It’s something I’ve been toying with for a while. Actually, a very long while. As a ‘dyed-in-the-wool’ digital shooter I just wasn't sure analog life would suit me. After all, I’m used to the mod cons of histograms, image review and Auto ISO. And by investing in good glass I’ve grown accustomed to a clarity and sharpness in my work that frankly looks fantastic both on screen and in print. Add to this mix the VSCO Portra Lightroom presets and I surely have the best of both worlds… film-like colours with digital convenience.
Despite this I couldn’t shake the niggling feeling that I should give film a try. Simulated film presets get you most of the way there in terms of analog tonality but, to my eyes, still not close enough. On top of this, you can get some supremely wonderful pro-grade film cameras for comparatively little money on eBay… although in fairness this can be a bit of a lottery with potential pitfalls aplenty.
So here are the pros and cons of shooting film as I see them:
- Oh the colour!
- Can get a medium format rig for relatively little money, something I’m definitely not doing digitally this side of Christmas
- It would be an educational adventure into unknown photographic territory
- Astonishing highlight control. You just can’t blow your highlights on colour negs it seems.
- Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention those breathtaking film colours & tones
- Each press of the shutter costs money
- I’ve already got a digital workflow that works and, most of the time, I get near enough to the results I want
- I’ll admit it now: I’m like a spoilt child after a shoot… I’m pant-wettingly desperate to review the results the instant I get home. I’m just not sure I could cope with the wait for film to be developed.
- Not as convenient as digital shooting
- Loss of some of the clinical IQ of digital - although depending on your point of view this can also be a pro.
To sum up, it’s essentially all about those filmic colours that are giving me the itch I can’t scratch… and no, yoghurt didn’t work either.
Despite pondering the move for some time, previously I’ve always decided to stick with what I know best. So why the leap into the unknown now? The reasons I’ve been pushed over the edge are twofold; Firstly my technique over the past couple of years has improved hugely, with the biggest jump being after the purchase of a tripod about a year ago. Therefore where I was reliant on high ISOs before, now I largely shoot at base ISO even at night so we are firmly in fine-grain film territory. Secondly, and probably most importantly, I used to return from a days shooting with 100 or so different shots on the SD card. I still often return home with about 100 digital images to process but now they are only of 6 or 7 differing subjects and I cherry-pick the best captures. I’m much better at sorting the wheat from the chaff before pressing the shutter button. Altogether this has led to a much slower, methodical pace to my shooting… a pace which, you guessed it, suits film.
So despite the potential negatives, I decided to take the plunge… and if it turns out it’s not for me I can pop it back on eBay from whence it came.
Next decision, what system to go for. I wanted great IQ, and something complementary to my DSLR. Medium format would tick both boxes but I also didn’t want a huge camera so it looked like the SLRs were out. I quickly honed in on a MF rangefinder as it would give me a different style of shooting and the lenses are tiny, even compared to most full frame DSLR glass.
- Mamiya 6 - Although I like 1x1 aspect ratio I didn’t want to be confined solely to that.
- Fuji (various) - From previous experience I know Fuji makes exceptional glass but as far as I’m aware their MF rangefinders are all fixed FL lenses, and I’d rather greater flexibility.
- Bronica RF645 - It looks like a wonderful camera but if I’m going MF I want the biggest negs I can get so 6 x 4.5 cm isn’t top of my shopping list.
- So on to the Mamiya 7 system. 6 x 7 cm negs. Straightforward operation. And best of all it seems to have some exceptional glass at the wider end of the scale - huge tick! The hunt was over.
Thanks to the advice from two Flickerite Toms (Invernodreaming and Photom) and my old friend Mark Heaver (MrHeaver), I had what I needed to start browsing for the camera. Tom Invernodreaming suggested I invest in the cleanest copy I could - this sounded like sage advice as I was going to buy a camera that is 20 years old, with few options of repair if something goes wrong. Photom gave me the insider knowledge on the Mamiya (he shoots a 7ii) so I knew I was eyeing-up a fine piece of equipment. Marks tuppence, as a long time Leica shooter, was the reassurance that the rangefinder works well in low light… an important consideration for me. When a mint condition / boxed Mamiya 7 and 65mm f4 appeared on eBay I knew it was the one. BIN :)
I waited patiently (something I don’t do well, as noted above) for the package to arrive from Japan. After being stung for about £200 import tax it took the total cost to £1150 for the set- up. I knew I could’ve got the camera / lens cheaper but it really was in ‘as new’ condition, so felt this was a fair outlay.
At last it was time to load some Portra and embark on a shoot… with silver halide.
I found the Mamiya to be simplicity itself to use. All the trappings of modern photography are absent leaving a camera with purified gestalt principles on show. In turn this virtually renders the instruction manual redundant. Once the shutter speed and aperture are set (the ISO is of course static corresponding to the loaded film speed), there is a meter reading in the viewfinder that indicates the correct shutter speed for your chosen aperture on the lens. Given that the camera employs a leaf shutter in its lenses, you can easily hand hold the camera at 1/15th second with good technique. So we have a user friendly experience that produces large negatives. Super.
Another aspect that was new(ish) to me was using the rangefinder. I’d shot a few frames on various Leica’s in the past, but never owned a RF. It turns out to be very easy to use. You just manually focus the lens until both the focus patch and the RF patch in the viewfinder align and thats it. The proof was in the pudding, with 10 exposures perfectly in focus on the first roll of negatives… well make that 7 as I had forgotten to take the lens cap off for 3 frames. As the viewfinder isn’t ‘Through The Lens’ there is no indicator that the cap is on or off and therefore you just need to build this check into your process of setting up a shot. I have gotten better at remembering this but nonetheless this is a niggling frustration I have with the rangefinder that continues to rear its ugly head on occasion.
It is also worth mentioning that the accuracy of the frame lines usually include more of the scene than they suggest. According to the manual it is 100% at closest focus, reducing down to 83% at infinity. This phenomenon has actually led to some happy accidents, with unintentional objects appearing in the negative but improving the overall piece. Of course one can crop to the originally intended composition if the additional scenery detracts from the final image.
In terms of exposing the photo, there is a vast amount of latitude with colour negative film, particularly in the highlights, so use this to your advantage. In fact it is the exact opposite of digital photography, where highlights are easily blown but shadows can usually be lifted to reveal detail in a RAW file. When loading the film, I tend to meter / overexpose the image by a stop or so by setting the film speed on the camera at ISO 200 when I shoot with 400 film. Also I meter for the shadows to ensure there is always detail there, as I know that the highlights look after themselves. I have invested in a handheld meter (Sekonic L358), but find the readings from the cameras meter (somewhere between centre-weighted and spot) to be similar… I just point the focus patch or light meter at the darkest point of the scene and use that reading for the exposure settings. Easy.
The protracted wait for the the negs to be developed and scanned was something I wasn’t sure I’d like (I’m a child about this, remember?). Compared with the digital workflow, I am forced to defer my gratification, but that building anticipation turns out to be something I genuinely relish... and the excitement is frankly at boiling point by the time I pick up the negatives. Shooting film is an extremely enjoyable process and it’s making me a better human being.
So what did I think when I finally received the first set of developed film back from the lab? This key question will be covered in my next blog when I’ll attempt to tackle one of the biggest photographic questions of our time: Film vs Digital… stay tuned!
Please note: This blog was originally started in 2016, but thanks to Chris Simonsen for inspiration to finish the bloody thing.