The debate whether film is dead or alive rages on. A decade back film was almost written off. Digital was the future.
The gift of the digital era to photographers was speed and instant gratification. As a result, photography has evolved into a much more forgiving art form and thus one can see more perfect images today than ever before.
But what if the soul desires calming and slowing down? What if the mind and heart desire decluttering? What if the process of photography is gratification, more than just the result?
After shooting film and slides for about 15 years, I jumped into the digital bandwagon in 2003 and went through the typical cycle of acquiring upgrade after upgrade, shooting more and more, deleting more and more and post-processing more and more. And then, after 14 years of this rigmarole, I went back to the basics. I went back to the magic of film.
I shoot portraits and weddings and want my photography to reflect reality, more than anything else. For portraiture, I found myself drawn towards Large and Medium Format Film.
Wista Field 4X5 Large Format Camera
Hasselblad 500 CM Medium Format Camera
Flim slows you down. It has a calming effect. There is no running and gunning for pictures. Your preparation time is more than shoot time. You must have a process in your mind and follow it perfectly.
- Load sheet film into the holder/spool: For Large Format, this is the toughest part. It must be done in complete darkness, either in a darkroom or inside a changing bag. You load it by feel. The typical method is to have the notched corner of the film to the top right and push it into the holder slot from the bottom of the holder.
For Medium Format, it is slightly easier as it is roll film and loads more or less like 35mm film.
- Prepare the studio/location: Decide the lights and modifiers you want to use, the position of the model, the distance between background and model and the background.
- Metering and test shots: It is always good to have an incident light meter and decide exposure. Nowadays you can always use a digital camera as an alternative and estimate exposure but a light meter is more accurate. You can also take some test shots in digital and make sure of the metering.
- Focusing: Focusing on a Large Format Camera is a little tricky. You see the image inverted on the ground glass. So, you must be sure about the composition and cover yourself with some dark cloth so that the ground glass image is not contaminated with ambient light. A magnifying loupe is a useful tool to ensure critical focus. Also, remember that focusing is by moving the bellows back and forth and not by turning anything on the lens.
On Medium Format, you can focus using the waist level finder, in which case the image will be laterally inverted or use a prism finder, in which case it would be exactly like an SLR viewfinder.
- Final Shot:
- Large Format: After focus is achieved with the shutter (inside the lens) open and the aperture wide open the subject must be absolutely still till the shutter is cocked, the aperture is set to the desired f-number, film holder is inserted, dark slide is pulled out and shot is clicked. All this takes at least about thirty seconds during which the model has to be very patient and static. The camera’s size warrants a tripod.
- Medium Format: For high shutter speeds a tripod might not be required but it is always a good idea to have one as Medium Format Cameras and Lenses are quite heavy and prone to shake.
- Developing film: Unless you own a darkroom, you have to depend on community darkrooms (if you know how to develop), or go to the few stores which still do this. It means a decent amount of wait time, anywhere between a week to ten days.
- Printing/Scanning: Printing from the negative on photo paper is almost a lost art. There are very few people with enlargers and the requisite knowledge to pull this off and give you the desired result. The not so optimal way is to scan the negative and invert it in PS and get a digital file.
Yes, it is tedious, it is slow, it forces you to be meticulous and it takes time for the results to come but it is liberating. The texture of the film is amazing. Different films have different structure and character which is difficult to obtain in digital files. Large format negative size is about 15 times the size of a full frame sensor and the details you can obtain are phenomenal.
More than anything, shooting film makes you more rounded as a photographer. You start understanding metering, light, a process and much more. It prepares you to think and get good shoots in any situation.