Category Archives: patience

Slowing down: shooting a full roll of film (again)

One of the things that I (and others) say we like is about medium and especially large format photography is that it “slows down” the process of making images, with the implication that this is something that is harder to do with the advent of digital photography.

Certainly, with large memory cards and every image being “free” (they’re not, of course, but let’s not discuss that just now!), it can seem easy to just click away like mad.  In fact, I often have my DSLR set to “continuous” (which means something ridiculous like 6fps – though I very rarely shoot more than one frame at a time).  In the old days, before I bought my first DSLR in 2008, I used 35mm film all the time and often I’d use a single roll for each “event” in order to make cataloguing easier (sad but true!), and then hopefully one or two images on each roll would be vaguely ok.  This meant, for example, that if going for a walk, I would use a whole film up so that I could easily identify the 36 or 37 images from one particular occasion (there was no EXIF data!).  I know I am not the only person who did that, but one thing it did was force me to make photographs – and of course, many of them were pretty rotten.  Somehow, I never really made the connection between “speed” – “thoughtlessness” – “quantity” – “rotten photos” or at least, it took me a while to make that connection! 🙂

This continued when I first bought a DSLR too, partly because, you know, photos were suddenly “free”(!) – I would take LOTS of photographs, on the basis that at least some would work out.  Of course, many were deleted, and many reside on a hard disk, never to be seen again.  It was my first weekend photo workshop with Bruce Percy in Torridon in 2009 that made me begin to slow down a bit, and I’m tremendously grateful to him for helping me to do that.

Now I go for long walks and whilst I often take a camera with me, I rarely even take it out of the bag other than to make a quick snap of something I might want to come back to later: most of my “real” photography happens when I go out in order to make photographs. But I know that I can now compose and create images more thoughtfully and deliberately at speed (I’ve photographed at events, incl. weddings, when that is a necessary skill), and I wondered if that might still be the case if I tried to use a whole roll of film in one go.

The rules for the day!

The rules for the day!

So earlier this week, when we were going out for a family walk, I decided to “shoot a roll” and made a note of some conditions that I would use, setting myself some parameters (I was using a digital camera):

  • I would take exactly 24 or 36 photos (i.e. a full roll of film)
  • I would use only one lens (I chose to use a Lensbaby, a manual focus distorting lens… because, well, just because…)
  • I would allow myself no chimping or subsequent deleting of images – this would be “a complete roll”
  • I would allow myself to crop later to either 5×4 or square format if I thought that was appropriate – in the old days, I just cut prints to make them the size I wanted, so this seemed a legitimate reinterpretation of a pair of scissors!
  • I would mostly use f2.8, partly to accentuate the craziness of the Lensbaby, partly because I knew that I could just be lazy by not changing the aperture (which involves swapping out little metal rings using a wee magnetic stick, and is a bit of a bother; however, it did mean I would need to focus pretty accurately).

So with these restricted parameters, I went with the family on a short walk through the woodlands at the base of Beinn Eighe. I made 24 images, as follows (click to show larger versions):

What thoughts emerge from this?

  1. It’s not a surprise that I used to stress over this kind of thing – 24 photographs in one go is really hard work, and I can’t imagine how I was able to take 36 photos in one go like this!  I actually found this exercise pretty stressful, and the last two images are from the car park – I just could not think about making enough creatively interesting images fast enough.
  2. There is some duplication of vistas, partly because I couldn’t spend time thinking about the best way to make a particular scene “work” for me. And yet… none of these really “work” for me!
  3. Ignoring the distortions produced by the Lensbaby (why didn’t I just take a normal 50mm lens with me??), most of the images are vaguely ok, but they’re nothing very special – they are clearly composed at speed and with no contemplation time.  Furthermore, I was constantly trying to keep up with the family – it’s notable that the one image (no. 13) that includes them shows them from behind – and that just adds to the pressure!
  4. The images that are ok follow very conventional patterns of imagery – rule of thirds and such like – and that is what makes them ok.  I didn’t actively think about that kind of thing, it comes pretty naturally.  However, there’s nothing like the sand/grass/sky image that I wrote about in my last posting, which is a more creative, imaginative and personal interpretation of a location than any of these images will ever be.  These are mostly just pretty boring (though I quite like no. 21).

