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Op-Ed: Your Medium and Tools as Inspiration

Gear Talk

I just noticed that Instagram for Android was released yesterday, and it’s downloading as I write this. I really dig Instagram, SmugMug’s Camera Awesome, and all the other iPhone/Android camera apps out there; they’ve truly democratized photography and that’s for the better.

Then I saw this on Popular Photography: Inside the World of Large Scale Wet Plate Photography.

The story is about photographer Ian Ruther’s camera-in-a-truck that he takes out on location to make images. The cost of each image is a staggering $500, and the process isn’t exactly easy, as shown in the video below.

I’m old enough to remember the days of film, of loading hand-rolled 35mm film cassettes into my Canon AE-1. As late as 2010, I still developed a bunch of medium-format 120 film myself, having fallen in love with the medium all over again. I’ve even shot on 4×5 film on a borrowed Crown Graphic, and it was a wonderful experience.

Instagram shot of my C33 overlooking the Bay Area

Instagram shot of my C33 overlooking the Bay Area

Watching Ian Ruthers’ experiences in the video above reminded me of why, despite doing the bulk of my photography on a Canon 5D Mark II and the best lenses Canon has to offer, I still reach for my borrowed Hasselblad or my own Mamiya C33 TLR.

Let’s get one thing out of the way – I don’t shoot film because I think it’s higher-quality than digital. That argument isn’t really valid anymore, especially given that quality is subjective. This is about one thing, and one thing only: the medium.

Most arguments from film proponents start with, “There’s something about shooting film…” This is often followed by, “I can’t quite explain it.”

I can appreciate that. It’s not always easy to elucidate reason in matters involving emotion. Fortunately, I’ve been giving this some thought, and I can take a crack at it.

As I said, this is about the medium. What that translates into, is two things.

The tactility of non-digital media

Ask any artist working with paint, or any sculpture working with materials like metal, stone, or wood. They will express a certain passion for their medium, talking about things like texture, feel, and shape – elements that relate to senses other than just sight. There’s something very tangible about working with a physical medium, about using one’s hands to shape things. Digital artists have this to some extent; anyone who’s worked with a Wacom tablet knows the pleasure of being able to manipulate pixels with a pressure-sensitive pen and surface.

Photography – the digital variety – doesn’t have that tactility. It’s a bit clinical. The mix of glass, silicon, and metal combine to give you an image that, while you may fall in love with, doesn’t necessarily thrill an artist who’s experienced the joy of working with tangible things.

Pigeon Point, #2, Fuji Neopan Acros, Mamiya C33 TLR.

Pigeon Point, #2, Fuji Neopan Acros, Mamiya C33 TLR.

This is, in part, why cameras like the Olympus OM-D, the Fuji X100, and the Fuji X-Pro1 have captured so many photographers’ imaginations. In the absence of physical media to manipulate, the camera itself becomes the object of tactile satisfaction. It is intensely satisfying to work with dials and knobs and rings, as opposed to buttons and touch screens, especially when you’re creating your art. I love working with the X100 – my own Olympus E-PL2 has been put aside in favor of one of these that I keep renting, despite the cost.

Let’s take that one step further. It’s not just camera manufacturers satisfying out need for tactility by making cool retro desirables like the X100. iPad users, go to your Contacts or Calendar app. See that interface, that faux notebook background, the stitching down the center, leather-esque look of the cover? Those elements – called skeuomorphs - are showing up more and more, in both computer and device interfaces. Software manufacturers are realizing that, in an increasingly touch-sensitive world, visual elements with tactile looks can be very attractive to users.

The process and end result of non-digital media

This is the second reason we film geeks still love our emulsion-coated plastic. When you press that shutter, an image is captured on photo-sensitive chemicals, an image that is highly specific to the characteristics of the film being used.

Off Highway 1, #1, Fuji Neopan Acros, Mamiya C33 TLR.

Off Highway 1, #1, Fuji Neopan Acros, Mamiya C33 TLR.

