35mm slide

Dances with Dinosaurs: Why I Still Shoot Film

Florence_1 I am still in possession of every film negative I have ever shot – well, excepting a couple of rolls I shot of a girlfriend in a motel room in Nashville which I destroyed because I’m a good guy – but excepting those two rolls of slide film, I have them all. Yes, it takes some plastic tubs and shelves to store them all, but I have never thrown away a negative. I would no sooner pitch a negative than hurl a Morgan silver dollar into the alley. We all have our principles, and that’s one of mine. Think of what a rich vein of personal history that is: me and my sister at the San Antonio zoo in 1961, old shots from high school, my loves and friends, hiking trips through the mountains, the birth of the first-born, my “arty” experiments, every place I have ever been – you get the idea. I could probably spend the rest of my life just going through my old negatives and making prints, but sometimes dealing with the past can take too much energy, and I prefer to be working in the present. Yet, still I know I have my archive of forgotten treasures that carry all of those parts of my life into the future.

Quite a few of those negatives are really terrible. They are bad shots of people with eyes half closed or with dumb expressions in their faces. Some are just flat-out mistakes, a twitch of the finger that fired a photograph at nothing all, but I have them. I have every single one of them. But, that is also truth. We have those times when we wear dumb expressions on our faces, and times when the finger twitches and fires a picture at nothing at all. There are those times when it would have been a good picture, but we had something set wrong on the camera and it came out dark or blurry. Those moments are also truth. Those are all there too, in the boxes and binders.

Contrast this with the digital camera that you take to a party. You may shoot 3-4 dozen shots and then look at them in the view screen of the camera, “That sucks… delete, that sucks… delete, that really sucks… delete…” Maybe a handful of these photos survive, and maybe they’ll get uploaded to the computer, and maybe they’ll survive a while, at least until the next hard drive crash, when everything you’ve done for the past couple of years suddenly vanishes into the cruel and indifferent clutches of cyberspace.

Marian-with-Yashica-635 I have been working with personal computers since their beginning, and if I have learned nothing else, I have learned to never trust them. They die; they fry; they crash; they burn. And they only work when the power is on. My negatives don’t need electricity to remain in existence or even to be viewed, and, were I to get really hard-core about it, I could devise a way to print them without electricity. Fortunately, I’m not quite that compulsive, but it could be done. My negatives are among the most persistent elements of my “memory.”

I transitioned to digital photography for professional work in 2004. The case for digital is compelling: faster, more economical, greater capacity, instant availability of the images, and, on average, the onboard computers of digital cameras do assist us in getting more usable pictures more often. At this point, I have shot oodles of digital images, have stacks of boxes full of CD’s storing terabytes of digital photography. A lot of it has been very successful; in a number of situations digital has been an absolute life-saver. This is not another “digital versus film” screed. I love my digital cameras. What I have found, however, is that I also love my film cameras, and I do not want to be forced to abandon film photography.

I am finding that film and digital are different channels for me, as different as oil painting is from magnetic tape recording. I don’t try to do everything with film as I once did. I don’t have to. If I need a picture of a bottle for a brochure, I grab the digital, fire off a few frames and dump it to the computer. Life is good – no waiting for the lab to process the stuff. The job gets done and I’m off to the next thing. When I get a feeling in my mind that I want to express visually, I am still inclined to pick up a film camera and load it with a favorite film that I know will support the mood I want to capture. I’m talking about me here, not everyone in the world. I have years of experience with film. Like a painter who knows intuitively that cadmium yellow will produce a different feeling than yellow ocher, I know that particular films and developers will produce particular effects and moods in a photo. It’s not rocket science; it just comes from fooling around with them a lot. Most new photographers just coming to the art will never have the opportunity to explore film. They may create great pictures, but there is a sensibility that film imparts to photography that they will miss unless they make the effort to experience it. For most, that won’t be practical, and that’s fine – no judgment intended. I’m just glad that I spent enough time in the darkroom that film is hardwired into my psyche.

If I have a gripe with digital, it is with its perfection, a perfection that verges upon sterility. Assuming that you have adequate light, a digital camera will kick out a correct image every time. Film isn’t like that. Film is full of chaos and unpredictability. If you shoot film on a manual camera, and especially if you develop that film yourself, every roll is an adventure. There are surprises. You can get the “how did that happen?” moment in film. And yes, there are times that the camera can make you look better than you are.