So in conclusion, my mental photographic processes have clearly slowed down considerably in recent years and they don’t speed up just because I am using a digital camera, even if every image is “free” (rather than nearly £5 for a large format image – that’s buying the sheet film and getting it processed… oh, don’t let me think about that too much!). And now when I’m out with a large format camera, I am mentally worn out if I take more than about four images in one go, because I now have patience and take the time to compose and think about them, never really in terms of cost, but in terms of a very simple “does it say anything” or perhaps better: “does it say what I want it to say?”  I can easily take 30 minutes or more to contemplate and make a single image.  Many of these tend to be images I want to keep and use, which none of the snapshots above really are.  And this is not just about large format photography, however: I know that when I take my medium format or DSLR cameras out for landscape photography, I am also very slow and deliberate.  It feels like a liberation from the pressures I used to put myself under.  And that is rather wonderful.

And now, having inflicted lots of mediocre images on you, here’s one I rather like from a few days later. I took some time over this one, using my DSLR and a 50mm lens (my most frequently used focal length). I didn’t use a tripod, but lay in the grass to stabilise the camera and my thinking.  This little row of buttercups by the shore line at Rhue, north of Ullapool, is very simple, and although they take up such a little space at the bottom of the image, there’s a tenacity to their joyous yet fragile beauty that contrasts with the dark hard stone behind them – and I thought it was rather lovely.

Tenacious beauties: buttercups at Rhue

Tenacious beauties: buttercups at Rhue

Once I’m back home I’ll also get all my film processed, and then I hope to post other images from my time here too.  All of them took longer than the “roll” above!


Postscript, 27.7.2015 (prompted by comments received to the original posting)

Of course, this blog posting is mostly about the reactive encounter with a new context. I am not seeking to make any comment about the thinking processes that go on before stepping out of the house. The key issue around making snapshots to come back to at a later date describes my way of working with subjects that I might find helpful for a particular theme a week, a month, a year later. Confusing the processes of conceptualisation and reactive thinking is easily done, and is one reason for a lot of bland photography – reactive thought is often mistakenly thought to be conceptual (it rarely happens the other way around, but it does also happen, with tedious and overwrought imagery being the result)

These processes are related, for sure, but are also distinct.

These processes also inform each other: I would assume that to be obvious to most people.


Making photographs is not like riding a bicycle

What started as a slightly flippant tweet has made me think more about photographic processes, especially after what feels like a long time away from making images (and I am not really talking about the Danny MacAskill type of cycling!).

There is a ‘proper’ explanation for why we do not forget how to ride a bicycle, but my point in the tweet was to suggest that it takes me time to rediscover how I might make images that work for me.  Picking up a camera again was easy enough, and doing the mechanistic things was straightforward – settings, pleasing compositions etc. – but since the beginning of the year I feel as if I’ve been relearning what it means to make images that I like, that speak to me – and by that I mean more than just being pleasing.

Early February 2015: A good walk not spoiled

Early February 2015: A good walk not spoiled

Producing images that communicate something more, that relate emotionally is more of a challenge than producing pleasing images.  I used to buy disposable cameras to explore this kind of thing.  Now I’ve just been making lots of digital images, partly on a DSLR, partly with my iPhone.  I’ve even opened an EyeEm account, though I may not keep that going for long.  Gradually, I feel I’m getting the hang of things again, through a lot practice.

On Saturday I went for a 5 hour walk into the Fintry Hills with the large format camera.  That’s a heavy bag to carry that long – I had intended to be out for just a couple of hours, but was enjoying being out a bit too much to go home so soon, and just decided to keep going.  I have been out the large format camera several times recently, but this time I even took it out of the bag and made a photograph (now I just need to get it processed).  It felt good – regardless of how the image turns out, I felt I was connecting with myself again, and the camera was enabling me to express that.  Last year’s bout of depression may actually have been overcome, at least for now.  And that’s not all just down to chocolate, but to the love of those around me, in real life and in virtual life, for which I am tremendously grateful.  Having said that, chocolate has a key part to play, too:

Getting there, slowly

One of the problems with being off work with an arm injury (and therefore being unable to use the computer properly) is that editing photographs is also a problem: many of the mouse movements are difficult, and repetitive actions strained my arm and hand in ways that prevented me from doing anything very much with any of my images.  And using my Wacom tablet was out of the question – and still is.

Now, I have far too many photographs in my optimistically-named ‘temp’ folder in Lightroom 3, just waiting for me to sort and edit them (oh, and go through the mindless but necessary tedium of adding keywords). For almost all of the photographs in that limbo state, this delay is not a problem – they are just my private photographs. But shortly before the accident I had volunteered to take photographs at an event at my son’s school: the older pupils were running a fashion show to help raise some funds, and these photographs needed to be processed urgently. And… I must be getting better since not only am I beginning to use my cameras again, I have also managed to finish the edits on the fashion show, editing photographs in batches.

