Process and technique inherently involve a multi-faceted approach to mastery. Categories including but not limited to technology, semiotics, physics, chemistry, sociology, psychology, history, economics, discipline, learning, teaching and many others all work together to create an image. Each of these could also be described as considerations before an image comes to exist. Ultimately, this means that hundreds, if not thousands of factors come together in a moment in which a point it time is captured in an intermediate form.
I am not stating here that all of these considerations need be carefully considered before, during and after each exposure of a photographic medium. Let content dictate methodology. But rather mastery of the craft of photography comes about from a broad understanding and reciprocity of each of these categories. An example of this could be a holiday photograph taken on a disposable 35mm film camera. Although these cameras are perfectly capable of capturing beautiful images approaching perfection, the end game here is to capture a memory, with artistry mostly a secondary consideration. This is fine. Not everyone that drives a car enjoys it or tries to become a master, but it's nonetheless a very common occurrence.
What we observe here is day-to-day general photography where any old film will do. What I am referring to from here on out is photography balanced in approach towards a pursuit of perfection. An art of photography that is comprised of all of the many considerations that are imperative to making fine images of whatever it is you may. Each of these factors may be used in any combination in unlimited complexity. They may also be used independently as a point of focus and study. An image that is to be considered great, however, can usually be described as striking an almost perfect balance of every consideration imaginable. Most importantly though, a great life tenant to follow: the number of murders you have committed should equal the number of fucks given about what people think of your work at all times. Don't stab people, love what you do, be humble. Perfection is a moment in time and an opinion in equal measure but most importantly here, only matters from your own perspective.
In this first instalment of the series of ramblings: Process, I will cover film choices dictated by subject matter. Or, chronologically speaking, the first bit between waking up and picking up a camera.
The Beginning: Selecting film or selecting a subject?
Before we've even thought about a camera I'm hungry to make a film selection and sometimes want to make it my first priority. In all cases we find that the consideration of subject almost always comes up first. Style should always be dictated by the photographers interpretation of the content - keeps it original. Subject is a persistent and sadistic little bitch that will always lead you to make choices and then punish you for making the wrong ones. It is also the result of inspiration, or it's absence resulting from a lack of, as we all to commonly know. If you find yourself never having a choice of film, you don't keep enough film on your person. Simple. Expect a guide to a health film fridge at some point soon.
My first example subject dictating film choice is as follows: If I am about to take a six day and five night trip across central Europe my subjects are both already decided and completely random. If I have made an itinerary of stops, made up of people and places, I can say with confidence I know a fair amount of what I'll be shooting for subject matter and also a pretty good idea of what available light I'll be dealing with. Film is way more versatile than people think when dealing with low light.
Here we saw subject dictated by location and people, and chronological structure of events. We can now begin to choose the film we want to shoot and also the end results we hope to achieve from the intermediates we create.
It's important to note here that from the moment you push down on that shutter button to the print up on a wall or on a screen your images are going to change form a considerable number of times. Having the best possible resolution and quality throughout each step maximises the options you have for an end result. There is no exception to this rule and if you go crying to a lab that your twenty by thirty inch print looks shit because you used a fifty pound, four megapixel scanner to produce an eight bit jpeg file then lost the negatives you're a fool, more on this later too.
Lastly, if you feel the need to choose film first, that's also fine. Do what you want. Just don't complain when your PanF wasn't the best choice for low light action photography unless it was the last roll you had left. In this scenario, get creative!
SELECTING A FILM STOCK: Don't just shoot shit film.
I run a photography and print shop for my day to day and so many people ask me how they can improve their film photography game. My first response is almost always stop shooting shit film with shit gear. There's a lot more to it than this but that's a really important part of shooting film and a very common reason why people choose to use it: you have a HUGE number of possible renditions of the image you are capturing.
I am not going to make a list of poor quality films, and I'm certainly not suggesting that people don't use them. I use plenty of low grade film myself for a whole host of different reasons. The point I am making is that if you shoot the same £3.99 roll of film day in and day out you're asking me why your pictures aren't improving; lack of medium diversity could be your answer. Cheap film is also almost always going to be the place where people's film adventures start, it's cheap. Simple.
When choosing higher quality films, however, there is a whole host of information that helps guide us when choosing film, below are some of the more important traits of film to consider when choosing.
Colour Print / Black and White / Colour Positive
These are the three most common types of film available on the market and each has a few specialist sub-categories. Each of them has its own distinct characteristics and also vary in results greatly within their own families.
