Recently I returned to one of my enduring passions: shooting film. I’m Italian and I recently moved to California. In Italy, it’s really hard to find a good lab to develop film and it’s even more difficult to find rolls of film of the brands I like. Here in the US, I felt reborn with new joy: everything is so much easier when it comes to shooting film. All over the world shooting film is getting more popular, it’s in fashion again, and it’s even possible to find photographers returning to analog, ditching digital for paid jobs. In Italy, the business of photography completely revolves around shooting digital: almost no one thinks about film anymore. So for me, it was amazing to take my four 120 rolls to the lab to discover they could be processed only after the order for the previous customer was finished… the lab told me a well-known company with a blue logo based in the Bay area had just delivered a big batch of 70 rolls for processing! I was kind of sad when I discovered my batch was delayed by 48 hours (beyond the usual 24 hours needed for developing, printing the contact sheet and scanning everything in high resolution), but I finally received my processed rolls and you can see some results in the images of this article.
As a consequence of my return to shooting film more frequently than in the past, and the priceless commodity of having a lab around the corner, I finally decided to focus on medium format, but without going all-in. I bought a Mamiya 645 AF, a Phase One 645 AF, three film backs, a Polaroid back and my three lenses in my favorite focal length range: 35mm, 55mm and 150mm (about 20mm, 35mm and 95mm respectively in the 35mm format). I have a couple more projects brewing that I’d like to develop with this gear, maybe we will talk about this in a following post.
One thing I love about shooting film is the opportunity to do some experimenting with real black and white, the silver halide one, not digital simulation! I have a pretty strong opinion about black and white and it might not be the most common one: I think shooting black and white it is so much easier than color! I would even say an excellent method to make any mediocre color picture interesting… is to convert it to black and white! I know… you might disagree with me.
Black and white photography is extremely simple. It’s simple for our brain to decipher and understand. In digital, it becomes slightly more complex to create, retouch or edit in black and white. In my opinion it’s more challenging to create really stunning images using color photography, as color adds many more complex layers for interpretation. And, things get much more complicated when you try… to do color photography with black and white film! But, I like challenges and this is my current one!
It might sound weird, but what I’m talking about is not only possible, it is a concept theorized just after the invention of photography itself by the physicist James Clerk Maxwell. In 1855, Maxwell was the first to suggest the possibility of creating a color image using the additive RGB color space through the combination of three different black and white images using projection through colored filters (you can see some examples of my interpretation of this method in the article’s pictures). This technique was used also commercially (frankly without huge success) starting in 1897, after Frederic Eugene Ives‘ invention of the Kromscop projector in 1894, a method he used to document the disastrous effects of the earthquake in San Francisco in 1906. Until then, color photography was created by taking three separate shots in three different moments and then combining them. The first real camera to take pictures with this method in one single shot was invented by the Russian photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky in 1902.
Capturing the moment through three separate shots was never easy. Already at that time, the world of photography was dominated by the need for speed and the request to take images of quickly moving subjects. This was the main reason this process never became popular. Ironically it was in the field of cinematography, however, that this principle was applied very successfully. In 1916, Technicolor invented a post-production process that combined two different reels shot on black and white film through a green and red filter respectively (Technicolor Process 1 – RG). Obviously this process allowed the rendering of only a very limited color palette and they even employed specialized professionals to assure make-up and clothes respected the available gamut on the set of movies. Only in 1924 was the process finally perfected to include the whole color spectrum which was called the Technicolor “process 4 – RGB”. That was the process which was to give Technicolor the prestige it enjoyed and would lead, even today, to most people associating Technicolor as a synonym for colorfulness. The process 4 was a post-production technique that involved the binding of the separate black and white film footage to get color projection in theaters. The film was exposed using a custom cinecamera running the three rolls of film simultaneously through a complex series of color filters, mirrors and prisms.
By this point you might be asking yourself “Why is this guy taking me back through the history of photography?”
The answer is easy! I’m so fascinated by color photography and by this amazing analog technique that I decided to study it more and tried to replicate it with a twist of modernity, which I would like to share with you. I’ve just started, but the results so far are definitely encouraging and interesting!
I decided to combine this personal research with another passion of mine: long-exposure landscape photography. Landscape photography is really ideal for this purpose because the subject tends to be amazingly steady, or it doesn’t move at all, especially if you “erase” any movement using long-exposure techniques you get the perfect conditions!
If you are familiar with the concepts behind film photography you know the problem the reciprocity failure brings when using film for long exposures: as light becomes more scarce, the silver halide grains residing in the film will be less uniformly struck by photons, causing a steep drop in density after a few seconds of the needed exposure. Sometimes after just a second you have to operate corrections and with some color films you can have a noticeable color shift. Luckily a fantastic film made by Fuji is still available on the market which requires no compensation at all until it’s exposed more than 120 seconds: the FujiFilm Neopan ACROS 100, I’m in love with it!
Today, everything is much easier and, thanks to Adobe Photoshop, complicated gear and projectors are no longer needed to enjoy these kinds of images. The only thing you need is to assign each black and white shot taken through a colored filter to one of the RGB channels of an image! Take three black and white pictures using a red 25, green 58 and blue 47B filter respectively. My favorite filter brand is NiSi, particularly their V5 filter holder (this, combined with their glass ND IR filters, produce exceptional images). However, NiSi do not produce these kinds of color filters, so I had to get the Formatt Hitech ones (cheaper than Lee resin filters and better overall quality in my own opinion).
Not satisfied by the results of the classic process known as “Tri-Chrome” and annoyed by some ghost effects on my pictures, I evolved the technique a little bit and am now using a process I call “Technicolor Frequency Separation”. For my shots, I separated high frequencies from low frequencies, and processed color and luminance separately. It’s something quite popular in photo retouching for beauty shots, but I took advantage of it in pre-production while shooting! I usually shoot four pictures on FujiFilm Neopan ACROS 100 and got the results you can see in the picture below. Isn’t it cool?!
The first shot (for sunset shots) is used for the luminance channel (or the last shot for sunrises). I process my images in a mix of RGB and LAB and I use the other three shots, taken through color filters, to create the RGB color mix. The process is done in Photoshop after I develop and scan the negatives.
What do you think about this technique? Isn’t incredible what you can achieve processing four separate black and white film frames? Isn’t it magical how you can get color out of pure black and white silver halide film? If you are curious about this technique or you’d like to share something about similar experiences you might have had I’d be happy to answer questions in the comments below! I’m can’t wait to shoot some more 120 rolls to refine this technique!
This guest post was submitted by Simone Conti, a professional photographer from Italy, currently living in California. You can see more of his work at his website.