Some Thoughts On Shooting Film

Street Photography, Barcelona. Leica M7 with Zeiss Biogon 2/35 and Ilford HP5 plus.

For nearly three months now I have shot almost exclusively with film, as an experiment to find ways to improve my photography. So far, it has been an odd mix of frustration, learning, and also pleasure. I thought that it might be helpful to summarise some thoughts on this process so far.

Changes in the way I shoot

I think the first and most obvious effect of shooting with film has been the impact on the number of images taken.

Lightroom shows that roughly 400 shots were taken in the last three months, which is slightly more than one film every week. Normally I would have shot at least 2500 digital images in the same period…

The reduction in shooting comes not from the financial costs of film and development, but from the scanning. I currently use a local low-cost photography shop for developing (Fotoprix, which is still operating despite bankruptcy). I then scan the images directly from the negatives, using a cheap-and-cheerful PlusTek 7600, before importing in to Lightroom for cataloging and final processing.

The PlusTek does an excellent job – much better than than typical film processors – but it is very slow to use. Each negative needs to be setup individually, and normally there is some fiddling of the negative holder required to position the film correctly. A single scan can take between 10 and 20 minutes, depending on the resolution and any multi-pass options (such an IR pass to reduce the scratches and other defects that Fotoprix’s budget colour developing adds to each frame).

Scanning a whole film usually takes a full day – typically as a background task while working on other things.

Plaça España, Barcelona.

An image of Fira and the MNAC showing processing defects – in this case chemical smears that were left on to the negatives. Sometimes the film can be cleaned and re-scanned, or for permanent marks such as scratches, the defects can be fixed in Lightroom using the cloning tool.

The result is a lot of incentive to not press the shutter button unless I am really sure that the image is worth taking. That means that I find myself thinking a lot more about the composition before taking a picture.

I can not say that this is leading to better pictures, but it does result in a more considered and thoughtful photographic process. I am definitely becoming more attentive to the compositions and more careful about the content of the images. I hope that I am learning to take “better” images – where “better” means that the photographs are more intentional and deliberate.

Long gaps between shooting and seeing the results

Another characteristic of shooting film is that it is often several weeks between taking the image and seeing the scanned results. No chimping allowed.

Surprisingly few pictures seem to be lost due to mistakes in exposure or focus – the (non-slide) films that I am using are very forgiving. The grain helps make images seem sharper than perhaps they really are, and the non-linear exposure response means that over-exposed highlights are seldom as problematic as they are with a digital camera.

I think that the delay between shooting and seeing the image also helps when selecting and processing the pictures. The memory of the process of taking the picture fades, which means that the pictures are more likely to be assessed on their content rather than the fun that was had trying to take them. Again, this helps the learning process.

Contradicting most online wisdom, I still upload images that I am not completely happy with. I think that it is important to learn to see what works and what does not, and not to become paralysed in search of perfection (and one moments “perfection” often feels like so much junk a month later). Displaying an image that I know is flawed is painful, but keeping to a regular upload schedule helps keep momentum behind the learning process.

Shooting in Black and White

Another change that affects composition is shooting in black and white, and in particular with a relatively slow 35mm lens.

Parc de la Ciutadella, Barcelona.. Leica M7. Barcelona.

Making sense of a complicated and chaotic background is not easy without colour or shallow depth-of-field…

Compositions can no longer rely on the use of colour or shallow depth-of-field in their structure. Suddenly, every person, tree and pylon is important and has to ideally be positioned correctly with the right light for the right effect.

In practise, I find this is almost impossible to achieve – but again I think that the process of trying to do so is very valuable. Using a relatively wide-angle prime lens makes it harder still, and sometimes no amount of searching seems able to give a composition without something out of place or distracting from the subject.

There are some significant downsides to this, not least a tendency for images to look like cliched Instagram replicas of antique photographs. This is probably not helped by the somewhat distant connection between photographer and subject in many of these images – more about this later.

Why not shoot in colour?

To be honest, the main reason is that it just feels like too much work:

  • the lengthy scanning times (20 minutes per still)
  • huge image file sizes (up to 300Mbyte for 16 bit RGB at full resolution…)
  • the lack of good quality and affordable local film processing options (meaning that images need a lot of patching for scratches or other defects)
  • the problem of managing colour (unless, again, you are an Instagram fan…)

Getting good colour from the scanning process seems to be very difficult.

Seva. Minolta XDs with 50mm f1.4.

Colour image of Seva – although perhaps more accurately titled “False-colour image of Seva”.

The problem appears to be the correction for the film base-colour, which is usually handled by Vuescan (using the “advanced workflow“). Sometimes this works, but often either too much or too little red remains in the images. It is possible to correct this finally in Lightroom, but doing it well is very difficult without a reference colour chart.

Another problem is that I have not yet found a local developer that does an acceptable job. Even with the IR pass in the scanner, images end up with numerous scratches and spots that need a lot of tedious manual patching.

wpid2364-transienteye-barcelona-leica-m7.jpg

Instant Instagram colour! There are also more than 20 spot patches to fix developing blemishes in the sky…

So for me, colour film currently does not seem to give a good balance between the quality of the result and the effort required to achieve it.

