The practicalities of shooting film

Holland Land Office Museum Canon

Holland Land Office Museum Canon

Reader Scott Atkinson left a comment a few days ago asking that I do a post on the “practicalities of shooting film.”

This post will answer his specific questions, plus a couple of others.

Why film?
The best place to start is asking first, why do you want to shoot film? Answering this question will help determine the direction you want to go with your photography.

For me, I saw film as an avenue to help me become a better photographer. Because digital frames are essentially an infinite supply, it’s easy to fall into a “spray and pray” approach, whereby you put her camera in burst mode and hope you get something good from the half-dozen frames or more you fire off.

With infinite digital frames, you can often take multiple shots of the same subject using various settings and then pick the one that works best. This limits the need to think ahead, or think much at all.

Now, both of these results from the infinite supply of frames can be (and were for me) great learning aids; however, I still felt in order to get my photography to the next level, I needed to learn to slow down. I realized film could help me to think ahead, to “pre-visualize,” as Ansel Adams learned to do.

Film offers a limited supply of frames. While film isn’t expensive (typically less than $5 per roll, plus another $7 for processing), it’s still an expense. There’s either 24 or 36 frames in a roll. If you take the same approach with film that you do with digital, you can run through a roll of film in minutes if not seconds. That gets expensive quickly.

The other advantage of film in helping you slow down and think is the lack of an LCD screen. You can’t “chimp” (the practice of constantly checking your LCD screen while shooting). With digital, the LCD screen will tell you if you got the shot and whether it’s properly exposed (check and trust the histogram). The screen isn’t a great aid in checking focus, but take enough shots, at least one of them should be sharp.

With film, you must think ahead.

In carpentry, the rule is “measure twice, cut once.” With film, everything needs to be measured twice: Exposure, depth of field, focus and composition all need to be thoroughly considered.

Exposure is a practical matter (any picture is ruined by under or over exposure, and unlike shooting digital RAW, there’s little latitude for post-process correction with film), but it’s also a creative decision, from choosing aperture for creative use of depth of field to how light and shadows will play with the subject.

With film, I check my exposure meter multiple times, thinking through my exposure options because my goal is to snap but one frame of the subject.

In slowing down, I must be very careful with focus (it turned out actually to be a blessing a few years ago that I needed cataract surgery, returning my right eye to 20/20 vision). On my older cameras, I’m working strictly with manual focus.

When it comes to composition, again, I slow down and “measure” two times or more. I look at every corner of the frame through the view finder before tripping the shutter.

Every element of the photograph, then, with film must go through a “measure twice, cut once” process.

This kind of practice can’t help but make you a better photographer.

You may have your own reasons for shooting film. It could be argued that film provides a visual appeal (no matter how many PhotoShop plugins you buy to simulate film) that you simply can’t get with digital. Some will argue as well that film is inherently sharper on your in-focus areas, that digital can never be truly “tack sharp.” You may think getting into film, especially larger format cameras, may be a better creative outlet for you.

Whatever your reason for shooting film, it will effect your decisions on what you buy and how you proceed.

Pumpkin on the Porch

Pumpkin on the Porch

Buying a camera
If you don’t already own a film camera, you will need to buy one.

You can still buy brand new film cameras. The advantage of new, of course, is you’re getting something under warranty that should work as expected right out of the box. New can be either more expensive or cheaper than used, depending on the used model you target.

Ebay is the first place that comes to mind for buying used equipment. On Ebay you’ll find the greatest selection at the greatest price variance. Other options include Craigslist and established Camera shops (both in your home town and online, such as Adorama). A camera shop can be a reliable place to buy used equipment. If you have time and patience to hunt, there are second-hand stores, garage sales, estate sales and local auction houses to consider. These are the same avenues Ebay dealers use to find their equipment, so if you know what you’re looking for, you can find some good bargains.

The most practical place to shop, get a good deal and have a good camera in your hands quickly is Ebay.

Whether you want Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Minolta or some other brand, you can find an SLR to get you started.

If you have only $50 to spend, you can find a perfectly good starter film camera on Ebay for $50, with a lens.

