4.23.2009

Why do I keep talking about shooting medium format black and white film????

I had lunch today with a very well known advertising shooter who does work with the big boys. That would include:  McDonald's, Quaker, Compu-Add and many other big names.  We were sitting around eating burgers and talking about our favorite subject: Photography.  I mentioned that I'd added yet another medium format camera to my collection and he scoffed.  I'd never seen a really good scoff before but he did it expertly.  The kind of scoff that makes you feel like you totally missed the boat.

"Just get a Canon 5Dmk2 and be done with it." he told me.  And I think it's probably good advice but I'm rather bull headed and I really like what I like.  

And what I like are classic black and white portraits that are shot on long medium format lenses with the aperture set to nearly wide open.  The opener the better.  As long as I'm not sacrificing core sharpness.  My favorite looks come from 150mm lenses on 645 or 6x6 bodies. And, without doubt, the film of choice is Kodak's amateur version of Tri-X.  Let's shoot that at ISO 200 and pull the development just a tad for some really wonderful skin tones with lots and lots of detail in the highlights.  You remember that kind of highlight detail, it's what you used to get before you started living in fear of your digital camera burning out all the good stuff.

Right about now is where a person who's never shot film comes in and says,  "All the stuff from the old days is bullshit.  I can replicate any of it in Photoshop".  Oh the hubris of youth. Would it change their opinion if they knew that I started shooting digital in 1997?  That I've owned Kodak 660's and 770's while they were dancing to the New Kids on the Block ?  That I owned copies of Photoshop, pre-layers?  What if I told them that Photoshop once existed without "undo"?

So, the reality is that there are things the medium format cameras can do when it comes to imaging that small sensor cameras cannot do.  The number one attribute is the ability to make focus fall off fast.  While keeping the areas that are in focus incredibly sharp.  Is that subtle?  Yes, but so are fine wines, good tailoring and proper grammar.  Does everyone desire it?  No.  Some people like everything to be in focus.

But here's the deal.  I'm not willing to settle for "good enough" or the hoary phrase, "good enough for government work"  or "this isn't rocket surgery".  You only get one life and you might as well do your art exactly as you envision it.  And for me that means controlling the focus fall off.

On to the film.  Guarantee you that if you scan a piece of well shot and custom developed Tri-X you can't mimic it convincingly in PhotoShop without hours of hard work.  And even then you probably won't be able to get the non linear nature of the edge acutance and the non geometric changes of tonality to work the same way.  It's too perfect perfection will give it away.

Here's the thing I think you need to know about art:  We are attracted to the imperfection that exists in nature.  The imperfection in a face is the frame for aesthetic perfection.  When everything is symmetrical we are bored by it.  When everything can be endlessly duplicated and every experience exactly replicated it looses its attraction.  Film works precisely because it doesn't work perfectly every time.  To attempt to be an artist means being afraid to fail miserably but to go forward anyway.

That, in a nutshell, is the appeal of film to me and a legion of other people who can have it both ways but choose to try and master the infinite nature of craft over the ease of digital production.

Before you write me off as a Luddite, please understand that I own all the same cameras that my possible detractors probably own.  A Nikon D700 and a D300, a drawer full of cool lenses.  A big Apple computer.  The works.  And I use them every day for client work.  But for my own stuff I can't bear the compromise, and, after hearing the workflow lecture of Vincent Laforet, I decided that  life is too short to become a slave to my digital archive.  Tending it and replanting it on every changing generation of storage devices until my whole life's energy is consumed with  "migrating" my library of ephemeral images every two years.  I'll keep the real art in a notebook.  In a filing cabinet, where, properly stored it should last a lifetime.  And the negatives should be printable long afterward.

Here's to beautiful black and white portraiture.  If I remember correctly, the photo of Michelle was done with a Pentax 645 using the 150mm 3.5 lens wide open with a large tungsten light source.  According to modern pundits I've done everything wrong.

To see more work like this please go to my website and look for the black and white portfolios.

Thanks, Kirk

for more lighting tips see my Studio Lighting book!

20 comments:

shambrick said...

