Confessions of a Digital Lover

I'm whatever the opposite of a hipster is because, and I understand this is heresy, I don't really get film photography.

 Minolta X700, Tri-x 400

Minolta X700, Tri-x 400

Of course it's stupid to say because it's where photography came from, but in today's day and age I don't see it as a viable option for me, and I'll outline why.

 Minolta X-700

Minolta X-700

Last year I bought myself a Minolta X-700 35mm SLR, and this year I purchased a TLR Medium Format Mamiya C330.

The idea was to revisit film and hopefully it would slow me down and inject some new inspiration into my work. You hear so many photographers talk about how shooting film turns them into these 'floating, contemplative world-ramblers' with new eyes to see, as if being spiritually awakened to the 'now' which digital had perviously blinded them to.

I'm a complete hypocrite I know because about 18 months ago I wrote a post about how much I was enjoying film and named the things it was teaching. Let me give them here, because they are all still true:

  • Shooting film does force you to slow down. You have to plan your shots and know your exposure triangle because it takes a second to dial things in, and each shutter click is costing you money in film and development. This means you are forced to pre-visualise your shots and it's a good reminder that shooting digital, chimping your screen, and moving incrementally towards the shot you intend is likely the lazy way to get there. Film won't let you get away with this, if only because of the lack of a digital screen. That first shutter click should be your final shot.
  • Film does give you some advantages in increased dynamic rangeFor the uninitiated "Dynamic Range" is how much information your sensor or film can hold in the darkest shadows and brightest highlights before they just disappear to pure black or white with no hope of recovery. I have heard it said that digital can only hold one stop of light in either direction from your exposure, where as film can hold up to three stops, which if true is a huge difference, and means you can hold your shadows and highlights in some tricky lighting situations.
  • There is something attractive about shooting with a machine which is mechanical. It feels robust and timeless, so I do understand the romance of it all, and see why film cameras are catnip for hipsters. The objects themselves are something special. I felt more excitement walking home on the first day with my Mamiya C330 than with my Canon 5DmkII for example. I do get it.
 Mamiya C330

Mamiya C330

But for me that's where it ends. I have shot a few rolls on each camera now and as I went through the process of shooting and developing I had the epiphany that maybe most of my love for these things is because I know I'm 'supposed' to love them. Maybe shooting with these beauties is actually a royal pain in the ass. This post may serve little more than to betray the fact that I am a massive control freak but these are my frustrations with shooting film (and it's goodbye to some dear photography friends at this point I would imagine):

  • I don't know what I've just shot. It may slow me down but there is nothing more frustrating than shooting a portrait only to develop the shot and find that the subject blinked at the crucial moment. On my digital screen I can see that and shoot some more frames, but with film I have missed what could have been a great opportunity with someone which I may never have again.
  • I can edit the shot the way I want with digital. Often the film I have chosen to use has made some key decisions for me. The beauty of RAW is that the files come out very flat with a lot of detail. They may not be very appealing to look at sometimes, but they provide a beautiful canvas from which to dial in the colour and contrast which you like. The Fuji Superior 400 I shot with for a bit gave everything a green tint which drove me a bit nuts. Pulling the scans into Lightroom and correcting from there was ok, but I found the image quickly broke down because the contrast was baked into the shot. I had little say as to how the final shot felt. Chemicals had irreversibly made a lot of those decisions for me.
  • The lack of ability to change ISO drives me up the wall. The beauty of our digital cameras is that we don't need to wait till we've finished our roll of film to be abel to shoot in a different light. We just crank up the ISO. I found myself in a number of situations where we were walking around the streets and then went into a dark room with 400 speed film, and I could no longer shoot really. I instantly appreciated the progress we've made with digital cameras. In fact I pulled out my iPhone and carried on shooting.
  • It's not sharp enough! I know this is a weird one and I am likely on my own here, but I find film too soft. My wife, pictured below, thinks I'm a soulless cyborg for saying this. To be fair, I remember first seeing digital shots and thinking that it was too sharp and clinical, but I've since changed, and it's now how I want to see my shots. I spent years working with lenses and settings to get my images razor sharp, and shooting with film now just frustrates me when I zoom in and see the 'creamy goodness' which everyone else but me seems to appreciate as something magical. I know that makes me an unfeeling robot, but I can't help it. It's now how I see.
 Shooting with my Mamiya C330. (Shots by Bayek Photography)

Shooting with my Mamiya C330. (Shots by Bayek Photography)

Don't get me wrong, I understand the appeal of film. I hugely respect those who shoot film as part of their work. I've recently stumbled across some who shoot whole weddings on Medium Format film, which means changing rolls every 12 shots! That's hardcore. (For a great example of this check out Ann-Kathrin Kock) But for me personally, I appreciate the technological advances we've made in photography, and I think I'll be sticking to my digital-work-horse 5DmkII's, at least for now.