Better cameras, such as pro-level (in their day) Nikons cost more.

But be careful. There are many dealers trying to get $500 to $3,000 for top-line Nikon cameras. You don’t need to spend that much for a working Nikon F, F2, F3, F4 or F5 (all the pro cameras of their day). I paid $180 for my Nikon F and $240 for my Nikon F4 (both, body only).

Before buying any camera on Ebay, read the product description well. Ethical sellers will tell you if they’ve tested the camera and what they found. Most dealers selling working cameras will offer money back if it turns out it doesn’t work.

There’s a wide range of Nikons available. I think if you have the $200+ to spend, get the Nikon F4. It was a break-through SLR when it was released and was hugely popular with pros back in the day. It has a great auto-focus motor, is well designed and all of the controls are tactile and easy to reach.

I’ve seen recommendations for the Nikon F100. These seem to go from $150 and up. They were the “enthusiasts” camera of their day (like the D90 or D7000 today).

If you want to go manual focus, the Nikon F (pro) or the Nikkormat (enthusiast) are great choices. Pricing is only slightly less than the F4 or F100.

The prices I quoted above are without lenses. Getting a camera with one or more lenses will drive up the price significantly, but you’re going to need to get at least one lens.

With Nikon, you definitely want to own a 50mm F1.4 (or thereabout). It’s a workhorse lens, generally great, great glass and is practical to get started with. If you want more lenses than what comes with your camera, or buy a camera without a lens, read this page from Ken Rockwell on Nikon lens compatibility. It’s critical to know what lenses work with your camera before making a lens purchase.

Mini Golf Benches

Mini Golf Benches

Where to buy film?
There are still drug stores around that sell film. In my town, both CVS (where I go) and Rite-Aid offer one-hour processing, so they sell film. As much as I dislike Walmart, Walmart also sells and processes film. From what I’ve read, though I haven’t tried it, Walmart also gets beyond mere C-41 processing (more on this in the next section). I’ve read, for example, that you can get 120 film (medium format) processed through Walmart (I imagine they also sell it).

Retail stores typically have a more limited selection. I love Kodak’s Ektar 100 color negative film, but I can only buy it online. There are about a half-dozen different C-41 films I’ve found in online shopping. I haven’t tried them all yet, but every film has its own characteristics and best uses. You will want to experiment with a variety of films and see what you like best.

Where to process film?
As mentioned above, there are still drug stores around that offer one-hour processing.

Typically, the one-hour shops are providing what’s called C-41 processing. C-41 refers to the chemicals used in the process. There are both color and black and white films that can be processed in C-41. When you buy online, check the specs for the film. It will tell you the kind of processing required. If it says C-41 and you’re going to a drug store, the film will be fine.

I’ve not checked to see if Walmart offers anything other than C-41. If they do, it probably requires the local store to send the film out.  This will mean you won’t see your pictures for a week (but slowing down is what film is all about).

The first time you go into your local one-hour shop with a roll of black and white, the staff there may tell you they can’t process it. Explain to them C-41 processing. In my local store, the first time I went in I didn’t know about C-41 and was initially turned away. Fortunately, a staff member came in later who knew everything about processing film in his store and he got it taken care of for me.

You will save a good chunk of change if you get your pictures back on CD without also paying for prints. Getting prints doubles the price of processing and you don’t need them. My one-hour place will provide a contact sheet (or what passes as a contact sheet — they call it an index card) at no additional cost. You want to play with your photos on your computer anyway. You should leave instructions that you don’t want your photos corrected for exposure or color before being transferred to CD. You’ll also get your negatives back, which is kind of cool. I also ask for TIFF rather than JPEG on the disk. TIFF isn’t quite like getting a RAW file, but it does give me a little more data to work with in post processing.

Broken Sidewalk

Broken Sidewalk

What about a darkroom?
I would love to have my own darkroom, but the expense isn’t something I can afford right now.

For a darkroom, you need an enclosed space that can be made completely and totally dark with running water and vents.

The advantages of a darkroom is you can process a wider variety of films (depending on what equipment and chemicals you want to buy and deal with). You can get beyond C-41, but you can also get beyond 35mm film.

