In the beginning of 2012, I knew I wanted to buy a Polaroid camera. There is something so irresistibly fun about taking a photograph and having the print in front of you instantaneously. I considered several options, but ultimately decided on the Polaroid 180 Land Camera with a 114mm Tominon Lens.
As my first post here on Photography Life, I thought I would write a bit about why I shoot film as a wedding photographer.
I started my career in photography in 2008 as a digital shooter. Since it was the digital age, it didn’t even cross my mind to shoot film. I had some preconceived notions about it — at the time I thought film was old, outdated, and produced inferior images compared with digital. But the more I learned about film, the more I realized I needed to take a second look.
In one of my recent articles I talked about the beginning of the digital age and the consequences it brought to our understanding of photography. With all its greatness, with all the speed and quality and versatility, it became irreplaceable in our everyday lives and businesses. Along with that, however, digital photography also brought up a few problems, likely the biggest of which was the growing interest in new technologies rather than photography itself. This problem seemed to push the very goal of having a camera and a lens completely out of our minds. New gear was the thrilling, fun part. Comparing one to another has become our everyday activity. And yet, if we manage to get past that, if we manage to actually get out there and shoot rather than just read and read and read about new lenses and cameras day after day, we get the point of digital. We get to enjoy it as we should. We get to see digital, in a way, how we see the 18-200 or 28-300 class lenses – the do-everything, good enough for anything, the daily choice. But here lies another potential problem – with all the great all-round lenses, why do we love those boring 50mm f1.4 primes so much? I find myself shooting, and shooting, and shooting again. I find myself having hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs, and I like them. But a super-zoom is no prime lens. There’s always something vital missing. I may have just found out what it was for me. Before we dive into my very personal and subjective Mamiya RZ67 Pro review, lets talk film for a minute.
1) A Couple of Thoughts on Film
Where digital is about speed, you had to take it slow, sometimes even painfully so, with film. Where you had the shot with digital the second you pressed that shutter, you had to carefully store, develop and enlarge the photograph back in the day. Fiddle with the chemistry and red light in complete darkness. And you had, at best, 36 shots before you take a break and change film, whereas with digital, you have hundreds and hundreds before you swap that SD/CF/XQD card and shoot away again, ten frames per second. And every shot had to count. For every exposure, you pay money. You had manual focusing and manual exposure (I’m not talking about automated SLRs – I find them a little too boring, and we’ll talk about it further on) and you never knew if you’d screwed something up in the process. With digital, you can just shoot, adjust, and shoot again. I’m not even going to start on dust and scratches and archiving and having copies and making sure you don’t expose that precious roll to light before you had the chance to develop it.
Last week, The Impossible Project launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the creation of a printer that prints images directly from your iPhone’s screen to Impossible Project film, resulting in true analog instant prints of your digital images. Instead of simply viewing images on your phone’s screen or even sending them to a lab to be printed, the Impossible Instant Lab will use the light from your phone’s screen to expose a piece of film, which then becomes a Polaroid-style photo.
Let me start by saying that I’m a digital camera junkie. I love technology. I love everything about working with digital images… the number of images that can fit on a tiny memory card, the sharpness and amount of detail that can be captured with good bodies and lenses, the instant gratification that comes from looking at an LCD screen and the amount of flexibility available while editing. Why, then, would I ever want to shoot film instead of digital?
First off, this is not a film vs. digital debate. Some people like shooting film, others prefer digital. Each has its own unique benefits. Each also has a downside. I’m not trying to defend either medium of photography. I think everyone should shoot with whatever makes them happy. Instead, I want to tell you why I started shooting film last year and why I’m still shooting it today.
About a year ago I was browsing the stalls of an antique shop and came across a Yashica-D twin lens reflex (TLR) camera. For some reason I felt compelled to buy it and shoot a few rolls of film. Having never used a TLR before, the first time I opened the lens shade and looked inside I was mesmerized by what I saw. I became infatuated with peering down through the ground glass viewfinder at the reversed image of what was in front of me. While I metered for my exposure and slowly focused and composed each shot, I found myself really paying attention to my composition and waiting for the perfect moment to trip the shutter. After all, I only have 12 shots per roll of 120 film. Each shot has to count!
