I am Daniel J Schneider and this is why I shoot film
Today’s interviewee is a new media journalist in one of the prettiest parts of the grand old U. S. of A. By day, he works at the Denver Post and by night (I assume), he harbours a not-so-secret passion: documentary photography and collecting film cameras. Of course, it’s the one and only Daniel J. Schneider.
We’ll save the the rambling for after the interview. It’s a great read, so scroll down and take the time to savour each and every word.
Over to you, Daniel.
Hi Daniel, what’s this picture, then?
This is from the very first roll I shot with a Nikon F2. After being gifted an FM2n and a few lenses I really wanted to try its big brother, so I ordered a body from KEH.com. It was on my desk when I got to work on a Saturday morning in the fall. I had my Nikon bag with me and took the F2 up to the roof and started making test shots.
This solo window washer had been working on the building across the street on Denver’s 16th Street Mall for a couple days and I’d taken a few other pictures, but I was fortunate that he was still finishing up on the side of the building facing ours that Saturday.
The building to the left is the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel and I love the interplay of the two different textures. The Sheraton, which opened as a Hilton 1959 and has changed hands several times over the years, was designed by I.M. Pei and Araldo Cossutta. The newer building doesn’t have any notable provenance, but its different texture stands out against the Sheraton.
I took a couple photos with a 50mm and switched to the 105mm to highlight the window washer better. He was working fast and I only got a couple pictures before he dropped again, too low to frame well from my spot on the roof. This frame, though, was shot looking almost perfectly level, and the geometry of the buildings’ lines almost blurs what they are for me, with the worker and his foamy window highlighted by the buildings’ incongruity.
Ultimately I discovered the new F2 wouldn’t go to infinity focus and I called KEH to swap it out. The replacement body is perfect and the exchange was painless. Being my first experience with KEH, their great customer service has since made me a regular.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
I’m in my mid-30s, a journalist and web developer by day, and a film photographer pretty much the rest of the time. I live in Denver, Colorado, with my girlfriend, Kate, my dog, Batta, and her cat, Bonnie. Only the dog thinks I’m actually in charge of anything. My friends (and Kate) tease me about being a hipster, but I think I just like old stuff.
I work for The Denver Post as a web developer and focus on creating special report presentations and supporting our written journalism with interactive extras and other additional digital content. I love the outdoors, although these days I tend to trundle through it in a Jeep more than anything else.
I’m just starting to get over my GAS, but I’m still excited by new (to me) and unique cameras and accessories. I’m sharing my photographic journey on my website, too, and just striving to make better pictures one step at a time.
When did you start shooting film?
When I was growing up film was the only kind of photography, so I suppose I started sometime in the late 1980s, technically. I still remember clearly the time my dad handed me his Pentax ME Super with a roll of Kodachrome in it at the top on Mt. Evans — trusting me with his good camera above the clouds at 14,130 feet — and showed me how to focus it so I could take a picture of Mom, Dad and my little sister with the horizon stretching hundreds of miles into the flatland behind them.
As a Boy Scout I tried to work on the Photography merit badge with Dad’s old Minolta Hi-Matic, but it wasn’t working right and all I got were shrugs from the photo lab when my films were blank. I used the family’s point and shoot Ricoh some, and as a teenager I bought Kodak one-time-use cameras at the drugstore to document my adventures.
I didn’t develop a real interest in photography until my early twenties, though, when I bought an early Canon Powershot digital camera to take on vacation in Utah. Some of the pictures I came back with really impressed me (probably the beautiful Southwest more than anything done by me or the camera) and I started to get more serious, buying a Canon DSLR. I started shooting weekly, even daily. I took some pictures for the paper every now and then. I started my blog.
A friend re-introduced me to film and I bought a Bakelite box camera and a Minolta SR-T200 in 2008 or 2009. It’s been all downhill from there as I’ve amassed a collection of over 100 film cameras. Last year I sold my best Canon digital lens to buy film. This spring I traded the camera and remaining lenses for Pentax 67 lenses and a TTL prism.
What about now? Why do you shoot film and what drives you to keep shooting?
All my life I’ve been a process guy. Not that I don’t pay attention to the final product, but I’ve always seen the product as a result of process and felt that the best way to get a good product is to perfect the process. Digital photography doesn’t feel like it has a tangible process to me, at least beyond getting exposure and composition right. Despite the fact that I’m immersed in technology and computers much of the time, film gives me a feeling of process that I never had with digital.