Kirk,

I am rarely moved to comment on blog articles. Furthermore, I am a reverse philistine - I use only digital.

I never embraced 35mm film even though I owned an analogue SLR because darkroom cost and technique were beyond my thinking.

But the picture you have presented is jaw-breakingly, tear-inducingly spectacular. I can't take my eyes from it.

I am not likely to embrace film anytime soon, but I can understand and respect your point of view.

Would tahtI can one day be as capable with my equipment (whatever that may be) as you are with yours.

Shane A

don giannatti said...

I have been thinking about film and the reality of digital and came to a shocking conclusion. I am serious here. I think that film makes a more compelling image. Not better... compelling. If I see a really good shot on film I sort of give it an extra point or three on the wizwow meter. It may be scanned and photoshopped, but it lives as a piece of scientifically and artfully created entity. There are so many things that are occupying my brain about this lately... almost have shooters block. Damn.

tokyobling said...

Couldn't agree more. I haven't put it to words like you did but I remember reading somewhere a very good explanation for why I "instinctively" prefer focus fall of on film rather than on digital.

It went something like this:

"The eye needs something to rest on, something sharp. In film, even if your whole image is blurry at least the silver structure in your film will always be sharp. This is very pleasing to the human eye."

And this is why I feel so disappointed with a lot of my digital photography: it's just not sharp enough for me. Without the extra help of the physical film, pixels just can't compete.

My Hasselblad 80mm has a beautiful fall off at f5.6. Even if I miss the focus on the main subject the film remains sharp. When I shoot my Sigma 80mm at f5.6 and miss the focus by 1cm, the whole image is just painful for me.

With my Hasselblad 500C I usually get 12 sharp frames out of 12 frames on a film. With my Nikon D90 I get 12 sharp frames per 120 shot. And this is at medium openings. If I go down to f1.4 I'm lucky to get 2 sharp frames out of 100 shot. With or without AF.

Sure I might be a lousy photographer (and the more I think about it the more I know I am...) but the difference is really telling.

But comparing digital photography to film photography really is like comparing limes to lemons. Both are sour and sometimes painful. But both are good in their own ways.

Why is why I am more than happy to read your blogs about film and medium format.

tokyobling said...

Oh I forgot to add, doesn't Michelle just remind you of Isabella Rossellini? Maybe it is just me. I need to get out in the sun more.

Gordon said...

I agree and I've unfortunately never really shot film or had the chance to develop my own. Still wish I could find somewhere to do it.

The main thing that bugs me about digital is the performance at the ends of the tonal range, highlights clipping rather than rolling off non-linearly to white, that sort of thing.

Rob Dutcher said...

Keep it coming, Kirk, you're speaking my language! I just had a conversation the other day with a fellow shooter about just what you are saying. And I agree with Don, an image from film is just more compelling to me.

Brandon D. said...

No kidding, that's probably the best film rant I've ever heard.

I've grown up on digital, but I'm easing my way into medium format B&W. And there's something about it that digital doesn't have (i.e., as you said, unless you put in a lot of hard work). As a youngin myself, I'd rather shoot the film, develop it the way I want, and scan it high res instead of sitting in front of a computer for hours and hours trying to mimic it.

I'm actually impressed with the possibilities of what you can get out of DSLR B&Ws in Photoshop, but it is just not quite the same. And as you said in one of the previous rants, you basically have the choice between "Sensor A" and "Sensor B." Meanwhile, there are a ton of B&W films out there with different looks.

Thanks a lot,

Brandon

Chris Klug said...

I'm a photographer who still shoots film for some things, and this post articulates them in a wonderful way. There's not much more to say except I agree 100%. I'm going to link to this post from my blog. It's important to read.

Prashant Khapane said...

Yes, I agree. I have been thinking of getting Hasselblad again...my mamiya C220 is sometimes heavy. I have never pull-processed Tri-X should try now. How do you do it? (How long, chemicals?)

Rakesh said...

Great post!

I'm also a fan of film for photography. I get out my 4x5 for the shots that matter most (to me), and so far all of the ones I've ended up printing have been film images.

David Luttmann said...