My Mamiya C330 sadly gave up the ghost after only 3 rolls of film with a mechanical failure.

My Minolta X-700 has gone to my celluloid-loving wife who is getting a great deal of joy out of it.

Here are some more film shots I took during my brief love affair:

  Mamiya C330, Kodak Portra 400

Mamiya C330, Kodak Portra 400

  Minolt  a X700, Tri-x 400

Minolta X700, Tri-x 400

  Minolt  a X700, Tri-x 400

Minolta X700, Tri-x 400

 Mamiya C330, Kodak Portra 400

Mamiya C330, Kodak Portra 400

  Minolt  a X700, Tri-x 400

Minolta X700, Tri-x 400

  Minolt  a X700, Tri-x 400

Minolta X700, Tri-x 400

  Minolt  a X700, Tri-x 400

Minolta X700, Tri-x 400

Film Revisited

While in Cape Town recently, I bought myself a 30 year old Minolta X-700

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SLR with a 50mm f2. I decided to take on the challenge of shooting film because I had heard the clichés about slowing things down and how this can improve your photography.

After a couple of filmic photomissions around the peninsula, I can report that the cliches are all true.

There is something about having to fight the plastic sprockets to load your film, having to count your frames as you shoot to make sure you don't run out, and having to calculate your exposures for each shot, which force you to take stock and frame more carefully. You're no longer running around shooting anything that moves and deleting as you go. You're planning shots now. Pre-visualizing.

Of course the other element which gives you pause is that you can put a dollar amount to each click of the shutter. Factoring in the costs of film and developing means that there is no such thing as a cheap shot, and this really serves to move you away from the spray-and-pray approach of digital. 

This isn't 'taking' pictures on the run, this is 'making' pictures.

One thing I noticed when getting the shots back was that film is a lot more forgiving. I know I can easily lose detail when shooting digital because of it's small Dynamic Range.

For the uninitiated "Dynamic Range" is how much information your sensor or film can hold in the darkest shadows or brightest highlights before they just disappear to pure black or white with no hope of recovery. I have heard it said that digital can only hold one stop of light in either direction from your exposure, where as film can hold up to three stops, which if true is a huge difference.

Being a digital shooter I assumed that many of my shots would come back with an unusable amount of detail loss, and I was struggling with not being able to check my shots on a digital screen to see if I was in the ball park, especially when trying to expose for a bright sky or dark foreground which is a guessing game when using the primitive global metering system which just gives the average suggested exposure for the image. 

So I was pleasantly surprised to get the images back and see that film has an incredible ability to hold detail through a wide tonal range. Hardly any shots were wasted. 

Take the example of my friend Roger standing in front of the red wall. That is direct sunlight hitting his hair. On my digital that would have completely blown to white, but the film managed to hold all the detail in the dark hair towards the back of his head, and the sunlit hair at the front.  

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The other aspect which frustrated me, but also added a new joy to shooting, was waiting to see the shots. There is something exciting about having no idea what you really have, and having to wait and see. Not having the immediate feedback actually heightened the experience on some level. I'm not about to start shooting pro jobs with film, or become a full time hipster, but shooting film definitely has a charm.

So, I'm really enjoying this little side project and want to expand it as I go. So far I have been using fairly inexpensive Fuji Superior 400 film, but I am very keen to try some Ilford black and white film, as well as the expensive colour stuff like the Kodak Portra, which I fell in love with from using VSCO film emulation. I also really want to get my hands on a Medium Format film camera to experiment with the extra resolution, unique shooting angle, and different aspect ratio. I'm eyeing a Mamiya C330.

I'm enjoying the slower pace, as well as the mental exercise it's giving me having to know my settings and dialling everything in manually without an LCD screen for reference. Hopefully regular film exercises will make me a more patient and competent photographer.

Here a few more shots:

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This next one is a 3-shot Bokeh Panorama because I couldn't fit the shot I wanted into the 50mm focal length:

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boys.jpg
shira.jpg
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