Film carries the truth of the moment: This is what I saw and what I did in that particular moment. There is no little computer saying, “It really ought to look like this.” I won’t bullshit you: there are plenty of times that I want that little computer saying, “It really ought to look like this.” But, that’s not my truth. That’s the truth of me and the engineers at Nikon. I love them. They are a talented group, but there are some parties I don’t want to invite them to. Sometimes, I want it to be just me and the light.

Most people who might read this will not only have no nostalgia for film photography, they will joyously cheer its passing. To be freed of the expense, uncertainty, effort and processing delays of film is a godsend… for most people. I don’t condemn that point of view because I understand it completely, but you won’t find me in the cheering section. I am discovering that for me, film is an important color on my palette, one whose value is not negated by the development of newer imaging technologies. It is something I like to do which even now still engages my imagination.

To make such claims, I suppose I should get down to specifics and try to illustrate what I’m saying. I’m not going to stumble down that old “x is better than x” road, because it’s pointless and subjective, and in many aspects, film certainly does not win that debate. Contemporary digital cameras have achieved true excellence in image quality and function. Instead, I want to explore what it is about film that continues to fascinate me.

Mindset – The preparation for a shoot with film involves decisions. Film comes in color, black & white, and transparency (slides). It has speeds (ASA). Once the film is loaded in the camera, you are committed. You can’t just dial in a different speed in a menu. There is a huge trade-off between speed and grain (image quality) with film, which is far more pronounced than with digital. The difference is that with film, the grain can often produce a pleasing graphic effect, whereas it almost never does with digital imaging. Further, films have different characteristics in tone and color, and to a discerning eye, each formula is different. To me, Tmax 100 from Kodak looks different than Ilford Delta 100, even though they are both 100 ASA black and white films. So, when you’re preparing a shoot with film, you sift through your memories of the different films, matching those to the feelings you have about the images you want to produce. The film is already informing the final image you produce. Choose a Polaroid, or a 35mm SLR loaded with Fuji Velvia, or a medium format TLR loaded with Tmax, and the final product will be significantly shaped and formed by the choice of film you make. The film participates in the creation of the image. A good digital camera goes the other way and it’s a tremendous strength of the digital: it gets out of the way and gives you what you are seeing, quickly and efficiently.

The photographer’s mindset when shooting film is inherently more conservative about exposures. Film costs money and exhausted cameras have to be reloaded. I shoot fewer exposures when I’m using film, but I really look carefully at the picture I’m about to take. If it will be one of twelve rather than one of 175, it had better be right, or at least as close to right as I can get it. This is a slower method of doing photography, but it demands that you slow down, look around and get really present in the location where you are shooting.

Allan's-Wheelchair Visualization – There is no view screen on the back of a film camera. You will not see how an exposure comes out until the film is developed. You can’t really shoot “test shots” to see if the camera is getting what you want. You have to “know” or be able to imagine what the camera will do with this film in this light on this subject. In a secondary way, you have to know what you can do with a particular exposure when you print it. You can shoot a basically “correct” negative, but know that to really get the punch out of the negative, you will need to increase the contrast and push the exposure some to get that dark, moody feeling you want in the final print. All of this exercises the muscles of imagination. Film “kicks away the crutches” in photography by strengthening the capacity to visualize images. When you know you can take a film camera to a shoot and get the picture you want, you achieve confidence. When you see the image in your imagination, making the machinery capture the picture is easy.

I love cameras – I have always loved cameras – big, small, old, new, fabulously expensive, and el cheapo. Cameras are just cool. There has always been a bit of magic about cameras to me. There are some cameras that are such wonderful instruments in themselves that I want to load and shoot them, just to be using the instrument. The Nikon F3 is such a camera for me. It has an almost hypnotic pull on my psyche.

Tactile – There is something very neat about souping your own negatives. Your hands get wet; you smell the chemistry and hear the timers going off. Development is a multi-channel sensory experience that results in a set of negatives that are truly yours. There is a tremendous sense of ownership that comes with successfully developing a good picture. It’s different from five mouse clicks in Photoshop.

Texture – Film has texture. At its most basic, the texture of film comes from the tiny silver halide crystals embedded in the emulsion. When light hits them, they change chemically and this produces the image on the film when acted upon by the developer. You can see this texture in what we call “grain” in the film. In the right amounts, grain produces a visually pleasing organic effect. With too little grain, objects can begin to look plastic and two-dimensional.

Marian---California-Dreaming-4 Chaos – That bit of uncertainty which clings to every roll of film excites me. Going back to my “almost sterile” observation, a good digital camera becomes highly predictable once you get familiar with it. This is a good thing. On a lot of shoots, I want the confidence and predictability that my digital gives me. On the other hand, a bit of uncertainty and not knowing how a shot will turn out creates excitement and a sense of anticipation. I get more of the uncertainty with film. I enter “the cloud of unknowing” easily. Call me a romantic if you want to, but I like to play with the chaos in the universe.