It’s worth saying, too, that I simply prefer the product I get with film. A tangible negative can be handled and stored, and printed in a million ways. For the web and easy sharing, I can also scan them and process or manipulate them any way I want, just like with digital. Most people talk about speed when comparing film to digital – digital is faster to shoot, faster to get posted or printed, etc. – and those things just don’t much concern me. Back to that process vs. product debate.
Certainly I value the economy of shooting film gives me – I may wind up with 20 rolls’ worth of photos from a week-long vacation, but that’s only 200 images to process when I get home. And my keeper rate has gone from probably 1 in 100 to maybe 1 in 5.
I also value that it’s much harder in many ways to manipulate film. As a journalist, and surrounded by a superb team of photojournalists every day, I value the veracity that film seems to have. Sure, ultimately you can still alter images, but the negatives don’t lie — and any manipulation is fairly easy to discover.
But mostly I just like using film better than digital.
Any favorite subject matter?
I fancy myself a documentarian and my primary subject matter these days is altered landscapes. I’ve tried events and photojournalism and portraiture, at least enough to know I need a lot more work in those arenas. I’m most comfortable with subjects that can hold still enough for a 1-second exposure; subjects who don’t take or need any direction, and who will most likely be available again next week (or next year) if I want to try something different.
I’m also fascinated by history, particularly the way the American West has rapidly grown and changed, and is changing still. I hope to convey in my work both the timelessness and the fragility of the things that shaped the culture here. Landscape, architecture and environmental portraiture all help me tell the stories of the culture as it is now, its past and how it became what it is, and where it seems to be heading in the future.
I’m also interested in Denver, my adopted hometown (I’ve lived here since 1987), and with a little inspiration from Eugene Atget I hope that over time I can build a detailed photographic record of the city as I see it, and as I see its changes over time.
Of the three broad classifications of things to photograph – people, places, and things – I’m mostly missing the first. I would really love to learn to better photograph people as I move forward on the path of the photographer. Also, I’ve got to do something to convince my friends that I’m not trying to be Ansel Adams, since I do so much black and white landscape work.
Alternate answer: Whatever is in front of me! I do a lot of test shots with my wide variety of thrift-store cameras guided mostly by colors and patterns as I try to test each one’s mettle.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll?
Almost certainly Ilford Pan F Plus at this point. Over the last half decade I’ve tried every film I could get my hands on and I think Pan F Plus offers the best marriage of the things I most want to see. It’s got grain, but not a lot – and it’s very even and predictable. It’s got good contrast, but not too much. It’s got less latitude than Tri-X or HP5+, but still more than enough. And it’s got good speed for the type of work I do most, outdoors in bright and harsh sunlight a mile or more above sea level.
I found it difficult to settle, to be honest, but going back to the idea of process, every variable that’s known allows you to more accurately manipulate the remaining variables. Settling on one type of film for a lot of work has allowed me to really perfect and improve other parts of my process – such as how to fix when I develop, something I never quite settled until just a few weeks ago.
You have 2 minutes to prepare for an assignment. One camera, one lens, two films and no idea of the subject matter. What do you take with you and why?
My Pentax 6×7 and 45mm f/4 SMC Pentax lens, for sure. Since acquiring this beast I haven’t used much of anything else. It fits my photographic style perfectly, and those big negatives capture incredible detail.
No doubt I might momentarily regret taking such a wide lens, but I’m really most comfortable with ultra wide rectilinear lenses and getting in really close. Perhaps this makes it harder for me to photograph people — it certainly makes doing it unobtrusively difficult. But unless the assignment is a football game, I think my best chance of making good pictures is to go with what I’m most comfortable with. Of course, if the assignment is a football game, I doubt different lenses would help me very much anyway.
Film-wise I’d take some Pan F Plus and some more Pan F Plus. It may be slow, but as with the lens – better the devil you know. Actually, I just said that because I’m torn on choosing a second film. Depending on the day and the subject, I’d probably either want Kodak Ektar 100 for color (mostly because I’m more familiar with it than any other color film), or Kodak Tri-X 400 (because I can count on decent images in varied lighting whether I expose it at ISO 100 or ISO 3200, or anywhere in between).
