How Shooting Film Made Me a Better Photographer Aug 12, 2013

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Clothing Cart, China, 2013 / Mamiya 7ii / 80mm / Kodak Portra 400

Like many design students, my first experiences with photography came from an educational environment. In architecture college, we were taught some very simple, fundamental ideas to capturing space through light and composition. While I wouldn’t consider my early experiences with photography the same as actual photo students’, I would say that it greatly influenced my eye and in a lot of ways, hindered my ability to produce a decent photo.

The most pressing reason being the architectural ‘rules’ of photography: vertical lines should always be straight, view a space like a 2-point perspective, before examining other possibilities, rules of thirds, etc. We were told to idolize Francis Ching, which can make for great architectural photos but when it comes to moving, vibrant moments, can make life rather boring and stagnant. Unless you’re into that sort of thing.

One of the biggest downfalls with my introduction to photography was the lack of precedents. It’s a shame for me to admit that most photographers I studied, or had any interest in learning about shot only (or mostly) buildings. Which, as I would find out later on, during a major ‘career shift’, wouldn’t apply as much as I had hoped.

If you’ve been following this blog for any amount of time, you’ve probably noticed a change in my photography. The only reason I’m even bringing this up is because multiple people have pointed it out to me. Now, I do not like talking about my ‘work’. It’s not that I’m overly confident with it, it’s that I have a hard time considering myself a photographer. I’m confident with what I do, just not presenting it in any artistic light.

Film_Saved_Me

Indian Beach, Oregon, 2012 / Hasselblad 500c/m / 80mm / Kodak Portra 400

Film Saved Me

I remember the first time someone I highly respected complimented my photos. It was something along the lines of “your photos sucked until you bought that Hasselblad”. Keep in mind, that was about a year ago. Prior to that, I had received constructive feedback from other photographer friends, or readers, but this was the first compliment.

Why did the Hasselblad make that big of a difference? Editing and thinking. You have to first meter, then focus and wait before pressing the shutter button. It took me anywhere from 50% – 300% longer to shoot a photo when compared to my 5Dmkii. Also, an A12 film back takes 120 film. On a 6cm x 6cm transparency, that yields 12 exposures and costs roughly $12-$20 to process and scan. More or less.

I began to shoot less and focus more. Why was something interesting? What did I find so engaging about this moment? Is it worth $2 to make this photo? I found myself looking more and wanting to shoot less. From there, it influenced everything from my Instagram, to my bicycle portraits, to events, shop visits, weekend drunkenness. Life slowed down and I finally enjoyed shooting. It became comfortable.

Kyle_Texas

Kyle, Texas, 2013 / Leica M7 / 28mm / Fuji Neopan 400

Confidence

Look, it’s nerve-wracking to meet someone new, have them open up their home or studio to you and let you plow through the space with a shutter going off every other minute. I used to fill up a 16GB card with RAW photos on my 5Dmkii just about every shop visit. Now I walk through and pick a dozen or so photos with my Leica M7. The shutter is soft, almost non-existent, a rangefinder is smaller than an SLR and when you’re confident with your camera, the subject matter is more engaged, relaxed and natural.

That’s what matters the most: confidence. Being comfortable with your camera, in the setting and with the subject. Shooting film made me more selective of what I was going to photograph and in doing so, I could spend more time engaging with my subject. Then, all I had to do was wait and catch them off guard, or when they opened up and really showed their personality.

Shifter-Dan-Photos

Shifter Dan, Australia, 2013 / Mamiya 7ii / 80mm / Kodak Portra 400

Digital vs Film

Now, I’m not saying you have to sell your Canon or Nikon kit and go buy a Leica. I see people make wonderful photos with their iPhone and that’s the beauty of photography. It’s not the equipment, it’s the eye. Film was just the catalyst for me to really begin to care about my work. For some reason, it worked for me. Maybe it’s because we live in an age of instant gratification? Or maybe it’s because I fixated on equipment too much? That 50mm f1.2 lens sure is sharp, but what’s it worth if my photography still sucked?

Even a year ago, I look back at what I shot and presented here on the site, only to cringe. What was I thinking? My process and progression is transparent. My studio (the site) critique (the comments) is open to the public and sometimes, I receive emails like this from people:

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“John: Please stop the F-stop business, you have no insight and you can never be a good photographer without it. Look real hard at the work that you do. Photography is real easy and that is the problem.”

This is one of many emails I received over the past year or so from “photographers” and the only reason why this one stuck out in my head is because the author works for Boeing (i.e. he’s clearly not an idiot troll). It’s easy to take negativity like this to your heart but I’ve learned to accept it and that’s one of the most important qualities you can have: the ability to accept criticism.

