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  1. #1

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    Not exactly random thoughts on photography.

    The other day I was shooting at a cake-and-coffee get together for a guy's retirement. A young coworker was amazed that I was shooting film and asked how I knew if they were going to be any good without being able to digitally chimp. I was pretty much at a loss for words and ended up mumbling something about knowing how your equipment works. This little exchange really got in my head and a few days later I sent her this note. It's not a manifesto or anything like that, not deep nor profound, just a few thoughts on the theme may that entertain some of you. Or piss you off. It's worded to address somebody who knows nothing about this little alternative universe we live in here.


    Molly,

    The other day you asked me how I knew that my pictures were going to be alright without being able to look at them on a screen right away. I have heard that younger people do ask that question of film shooters, but nobody ever asked me before. I was unable to give you any good answer because Iíve been shooting film for almost 50 years and it has never occurred to me that they wouldnít be good, or at least I wouldnít know what would be wrong with them. That got me to thinking about why older film shooters do know that and younger digital users donít.

    In my opinion you expect film photography to be unpredictable because you have been told 2 lies. The first lie is one that casual digital users tell themselves, that they have to chimp their shots (look at the screen after they shot) because what their camera captures is unpredictable. The real reason for this is that they just donít know how their cameras work, so THEY canít predict what their camera will capture. Even many self-proclaimed professionals fall into this category.

    The second lie is told by, and to, people who have discovered cheap peiceofcrap plastic junk toy cameras and lousy cheap film, all from China and all made with virtually no quality control. What will come out of those camera with that film is highly unpredictable. They have embraced this and find some kind of wonderfulness in it that escapes me. And somehow these fools have convinced most of the rest of the world that this is what film photography is and always has been. The first camera and film my parents gave me for my 7th birthday was better than this junk.

    You see, there is nothing unpredictable about what will happen to light passing through high-quality optical glass. The science and mathematics of optics goes back to the 1500ís with Copernicus and Galileo. There is also nothing unpredictable about what will happen when that light hits a high quality modern film. This films available today are the best ever made. The quality control involves using electron microscopes to examine the light-sensitive coatings at the molecular level. There is really nothing unpredictable about how development chemicals will act on those light-sensitive layers to bring the images into view. There is nothing unpredictable about what will happen when the images are projected onto light-sensitive paper and the passed through similar chemicals to be developed.

    But when I say it is all predictable, I mean when using standard methods, techniques, temperatures, formulae, etc. At every step of the way there is possibility for variation away from the standard. These variations require skill and knowledge of how the equipment works in order to bring the best out of it. This knowledge comes from making mistakes and learning from them. This is also where a lot of the artistry comes in.

    For an extreme example of skill and artistry, take Ansel Adams, the god-saint of American landscape photography. He used 8Ēx10Ē film, comparable to about 2000 megapixels. A friend of mine happened on him while hiking one time and stopped to chat. He had been at the spot for 3 days without taking a single picture, waiting for the light to be just right. When he would finally expose the film, he would already have in his mind just what he wanted the final print to look like. He knew the exact combination of chemicals, time, and temperature he would use to develop the film; the paper he would print it on; the ways he would enhance different parts of the picture; and the chemicals, time, and temperature he would use to develop the paper.

    Anyway, this was long and rambling and probably a big surprise to you. You see, your question caused me to bring together a lot of uncoordinated thoughts that have been bouncing around inside my empty head for quite some time. I wrote this as much for myself as for you. I take this stuff way too seriously.

    Thank you for your question,

    Peter
    A politician is a man who will double cross that bridge when he comes to it.

    Oscar Levant

  2. #2
    Kevin Kehler's Avatar
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    I think this is an excellent piece of dialogue and an attempt to communicate.

    I especially like your point about the cheaper-cameras and film, that somehow this is always been this way. Very similar to when someone is trying to simulate an old movie, what is the first thing they do? Add scratches, like old film has always been scratched and not because it was improperly stored. Many older cameras are fine-quality machines (some newer ones too!) and the quality of film has never been better.

    Very nice response!
    Once a photographer is convinced that the camera can lie and that, strictly speaking, the vast majority of photographs are "camera lies," inasmuch as they tell only part of a story or tell it in a distorted form, half the battle is won. Once he has conceded that photography is not a "naturalistic" medium of rendition and that striving for "naturalism" in a photograph is futile, he can turn his attention to using a camera to make more effective pictures.

    Andreas Feininger

  3. #3

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    Although I shoot a very find Hasselblad and 4X5 systems and get great results as well from my Pentax 35mm equipment my wife and I both enjoy using our various Holgas and Dianas. I do not consider either of us fools for doing so nor respected photographers such as Micheal Kenna who has stated that he too has added a Holga to his gear. I was very happy with the Holga panoramic pinhole images I created from a recent trip to Havana.

