Tuesday, February 20, 2024

2 years of film

After several years of digital photos, I got to wondering what using film would be like. Unlike some families, photography was not a big part of my life as a child. Even as a young adult, a film point and shoot was as tech as it got. I never considered buying a "real" SLR. Even with the point and shoot we often forgot to take it places.

Then the iPhone came along and I found I liked taking photos. (Don't get me started on the current incarnation of Apples desktop photo app.) People said some of them were pretty good. One trip we were wandering through a garden and Linda suggested that I take a photo of a birdhouse against a clear sky. I didn't, knowing it would be a tiny dot of colour, but it got me thinking about getting a 'real" DSLR. That happened mid 2016, and I fell in love with the world I discovered. I found that I saw the world differently when I was carrying a camera.

Fast forward to late 2021 and really early 2022, thinking more about film. I borrowed a pair of Nikon film cameras from a friend (thank you Sean!) and ran some film through them. I liked the experience, but the cameras never really felt at home in my hands, and I never really got the hang of the focussing split prism thing.

Then I picked up a big medium format rangefinder (Fujica GW690) and was hooked. I liked how it felt solid and comfortable in my hands. The Nikons went back to Sean, and later I picked up a 35m Canon 7 with a nice 50 mm lens. That was fun to use, but it locked up and I sent it away to be cleaned and go for consignment. I traded the lens in for a Canon EOS-3. It's not quite as much fun to use, being essentially an early digital camera that uses film. I've only used a 50mm f 1.8 lens I picked up cheap, but I could use the EF lenses for my digital cameras.

How much film have I exposed? This much. Each sheet is a roll of film, typically 36 images on 35mm film, and 8 images on 120 medium format. They're in an orange binder, which explains the colour. The binder lives in a box, which is in a dark room. I know the digital photos could go away in the blink of a hard drive failure, and yes I have backups. But assuming the house doesn't burn down, that binder of negatives could sit there till my death, and then be put in another box with some photographic heir intending to see what I had done, and it might take them 50 years to get to it, and the negatives will still be here. Not that I think I'm another Vivian Maier or anything. 

I've edited 306 frames of 6x9 from the GW690, and 295 between the several 35 mm cameras. If I count all the exposed frames, which covers a multitude of sins, it's probably over 1000 frames. Note that in the screen shot below that I'm not entirely consistent with keywording. At first I was tagging all the frames, regardless of what they were, and later I switched to just tagging the edited frames. Too lazy to go back and fix it.

Those that have been following along on this and my personal blog know that one of my film related projects was to digitize all the negatives from our point and shoot. While doing that I discovered a trove of old negatives from Linda's family. Both those got tagged with the film old negs keyword. It was surprisingly hard to date our photos, and all are from the mid-80's, to maybe late 90's or so. 

It was fun going back through the photos! Of course, most are poor quality, given that a complete non-photographer was holding the cheap point and shoot camera, and the film was probably the cheapest that Blacks carried. That's to say nothing about the automated development process.

At a high level my process looks like this. Using either camera, expose film. Get it developed at a bespoke lab a short drive from my place. Digitize using a T6i with a Canon EF 100mm F2.8L macro lens, and invert with NegativeLab Pro. I'll tweak the settings a bit, but I've found that moving the sliders too much makes the image go wonky. I'll remove the worst of the dust spots. That gets me photos to go in the blog.

None of the film images have gone up on the wall in a frame, but a few have been printed in my books. Those got a bit of extra attention re: dust spots and editing. A few times I've gone back to get a better photo of the negative using my main DSLR. I've even done some experimenting with gigapixel images from the Gw690 negatives. If I start with a sharp clean negative, I could get a huge print out of it.

Darkroom developing and printing? I haven't done either yet. The lab does a great job with developing and typically turns them around in a day or two. Plus, he has all the chemicals and has the process down pat. I'd have to get the gear, and learn how to do it, though it doesn't seem hard. It would be pretty hard for me to beat his price. As for printing, ACAD, or whatever it's called now offers darkroom printing courses, and I'm planning to take that after selecting a bunch of negatives to try it with. That should be fascinating. 

