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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