Same here. Film shots are more often keepers. I like the lifelike look as opposed to the plastic digital look. YMMV.

rollerskatejamms said...

Ilford Delta ftw!
:-P

Joy said...

Kirk, your blog made my day. I started with 35mm film, then almost moved to DSLRs, and now I have embraced film again through a RB67. I have learnt a lot in a few years, and now use different cameras for different tasks. And I love b/w films on the Mamiya ! Digital does not give that particular satisfaction that film gives. Not needing to chimp is a great relief sometimes ! I will be watching your blog.

Herman said...

As usuall I agree completely.
For me it is moderate-wide lenses shot wide open on the street. But film on medium (and larger) format simply looks better to me.
Hell even 35mm film has something that digital doesn't have.

I cannot put my finger on why that is though, my D300 produces sharper pictures than I get on 35mm film. And still I prefer to use film.
(commercial work and concerts are mainly shot digitally though).

Anyway I would love to keep reading your thoughts Kirk.

Chris Newman said...

I completely agree with you on a book about the "why" but only if it was as you described. If you let photographers (or any artist for that matter) talk about themselves too much it turns into psycobabble ramblings. Case and point are the photography oriented programs on the ovation channel, they are horrible and what makes them horrible is the actual conversations with the photographers. They think they have to sound smart when the whole time, they work in a media that speaks for itself.

I, like you, would like to hear the REAL story and not have them feel like they have to force a word like "gestalt" in too often.

Anonymous said...

Great article, Kirk. I can't quite give up the Hassie 500's, although my A900 has the closest thing to film highlight roll-off that I've seen from a DSLR. Using the Hassie lenses on that A900 is pretty outstanding.

Peter McConvill said...

Kirk, nicely written piece that really describes your feelings well. I'm really glad your so happy with film and judging from what I've seen you use it beautifully.

However to be honest I'd love to be able to read a piece like this one day without film guys trying to tell people like me that prefer digital that we are settling for good enough.

Im curious why it is people dont seem able to enjoy film without slagging off at others

paul walsh said...

I am fortunate enough to not be concerned about film costs - not that digital is cheaper factoring my time ... plus all the secondary gear needed of course.

Your article is spot on - please keep going you are on to something.

Direct parallel to the music argument - many albums from the 80s were recorded at CD resolution because Sony and Philips decided that 16bit/48kHz was more than we ever needed - now most pro engineers still record analogue , and if not then at least 24 bit / 384 kHz about 100 times more than what was deemed 'enough' in the 80s.

Actually film is sexy, cheap and fun. You can buy a stunning Nikon or Hasselblad, even a Leica and Cosin/Voigtlander lenses , or some old MF gear - Mamiya press etc. and produce film images at a qulaity that will never be beat. I just bought a Hass. SWC for 1500 - the images it creates make you shake with excitement.

By the way that portrait is on eof the best I have seen in a long time - you should post it on saatchi-gallery.co.uk/showdown - I bet you it will find its way into the National Portrait Gallery, London within 1 year...

Good luck.

paul walsh said...

I am fortunate enough to not be concerned about film costs - not that digital is cheaper factoring my time ... plus all the secondary gear needed of course.

Your article is spot on - please keep going you are on to something.

Direct parallel to the music argument - many albums from the 80s were recorded at CD resolution because Sony and Philips decided that 16bit/48kHz was more than we ever needed - now most pro engineers still record analogue , and if not then at least 24 bit / 384 kHz about 100 times more than what was deemed 'enough' in the 80s.

Actually film is sexy, cheap and fun. You can buy a stunning Nikon or Hasselblad, even a Leica and Cosin/Voigtlander lenses , or some old MF gear - Mamiya press etc. and produce film images at a qulaity that will never be beat. I just bought a Hass. SWC for 1500 - the images it creates make you shake with excitement.

By the way that portrait is on eof the best I have seen in a long time - you should post it on saatchi-gallery.co.uk/showdown - I bet you it will find its way into the National Portrait Gallery, London within 1 year...

Good luck.

Richard said...

This photo that you have included in this posting justifies any approach you wish to take in your photography. It is absolutely perfect. Do not compromise.