    I have never heard or even read anywhere that lomography type cameras or images are what film photography is or ever was so not sure which fools you are referring to. I think there are better ways to promote the advantages of shooting film without insulting or denigrating those whose path differs from one's own. I bought the Holgas knowing full well what they could or could not do as well as knowing how they compare to earlier inexpensive cameras as we own several Kodaks from the 40s and 50s as well. My wife wanted them and they make great presents to her. We will continue being fools shooting and enjoying Holgas and pinhole cameras but other serious photographers do so as well. And enjoy shooting the Hasselblads and LF as well but for different reasons and different expectations and visions.

    As to your first lie or what you call a lie, chimping is certainly over used by digital shooters but polaroids were used by film photographers for much the same reason as well. There are so many more settings on a digital camera than most film ones that it is so easy for a setting to be changed without your knowing and viewing the image will often let you know that.

  4. #4

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    redrockcoulee, your kind of Holga user is not the fool I was referring to. The fool is the one believing and convincing others this is all there is.
    A politician is a man who will double cross that bridge when he comes to it.

    Oscar Levant

  5. #5
    Kevin Kehler's Avatar
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    I use a Holga as well (and greatly enjoy it, I even won an award with one) but part of the enjoyment is the unpredictability of it. You just never know what you are going to get and if it is usable. You have to admit it is very much a "pet rock" type of item, something that very in vogue at the moment but will likely not have long staying power.

    I think you are taking his reference to fools a little more personally than he intended; he is saying that the person who thinks the Holga/Lomo is the high-point or a complete representation of film photography is a fool, not the person using either.
    Once a photographer is convinced that the camera can lie and that, strictly speaking, the vast majority of photographs are "camera lies," inasmuch as they tell only part of a story or tell it in a distorted form, half the battle is won. Once he has conceded that photography is not a "naturalistic" medium of rendition and that striving for "naturalism" in a photograph is futile, he can turn his attention to using a camera to make more effective pictures.

    Andreas Feininger

  6. #6
    DWThomas's Avatar
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    A nice write-up, pbromaghin. I admit I often 'chimp' when shooting the other stuff, what the heck, it's available. But I still don't generally experience great anxiety when shooting film (which I've done for approaching sixty years!) I also think there is an important difference in the characteristic curves that helps reduce my anxiety. If you exceed the upper range of a digital sensor, you pretty much wipe out all detail, whereas a typical film will compress the range a bit and you still get something. Yes, the final result may be less than optimum, but at least there is something there. And drawing from experience, in dim lighting I may take a second shot at a stop or so more exposure if I'm really worried. I'm sure most of my thought process goes into finding the right perspective and composition. I mean, yes, I've blown a few pretty badly over the years, but very seldom have I been left with nothing.

    I currently have a couple of pieces in a local art show (one of which even got an award!) and at the opening another artist was asking me about one scene. It's an historic farm in the area -- and I used IR, although it's not over the top with IR effects. She wanted to know what time of year it was taken and was surprised when I said "August." The grass in the foreground may have seemed a bit snowy. Anyway, when she learned it was taken with film she at first seemed quite surprised, but then started talking about digging out an old camera of hers. Of course, then she asked where to go for processing and I felt a bit short on current knowledge, especially for B&W, which I haven't sent out since about 1955!

  7. #7

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    Quote Originally Posted by desertratt View Post
    Well, you could have said, "you have to know what you are doing."
    Actually, that was the first thing I mumbled...
    A politician is a man who will double cross that bridge when he comes to it.

    Oscar Levant

  8. #8

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    Although I haven't quite get there yet but my goal has been to remove all the unpredictability out of photography. I do not embrace the surprise or unpredictability in photography. Digital is actually much more predictable because you basically use the same sensor over and over and yet those who use them need to chimp.

  9. #9
    Brian C. Miller's Avatar
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    You know if it's going to be good just like you know ahead of time when you cook something. How do you know that a tried-and-true cake recipe will be good at the end? Well, it's because you tried it before, and it tastes good.

    Now, how do I know that a photograph will be well-exposed? Because I meter the light to know how bright it is. Then I set the shutter, which is a precise clockwork mechanism, to let in just the right amount of light. The film has been made to unbelievably exact specifications to react "just so" to the light.

    How do I know I got just the right composition? That's a different question.

  10. #10

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    i have never heard of anyone who uses non-high-end cameras
    say or even suggest that all film based /chemical based photography
    had anything to do with their little fun camera.
    its too bad you put so much effort into calling people names
    camera and technique snobbery is not good for any vein of photography

    oh well ...

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