EMULSIVE | Aug 8, 2018 | 5
EMULSIVE interview #59: I am Duncan Waldron and this is why I shoot film
Today I’m sitting down with Duncan Waldron, life-long photographer both at work and play. That said, don’t expect a story filled with tid-bits about wedding gaffs, Duncan has his eye (literally) set on objects a little father afeild than the other side of the room.
Over to you, Duncan.
Hi Duncan, what’s this picture, then?
DW: This is the owner of a Coffs Harbour antique shop, surrounded by his wares and photographed with a camera made around the time George Eastman started making dry plates (~1880). I found the camera years before in another antique shop and had to buy it. It was a fairly plain wooden box, with a few widgets here & there, but had the appealing feature of taking a stack of plates so that you could take multiple exposures out in the field, without needing a darkroom to reload, or carrying a separate stack of darkslides.
It took me about 25 years, but I finally got around to loading a sheet of paper and taking a photograph with it. I used enlarging paper, which would have a similar colour sensitivity (or rather, lack of) to the blue-sensitive emulsions available when the camera was made. I intend to 3D print a set of film holders so that I can load several sheets and used the camera as it was intended.
It’s probably my biggest “you don’t need a load of modern technology to take a photograph” moment, something often in mind when I use film cameras. I do like autofocus and matrix metering for when things get tricky and you need to nail that exposure quickly, but I also delight in a purely mechanical camera, even without a light meter.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
DW: I’m a former professional photographer, trained in applied photography in the late 1970s. I walked straight into a job in astronomy when I finished my course, so I was able to combine my two main interests while earning a crust. I left that job in 1998 and have done a variety of things since then, but am now a planetarium astronomer, which occasionally allows me to put my photographic skills to good use, albeit exclusively digitally.
With my life having centred on photography and astronomy for so long, and with observatory domes being such appealing subjects (especially when combined with Georgian architecture), the two interests can combine to satisfying effect.
When did you start shooting film?
DW: Circa 1970, aged 12-ish, I was out with my pals when a binman (garbage collector, to you in the US) gave me a boxy brown leather case, which he obviously thought too good for the crusher. In it was a Brownie SIX-20 C, and I was the proud owner of my first camera.
I used the Brownie probably for a year or two, taking it on family holidays and taking occasional snaps in between. But for now, I was just a snapper: the concept of photography being anything as serious as a hobby had not yet occurred to me.
More recently, I decided to load a Brownie again to enter Film’s Not Dead’s “The Box Brownie” competition and take it for a walk. The sheer pleasure of seeing those 6×9 negatives afterwards was almost indescribable, and there was pleasure to be had in using that camera in public (sometimes causing curious glances from onlookers).
At some point, Dad loaned me his otherwise-idle 6×6 Yashica-Mat TLR (does anyone still call it “two-and-a-quarter square”?) That’s when a more serious interest in photography took off, although I finally settled on 35mm for a decade or so.
Finding the local camera club and its darkroom facility was fantastic – I used it more than all other club members put together. One enduring image from that time is a rare one for me: it features a person; I recall her being a little reluctant to be photographed, but the pigeons were perfectly cooperative.
I left the camera club when I started work in another city and I discovered what a suite of darkrooms should be like. There, we were encouraged to use the facilities after hours, on the principle that it would improve our abilities. How I miss those darkrooms now…
I never became a prolific photographer, although going out with the camera and then spending hours in the darkroom became a salve for my soul. When we started accumulating a family, I slowed down so that I wasn’t spending so many hours locked away from them. For a while, I returned to medium format with a Mamiya C330S, having decided that I missed that huge waist-level viewfinder screen.
My main love was shooting BW, but sometimes I was in the mood for colour transparencies.
What about now? Why do you shoot film and what drives you to keep shooting?
DW: When I left the astronomy job in 1998 and lost access to the darkrooms, my photographic activity all but stopped. When digital photography started to become useful to me again around 2007, I started rekindling the flame; first with a few scanned prints, then with point-and-shoot digital cameras. At last, there was a way of working with photographs again, even if I wasn’t printing them.
I rediscovered the desire to make images.
However, great though digital was – and what a benefit it would have been 20 years earlier as a working photographer! – I was dissatisfied with its limitations: small images at first, with less-than-perfect colour rendition; alongside unsuitability for long exposures under low light or night conditions.
This last one was a big one for me, as I still wanted to do astronomical photography. Athough it was great to get instant feedback on whether an exposure was right, and the fact that an average consumer digital sensor is 4-5 times more efficient at collecting photons than film is, the long-exposure and high-ISO noise were problematic. With a really good DSLR or a specialist CCD/CMOS astro-camera, film’s technical abilities are surpassed, but night sky photos on film have a look about them.
