This is my primary film shooting camera. It's a late model Hasselblad 501 CM camera body with an A12 film back, a waist level finder and an 80mm f2.8 Zeiss Planar lens. Most people today would find it kludgy, slow and difficult to shoot with. They would also find its rarified diet of medium format film expensive and off putting. I'm not sure I disagree. But when I look beyond the need to meter, to manually focus and to compose on a screen with a reversed image I come to grips with the understanding that these impediments are actually leverage points for mindful photography.
To commit to using a medium format film camera is to open one's self up to the possible satori that comes from diligently working with actual intention. I don't mean that I lack intention when I pick up a digital camera and go out to shoot for business but I have come to understand that the tyranny of endless choice with no immediately discernable costs waters down the most important aspect of interesting personal photography: making a strong choice.
You've heard the brutally overused saw which says, "If you give someone a hammer then everything looks like a nail." I have a photographic corollary that says, "If you give a photographer a big empty memory card everything looks like a photographic opportunity." Paying for film and processing, and the tougher physical process of making an image with a medium format film camera re-introduces the need for discernment and positive discrimination. Since you feel the cost of the material and time you are apt to more carefully select both your subject and your optimum moment.
At this point the same linear people who always chime in are warming up their keyboards to tell me that they are able to focus their energies and concentration so well (and effortlessly) that they can leave their homes with a digital camera and a 64 gigabyte memory card and very easily (and I'm sure with rigorous logic and rational control) come back at the end of the day with only one or two shot frames; if that's what they planned for at the outset. Please don't bother to chime in. In a very real sense, no matter how the hopelessly pragmatic choose to spin their regimented methodology the rest of us understand that the ability to rationalize choices hardly makes them either universal or understandable to the rest of us.
When I shoot with a digital camera I am routinely driven to shoot 200 frames to make one portrait because I'm convinced that I can play the numbers and wear the subject into submission by a process of inundation. No similar workflow happens when I shoot slow film. I must slow down. I must give more thought to each shot and I must make choices about when to shoot and when to stop and look and explore and engage my subject.
If you've read my blog over the past few years it's no secret that I end up shooting all or most of my commercial jobs with digital cameras but that I have a real affinity for the magical aspect ratio of the square and the wonderful tonality of the raw, square "footage" big film provides. While the number dweebs are captivated by sheer resolution I am captivated by the infinitely smooth tonality that film brings to the table. We could address it as dynamic range but I prefer to describe the effect as extended tonal range.
When I shoot for myself my first choice is always the Hasselblad. I may miss moments because of the operational slowness of the camera and that's okay. Like a powerful boxer when the Hasselblad does connect with the right image at the right time it's a total knock out. I hate paying for film and processing as much as the next guy but sometimes you have to in order to get exactly the look you want. We gave up too much when we gave up on medium format film for our dearest work. If you have a rationalization for why you enjoy digital better you might think of this analogy that a highly successful female photographer once told me when I asked her why she was still carrying around her medium format camera.
She said, "The difference between a big, wonderful film camera and a digital camera is like the difference between one of those all you can eat buffets and really fine dining. In the bargain buffets the people rush to the serving lines and pile their plates high with lots and lots of mediocre food. Then they sit down and stuff themselves. It's hardly a unique experience, not one you'll remember with fondness, and nothing stands out as special. But, in a really fine restaurant with a talented and artistic chef you go for the experience of trying delicacies and masterpieces. You will not fill your plate but you will have a unique experience, the flavors of which will infuse and enrich your life, and memories, for years to come."
She went on to say as she put her camera into a straw basket and got ready to bike home, "I can't always afford the fine dining experience. Sometimes I just need to eat because I'm hungry. So we need both kinds of restaurants. But the times when art meets food are the times when I feel like I've had an experience that will subtly change my life. The rest of the times I'm just placated until I'm hungry again and go off to refill my plate with inconsequential food."
"But what does this have to do with my question?" I asked.
As she peddled off on her bicycle she turned over her shoulder and suggested, "Isn't photography a lot like food?"
Blogs like this (about film and digital) seem to attract comment wars wherein the old codgers who are zealous converts rush to the defense of digital by trotting out their litany of aches and pains and how digital brought the joy of their photography back. Younger people comment about people in the generations above them who just don't get that digital is a whole different medium and one that no one above their station in age can possibly understand.
I like to think that we deserve to be open to both experiences. The experience of economy and heedless speed as well as the experience of slow, mindful craft. And if we (the majority of artists) have problems with self imposed boundaries maybe the difference between the digital and the film cameras helps us to change gears in our minds and in our artistic spirits and bring to bear the right mental point of view that lets us divide our art into categories such as practical and unfettered; quick versus slow, methodical versus flippant, immersed versus surface infatuation and so on.
The realization that Kodak is exiting the film business tells me that we have very few years left in which to shoot and have our films lab processed at a reasonable cost. I, for one, want to take the opportunity to shoot film until it vanishes. There might always be film as there is still vinyl but the lack of access and the high costs might become to overwhelming to most photographer and we'll have lost another set of tools and aesthetics in our chosen art.
I am curious to know from my readers: Do you still shoot film? Have you ever shot film? If you've been engaged in photography for a while have you switched totally to digital or do you still have a foot in both camps? If you still shoot film what are your favorite emulsions and how do you see film as different, artistically, from digital?
I've just taken possession of a beautiful, black 501C Hasselblad and a new lens and prism finder. I'll be selling my earlier black 500CM body and back (no lens) in short order. Stay tuned for more information.