Monday, March 23, 2015

Learning to Shoot Film: a comparison of digital & film

Yes. The allure of film got me. The promise of the perfect exposure, of harmony between light & dark, with exquisite colors straight out of camera like never before sounded too amazing not to experience it for myself. 

So after having only bought a Mark III for the price of a kidney I felt guilty wanting to now buy a Film camera at a similar price tag. Luckily my friend had one for sale, a little Hasselblad....which I'm going to admit I don't even know the rest of the name (gasp)...500 cm? Something like that. It shoots film. But really that's how little I used it. 

My first adventure was a wedding (don't worry I took my Mark III too as my main camera, I'm not that crazy!) but I took the Hasselblad & got a talented friend to come hang out & shoot too, Charlene Hardy, check her out. She shoots & develops film for her own business & I knew she could guide me through everything so I could snap a few shots here & there & get some practice & an idea of how a wedding would look on film. Well that turned out alright. But the Hasselblad has a viewfinder that's like looking through a carnival fun shortened speak...not a camera that's easy to snap a quick shot here & there with. I got some decent images but I wasn't overexposing the film & we didn't tweak any of the colors during development & on top of that, they were in a square format since the Hasselblad doesn't shoot a 4x6. 

I didn't feel confident enough to go shoot on my own again since I wasn't exactly thrilled with how the first round had gone for me. One of my issues. Getting discouraged. Not putting in the time & practicing. I know this. I've seen many people produce amazing images because they shoot constantly. I have seen the first images of lots of talented celebrity photographers whose first images looked like my first images....we all start somewhere. Unless you're a prodigy & born awesome, I didn't get that lucky. But the people we admire most didn't wake up perfect & I can't expect to either. Greatness takes practice & confidence in ourselves to get there.

My first film image, shot on a Hasselblad.
One thing we read over & over until it's beat into our head is to not compare ourselves to others. And so I've accepted that I'm learning at my own pace & even though I don't choose to book or shoot twice a week,  so I'm taking longer to learn, that's ok. If I learn in 2 years what it took someone else 6 months to do, I've still learned & so that's also ok. And film scares me. I don't know why. Once upon a time (yes I'm old enough) film was all there was. My first camera was a film camera. So why the terror you say? I don't know. Something about loading the film...stretching it out & loading it, with the anticipation that something amazing might burn it's way onto the virgin rolls surface, terrifies me. With Jose Villa's & Elizabeth Messina's turning out these's intimidating. 

So if you're like me & you've been scared, tell your rude inner voice to get bent, that you're a dam goddess & if it take's 13 rolls to be a master or if it takes 200, so what. Picasso didn't start off painting masterpieces either, so having unrealistic expectations that I should be some sort of Steve Jobs of film photography, sucks too. So that's where part II of my film journey begins. Enough of the fuzzy talk....sometimes that accidentally sneaks into my posts because I need to hear it.

So my other awesome friend Dawn who frequently finds her name in my posts, came down & we went out to conquer. I hadn't shot film in so long that I had forgotten again how to load the film, so after reviewing that & recording the process on my phone so I could make sure I do it right the next time I'm on my own out in the wilderness with nothing but a match & my camera, I can survive. I don't know why I'm always afraid I'll load the film backwards or pull it out too far or push the wrong's ridiculous. I'm 28 & I'm only now having the self awareness to realize A. I'm a slow learner & everytime I put on a resume in the past, that I'm a quick learner that was a bold face lie. B. I'm afraid of way too many things including the acceptable fear of spider's but not so acceptable fear of failure & film loading. 

So off we went up a little hill just before sunset with an awesome person who accepted the invitation to come model for us. We didn't use anything besides our camera's to manipulate the light, that way we could really see the film for what it was. We did overexpose the film by setting the ISO higher than the film actually was & by using a slower shutter then what the meter called for.  

I had 15 shots & limited time before the sun would be gone. 

With digital you can click away, (which I still don't get shutter happy because it's just more time to cull & whatnot) but there's definitely less pressure when you decide to compress the shutter button. With film, wow. It's a whole different feeling. Each time you push that button it costs you. And after 15 shots you have to stop & lose time to load more film, so you find yourself really thinking about the shots. It's exhilarating & challenges you in a great way. And balancing taking the time to think out my shots with the fact that we only had about 30 minutes of good light was even more invigorating.

