I was thinking back 15-20 years to the Hasselblad 501C and the silver Halliburton case I carried it around in. I loved that camera. I carried that case as if it were full of gold. Paired with a Planar C 80mm lens and A12 film magazine, I could shoot just about anything that wasn’t moving fast.
The images from that camera were crisp and full of detail. The actual mechanical method of operation, and the workflow were very slow compared to today’s cameras. There were no autofocus points or six frame per second bodies. There was no articulating LCD. There was no Lightroom, Photoshop or Aperture. When you shot negative film, you had about five stops of latitude. When you shot positive (slides) film you had less room for error. I often bracketed in 1/3 stops. exposure was that critical back then.
Everything I did with that camera I did slowly and deliberately. I almost always used a tripod when I shot “The Blad.” There was a dark slide that I had to pull out of the way when I made an image. I used a hand-held meter to measure the exposure. I sent my film to the local lab and a few days later it came back all nice and neat in individual glassine envelopes with masking guides and order information in case I wanted prints.
As my success grew, I stepped up to the big time. I bought an A24 magazine back that would hold more film. I bought a Polaroid back that would let me take test shots to make sure the light and exposure were right. The backs were interchangeable, as were the lenses, the viewfinders and everything else. These mechanical cameras were expensive, well-built, and with glass that is unrivaled even today, were the best available in my opinion. In the right hands, they made art.
The process may seem archaic to some of you. But I checked and I realized I’ve spent more of my career shooting and selling film than I have digital. The experience I had as a film shooter influences me today.
When leading workshops I’ll notice many of the students hop out of the car, set their tripods to five feet, four inches, mount their cameras and start spraying and praying. Even now, when shooting digital, I often only make a few exposures. I am more deliberate. I spend less time in post than any photographer I know. Why? Because I am used to the days when post wasn’t much of an option. Sure, we could hire retouchers and airbrush artists, but good ones were hard to find, super busy and prohibitively expensive. So I learned to take my time and get it right in the camera.
It was during this time as a film shooter that I learned the most absolute fundamental truth there is about photography. Here it is. . . photography is always about compromise. Do I hold the highlights or the shadows? Do I sacrifice depth-of-field so I can use a less grainy film or do I go high speed (400 or maybe 800 back then) and get the faster shutter speed?
While the wonders of digital photography have made all of this easier, the basic tenant of yin and yang, give and take, sacrifice here or there is unchanged. You always pay for what you want in photography – one way or another. I’m not talking money – but rather – deciding what to include/exclude. Making decisions is the stock and trade of every photographer. The decisions are now easier in many ways, (HDR, Photoshop, etc.) but they also have (in my opinion) led to a lessening of the craft.
I am more contemplative than most. But I used to take a lot more time to compose a photograph. I used to take a lot more time to set up a photograph. I used to spend more time planning and executing each image. Now, with digital, I find myself rushing. I’ve come full circle. I know better, but the allure of a quick and easy, salable result is always a temptation.
So what am I doing about it? Well for starters I am trying to mentally force myself to slow down. I’ve been shooting exclusively with micro 4/3 cameras. I’ve been working exclusively with prime lenses. All of that helps, but the fact is, the old days are over. It’s hard for old war horses like me to let go of those days, but let go I must.
I’m glad I learned what I learned as a film shooter. It informs my photography style to this day. But I have to work with the new tools. It’s been an interesting ride. I am still excited by the prospect of photography. I hope that never changes.
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