As digital technology improved and pixel count soared to almost (gasp!) the level of Kodachrome, modern methods became ever better at satisfying a picky photographer like me. But in many cases, it was still a digital image and seemed inferior because of it. Because I’d been raised on film, and had worked in a job where I was intimately acquainted with the technical aspects of the photographic process (anyone for a spot of densitometry?), many digital images just looked like a substitute for the real thing. Especially in astronomy, where Ektachrome 400 became a standard emulsion, liked for its speed and relatively fine grain, plus a balanced response to the different colours in astronomical objects.
As I became familiar with the ins & outs of digital, I grew to dislike aspects of it, like the very structure of the images: over-enlarge a digital image and it dissolves into pixels; I know that you shouldn’t over-enlarge any image, but an eye that is attuned to the finer points can often tell the subtle difference between digital noise and analogue grain, at normal viewing sizes. With film, however, the analogue nature of it means that you can enlarge the grain to a significant extent before it becomes unpleasant. I started to return to the film cameras, and found I was utterly delighted to do so; it was like meeting up with long-absent friends.
Film forces you to be more considerate and to make greater effort to get the image right, rather shooting dozens of digital frames and weeding them out later. Of course, it’s not quite as cut-and-dried as that all the time, but it is a different mindset, and I just love the thought that if William Henry Fox Talbot were to come across me shooting BW film, he wouldn’t find it a wholly alien process; it’s therefore a connection with history.
As for what drives me to keep shooting, it’s like an itch. There might be no need just now, but at some point I will feel an urge to create photographs. I might be able to partially satisfy the itch by revisiting old negs, or by looking at the work of other photographers, but only taking new photographs does it properly.
So, I can use film, or I can use digital. Which shall I use? For everyday snaps, and photographs where the subject is way more important than the medium or the image itself, digital wins hands-down for me. But for when I want to create an artistic photograph, where the subtleties of film come to the fore, then film is a joy. Of course, I’m a pragmatist, and as I currently lack the ability to make traditional wet print enlargements, there is a digital component to my workflow, with negs being scanned and finished in PSP; it’ll do, but it doesn’t feel quite right.
Generally though, there will be minimum editing of a film photograph, compared with what I may do to a digital original (except where there is much effort spent in coaxing information out of shadows and highlights), and I will want as much of the integrity of the negative retained as possible. It’s a learning curve that I’m still climbing.
I want to avoid any suggestion of snobbery though, and as I’ve said elsewhere, the best camera is the one you have on you; so, if I’m carrying digital, and the Muse calls me, I’ll do the best that I can with that equipment. But if I’m shooting film, I’ll likely enjoy it more.
There is also the consideration of pinhole photography, which is virtually pointless on a digital camera, unless you have a large sensor. Even then, part of the appeal of pinholing for me is that I can build an extreme wide-angle camera with a curved focal plane, or a large-format camera that started life as a wine cask, or whatever my imagination can conceive. A Canon 5D Mk.III or Nikon D800 just can’t compete.
Any favorite subject matter?
DW: I always feel drawn to beach scenes; probably because of the textures and forms that I find there. A professional artist and art teacher that I know once looked at one such photograph and said “very Edward Weston”, which gave me a little buzz. I could possibly spend a lifetime roaming beaches and never run out of inspiration.
If I may be permitted to extend this question, I might say that my least favourite subject is people. I admire street photographers, and can find much to enjoy in their work, but it’s not a genre I feel comfortable with. Even straight-forward portraiture – especially in the studio – is an immense challenge to me, unless it’s formulaic stuff with little creative or emotional content. Having said that, there are two photographs in this selection that feature people, so what am I talking about?
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll?
DW: Given my comments about pinhole photography above, I might choose 120 fast black and white stock – although colour neg might do – and very possibly build a camera specifically for it.
I’ve never been wedded to any particular film, although Ilford FP4 was a long-time standard in my bag but I keep seeing Kodak Portra being referred to, so maybe that should be the one; I did occasionally use its precursor (VPS) in my professional work, but paid little attention to its qualities overall, such was the nature of our work.
I’ve always been happy to use whatever’s at hand, be it the ‘proper’ film for the job, or a sheet of enlarging paper or graphic arts film.
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?
DW: I’m not given to taking assignments, but assuming I can only pick from my own arsenal, I’d probably take the camera that’s been my oldest friend, and which I know like the back of my hand: the Canon EF. Not part of the EOS system with an EF lens, but the precursor to the AE-1 and little brother to the F-1, with FD lenses.
I’d probably pick the 50/1.4, just in case of low light conditions; I might be able to do a wide pano stitch, if the circumstances demand/allow it.