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Blue Hole, California, 2013 / Yashica t4 / Fuji Pro400h

What now?

I’ll continue to shoot digital and film, depending on the application and I’ll gladly accept critique. Film, to me anyway, has been a huge help in developing my eye and my ability to connect with a subject. It’s given me confidence in my ability to create a photo because it forced me to slow down. There’s still that waiting period between the shutter button and pulling out the negative to see how it turned out. I’ve learned to edit what I shoot and how I shoot it, regardless of camera. In an age where everything is instant, it’s nice to take a break and appreciate the process. Film has made me appreciate photography in a way that no digital device could…

  • btdubs

    Just developed about 6 rolls of 6×6, various films, shot on an Agfa Isolette and a Mamiya C330 TLR. It was not cheap. But there is a magic to finally seeing those negatives blow up into beautiful, huge positives.

    Besides the fact that film just captures depth… better. Medium format’s biggest strength is gradients and shadow detail. If you can nail the focus on the rangefinder cameras, you’re rewarded with killer sharp photos and beautiful detail, with a tone that digital just can’t reproduce.

    Besides the fact that it forces you to think about each and every photo. I guarantee that shooting film makes for better photographers. Photography is easy… but good photography is very hard.

  • http://www.rideforadream.ca/ Micah

    Couldn’t agree more.

    I am fully aware that a large part of why I keep shooting film is simply because the Yashica t4 is such a great camera. For travel and other quick shots it can’t be beat. Dead simple to use and it nails every shot.

    I still shoot digital, and will always need a DSLR for work. But I find that now I shoot diigtal almost as if it were film, trying to get a couple of keepers as opposed to a thousand bad shots.

    It just kind of sucks to have to incorporate film and developing costs into my trip budgets!

  • Matt Lingo

    Photos like the ones from the Mt. Hood ride have always stood out in my mind as your strongest. Your quiet moment shots which is what it sounds like you focus on never grabbed me as much as the raw, grainy black and white of misty tree lines or gravel roads through dead trees. It’s loose, gestural, and the content is really informed by the aesthetic

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      Those photos are some of my favorite “ride” photos for sure.

  • Robert Keith Costin

    Film and digital are fundamentally different experiences, even if they are a similar means to an end. Your photography brings out the beauty of bicycling and has inspired me to start shooting again and ride more. It’s amazing how the two experiences meld with each other. Keep snapping!
    John, where do you get your film processed and scanned? I have no options locally which makes shooting film extremely inconvenient. 12-20 bucks a batch honestly sounds like a steal compared to what I used to pay!

  • Ir77

    You posting this gives me film nostalgia and having recently sold off my M8 the idea of picking up an M6 Ttl I used to have is in the back of my mind. But, when I think about the hassle of getting film developed, especially scanning to something that will printer in larger than 5×7 makes me worry. Where do you develop and scan your 35mm stuff, and what resolution scans do you do for stuff beyond that only goes on the web?

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      All this will be answered in a follow-up post! ;-)

  • Zac

    Going from 35mm to 120 will do the same thing to you. Makes you think a bit more about each exposure. Especially when you’re shooting 6×6.

  • Evan Wilson

    Nice write-up on this, and love the humility to take the “hit” from that Boeing guy. I have noticed a major uptick in quality too. Keep on shooting!

  • Kate L.

    Fantastic post – thanks for writing honestly about your growth as a photographer. I especially loved your film shots from China.

    I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on your experiences with medium format (film) , specifically moving up from 35mm, how well your Hasselblad vs. your Mamiya met your needs, etc.

  • Sean Curran

    I’m with you on architecture school changing the way you compose photos. Later in school when I studied abroad I took very correct “ching” photos for the first half, 12mm, on a tripod if I could, and lowest iso possible, filling entire SD cards. I dont even look at them now. About half way through I picked up an old russian slr that was actually pretty terrible, but I had fun with it, and the photos I was taking with it were drastically different, i’m not really quite sure why, but I think it was trying to capture moments and less scenes. I wish I could say i’ve completely progressed past the strict rules now, but I don’t honestly shoot enough to do so. I have found that that I am shooting better, but sometimes I snap into modes.

    Also, I haven’t been following you forever, but your work over the past year has been great.

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      Thanks so much man!

  • Alex B

    It’s great that you’re being open about your growth as an artist. You receive a lot of undeserved shit from visitors on this site. Don’t let them get to you.

    What’s important here is that you’ve found a process: An aesthetic and technical approach to your craft that you can be confident in and that delivers reproducible results. How wonderfully comforting is that!

    One caveat: don’t fall into the “preciousness trap” of film. The additional time, effort and money does not inherently imbue photos shot on film with any additional value. In the pre-digital era film was not considered a limit, great photographers shot as many frames as were needed.