A number associated with film known as ISO relates to how sensitive the film stock is to light. The higher the value, the better suited it is for darker environments and/or a faster shutter speed can be used in comparison to a lower ISO value film in the same scenario. The higher the ISO value, the more grainy an image will be, the lower it is, the sharper the image will be and with less grain. Other terms for ISO that are similar but not identical are ASA or EI.
Colour print is the most common of the three overall. Other names include C-41, colour neg/negative or print film. It is developed in C-41 chemistry and is readily developed in almost all photographic and print retailers with built in labs. These are the negatives that are orange in colour and carry an inverted image. This image is then either optically enlarged using specialist equipment or scanned and inverted whilst removing the orange cast, again using specialist equipment. This film tends to have the highest versatility for over and under exposure but isn't widely pushed or pulled due to the perceived complexity of the process and the need in most cases to do this by hand. Most labs use large developing machines that have pre-set temperatures and chemistry and are designs to smash out 50+ rolls an hour. For these reasons C-41 films are almost always rated at their box speed for development.
In terms of the print / image making process, the colour accuracy and quality of the image is greatly dependant on the skill and experience of the individual, especially when trying to scan colour neg film to draw a comparison between two different colour neg film stocks as most scanners and individuals correct for best colour balance. Also, contrary to the above statement on shooting box speeds, some shooters choose to rate their colour print film at a different EI to that of the box speed. This is to increase or decrease possible contrast and saturation in the print / scan stage. Due to the film's high dynamic range and room for error, great results can be made from this type of film even with considerable deviation from recommended exposure. In tests where we see film shot at different box speeds for different saturation but the SAME brightness: this is a trick of an experienced scanner and shows all images normalised in terms of luma but not colour saturation.
Black and white is the second most commonly used type of film, black and white is just straight up black and white film. There is such as thing as black and white positive film but it's incredibly rarely used and exists almost exclusively as a motion picture intermediate and copying film. Here I refer to black and white negative film only. This film has almost as good a versatility as colour print film in terms of exposure latitude, or as referred to earlier: dynamic range, but not quite. It does, as the name would suggest, only capture a black and white negative image without any immediate colour information. This film does actually record colour, technically speaking, but different wave lengths are converted into different densities dependant on the film. For example two rolls of differing manufacture but same speed (ISO) and same type (ie. panchromatic) could render the same colour red as different tones of grey. It is because of these differences, and the way different colours are recorded at different densities on a single type of film, that optical colour filters play a large part in the capture of an image.
I wont delve into the topics of colour wheels and light filtration here, or probably at all, but common sense prevails. If we put a red piece of glass in front of the camera lens, blue skies will appear darker as less blue light is transmitted, whereas skin blemishes and spots disappear as red light it let through in abundance in comparison to other colours. This type of film can also be pushed and pulled. Which is, without lack of a better term, fucking dope. You're walking down the street, it's sunny, you've got five or six rolls of HP5+ in your bag. No sweat. Pop that roll into your camera and set your meter / the camera to ISO 100. Shoot as if it is 100. You have 100 speed film now. That was great wasn't it? But it's getting real dark real quick, and that carnival would be a great place to shoot some street but you don't have any super fast film! Or do you? Slap that bad-boy roll of HP5+ into the camera and set it 1600. Fuck it - 3200. Shoot away. No problem. Because black and white film is usually a two or three chemical process its incredibly easy to do at home with very little upfront cost. It also means that the variables of the chemistry are open for deliberation, unlike the mostly machine based developing process of C-41 film. If I want to over develop a roll of black and white from EI 400 to EI 3200 I can simply adjust the development times and temperatures, in fact I can shoot most black and white films at a variety of speeds, some more successfully that others. Best way to find out what does what? Google. You should try it, it's really good.(Although seriously, the Massive Dev Chart is the best resource in my opinion).
In terms of print and scan making, most black and white film is pretty forgiving, even if you accidentally cook your dev because you're blazed out of your mind at four in the morning wandering why your timer has been going off for the last five minutes. A well scanned negative has a huge amount of latitude for bringing the desired contrast and tone to fruition during the inversion process for screen and digital print applications, although colour print film has a great latitude too, it's worth noting that if we take the digital scanning point of view, digital noise (that appears when boosting the shadows in a colour image) is way less sexy than noise or grain that is more easily perceived in black and white images, this is also why I work in greyscale colour spaces with the digital intermediates.
