Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Baggage of Film

Jessica Stam by Mariano Vivanco. Numéro Korea.

People tend to like to comment on conflagratory posts so here's another one that many of you will balk at.

First my personal disclaimer. I didn't really shoot film. Sure I had a 35mm film camera like everyone else. As a kid I had my negatives developed at the local camera store or sometimes at the supermarket. Never spent any time in a dark room.

For me that's worked out just fine.

Why? Because I'm a digital photographer. I can't be bound to 16 or 32 frames (MF 120 or 220, yeah I actually shot a few rolls before purchasing the Hasselblad). Just not my style.

It goes back to my What's in an Image post. I'm looking for the fleeting editorial moments that aren't "poses". I can't tell you when these moments will happen. It's much like trying to predict when lighting will strike. But when lightning strikes, the earth shakes, the heavens rumble, and sometimes one can create life (Frankenstein, Short Circuit, creation of life, etc.). But in order to catch lightning in a bottle, you have to be prepared for those moments, and you also have to shoot a lot of frames...

But shooting a lot of frames is hard for photographers that have lived through the days when film was so expensive. Back in the olden days photographers had to be precise about their metering, focus, and lighting because not only did they only have a limited number of frames, they had a limited bankroll to spend on film. As a result, film photographers were forced to be very specific about models' poses.

Those days are gone.

And while most of those same film photographers now own digital Canons and Nikons, few of them have adopted the volume-shooting style that digital technology affords. Instead, these photographers insist that their "take-as-few-frames-as-possible-precision" is the right way of shooting because it's exact and yields predictable and repeatable results every time. To that extent, they are absolutely correct. But what these photographers will never experience is (as I've stated before) "lightning in a bottle" because they feel wasteful when they shoot lots of frames.

It's the equivalent of someone insisting on getting their water from the well in the backyard even though there is running water connected to the house.

Why carry the baggage around from yesteryear? Things change. Embrace change.

But the baggage doesn't end with just shooting-style. These same photographers used to spend hours in the lab developing their film. Perhaps for this reason they resent Photoshop's ability to manipulate images with ease. Some of these same photographers will say retouching is "cheating" and that you should get the shot "right" in the camera to begin with.

Sound familiar?

This issue is not limited to film photographers. It can be seen in human beings across the board in various aspects of life. We all know someone who is "afraid" of the computer and doesn't have email. Or someone who refuses to carry a cell phone because back in the old days, people didn't have cell phones. Or even people that still schedule their lives around their favorite TV shows because they don't own DVRs.

Look, I get it. It's a reluctance to change. One day, I'll have my hangups about adopting new technologies. And sure, one can argue that digital photographers aren't nearly as precise and use "volume-shooting" as a crutch for not having a clear vision. Sure I get that. Or that Photoshop is just a crutch for not capturing things right to begin with. I understand that argument too. But being that this is a fashion-specific blog, I challenge you to open a copy of W, V, Vogue, Numéro and describe the current style of images. Gone are the overly-posed looks. What you see today is fleeting, motion, emotion, attitude, that is unpredictable and certainly not choreographed or staged or posed. It's real. It's candid. It's human. And it's alive.

Certainly, there are no wrong answers. Posed is not better or worse than natural. But being limited by archaic thinking and outdated practices will only hold you back from current trends and future growth. Use the lessons of film in the past and adapt that knowledge to the technologies available today. You'll be that much stronger and better than those that haven't had the experience of true physical photo-manipulation. Don't let the baggage of film weigh you down on your photoshoots.


  1. At first, sorry for my english...

    You have a digital Hasselblad, lots of people have high-end DSLR, shoot for agencies, magazines, etc. And what do you/they/I do with PS? Try to copy the mood of analogue photos, summon their spirit: add noise, fade, remove black, add texture, scratches, play with curves, get the effects of expired films. Why? Doesn't digital have 'soul'? The digital 'raw', unedited picture is boring even if it is a photo reportage. Reporters should add contrast, vignette, noise, (de)saturation.
    Digital doesn't have the little flaws what add unique taste for the final product like film has/had after darkroom.
    Deeply in our childish photographer soul we all love the analogue, those ages are gone but we try to put their spirit into our digital workflow.

  2. In the end I think we all love going further than just taking photos and, not cheating, but playing with our images for giving them our distinctive touch. You can call it dark room or Photoshop, but the thing is right now the second one is faster, easier and cheaper.

    I absolutely agree with this post.

  3. Gabor. You hit the nail on the head. Absolutely.

  4. I agree with Gabor,
    I shoot almost all of my weddings with film, and as many editorials or features with film as well.. Simply because I can, and it has a life of its own..

    Two weeks ago, my last wedding of the year, and I was shooting a moc dinner scene for Bride magazine, and two the guest that were supposed to be in the dinning hall, walked out with there nikon d3, and the other had a 5dmark11- both of them just some random guys from cisco, but they had cameras and lenses that would have been impressive to anyone but myself and the couple who hired me..

    My point is when money can buy you into the game, it cant buy you a spot in the front row.. or the winning goal..

    Charles has and is making that gap allot closer with less post look, but still giving the raw bland digital capture a direction, and then letting it go on to live on it own.. And that is what interest me most about your work Charles, is that you are bringing life that I don't see in the over sharpened over edited, images that I have to work with daily..

    as a retoucher myself, I don't get the pleasure of creativity as you do, but I am shooting more editorial, and more personal work. And I hope to find a new approach to dealing with the "sterile image that capture one leaves me with at the end of the day..

  5. Thanks for the kind words ajayfay. I've been on vacation the past 2 weeks (kind of... still logged 50 hours of work in during this time). During this time I've been experimenting even more with retouching. In a way that I wouldn't usually try. My latest image reflects this experimentation because though it was shot digitally (NIkon D3) it doesn't (shouldn't) look and feel like a digital image ( And that makes me strangely very happy. Happy enough to consider blogging about it.

    I hope you find more opportunities to shoot creatively and work through your images in a way that brings you more satisfaction! :) Cheers!