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      Point well taken! I find myself falling into the preciousness trap but at least that lesson is best learned through the most effective manner: loss of wallet girth.

      Paying out of pocket for film and processing has me rethinking how I use it for sure….

  • http://vimeo.com/johnscottharris Scott Harris

    Great read dude, really appreciate the candidness. This makes me want to start dabbling in film.

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      always candid over here… :-)

  • Daniel Michael Foster

    John, I started shooting film on my first bike tour – Melburn to Adelaide, simple reason being I didn’t want to trash my DSLR on the road. To say this was eye opening is a huge understatement. The camera sucked (EOS 300X), but somehow the images were just awesome. Great exposure, colours and dynamic range. It was the first time i seriously looked at film, and feel I’m better for it.

  • MJR77

    Thanks for posting this. I have (probably) significantly less time than you do to devote to photography (if I don’t want to crowd out other things, like cycling, cooking, my wife…) and so shooting film is not on my radar.

    However, there are certain tricks I have picked up to also slow things down a bit. Shooting mainly with a fixed focal length (a Ricoh at 28mm and Micro 4/3 at 35mm) makes you pick your spots a bit more selectively. I also try not to rush home and load the photos to my computer right away- better to wait a week, and post process (sparingly) with a little less immediacy; this will allow you to be a bit more critical.

    I was actually looking at this site this weekend and wondering about the mechanics of how you shoot from the bike? Do you stop often and switch cameras, etc, or just sling your camera on your shoulder and snap on the fly? I can do the latter with my small camera but was unsure of how you’d manage with something larger and more involved.

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      I usually shoot primes anyway and only use tele lenses when I’m at an event and don’t want to haul around a 28, 50 and 135.

      Any camera, manual or auto focus, film or digital can be slung around a shoulder… It’s firing while riding that takes some control. I get some great shots while riding and a lot of horrible fuck ups… just takes time.
      :-)

      • Qamuuqin

        Shooting while riding is the ultimate! I find myself wishing that my eye was a camera and that I could set it mentally and take a snap just by blinking. #ifonly

  • Brett Rothmeyer

    Nice work, It’s really cool to see how photography in and around cycling has progressed and changed over the last decade. Just watching from a far it would seem that there is a great little scene of guys like yourself, Emiliano and Daniel from MFS, Vernor and Jeremy and a few others are influencing and pushing each others work. Oh and Emily Maye and the Grubers, the work they’ve been doing has been insane as of late. Anyway keep up the good work.

    • quesofrito

      THIS GUY knows what’s up!

  • Jamie McKeon

    Stoked about this

  • Hùng Kính Yêu

    I totally agree with you.

    I started my photography during the 90s and picked up digital in the 2008. In 2010 i sold my canon digital set with all L lens to come back to film photography.

    I am now shooting Rolleiflex 2.8 E2 and a Norita Graflex for the MF and Contax Rts-ii for 135 format. I am just a serious amatour photographer but i am so glad a came back to film.

    Thanks for sharing such great reading.

  • quesofrito

    since no one else is being negative in the comments, i’ll be the troll.

    john, since you got that mamiya, your photos suck. go back to FGFS

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      #prollynot

  • http://battlestareclectica.tumblr.com/ Elvis

    I’ve been reading your blog for over 3 years now. Your progression with photography, specifically the composition you use when photographing bicycles, has been an inspiration for me to take better photos. Criticism is as important to development as your passion. Keep it up.

  • Joe Roggenbuck

    Photos are definitely getting better all the time. It’s inspiring to watch your progress. I mainly wanted to post here to show support for photographers in the blog. Not sure if non-photo ppl get annoyed by this kind of post, but I love it. It is a personal goal to see a photo of mine on this site.

  • Matt

    I’ve been rolling my own film, developing at home and scanning for the last couple years to keep my costs down. The quality may not be acceptable for most professional uses but as a hobby it works fine for me. I only print with the enlarger which has been pretty infrequently in recent times.

    Film really does slow everything down. I shoot with Konicas from the 70′s which all have dead meters. I’ve rigorously studied “the ultimate exposure guide” to help me shoot without a meter which makes every situation exciting. I’ve definitely wasted rolls and rolls of film with underexposure, and missed focuses from rushing or whatnot but I feel much more confident with the camera now.

    Thanks for sharing, your documented adventures have inspired me to get out, ride and explore more.

  • Qamuuqin

    Thanks for the sincere, honest account of your work. When people ask me about my favorite current photographers, you, Emily Maye, and Granado always seem to come up. Keep it up for as long as it fulfills you because it’s inspiring.

    • quesofrito

      HOLLER!

