Putting my hands, my eyes and my head where they belong.

It all came together for me a few days ago.  I realized why I'm such a formalist when it comes to photography. Why I like the older cameras.  Why I like the old Hasselblads.  They slow me down and make me think about what I'm about to shoot.  I came home from an assignment (thank you, dear clients for continuing to believe in the value of creative, custom images...) and I was taken by the light in my living room.

It's been hellishly hot here for the last few weeks and we have six double French doors (all glass) that face west.  For a few hours they get direct sun, filtered through a few 60 foot tall, live oaks.  One day when I was in the studio I realized that I owned three, two stop silk diffusers that were currently just sitting around taking up shelf space so I went outside and put them up over the outside of the French doors.  You can still come in and out but you have to come in thru a curtain.  And when the sunlight hits the silk it lights up my living room like a movie set.  It's a wall of intense but soft, directional light.  The same kind of light you might think you'd get out of a six foot by eighteen foot softbox but you wouldn't.  It's better because the sun is further away and the fall off is less quick.  In the digital only days I would have grabbed Ben and shot a few handheld portraits and walked away.  But a few days ago when I came home I was transfixed by the light and decided I'd give the new (old) camera a try.  I loaded some Tri-X, into the camera, locked the 150mm lens on the front and then tossed the whole assemblage onto a Berlebach tripod.  I grabbed an old Minolta incident light meter and headed into the house. The finder is so perfect that I took my time comping the shot for the sheer pleasure of it.  I was critical, thoughtful, deliberate.  I pulled out the meter and metered the exposure very carefully.  I had twelve shots and I was committed to getting what I wanted in twelve or fewer exposures.

Ben was game and planted himself, as directed, on the arm of a chair at an angle to the wall of light.  It was so easy to focus the 40 year old lens.  Wide open the slender sliver of sharpness popped up like candy.  Instead of banging away with a motor drive we were both thoughtful and collaborative in our imaging duet.  The feel of the shutter release was industrial engineering at its finest.  The slap of the mirror was solid and calm like the closing of a door on a big Mercedes car.  The snick of the shutter was flawless.  And then there was a pause as the finder went dark and the whole process waited for me to wind the crank and reposition all the internal clockwork for the next shot.  Time enough to mentally process the slow changes wrought by multiple seconds of delay between each release of the shutter.  Time to talk to Ben, to listen and then to make everyone quiet again in anticipation of the next opportunity.

When we finished Ben went off to do some last minute Summer math assignment and I had the pleasure of pulling out the film insert, removing physical film and licking (yes! licking with my tongue) the adhesive paper strip that seals the exposed film into its own cocoon of paper layers to protect the latent image on its journey to the lab.

It was a wonderful experience.  And now I'm hooked.  I shot a commercial job on digital cameras today and I have no doubt that it will be well exposed and sharp as a tack.  The colors will be on the money and if they're not I can fix the raw files in any  number of programs.

But with the film camera I had to get it right.  I had to use both sides of my brain in tandem and I realized how much exercise I'd need to get my creative muscles back into shape in order to re-master real photography.  Challenge = joyous success.  Shooting film means you have more skin in the game.  That makes the sweet taste of success all the sweeter.


adam said...

Beautifully written. I get the same feel when shooting film. Maybe it's just us old guys? But then...

Ed Lara said...


Can't wait to see the photos you took of Ben, the lighting conditions sounds superb. I just found an old stash of Ilford XP-100 120 film; reading your posts over the last few weeks has made me want to dust off my old Mamiya 124 TLR. Now that I've found the film, I have no excuse. I hope the glue on the roll doesn't taste rancid.....

I really like the point you make about manual cameras changing one's approach to photography. One of the most ironic things about shooting digital, and the Olympus Pens in particular, with the ability to use vintage MF lenses, is that I've started shooting a lot more film again as well. Among the best purchases this year have been two early 70s RFs, an Olympus 35 SP RF with a great 42mm F1.7 and a Canon QL17 with a similar lens. I got them as birthday gifts for my older son and myself (we share a birthday as well as a love of photography). Aside from the gorgeous, tack sharp photos, the other pleasurable outcome has been sharing with my son the delight of shooting fully engaged: reading the light, physically setting the aperture and shutter speed without a meter, focusing with an RF patch, and "zooming with the feet". Oh, and in the anticipation of getting the developed film (and images on CD) from CVS. My son is still getting the hang of focusing properly without AF, but he loves the Canon, and considers it his camera for "serious" photography.

Shooting film ,and manually, definitely means you have more skin in the game!

atmtx said...

Kirk, sounds like the old days when things moved a bit slower and life in general was more deliberate.

What you seem to describe in your post is the notion that "The Journey is the reward" That enjoying the process is just as important more maybe more important than the result.

Things to think about as life continues to speed up.

Looking forward to seeing the photos.

Marino Mannarini said...

I just got me a Pentax 645N with a 150mm lens....I can't wait to lay my hands on it and look again through that amazing finder.

Wolfgang Lonien said...

Cannot wait to see the sun through these silk diffusers. And with a more thoughtful process come more memories for you; I know that feeling from some 30 years ago...

Timothy Gray said...


Such an amazing story of self discovery, thank you for sharing your experience.