Individuality – The choice of camera, film and lens creates a distinct and individual look in an image. Probably the best known illustration of this is the work of Ansel Adams. When you see an Ansel Adams print, you seldom need to be told that Adams produced it. It is obvious in the deep, rich grays and resolution of the photo. The great Edward Steichen is another example of a photographer whose technique produced a distinct and individual look. Our choices of films, developers and printing methods give us another way to achieve a distinctive look.

Permanence – As I said at the outset, my negatives stay with me. Nothing digital has lasted as long as my negatives. Someday in the future that may change, but it will be a long time from now.

Hopefully, this outline has given you a sense of why I continue to use film for photography. Maybe I have even encouraged you to dust off Dad’s old film camera and run a few rolls. That would be great. One of my agendas is to keep Kodak, Fuji and Ilford in business. Even as carefully as I have written this, I know that it ultimately fails to capture the magic of film. Perhaps, you just have to see that for yourself.

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Pictures of the Day: Pueblo de Taos, circa 1982

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Nikon FM, 50mm Nikkor AI f/1.8 lens, Kodachrome 64
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Sorting Slides: More Thoughts on Film

Light_Table

This is a homemade light box given to me by Jim Greenwood. It has become an indispensible tool. On it, I’m sorting 35mm slides, Fuji Velvia 100 film. Once a mainstay of journalists and fashion photographers, the 35mm slide is slipping into the museum curiosity category in the crush of the digital tsunami. I have always loved slides. They are similar in their magic to collector coins mounted in cardboard and acetate holders – a little miniature treasure that holds history and much more than its small size might suggest. I’m not happy to see the 35mm slide fading. I know there is an inevitable day coming when Fuji and Kodak will announce they will no longer produce slide film and our wonderful old film cameras will become paperweights. Until that day comes, I’m going to continue to shoot slides along with my new-fangled digital gizmos.

And really, why shouldn’t the 35mm slide fade? Compared to digital, they’re a lot of trouble and expense, and so much slower to produce. A good 36-exposure roll of film costs about $12 these days, and then there is the cost of processing, mounting and postage, bringing the base cost for shooting a roll of slides to about $30. Most photographers don’t have the lab equipment needed to process their own film, so it has to be sent somewhere to be developed. All of this takes time. By way of comparison, I can take a digital shot, upload to my laptop, color correct and then beam it half way across the planet in about five minutes at no cost. Additionally, once I have my color slides back from the lab, I must scan them to create electronic versions so they will be useable in today’s digital media – more time and effort. Why bother?

For most folks, I’m sure that the answer is that film is no longer worth the trouble and expense involved. The current crop of digital cameras are wonderful instruments and they have encouraged far more people to get involved in the art of photography than ever before. Generally speaking, modern digital cameras with their high degree of automation give more people the chance to shoot more good pictures than film ever did. That won’t change.

There may be no rational reason to shoot film these days, but then, I never let little things like rationality get in my way. If you happen to love the feel of a Nikon F3 in your hand as I do, and happen to believe that old Nikon lenses built many years ago can work magic with light as I do, and that film has a certain organic character and depth about it that digital doesn’t get, then you may have an idea of why I still like to fool with film. Before we wax too romantic, I confess that for the bread and butter stuff I grab a digital camera. There are times when getting an acceptable picture is far more important than proving my arcane skills with photography.

The question of film quality versus digital quality is a matter of ferocious debate that I’m probably not going to settle here. I will give you my thoughts about it. Digital is composed of pixels which each have a single discrete color. The color and tone of each of these pixels is calculated by a little computer in the camera which reads the light and stores information about its interpretation of the light that fell on its sensor. Film captures color information by a chemical reaction in which the light causes molecules to change on the film. There is no interpretation by computer with film. Its images and colors are formed by a direct organic interaction between light and chemistry on the film. There is no software middleman explaining what the light was supposed to be according to his program. To my eye, the direct nature of film gives it a richness and depth of color that I find appealing. Conversely, digital images often look flat to me and require post processing enhancement to bring up the color and vibrancy of the image.

