I am Dan Dao and this is why I shoot film
Today’s interviewee has been posting video reviews product, guides, manuals for film cameras, information on film stocks and all things analogue on Youtube since 2011 and shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. I’m so glad to bring you the words and pictures of Dan Dao!
Over to you, Dan!
Hi Dan, what’s this picture then?
DD: My brother was 12 in this photo, I was 18. I didn’t develop the images till I was 24. It’s the moment after the candles are lit and the moment before they are blown out. I’ve always been drawn to moments like this, the in-between-stuff full of anticipation. I love the fact it looks really organic and timeless. I always go back to this image when I think about why I love photography and film.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
DD: I’m Dan Dao, if you Google me you’ll find knives, someone who works in public health, someone who makes videos on YouTube and someone who takes pictures of people getting tattoos. I like getting a little lost in projects and making things so it was natural for me to make videos and take photos. In the end I’m trying to find ways to connect with people around me and hopefully make really cool stuff.
When did you start shooting film and what drives you to keep shooting?
DD: I was able to find some pretty amazing cameras in Kansas thrift shops. I had obtained a Yashica T4 and took it on a trips in North America where I was able to get some really fun snap shots. I then started to make videos of the cameras and stopped shooting film for 4-5 years. I came back to film when I moved to Texas and wanted to focus on my photography more. I had all these film cameras that hadn’t been touched and just started shooting with them . My drive now is to make up for lost time.
I was really lucky I stumbled across David Hurn’s On Being a Photographer. He had a really clear message, pick a topic and go out and really explore it. I chose tattoos and murals and now I know what to shoot when I leave the house. It allowed me to have small goals and big goals with my photography which is extremely fun.
Who or what influenced your photography when you first started out and who continues to influence you today?
DD: When I first started out shooting seriously I was really into David Hobby and the Strobist community. There was a big focus on portraits and learning lighting and I went out to shoot portraits of friends and family. The thing I really enjoyed about that period was that people were using my portraits for their Facebook profiles and even at a funeral. It was fun to see people enjoy my work.
Right now two photographers really inspire me. Rinko Kawauchi and her book Utante is such an amazing mix of editing and subject matter. It’s like The Pixies record soft and loud at the same time. The other photographer is Stephen Gill and his book Field Studies. It’s repetitive images of specific situations, people on a train and people listening to personal stereos.
Somehow it’s really dorky, inspirational and anthropological at the same time. Definitely fire up those books on Youtube if you haven’t seen them.
Are you a mixed medium photographer? What drives your choice to use film or digital from one day to the next?
DD: I’m 95% film. The only time I don’t shoot film is when I only have my phone or run out of film. If I could shoot nothing but film I would. The reason I love film so much is because it’s pretty limiting, you have 24 or 36 shots, you’re stuck at one ISO and with a manual camera you’re making all the decisions. Everyone has heard it a million times but it slows you down and makes you think.
I am also drawn to the fact that you can really mess up and not know it. I pay for my processing and scanning so anytime I get a bad roll back it stings a bit. That kind of pressure for me is pretty fun and drives me a bit more than if I was able to sit there and shoot forever onto a 128GB SD card.
I use digital out of convenience, when I need the images right now. That’s pretty rare for the kind of stuff I do so unless I’m in a bind I’m trying to shoot film.
What’s your next challenge, your next step? How do you see yourself improving your technique? What aspect of your photography would you like to try and master in the next 12 months?
DD: My next step is make a book. I’ve taken a bunch of pictures these past two years of the murals and tattoo shops and need to put them into something cohesive that isn’t an Instagram page. That’s a mistake I’ve made in the past and really want to fix. It’s ok to shoot a lot of pictures but I want to be building towards something.
In terms of technique I want to be able to move beyond the main subject and fill out my work with the details and texture of the subject, like video B Roll. For me it’s a technique because it’s not something I naturally do. If I’m taking pictures of murals I just take pictures of murals but can I add the other details of Austin to round out the picture. It’s a lot like the shot sheets Roy Stryker would give out to the FSA photographers.
Another thing I want to master is portraits again. I’d really like to do a series that copies Irving Penn’s portraits just to copy his style and technique. They are pretty intimate moments which I really enjoyed. I miss having that kind of interaction as a photographer and a sitter.
Do you have a subject matter or style you always find yourself being drawn to? Why?
DD: People always say my stuff looks natural. I try not to pose things or make them look too processed. I’m not consciously going for that look but it comes out again and again. In terms of subject matter, I enjoy taking pictures of intimate moments: someone getting a tattoo, people being together, generally quiet moments.
