12.11.2011

The lazy lure of color slides. And a fond memory of a great actor.

Joe York in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

A few years back Zachary Scott Theatre produced their version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show,  and the lead character was played by one of Austin's greatest actors, Joe York.  Joe was always up for a good photoshoot and, as was routine back then,  we jumped right in to do some publicity stills to send out to various media.  On the evening we made this image I was mostly shooting with a medium format camera, on a tripod.  We were using hot light through small diffusion scrims as a light sources.  The image above is lit by one light through a 4x4 foot scrim.  The light level was very low.  But this image is not from a medium format camera.  Back then I always carried my Leica rangefinder camera with me as well.  I'd just finished shooting a series on the bigger camera and we were planning the next set up when someone said something off color to Joe and he struck a pose.  I lifted up my Leica and snapped one frame.  And from all the images we took that evening this one is my favorite.

It's not a favorite because of any technical considerations.  In fact it's noisy, not tack sharp and the color needed massaging in the processing.  But it's my favorite because it's spontaneous, honest and a moment truly captured.  We were using 64T film in the big camera.  It's transparency film that's formulated for tungsten light sources.  I was using Kodak 320T (T-grain) film in the M6, along with a 50mm Summilux lens.  I'd set the smaller camera to an equivalent exposure the minute we'd taken light meter readings for the larger camera.  Back then it was routine to make a mental calculation to compensate for the difference in the different film sensitivities.  In essence, all I had to do to make the image was to lift the camera to my eye, fine tune the focus and squeeze the shutter button.  All the other decisions had be previously made.

There's something wonderful and fun about using slide film because, in its essential form, it is the antithesis of a post production friendly medium.  It begs you to get everything just right.  The benefit to me is that it encourages both my technical attention and my laziness.  If I get everything right at the time of the photography there's really nothing more I need to do.  If a client likes the image I can send the slide out for scanning.  If I want to view it I can hold it up to the light.  If I want to file it I can put it in a page sleeve, scrawl a description across the top of the page and put it into the right spot in the filing cabinet.  And it's resilient.  I don't need to make back ups (although I do have some high res scans) and it's nearly infinitely scalable.  It might not get sharper but it sure won't pixelate.....

And then there's Paul Leary....

Paul Leary.  Around the time of "the History of Dogs."

Paul Leary had a dog named, Mark Farner.  He was/is also a member of an interesting band called "The Butthole Surfers." I met him when I was photographing the BHS group for Spin Magazine.  That was an interesting shoot and a story for another post....

Paul and I actually grew up not far from each other in San Antonio and we both attended the University of Texas at Austin, although a few years apart.  A year or two after the images of BHS ran in the magazine Paul got in touch with me to see if I'd shoot the cover of his new album, The History of Dogs.
Of course, I jumped at the chance.  Paul brought over his pit bull, Mark Farner, and we dressed him in the same wig you see above and made some really fun images.  That done we decided to do some promo images of Paul as well.

In current times we would probably have been lazy, expedient, efficient, technically savvy and boring.  We'd shoot against a green screen, drop the background out and add the background color we wanted.  Then we'd do something tricky in five or six layers and then I'd be so bored I'd have to take a nap.  Back when I took this there was no such thing as layers in PhotoShop and dropping stuff out wasn't a one click proposition. So we just shot it the way we wanted to see it in the end.  I dropped a couple of magenta filters over some background lights and washed a gray seamless with color.  Then I lit Paul with a big softbox and shot the whole mess.  Exactly what I wanted.  And.....no postprocessing necessary.  The edited slides went into Federal Express envelope and made their way to the record company.  And back again.  My part, the imagining and seeing and shooting went smoothly.  Their part, the separations and printing, also went smoothly.  Again, slide film was a perfect solution for highly focused but inherently lazy working photographers.  And it was also like working without a safety net.  It was a time when not everyone got a trophy.

Shot with a Leica R8 camera and a 50mm R Summicron on Fuji Astia film stock.  Nice stuff.

It would be an interesting experiment to give the current generation of photographers a camera like a Nikon F2 or a Leica R8 and one roll of 100 ISO, color slide film and see what they could do with it.  And it would be fun to watch for the first hour or so as they looked at the back of the camera every time they pushed the shutter button.

While I'm on the subject of lazy photographers (me) and the benefits of shooting 35mm slide film I thought I'd throw in one more rail of my train of thought...
Lou. Test Image for Lecture on Movie Lighting.  

I've tried everything imaginable to get perfect skin tones from digital.  Sometimes it works but most of the time I'm dancing around the edge of highlights that seem to want to escape to white the minute I try to do anything with the midrange or shadows of a digital camera file portrait.  I was beginning to think it had always been this way and was about to resign myself to shooting a little darker and using more and more make-up to fight the dreaded glare that always seems to materialize in the middle of the subject's forehead or on the tips of their noses and then I stumbled across this slide from a series I'd taken to illustrate a lecture on movie lighting. 

Lou is my model and she did (probably still does) have perfect skin.  That made things easier.  But even with a molecule of make-up her face stayed glare free, burned highlight free, and detail smooth.  And it's because even slide film from ten years ago is much more graceful and much less linear than the capture curve of all the digital cameras I've tried.  And if you've been a reader of the blog you surely know I've tried a lot.

