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

50mm: Focal Length Series

So this is the challenge I have given myself: to head out on a series of Photomissions where I am only allowed to use one focal length per session. I will walk the same route each time; between Waterloo Station and Oxford Circus Underground, and shoot using only one prime lens along the route to see what I can catch, and report back the experience and challenges of shooting with that particular focal length. I'm hoping to cover 24mm, 35mm, 50mm and 85mm.

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This week it's the

50mm f1.4 prime.

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NOTE: I am shooting on a full frame camera. If you're shooting on a cropped sensor camera (APS-C sensor) then these comments will apply more to a 35mm prime.

The Great Grandaddy of street photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson, was a proponent of this focal length, using it almost exclusively throughout his career. So I figured I would be in good hands with this one.

Starting off from the station I felt immediately at home with this focal length. I have heard people suggest that 50mm on a full frame camera is pretty close to the natural focal length of the human eye, and I could feel that straight away. I had this strange experience when I was looking around for shots to take; the moment I lifted the camera to my eye, the shot I had envisioned was right there in my viewfinder, with no intermediate calculation needing to take place.

It felt very natural.

When shooting with the 24mm, or even the 35mm, I found that I had to try and lock the focal length in my minds eye to predict the composition of each potential shot, but with the 50mm, "what you see is what you get."

I think this is why the 50mm is my favourite street focal length.

It's a great compromise between standing far off and compressing the background, and having to get in your subjects face, distorting them in the process. It gives you context by included background elements, but also separates your subjects nicely.

It really is a great allrounder.

In the world of primes, your legs are your zoom anyway, and I find the 50mm puts you in a comfortable place to shoot most of the action. It makes your viewer feel like a part of the scene, but doesn't mean you have to be shooting in people's personal space to do it.

There is this scene in the opening of "The Bang Bang Club", where one of 4 photojournalists covering the violent transition of power in '92 in South Africa, pulls out a long lens and begins shooting the action from a safe distance. The 3 other characters in the movie come hurtling past him right into the middle of the action with 50mm primes to get the shots. After things have calmed down they turn to their timid colleague and tell him to 'throw that lens away and get into the action with a 50mm, or else you can't call yourself a photojournalist.' Famous war photographer, Robert Capa, used to say, "If your photos aren't good enough, you aren't close enough."

There is a great deal to be said for the proximity of photographer to subject when it comes to street photography, and how this effects the viewers perception.

This lens will get you close without the compromises. I know some people take quotes like this and insist on shooting even wider (35mm) but I find that the trade off with distortion, and the fact that you effect the scene by getting too close, aren't worth it.

For me this lens is the one I use the most often. This is my street photography, go-to prime.

The Canon 50mm f1.4 was the first prime I bought and is my baby, both because of the quality, and the sentimentality as it marked my entrance into the world of serious photography. The 50mm prime is always the cheapest prime in any brand, and is often the first lens people buy for their DSLR's, aside from their kit lens. It is the gateway to a whole wide world of better photography, and the beginning of the deep, dark gear hole. The Canon 50mm f1.8 is only around £90 (R1000) and is so worth the price. If you can shell out a bit more for the f1.4 it is really worth your money.

If you want a way in, this is it. Go grab one and get shooting.

Here are some more of the shots I got:

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85mm: Focal Length Series

So this is the challenge I have given myself: to head out on a series of Photomissions where I am only allowed to use one focal length per session. I will walk the same route each time; between Waterloo Station and Oxford Circus Underground, and shoot using only one prime lens along the route to see what I can catch, and report back the experience and challenges of shooting with that particular focal length. I'm hoping to cover 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm.

Google+Maps.jpg

This week it's the

85mm f1.8 prime.

8501.jpg

NOTE: I am shooting on a full frame camera. If you're shooting on a cropped sensor camera (APS-C sensor) then these comments will apply more to a 50mm prime.

This is one of my favourite lenses at the moment.

I use it a great deal in the portrait shoots I do and love the way it separates the subject from the background, with beautiful bokeh and compression. With this in mind I knew I would be looking for individual subjects, and that this lens would give me the ability to pull them out of their surroundings.

Walking out of Waterloo this time I had to immediately adjust my viewpoint. I had last shot this route on the 24mm and was now on the other end of the spectrum. I stopped in the station for a little while and looked around through the viewfinder so I could lock the focal length into my minds eye. No point in jamming the camera up to my eye every few seconds for shots I would never be able to get at this focal length. I needed to be walking around with that 85mm frame in my mind to know what was possible, and to react to the right things.

I headed out and began looking for interesting people doing interesting things. It's something I am learning a lot at the moment: I would rather take a bad photo of an interesting subject, than take a slick photo of a boring subject. Learning to find those moments, or create them, and then capture them is really more than half the photographers job. We all focus so much on gear and techniques, but too few of us work on creating or finding great subjects which compel. We also have to come to terms with the fact that some days you'll find those subjects, and some you won't, and the only way to 'up' your chances is with perseverance, or "Tenacity!!", as my Grandfather would yell when giving his secret to life and success.

With street photography, you have to invest time. Be patient. Stay out as long as you can.

