Tag Archives: film

Smoky mountains – the art of forgetting

I made a number of images last year that I’ve only just had developed (mostly by Dan at The Photo Parlour – highly recommended).  One of the advantages of this delay is that I have been discovering the images afresh.  This is something I learnt from Bruce Percy, though I’ve never had such a long wait – there were even images from November 2014 in this batch!

I’m pretty pleased with most of them, and forgetting exactly what was intended makes me see them in a different way to more rapidly processed images.  I have distance to them, and interpret and see them in new ways.  For example, here’s one that I had not remembered until I came to looking at it much more closely once it had been scanned and imported to Lightroom:

July 2015, looking east across Loch Ewe (click to see a slightly larger version)

July 2015, looking east across Loch Ewe (click to see a slightly larger version)

I think these are Glas Mheal Mor – Bidean a’ Ghlas Thuill – Sgurr Creag an Eich – Sail Liath, but in the meantime am not completely sure, and my extant notes simply say ‘smoky mountains’!  Any note I may have had of how I identified them at the time is lost.

What is now more interesting to me than the exact location is that sometime before going north to Loch Ewe I had been reading about distressing negatives – see, for example, this short description – and I have a vague recollection that I deliberately scratched and damaged one of my negatives. In a careless (carefree?) sort of way, I didn’t write down which one that was, but it must be this one – and I love it. At the time I clearly thought through what the image would be, choosing Ilford FP4+ film to emphasise the subtle cloud tones (even though I can’t exactly remember doing that) and the damaging of the negative (that I also only partially remember) accentuates the sense of foreboding and darkness that the weather was creating. In fact, it almost looks as if it was raining heavily – but I know that it was a dry evening.

The art of forgetting takes on a new meaning…!


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.

Preview: The Wide Open Spaces of Infinite Darkness

This is not one of the images in the series that some people may be aware I’ve been working on, The Wide Open Spaces of Infinite Darkness, but it is the precursor to that series, made near Beauly in Scotland on a trip with Mike Colechin in March this year:

Introductory image - The Wide Open Spaces of Infinite Darkness

Introductory image – The Wide Open Spaces of Infinite Darkness

It was made with a large format camera (the series itself is made with a Nikon 35mm camera). It is a negative image, both in terms of what I see it communicating, and the fact that it really is the negative image (i.e. not reversed from the film).

I will upload the series to the page shortly (at the moment, there is just this introductory image on the page, with a short text). Every other image in the series is made using the same lens (28mm) and though shutter speeds change (generally they are very slow), the aperture is kept at f2.8 (wide open…) and the focus is always set to infinity and mostly shot at night (infinite darkness…). Everything about this series is both literal and figurative…

(And if you still think photographs represent some kind of documentary evidence, here’s Mike Colechin’s image of exactly the same bit of ground, made maybe half an hour earlier…)

Intentional Film Movement

No, the Intentional Film Movement is not a radical revolutionary brigade, forcing all digital camera users to move to film…! It’s just my play on words in relation to the current trend for ‘intentional camera movement’ (I think ICM – a bit like HDR – is interesting the first few times you see it and then it just gets tedious, mostly because it’s rarely done well, and is often done just for the sake of being able to do it, with little underlying narrative).

Anyway, rant over.  Holidays at home are wonderful: I have been tidying up this week, and came across 19 rolls of film (14 rolls of 35mm and 5 rolls of 120) that I had had developed but then never really looked at. I knew there were some portraits in amongst them that I was somewhat concerned at having lost, but also some experimental images.

Un-Intentional Film Movement - a typical 'accident'

Un-Intentional Film Movement – a typical ‘accident’

My old Rolleiflex, with six decades behind it, works really well. Except for those times it doesn’t. In particular, the film transport mechanism can be a bit dodgy: the film doesn’t always quite engage the way it should, and then the winding mechanism fails: it becomes possible to wind through the whole film without making a single image, as it doesn’t ‘lock’ for each exposure, even though the shutter can be cocked. That has resulted in some rather strange double (triple?!) exposures, in part covering the bottom or top of an image, but I found that when the film fails to engage properly (and in the meantime I can tell when this happens with the first winding of the film to get to the first frame), it also becomes possible to wind the film on whilst having the shutter open. Some of the ‘problem’ images I was getting were like this one here (oops – some of my wife’s family at a celebration last year!).

