Why do I love shooting with 4″x5″ film? Why do I hate it so much?
I shoot digital images almost daily throughout Oklahoma and surrounding states for a wide variety of local, national, and even international clients. Digital is fast, efficient, beautiful and offers a well proven workflow. My background is in information technology so I was a very early adopter to digital imaging, starting way back in 1999 with my first Nikon digital camera. I have shot hundreds of thousands of digital images since and have been published in countless magazines, even shooting nearly 100 magazine and book covers.
So why do I continue to struggle with my secret love affair with film?
Actually, I don’t think my love affair is strictly with film, although it is certainly growing on me over time. My first love is shooting my Toyo 4″x5″ view cameras. Give me a camera with swings, tilts, and shifts and I will drool over it all day long. Actually I will drool over it for years. If I could justify the cost of a medium or better yet, large format digital back, I would probably not mess with film and just shoot digital all the time. But maybe not.
I shot film at the beginning of my career. Because of my volume of work and love of medium and large format cameras, I did my own film processing. Not in a darkroom like most photographers of the day. I developed using a film changing bag and a Jobo processor, then would scan my film into my computer. I never was much on using a darkroom and printing analog with an enlarger, and have no desire to learn those skills. I am very comfortable with my digital darkroom.
What I have found over the years is that digital is perfect. Almost too perfect. The images from my digital cameras come out with nary a scratch or dust spec on them. Every now and then I will get a bit of dust, but nothing a good sensor cleaning won’t take care of.
A film image is seldom perfect. Scratch that. A film image is NEVER perfect. That is the beauty of film. It is organic. Film has grain, which cannot be replicated with digital, no matter how hard one tries or what filters are used. Film is difficult to shoot. Oh, 35mm film is pretty easy, especially with modern film cameras. Medium format is increasingly more difficult, but still pales in comparison to shooting large format film (or wet plate/tintype – never done that but have watched the process and it redefines the word difficult).
Why would I still shoot film then? Why not just stick with beautiful digital images? That is where the money is, that is what clients purchase, and it is SO much easier.
Why do people still hunt wildlife with a bow and arrow? Modern firearms make the task SO much easier? Why do music aficionados still buy vinyl records? Why do coffee lovers grind and brew their own coffee?
For me, it is the passion. The passion of mastering a very difficult, demanding task. Of the large format film I shoot, maybe 30% of the images turn out good enough to even scan, much less look at and enjoy. The process of loading film, setting up my camera, properly exposing the film, unloading camera, transporting film, and then hand developing the film is a road fraught full of potholes and land mines. Screw up one part of the process and I ruin a sheet of film. And believe me, I have ruined a LOT of 4×5 film.
But every now and then I get something that is scannable. And even rarer still, I get a gem. An image that takes my breath away. An image that rekindles my love affair with film and my 4×5 camera. My recent photo of my father is one very recent example.
Earlier this week I worked with Micha Young, a beautiful lady from Enid who I have photographed before. We spent the day shooting film and digital images, just for fun. I don’t get to do that very often – usually I am shooting for paying clients. This time it was just for fun. No deadlines, no pressure. I used my digital camera as my “polariod” to test my settings for my film camera. I shot both with my Toyo VRX-125 4×5 film camera and my Pentax 6×7 medium format camera. I exposed 12 sheets of film in my Toyo. I lost one in developing. If I get 2 images from the batch I will be ecstatic.
The image below is not one of them. I normally wouldn’t even scan this image, much less share it. But the image is kind of cool, in a haunting sort of way, and shows just how difficult it is to shoot and hand process 4×5 film. I think this image was improperly exposed or I had a light leak or my flash fired twice (which happened on a few images). I also had some type of film streaking right down the middle. The image lacked contrast so I had to pump up the contrast in my computer. This image would never suffice for a client and normally not even for me. But I did scan it and saw some possibilities.
I think the image shows the potential and the pitfalls of large format photography.