Many photographers look back at their work at the end of the year, to assess, critique, and, if you’re like me, to convince themselves that they’re moving forward with their work. This year was a bit different in some respects for me, as the end of the year marks the one-year anniversary of my move back to film. The year started with a lot of mistakes made, film wasted, and some doubt, something I’m sure a lot of readers can relate to. I learned slowly, but eventually, things started to click and images started to emerge that actually exceeded my expectations. And let’s be honest: film isn’t easy, but film is fun! That’s what was missing from my photography when I began this journey, and I’m excited about where it’ll lead in the coming years.
So how did this journey begin? I’ve been practicing photography since I was 15 years old, when I bought my first pawn-shop camera and began what I thought would be a career trajectory that led straight to National Geographic. Well, that didn’t happen. Early on, after seeing an exhibit at our local art museum of the giants of black and white photography (Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange), I became obsessed with the zone system, buying or borrowing all of Adams books and learning to develop and print my own photos, which were, to be clear, not classics in their own right. But I was learning, and frankly, it’s one of the few things that I seemed to be able to do that I didn’t become bored with.
One of my earliest images, made in 1981, with a Yashica Mat-124 G. Don’t judge; I was 16 and just learning the basics at the time.
Later, I tried 4×5 photography, but by then, in my late teens, I became more obsessed with making money, getting a car, the usual teenage stuff. Slowly but surely, my interest in photography began to wane. For years, I continued to occasionally dabble in black and white, but mostly used an Olympus OM1 for family pictures, snapshots, and very uninspired landscapes. Eventually, though, I found my interest return. I didn’t have a lot, just the Olympus with a couple of lenses, having sold the Yashica Mat years before (regrets, we all have them). I applied myself, this time to color photography, having been inspired by Galen Rowell’s work and reading his articles in Outdoor Photography. I bought my first digital camera, a Kodak point and shoot with a whopping 1.3MP sensor, somewhere around the turn of the 2000s. It was horrible, but the process of taking a picture and then having it on my computer to fiddle with struck me as genius, and from there, a string of digital cameras followed.
From 2005 (when digital, in my mind, began to get good enough to use all the time) until 2020, I was a digital photographer only, and, to be fair, digital made me a better photographer. As a part time photographer with a full-time job, I simply didn’t have time to refine my technique with film, and so my results suffered. With digital, this was no longer the case. I was able to study light, and composition, and try my ideas out in real-time with instant feedback. Sounds like perfection, right? But cracks began to show. Humans are a strange lot; if you give us something that does most of the work for us, some of us end up feeling like we’re missing something. I couldn’t put my finger on why I wasn’t satisfied, even though my work was getting better and better. Then, I happened to watch a couple of YouTube videos by Nick Carver and Thomas Heaton. They both used film (Nick’s channel is mostly about film, Thomas’ is occasionally about film), and did great work.
Watching Nick Carver and his obvious enthusiasm for the medium triggered something that had been rattling around in the back of my mind for a long time: I missed film. Not only that, I decided I’d start back by taking one of the hardest routes imaginable: 4×5 large format photography. Why? I think I wanted the thing most removed from the automated digital workflow. You can’t get much further from the latest whiz-bang digital camera than a wooden camera that you have to assemble before you can take a picture. I found the Intrepid Camera website and put in my order (4-6 weeks, which Covid would extend to about 2 months). I bought a Schneider 90mm lens on eBay, and began my wait. But not for very long. I decided I needed to get my feet wet right away, and ordered a Mamiya RB67, also through eBay, which I received a couple of weeks later. To say I was excited is an understatement. Here was a new (old) way to do something I loved, and I had to start from scratch to realize my vision. And it was often painful; I would forget to advance the film resulting in an unintended double exposure, and not an artistic one:
If it wasn’t multiple exposures, it was forgetting that I had the mirror lock-up engaged when I was using the camera handheld, resulting in blank film that was perplexing and, frankly, depressing, until I figured out what I had done. I messed up. Over and over. And slowly, but surely, got better. The Intrepid arrived, and I made even more mistakes with it. Did I flip that dark slide over, or am I double exposing a sheet of film? Did I close the shutter before removing the dark slide? Even though failures were a certainty, I somehow was able to convince myself that I was going to get it, I was going to succeed, eventually.
And so I did, although focusing the 4×5 was still a struggle (and so was correctly loading the 4×5 film in its developing tank, which is where the scratches in the photo below came from):
What makes a person persist? In my case, it was watching others use film and making it sing in a way that digital struggles to do. Alex Burke became another inspiration, and his ebooks were invaluable in learning the craft, giving me hope and some “ah-ha” moments along the way. Nick Carver offers an exposure metering course on his website, and that made an immediate improvement in my success rate. In time, the 4×5 became second nature. One afternoon, during a huge rainstorm, I decided I’d go to a local trail and make my way along a creek that I had scouted weeks before, hoping for some beautiful light as the day ended. The rain eventually stopped, and I tried some compositions, but nothing was terribly inspiring. I had two sheets of Ektar left, and decided to cut my losses and start the walk back to the car, but as I turned a corner on the trail, I saw the light cut through the trees and fog. I knew this scene wouldn’t last long, and instinctively reached for the digital in my camera bag, but remembered I’d decided not to take it, to force myself to not take the easy way out.
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My stomach sank. So, there was only one choice: wade into the middle of the creek with my 4×5 and do my best. I quickly set up the camera, tried my 90mm lens (too wide , leaving my only other lens at the time, a 210mm, as my only option. It was just right. I quickly composed, focused (no time for movements), checked the exposure with a spot meter, and fired off my first shot. I flipped the holder over and shot a 2nd shot, but by then the light was gone. Did I get it? I had no clue. But in some strange way, that made me smile. This was the allure of film photography. Whether I got the shot or not, I would remember the process of taking it forever.
As it turned out, I did get the shot, in all its Ektar glory, thanks in large part to Nick Carver’s Precision Metering Method:
As the year progressed, I took trips to New Mexico and Colorado. Packing both digital and film cameras, I would often use the digital in the morning (and Milky Way shots) and the film cameras in the afternoon and evening. I found myself choosing which film to shoot depending on the subject. Portra for brightly lit scenes, Fuji Provia and Velvia for low contrast scenes, Kodak Ektar for just about anything. But which film to use for each situation is very much a personal choice, and part of the attraction of this medium; you can find endless ways to express yourself. Could I do the same with digital? Maybe, but quite honestly, I don’t see a reason to stop doing what I’m doing now. As long as film is made, I expect I’ll be shooting it.
The Sneffels range, near Ridgway, shot on Provia 4×5 film, developed in Cinestill Dynamic E6 developer, and drum scanned by Alex Burke:
Fog rises early one morning among the cypress trees, Mountain Fork river, Hochatown, Oklahoma. Shot on Provia film with the 4×5 (210mm lens)
So where do I go from here? Refinement. My plan for 2022 is to work more with black and white film, try new developers, new techniques, and new approaches.
I very much doubt I’ll ever go back to digital exclusively, and instead, it will become the “other” thing I shoot with, a complimentary medium, one that helps me achieve the ultimate goal, a photograph that expresses how I see the world. Film gives me not only a creative outlet, but a challenge to see how far I can go with it, and this time, in my 2nd go-round, I intend to stick with it.
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