Intentional Film Movement

Intentional Film Movement

However, this also offers some interesting opportunities. Rather than being annoyed about the film mechanism, I began to experiment, whilst also still making ‘proper’ images in between the experiments (after all, this can easily be done, if you guess how far to wind the film on – does cock the shutter, it just doesn’t move the film on evenly). I tend to used Ilford FP4+ in this camera, which has such a wide latitude that exposure doesn’t really matter – and that makes it ideal for things such as this. I began to try doing two or three things simultaneously to create new images:

  1. using a small aperture, open the shutter
  2. turn the film crank whilst the shutter is open
  3. at the same time, also move the camera.

I was using a tripod (I find that easiest with the Rolleiflex – I struggle to keep the image even vaguely straight without a tripod, and so if it’s important to keep straight, then I need a tripod!), but even doing the first two of these three actions requires a degree of coordination that I struggle with – and moving the camera at the same time becomes much harder! However, the images do then become more interesting.

I tried several experiments with these techniques, using several films, all of them in this pile of unexamined films that I found this week.

Only having seen the negatives, I have been aware of the effect I was generating, and did see how moving the camera also played a role (I didn’t do so for the first roll, and, of course, just ended up with a blur). So here are some of the attempts that have resulted in more interesting shapes.

Intentional Film Movement

Intentional Film Movement

This one, which has a floaty lightness to it, is perhaps my favourite of this group of photographs – it involved a longer exposure, a smaller aperture, and slow consistent movement of the film (I think the darker line is when I stopped winding consistently). I was actually seeking to make a portrait of a friend, but I’ll not give her name here – suffice it to say that the subsequent images of her worked really rather well, even if this one doesn’t actually look anything like her!

Intentional Film Movement - a landscape

Intentional Film Movement – a landscape

I think this last image is interesting for a different reason. I intended to create a ‘cloud’, but this worked exceptionally well: what I am including here is not just the image on the film, but the jagged edge where it has been cut, and the straight line from the scanner’s film-tray. It may be quite hard to see on smaller devices (and perhaps I should have processed this a little more to bring out this contrast – all of these are simply straight from the scanner with no adjustments of any kind), but on a larger screen, I can quite clearly see a night landscape here. The jagged edge is a curved hill, and the lighter areas further up the image are (strange-looking) clouds. Of course, it is not just landscapes that can represent more abstract concepts – abstract concepts can also represent landscapes!

There is a pleasant mix here of images. Creating them involves an element of randomness, but I have tried to create certain kinds of shapes and patterns too, even if I don’t see if they’ve worked until the film has been developed.

Do I think this is going to be something I do more of? Probably not, unless there is a motif that I think might be made more interesting with this technique – AND I happen to have the Rolleiflex with me AND the film hasn’t loaded properly! The one thing I can’t predict is when the Rollleiflex will work properly and when it won’t, so there is a further element of randomness in these kinds of images – most of the time I don’t know when I might (have the opportunity to) create more!

A couple of ‘new’ images and some thoughts on patience

I’ve started to have a bit more time – not much, but a bit! – for processing images from last year that in part I hadn’t even had developed, never mind scanned.  However, a few weeks ago I took a substantial number of films away for processing (the fridge door is now half-empty again!), and I’ve been scanning film ever since.  The images here – added to the Assynt gallery – are both from the same bay, made an hour or two apart (at most).  The first image is on Fuji Velvia 50, and is actually the later of the two:

Ardmair/Cul a' Bhodha

The sea in the evening light, after the storm clouds lifted; Ardmair/Cul a’ Bhodha

I think I’m not finished with the processing of the second image, but I want to include it here since it represents a bit of a personal triumph (yes, this may seem slightly pathetic to you!), in that I feel I have finally managed to process Kodak Portra 160 the way I want it:

Ardmair/Cul a' Bhodha

Incoming storm clouds; Ardmair/Cul a’ Bhodha

What is interesting about this on a personal level is that I had tried using Portra quite a bit last year, in part because great photographers like Dav Thomas rave about the tones and dynamic range that it offers.  However, I spent much of my processing time fighting to get anything like a semi-decent image from the film scans: everything had subtle but unpleasant greenish colour casts that I couldn’t seem to get rid of: terribly frustrating.  Attempting to get skin tones on portraits right was impossible, and landscapes were no better.  I should add that this is very subjective: I felt I never managed to get them quite right for me.

