Have you ever heard off an off-the-grid professional film photographer? You have now. Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Ryan HK.
Over to you, Ryan.
Hi Ryan, what’s this picture, then?
This is a mistake.
RHK: In Bob Ross’ words “A happy little accident.” I was in this crazy little ghost town in rural Alberta… I brought a couple of rolls of film and my RZ67. I was shooting some long exposures all over town. I saw this old funeral home and thought it’d be a rad frame. Anyway, I metered and calculated for the Red filter, ND and reciprocity failure.
What I forgot, was that I had calculated for my ND64 and not the ND2000 I put on. The exposure was way out… this was all I could rescue from it. I actually love how dark and shitty it looks, especially for the content of the photo. This was a big moment for me… It helped me to always slow down, always pay attention, but at the same time – mistakes aren’t all bad. They’re opportunities for growth.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
This is me, in our new life. It represents a new direction, the next stage in this adventure. Taken by my girlfriend on a mid-1930s Zeiss Ikon Nettar 510 on FP4 PLUS. She’s also a film fiend and has this crazy love for old oddball cameras. I’m just some Canadian, lucky enough to get paid to create photos.
RHK: I started playing with cameras in the 90s with skateboarding/snowboarding and just kind of floundered around with zero photographic direction/purpose until about 12 years ago, when I started to focus on shooting portraits and getting my own commercial work.
I’m a cancer survivor. I was diagnosed in November 2016. After surgery and a year of treatments, we decided we needed a change… I’m now in remission and we currently live off-grid, on a sailboat off Vancouver Island, BC.
When did you start shooting film and what drives you to keep shooting today?
RHK: Digital didn’t exist in a consumer format when I started… but, I’m kind of glad I learned on film. It seemed to teach me to respect the moment. I couldn’t just blindly fire off a thousand photos a day and hope for a banger. So, I guess the technical answer is 1992/93ish. That being said, I was just playing with cameras back then and didn’t really think much of the medium, other than it was a way to capture moments.
I ditched film after graduating from Photo Journalism school in 2006 but went back and forth between film and digital. After a year or so off from shooting film, I went back in with a Hasselblad 500C, then an H1. I’d just shoot it here and there if I felt like the aesthetic of 120. I ditched film again once I bought my first medium format digital and I wouldn’t really dive back into it for some time.
I REALLY started shooting film again in mid-2017. Bought a couple of Mamiya RB67s and started bringing them out to my portrait sessions. I loved what I was getting in these sessions using Fujifilm NEOPAN 100 ACROS or ILFORD Delta 100/400 Professional. The more I shot with the RB67, the less I wanted to shoot my digital gear. I upgraded to an RZ67 Profesional kit with a few more lenses and backs (or side-graded depending on who you talk to). My Phase One sat in the bag without firing a single frame for months. I recently sold the whole Phase kit and picked up an Intrepid 4×5 MkIV. I love the experience of shooting film and I doubt I’ll give it up again. I’ve transitioned almost all my personal work to shooting film. A lot of my portrait bookings and even some of my smaller commercial work is shot on film now.
Who or what influenced your photography when you first started out and who continues to influence you today?
RHK: When I first started I was really just shooting skate/snow stuff, so there were so many talented photographers in magazines that I looked up to.
I love lighting and creating dramatic portraits… I worked for years to hone my lighting abilities. I got hooked on lighting thanks to one individual photographer, who’s now one of my closest friends. Actually, I owe my career to him… Noah Fallis. Check his work out, it’s pretty incredible. I loved looking at the work of Tim Tadder, Mark Seliger, David LaChappelle, and other portrait/advertising photographers. Since picking up film again, this has actually shifted quite a bit.
The photo above is another happy accident. I had this session set up and forgot about some ILFORD Delta 3200 already loaded into the RZ. I decided to shoot the last couple frames before loading my go-to FP4 PLUS. Loved the tones and it actually became the keeper from this session.
I love telling stories more than anything now and find myself gravitating to a totally different group of photographers. I could just stare at the work of Yousuf Karsh, or Albert Watson portraits for days on end. On the side of the photo realm, Mary Ellen Mark is one of my all-time favourites now. There’s something in her images that I see at this point in my life, that I don’t think I would have noticed 10-20 years ago. She was incredible.
Are you a mixed medium photographer? What drives your choice to use film or digital from one day to the next?
RHK: I am indeed… although to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure if I actually would be if I had the choice. Unfortunately, too much of my advertising work is done digitally. In certain situations, we need to be able to tether into the laptop and have the client viewing the images as they come in. Some of the other work I do requires a bit more volume than I’d like to shoot on a film camera as well…
The film costs would be astronomical for some shoots.