One thing black & white pictures are good at without any doubt is representing the past. It seems as if it is programmed in our heads that if a movie or a picture is in black and white, that it is old. It simply fits, and not just because photography and movies were in black and white back in the day. It is as if we remember in black & white. And dream in black & white. And past is often quite close to a film noir-like dream. But what happens when you take a look at a picture that is a hundred years old…and in color? Well, here is something special for you.
The photograph you see above was taken in 1910 by the man who is sitting there. His name is Sergey Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky and he is the guy who figured out how to take color photographs using black & white photography techniques with red, green and blue filters. And, as we can see, he did, with some support from Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. At first, it seems that there is none of the oldness left, none of that different time or different people. I must admit that, for a while, I thought these people were from a circus. And not a very good one. But then you start to notice things. Details. And it hits you – these photographs are a hundred years old. A hundred!
A lot has changed since digital came around in 1999. Film has always been about quality – all kinds of it, too. It was about resolving power – we have Fujichrome Velvia for that now; it was about color accuracy, which also suits the former as well as, say, Fujicolor Superia Reala; or, for those who want sharp and vivid, there‘s always the beautiful Kodak Ektar. Now, however, there’s one kind of film for all those purposes. Just as film was finally providing the quality, the age of digital sensors came. And, some think, wiped film‘s quality ambitions off the table as if it were dust. We now have one film that can do everything – low light, color accuracy or vividness, sharpness and endless manipulation possibilities. One film that fits all.
Once, I came upon a thought provoking comment on some local online photography community in Lithuania. It was posted under an apparently heavily, yet skillfully manipulated image, and in fact it was done so well that, at first glance, it was rather hard to believe it was a manipulation. The text was posted by an elderly photographer who is known to write very argument-rich comments under many works on that particular website. From what I’ve noticed before, he was usually intrigued by a lot of different images in different styles made by different photographers and he seemed to be very objective with his evaluation, if slightly conservative with his approach to photography as a form of art and expression. Still, given his age, experience and especially taking into account post-soviet influence in understanding of what art is, it was only natural. However, this time the respected online critic (as strange as it may sound to some) was strongly bewildered by the author’s approach to photography and how much digital manipulation (Photoshop in particular) was part of the work. “Where does photography end and digital art begin?”, he wondered. I wondered too.
It seems the understanding of what photography is (and art photography in particular) has changed during the last few years. Few? It’s a been over a decade now since we had the launch of Nikon D1, a camera seen by many as the first big step towards the revolution brought by DSLRs. Not only was it usable and offered decent at the time resolution, it was quick and as robust as the film SLR it was largely based on, the Nikon F5. And artists – not only photographers, but all kinds – must have burst with excitement. “New ways to express ourselves”, they’d think. The beginning of the real, readily available digital imaging offered artists new ways to deceive, and trick, and provoke the viewer.
I’m an artist. At least I should be – I study at the faculty of arts, and not the kind you would think of first. We, sadly, don’t talk much about Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams or Salvador Dali – they are too ordinary, as funny as it may sound. Too known. Too legendary and too classic. We do talk about the likes of Leigh Bowery and Marina Abramović, who, while just as known to some, are much less acceptable, at least in a country as conservative as Lithuania. And so it is good – we are taught to be less conservative, to evaluate not purely with emotions, but with our minds. To try and understand before becoming judgmental. We are taught to expand our understanding of art. Not to necessarily like, no – this remains our freedom, but to understand why artists do what they do even when it seems to be the strangest and silliest thing in the world.
And then there are lines that, not so long ago by some standards, were not to be crossed. They defined where photography ends and, for example, videography begins. But now, now we have sculpture, but also installations. Now we have theaters and video art, but also performances and video performances. We have conceptual art and art that has yet to be named and defined only to lose the definition in a year, or five, or ten. What does Vik Muniz do? Is he a sculpturer, or a master of installations, or a photographer, or a painter? He’s everything.
And we crossed the lines. Art is becoming just that, art. It’s harder and harder, sometimes, to define it and frame it. But the process of evaluation is no easier because of this, and harder still. Where does photography end? I believe it’s hard to compare such different things. A portrait made by Irving Penn can hardly be compared to a modern photographic manipulation, even though they are or can be both great works. It’s also hard to compare Irving Penn to someone like, say, Magda Berny, although they both do portraits. Too different. Both good, yet different in their purposes and thus incomparable. As long as we keep that in mind and accept photography as a way (or part of it, however small or big) to express ourselves, we should have no problems evaluating different works differently.
Keep an open mind, they teach us at the University. It’s what we all should try to do.