It’s also still true in the art world that the photographs that command the highest prices are of prints made by the photographer.

If you or I want to continue shooting film for many years, a personal darkroom may become absolutely necessary. Eventually the one-hour processing shops are going to go away. It’s unavoidable and inevitable. I’m planning on installing a darkroom in our too-low-ceiling basement some day. The day will come where it’s either that or stop shooting film (well, mail order will be an option, probably, but that will likely be expensive).

So, for anybody thinking of making the jump from digital back to film, I hope the information here proves helpful.

And if you don’t know about my photoblog, it can be found at VuFindr.com.

Peeling Paint

Peeling Paint

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My new Nikon F4

Nikon F4

Nikon F4

Some time ago, I decided I wanted a Nikon F and a Nikon F4.

The Nikon F is the seminal SLR camera.  It was the pro camera of much of the 1960s and 1970s.  And the lenses I use with my Nikkormat are 100 percent compatible, plus I already own a great Nikon F/Nikkormat manual.

The Nikon F4 was a huge step forward in 1989 or so in SLR technology and the camera all the pros had to get after it was introduced.

My idea was that I would use the Nikon F to shoot black and white and the F4 to shoot color.  This way, I would always have a camera loaded with black and white and one always loaded with color.

The problem was, though, how to pay for two old, used cameras.

Then I remembered I had a couple of old iPhones and a Droid phone to sell.

Those three phones brought in nearly $500.

That turned out to be just enough to buy an F and an F4.

The F4 arrived today and I quickly ran a roll of Kodak BW400cn through it to make sure it works.

And it works very well.

Below are three shots from today. There may or may not be more on VuFindr.com.

One cool thing about the F4: It’s compatible with my SB700 Speedlight, the newest strobe from Nikon, as the third picture below shows.

Pachuco in our backyard

Pachuco in our backyard

Garage Door

Garage Door

Fiona and Fergus

Fiona and Fergus

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A roll of film through my Pentax Spotmatic

Used Car Flags

I’ve now shot two rolls of Kodak Ektar 100 film. I love this film. The warmth and saturation of the colors is just wonderful. It reminds me of the tone and texture of Kodachrome shots I see in my old National Geographic magazines, though probably not quite as saturated.

After the first roll, I bought three more online, but decided to run this through my Pentax (the auction-bought camera that started me on this film binge).

The meter in the Pentax doesn’t work, but a week or so ago I found an old Weston Exposure Meter in a local second-hand shop.  $7.50 later, I had myself a very serviceable light meter.

I decided to use the Pentax because I started having trouble with my Nikkormat.  After some shots, after I cocked the film advance lever, the shutter still wouldn’t fire, causing me to cock it again and wasting a frame of film.

Meanwhile, I sold two old iPhones and a used Droid phone and a couple of other items on Ebay, putting nearly $500 in my PayPal account. I spent that money on a Nikon F and Nikon F4.

The F4 arrived today and I’ll do another post shortly of some shots from the first roll I ran through that camera.

Form this Ektar roll in the Pentax, I have 10 shots worth of consideration for publication on VuFindr.  I present three here and more may or may not appear on VuFindr.

Leaf in Bark

Leaf in Bark

Austin Park Bench

Austin Park Bench

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My first rangefinder: Zeiss Ikon Contessa LKE

Zeiss Contessa

Zeiss Contessa

If I were launching a new compact, straight-to-the-point, limited function, but quality camera, I might call it the Contessa.

It’s a sweet name for a well designed, small 35mm camera.

German camera and lens maker Zeiss introduced its Contessa in the early 1960s, and around that time, somebody in the Batavia area bought a unit of this nice tourist camera.

That camera, complete with a US customs sticker from some foreign travel on its leather case, went up for sale in auction at Bontrager’s on Wednesday and I was the fortunate soul who was the highest bidder.

After stopped the camera at Bontrager’s on Monday, I did a little research and figured it would be a bargain at $15, but anything over $90 would be too much. I put a stop-loss-limit on myself of $60.