So we shot away & when the 15th shot was taken we headed home. I can't tell you how exciting it is to shoot your first roll & the anticipation of waiting for it to get to the lab & to have those shots sent back to you. The mystery! Did they turn out? Will the be amazing? Are you the next great thing in film photography? Oooor did you mess something up somehow & all your images are gonna look like doo. Who knows! So I waited...& to visualize this...picture the scene from 101 Dalmatians...when they're waiting around for the puppies to be born, the clock ticking away endlessly, murderously! This accurately describes me for a week. And so then what? Well they came back &...I feel good. 

They aren't going to win any prizes. My heart didn't stop from the beauty of them. A few of them were out of focus before I had decided to switch to manual focus & after that, all the shots were in focus. But then, in one of the pictures I took it right as she blinked, which I didn't even know at the time of course since you don't get the instant preview like with digital.

So potentially you could be taking the 'shot of the day' & it would have been a loss. In another just as I pushed the shutter, the wind took off with some of her hair & ruined the shot. So there's definitely lot's more variables & bumps in the road when shooting film, something that those who have mastered it also know & have learned to overcome. Something I'll overcome as I shoot more & more & practice avoiding those problems.

For those just starting out on film I really advise doing what I did & taking a digital camera along as well to take backup versions of your important shots but also to practice blending digital & film together in post which is an important skill. It also lets you compare the two realistically so you can even have an opinion about film, is it really better? Did it really take the pictures to a level digital couldn't?

As of right now my verdict is maybe.  

I like it but I don't think it's as amazing & perfect as everyone claims either. There is a depth in the images, a more 3D, feel-like-you're-there sort of subtle effect. Nothing mind blowing, but still there. You can achieve this same effect with an 85mm lens. The colors? Well, straight back from the lab, they are better than digital, yes.  Would I just send them out to a client as is? No. 

As you'll see in the images farther into this post, where I put the original next to the edited version....they needed some slight adjustments. I do think a reflector would go a long way in adding enough light to the subject's face that the shadows would be fine. I also like the way the images looked out straight from the camera when the subject was facing the sun versus when the sun was backlighting her. And I do love the way the blurry areas look in film versus in digital. As you can see in the image below, there's a sort of movement to the blur in film whereas with digital the blur looks more contrasty & has no movement to it. 

Unedited film scan where you can see the way the blurred area has movement to it

Rather ironically, I edited the film pictures with film presets to make the film have the film colors everyone is emulating. So let me say that again because I love irony...I shot Fuji 400h film & had to use a Fuji 400h film emulating preset to get the colors most people expect from Fuji 400h. Life. I love it. 

(Left) unedited film scan, (Right) film scan developed with a Fuji 400h Lightroom Preset
Also worth noting.....if you take a film image & a digital image & click the same preset you will get different results entirely. The film scans looked pretty perfect after clicking the VSCO Fuji 400h preset & doing a slight adjustment to the white balance whereas the digital pictures processed with that same preset required a ton of tweaking. So thats a plus I suppose. It is less editing although it is necessary to edit (in my opinion).

Should I also just take a second to clarify half way through this post, that these are my experiences & opinions, I'm not a film expert nor a digital expert so if you find you had a different experience share! I'd love to know that I'm doing something wrong & that the magic of film is truly as simple as it's sold to be.

But that said, the last thing I'll say was kind of a bummer with the film, was the dynamic range. For sure the film handles better than digital. As you'll see in the unedited image above (on the left), that even with no reflector, I was able to expose the shaded part of her face & not completely blow off the side of her face that had sun on it & we can also still see the mountain behind her so that's great. But, when you read online about the awesomeness of film, you constantly hear about the creamy highlights & my highlights don't look creamy to me. Better than digital yes, creamy no. So on the next expedition I will definitely lift the shadows with a white reflector & then maybe the highlights will be just enough less over-exposed that the creamy highlights can be mine, all mine. 

(Left) unedited film scan, (Right) film scan developed with a Fuji 400h Lightroom Preset
Fuji 400h film scan edited in Lightroom with my custom black & white preset
Fuji 400h film scan edited with a Fuji 400h Lightroom preset
Fuji 400h film scan's edited with a Fuji 400h Lightroom preset

The following three images are the one's I shot on my Mark III that I processed with film emulating presets. If you aren't ready to drop a ton on VSCO's Film Preset's I have a few for sale for under $10 that will get you started. You can find them by clicking here. If you're thinking of getting into film photography then stick around, I'll be posting more about it as I learn to get my metering down & learn new things about my camera & the film. 

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