliar, several chemical baths are required, at very precise temperatures. For color negative film, correction/ white balance is an issue – you’ve got to do tonal corrections across three channels, not just luminance – and critical accuracy a must for product photography. I suppose I could always shoot slide, but then we run into a different set of problems – cost and availability of film. As it is, I have to order my Acros 100 120 in bulk from Japan to ensure a constant and fresh supply (I get Japan-only stuff from Bellamy Hunt at Japan Camera Hunter – lenses, cameras, film, etc.).
I might be imagining things, but tonally, digital still struggles to match B&W film – though there are a few exceptions that come close (the Leica M Monochrom, and most of the medium format digital backs). I’ve spent a lot of time trying to replicate the look and feel via Photoshop – I’m no amateur here, and it’s extremely challenging even for me. It’s easier with a multispectral camera, and adding grain isn’t a problem, but there’s no way I can replicate film’s nonlinear ability to simultaneously hold shallows and never quite clip in the highlights. If I had to categorize the visual difference, a lot of it is down to the way the highlights roll off. Bottom line: yes, I like the results; scratch that, I love them. To the point that I’m not really shooting digital B&W much anymore.
In parallel, I’ve been working hard on the workflow part: I think I’m now consistently producing what I want, and in an efficient manner, too. I don’t know how much quality there is left to extract, but most of the gains have been minimal. Next up is to figure out a stand development recipe for Acros in DDX. The digitization portion is locked down, I think; I scan whole uncut rolls with a custom alignment jig, a D800E, 60/2.8 macro and flash; there are a set of presets I’ve got for ACR, and actions for different film types in PS which get me very close to the output I want – all I have to do most of the time is remove dust, if any. Sometimes, no further work is required at all.
Here’s where it gets interesting for all the film shooters out there: I’ve been asked countless times about my scanning method, and with enough interest that I’ve decided to commercially produce a small run of the rigs for sale. It’s proven tricky to get the tolerances and build quality right, and let’s not even talk about the costs of small-volume precision manufacturing. In any case, I’m currently awaiting delivery of the final prototypes, and all being well, I should be able to start taking orders within the next month or so. The rig is a precise alignment jig designed to a) feed roll film, keeping it flat and tensioned; b) illuminate it evenly with a speedlight or other bright continuous source; c) hold a DSLR and macro lens in the right position to let you copy 135 with DX, or 135/6×6/6×7 with full frame. I’m currently finalizing secondary items like the accompany scanning and conversion workflow video tutorial, packaging and postage costs – of course with the aim of making it as affordable as possible.
Interestingly, it seems that a number of my clients love the results, too; I’m still too risk-averse and nervous to shoot entirely film for a job – plus color is often required – though I will bring one of the ‘Blads along to add some B-roll; once I mix in the files with the D800E’s, a healthy chunk of the final selection lands up coming from the ‘Blad. It’s happened several times now, so it can’t be a fluke. I’m not complaining, I very much enjoy shooting film anyway. Perhaps there’s a commercial niche here to explore…
Notice I said ‘Blads, plural. My film camera stable has expanded, contracted, and expanded again; the F2 Titan was joined by first the 501C, then an F3/T, Ricoh GR1v, spare 500C/M, Olympus Mju:II, another 501CM very generously gifted by a fan (thank you again!); I simply had too many cameras at this point. Film was sitting in them for months, and I was forgetting what I’d shot previously. The F3/T and GR1v left – the latter replaced with a more flexible GR (Digital V); I got a great deal on an F6 (I actually tested one of these for Nikon – prototype #6, ironically – several years ago) so I bit; the last addition was a 903 SWC. I’m now left with three Hasselblads, two Nikons, and the Mju. I know what you’re thinking: this is almost a who’s-who of film cameras; the only conspicuous absences are the Leicas (I nearly bought an MP Hammertone too; but that one was far too rich for my blood). I admit, part of the acquisition spree was because these were the cameras I’d always wanted to own but couldn’t afford at the time; part of it is also knowing that their value has dropped significantly from new; you can still buy the F6 new at B&H for about US$2,800; I paid a hair over $1,000 for mine – mint, boxed, virtually unused and still new-looking. Since none of these are manufactured anymore**, they actually hold value quite well: if you get bored, sell it and try something else. Whatever small losses – if any – are like rental fees (if anything, the really rare stuff appreciates – look at recent Leica auctions). A very reasonable price to pay for creativity, I think.
**Correction/ clarification: as several readers have pointed out, the F6 is still available new, a poor choice of phrasing on my part.
I haven’t put much effort into the 35mm collection: mainly because I find the negatives just too small and not very satisfying compared to medium format. It sounds odd, but 36 shots on a roll is actually too many; I have to force myself to finish the film, as opposed to seeing naturally in sets of 10-12 or so – perfect for a roll of 120. (It is much easier to load into the daylight tank reels, you can develop multiple rolls simultaneously and it’s faster to ‘scan’, too.) Most of my film work has been focused around the Hasselblad V system; the cameras are a pleasure to use, and the complete lack of automation of any sort forces you to slow down and think, which in turn helps the strength of one’s compositions.
Here we come to the problem, though: I could continue to shoot B&W film for personal work and the occasional client; this would mean an increasing divergence between my creative direction and my professional direction. Whilst some difference is healthy, I think there still has to be some commonality otherwise it’s going to start feeling like work. I firmly believe that creative ‘work’ has to be enjoyed in order to produce the best output. This meant that a month or so ago, I was seriously considering a move to medium format for all of my work. I came to a couple of very problematic conclusions: at the moment, none of the systems would fit my needs perfectly; the closest would be Hasselblad H, but even then there’d be issues. Most of the compromises would come with a) flash triggering and b) macro work; since this is a large staple portion of what I do, it wouldn’t make sense to plow that much money into a compromised system – I’m better off sticking to the D800E for now. The commercial, architecture and to a lesser extent, documentary, portions, however, are quite well served by medium format.
But yes, they require color. I went the cheap route: a second hand, earlier-generation digital back for the V-series bodies. I got a very good deal on an ex-demo CFV-39, which now enables me to have color output from almost the same workflow and system, and B&W simply by switching backs. The only problem is the 1.1x, 645-aspect crop factor (0r 1.5x square), which leaves me without anything wider than about 28mm equivalent – and even that requires an SWC to achieve. Still, stitching is always an option. So far, this has proven to be both a noticeable step up in quality over the D800E, but also one very punishing mistress: get exposure or focus even slightly wrong, and you have to delete the frame. But if you get everything right – almost no work is required at all; the CFV produces wonderfully natural-looking images, with good color accuracy and significant dynamic range.
I’m going to conclude by saying that these days, the vast majority of my personal work is done on film these days; I’m shooting a lot less in absolute quantity, but I’m also far happier with the results. My keeper rate is up to about 80% – compare this with a measly 2-5% for digital. I don’t think it’s because I’m accepting more errors/ lowering standards; I think it’s simply because I’m really forced to think before I shoot. Most of the cameras I shoot are meterless, too – cue a heightened awareness for the quality of light, and anticipation of the way shadows will render. It sharpens my vision. And for that reason, I highly recommend giving it a go – or breaking out your old cameras…MT
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