The other great thing about this lens is it allowed me stand off at a distance more often, and grab unguarded moments without being detected and altering the scene. I know that sounds voyeuristic, but it really is the nature of street photography. The moment someone notices you they will 'pose' or 'run', and you will have lost the opportunity to catch a real moment with a real human being. It's the constant battle of the reportage photographer: how to capture human beings without changing them. I know the arguments about shooting wider and being closer, but this longer focal length does have the payoff of anonymity, and right now that suits my non-confrontational style of photography well.

This Canon 85mm f1.8 is a fantastic lens. I only bought it recently and could kick myself for not buying it sooner. It's super sharp, with beautiful Bokeh. As a portrait lens it really is one of the best affordable primes and will give you professional results every time. Well worth a look.

Here are some more of the shots I got:

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24mm: Focal Length Series

So this is the challenge I have given myself: to head out on a series of Photomissions where I am only allowed to use one focal length per session. I will walk the same route each time; between Waterloo Station and Oxford Circus Underground, and shoot using only one prime lens along the route to see what I can catch, and report back the experience and challenges of shooting with that particular focal length. I'm hoping to cover 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm.

Google+Maps.jpg

This week it's the

24mm f2.8 prime.

24mm+final+781.jpg

NOTE: I am shooting on a full frame camera. If you're shooting on a cropped sensor camera (APS-C sensor) then these comments will apply more to a 15mm prime.

24mm was always going to be the difficult one. Usually when you shoot with this width you have a strong idea of the vista you want to capture, so it's not really suited to run-and-gun street photography. 

That said I did learn some things.

I set off from Waterloo about 7pm again to try and catch some 'golden hour' light. The moment I stepped out of the station I started shooting buildings because of the extra width. The problem I experieced immediately was the distortion I got with the lens. I had to be very careful about framing because, obviously, with a lens this wide I was getting the most distortion closest to the edges of my frame (barrel distortion) so it meant I was going to have to frame my subjects closer to the clean center and ignore the rule of thirds for the day. 

I haven't corrected the distortion in the images below so you can a feel for what I'm talking about.

You do get super wide prime lens which correct for this distortion, like the Canon 14mm rectilinear, but they are very expensive. You can also correct in post, but I find that the more you pull the image around, the more detail you lose.

After sticking to shooting buildings and wide scenes I decided to mix it up a bit so at one point I set myself the challenge of shooting a person with this focal length. To be surreptitious about it I found myself having to shoot from the hip. I almost bumped into the subject to get close enough without simply walking up and sticking the camera right in his face. You'll see below that he was busy dancing so didn't really notice me, but I was less than two paces away from him when I took the shot, so this obviously isn't a great lens for people unless you are looking for something more stylised and you are able to get right in your subjects face. Don't forget they will distort like crazy too so watch the shape, although you can get some pretty cool effects shooting portraits at this focal length, like this one  I shot a while ago.

The 24mm f2.8 I was using is another of the 'cheap plastic' primes from Canon. It performed ok. I'm not sure if I'm being harsh on it because I was grumpy about being stuck with such a wide focal length, but I found there wasn't as much latitude in the light and shade during the edit, and I really had to work at the sharpness of some of the images. It's still worth it as an inexpensive lens, but if you are a fellow pixel-peeper there are annoying little traits that may bug you.

I used to shoot a lot more landscapes than I do currently and I felt myself out-of-practice with this width. Nowadays I shoot mostly in the high rise confines of a city, or up close and personal with portraits and products. My 24mm doesn't come out of the bag much, but this little exercise made me want to get out into open space again and rekindle an old love for wide angle photography. 

Here are some of the shots:

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35mm: Focal Length Series

So this is the challenge I have given myself: to head out on a series of Photomissions where I am only allowed to use one focal length per session. I will walk the same route each time; between Waterloo Station and Oxford Circus Underground and shoot using only one prime lens along the route to see what I can catch, and report back the experience and challenges of shooting with that particular focal length. I'm hoping to cover 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm.

Google+Maps.jpg

This time it's my

35mm f2 prime.

35mm+Web+780.jpg

NOTE: I am shooting on a full frame camera. If you're shooting on a cropped sensor camera (APS-C sensor) then these comments will apply more to a 24mm prime.

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon when I set off from Waterloo, maybe a little too sunny. I was a bit early for the 'golden hour', which is only arriving about 7:30pm in the UK at the moment, but I decide to make the most of it anyway. 

The first thing I noticed, not having shot on this lens for while, is how wide true 35mm is. I was instantly faced with a problem when shooting on the street; if I wanted to capture subjects I would have to get right in their face to do it. I couldn't stand off at a distance and shoot without people noticing. I would have to make myself obvious. Some photographers are good at this, but I'm not one of them, yet. In fact it got me thinking at one point that good photographers are really half technique, and then half sheer balls to get themselves in a postion to get the interesting shots. I think I'm still too self conscious, which is something I have to work on.

So I ended up shooting more 'scenes' than 'subjects', which is maybe the point of this focal length.

