The Return to Film Photography
Photography has been my passion for a lifetime. As an art form – it has been rewarding and enhanced the experience of my life and others. My first trip to Nepal was when I came into my own and I had a much greater respect for the craft. Out of the ten rolls of film I brought, the images had a life of their own and people had a chance to see a country in transition. It also taught me about portraiture and helped refine my approach to shooting people. I adopted digital photography months after I bought my first autofocus Nikon. That was in 2003. It was an exciting time in Photography. It seemed like anything was possible and I was wishing that I had a digital camera on all my travels and previous jobs.
Fast Forward to Photography 2017.
As a Creative Professional, I need to negotiate contracts, price and deal with demands of clients. Photographs are works of art, need to be respected and paid for. If it’s on the internet – it’s free – is the pervasive mentality. Social Media, photo sharing, news feeds don’t have to pay for photography content and thrive from free use. Blogs, curated websites/pages, magazines, publishers, companies and all others who use photos commercially have taken a cue and are chipping away at the professional photography industry by undermining its relevancy. Having had an image go viral on the internet was flattering at first. It was only for a Facebook post and from there it went everywhere. Did it generate sales or business? No. There will always be a need for professional photography, however; those jobs and clients are evaporating. So, what does this mean for the future of my profession? It means that if you are a professional, you need to be proficient and be even better at business. At what point does the commercial and editorial market dive like the stock photography market?
You can’t throw a rock and not hit a photographer. Everyone claims to be a professional. Everyone has a very capable camera on their phone. So, when these “professionals” all believe they can make money shooting it creates a predicament. What are their credentials. Where is their portfolio. Where is the accountability? The market is bloated with Soccer Mom’s with inexpensive – yet powerful cameras. Portfolios of poorly posed engagement shoots, senior photos on the obligatory rail road track, a wedding where the wedding party is always jumping, multiple boudoir sessions of the same busty friend and infants in baskets or buckets. Fly by Night photographers have zero skills, cheap offers, but they own a camera, so they too can be professional. Photographs are being offered for free – and free is not professional. You need to get paid to be called a pro. As photography becomes less a necessity, images are devalued, it comes down to if you are not cheap or free – you will not get hired.
Prints are what photography is all about. Nobody prints photos anymore. I am positive that most of my paid work that was delivered digital only has not been printed. All these digital files will end up lost eventually. And you might say – “But they are backed up.” Where? On your computer – with the hard drive that will fail if it is bumped just right or you get a new one and don’t back up? On a server? What happens when you don’t pay a subscription fee and they close your account deleting your data? Your phone that will get lost, stolen or destroyed? On Facebook – again, is that a back-up strategy? It used to be that if a person’s house was on fire or a natural disaster – the photos were high on the list of things to save. Times have changed and I’m certain that would not be on the list today. So, here is a little challenge for you. Find your oldest digital photograph. Where is it stored? Has it ever been printed? Open it and see what it looks like. Digital files do not last forever – they can be corrupted or in the case of Jpegs – lost data. So, digital photography has its own issues, namely ephemeral. It’s disposable as Snapchat or a Twitter share or a pile of CD’s that your computer can’t use. The Forgotten Century is living up to its title as digital media is lost daily.
Post Processing is time consuming and the time spent in front of a monitor seems never ending. Editing is forever and developing images in Photoshop or Lightroom are a huge part of a photographer’s workload. Photoshop is also the cure all for poor photography skills. It isn’t. I hear “You can Photoshop that in/out” at all our sessions and weddings. Having used Photoshop since the mid-1990’s and Lightroom from version one – these are powerful tools to enhance, develop and manage images. There is a ton of bad photography that is made worse by poor post processing – and people think it looks good. HDR tends to be one of the most abused forms of developing. As a portrait photographer, I want to scream when I see – alien eyes, waxy-orange skin with some background not of this earth as well. In ten years there will be many clients who wished they had classic wedding or portrait photos and not unfashionable post processing. It will be dated. And if we want – the same goes for ultra-wide angle and super shallow depth of field. These are all the current equivalent of 80’s soft-glow.
As a photographer, I edit and develop my photos. It is part of the craft. There is a trend in to farm the work out overseas. This is to free up time for “busy” professionals to be shooting or marketing. Outsourcing has taken on many forms in the past. Photographers hire assistants that shoot for them. I was at a wedding and the assistants did all the work except for a brief appearance by the pro to do the formals. This longstanding practice has always annoyed me greatly, but the whole laziness of not editing and processing images takes it to a new level. The outsourcing is promoted by some very high-profile photographers and even by the PPA. How a professional organization condones this, is also one of the reasons I canceled my membership.
With so much information/misinformation online, I find it necessary to be vigilant and critical. There are great sources for photography and business that have helped me grow professionally and break some bad habits. At the same time, the onslaught of people teaching, doing workshops, consulting and conducting motivational seminars is dizzying. The new way to make money in photography is to take it from fellow photographers. Turning the craft into Amway based on false promises is not a good business strategy. It’s Herd mentality. Paying for a magic pill to make you money is nothing more than snake oil and making someone else money.
