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

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.

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This week it's the

85mm f1.8 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 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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