Film would have to be colour neg, probably Kodak Portra 400, with some Ilford FP4+, just in case. If I’m allowed a tripod, it would be my trusty Benbo 1. Not the ideal studio tripod, although it would do, but everywhere else I’d want nothing else.
If I could pick any film camera, I’d be very tempted to take a Hasselblad, probably with the 50mm f4 Distagon. I used the 500C/M throughout my working life, and was very comfortable with it. Metered prism, please.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location. Where do you go?
DW: Oh, boy… I guess I can’t go to the Moon, to recreate some of those Apollo mission pictures, especially the ones where they didn’t get exposure or framing quite right. So, it would probably be the Australian desert, where I could combine the sandy delights that I find on beaches, with a jaw-dropping night sky.
Somewhere more than just sand dunes or flat rubble-strewn dirt, preferably somewhere of cultural significance to traditional owners (with their permission and assistance), where I could help tell their story and thereby preserve some of it.
What do you think is people’s greatest misconception about film photography and how would you set it straight?
DW: Probably that it’s a thing of the past, something completely supplanted by pixels and Photoshop (which I don’t use, by the way; since 1997, Paint Shop Pro has been my choice). I would set it straight by publishing photographs taken on a variety of films, with a variety of cameras. One of the biggest weaknesses of digital cameras is that they are totally electronic: corruptible little computers that spit out corruptible digital files that can be made to look like photographs.
Film photography, while susceptible to various forms of decay and degradation, needs no computer to view the result, and with proper processing and storage can last a century or more, barring great disaster such as fire or flood—and your electronic devices won’t survive them any better. I grant that an enlarger or slide projector, plus associated chemical processing, is necessary to produce a final result*, but that’s analogous to processing a RAW file, and after you have your slide or print, it’s there to be viewed as long as there is available light to do so.
* The so-called solargraph only needs enlarging paper and a scanner; no chemicals. An image becomes visible on the paper (similarly to the old printing-out paper), which is then scanned before it is exposed to non-image-forming light, and hey presto! A digi-chemical photograph showing the Sun’s movement throughout the year.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
DW: It’s hard to foresee, but the current trend for youngsters who have known only digital (possibly only even smartphone photography) to dabble with film, is very encouraging, not to mention its continued use by seasoned photographers.
The casualties along the way – Agfa, Polaroid, Bronica, Minolta among them – and the very recent cessation of production of the Voigtlander Bessa rangefinder cameras, are cause for sadness, but there are also the Impossible Project and Galaxy Photo Paper, to name but two projects looking to breathe continued life into the medium.
If the supply of used film cameras from much of the 20th century can be sustained to any extent, and a few film cameras continue to be made, then people will have something to shoot with. Of course, many of these old cameras will need a service to bring them to full operating condition, but there are still people available to do that necessary work and the internet makes it easier than ever to find them. And, because you will fire the shutter on your old Nikon, Rollei or Pentax a fraction of the number of times that you would on a digital camera, it will last much longer in your service.
Perhaps we’ll even see 3D-printable camera bodies, like DIY Holgas, that can accept old lenses, which will still be around after their cameras have finally failed.
Keep calm and shoot on!
– Duncan Waldron
There we have it…thanks, Duncan.
How many of us have found ourselves in a bit of a “photographic funk”? I’ll hazard a guess and say that we all have. Be it a few hours, a few days, a few weeks or a few years, we’ve all been there and done that. How we get out of it is different. Sometimes we just need to step away for a while and learn to see the world around us without the aid of a viewfinder. Other times, we need to approach the world around us in different ways. No word of a lie, I spoke to one photographer recently who told me that whenever he finds himself getting bored of the things he’s shooting, he puts on a pair of brown-tint sunglasses to try and get a different tilt on the world. It doesn’t work all the time but the important thing is that it works for him.
Back to Duncan. He rightly reiterates that the best camera is the one we have with us “when the muse calls”. I’m sorry to say that too many of us in the film photography community are a little snobbish when it comes to digital photography. It has its place and we should all be honest to admit that “that place” appears to be nearly all-encompassing. Were I a sports photographer, or needed to work as a professional photog chained to a laptop, film would sadly be pretty much out of the occasion. I shoot film because I love the process, it make me think and much like Duncan says, I have more fun.
It’s sad to be reminded that sooner or later, our access to the film photography hardware we (sometimes) take for granted today, will probably not be the same a couple of decades from now. It’s a timely point of pain for me, as at the time of writing, the focus ring on my favorite lens broke free of its helicoid a few short hours ago.
On to happier subjects, you can find out more about Duncan via his Redbubble profile, as well as learn about his published work right here. There’s also always his Twitter account, which is a great way to get to know the man himself.
Until next time, keep shooting, folks.
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