I won the auction at $55.

Today, I ran through it a roll of generic color film from CVS and had it developed. The results can be viewed below.

While the Contessa was hardly the point-and-shoot of its day, it is as high-end as a good SLR.  The fixed-lens camera has a max shutter speed of 1/500, which makes it hard in many lighting conditions to shoot wide open at f2.8.

It may just be a product of age or something unique to my camera, but it’s not necessarily use to adjust shutter speed and aperture on the camera, and it’s certainly not easy to change the ISO setting.

As for the quality of the pictures, the Zeiss lens certainly is sharp.

Mostly, though, I was just happy my shots turned out.

Besides the cool retro design of the camera — this is going to look great on display — I wanted the camera because I’ve never even held a range finder before.  I was curious to give one a try.

While it’s no Leica, Zeiss has a grand reputation, especially in lenses, so I was happy to get it for that reason, as well.

I’m pleased with the photographic results of some quick-take pictures today on just so-so film.

Canon, Holland Land Office Museum

Canon, Holland Land Office Museum

Louis' Barber Shop

Louis' Barber Shop

Fall Tree Branches

Fall Tree Branches

Graveyard Cross

Graveyard Cross

Center Street Smokehouse sign

Center Street Smokehouse sign

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Roll of Color Film 2

No Hunting Genesee Couny Park

No Hunting Genesee Couny Park

For the second time, I’ve run a roll of color film through my Nikkormat.

The film is generic color film from the local CVS drugstore, 400 ISO. The color is not as rich as the Kodak Ektar, but I still like the sharpness and lack of digital artifacts that I’m getting with film.

Most of the roll was shot at Genesee County Park. I think I got eight decent shots from the 24 exposures. I’m publishing two here. I will likely publish more in the coming couple of weeks on vufindr.com.

Birch Branches

Birch Branches

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Black and White Roll 4

Rowell Mansion, Batavia, NY

Rowell Mansion, Batavia, NY

This week I completed shooting my fourth roll of black and white film. Again, it’s Kodak BW400CN.

I have five or six shots from the roll worth publishing and will publish them on vufindr.com in the coming couple of weeks.

This photo is of the Rowell Mansion, corner of Richmond Avenue and Ellicott Avenue in Batavia. Rowell owned a box factory, but he’s more famous for getting away with murder. In 1883, Rowell found his wife in bed with another man. The discovery wasn’t a surprise, with a friend supplying a tip, so Rowell showed up with a gun. A jury found him not guilty of murder. The murder was on Bank Street. He built this house for his second wife.

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Payment made for photos used by the UK Daily Mail

In June 2010, when my photos of Suzanne Corona showed up on the UK Daily Mail’s web site, I tried calling editors at the Daily Mail to complain, but couldn’t get past voice mail.  I also tried e-mail.

James Straub

James Straub

I hadn’t given permission for use of the photos and hadn’t been compensated.

Frustrated, I let the matter drop.

Then, this summer I took a very tabloidly photo of a man who had been arrested after allegedly driving a golf cart while intoxicated.  What made the story was that the initial report was that a man in a clown suit had stolen the golf cart.

A couple of news outlets called and asked permission — and offered compensation — to use the photo.

But it wasn’t long before the photo appeared on the Daily Mail’s site.

Again, without a request for permission nor compensation.

I tweeted about it, posted messages on the Daily Mail’s Facebook Wall and tried sending e-mails to the Daily Mail. My tweet got picked up by Steve Myers on Romenesko+.

Then an item popped up Romenesko about Bradford Noble, the New York photo editor for the Daily Mail online.

I found Bradford’s profile on Facebook and sent him a message.

I got a phone call from him the next day.  He was very kind and apologetic.  He passed my information onto the photo editor in London, who called me a couple of days later and agreed to pay me twice the normal freelance rate for each of the three photos used.

After some issues working out the logistics of getting the money into my checking account, I received that money transfer on Friday.

I figured since I’d made a public stink about use of the photos, I should publicly acknowledge and thank the people at the Daily Mail for coming through with compensation for the photos.