  • Wade Stevens

    I knew you’d like medium format, and yes, your shots have gotten way better since then.
    Ever try a TLR? Rollei’s with a Planar or Tessar are pretty affordable, though yes, the film and processing are still the big nut.

  • Martin Fritter

    Just discovered this discussion. Up to about a year ago, I had been shooting a Nikon D7000 and a Nikon F4. I noticed – and others noticed that – my film work was consistently more engaging than the digital. I was using the same lenses on both cameras. The F4 was the first highly automated film camera with matrix metering and very accurate and fast auto focus. In addition, it would shoot about six frames a second. So what was the difference? Two main ones – first no film camera will shoot high iso like digital. Period. Second, with the F4 you can’t review your pictures immediately on taking them. You must wait until they’re processed. I believe instant review is the major problem with digital photography. You try to perfect the last picture instead of looking for the next one. Suppose you’re playing a piece of music and you make a mistake. So you go back to before the mistake and try again. But you’re no longer playing the piece. You’re practicing. Totally different.

    Regarding the issue of cost. First, you can get amazing cameras for a song. A Nikon F5 is about $400. You can get pre-AI lenses for next to nothing. The same is true of of Canon. You can get into medium format via the Mamiya and Pentax 645s quite reasonably. Or if you like TTL, Mamiya or Yashica. It doesn’t have to be Hasselblad or Leica or Rolleiflex.

    Second, if you shoot 135 the cost per picture is quite low. Ilford HP5 is about $8/roll. 22 cents a pic. I’m lucky, in Boulder Co we have a good full service lab. Costs about $7 a roll to develop. So 31 cents a picture.

    When I started with film, I purchased consumer C41 at Target at about $2.50 a roll. I had the Target mini-lab do develop only processing, which cost another $2.00. (I now use a pro lab which costs $3.50 a roll to develop.)

    I bought an Epson V500 scanner from their outlet web store for $100. I’ve been told by a number of professional labs that the IQ is the same as for their much more expensive V700, the difference being speed and the ability of V700 to process 4×5. You also get a copy of Photoshop Elements – a necessity for spot removal.

    There are some very nice C41 color negative 135 and 120 films and the costs are not bad.

    I process my 120 at 3200 dpi and get 18 megapixel images. You can also up-res with Lightroom 5 and Photoshop CC.

    You can still buy Fuji mailers from B&H for $8.99. Put your film in the mailer, send it off and about a week you get a nice box of mounted slides, just like 1969. They’ll do any 135 E6, btw.

    Oh, I also buy all my film on-line.

    It’s all so much fun and so rewarding everybody should do it. You can get the satisfaction of knowing that you took your pictures, not the robot you’re carrying around.
    Sorry for the length of this. I hope it’s useful and I will be happy to elaborate if asked.

  • http://www.nickbedford.com/ Nick Bedford

    I’ve shot less than a few film photos in my life, beside a few disposables for fun, but those are nothing more than film point and shoots.

    I began shooting in 2010 and photography has changed my life, especially since I knew I loved portraiture within only a few months of starting. It’s led me to the portfolio and experiences I have right now and I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but I just find I have no desire to go out and make pictures.

    To me digital feels too instant, too easy to perfect, less of an art and more about reacting than being proactive before you even take the picture. For professional work, digital is absolutely the tool to use because of those reasons. You can make sure the pictures are what you and the client want, but that’s all.

    So I bought a Canonet QL19 with the 45mm F1.9 lens for about $40 exc. postage. I’ve got a roll of Ilford 125 B&W in my fridge and some rolls of Portra 160 on the way. The 45mm F1.9 should be perfect for making portraits.

    But the reason I feel so excited about doing this and forgetting about digital for my personal picture taking is the following:

    – I have to meter correctly.
    – I have to make sure my lighting is great.
    – I have to wait for a moment with my subject or environment.

    All before taking the picture, unless I want to waste money. With digital, the ability to chimp, to review and to react instead of think first is always going to be there. With a film camera, I don’t have that temptation because I simply can’t do those things!

    Other reasons that excite me:

    – Once I take the picture, that’s it. It’s in the bucket and I can move onto the next picture. I don’t think about how to correct this or that and take ten revisions, the image is what it is and I’ll find out in a few weeks if I nailed it when I get them developed.

    - The look of the image, the contrast, colour and white balance are all chosen when I buy the film. With raw stills, it’s extremely tempting to switch my styling even within a single shoot. Do I want to use Canon Standard? Oh, maybe Fuji Astia 100F emulation or Portra 400!

    – With film, and especially with this fixed lens camera, I’m shooting 36 images with the same colour, contrast and focal length. The roll is a consistent unit of pictures with different subject matter and that’s it.

    So to me, the benefits of trying my hand at film are less about the capabilities of film and much more about what shooting on a film camera does to my process.