Saturday, 6 July 2013

My new old love affair

Hanna Silver Portrait f/3.5 Tri-X 400
On the most recent photowalk I decided to do something that various people including local musician and photographer artist +Hanna Silver had been pushing me to do - shoot with film. I last shot with film in the 90's nearly 20 years ago. I wondered if I'd forgotten and ummed and erred for months until finally deciding this was the time.

Hanna is on the left here. This is shot with the Tri-X 400 you'll read about shortly. I have to say that while you could certainly capture this image with a digital camera it won't be the same. Worse? No. Just different. Film has an amazing graduation of tones with no lines or moire effects or jpegisms. Of course this image here actually does have them because you can't put the printed hard copy image on the internet.

The Camera

First hurdle was the camera, I hunted throughout the house for my trusty 50E. Couldn't find the beast anywhere. Conveniently friend +Frank Yuwono was having a camera garage sale as he was moving house and was divesting some of his massive collection. I picked up a nice EOS 10 from him. Why Canon? It's not the brand - I have Canon digital and a large lens collection. I know the features and nuances of the breed. Is it better than any other platform? No. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. Lately I've been heading more towards mirrorless micro 4/3rds as a possible platform for the future as the devices are much smaller and lighter but also because the manufacturers seem more interested in technological progress and pleasing their customer base. The big brands have forgotten how to do that. They're lost in this world of social media predominant society.

Purchasing Film

The second hurdle was finding some that I wanted to use, you can still buy 35mm colour film around the place, predominantly Fuji and Kodak in various forms. Is Kodak still made by Kodak or is it a brand grab from someone else?)

Again I went to +Frank Yuwono who works at Vanbar Imaging in Fitzroy because I knew they not only sold film but also had onsite processing with people who care about the end result. They're not just machine automatons.

I settled on two 36 roll films. One of Kodax Tri-X 400 and one of Kodak TMax P3200. The Tri-X is an awesome high contrast black and white film that's really great in daylight. I've shot with before quite a lot. The TMax P3200 is new to me, I'm not even sure how long it's been on the market. A 3200 ISO film intrigued me. It will let you shoot at night hand held at wide apertures. Amazing. This is a luxury I'm used to with digital but with film? I said it before. Amazing.

During The Shoot

My son Alex at 50mm f/1.8 Tri-X 400
Using film really changed my outlook on the walk. Normally I'd shoot anything that I fancied, there would be around 250 images for a typical walk. I would later reject quite a few of those images. This time I had a finite number of frames and had to manage my shooting much more carefully. I'd already used nearly 10 of the precious frames getting used to the EOS 10 camera body with my lenses at home and at Puffing Billy. Shooting in the early morning on the railway brought out the real strengths of film. It can handle fog. Digital can't. It's certainly better than it was in the early days but the reality is that it's simply not up to it.

Looking up Fielder Bank towards Gembrook in the fog on Puffing Billy Railway

That left me about 62 possible frames to use on the photowalk. To my interest friend and strong (welcome) critic +Ananda Sim made the statement that the images I produced from the walk were not my usual style. They were different. He could see they were mine but he was not expecting them. I'm not sure I really have a style in particular because I shoot anything I feel like shooting and I produce very different images throughout the differing subject matter. For Ananda to make the comment was very interesting. It made me sit back in my chair and think for a moment. People who know me know I don't think much :).

Handling massive contrast and tonal range is a breeze with film


He was certainly right in one thing, I was forced to deliberate every shot I was thinking of. I was forced to ask myself did I really want it? Did I really have to have that particular shot? When the answer became yes I had to frame it so that I'd be happy because there is no opportunity to crop. I had to move. I had to review angles before I shot instead of just shooting ten angles and picking the best later. I had to visualise the image outcome before I pressed the button because you can't look at the back in chimp mode and say, well, no that's not quite it better have another crack at that one. This totally changed my approach on the day. Was this "new" approach better? Well, no I don't think so. It meant that I did not take any of the opportunistic shots that might or might not work. It meant I could not repeat - as an example I tried some pan shots in the dark of trams - they failed but I didn't know that until I got the prints back. With digital I would not have moved on without something I was happy with.