The stuff I love in other’s work is always those subtle details, the way someone looks at someone else or a little detail in the background. I’m always trying to find little things like that in my photographs.
You have 2 minutes to prepare for an unknown assignment. You can take one camera, one lens, two films and you have no idea what you’ll be shooting. What to you take with you and why?
DD: Easy. Nikon FM 50mm f/1.8, ILFORD HP5+ and Fuji X-TRA Superia 400. If you follow me on Twitter or my Youtube channel these answers are probably boring by now. I think any good fully mechanical camera with a 50mm lens can’t really be beat.
ILFORD HP5+ is such a great B&W film as well, I always push to 1600 and it’s versatile for indoors and outdoor.s For color I like cheap films and Fuji X-TRA Superia 400 to me is what color film should look like, a bit contrasty and oversaturated. I could shoot those combos for the rest of my life and be totally happy.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location for the rest of your life. What do you take, were do you go and why?
DD: I’d load up on ILFORD HP5+ and go to Tokyo and pick a subject I could get easily obsessed with like sushi restaurants. I just really enjoyed Tokyo and I thought it was and endless place of stuff, people and consumerism. You can find anything there. That could lead to really great projects and pictures. I’m also a sucker for crowds.
You can never use film again. What s your last roll of film, where and how will you expose it and why?
DD: The last roll. If that was the case it’d be HP5 again, I’d go on a family trip and ask to take everyones portraits and one of us all together. As much as I love projects and things, if you aren’t using your camera to capture the most important things in your life you’re missing out. To have my family captured on the format I love most one last time would be really meaningful.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about film photography today and how would you set it straight?
DD: The biggest misconception is that it’s a hipster thing. I’m not sure that term has much weight anymore but even though it’s niche compared to digital photography those people who are really into it are a super diverse community.
Look at film photography on twitter and it’s really hard to find a common demographic trait other than people who enjoy using film. That’s my favorite thing about it, people of all ages and generations and really diverse backgrounds.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
DD: I think it’s growing. The fact more film stocks are being introduced is shocking to me. This was supposed to be a dead format. I think the real tipping point is when a company is smart enough to make new 35mm cameras. I think the market will be extremely niche and expensive at first but I really can’t wait for it to happen.
There’s also some amazing communities out there right now like the film photography community on Twitter. It’s the most supportive and friendly bunch of people I’ve ever seen on the web and everyone is actively pushing each other to shoot images and share.
As long as groups like that exists the future of film should be great.
~ Dan Dao
Creators of all kinds inevitably struggle with direction and a sense of “staying true”. For some, this struggle is the fuel that lights the fire of their creativity, for others it’s a nagging pang of doubt as to the nature and true value of what it is they’re doing. The Struggle can come regardless of if you’re in the business of creating a physical product, a digital one, writing words on a page or yes, making a photograph. It can strike before success or after. It sees no barrier and can put dings in the most steadfastly confident people.
Over the past few weeks I’ve had a number of conversations with creators about The Struggle and whilst I don’t have a cureall to share with you I can tell you one or two things which have helped me here and there:
Center yourself. Doubt can come for many reasons but you’re best off trying to first learn why it has struck, rather than dealing with it in a hasty, ill informed manner. Are you trying something new? Is it not working? Are you disappointed with your recent output? Taking a step back to understand the reason why you’re feeling the way you are is as important as the action you take (or not), to relieve yourself of it.
Talk to people. If you don’t have an inner circle of people you can talk to about your situation, make one. Reach out to those who you feel might have the same challenges as you. Odds are they have, or have encountered those challenges and will likely be both happy and able to help.
Introspection. Are you still creating for the same reasons you originally had when you started? It doesn’t matter if you aren’t but you need to ask yourself if what you are doing still has the same value to you today, as it did when you first started.
Understand cost. Everything has a cost: time, money, relationships, reputation; and each of those costs should be seriously weighted. Trust me, there is no such thing as “at all costs”, not in the long term.
Finally, think about the opportunity. What is easily obtained is never easily kept and (in my opinion at least), working to create something of long term value is far more important than short-term gain.
Anyway, that’s enough for this week’s self-help guide from me. I’ll sign off with a huge thanks to Dan and remind you that you can catch up with Dan on his YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, or find out more about the man himself on his website. Please make sure you check him out.
Thanks again for reading and as ever, keep shooting, folks!
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