Modern digital autofocus lenses are really great. I love mine and they have saved me from countless slightly out of focus images. But sometimes, they are almost too perfect. The older manual lenses, especially those built by Nikon, are absolute treasures to me. These were built before computer controlled manufacturing was invented and by today’s standards we would have to call them hand built. Each one is an individual and each shot you take with them must be manually focused with a manually set shutter speed and f-stop. These manual lenses introduce just a little bit of chaos into the mix. A modern autofocus DSLR camera can get so close to perfect that its product can begin to look sterile. The chaos and idiosyncrasies of hand built and hand focused lenses can produce very pleasing effects that the computer would eliminate as errors. Sometimes I will put one of these old manual lenses on my DSLR just to get the effect.

I know I’m fighting a rear guard action here. Kodachrome is already gone. I’m hoping that E-6 process slide film like Ektachrome and Fujichrome will hang around long enough for me to wear out the F3. For those willing to take the time and deal with the inconvenience, film still offers creative opportunities. For those who really love it, digital will never really substitute for film.

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Pictures of Old Things

Old things just fascinate me for taking pictures. They have that character that can only be imparted by the endurance of time’s blast. They almost always trigger the question of “What happened here?” and that’s a fun game to plan in itself. All of these pictures were shot on 35mm slide film.

York's-Mill-adjusted Sgt. Alvin York’s mill near Russelville, KY

Meeting of the Packard Club in Lebanon Ohio

Misty Morning, Cumberland Gap

Spring-HouseSpring House, Clarksville, Indiana

Texaco pump near Campbellsville, KY

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Old Man and Child, Gunnison, CO

This is one of my all-time favorite photos. It was a grab shot on the street at Gunnison, Colorado. It was shot in 1982 on color slide film with a Nikon FM. I made a Cibachrome print of it and then scanned the print. The look of it seemed to escape the time and reach back to a much earlier era. The photo really seemed to have everything in that it captured the relationship between the the old man and the child, the old guy obviously teaching the youngster about crossing the street, and the little guy trying to figure it all out. I love the old bicycle and the handbills on the wall. I wish the old guy would have held his cane differently, but it is what it is.

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Looking Into The Water

Alex at Lake Buchanan 2

Nikon F3, Fujichrome Velvia 100F, Zoom-Nikkor 35-105mm Micro

I particularly like this shot. It’s nothing fancy, just a snapshot of Alex staring into the water at Lake Buchanan in Texas. There is a certain harmony of color between Alex’s blue shirt and the blue water, his hair and skin tones and the sand and lake bed. The water seems to intermingle the two colors. There is a progression of color diagonally across the frame, from tan to blue with a range of shades and blends in between. The film captured the subtleties of the colors well.

This is one shot of which I’m glad I used film rather than digital. Although I know that many will disagree with me, I think that film responds differently to color and light than digital. There is an organic continuity of tone and light with film that even the best digital color engines do not achieve. Film is analog, like Fender tube amps for guitars. The internal contradiction of what I’m saying is that I’m showing you a digital scan of the slide, not the slide itself. The only real comparison would be between two prints, one shot on a digital camera and printed with a computer and one printed from film on an enlarger and expertly processed. Yet, even in the digital rendering of the slide, much of the character of the film is maintained. There is a depth and dimensionality in the color that I find very pleasing. This is not to say that digital cameras cannot achieve something very much like this. Some of them are very good, and produce gorgeous color. Some of what I’m saying is subjective and emerges from the realm of feeling and intuition. There is something that I like about film that is hard to put into words.

One of the most powerful arguments for digital is not quality but cost. Each of these slides cost me $.60 to produce when you calculate the film price and developing. If you lack a means of digitizing the slides, prints will cost scores of dollars each, depending on size. With digital, once your equipment is paid for, the shots are essentially free. If you have a good color printer, you can shoot your picture, upload it to your computer and print it out to an ink jet for mere pennies, and you can do it within minutes of the click of the shutter. The case for digital is powerful.

Digital photography has become an essential tool for me. It is fast, accurate and economical. Often, I don’t have time to wait a week or two for film to be processed. I need an image right now, and the digital does that. And yet, something continues to draw me back to film, something I can’t quite put into words. I didn’t accomplish that here, either, but I’ll keep trying. It’s in this picture.

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Geese Take Off

Geese takoff

2008, Nikon F3 with Zoom-Nikkor 35-105 lens, Fujichrome Velvia 100F

This was not an easy one to catch with a manual focus camera and 100 ASA film, but the light was good and the F3 on aperture priority went to a quick shutter speed automatically. In terms of critique, this shot would have been a lot more interesting had I been more on the horizontal plane with the geese and if we would have had some dramatic late afternoon lighting.

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Purple Window

PurpleWindow

2008, Nikon F3 and Elite Chrome 200

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