It has to do with the longer "shoulder" built into films like Fuji's Astia or Kodak's EPN slide films.  Instead of following a nearly linear tonal progression the films rolled off the curve so that additional exposure had less effect on highlight areas.  

Again, this meant that with good metering and good lighting I was able to eliminate several of the steps that now seem mandatory to me in the age of digital photography.  Now, before you mark me as a newcomer please note that we bought our first professional digital camera in 1996 and, since 2006 have put over 200,000+ digital files into my SmugMug galleries for a bunch of different clients.  Rather than argue that I have a nostalgia for film I think it makes more sense to argue that I have a nostalgia for a lazier and more productive time.  And an easier back end process.

Thought that writing this might be a bit of an antidote to my recent fascination with the tiny ( but glorious) Nikon V1....

Finally, not all film captures were great.  I offer, for your derision, an out take from a shoot for a company that builds waste water treatment plants across the U.S.  It's poorly seen and poorly shot and it wouldn't have mattered if it had been shot on film or digital.  It's just a mess....
Leica M series with 15mm Voigtlander lens.




Just rummaging around Amazon.  Saw this and bought it.  I've used their 8 gig cards and they work well in my V1.  I thought this would be cool for making movies with the camera...



15 comments:

Philip Storry said...

I don't know about that last shot.

Basically, you're right and it's awful.

But if you crop it, it could be fine. Take a vertical line on the left that goes through the grey door, just missing the doorknob. Stop it at the height of the shadow, cropping the bottom off there. Then crop the right hand side from just past the edge of the building, and I think you've probably rescued it.

Granted it won't be the prettiest photo ever, but as a picture of an industrial pump it's pretty good.

Dave Jenkins said...

We've come a long way, baby. Uh...haven't we? Haven't we???

Frank Grygier said...

Cool what?

Pim de Groot said...

I am not a professional photographer, but I basically did what you suggested, about a month ago.

Got a roll of Velvia 100F and put it in my Minolta srt 101b. No attempts of Chimping, since i was already used to shooting analog.

I liked the results, although some shots were a bit too saturated. Blue skies are insanely blue and dutch trains hurt my eyes (being bright yellow and blue, or red.)

The most amazing thing to do is holding a strip up to the light. Scanning it and showing it on a computer screen doesn't do it justice.

The results of that roll can be found here: http://pimdegphotolog.tumblr.com/tagged/Velvia

Oh, and I am 23. Never seen a negative or slide from age 10 to 21.

kirk tuck said...

Very Cool.

Craig Yuill said...

The timing of this post is excellent. I just finished scanning a slide I took a few months ago as part of a little Christmas-card project I'm working on. Also, in just the last 24 hours my wife grilled me about my preference for slide film when shooting with film. For me it boils down to the fact that a slide is a finished image. There's no printing screw up or monitor miscalculation to take away my enjoyment of looking at an image. I love the look of slides on a light table, and directly inspecting the images with a high-quality loupe. They are also easier to scan than negs, IMO.

But of course there are downsides. You are right about the ability to enlarge without worrying about pixelation. But digital images captured with a clean sensor won't get scratches or smudges like slides do. Also, as a Facebook friend of my wife's lamented, you won't have to deal with magenta colour shifts, as happened with his mid-1990s Agfa slides.

Anyways, I very much enjoyed these slide shots of yours Kirk, as well as the stories about them. Great stuff!

Craig said...

I like the idea of naming a dog "Mark Farner" -- that being also the name of the guitarist/vocalist of Grand Funk Railroad...

kirk tuck said...

Craig, I think that was Paul's reason for naming his dog Mark. Just thinking about Grand Funk Railroad brings the past up like a knee to the groin.

Travis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul Glover said...

My most "knock your socks off" moment in photography was about a year ago when I put my first ever developed roll of 6x6 Velvia 50 slides on the light box.

Peter said...

Kirk, If you ever find a camera or process that gets skin tones like the shot of Lou, I trust you will be letting us know! May your search be a happy one. And in the meantime....

jameslj said...

Any photo with a green Les Paul is a great photo.

organicdev said...

Agree on all counts Kirk. Especially on the shoulder issue. I keep on trying to re-create a useful shoulder from digital files but of course you'd have to give up some dynamic range and expose less to begin with. I'm now using m4/3 so there isn't a lot of latitude to play with. Ah well.

My scanned slides still blow me away, saturated colors that don't look oversaturated, yet none of the grey mist that often comes with digital. The most epic tonalities, either B/W or from chromes, come from my few 4x5's. It's actually painful to look at how beautiful those scans can be (never mind the actual slide - a jewel). And right on getting it right the first time with slide film. Even Antarctic snowscapes. It is (was) possible.

But my big surprise in tonalities has been when I finally got it right to scan ordinary 35 mm color negative film. It's the absolute gentlest color, less spectacular than sldie but more "true", and somehow my v700 and its profiles do often manage to get the color balance right and some of my old 35 mm color negatives look fantastic. -mbka

thequietphotographer said...

When I have slides on my light box it is alwyais a nice moment. Unfortunately where I live is difficult now to find a good labor to have them developed. But I still sometimes like to shoot Provia!
robert, fotografo tranquillo

Max said...

Slide film? Love it! What you see in the viewfinder is what you get- not what the kid at the lab thinks it should be.

The other benefit is as long as you have eyes you'll be able to view it- unlike computer storage. Who knows what media will be used in 10 years. Want to buy some 8 tracks? How about floppies? (which size?)