It is often said that things in life come around in cycles and I guess if you live long enough you see many such cycles. I regularly see my 18 year old daughter wearing similar clothes to her mother when she was 18, ok they aren’t exactly the same (heaven forbid) but there is a definitely a nod to the late 1980’s in what she wears. Her latest acquisition is a ‘Guns N Roses’ T-shirt from the ‘Appetite for Destruction’ tour. It’s cool. It’s retro. It’s a fashion statement (her words). My daughter also tells me that it’s hip to buy vinyl records now. Remember those? I smile whenever anyone mentions vinyl because I couldn’t wait to get rid of it!! When CD came in it was as if all of my musical prayers had been answered – no pops, no noise, no worrying about scratched and warped records – just pure sound. It was gorgeous. Today it is Spotify Premium that has everything I need and to my tinnitus battered ears it sounds just fine. I like the convenience of having an entire music library on hand which I can stream to my office music system. It’s fantastic. The purists and audiophiles will disagree about the sound quality compared to vinyl and I accept that, but I’ve always been a lover of new technology, or so I thought.
Photography has been my life for nearly 30 years and at no point did I ever expect to see a cycle in terms of image capture. Technology has constantly made the picture taking process easier. What was there to go back to? Manual focus? Light meters? Film? That became obsolete with the viability of digital capture around 2003 when many professional photographers jumped on the digital bandwagon. Me included. That bandwagon has seen me use in the region of a dozen different digital cameras for my professional work over a fourteen year period. That seems ridiculous to me now. Did I really have new camera every 18 months? Admittedly I did have a couple of different bodies at certain times, but the fact that I’ve gone through so many different cameras has made me realise that while digital is an amazing technology, the obsolescence of the medium is pretty brutal. The Holy Grail of speed, quality, and reliability always seemed a little out of reach until the next model was announced. I don’t actually think the latest upgrade ever made me a better photographer, but my skills in Photoshop always seemed to improve. My obsession with making digital files look like film caused me to work harder with Photoshop as larger, cleaner digital files were presented to me. Hmmm…wait a second, did I just say,“My obsession with making digital files look like film”?
At home I have a man cave. Ok it’s not really a cave, it’s the box room at the top of the stairs. In it there are a couple of Playstations, some guitars, amplifiers, a guitar pedalboard, a two year old absolutely mint condition exercise bike, a TV, a bunch of books on photography and music, and four Leica M6TTL film bodies. I will openly admit that every so often I would pick one of the Leicas up, press the shutter, listen to its soft mechanical click, and wind it on. That small act always seemed to hit a nostalgic nerve in my body, a bit like vinyl does for some people and old 80’s rock band t-shirts do for my daughter. My heart would say, “Remember those days? Weren’t they great?” Then my head would remind me that at the weekend I needed to have evaluative metering, blisteringly fast AF, 12800 ISO and a 64GB card. The Leica would go back on the shelf and I would convince myself that film is for those who try too hard to be cool and I can get pretty good film-like results from my digital cameras anyway. It was always a PITA to deal with and very expensive. Digital is so much better. It must be as I’ve used a dozen digital cameras in fourteen years, I can shoot in virtual darkness, I don’t have to focus or take a meter reading, it doesn’t cost a fortune to shoot a million frames…
I can’t remember exactly when it happened, but I think it was my friend and uber talented social documentary photographer, Jim Mortram, that triggered something in my brain. Jim had started to shoot on film, scanning the negs on an old Nikon scanner, and printing them digitally on fine-art papers. I knew I had an old Nikon scanner in the loft and I had been printing my own work on a large format printer for years, so he got me thinking. Maybe I could shoot a roll of film again, just for old times sake? Nothing more than that. On a practical level I knew I would have to get it developed by a third party as my darkroom was long gone, and I needed something that would scan easily. During the final months of 2003, chromogenic C41 process black and white emulsions were my films of choice as I was too busy to dev traditional film myself and I knew that my local pro lab’s C41 line was meticulously looked after. Chromogenic film was the obvious way to go but my old favourite Kodak film was no longer available. After a quick Google search I found that Ilford still made XP2, and as it was a film I had some past experience with I decided to get a couple of rolls.
You know that feeling when your head says, “This is stupid, it makes no sense”, and yet your heart says, “This is the best experience ever”? I was in the pouring rain at the end of the North Pier in Blackpool with a Leica M6TTL shooting FILM again. Fourteen years since my last frame and it was as though I had been shooting it all my life.
I shot two rolls over a week. Just 72 exposures. With digital that would have been just an hour of shooting. I sent them off to Ilford to process and a week later I received a package containing two sleeves of purply-grey negatives. I carefully took a strip of negatives, popped them into my film scanner and waited. Nothing. Damn. It didn’t work. Then I realised I didn’t have any software to run the old scanner properly. So after purchasing the excellent VueScan software, my scanner fired into life and a somewhat familiar, almost aggressive whirring noise kicked in as it sucked in the negative and did its thing. It really did sound like something that belonged to another decade. After a few minutes of whirring a picture appeared on my screen and wow. Just. WOW!! Grain. Lots of lovely grain. Deep shadows. WOW. I brought the file into Photoshop and looked at it in detail. A quick curve adjustment and my heart shouted from the rooftops, “This was what we have been waiting for!!”
Then my head stopped me again – that scan took ages to do. It’s impractical. It’s not as sharp as a digital file. So I thought to myself maybe it would be possible to get a digital file to look like this film scan? So I shot some pictures with my Leica M9-P alongside the M6TTL and an afternoon was spent going through the process of trying to make the digital image look like a film scan. As you can see from the results below, and given the limitations of the internet, I got it pretty close. It’s very, very close in print, and I doubt anyone but the most hardened and experienced film photographer would be able to tell which image was shot on film. I have to say though that after playing with lots of other camera files, it was the M9 file that was the closest to an authentic film scan. I can get close with a Canon file but it’s not quite there. So, given I could make my digital files look like film (at least with an M9), my head was saying “See? I told you so.” But my heart was saying, “it’s not the destination, it’s how you got there that’s important.”
You know what? My heart was right.
So even after all of the trials and tribulations, the expense, the eternity to see my pictures, and the awful noise of the scanner, I’m shooting film. Not for my wedding work, that really would be silly, but for my street and landscape photographs I’m enjoying the experience very much. Even though I can make digital images that look like film, it’s the simple fact that I have film in my camera that makes me slow down. It forces a sense of worth on each shutter press. I no longer feel a need to hose an image as I did with digital, preferring to watch a picture come together and deciding on the right moment to press the shutter. This is how I used to shoot before digital. Out of the 72 images on those first two rolls of film, I had more keepers than if I had shot 200 digital images. The combination of shooting and scanning is working for me at the moment. Maybe a working professional darkroom will eventually become an itch I can’t resist scratching, but for now the process of shooting film is fulfilling, refreshing and what I need at this stage in my career.
It is often said that things in life come around in cycles and I am glad I’m old enough to have witnessed this one.
Onto the pictures and the inevitable limitations of the internet. For me, the only way I am able to truly judge the quality of a file is when it is printed. The film shot of the beach huts is printed on Permajet FB Paper and it looks lovely. It sits in our wall alongside Leica and Canon images. It has a glow to it. Something quite intangible, but you know it is there. Click on the pictures for a larger version.