Basically, Technology is really fucking important, no matter how much of a hippy artist you want to be. Ignoring technology is ignorant and stupid. I dislike digital methods of image capturing in the moment but I still know them and their processes inside out because I give a shit about everything photography. We're all trying to become masters after all.
Colour slide film is now, and incredibly sadly so, the least used of the three most common film types but is still very readily available and can still be developed with ease if you don't mind either a small wait or a possibly long drive. Colour slide film is also responsible for my best and most invigorating photographic viewing experience to date, which I will get onto in a minute. It is also know as colour reversal film, colour positive film and simply slide film.
Colour slide film as we know it was pioneered by Kodak in the 1930s using an additive method of processing in which the dye couplers were added in the development process, this also made it a rather long chemical process. This, combined with the now known toxicity of the chemicals used in the process, gave rise to a new type of slide film. Modern E6 chemistry reversal film can be developed in a far simpler 6 bath process due to dye couplers being present in the film already, as with C-41, but requires a high degree of chemical temperature control. The original purpose of 35mm slide film was for projection using a projector. Today the scanning of slide film is extremely commonplace due to the resurgence of film use and the inevitable decay of the billions of slides all over the world giving rise to a need to digitise physical libraries of lifetimes of memories. Scanning slide film can sometimes prove more difficult than scanning other formats due to its low dynamic range and low tolerance for incorrect or adequate exposure. Colour accuracy and brilliance seen in reversal film far exceeds that of colour print films and makes it a popular choice for landscape photographers and fine art photographers. I'd finish here by saying just shoot a few rolls and see what you think. I love the stuff, and I also own a projector. I recommend you do the same. You're welcome in advance.
In terms of cost, slide film is the most expensive by far. The development chemicals or processing cost on average more than C-41 and black and white development. It's harder to scan and even harder to work with if the exposure is even slightly off. If you've blown those highlights it's going to look shit. With the negative types of film, if you over expose, you get far more dense negatives which can be dealt with up to a certain point. The fact is, you have leeway with the other types, there's no mercy here. Plus it's going to cost you time and money. One final downside (though there are plenty more) is that it's next to useless in low light without flash or a lot of artificial light unless you are a particularly seasoned photographer with a great working knowledge of the entire process, start to finish. If this is your first time shooting film, let this be your work towards goal if you love travel photography: being able to use slide film as a general film in all lighting conditions. It can be done. I promise.
Despite all of the above I still love to shoot slide film. I love the colours, I love to project it and it's just magical. Even if it's a bitch to work with.
Left: Man enters the water. Faro Beach. 2016
Right: Abdel jumps in the sand. Faro Beach 2016. Both Velvia 100.
SELECTING A SUBJECT: Does it make you feel anything? No? Put the camera the fuck down and move on. And other short stories.
This is the tricky bit. The really really tricky bit. In a travel scenario you don't get, for the most part, to pick and choose. I mean, you do, you get to sculpt the scene in front of you and choose what is left within the frame, what angle you choose to capture the light from. Maybe the choice to include or even centralise a traveling companion or new acquaintance. In these situations we select a subject and a frame in seconds, sometimes milliseconds. Even though our film choices were based on a set of assumptions that we adequately prepared for, it's still really damn tricky. This is the subject in the moment of capture, not just an as an idea to be studied objectively at a moment prior to this one.
Lets take a case study into account here. Above and to the right is a photograph taken on Fujifilm Velvia 100, 135 format. The picture was taken using a Nikon F100 and a Nikkor 50mm Af-D 1.4 lens. Metering was set to evaluative with a neutral exposure compensation in Aperture priority. All of these points are necessary here to explain every decision made in preparation and execution of this image. Firstly, before flying out to Faro I new I would presented with an elaborate range of scenes and subject matters. Sunsets in other countries always make for a stunning image, albeit a very touristy thing to do. For some evening shoots I chose to carry Velvia as there would be enough light to handle low speed, low dynamic range slide film, as well as an abundance of highly saturated colours. For images like the one on the left of the case study image, this is a perfect film choice. With the case study image we have movement and strong backlighting. This subject was prepared for, but requires not only a good eye and subject matter, but a more intricate understanding of the entire process, unlike your typical general holiday photographs. Decisions made in the moment unfolded as follows:
1. Abdel (subject of photograph) jumps up from the wooden decking and down onto the beach, kicking up sand in the process.