The Shrine of Remembrance Forecourt

Using film constrained me in another unexpected way, as the light started to fail at The Shrine of Remembrance I had to switch from the 400 to the 3200 film, but I hadn't finished the 400. This meant looking for some shots for the sake of it. I had four to use up.

This was the 2nd last shot of the day on the 400 film and while it's an interesting image, it's not really deliberate enough. Maybe moving to the left a little would have helped. The need to hurry stopped me!

After switching to the 3200 and commencing the night portion of the walk I kept thinking to myself, I've never used this film before. I was actually terrified! Well, ok that was an exaggeration but I was certainly apprehensive. I had never touched this film before. I simply did not know how it was going to react in the light and dark. How would it go with the long exposures? High ISO film in "my" day was known for it's extreme grain. I hated it. Would this be better? Would I like it? Fortunately the answer is yes. I love it in fact. The first image I used was a marble stone with a rough stone wall behind it set into a fountain. I'm very happy with the outcome of the image. It's got a real stone feel to it. I know this sounds stupid, but the image feels cold and rough. They way it looked in person.

Heading on down the road we climbed over the pedestrian bridge next to McRobertson Girls High School for some light trails. Again I had no idea what to do. It was several minutes before I made my first image. I had to dig in my brain for twenty year old memories for some suitable night exposures for traffic trails and adjust them upwards for the 3200 film. I don't think I've ever done this on anything higher than 800 film before. Intriguing.

I named this Less Out Than In
The shot shows the traffic as it graduated from Kings Way onto Queens Road in Albert Park. The time of day around 6.30pm ish in the winter and shows the distinct disparity in the traffic going into the city vs the traffic coming out. Or is the film simply less sensitive to red light?

I know the answer - it really was the traffic. Ok so I played with your head. Forgive me or stop reading now, I'm like that.

Moving over to the water, the task I set people was to capture the reflections of the night. It was almost totally dark, there wasn't much of a moon and this made focussing challenging for everyone. This time round I knew I was sunk. I didn't want to rely on the camera working out the proper exposure as high contrast between light and dark is painful for a camera to discern. I grabbed my mate +Kelvin Morrison and asked him to set his ISO to 3200 and f/11 and test the water for me with his digital camera then copied his settings. Next time I'll bring a light meter.



I'm quite pleased with the results, they've both got a good feel. Composing and focusing in the dark lead to another challenge with film. On digital you just turn on live view (or whatever your equivalent is - or use your electronic view finder if you're cursed blessed with one and you can compose and pin point focus in the dark. Can't do it with film. No cheating by zooming into the image and spot focusing on something interesting.

Moving along a little in the night came the next full on challenge - steel wool spinning. If you've never tried it, well do it, it's great fun. The usual image you'll see is the trails of steel bits as they spit out from the fiery blot of wool while it burns like this:


The glowing landing bits highlight every nook and cranny of whatever they land on and even bounce off the water as their intense heat makes a bubble of steam holding it up briefly. The stuff isn't as environmentally unfriendly as it looks - it decays to rust then nothing in seconds after it falls. I think this spinner was +Lachlan Downing who was with us briefly on the walk before taking off to another engagement.

The other kind of wool spinning image that I like to capture but hate the outcome in digital is the stars. To do this you need a high shutter speed and mid range depth of field f/8 or so. The only way to do that in digital is hit the high ISOs and the chromatic noise that follows is bloody awful - even converted to b&w it's just bad. I wanted to try with film.

The result has floored me literally. This spinner is the lovely +Al Christensen who was trying her first spins ever on this night. There is certainly grain noise from the film but it feels good - not like the square blotches you see in digital. I really love how this turned out.

