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14 days with film.

Photography can be this weird blend of the technical and artistic, each sometimes in conflict and sometimes in harmony with the other. Take the debate between film and digital . . . no, please take it, take it and go (I’m here all week :).

Seriously, you can read the most passionate and/or logical of arguments from articulate and motivated film or digital photographers for either side. You can also read many dismissive and/or abusive arguments from either side too.

The bottom line for me is that the technical aspect of photography, while interesting and endlessly fascinating, is just the tool for realizing my vision (whatever form it may take).

For some other, well, I am absolutely certain there have been hate and vitriol filled debates between painters about the medium, brushes and brands of paint they use (or species of egg they used to use for egg tempera).

I recall reading arguments between writers regarding word processors and typewriters. I’m sure sculptors occasionally toss hammers at each other over the type of chisel they each prefer. I think you get where I’m going.

So when I decided to try film photography this year I expected some laughter (got a bit more than I bargained for) and teasing (about what I expected, thanks James and Dwayne :)). I also expected a healthy skeptical response along the lines of: “Film? Film is dead, digital is the way to go.” And I didn’t get much of that. Seems like there is a resurgence of interest in film, or at the very least a degree of maturity has finally reached in the debate.

For a professional, working with a tight budget, it is undoubtedly more sensible to use digital, although I suspect that the cost factor probably isn’t as clear cut as for a hobbyist like me (as shown below). But the cost consideration is not as relevant, or relevant at all, to a hobbyist.

I tend to take about 5,000 photos a year, although last year (while doing a photo a day project) I took significantly more.

If I were to take that many photos using film then costs would be significantly higher. Something on the order of US$1,200 (143 rolls of 35mm, 36 exp. film x $7 ea. x $1.50ea. for processing) annually.

In my time also, costs would be higher. It takes me significantly longer to process 35 photos (chemical processing, scanning, colour correcting and uploading). I would guesstimate over 10 minutes per photo as against less than 2 minutes per photo for digital.


A smile from Mira

But there is no way that I am going to take 5,000 photos on film per year. In my (entirely fictional, more like 4 months :)) 14 days I’ve used 5 rolls of colour film and 1 roll of black & white). So even with the cost of the camera @ around US$50, and using my existing Pentax (K-mount) lenses the costs have not been particularly high.

As far as costs go, this is acceptable to me. Your mileage may vary.

So cost is not really a factor. But one reason is chose film lies in aesthetics. Just as records can be preferred to CDs, so too analog film can be preferred to digital perfection. I sympathize with the view that you can simulate film using various digital methods, but even in attempting to duplicate imperfection and randomness there is a digital perfection to these methods.

Mira, playing behind the curtain.

I don’t propose to wax lyrical about the “warmth” of analog versus the “coldness” of digital. My little experiment is not bound up in creating art through accident. It may seem counter to what I was saying a paragraph ago, but I prefer control to randomness. I don’t really want to express my vision through accident and variability. I want to put on paper (or screen) exactly what I want there. Not something I created by accident (although, conversely, I appreciate the role of serendipity in creativity :)).

No, I have about 5 or 6 presets in Lightroom that came about through trial and error, evolving into what I see and how I see. So aesthetics are not really that much of a factor to me either, although I would jump for joy if I could find film that approximates the way I process my digital images.

So why did I chose to experiment with film? Skill. Or rather lack thereof, on my part. At least initially.

With an ultra modern SLR like mine (Pentax K7) you hold a very fast, single purpose computer with a lens. This is what any modern digital camera is, varying only by degrees. Pick up any modern digital camera and it will be superb at its primary function.

Yes, there will be nit pickers and there can be usability issues, but the marketing department of whatever camera company you favour will have ensured that their product in the same price category as a competitor will be at least as good as that competitor’s.

As you move up in price, you tend to get more control and more flexibility (and, in absolute terms, image quality).

The point is, even at the very top, the camera does most or all of the thinking regarding the technical stuff. You still have to compose an interesting photo, but exposure is almost entirely automatic. And even if you use manual, most cameras tell you how far you are from optimal exposure so you still have a fair degree of guidance. And if you still get it wrong, you can usually do a fair bit of exposure correction from the RAW file (if you use RAW anyway).

All this is not to say great photos are difficult, but it’s hard not to agree to some degree with old pros who say us digital photographers are undisciplined. Particularly if, like me, you never had a lick of formal training.