I started by trying different films, mostly going with what was inexpensive and available. I've had great results from Kodak Gold 200, though it's been hard to find in 35mm until recently. For black and white I went through a bunch of Acros II, but can't find that anymore, however I'm really happy with Delta 100 and FP4+ Although, I must confess I didn't track the settings for every photo and rigorously compare images to get a true understanding of which film gave me the results I liked best.

Neither do I directly compare digital to film, even though some photos are very similar. I don't have the technical expertise or patience to do it properly. And besides, it's already been done, back when digital overtook film. Lots of people didn't believe digital could be better. Just like an iPhone is all the camera that most people need for most situations, a digital camera is the tool for almost all photographers, especially professionals. The camera helps them get great images, they see the result instantly on the back of their camera so they know if they got their photo, and processing is fast. Edited images can be sent to a client right away. In today's world, faster beats better every time. If I'm doing event photography, of course I'm using digital.

So why film? There's two parts of film that I like. One is the slower process. I think more about the photos, especially using medium format. For that I'm trying to think in sequences of eights, since I get eight photos to a roll. I look for nice light and interesting subjects in a setting that plays to the strengths of film. I'm almost certainly not going to click the shutter as much as when I carry a digital camera. Digital makes the 'spray and pray' approach easy. But then all those photos have to be ingested, digested, reviewed, culled, processed, and before you know it you're on the Group W bench. I digress, but someone of you have now have a song running through your minds. With film I look at the scene more carefully and enjoy it for what it is, and sometimes consider deciding to not click the shutter as a form of pre-editing.

The other part is the look of film images. Even now, some of the digital image editing programs have presets or filters to give images a specific 'film look'.  It's hard to describe, but I think the transitions are smoother because of the fine silver halide grains in a random pattern, rather than a digital algorithm. Since the dawn of photography, photographers have been trying to make their photos look as good as possible. They achieved some amazing results considering the technical process limitations. Perhaps the results were because of those limitations.

But with digital there are essentially no limitations, including the human element. With some of the digital tools the human becomes a camera carrier. After they decide what direction to point the camera they have no further role in the production of the image. The camera, the computer editing program, and the printer decide what that image should look like. I look at some images and wonder if it's actually a real place.

My photos are the real world, and I try to present them that way. I don't dress them up in lurid colours, I don't replace the blue sky with a fake drama sky, and typically don't push the sliders too much, unless I'm deliberately doing that for a reason. 

With film images, it's even less processed. Not as flashy, but realer, if you'll accept that as a word. There's so much Photoshop that nobody trusts images any more. With film one could put a print on the wall, with a little light box and magnifying glass beside it and show the negative. I might do that if I ever get brave enough to exhibit my work in public.

A few people have stopped me when I'm carrying the GW690. It's big enough that it's obviously not a digital camera, and they ask about it, or film. There's been some nice conversations along the way. That never happens when I'm carrying a digital camera.

I'm just at the moment musing about putting in an order for a bunch of film, wondering how much I should get. There's a place near here that offers film at a good price, and even better, offers free shipping for orders over $150, which isn't hard to do at $13 to $15 a roll.

You're probably wondering which of my film images I like best from the last 2 years. I keep coming back to these four, and the B&W is probably going to be the first attempt at darkroom printing. All four of these made Image of the Month, two of them made Image of the Year in their year (2022 and 2023, (same link), one was the first runner up, and the other was the second runner up.

Here's my favourite two photos from the GW690. You might have seen them on Vero or one of my blogs, but that's ok. They're worth looking at again, or so I think.

A beaver pond in Yukon. I first saw the glassy clear reflections, then realized the initial letter of my name would appear if stood in exactly the right place. There was very little editing for this photo. Both are Kodak Gold 200. 

A long exposure just upstream of Elbow Falls. 

In 35mm these are my favourite two photos. Michelle projecting a mood of calm serenity. Canon 7, film is Visions 3.

During a walk on what is normally a swamp in Fish Creek. EOS-3 and Acros II.

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