The final challenge was artificially lit night portraits, the first is Andrew of Andrew's Burger in Victoria Ave Albert Park. These burgers are worth the journey. I'll happily drive from home in the Dandenongs to get one. 


The second image is our resident hooded assassin +Trace McLean both portraits are lit only by the available ambient light. Andrew is lit by bright fluorescent lighting and Trace is lit by tungsten street lighting. Both portraits worked admirably without the yucky noise of digital. Again the grain I see just feels right. It's not added by one of those wanky (yes I've used them) grain filters in your favorite photo editing product - it's even, it's real, it's only apparent in the darker areas like it should be. Bloody awesome.

The final location of the evening, well the final shooting location we did go to a local tavern for some very nice coffee was Kerford Rd Pier where +Ockert Le Roux spun some more steel wool and I spun my Snake Fire Poi.


The beautiful even black of the darkness and the bright trails of the steel wool with the highlighted rails and the peep of the street light are lovely. I really enjoy how this came out. You can see the individual bits bouncing around and something that is new to me - the bits bouncing around out the back. I've not seen that work so well with digital, I think the sensor is a bit overwhelmed by coping with the massive contrast by this point and gives up the ghost but film got it. Lovely.

The Painful bit - Waiting

You take your rolls off to your favorite developer of which their are three fifths of bugger all these days and then you wait. You might still be lucky enough to find hour no wait places doing C-41 but not black and white. It takes days. You have to wait. You put your films in and of course pay then, not when you pick up. If you're not happy later, oh well. I chose Vanbar to do the developing because of my association with them so long ago and my association of today with Frank. I was quite lucky in that mine all went smoothly. Another customer had brought in a film that introduced foreign proteins into the tanks of the machine that ruined his film and meant Vanbar had to disassemble the machine and scrub it clean. A huge financial cost to them and a lost images cost to the artist. I was there when he came to pick his up and his pain and carefully checked anger were highly apparent. Fortunately he was a gentle soul. It must be awful as a developer knowing you've done your best but the artist is going to be lost and broken when they see the outcome.

The cool bit

Once you've got the images you can share them with interested friends in person. You can handle them. You can take your time over them and look at them together and review them. You can sit with your brekky and rummage through them. Of course you can do this online too, but I think it's somehow not the same.

In Conclusion

Is this a one night stand or a long term love affair? Will I shoot with film again? Sure I will but it's not going to be often. It's an expensive exercise. The film itself, developing the negatives and printing the positives then scanning comes to about $60 or so for the 36 shots. Not to mention you either drive there twice or post them.

Shadow Marching (Idea pinched from Hanna - thanks!)

Will the lessons learnt on the walk change the way I shoot digital? Will it make me more deliberating and more precise. Probably not. Will it make me into one of those old school knob spankers who screams in CAPITALS online because they don't know what the caps lock key does QUALITY OVER QUANTITY. Certainly didn't last night at the fireworks. I was back to my normal self. What the exercise has done is made me think more about my images before I make them but it hasn't stopped me grabbing the opportunistic image that might or might not work out.

One other cool aspect I had not considered was that the film body is so much lighter than the digital body. So much more friendly to carry.

There were some downsides at the spinning by the lake my lens and view finder fogged up externally. I cleared them both with lens cloth but I didn't know if there was any internal fogging on the film itself. This certainly happens on the glass cover protecting the sensor in digital. I wasn't sure if celluloid would have the same problem. Fortunately it didn't. There are so many aspects of unknowns in shooting with film that make the process more interesting and more intriguing. It really captures and holds your attention.

There is a down side, with digital when someone says what settings did you use, you look in the EXIF. It's not there with film (well, there was a film with a digital track that did record it but it's no longer available). You either carry a notebook and dutifully note all the settings or you do what I did and don't think about it.

If you're part of the modern generation and you've never handled the stuff - I highly recommend you do. Go and give it a go just for the fun of it. Experience something there is so little of these days. Waiting. Borrow a film body and get to it. Your parents will probably have one they don't want.