So that was my primary motivation then, gaining a degree of skill by using a manual camera where the limitations are much more restrictive. I got a Pentax K1000, an old workhorse that is a favourite of photography schools everywhere and that would take many of my current lenses. For any of my visitors who aren’t Guyanese, to the best of my knowledge, there aren’t any photography classes available here.

Spade and brick, alight.

The first major difficulty I faced was deciding on the film I wanted. I couldn’t find anything to say what different films look like (I didn’t really know what to search for). Since I tend to like grain and high contrast, I decided on Kodak Portra 400 VC, which is a saturated, high speed colour negative film.

For black and white I chose Ilford HP5, ISO400 film.

Unfortunately, used to potential shutter speeds on my K7 of up to 1/8000 of a second, it never occurred to me that on the K1000, limited to 1/1000 of a second I wouldn’t be able to open up the aperture to reduce depth of field.

Unfortunately also, I did not realize at that time that there are no B&W film processors in Georgetown. At least none that anyone seems to know of. It seems like once I finish my 3 remaining rolls I will have to send them to the US (or Trinidad, if I can find someone there) to process.

Initially, I had intended to do minimal processing to my photos, so I wanted B&W film rather than simply converting colour negs to B&W. I think expediency has forced me to revise that somewhat. The photo on the left is colour, processed B&W in Lightroom.

I also have quite a bit still to learn about scanning my negatives. I am having a hard time getting consistent colour out of the scanner, although I’ve turned off all “auto” settings in the software. All the colour shots accompanying this post are slightly different despite my best efforts.


Bemusement from Kiran

So in my own meandering way I’ve revealed several of the lessons I’ve learned so far. But what of my primary goal; gaining skill? Well not so much. Firstly, because of the effort involved I find I am using the film camera less than I should. But also, it doesn’t seem to be much of a challenge.

Manual focusing is not difficult for me, as I’ve used a couple manual focus lens on my K7 for years. Exposure is not that difficult as the K1000 has a light meter and the sunny 16 rule works well. Especially as, in Guyana, it tends to be perfectly sunny much of the time. And when its rainy I can’t use the camera anyway.


I love film, daddy! 🙂

Perhaps because I’ve always preferred setting things like aperture, shutter speed and ISO manually on my DSLR I’ve gained a feel for manually setting exposure (NB: “feel” is not analogous to competence :)) which has translated to the film camera. But where my lack shows is in my inability to reliably get consistently exposed frames in varying lighting situations. This is something which has to come in time I suppose, but I’d hoped for a speedier learning curve. Like everything else though, if you aren’t putting in the effort, you won’t get the result.

One major thing I’ve learned, or noticed, is that the photos I take of my children always seem better to me than photos of anything else.

This is partly due to the fact that they happen to be the most inspiring subjects when I am in the mood to use the film cam. But for some reason, even subjects that normally interest me can’t seem to get themselves in order to give me photos that I like.

Another thing I’ve learned? Don’t get bloody fingerprints on the negatives! I don’t think it will be visible in the small photo in this post, but it is clearly visible when viewed larger.


Fingerprints on the left!

Yet another thing? The damned ISO don’t set itself on a Pentax K1000 :). Yes, I’ve got lots of stuff left to learn, but I think the day you don’t feel you have something left to learn in whatever endeavour you get into, you might as well quit. See some of my picks here.

Happy Easter!


Leaf, in dappled light.

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Tell us what do you think.

  1. Michael Lam says: April 21, 2011

    Nice post Nik, I doubt I’ll ever make the effort to go the route of film, but film or digital, the knowledge of the basics cannot be treated lightly, as both of us are un-schooled (formally) in photography, and as I learn so much from you, I think that learning is as much what I like about this “art” as the art itself.

  2. Wallace Koopmans says: April 22, 2011

    Using film allows for another photography experience, if it helps to make photography more interesting to you I think it great. I like the thoughtfulness and deliberateness of shooting film.

  3. Trinidad Dreamscape says: April 27, 2011

    Brilliant article and lovely photos to go along with it.

  4. Vignesh TG says: May 5, 2011

    I like the shot, ‘Mira playing behind the curtain’. Why don’t you try cheap films at the start, once you master the art of analogue photography. also you can develop b/w films on your own, its pretty easy.

    • Nikhil Ramkarran says: May 5, 2011

      Thanks for the comment. I considered the possibility of developing my own film, but I would have to import the chemicals myself (not an easy thing to do) and then they have a fairly limited shelf life. It would probably work out cheaper for me to send the negs for processing elsewhere.


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