2. My eye catches the light reflecting from the sand left in the wake of the jump, causing my consideration to capture a photograph.
3. Abdel turns to face me, knowing full well I'm about to take a picture, half due to knowing me, half as a response to me subconsciously lifting the camera in a state of readiness.
3. Metering: Evaluative. Backlight is bright enough to force silhouetting due to Nikon F100s ability to exposure perfectly for the highlights in a high contrast scene. In this case a silhouette is desirable as this is my intended effect and also because skin tones look shit on Velvia.
4. Aperture priority mode is already selected, meaning no settings will need to be changed and I will not have to read the meter to know the exposure will be correct from both experience and hope. In fully manual mode I would have to check my meter through the viewfinder before shooting, wasting time and increasing room for error under pressure.
5. As i bring the camera up to my eye I set the lens aperture to f2. Two thirds up from wide open. This is to try and encourage edge to edge sharpness and try to reduce chromatic aberration in high contrast areas of the silhouette. I did not stop down further as to ensure a sufficiently high shutter speed is selected by the camera (compromise number one).
6. Abdel jumps, kicks up sand and I shoot at the point in which I feel he reaches the zenith of his jump, maybe a millisecond before. Because of the cost of the film, I do not take another shot of the same thing (compromise number two).
In this case study there is a relationship between film choice, subject choice, technology and compromise as well as many other considerations that go into a capture of the moment.
I chose my subject based on what I found to be visually interesting at the time. I knew there would be beautiful colours and high contrast light which made me choose to shoot Velvia. As I was shooting a low speed, high saturation slide film I new that a well exposed shot of my subject was out of the question as the film couldn't handle the contrast. I chose to expose for the highlights (recurring theme eh?). If I had chosen a colour negative film I could have exposed for skin tones a little better, the dynamic range would have most likely let me see the person's details AND the colours of the sunset in the same exposure. In addition to this, I could have taken the shot three times, as C-41 film is roughly one third to half the price of slide film. I would not have achieved such accurate and saturated colours without digital enhancement of the negative had I shot C-41 however. Here, Velvia did an incredible job of capturing the colours and despite it being low speed, was perfectly adequate to capture fast movement in combination with the camera and lens to hand. This was due to preparation in the form of choosing a subject and researching potential subject matter. In other words preparation. And, despite having to compromise my shutter speed (due to slide films ability to blow the highlights easily) and also my framing (Abdel's feet, ideally, would have been above the horizon line but I didn't want to repeat shoot) I was very happy with the results from the whole roll.
The photograph was actually harder to take due to my choice in film and through the discipline of not wanting to create waste (a central truth of shooting film), there was more pressure in the moment to get it right. But despite this the image was exactly what I wanted to capture and other types of film would not, I feel, have done the scene justice. This, I feel, is a good thing and makes you a better photographer in the long run but approach with caution initially. Technologically speaking the fact that I knew the camera and lens in my hands and the way they would respond to both my film choice and the light at hand was a huge advantage and when looked at as part of the image making journey, is part of the initial synergy of subject, film medium, light and tool. I'm not saying this image is perfect here and there are many things I would change about it, all I am suggesting is that film is our chosen response to the subjects we knew we would be encountering. Own it. Don't take the easy way out.
My final point here is that no matter what film and what subject you choose, just go for it. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. This is all for fun, it's all for us and it's all for you. Some films are ideal for some scenarios, other films are ideal for certain looks. These two are never mutually exclusive. Experiment, practice, take notes, fail and then get better.
The next essay I write will be tehcno-centric and will look at equipment choices for capturing images, their pros and cons in the field and the product in mind as an output. As you can see from the above example, the actual camera and lens combination that was in my hands at the time had a huge part to play in the decision making tree when capturing the image in the moment. They are just a few more considerations to take into account when striving to become a master of photography. For now however, we can now make strong choices when selecting film stocks in preparation for our subjects as we encounter them, next stop: CAMERAS.
Afterthoughts: Please note, I am aware that I do not comment on the semiotic and aesthetic reasons we choose different film stocks and subjects. That will be its own ongoing essay as I make sense of the world around me and what photographs mean within it. This, and views change. This will reflect how I felt about the subject at the time the essay was written, it may not necessarily reflect how I currently feel about the subject. Opinions are meant to be challenged, not dug in.