We recently welcomed our first child into the world, a little boy, and there was an unknown force pushing me to capture his first weeks on film.

I loaded up my RB67 with Ilford XP2 Super 400 and let mother nature give it her best shot. What I got back was beautiful; the perfect way to capture this moment in time.

BTW, I'll turn 35 in December, so I don't think it's just the old guys, at least not in Chicago. Half the time I drop off film at the lab, everyone from early-twenty-somethings to distinguished grey beards are there, dropping off, picking up, etc.


Paul Glover said...

My two favorite shots of my 1 year old granddaughter, taken a good 6 months apart, have a few things in common.

Both were shot with a Canon F-1. Both were shot on Tri-X 400 (well, OK, Arista Premium 400 which is made by a "large manufacturer in the United States" and happens to share the same dev times as Tri-X). Both give me the same feeling of a job well done on my part that NONE of the several hundred digital images of her do. One is on our Big Photo Wall as an 8x10, the other will soon join it.

Last night, after dropping my wife off at her writing group, I went downtown with the F-1, a 50mm lens, an orange filter in my pocket and about 15 shots left on a roll of the same film. Even with the relative convenience of 35mm there were many times I looked through the finder and decided that I just wasn't going to shoot what I saw, that I needed to adjust something or move along to the next opportunity.

I like working that way. When I use the Yashica TLR and a handheld meter I slow down even further.

And no, I don't think it's just "old guys" unless 38 is considered old these days ;-)

Juznobsrvr said...

ah... the romance of the film. This is one of best posts I've read today. Do great minds think alike? I too recently just got a Hassy and can't wait to get my film processed. Cheers!

Paul Cooklin said...

Im smiling because Im a die-hard film shooter and my camera of choice is the Hasselblad. Ive followed your posts for some time now Kirk and read your blog about new gear; the marvels of X and the delights of Y but rarely have I heard you mention the 'look' of film (apart from the occasional post) and the process of analogue photography and how it makes you feel. I know you're not new to film and you were shooting it long before I took up fine art photography professionally and became passionate about film photography generally. To me, forgetting the obvious 'benefit's of digital capture - and I still think it's the medium of choice for some situations i.e fast sports to name just one - I believe film is magical! Film is authentic. Film is the real deal. It has a look Im unable to create digitally (which I wouldn't want to anyway, although Ive tried).

Im fortunate to be able to earn a living from fine art film photography (www.paulcooklin.com if you're interested) and am more than happy for seemingly everyone to shoot digitally with their long lenses and endless menus which actually get in the way of taking pictures. However, please dont post to your blog too much about your rekindled excitement for film and analogue cameras because Ive been enjoying the mass exodus to digital which has made fantastic cameras and lenses now very affordable. Long live digital photography!
I'll just dismount my high horse now. Thank you.

Andrew said...

Love you recent articles on medium format photography. I am young (well at least young enough so I didn't really have much film experience), 36 to be exact. A little over a year or so ago I bought my first rangefinder a Yashica Electro 35 and started shooting B&W film. I have since moved to mainly Medium Format cameras, a Yashica MAT 124G (still have this one), Mamiya RB67, Bronica sq-ai, then currently a Mamiya 645 1000s. I cannot tell you how much I enjoy shooting with then cameras. I also develop my film and scan myself so the cost is not to bad. I have wanted a 500 CM for a while but haven't yet been able to justify the cost. But I agree with you that it just feels better to shoot film, more real, more intentional. Thanks for talking about this side of photography, I have really enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

I feel the same way about my 35mm film cameras. When I pick up my OM-1 I've come home. When I pull the negs off the Nikor reels (purchased used in 1971) I still hold my breath. The road to discovery seems so much more measured and relaxing. I do have a DSLR and it can be handy for color snapshots of the grand kids etc, but if I dropped and broke it tomorrow I'd feel no deep loss. Not so with my film gear. Worth much more in my heart than in my purse.

Neal said...

Definitely not just the old guys,

I'm 28. I've been shooting film since I was 12 years old. I did shoot digital (as well) for a couple years but got over it.

There is so much tactile pleasure in working with film, I wouldn't have it any other way. I couldn't be without the dim glow of the safe light. the quiet introspective nature of the printing process, watching the images appear in the developing bath, dodging and burning with my hands, making print developer out of coffee and vitamin c. It's all amazing, fascinating and above all fun!

fotoplek@yahoo.ca said...

i simply find film and actual prints way more exciting! the problem is the cost. Retired and fixed income it's way easier to shoot all day and night with digital.OK need extra drives..
The film cameras are so much nicer! Pure works of precision.No f* menus. Set aperture, speed focus,push the button. The image developed and printed that has a look so different and way more pleasant than digital. Don't get me wrong, "Photoshop" has allowed me many more pix of my Lady!Controls i simply never had in days of ONLY film. No i could not afford a retoucher..In a few days "we" here in Canada will get "digital" TV. Better sharper,clearer images of all the re-runs! i use antenae and as no converter boxes available, i will be back in the dark ages! i will again use my darkroom. Maybe the "box" will arrive but sure as an exposure is made in my Rollei/Leica/whatever, darkroom is back!jason gold