Film geeks know that you use Ilford Delta 100 for high-contrast stuff, that you switch to Fuji Neopan Acros 100 for nice midtones, that Kodak TMAX 100 has the finest grain, that Portra 160 is perfect for skin tones and Velvia has greens so vivid, they jump off the print.

When you shoot with a specific film, you shoot with restrictions. Those restrictions force you to think, to slow down, to consider your image before you press that shutter. You’re not going to be able to just up your ISO if the light fails, for example. That puts you on a tripod, and that naturally extends itself into forcing you to frame your shot more carefully.

The end-result is part of the reason why we use film. I mentioned Instagram at the beginning of this article; this is an app that’s gotten popular primarily because you can make images that look like old-school film shots with a single tap. Nothing wrong with that – I post to Instagram all the time. Other apps like Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro and VSCO’s Film Effects have gotten incredibly popular for the same reason – they help emulate old-school film.

I love these apps. But I also love going back to the real thing, because the visual characteristics of images made with film are clearly still popular, as the aforementioned apps have demonstrated. If I can combine my love for working with a physical, tangible medium, and still produce images that have great visual appeal, well, why on earth wouldn’t I?

Final thoughts

Big Sur Coast, #1. Fuji Neopan Acros, Mamiya C33 TLR.

Big Sur Coast, #1. Fuji Neopan Acros, Mamiya C33 TLR.

There is no wrong answer to the question, “Should I shoot film?” or “Should I create wet plates?” I’ve explained why I love doing so. You may prefer pushing pixels around instead of chemicals – that too, is every bit as legitimate an art form. What I want you to take away from this op-ed is that the medium you work in and the tools you use can be, in fact, important.

Good photographers can create fantastic images regardless of what camera they use. Me with a Hasselblad 500C isn’t any better a photographer than me with a Canon 5D Mark II.

Bu the 500Cis a pleasure to use. It’s almost a fetish object; I want to work with it, want to load and remove film, want to scope out those negatives with a loupe. There’s a ritual associated with these things, and rituals are important to us as human beings. I am more apt to stop at a location and spend hours exploring it, framing and studying subjects, taking a few, truly considered images.

And that consideration and study, that is inspired by the medium and tools I use, that ultimately makes me a better photographer.

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Sohail Mamdani is a writer and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. You can find his portfolio on his website at sohail.me as well as on 500px and Flickr.

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Comments

  • Ryan Walsh says:

    Incredibly inspiring! 35mm got me into photography in general, 120 and 4×5 turned that interest into art, digital turned it into work. Its the unfortunate reality of it. I love what I do and there are pros and cons for everything but no amount of digital equipment will replace the feeling of spending days shooting film with no real known outcome for sometimes weeks then spending more weeks in the darkroom. The process is very much theraputic. I do love post editing for creative projects in digital and its still very much exciting but I hope someday soon that prints come back into trend. So rarely do I get to see the finished printed result of my work and I miss that a lot. Thanks for the video and story…great stuff!

  • Justine says:

    Even as a grad student in New Media and Visual Journalism, I regularly sneak out to take pictures on my pentax k1000. Thank you for eloquently explaining why.

  • Gary says:

    Amen. I started in 110 with Brownie Hawkeye to 35mm Canon, made my own pinhole camera, to digital Nikon. I strongly believe that there is a significant loss of “depth” to digital captures. I rolled my own film, developed and printed my own images well into the ’80s. It was a matter of understanding and mastery of light, movement, and composition that separated snapshots from photographs. Ansel Adams rocks!

  • Clay says:

    In a world awash in pictures instantly taken, instantly broadcast to the world – taking time for craftsmanship is a worthwhile exercise. So what if the only people to see it are those who stand in front an actual print? If the process appeals to your aesthetic sense, if it sharpens your vision of the world,then you’re on your right path.

  • David says:

    Interesting. But please, why is the background music louder than the narration? Very distracting.

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