The whole Natural Light movement is again another area that has a following of photographers that usually know nothing about light. Hint – you should really try a flash. It works well and can be dramatic. Flash is even better if it is off camera. Add a modifier and the shot will have smooth fill, nice catch-lights in the eyes and more compelling. There are certainly photographers out there that do a great job with natural light and the images are stunning. However, by proclaiming you are Natural Light Photographer it usually means 1. You have not invested in some vital professional gear. 2. You don’t know anything about light or lighting. 3. You love to sit in front of a computer since you will be doing a lot of work in post processing – Lightroom/Photoshop.
Cameras and photo gear is based on the premise that everyone wants something new and better. A camera that cost $3000 several years ago depreciates to almost nothing today. A challenge would be to resist bigger and better. Canon. Nikon. Sony. Megapixels for what?
Average photography that will be poorly processed and can be shared for free on social media. It’s not getting printed so why the need for anything larger than 6 Megapixels. Or, why not just use your phone. Gear really does not matter. Much. – it is really who is behind the lens and who is in front of the lens. So, as I ship out the last Nikon D800, will that mean I abandon digital? As a professional – this is not 100% possible. I do know that a client can’t tell the difference between a wedding shot done with a D800 or D3300.
The Return to Film.
The leap back to film is something I have considered heavily for years. Having shot professionally since 1994, I have contributed in the fall of film and the rise of digital photography. This is not about Film vs Digital. Both are great, both are mediums of photography. There is no ‘better’ way and digital is amazing as technology has its advantages and flexibility. Film is just the medium. – it’s also the process that counts. Film forces you to work and think different. It’s a deliberate approach to creating. It takes a keener eye. Is it worth it taking the shot? Shooting film isn’t magic or require any alchemic apprenticeship. It also is not a passing fad for the experimenting millennial hipster. As a professional, I need to continue learning about my craft, improve my technique, love what I do and shoot. I have shot Film longer than Digital. In the Digital Age, immediacy rules. People want and need instant gratification. There is a quality to film that isn’t easy, or even possible to replicate digitally. There is a need for digital photography, but there will always remain a place for film as well. Film is not a lost art – there are plenty of photographers out there who can shoot it. Film and the developing process needs to kept alive.
To separate our work from the pack and to be different. Film sets you apart – and far apart – from the herd. Film photographers need to be proficient on many levels. Proficiency means you don’t need to worry about the technical details – and focus on creating.
The look of film is timeless. Film might not have any real mystical qualities, but it has a distinctive look and feel including a natural color palette, broad tonality and soft natural tones. Film blends a huge dynamic range of tones with even gradation from darks to lights while retaining detail in both highlights and shadows in an image. The natural grain (and imperfections that accompanies it) is very different from digital. On location we spend a lot of time on the details from everything like composition, lighting, make-up and hair. Colors need to be accurate. Film has natural colors and is designed to represent accurately. And that brings me to the point – Why spend thousands on a professional DSLR camera and lenses only to put the image through a filter to give it imperfections, limitations, style and look only available in film? Lightroom presets and Photoshop actions, textures that can emulate different types of film photography while film images are already perfect right out of the camera.
With film there is no looking at the back of the camera to assess exposure, focus and composition. Without chimping, you must know how to expose, how the light is interacting with your subject, and how your camera will react to both before you press the shutter. A roll of medium format film is 12 exposures, 35mm is 36 exposures and compare that to the thousands of JPEGs you can store on a 64mb SD card. Once the shutter is clicked – it’s done. No spray and pray – and subsequently 20 images to cull. Film forces you to think about each shot, because each shot costs money. Film and developing costs about $2 each time I click the shutter. That finite value of a limited number of shots on a roll, and developer expense makes me assess if it’s worth it before the shot. Less time in front of the computer, more time shooting is the goal.
When we are shooting with a client I want to make it experience. We communicate many ways and especially with eye contact – whether in person or in an image. The interaction is important on location or in the studio and not being stuck in front of a screen tethered to computer or constantly looking at the back LCD, means that it’s all about them. We can get into the flow of the shoot, talk and have a good time.
In conclusion, this will probably offend someone. Good. As I write this, it may seem that I might be whacking a hornet nest. I am writing this in response to what I see happening professionally in field with few rules, laws or regulations. Yet, most people blindly follow the same path. Does there need to be standards and agreement as union? Probably – but it will not happen. Some may see it as condescending attack on amateur photographers. This is not the case. I am also not saying that Digital Photography is useless – far from it. What this is really about is that the need to have greater balance in my life. A commitment to the process and the craft by setting up shoots, slowing down, being more thoughtful and deliberate. This is what film is all about. Stepping away from digital is like getting my life back. The ability to keep control over images, printing and shooting has been a battle with digital. Returning to a familiar medium, continuing a tradition and being true to myself. My wife, my art and my clients have made this decision very easy. This is not a manifesto about film photography or digital photography. It’s about the camera as a creative tool and making a huge difference in how and why you use it.