Confessions of An Analogue Photographer
This year, we celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the Luminous Landscape. When I turned fifteen myself, my father gave me my first real camera: a Minolta SRT101. It had TTL metering, but exposure was manual. It was an old camera even then, and very affordable. Before long I had a second body (one for black and white film, the other for colour), and quite a few lenses and accessories. I still have the old Minolta (I sold most of the lenses which gained a bit in value due to the arrival of Mirrorless), and I don’t think I’ll ever part with it. I haven’t shot it in years, though.
In the mid-2000s, I made the shift to digital. A Nikon bridge camera first, then two Sony dSLRs, and now I’m using my second Nikon, a D800. I love it. It’s an amazing machine, sturdy and robust (but don’t let anybody tell you it won’t break when it hits the pavement falling from a tripod), and the image quality is absurd. For the first time, I feel like I have a camera that I feel I trust. I know that it’ll do what I want it to do, and that it will do it well. This article is not a D800 homage, however, or even a review. Despite my love for the camera, about a year and a half or so ago, I went back to shooting film.
My generation (I was born in 1982) is probably the last one to have actually grown up using film as the default photon capturing medium. This site’s publisher told me he hasn’t shot a roll of film since 1995, but most of us made the transition a bit later. Why on earth, I can hear you say, would anyone in this day in age, especially someone who already crossed over to digital before he became serious about photography, let alone commercial, start shooting film?
The answer, as with many things in life, is threefold. One is quite banal, so I’ll start there and get it over with quickly. That one concerns cost.
I only shoot film in medium format (remember the Minolta is still gathering dust). The most affordable entry into digital medium format is the Pentax 645 system, considering that used equipment from other brands will sometimes set you back more. I have two medium format systems: a Mamiya RZ67 with 110mm and 180mm lenses, and a Fujica G690b with 90mm lens. They cost, respectively, €500 and €350 (admittedly, I’d love to trade in the Fujica for its 6×7 counterpart, which is considerably more expensive and extremely rare). So, that’s two systems for less than a tenth of a camera. And, both have considerably more light catching surface. Naturally, the operational costs are higher: film must be bought and developed, and I’ve had to invest in a decent flatbed scanner (for images that require more, there’s a place nearby where time on an Imacon scanner can be booked). All in all, though, when shooting medium format, there’s really no comparison.
Now that we’ve covered that, let us consider the two main reasons why I shoot film: image quality and workflow. The debate about whether digital creates better image quality than film has been settled in favour of ones and zeros quite some time ago. Sharpness, dynamic range, color reproduction–digital does it all better. Objectively. Film, on the other hand, lends a subjective quality to the image. You can see that an image was captured on film, and I’m sure there are those who (think that they) can tell what type of film. No one can look at a digital image and reliably tell whether it was shot on a Canon, a Nikon, or any of the other brand. In a world where perfection in terms of image quality seems attainable, it is the imperfections of film that form such a strong part of its attraction. Every brand of film has a unique profile in terms of color, in contrast, and in grain structure, and such a profile is really nothing else than a deviation of the ideal – if we define the ideal as the perfect reproduction of the scene. Each type of film has a distinctive look. And then, there’s the look of film per se.
One of the attractions to me is the unique combination of softness and detail reproduction. Film, more than digital, can be smooth and sharp at the same time. Images can be sharp but not harsh, soft but not mushy. And, if focus is off or camera movement not completely cancelled out, for some reason, imperfections in sharpness are forgiven much easier. And then there’s the transitions from dark to light areas. Maybe it’s because of the random arrangement of grain that blocks any form of posterisation (I really don’t know), but more so than in digital, tonal gradations can be incredibly ethereal.
I’m perfectly willing to admit that this is all subjective, but that’s the whole point: I’m not interested in making objective images (or am I? That’s a whole other story). This brings me to the final and most important reason why I shoot film: the way of working that is involved. I’ve thought long and hard about what it is about the film workflow that makes it so appealing to me, and, truth be told, I suppose most elements can be emulated with digital. But not the other way around, and that’s the whole point: options are eliminated, and sometimes, fewer options mean more freedom.
When we create a photographic image, we try to recreate what the mind saw. We have an idea, a vision, inspired by (in the case of landscape photographers) natural beauty, or an idea, or a particularly moving piece of music. There’s a quote that is ascribed to Ansel Adams, who said that there’s nothing worse than a sharp picture of a vague concept. It all starts with the idea, the concept, the vision, call it what you will, but a great picture made while clicking away mindlessly is likely to be a fluke. It’s a product of chance that was bound to happen given the amount of pictures people take nowadays.
When shooting with a film camera, there’s really nothing more than the scene, the eye, and at some point in the process, a viewfinder in between the two. And the way the viewfinder mediates (as non-intrusively as possible, ideally) matters. This is a huge part of why I like the two cameras that I use–The Fujica, a rangefinder (they call it the ‘Texas Leica’), has a larger field of view in the finder almost per definition, and the Mamiya has a huge waste level finder that only comes close to the eye for focusing. There is no back screen to check focus or exposure. No way to verify that framing was correct after the shot was made. I am unhindered by all these options that enable today’s photographers to achieve perfect images. Instead, I have to rely on my intuition, and I’ve had to learn to trust the cameras and the 1970s light meter that I carry. This is an ongoing process, by the way, which is part of its appeal.
In the field, I encounter the scene that I want to photograph, I set up my gear, take some measurements, fire the shutter, and I walk away, as if nothing ever happened. I leave the scene, taking nothing other than its impression on my mind and mood, and on the roll of film in the camera. I do not take it with me in the sense of constantly having the option to review the image while I’m still out shooting. I know the image is there, locked away from sight, quietly waiting to be developed. Not being able to check whether the capture was 100% spot on allows the image to stay in my mind as I imagined it, rather than as it looked on the back screen of my camera. Not knowing can be incredibly liberating and fulfilling.
Naturally, this can lead to great disappointments at times, once the image is developed and scanned, but it does train the photographic senses and intuitions, so that disappointments occur less and less.
Then, there’s the pace of working. I’m sure that I’m not alone in this when I say that the act of making the photograph can be at least as important as the resulting image. Shooting film means that there’s always at least a couple of days between the capture and the moment the image appears on the screen. This allows me to fully concentrate on the moment in the field, but also creates a certain distance from the image, allowing me to evaluate it more critically once it appears on the computer screen. Sometimes, exposed rolls of film lay dormant for weeks before I take them to the lab. But they’re there, physically, and not nearly as disposable as digital captures. The Mamiya takes 10 images on a 120 roll, the Fujica even less; this makes you think twice about which image to make, and how to make it.
I really do not want to start another film versus digital argument. Both have their place, and my commercial work (I mostly do interior photography for a living, apart from research) is all done digitally. There’s a high demand for perfection and speed, and film is not an option. Plus, as I said before, the D800 is more than a camera; it’s my buddy who never lets me down (unless I drop it on the pavement). However, we have reached a golden age of image quality, and perfection is attainable for those with deep enough pockets. Cameras offer bigger and better sensors, faster and more reliable autofocus, and more accurate metering methods. Lens makers race to produce glass that is on a par with the demands of such high quality sensors, and the photographer is limited in his/her options only in financial terms. In this day and age, it can be incredibly refreshing to let go of control, to reduce ones pace, to look at the scene rather than the screen, and to develop the intuition and confidence that you’ve made the shot you saw with your mind’s eye. Add to this the unique quality of the images, and perhaps you’ll start to see why I shoot film even when I have the choice.