This was an enjoyable evening, and the pupils’ enthusiasm was infectious – not much sullen strutting up the catwalk in evidence here!  Even dubious fashion items (a leather kilt, anyone?) were worn with pride, and many of the young women clearly felt like princesses in their prom dresses and the like.  (Must remember not to mention the forthcoming examinations to them…)

School fashion show

School fashion show

Allow me to introduce you to…

… my sick camera!

'The sick camera'

'The sick camera'

This is what my 15-year old son, in his elegant way with language, means just now when describing this camera, my Nikon FM2.  A few days after breaking my arm, stuck in the house and going slightly crazy, I decided to get the little FM2 out and document some of my time off due to the broken arm.  So I’ve photographed: items to do with being off, different things I can do, some of the people who have visited me or that I have visited, and so on.  For example, the shot above was preparation for a self-timed image of me typing with both hands, which my physiotherapist has recommended I begin to do.  I can’t remember what film is in the camera – I think it is probably my last roll of Fuji Sensia 100, but it may also be a black and white print film… so that will be interesting.  I’m determined to use all the 36 exposures on this little project – but don’t worry, I’ll not be inflicting images of me typing with both hands on you, even though it’s exciting for me! 🙂

I have also managed to take a couple of images with the much heavier D90 (using just my lovely light little 35mm f1.8 lens).  So here’s a wee portrait of the dog wearing glasses… in my son’s inimitable style, he calls him Professor McDog:

Professor McDog

Professor McDog

At the end of this week, Neil McIlwraith from Beyond Words is intending to drop off part of an order for me, Michael Kenna’s Huangshan – I can’t wait!

The wonder of film

This evening I needed to be in nearby Musselburgh, where I would be waiting for half-an-hour at the harbour. Musselburgh has a lovely small harbour, and at the moment all the sailing boats are ‘parked’ in the car park round the harbour (in spaces that are marked ‘dinghy parking’!).

Stephanie, photographed on Ilford FP4 plus (ISO125)

Stephanie, photographed on Ilford FP4 plus (ISO125)

On the way out of the house, I took my camera, tripod, spirit level, filters, a 28mm and a 50mm lens – and looked forward to capturing some of these boats and the harbour scenes. I took my favourite film camera, the old Nikon FM2, with one of the last three rolls of Fuji Sensia that I have: this is a bit of a trip down memory lane for me, since I used to use Sensia a lot before switching to Fuji Velvia for colour landscapes; Fuji have recently announced they are stopping the production of Sensia so I have just bought three rolls of it to play with for the last time. It was fairly dark when I arrived in the harbour, and as I took my bag out of the car and began to set up, I realised that I had left my light meter at home – since the FM2’s slowest shutter speed before getting to the bulb setting is 1 second, the camera’s meter would be useless and I would have had to more or less guess all my exposures… so, sadly, I packed everything away again and went to buy a newspaper instead. Next week, when I expect to be there again, I’ll remember the meter!

I’ve read two nice postings on other people’s websites recently about using film. The first one was from the great Bruce Percy, who discussed how much he enjoyed using a particular kind of Kodak Portra film for a recent trip he made to Ethiopia and then, referring to Canon’s 5D digital camera, noted:

I get a lot of correspondence from people wanting to know how to get the same look with their 5D. You can’t.

If you want the look of film, then shoot film.

It doesn’t get much simpler than that! The other piece I’ve come across is more of a short essay by the wonderful Max Marinucci (though the second part describes how he develops film, so you may want to skim read that bit if you just want to pick up on his philosophy about film):

…patience and parsimony are virtues to be cultivated and nourished. When shooting film, you immediately accept the fact that it may be a little while before you see the fruits of your work and, by living with this, you will become a more disciplined shooter, which will in turn carry on to your digital side as well. It also means that shooting everything in sight without any thought into basics like light and composition is out of the question since you only have 24-36 shots in a roll of 35mm and it makes no sense in spending time/money developing simple, careless snapshots. This is a valuable exercise in restraint and it brings us to actually THINK before we shoot. Would you have taken a picture of your toes with film just because you can? I sincerely doubt it.

Although I use my Nikon D90 digital camera a lot, there is something wonderful about film that cannot be beaten by the more ‘clinical’ nature of digital… and it has to do with all these key components of photography that often go missing in the techno-madness that camera manufacturers obscure from us as they add ever more silly functions to their cameras: patience, composition, light, perspective… I’m not a dogmatic film shooter: of course digital cameras have their place (I couldn’t be involved in the same way in the African film festival if I wasn’t using digital, and I do like my D90). I think it is just a question of being reminded of that at times, of using film and digital in different circumstances as appropriate, and above all, appreciating film for all the wonder it can bring to the craft of photography.