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Moving back to film photography

  |   Article, Articles and reviews, Black and white, Personal views, Photography Ideas   |   7 Comments

Moving back to film for my photography?

How nostalgia almost won out


It was in 2004 that Keith made his first ‘digital only’ trip abroad. The film cameras were left at home and the digital age arrived.

Recently though, much of his film equipment needed moving, could it be time to re-discover a more ‘authentic’ approach to his personal photography?

Note that this article is about Keith’s personal photographic work – given the sorts of commercial work we do (industrial and architectural), any business aspects of film use are a quite different matter.

OM-2n Zuiko 50mm f/1.2

All that kit

We’re doing some major re-arrangements of my office and print room, finding a lot of hidden dust and assorted drawers where things were safely put away at some time in the last fifteen years.

My techy/engineering side has always had a keen interest in optics and I hate getting rid of perfectly good equipment – some of it is even useful.

I’ve regularly tested old lenses with adapters on digital kit, and almost always the results are interesting, but lead me back to appreciating the advances we’ve seen in lens design over the last few years.

Cameras

When I went off to Colorado in 2004 I left behind my two travel cameras – both Olympus OM-2 slrs.  One would have colour slide film in it, and the other black and white.

Here they are, along with my spare OM-40 with Olympus T-32 flash and a third party power winder.

three olympus film cameras

The lenses are the excellent Zuiko 24/2.8 and Zuiko 50/1.2.

Manual focus is no problem – the viewfinder of the OM-2 is bright and clear, whilst the small size of the body makes cameras like my Canon EOS 1Ds mk3 feel like a house brick.

I’ve a few other assorted Sigma and Tamron zooms, but they show their age a lot more than the Zuiko lenses.

Shingle Street and the darkroom

I’ve only a few prints in my office, but one of them is a view of Single Street in Suffolk, that I took back in the 1980’s with the OM-2/24mm (click to enlarge)

Shingle Street 1

I remember first printing this image in my darkroom – the one that now has a 44″ wide large format printer in it.

The strong grain comes through in the print and reminds me of a chilly spring day on the Suffolk coast…

Another OM2/24mm image from Canada in 1992, in the Rockies  (click to enlarge)

Rapids - canadian rockies

The first time I’d spent on my own driving around mountains…

OK, lets hold on a moment and put the images you see here in some context.

Part digital

The Shingle Street image was never actually printed full size in my darkroom – I remember looking at the contact sheet and thinking it didn’t quite work, and filing it away with lots of other negatives.

The rapids were very difficult to print, with the trees coming out almost solid black and the sun being lost in the glare of the sky. The structure and movement of the water was never as obvious.

Both images date from my early experiments with digital editing, using a Canon FS4000 film scanner and a pre CS version of Photoshop (probably v6 – no, not CS6)

They are key images in my learning what are still two of the most powerful editing techniques I use today: curves and masked adjustment layers.

The Shingle Street image is where I truly appreciated a hefty crop and moving the horizon low, making more of the sky, and realising that no-one awarded prizes for using the whole frame.

These are images where I first experimented with black and white inkjet printing – and an appreciation of how sharpening worked for different parts of an image at a particular print size.

Here’s me with one of the first big B&W prints I made in 2004

Keith Cooper and large print

There’s no way I could have produced that in my darkroom.

Related items

Lenses and autofocus

I’m happy with the quality of images I could get from those Olympus cameras and lenses, but what about the collection of Canon EF lenses I’ve got sitting near my desk?  It seems almost perverse not to include them in my potential plans for film use?

I’ve manual focus lenses such as the TS-E17mm and TS-E24mm and a slew of other EF lenses I use for my day to day work, running from fisheye (EF8-15mm) through to 200mm.

Whilst I can use adapters on my Canon bodies, and have made use of the Zuiko 50/1.2, it won’t work the other way round.

New cameras?

So, I’d need an EF mount Canon film camera – The used price of these has picked up a bit of late, but I can get a good EOS-1V or EOS-3 for a few hundred pounds.

But hang on, one of the things I liked about those Olympus cameras when they came out of the drawer was the size and handling.

Here’s the OM-2 with the relatively large 50/1.2 compared to my current 5Ds+ EF50/1.4

Canon 5Ds and Olympus OM-2n 50mm

If I was to get one of the Canon film cameras, it’s not much different from the Canon 1Ds I took with me on that 2004 trip to Colorado.