Part of this, I now think, was about trying to force myself to get it right too quickly.  The key issue is in part simply a matter of white balance and temperature adjustment, but there is much more to it as well, and I just couldn’t get it right.  I stopped engaging with Portra last autumn, but in about March of this year I read this detailed article by another enthusiastic Portra user, Tim Parkin.  Whilst I didn’t think of this article yesterday when I had my Eureka moment, now that I look back at it, I realise that I had indeed begun to incorporate some elements of Tim’s processing technique.  I feel I can go back to the article in detail and work through the parts I really want to use on my images.  It’s as if I’m befriending Portra again.

What is key to this development is that it comes in several stages: firstly there was an initial enthusiasm which rapidly became an experience of frustration, eventually leading me to abandon Portra altogether.  However, subconsciously the wrestling with Portra was still going on, for why would I have read Tim’s article unless I had intended to use it?  Much later, when I had some time and what I loosely call ‘brain-space’, I found I could return to a Portra image and incorporate sufficient key elements of Tim’s techniques to make it work for me.  This image here happens to be the one that I started playing with, and at some point I need to finish working on it.

None of this process should come as a great surprise to me because in my academic work this happens regularly.  I will often read a book or an article, but struggle to fully understand or engage with it and then simply ‘forget’ about it and read something else.  However, I then find my subconscious has been working away at the first text, perhaps with the help of the second, and when I need to write something that would benefit from the first, it simply ‘works’.  I go back to it, for sure, but the key arguments and opportunities it offers to develop an argument are already clearly delineated and internalised.  I know that it just needs time and patience to let it seep into my system – at least, that’s what it feels like!

Now I can observe that my engagement with photographic techniques seems to follow a similar pattern.  I need to cultivate more patience, which those of you who know me will realise is something of a challenge! 🙂

New old images

I finally took a whole lot of film away to be processed, and have started scanning some of it.  This is a slow process, as I am also very busy with work things at the moment, but it will gradually result in more and more images appearing.  It is perhaps particularly appropriate that I’m able to post these things just now, when I’ve not been able to get out to make photographs for the last four weeks because I’ve been unwell.

I had thought I would try and keep to Alan Ross’ ‘PostAPhotoFriday’ idea, but it’s been more like ‘PostAPhotoEveryFortnightIfIHaveTheTime’!  Still, this is my offering for today, some autumn colours from the Isle of Mull:

Ardalanish Bay; Paps of Jura on the horizon

Ardalanish Bay; Paps of Jura on the horizon

The Paps of Jura in the distance were remarkably clear.  This was made with my Mamiya medium format camera, on Velvia 50 film, and slightly over-exposed (deliberately, I mean!).  I love that the film doesn’t dramatically blow out the highlights except for the area of the sun itself.  Rather it just gracefully moves off in lovely soft tones into complete whiteness.

I think this one is going on my wall…!

The darkroom comes a step closer…

Last year I began to think that in 2012 I’d like to start developing and printing my own film again – the last time I did this was in the early 1990s – and today this came a little step closer. Someone offered a traditional darkroom enlarger on Freegle last week, and I requested it. The owner got back to me to say that I could have it.

So today I went to collect it. She’s a lovely lady, whose late husband had been the one-time president of the Edinburgh Photographic Society. He had made mainly black and white photographs.

There is something wonderful about “inheriting” something like this – it comes with a history, with baggage, and I really look forward to trying it out. Even if all I do at the moment is some manual printing from black and white film and leave the developing for later, that will be exciting. I hope to be able to suitably honour her late husband’s enlarger. I think I know what at least some of my free evenings during my mid-semester teaching break might be used for…

PS results – presuming they’re any good – to be posted here in due course!