Above: Walking home from the pub, we stumbled into this insane light. I just happened to have my Leica M4-2 and Nokton 50mm f/1.2 loaded with some Kodak Gold 200.
In order to keep even my digital shots looking similar to my film work, I sold off all my native Sony lenses, grabbed a couple of adapters and now only run my M-mount lenses. This works perfectly for the tiny space I live in as well as creating a similar aesthetic in both mediums. Any time that I’m shooting for “me” it’s on film. I have an M4-2 and some Voigtlander Noktons as well as an RZ67 kit with 50mm, 110mm and 250mm lenses. This has me covered for just about anything I would want to shoot.
My recent 4×5 purchase has me jonesing for more calculated portrait work as well. Unfortunately, it also has me lusting for an 8×10 now. I love that with film, I can load up and choose the look of the image set before I even press the shutter. I love the commitment to an emulsion once it’s loaded. That being said, I’ve also had it kick me in the teeth a couple of times – but I won’t go there.
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?
RHK: My next steps always used to be gear related… now it is subject related. I’ve put together two projects that I’m currently working on. I’ve sold the house, donated all our furniture and moved into a sailboat in the Pacific Northwest to travel and work on these projects.
I live in less than 100 sq ft of space now and even do all my film developing in the boat. I’m always trying to improve. You’re only as good as your last roll, right?
I find myself down analog rabbit holes online. I’m in more film-based photo groups looking at work and just being inspired by other photographers. It’s incredible what you can be exposed to through some of these groups and sites… EMULSIVE included, of course. 🙂
I need to focus on the subject, as much as the lighting. I used to just be about how complex I could make the lighting in a scene. More of an exercise for me and proof that I could do it. Now, I need to focus on the actual meaning and story in the photo. I need to try and not over complicate a setup, just because I can.
The frame above is another from my makers series. I fucking love capturing people as they create things.
As a “Part Two” to my answer – I’d love to get into the darkroom… I’ve never printed my own work – was always worried I’d fuck it up, or I wouldn’t be able to produce the print that I had in my head… So, everything was scanned in and printed digitally. The darkroom thing probably isn’t super feasible living on the boat and having such a limited space to work in (although constant agitation wouldn’t be a problem!).
Hell, just developing on the boat has me contemplating grabbing a large weight a stepping of the boat into the abyss some days.
Do you have a subject matter or style you always find yourself being drawn to? Why?
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RHK: Motorcycle and motorcycle culture. I love it… I used to shoot tons of motorcycle related subjects. Editorials, advertisements, portraits, and videos. Whatever I could shoot in the bike world, I would. I’ve ridden bikes forever and really felt lucky to be able to combine the two.
The logistics of a motorcycle and a sailboat don’t really work, so I’ve stepped away from a lot of that type of shooting. As a replacement for all the moto stuff I used to shoot, I’ve begun to focus more on environmental portraits. I love meeting people that build/create things. There’s something so incredible about the process to me… Shooting this kind of subject matter lets me interact with amazing people and make something of my own, during their creative process.
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 do you take with you and why?
RHK: Ooof. No idea on the assignment? I’d love to say the RZ67 and 110mm… but 20 frames and a low-light situation could suuuuuuuuuck. So, I’ll go with my 1979 Leica M4-2 and Voigtlander Nokton 35mm f/1.2.
Film stocks would be ILFORD HP5 PLUS for its versatility (I’ve pushed that shit to 3200 and was fine with the results). Now that I’ve picked B&W sides, do I have to fight a “Tri-X for life” photographer? I’d definitely take one roll of colour too. It’d be Kodak Vision3 500T. The dynamic range in that stock is incredible. I love that it can be pushed a bit without falling apart, as well.
Not sure if filters count in this lil’ scenario, but I’d for sure pack an ND8, a yellow #15 for the HP5 Plus and my 85B for the 500T (so I could shoot it daylight or tungsten!).
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location for the rest of your life. What do you take, where do you go and why?
RHK: So, if I’m not footing the bill on this one, I’d take a Chamonix 8x10v with a 150mm and 300mm. Kodak Ektar 100 for colour and ILFORD FP4 PLUS for B&W.
As for the geographical location? I originally thought of Japan. I’ve never been, but am constantly blown away by the photographs and subject matter I see from there.
However! That being said, as I thought about it a little more and thought about what I’d want to capture and create – I came to the conclusion that I’d like to go back to the UK. If I have to get more specific than just that, it’d be Northern England and Scotland. There’s something about the people and farmland / landscapes there that would lend itself to a great environmental portrait series.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll of film, where and how will you expose it and why?
RHK: What a terrible thought! I’d probably say ILFORD FP4 PLUS (it’s my everyday, go-to). Although, I don’t know that I’d want the film train to end… so, if there’s no deadline, maybe I wouldn’t shoot it. Maybe I’d load it into the M4-2, put it on a shelf and stare at it with bitter disdain.