Seen here with the EF16-35 f2.8L lens (from my March 2004 moving to digital article)

OM-2 and Canon 1Ds

If I go around with a Canon EOS film camera instead of one of my EOS digital bodies, what’s actually changed, other than I’ve film inside the camera rather than a digital sensor?

OK, I don’t have a preview screen on the back and I get to wait some variable amount of time between taking my photos and getting an idea of how they have come out.

I can do that with some gaffer tape and putting the memory card in a dark cupboard for a week when I get home with my digital cameras. I can shoot in manual mode (which I do a lot anyway) and stock up on 512MB cards for that limited number of shots experience.

This is the point where I start wondering just what it is I’m hoping to achieve with this return to film.

What about larger format film?

Leaving aside the handling and viewfinder quality that first set me off along this course, what about some of the other kit sitting around here?

Well, there’s a whole box full of assorted Mamiya 645 kit.

Mamiya 645 camera with 35mm, 55mm and 80mm lenses

I’ve used the lenses on my Canon bodies with an M645->EF shift adapter, but the camera and all its assorted bits and pieces (viewfinders/focus screens/backs) sit waiting.

To use this kit, I’d need to address the processing and scanning of film, since I’ve no local labs and my scanner won’t do MF sized film.

There’s also my MPP 5×4 view camera, that I made a DSLR adapter for some time ago (for under a tenner) – I could quickly revert that to film use.

This starts to sound expensive and I wonder just what I’d be wanting to use them for, given the quality of lenses and cameras I already use for my day to day work?

Sure, there is a technical craft challenge in learning to use a new system, along with the inevitable ways that I find learning any new technical skill can benefit other area of my photography.

But seriously, it’s a lot of effort that I’d rather put into equipment use that is both fun and of relevance to my business – such as the recent 4700MP view of Leicester I created. This was partly because I could, but also because I wanted to share a view that not many people would ever get to see of my home city.

When I was using my 11MP Canon 1Ds, the potential benefits of film were still quite arguable – now that I’m using a 50MP EOS 5Ds and can stitch images with ease, I have a much harder time seeing what I might actually do with images I take on film. Indeed whilst writing this I had a phone enquiry from a business wanting construction project images that could be easily printed at A0 size and above.

The joys of the print

There’s no way I’m going back to wet chemistry for prints – I put a lot of effort into B&W printing last century, and it was quickly surpassed by my digital results.

If I want to print from digital negatives, then that’s a whole different craft to explore, but it isn’t something that needs me to capture images with film.

I’m also unapologetic about liking -big- prints. I remember the practical difficulties in going above 16×12 in my darkroom – that and the chances of converting a ‘spare’ room to a darkroom diminished rapidly after I stopped living on my own a few years ago :-)

Keith Cooper and 14 metre print of Leicester

At a recent photographic show, I gave a number of presentations about making big prints and how a combination of technical excellence and great images are needed.

For big prints from film I really do need more detail than I’m going to get from most 35mm film – that suggests larger format film and scanning.

Remind me again, what was it that got me thinking of this, ah yes, how nice my OM2 and 24mm lens were to handle and use.

Smaller and better

Ok, what about getting myself a modern smaller camera?

Something mirrorless, with a good viewfinder and maybe adapters to use any of my collection of lenses. That sounds interesting?

No, it was film that I’m looking at…

Not fooling myself?

Keith Cooper light writing with a sparkler

Writing my name with a sparkler

The dead end I run up against when thinking of using film again is nothing to do with the expense of larger formats, or the need to scan film, or even the loss of being able to check that something is captured correctly (actually very important if you’re on a paying job).

No, it’s a genuine feeling that using film in of itself gives me nothing more from a photographic point of view (YMMV). I’ve tried, but anything I think of doing, I get the feeling that I can do it more effectively another way.

I’ve heard all kinds of creative and artistic arguments about how it helps you think differently or represents things in some different more meaningful way, but I’m sorry they just don’t cut it for me.

A fair bit of justification seems a little post hoc and perhaps driven by a feeling that digital photography is ‘too easy’ or that there is some virtue in making things more difficult for yourself.

I’m minded to suggest to suggest that:

If you think digital photography is too easy, then you are not trying hard enough.