Shooting People and using Shallow Depth of Field

Another consequence of shooting film has been my near complete failure to shooting anything that moves, particularly when the low winter light needs a fast aperture to get a reasonable shutter speed.

Barcelona

Shooting good street photography on film is very very hard – much more so than on digital.

Almost all of my attempts at street photography on film have so far been disasters. At least here in Barcelona, the situation changes rapidly enough that managing to achieve a sufficiently fast shutter speed and also obtaining accurate focus are extremely challenging.

Here, I find that film works can work against the learning process – though this depends on what you mean by “street photography”.

Las Ramblas, Barcelona

Street image from Las Ramblas, made from a composite of two film images in a failed attempt to get something more “spontaneous” while shooting film.

I think that it is possible to crudely divide street photography technique in to “composed” and “spontaneous” modes.

By the former I mean identifying a composition and background, setting up the camera and focus, and then waiting for a subject to be in the right position. This is definitely possible with film (for example, the lead image for this post), and again shooting film helps you focus on that composition. But there are many practical difficulties with this approach in Barcelona, ranging from the chaos of numerous tourists on the streets through to constantly changing conditions that mean the shot is more often lost than taken. It is also very hard to capture interesting emotional reactions in this way.

I much prefer the “spontaneous” style, where you spot something about to happen and move quickly to capture it. To do this I use a fast shutter speed and narrow aperture, which normally means a much higher ISO setting than is practical with film. It is also a technique that has a fairly high failure rate, making a digital camera a more practical tool.

Barcelona Kiss. Canon 5D mark III with 50mm f1.2L.

In contrast, more spontaneous street photographs seem to be much easier to take with digital cameras (here a DSLR)…

I have shot far fewer street images since using film, and those images that were not discarded are usually less interesting.

Film cameras vs Digital Cameras

Another consequence of shooting film has been the switch from shooting modern digital cameras to something older – in my case a mix of a 35 year old Minolta XDs and a 12 year old Leica M7.

From a purely physical perspective, both of these cameras are notable for compact, solid builds that are a tactile pleasure to hold and use. Both cameras are relatively modern, supporting manual and aperture-priority (and also shutter-priority in the Minolta, which is more sophisticated than any film Leica).

Both cameras use manual focussing. Surprisingly this has been a complete non-issue in real-world use, perhaps in part because most of the recent photographs have been taken with relatively slow lenses.

The Leica’s rangefinder works wonderfully and is easier and faster to use than a conventional SLR split-screen. Also nice is the silent and vibration-free shutter, which also helps reinforce the overall tactile feel of the camera. Unfortunately, I do not find the Leica particularly reliable: issues with film loading (including one unexposed film) and undependable metering circuitry have caused some annoying failures. In contrast, the much older Minolta seems better designed, more capable, and more reliable.

Both cameras are significantly smaller and lighter than  comparable DSLRs. Their zen-like simplicity mean that they seldom get in the way of taking a photograph, and the process of taking a photograph is much more enjoyable. I think that this is not unlike like the difference between playing a resonant musical instrument and a electronically synthesised alternative – while the latter may give a more technically perfect result, it is much less satisfying to play than something where the player is intimately connected.

What next?

It is quite clear that this experiment still has a long way to run – I think that there is a lot more still to learn by shooting with film. It is also clear that the more cautious and meditative style of shooting is also a lot more enjoyable, as is being able to carry a diminutive full-frame camera (although I am still not sure about the scanning, and even less sure if the results reflect the journey).

I think the next thing to really focus on is to try to figure out how to use the film cameras to get more engaging street photographs than have the case so far… something which I hope will become easier as the brighter summer months approach.

And lastly I think it would be sensible to try my own film processing. Hopefully this will both give better quality (after some practise!) and also make it possible to use push ISOs for some subjects…

Scooter, Barcelona. Leica M7 with Zeiss 2/35 and Ilford HP5+.

Obligatory cliché moody moped image to finish on. Taken with the equally clichéd Leica and Zeiss 2/35.

4 Comments »

  1. This is a brilliant post and a great ‘experiment’ I too have recently started to upload non-perfect images to my blog. It is a great learning experience to see where those mistakes arise as well as noticed the good in them. A great read :-)

    • Thanks! Whether you shoot film or digital, all that really matters is to think through what you shoot, and to keep on shooting…

  2. You have nicely summarised my own experiences with film, which I started shooting about a year ago. My scanner is much faster, but is still the main bottleneck in getting images into an electronic format. At your scanning rate you could probably print all of the best images in a darkroom in the same amount of time!

    I am about to embark on processing my own film, so the delay between taking the shot and viewing the result will be reduced, and the costs will be cut in half (depending on what film I use). I find it ironic that (non C41) black and white film is both more expensive to buy and to process than is colour, and slower to obtain results from as well.

  3. This is really interesting work. You’ll laugh, but I carried an M2, an M2R and an M4 with 21mm, 35mm, 90mm, 200mm and 400mm, shooting B&W and colour for years, earning a living doing it. I enjoyed reading you reflections and seeing your images. I’ll be back too. Thanks.