Prolonging the break-up as long as I could, I would shoot a frame once in a while, just for me… get upset all over again, listen to some terrible 80s love songs and cry into a whisky and ask myself how I let it get to this.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about film photography today and how would you set it straight?
RHK: That it costs a fortune to get into. Sure, you could go buy a Leica M3 original black paint and 50mm Noctilux, then only shoot Portra 800 and send every single roll to be developed and each image drum scanned to hi-res TIF… but hey, maybe you’re a bajillionaire and that’s how you roll. Truth is, a lot of people don’t realize you could get into shooting film for less than a pile of garbage crop sensor and kit lens that you’re probably going to upgrade from in a matter of months.
You can get a killer 40ish year old SLR and some fast ass’d glass for probably $100. Then you can spend another $100 on developing/chemistry and find some cheapish B&W film to shoot. (Skip one shitty latte a week and you’ve got money for your roll of film for that week, right there.) You won’t be looking to upgrade your camera as often when you’re living that analog life either. Most people find a system they like and stick to it for years.
The nice part about film cameras? They’ve probably depreciated as much as they every will – so in a year, you’ll probably get that $100 back when you sell it for something else. Or, hell… If you bought a T2/M3/M6/Pentax 67… you’ve made money by shooting film! I paid $60 for a Pentax 67 years ago. They sell for just outrageous amounts now. Think of it as an investment, more than just a camera.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
RHK: I’d love to say new emulsions… but I don’t think those events are going to be a regular thing. It feels like for every “new/rereleased” film, they’re discontinuing two or more.
I love that I’m seeing 3D printed cameras and camera parts coming to market. I think the dedication of the community and the people in it will hopefully help smaller independent companies/ideas thrive.
I also see it as a great escape from the constant digital bombardment in our everyday lives. I hope that as more people get into it, they might realize that it becomes about the moment and the process, not just the pixel count. It’s almost a level of therapy to load a roll and just be into your surroundings while you create those images.
Finally, what advice would you give to someone just getting started, or thinking about jumping into film photography?
RHK: Do it… and do it now.
I was a gear whore. I had tons of camera kits and was always on the hunt for the next purchase. Don’t chase the gear. Grab a functioning camera/lens combo and rock that for a while. Pick an affordable emulsion and rip through a bunch of rolls. Get to know that combo. Don’t be afraid to press that shutter, it’s better to have a flawed image from that moment – than to not have it at all.
This is one of those imperfect moments. I was shooting the Concours d’Elegance over summer 2019. Running super long exposures for everything to remove most of the people. Didn’t quite work with the bad dad crew here when they parked it for a chunk of my last exposure.
I feel like I should put something about picking a developer in here as well because it affects the end result so much, but there’s no need to get overwhelmed out of the gate, so fuck it… Just start small and start now.
I don’t think Ryan’s suggestion of “Do it… and do it now”, to folks thinking about jumping into film photography could have any more urgency to it than at any time over the past decade. There more choice of medium and formats than there has ever been, the internet is rife with amazing websites providing advice on technique and process – as well as examples of photographic film stocks – and film has been ridiculously easy to buy and enjoy. The only problem – from my perspective at least – is the rising cost of gear. As an example, mid-range compact cameras that may have been in the $100-200 bracket just three years ago are now commanding double that. Ancient, decrepit SLRs in woeful condition are stinking up online retailers with their exorbitant price tags and come premium compacts are off the charts.
Still, deals can be had and there are a number of trusted stores out there who offer cleaned and checked film cameras – with guarantees – for very reasonable prices. I won’t be accused of showing favouritism but if you need a list, reach out in the comments or on social media.
That’s all from me for this interview, aside from giving a heartfelt thanks to Ryan for stepping up and to ask you to go and give him a follow on Instagram and Twitter before checking out his website. Of course, you should also scroll back up and give this interview a red before doing any of that 😉
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Thanks guys, I really enjoyed this one.
Your comments about the rising costs of cameras really does hit home. It’s the price of popularity, which is what we all want isn’t it? Unfortunate, but inevitable.
What I would say is that we need to look forther than the 70’s and 80’s classics that we all (me included) love. There are some fantastic 90’s plastic 35mm cameras for under £50 with a kit zoom that will produce the same quality of photo that a Canon from the 80’s costing 5 times as much will. I tweeted about it recently and put my money where my mouth is with a Minolta Dynax 5 for £45, it’s a beauty and I can’t wait to get shooting with it for FP4+ Party 🙂
Wow an incredible interview I’ve known Ryan for a few years now
Thank you Ryan and EM. Love the B/W portraits.
Thanks for checking it out!
I really enjoy shooting those types of portraits.