By all means make use of film for your photographic expression, but please don’t get too carried away with the back story…

As someone who enjoys experimenting with technologies and techniques, I learned a lot from the skills needed to make effective use of film. Indeed, some of my approaches to editing images still come from an understanding of dodging and burning, along with film and print development, learned in the darkroom. However that was 25 years ago and things have moved on – a lot.

My interest is in expressing things through my photography – I’m lucky in that I get a lot of kit to experiment with and have a business that supports (and benefits from) this.

So, it seems that my film equipment is destined to be dusted and carefully returned to a safe place.

Looking at film has made me appreciate all the more just how capable the modern kit around here is.

I’m not interested in learning new [old] craft skills for the sake of it, or trying to make my photography more difficult or cumbersome.

In some ways deciding to explore film is no more than a version of that old “I need to get a better camera to take better photos line” that’s all too often used as an excuse.

I’m afraid any challenges need to come from within, and my own creative/artistic abilities. That’s far more interesting/challenging/frightening than ‘just’ going back to film.

–ooOoo–

So, what benefits might I be missing by putting the film kit back in the drawer? As ever, comments welcome ;-)

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  • Christopher McMullen

    Another nice article Keith. I really love your technical articles and your reviews, but I really appreciate your sharing your thoughts and feelings about this magical medium even more. It helps me reflect more fully on what, why, and how I engage in photography.

    For myself, my entry into digital was problematic. I picked up an EOS 50D upon release as the 5D Mark II wasn’t yet out (shows you how narrow a buying window I had!) I was living in India at the time had had left work to renew my visa, so could not wait for the 5DII. The 50D proved to highlight the pitfalls of being an early adopter: it has never in its life been reliable, and even last year Canon repaired it again (I’ve lost count how many times) for free. Beyond reliability issues, its high level of noise made night cityscapes less than compelling, so I continued to shoot film. I prefer the look of film shadows to digital, so this has continued. Even as I completed a digital photography degree I was still shooting film (I got many comments from instructors about my film scans :-) ! This is obviously not to say I am anti-digital: four years studying digital is an indicator of my my commitment to that. But I see them as different, just as black and white and color are different. The biggest difference for me is in the process.

    I went into my ‘daytime’ career of training as I did not want to be stuck behind a desk at a computer. Photography eclipsed my other hobbies from school because it got me outside out from behind a desk as well. At that time, photography for me meant loading up the bag, grabbing the tripod, and trekking through a city doing color and infrared shots of architecture and cityscapes, into and through twilight until the night. To this I added jazz musicians and women dancers, as paid work. As I have never had my own darkroom (for various reasons), I had to get it right in camera. So when I packed up from a shoot the images were essentially finished. The minor steps (timeless) of development and editing were all that were left. I had a friend who processed the infrared, and reliable labs for the color work. It took ten minutes per roll to file the negatives or slides once returned, and enlargements involved a discussion with my printer as to what I wanted. All easy tasks.

    Now I spend hours doing back up and copying. I have negatives from thirty years ago when I lived in Mexico but my digital files from 2010 while in South Asia and Egypt are already corrupted (I did not know you had to migrate files every few years; I caught them too late). That said, digital infrared is a godsend: what I can do with those files compared to the film bears no comparison. It is worth being stuck behind a desk at a computer! For enlarging, I know have digital printers I converse with, but I control the image myself. Color however, I still have mixed feelings about and I will periodically grab a film camera because “I just want to SHOOT.” No downloading, no editing, just out for the day and see what you make. (Sounds kind of like street photography philosophy, without the people though…). As Al said, a simpler process I enjoy.

    To your thoughts Keith, I have one minor point of information. The first generation EOS film cameras are more the size of your OM-2s. The 650 (not recommended); 620, 630 (600 in the UK), and RT (all recommended) are smaller and al will take infrared film, if you are looking to up your masochism index. ;-) They predate the command dial on the back so manual exposure is a bit different — you push a button and simultaneously turn the main dial: think of a shift key for typing on a keyboard. Exposure compensation in the auto modes is even more clunky, although you get a whopping +/- 5 stops. The latter three all do multiple exposure in camera and also do auto-exposure bracketing easily and simply (unlike Canon’s digitals). And the RT shoots through the mirror, so is like a rangefinder. It is still far and away my favorite 35mm/miniature camera I have ever used because of this, the best of two worlds. Or you could opt for a EOS 10S, which adds the dial on the back, multiple focusing points, and a built-in intervalometer but loses the ability to shoot infrared film. All of course would work with every EF and EF-mount lens you have. I’ve seen the 600-series bodies going for ridiculously cheap prices of late (think single roll of film plus processing cheap), so would be a painless exploration. Just a thought…

    You lose correction modules unless you import the film into a computer, but I would love to see what the new Canon wide angles would do on film: until the last few years, I’ve not liked any Canon EF wide angle below 28mm except for the 15mm Fisheye. Maybe you have a friend who could lend you an old body and spot you a roll of Tri-X if you don’t want to spend lunch money on a 600 body…Just an idea!