It’s good to know that once I was actually able to make contact with a real, live person at the Daily Mail, they were quite conscientious about making payment for the photos.  And a special thank you to Bradford for taking the issue seriously and getting right on it once it was brought to his attention.

The photo has shown up other places without compensation, such as WTSP, MSN, CBS12, Hot97 and Barstool Sports.  I guess I need to send some letters to these publishers next.

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First roll of color film

Pachuco on the Porch with Mums

Pachuco on the Porch with Mums

Once I started shooting film again with my 40+ year old Nikkormat camera I realized something — for all of the years I actively used the camera, I was only shooting black and white. I was shooting black and white because I was shooting for newspapers.

At some point, somewhere I read that one of the advantages of film is that film is inherently sharper (all things considered) than digital.

So a couple of weeks ago I purchased a roll of Kodak Ektar 100 film, 36 exposures, and whenever possible, made pictures with the Nikkormat.

Here are the results — 15 publishable photos.

I do think they are sharper than what I’ve been able to get with digital, though at the resolutions possible through a web browser, that may not be obvious.

I certainly love the tone and warmth of the colors.

From here, with winter coming on especially, I’ll probably be shooting black and white for a while.

My wish is that I could afford to buy another or two (or find at a really good price) Nikon film cameras, so I can load both black and white and color film (one in each camera) and use the appropriate option for the appropriate shot. Some day.

Yellow leaves at the base of a tree

Yellow leaves at the base of a tree

Fall Leaves on a Mossy Tree

Fall Leaves on a Mossy Tree

Fall Trees in Centenial Park, Batavia, NY

Fall Trees in Centenial Park, Batavia, NY

Fall Leaves, Blue Sky, Centennial Park, Batavia, NY

Fall Leaves, Blue Sky, Centennial Park, Batavia, NY

Tree Branch, Morning Sun

Tree Branch, Morning Sun

Frosted Berries

Frosted Berries

Frosted Green Leaves

Frosted Green Leaves

Frosted Red Leaves

Frosted Red Leaves

Milkweed

Milkweed

Metal Pink Flamingo

Metal Pink Flamingo

Metal Bird House

Metal Bird House

Mums in a Wheel Barrow

Mums in a Wheel Barrow

Pumpkin and Mums

Pumpkin and Mums

Pumpkin on the Porch

Pumpkin on the Porch

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The future belongs to the independents

1885 Newspaper Publishers

1885 Newspaper Publishers



Look at the pictures of these men.

Set aside the fact that they are all middle-aged white men, consider the other traits they have in common.

They all owned newspapers in 1885 that were not part of chains. They weren’t concerned about scale. They owned their newspapers at a time before big department stores bought inserts on Sundays or recruitment agencies bought blocks of help wanted ads. The sold their papers for a penny a piece. The term “professional journalism” was not a phrase they had ever heard in their lives. If the newspaper they published in 1885 was still alive in 1985 and they strolled into the newsroom, they would have been shocked at the multitudes of reporters sitting at desks and found the whole notion preposterous.

The news business was very different in 1885.

There are two trends in local online journalism today.

One trend is “throw a lot of money at the problem.” This is the faction that says “scale” is what is needed in local news. The proponents give us Patch and Main Street Connect.

They ignore the fact that no chain in the history of mass media has ever begun as a chain. Frank Gannett owned but one newspaper at one time, as did E. W. Scripps, Joseph Pulitzer and even William Randolph Hearst.

The first great newspaper chains were built one acquisition at a time (and they weren’t publicly traded companies).

The other trend is the independent online publishers. This are mostly bootstrapped operations.

But the independents are also the ones with the greatest percentage of sites that are actually making money.

There are at least a dozen, and perhaps as many as 20 local independent news sites pulling in more than $100,000 in annual revenue. Tim Armstrong would kill to have even 10 Patch sites with that kind of revenue at this point.

The future doesn’t belong to the insta-chains. It belongs to the independents.  Like the newspaper publishers of the 19th Century and early 20th Century, they are building real businesses, forging alliances in their communities, defining the future of journalism, serving their communities and building the foundation of long-term profitable businesses.  They are doing it through hard work, with little to no investment capitol and showing real progress.

