Analog Project - Portraits: Using Film Over Digital

I wanted to take a moment to write about some of my thoughts on my new photography project. Recently I decided to try a new approach to my portraits, going analog, shooting film. As many of you may know, I shoot digital, it’s been that way since I started photography. That’s been going very well and I’ve built a very solid portfolio. Many people seem to be impressed anyway, and I thank you all for your support. I’ve been asking myself a very simple question lately though, and that’s, "why am I always having to spend so much time trying to get my photos to look right or look the way I want them to look?" I shoot mostly with daylight balanced light or natural light and most of the time have my camera’s white balance set to daylight, shade or cloudy (not that that matters all that much since I shoot RAW, but I digress) and while the photos look similar, I see and feel a lot of inconsistency. I will admit, it could be my eyes. I have a very hard time color correcting and creating a consistent color grade. I can get one photo to look the way I want it to look but then the big challenge for me is to match another photo with that same look. Transferring adjustment layers from one file to the next is not nearly enough, it’s never perfectly matched and there’s always some tweaking involved and I’ve finally conceded to the fact that I can’t get it right. Maybe I need some formal education on the topic but as of now, it’s not happening.

I struggled with this for a long time, if you look at my portfolio, I don’t have any editorials because like I said, I can’t get a consistent look between images. I feel like this struggle has finally ended and having my work professionally color corrected by a lab is how I’ve fixed this problem.

It started about a month ago after I was inspired to pick up a used medium format camera with the intention to later add on a digital back. Searching ebay, I thought about getting a Mamiya RB67 until finally settling on the newer RZ67, mainly because the 110mm F/2.8 lens looked incredible and with the electronic shutter it won’t work on the RB (I also picked up a 50mm and 250mm but find myself almost always using the 110mm, it’s just magical). Upon receiving it, looking down into the waist level viewfinder, I knew right away that this was going to be amazing. I’d never seen anything like it, huge, bright and three dimensional. 3D because you can keep both eyes open, so you still have depth perception. I didn’t plan on getting a digital back anytime soon, they cost obscene amounts of money, even used, so I thought, I may as well try some film on the thing.

Initial use was very simple, the camera is completely manual and as basic as it gets, shutter speed, aperture, focus, click. With no built in metering, I had to rely on my handheld Sekonic L-358  light meter, a piece of equipment that had been sitting around collecting dust for the past 9 or 10 years. I was a little skeptical about it’s accuracy but after a couple of polaroids, it turns out that it was still working like a champ. It is very intimidating trying to go from so much technology (Canon 6D, auto focus lenses, matrix metering, variable ISO, variable color temp settings, etc) down to something so basic and fundamental. You have to trust the light meter, shoot, and hope (eventually with experience, no need for hope) that that photo came out ok. I was especially worried considering I got the camera on ebay and the polaroids, Fuji FP100C, were not really a great way to gauge sharpness and focus accuracy. It would be 2 weeks after sending my first rolls of film into Indie Film Lab before finally knowing that I had a good, working camera. Luckily, I did. I ended up shooting about 10 or 12 rolls in the 2 weeks while waiting, so the possibility of having screwed up all those rolls was there but I didn’t care, I had to use the camera, it’s such a lovely experience. 

Fuji FP100C Instant Film

Fuji FP100C Instant Film

Fuji FP100C Instant Film

Fuji FP100C Instant Film

Fuji FP100C Instant Film

Fuji FP100C Instant Film

The first couple of photo sessions, I was very uncomfortable using the set up. You’re forced to slow down and I was double and even triple checking exposure settings with the light meter, then click the shutter button and say “ok, I think I got that.” Very uncomfortable feeling, but the more I streamlined the process, the more I enjoyed slowing down and the more I started to trust the meter. I read that color negative film has great dynamic range (in fact, I had no idea what dynamic range really meant until I saw this range) so even if you overexpose by 2 stops (even 3 stops), you’re not going to ruin the image (I also learned that you should error on the side of overexposure.) After being out with the camera on a few shoots, I really started to see the image before capturing it, it’s as if I had the preview on the back of a digital camera. I knew I got it. I also liked the fact that I could remember every single photograph that I took, there’s no such thing as over shooting or shooting just to shoot when every click of the shutter button is now costing you 2-3 bucks and there’s only 10 shots per roll on 6x7. I now find it a much easier process shooting film than it is shooting digital. There’s so much less to think about, technically, and far less camera options, which leaves you with more creative brain power and energy to direct your subjects. Find yourself some good light, take some photos and create a story!

Waiting on Indie Film Lab to develop, scan and color correct the images taught me some much needed lessons in patience. I’m a pretty patient guy as it is but in today’s world of instant gratification, 2 weeks seems like an eternity. I wasn’t down though, it was worth the wait and the day I received my first set of scans, I was a little mind blown (pretty much every time I get that email saying my scans are ready.) Accurate colors, consistent grade between photos, detail in highlights like I’ve never seen before, depth of field like I’ve never seen before, what was this? The twilight zone? Needless to say, I was extremely happy with the results (and relieved knowing that I didn’t screw up.) The photos needed little to no time in photoshop, a couple contrast adjustments, some dodging and burning, healing brush here and there and it was practically all set. I haven’t had to do any major skin retouching at all, something that I absolutely despise doing with digital photos. I’m not trying to knock digital, it’s a great medium, the resolution and clarity and detail are so very good but sometimes you don’t want all of that. Digital always manages to bring out blemishes and skin imperfections that you can’t even see in the mirror, yourself, with your own eyes, it’s crazy. I find that with film, it resolves the important stuff, it preserves the memory more as it should be remembered. Ok, sure, I’m shooting young people with great skin but if you pick something like this up, you’ll see what I mean. Go try shooting some film!

Fuji Pro 400H - RZ67 with 110mm at F/4

Fuji Pro 400H - RZ67 with 110mm at F/4

In short, don’t be scared, it was very intimidating at first to leave all the technology behind but once I got going, this process became very comfortable, especially after getting scans back from the lab. Confidence shot right up. By slowing down and trusting the gear and settings, it allows you to be more creative and focus more on the story that you're trying to tell with your photographs. Sure, it takes more work up front, before pressing the shutter button, but once you click that button, you know if you got the shot or not, at least I do. I’m very happy I started on this journey, now film is all I want to shoot. I don’t have any desire to shoot portraits with my DSLR at all, mainly because of the editing that has to be done afterwards. I’d rather have the lab take care of all of that, I’d rather be shooting than sitting in front of a screen any day!

In the photos above, I experimented with different film stocks so there's going to be some subtle inconsistencies in color between some of the shots, it's a combination of Kodak Portra and Fuji 400H.