EMULSIVE interview #216: I am Tom Sebastiano and this is why I shoot film

Today’s EMULSIVE interviewee should not be a stranger to regular readers. From his thoughts on the Contax S2 and RTS series to a quick delve into scanning film with the $20k Imacon 949, Tom Sebastiano has already given us a peek into some of his photography. It’s time to take a much deeper dive.

Over to you, Tom.


Hi Tom, what’s this picture, then?

TS: This is my family somewhere in the Apennine mountains after a day out collecting mushrooms. I took this photo in 1984 when I was 16 with my first camera using Kodak Ektachrome, which I thought was really cool and photographic at the time! It represents for me the beginning of my relationship with photography.

Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)

TS: This is me. I was born in Woking, England in 1967, the town where my Italian parents had immigrated to the previous year. Growing up my mum was always snapping away with her little camera, so from a young age, I’ve always had a positive impression of photos and cameras.

When did you start shooting film and what drives you to keep shooting?

TS: For me, it has kind of been a long-slow story. I bought my first camera, a Fujica STX-1, aged 15. I decided to try photography because I had fallen out of love with drawing and painting, something that I had been quite good at but required too much effort to get any better.

Being lazy, I thought that with photography I could more easily express my creativity. It didn’t quite work out that way because, over time, it became something I did less and less and slowly it became an occasional pastime. Despite this, in the back of my mind, I always felt I was a potential photographer.

Ten years ago, I finally decided to give my life-long itch a good scratch. You know what they say, ‘It’s better late than never.’ Turns out that I was right and through photography, I do get to express my creativity and that is what probably drives me the most.

Who or what influenced your photography when you first started out and who continues to influence you today?

TS: When I was about 13 a neighbour gave me a big pile of National Geographic magazines. I remember looking through them and thinking wow! how cool the pictures were, I think this was my first insight into the real beauty of photography.

Regarding my photographic influences now, most of the work I look at is by contemporary photographers online. So I’m inspired in a drip-drip kind of way by all that I see and like. When it comes to established photographers past and present, I love the work of Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri along with Stephen Shore, and Alec Soth. Also, I really like the work of 40s American fashion photographer Toni Frissell as well as the haunting and expressive photography of Francesca Woodman.

Are you a mixed medium photographer? What drives your choice to use film or digital from one day to the next?

10 years ago when I finally decided to take photography seriously I bought a DSLR, after all that’s how everybody was taking pictures. So for a year or so I shot digitally then one day I saw an old Nikon FE in a camera shop window and thought it would be fun to buy it, just to shoot some film again for old times sake.

It only took 36 exposures and I was hooked. Digital is great but film is beautiful and more… well me.

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?

TS: Scanning, I’ve been scanning my own film for 8 years and have tried many different methods to digitise negatives, it’s safe to say that I have a bit of a scanning obsession.

It is only recently that I can say I am relatively satisfied with my technique and method. Which means that I have quite a large collection of old photos that could benefit from a re-scan.

Do you have a subject matter or style you always find yourself being drawn to? Why?

TS: Portraiture. Sometimes in photography, I get the feeling that there is rarely anything new, more often just different interpretations of the same ideas. But for me, in portraiture, there is a uniqueness that is almost impossible to replicate. The relationship between photographer, subject and viewer through camera, light and location is endlessly fascinating to me.

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?

TS: My CONTAX RTS III + Zeiss Vario Sonnar 35-70mm. A roll of Kodak T-MAX 400 and Kodak Portra 400. That should cover most bases, but really because it’s my newest camera and I like it.

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?

TS: Kodak Portra 800 in 120 format to shoot Small-town America. Why, because it appeals to my retro sensibilities. Can I take a car too? I’m thinking a 67 Camaro!

You can never use film again. What’s your last roll of film, where and how will you expose it and why?

TS: Probably a roll of black and white film, I would shoot some window light portraits of my family and maybe a grotty doorway somewhere.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about film photography today and how would you set it straight?

TS: I guess it’s the question we have all heard “Can you still get film?” which is odd as it often comes up after I say that I shoot with it. I think people (non-photographers) are surprised that it’s still available. The most interesting thing is that when, and I inevitably have to, explain why I still shoot film almost everyone understands and usually have a charming story to tell about film photography from their own past.

In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?

TS: Pretty good, every day millions of digital photos are post-processed using sophisticated digital software and filters to mimic films distinctive character and to emulate its traditional look and feel.

So it comes as no surprise to me that increasingly younger photographers who have come of age in a digital world decide to try photographic film and then fall in love with the analogue process. Long may it continue…

Finally, what advice would you give to someone just getting started, or thinking about jumping into film photography?

TS: Don’t get stuck on gear and techniques, never believe for one moment that having the ‘best’ camera or the most expensive lens will make you a better photographer. Concentrate instead on finding your own sense of style and creative direction.

When you love what you are shooting your photography will be good.

~Tom


Thanks to Tom for stepping up and to you for reading. I’m the first to admit that I have a small (understatement) love of gear but I can’t but help get behind Tom’s statement in that final answer above: finding a style and direction is definitely more important and the best X, Y or Z.

Here’s the rub: it might take you YEARS to find either but that’s ok because you can still have a LOT of fun getting there through experimentation with different styles, subjects, films and of course, gear.

For my part, I mostly buy gear that suits a specific purpose or helps with a future photographic plan. Of course, I still make purchases purely based on GAS but putting the gear second to the photography is the only way you’ll find yourself developing creatively. Investing in more stuff is more often than not a fast-track to a diminishing bank balance 😉

Please, please, please take a minute to check out Tom’s website and both of his IG feeds. He has one for 35mm photography and another just for medium format. That’s about it from me. If you have the time, please stick around and check out some of the amazing content here on EMULSIVE over the past. If it’s been a while since you were last here, I can assure you that there’s been lots and lots going on.]

Stay safe and keep shooting, folks,

~ EM

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I'm EM, founder, overlord, editor-in-chief here at EMULSIVE.org and all-round benevolent gestalt entity. Contrary to popular belief, I am not an AI.

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