I know this not because it’s how I view myself.  I know this because I personally know most of the men and women doing it.  I’m a witness to what is really working, and what isn’t.  Those who focus too much on “scale” are missing the real scale being built in a hundred different towns and suburbs.

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Naturialism and photography

Sunset on Gorton Road, Alabama.

When I was 16 I remember arguing with a friend and classmate about the kind of music we would try to make together.

He played bass. I played guitar.

He liked Rush, Emerson Lake and Palmer and Yes.

I preferred the Sex Pistols, The Clash and the Ramones.

We argued about musical direction and never formed a band. I found prog-rock pretentious. He found punk rock simplistic.

As I grew older, my musical tastes evolved, from rockabilly, to country, to blues, and anything that sounded “authentic” to me.  While I eventually gained a level of appreciation for some of the music I scorned in my youth (I’d even eventually own a Yes CD), my heart and soul has always gravitated toward music, for lack of a better way to describe it, sounds just as good if it’s one guy and his guitar or a whole band.

I’ve also always preferred movies with a gritty realism like Saving Private Ryan over horror films (though, on the non-realist side, I have always loved Star Trek, though that’s far more realist based than, say, Aliens).

I thought of these things after reading Michael Johnston’s blog post at the Online Photographer.

And here’s a curious fact: the more contrived I find a work of art to be, the more difficult it is for me to remember it. I even like naturalism in music recordings: I often respond to records that document a real event. I’d rather listen to a live recording made in a jazz club than a work of art “built” of dozens of tracks, real instruments played in real time rather than synthesized sounds that never existed as vibrations in the air. I like Wes Montgomery’s Full House or Thelonious Monk’s Thelonious in Action and Misterioso* more than Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells or Coil’s Love’s Secret Domain.

Exactly.

Mike’s post made me realize there are dots that connect my tastes in literature, music and, now, photography.

Those who have been following my photography of late know that I never go for the whimsical, nor do I try to create images that can’t be found in a single frame (I’m not even much of a fan of HDR).

The photography that excites me — whether it’s taking pleasure in my own work or studying masters such as Henri Cartier-Bresson or Ansel Adams — is taking a single frame and making it mean something.

It’s not that a photo need to be completely documentary — I love the work, for example, of Cindy Sherman, who sets up elaborately staged shots. It’s that the art is created in-camera.

Photoshop (and Lightroom) are wonderful tools for enhancing a photograph — to make details pop, to draw out color and contrast, to sharpen edges. But I have no interest, other than curiosity, in creating composite photos.

That’s not to say I can’t appreciate the beauty of composite photos created by masters of the art. But it’s not for me.

And this tendency toward naturalism, I think, is why I’ve been so fascinated with film photography of late. Once an exposure is committed to a single frame of film, there’s no second chance to click the shutter. There’s no “trash” button my my Nikkormat. Either I do what I can to get it right in a single click — taking care with exposure and focus, but more, paying close attention to framing, composition and depth of field, knowing what f-stop and shutter speed will produce what results — or I get it wrong. Whatever is captured on that single exposure will either stand or fall on what I make of it in camera.

Photography is changing quickly. Just in the past week we’ve seen advances in focus control and anti-camera shake software. Within a few years it will be impossible to take a photograph that is technically imperfect. The person who clicks a shutter will be able to pay little attention attention to focus, exposure or shutter speed. The camera and post-production software will be able to correct any technical flaw.

I’m not sure what that will mean for photography. There may come a time when a photographer won’t came create stunning works of art in post-production — instead of in camera — won’t be valued.

The photo naturalist may be a doomed breed.

But I would like to think that there will always be a place for the photographer who take some time with composition and subject matter to create an image that is visually interesting. I guess we’ll find out.

But for me, I can’t imagine taking any other approach to photography than I’ve already mapped out. I just hope there are always a few people around who appreciate the images I publish and that somehow I can find a way to get better at capturing interesting images.

Revolutionary War re-enactor from the Seneca Nation

Bidders visit a vacant building in Batavia, NY

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