Lessons in Digital and Film

Penn's CovePenn’s Cove, Whidbey Island Washington
Ilford Delta 100, Hasselblad 500 C/M, 80mm Planar T*

I’ve recently started shooting some film – 120 medium format on a fully manual camera with no meter and no battery. I exploring big quiet landscapes as a compliment to my street work. Shooting both film and digital is allowing me to learn lessons from both worlds.

Do not under estimate the advantage of controlling every step of the process.
With digital you have control over every step of the process from exposure to processing to print. I just got back a roll from, what should have been a good lab, that was totally over developed ruining both the contrast and grain. My developing kit is now ordered.

Cost is relative.
Developing single rolls of B&W at home requires an initial investment of about $150 of equipment and chemicals, a few hours of study, and some practice spooling film onto reels in a dark bag. Developing theroll takes about 30 minutes (including setup and cleanup) and probably costs less than $1.00 in chemicals. Adobe Creative Cloud (assuming you use LightRoom and Photoshop) costs $40/month, takes hundreds of hours to learn, and NAPP membership is $100/year.

Having a limited number of shots on a roll motivates discipline.
When I am shooting film I don’t press the shutter when my brain says “you know that’s not good”. This doesn’t mean that I won’t experiment. Digital is a fantastic sketch book, film is the final oil. Sketching to develop new ideas is good, but drawing drivel is a waste. (Though sometimes drawing drivel is the only way out of a block.)

You can buy thousands of years of experience for $4.19.
A roll of 12 exposure 120 (medium format) Ilford Delta 100 B&W film costs $4.19 on Amazon. It represents thousands of person-years of science, experience, taste, and subtlety designed right into its emulsion. A digital color-to-B&W conversion is spectacularly susceptible youthful exuberance, lack of vision, and any momentary lapse in judgement that can occur while making any one of a hundred of decisions realized simply by pushing around little sliders. (This actually applies to processing your color shots too).

The Tower


Lately as I’ve scrolled through my “friends” posts on Flickr, Facebook, and Google+ I’ve done just that – scrolled through. Very few have made me stop and look. Most have left a different impression. An impression of the processing over the content. As Jay Maisel would say: “I don’t want to see the fine hand of the photographer”.

As I take my first steps exploring my photography through film, and I see the results of a well exposed B&W, I am reminded of the Stieglitz and the early masters. Their photographs had a quality that, although they used many developing and darkroom techniques to coax the best prints from their exposures, never exposed to the fine hand of the photographer over the fine mind of the photographer.

In this image, which I entitled “The Tower”, the representation of the clouds and sky that has been brought out simply by allowing my roll of Ilford Delta 100 to express the magic baked into the science of its emulsion. The final result is not something, I fear, that I would have ever pre-visualized. I am afraid that I have been too steeped in the 21st century digital mania to have done a digital color to B&W conversion with this subtlety.

There’s something Medium in my future

Hasselblad 500CM

As my photography has gotten stronger over the past several years, I’ve become to appreciate how different camera systems impact my photographic approach and results. For most of the past year I’ve been concentrating on my street photography and shooting with micro-4/3rds system, the Olympus OM-D E-M5. Organized more like a ranger finder camera than an (d)SRL, the OMD is small and nimble and does not raise undue suspicion or attention when walking through the streets. At a pixel-peeping level, the image quality may not meet that of the current generation of large dSLRs, but not only is it more than adequate, is has a very pleasing look for street images.

Street photography in Cuba with the Olympus OM-D E-M5
Street photography in Cuba with the Olympus OM-D E-M5

My other camera, a Canon 5dmkII, though now a generation behind, was once the cat’s meow of dSLRs. It renders beautiful images but in my day-to-day photography has been relegated to nature photography like the flower macros I recently posted and this subtle image from Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley.

Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley taken with a Canon 5dmkII
Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley taken with a Canon 5dmkII

I don’t do a lot of landscape and nature photography, but when I do, I pick out intimate slices of the world to show. I fill the frame with trees and their leaves or other shapes and patterns. I’ve always been rather unsatisfied with the modern recipe of screwing on a wide-angle lens,  plopping and interesting object in the foreground, and shooting in HDR (ok, I’m being dramatic). I’m more drawn to the old-fashioned esthetics of showing a beautiful window into the world at the human “normal” field of view. With this approach, unless I chose very small slices of the landscape, the 35mm frame always seems too small.

Ironically enough, the 35mm system invented as a compromise format to create smaller more nimble cameras, is now being housed in giant behemoth bodies like the Canon 5d’s and DXs as well as the Nikon D4 and D800.

So after years of thinking about this and a week of careful consideration and intense research, I just pulled the trigger on a used Hasselblad 500 C/M – a model that was manufactured between 1970 and 1994. The camera shoots a 2-1/4″ (6cm) square format and takes 120 film.

Yes, you heard me right, *film*. And while I’m not exactly thrilled that using this format means going to a film-based system, I feel that this will be a necessary evil in my quest for my photographic vision to see what it is like to shoot in a larger format.

The camera arrives on Wednesday along with 5 rolls of B&W and 5 rolls of color film and I will get my opportunity to see if it lives up to its description on the front of the Hasselblad manual to “provide unlimited photographic scope” and will be capable of taking my “photography to inter, or outer space, and almost anywhere in between.”