The upshot of all this is that I’d just grab my bag, which already contains all these things and more. After grabbing my bag, I’d use the other minute and a half to grab my jacket, hat and water bottle, because in Colorado it’s never wise to leave home without them.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location. Where do you go?
I’m already there.
Okay, that sounds trite and dismissive, but really, everything I want to photograph can be found in the Intermountain West, including the Intermountain West itself. Landscape and architecture, history and technology, modern cities and ghost towns, people and animals, mountains and plains, rocks, trees, streams and meadows – Colorado has it all. Except beaches. But when you’ve got all we have, adding beaches would just be ludicrous. Besides, then the tourists would never go home.
Other locations tempt me from time to time – the stellar street photography in Hong Kong and Eastern Europe, the centuries-old richness of Scotland or Turkey, the wildlife and unique cultures of Africa and Australia – I find inspiration in virtually everything. But in the end I always want to take that inspiration and apply its lessons to this region that I love and love to photograph. Most of those places are already well documented (most of the world is, really), but my eye wanders toward the things around here and it’s this story I want to tell.
What do you think is people’s greatest misconception about film photography and how would you set it straight?
That it’s anachronistic – old-fashioned. Perhaps it seems like an anachronism when beautiful digital pictures can be made with lighter, faster cameras and newer lenses, but film is just a tool for a job.
The job is making pictures, of course, and there are myriad ways to do that. No one looks at a painter or sculptor or engraver as an anachronism, so why a film photographer?
If utilizing the latest technology is the only valid way of doing something, why do people still knit, cook on gas stoves, or write on paper? Hell, why do they have sex to procreate? Technology makes things easier, but it can’t and shouldn’t replace traditional methods that are still working. Newer is just different – it’s rarely better.
For those who don’t agree, I’d point to work of current masters still being done with film, such as David Chancellor’s “With Butterflies and Warriors,” which was shot on medium format film and won POYI’s Environmental Vision Award earlier this year, or Mary Ellen Mark’s body of work (Mark died earlier this year). They aren’t alone, either – Google “photographers who still use film” and you’ll be down a rabbit hole for hours or days, surrounded by the work of talented photographers ranging from total obscurity to the pinnacle of success.
I’d also mention the popularity of enterprises that highlight anachronism such as Etsy and widespread maker faires, as well as the resurgence of entire industries such as vinyl records, crafting supplies, and even those funny bicycles with ridiculously large front wheels.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
The future is whatever we make it. As long as there are enough people using film for their work, that demand will continue to be supplied by someone.
Some segments and manufacturers are even starting to see growth in film sales recently. Even the explosion of hipsters with Holgas can’t explain all of that.
Film Ferrania may be only the first of multiple restarts in the roll film industry. Bringing back instant film has already proved massively popular for the Impossible Project and New55 is now joining the fray. A number of manufacturers are still producing film cameras – Lomography has even joined the field since the advent of digital with amazing success.
And as a previous subject mentioned, there’s always wet plate when roll film goes away.
~ Daniel J Schneider
Daniel isn’t simply a collector of cameras, nor are his reviews what you might expect. Linger on his website for a while and you’ll find detailed reviews of the strange and wonderful box cameras, folders and others that have come into his possession over the years…and then there are his extended “a year with” reviews, which as you one would expect, cover a year with and a further year with his Nikon FM2N. Very, very useful!
As an example of a photographer truly bonded to his gear, Daniel certainly has chops…but gear isn’t important if you simply sit there and just look at it. Thankfully this is where Daniel excels.
He is a man obsessed with the place he calls home, and that’s something that really comes out in his images, both here and the others you’ll find published on his website.
He’s in love with Colorado and the surrounding environment. From wide, sprawling landscapes, to close up, down and dirty shots of abandoned homes and buildings, Daniel takes us into his Colorado and not necessarily the one we see in the images of others.
His excitement and passion oozes out of his images, begging you to reach in and touch the people and objects inside.
We’ll be back again very soon but we’d love to hear from you. Got a story to tell, or want to talk to us about your own film photography journey? Drop us a line.
As ever, keep shooting, folks.
EMULSIVE needs you. If you’d like to take part in this series of film photographer interviews, please drop us a line, or get in touch in the comments. We’re featuring to photographers young and old; famous and obscure, so get in touch and let’s talk.