    • Keith Cooper

      Thanks for that! – I’m not yet lost to the world of film ;-)

  • Al kay

    Since I returned to film, I asked myself a lot of questions about this. I found no rational argument to justify sticking to film, but a lot of irrationnal ones :
    – Nostalgia. But I don’t think it is a bad thing
    – Traditions. Doing it the old way. In woodworking, some people prefer using handtools instead of powertools. The same with photography.
    – Pleasure. Yes film photography can be more enjoyable on many levels. Old mecanical marvels, fresh films, planning, shooting, and hoping for the best. You may not enjoy it. But some do.
    – The medium. I don’t like grain. I don’t. But I still enjoy the result I get from film. A film negative never seems to be fully exploited, you always know you “miss” something : you loose sharpness, shadows are dense, details are lost in grain. There is a part of mistery that I like. (You can call bullsh*t, on this one … but this is the way I feel about it !). Digital seems more definitive in a way : no details passed your resolution. But you may find something similar in RAW processing, in the way you bring back details in shadows, for example.
    In the end, I don’t believe in the “slowing down and being more deliberate” part being possible in digital, at least for me. the film camera mode idea is funny, but I don’t think it touches the core of what I like in film. Driving a tesla with a 67 Shelby mode would not be enjoyable, right ?

    • Keith Cooper

      Good points… I guess it’s partly because I’ve got all the lenses and gear for my ‘paying’ work, and get to do all the testing for the reviews and articles that I see so much to explore in digital.

      The case is still not made for certain, so I may yet pop a roll of B&W into the OM2/24mm ‘just because’ ;-)

  • Al kay

    Since I returned to film, I asked myself a lot of questions about this. I found no rational argument to justify sticking to film, but a lot of irrationnal ones :

    – Nostalgia. But I don’t think it is a bad thing
    – Traditions. Doing t it the old way. In woodworking, some people prefer using handtools instead of powertools. The same with photography.
    – Pleasure. Yes film photography can be more enjoyable on many levels. Old mecanical marvels, fresh films, planning, shooting, and hoping for the best. You may not enjoy it. But some do.
    – The medium. I don’t like grain. I don’t. But I still enjoy the result I get from film. A film negative never seems to be fully exploited, you always know you “miss” something : you loose sharpness, shadows are dense, details are lost in grain. There is a part of mistery that I like. (You can call bullsh*t, on this one … but this is the way I feel about it !). Digital seems more definitive in a way : no details passed your resolution. But you may find something similar in RAW processing, in the way you bring back details in shadows, for example.

    In the end, I don’t believe in the “slowing down and being more deliberate” part being possible in digital, at least for me. the film camera mode idea is funny, but I don’t think it touches the core of what I like in film. Driving a tesla with a “1967 Mustang GT500CR” mode would not be enjoyable, right ?

  • David Cockey

    Nice article with conclusions very similar to my own. We’re in the process of moving and recently went through the boxes with my and my father’s old cameras and darkroom equipment. I have no interest in going back to film or wet processing.

    For those who insist that film makes them better photographers because it slows them down and makes them more deliberate there is probably a market for “film camera” (not “film”) emulation as a mode for digital cameras. Features woul include:
    – No live view mode.
    – No ability to review images.
    – No histogram.
    – Only single shots allowed with a one second delay between shots (time for “winding the film”).
    – Maximum of 24 or 36 images per storage card.
    – ISO must be set when the storage card is installed and can not be changed until another storage card is installed.
    – ISO limited to a maximum of 400.
    – White balance is limited to “Daylight” or “Tungsten” and must be selected when the storage card is installed.

    • Keith Cooper

      Thanks – love the suggestions for a ‘film camera’ mode – I’d not thought of the ISO and WB choice ;-)