I know many photojournalists swear by the 35mm focal length. They suggest that shooting an event with a long focal length, from across the street, will give your viewer a sense of separation from the action, because, perhaps subconciously, they know the shot was taken far from the action. If you chose to use a 35mm to capture the action there is no choice but to get in it's face, and you carry your viewer into the midst of the action with you.

What I did love about this focal length is the context it gives you. It allows you to place your subject in it's surroundings. I am most used to shooting portraits close up at 50mm or 85mm, which means that my background usually becomes insignficant bokeh, rather than meaningful context. I enjoyed getting the shots back home and looking around the corners of the image and seeing faces and details I didn't notice in the second I snapped the shutter. 

I was concerned that I would be stuck with a lot of image distortion with the extra width, but it really wasn't bad. I didn't end up correcting any of it, and 35mm seems to be the last prime on the way down to wide that gives you a relatively pleasing persective which isn't distracting.

The 35mm f2 I was using is one of the 'cheap plastic' primes from Canon, but I was really surprised by how sharp it was. It performed very well in different light conditions, and there was a lot of high contrast 'light and shade'. If you're thinking about rushing out and buying one I really would recommend it, but just note that you do have to 'baby' these lenses a bit to get them to last the years, because the build quality isn't that great, but if you're willing to love it, it will give you some great shots at a really affordable price.

This is a focal length I definitely want to play with more, although I will have to strap on a pair to do it well.

Challenge accepted.

Here are some more of the shots:

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...and a selfie:)

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Bokeh Panorama

...also known as "The Brenizer Method" because this technique has been popularized by New York Wedding Photographer, Ryan Brenizer.

The idea behind the shot comes from a creative bit of problem solving. The question which needs answering is "How do I build a shallow depth of field (lots of focus blur) into a wide angle shot"? As you will probably know, when you shoot with a wide angle, everything is usually in focus. When you shoot at a longer focal length your background compresses, and you get a pleasing blur, or 'Bokeh', which serves to really separate your subject from it's surroundings.

So how do I build 'long focal length blur' into a 'wide angle shot'?

Well the answer is, "Shoot your scene by stitching together a series of images shot with a longer focal length, and low aperture, to make up your wide angle." This way you can create a shot with plenty of context, but your subject will now 'pop' off the out-of-focus background.

There are many techniques for this shot, but personally I usually use my 85mm f1.8, because I want both a lens which will compress the background, and has a low potential aperture (sub f2).

You need to start by composing the scene in your head. You obviously won't be able to do this through the lens as you normally would, so you need to imagine the borders of your shot. The trick then is to shoot in such a way that you piece together your total shot one frame at a time. It's vital to keep a track of the areas you've covered, which means you always have to have the big picture in your minds eye. Some people shoot in a spiral out from their subject. Some people shoot in a grid. You'll have to find the technique which works for you, but it's important that you cover all the areas of the total image otherwise you will have 'holes' in your final stitch which you'll have to deal with in post.

When you are ready to shoot you need to make sure all your settings are manual so they don't change from shot to shot. Remember you are shooting pieces of a whole image, not individual shots. Here's a check list to get yourself ready for the shot:

  1. Put your camera in Manual mode.
  2. Select the appropriate ISO depending on the ambient light.
  3. Set your aperture as low as your lens will allow so that your depth of field will be as shallow as possible.
  4. Dial in your shutter speed until you have the right amount of light for your subject. If you are shooting a person make sure the skin is exposed correctly.
  5. Set your white balance.
  6. Then focus your lens on the subject and click your focus to manual (you don't want your lens refocusing between shots).
  7. Plant your feet firmly and burn that final image into your mind.

Then build your shot one image at a time. I begin with the head and torso of my subject, then the legs, and then I begin to fill in the scene around him/her by shooting a spiral outwards from the body on all sides.

Here is a recent Bokeh Pano I shot with a French Model in Bermondsey:

Paris+BP+45.jpg

And these are the raw shots out of the camera which went into making it up:

Brenizer+shots.jpg

The number of shots you need to take will vary depending on the setting. I have shot some with 8-9 frames, and then some with 60+ frames, which was quite an ask for my version of Photoshop Elements to stitch together. You will also notice that I am making sure to create some overlap between the shots so as to ensure I have no holes in the final image.

After this I open up photoshop and run file/automate/photomerge, and then select all my images and let photoshop go to work. Sometimes it does a great job, sometimes there is some work which needs to be done afterwards to fix areas where the stitching hasn't worked.

A quick tip: if you are shooting a series of these Brenizer shots, just shoot a black frame (with your hand over the lens) between each set so that you can easily identify the first shot of each batch when you come to the editing stage.

This technique really allows for a quality image. Due to the combined resolution of all the shots you've used, you could blow this image up to the size of a billboard if you wanted to. Not to mention the fact that no lens in the world could actually get this shot, because it would have to be a 15mm f0.4 or something like that; and they don't exist... yet.

Get out there and give it a go!

Here are a few examples of other recent Bokeh Panos I've shot:    

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Jon+Snow.jpg
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To end off, here is Ryan Brenizer himself speaking about the technique and demonstrating its use: