Advice, Journal

Seeking advice on breaking up with film 

We can talk, or not talk, for hours. Somebody wrote me about “breaking up with film” and moving to digital, I was on a 5 hr flight with expensive $40 WiFi I wouldn’t even buy on principle, so wrote a mini novella. I think I make it quite clear, but to repeat, this is MY trajectory with digital; everyone is different in their path. I’m not shitting on dSLRs at all, peers are making amazing images with these cameras. You defo don’t need a phase, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone except those who need to tether a lot and can make their $ back; the Pentax just doesn’t tether well (or correct me if it does now) so it’s not a viable commercial camera yet. A more affordable tethering option would be an older Phase P35+ back or something like it, with an older hassy H body, or Mamiya 645 body, or Contax 645 body. Cheaper lenses too and they’re very very beautiful. Ok, walking away from pretending I’m inside an Adorama now....

What I wrote:

I’m on a plane and the only movies they have are really bad, so this is going to be a long email. So, breaking up with film.. I think I have just had severe infidelity to film in the past 1-2 years, I never really set to break up with it quite yet. As you wrote, it’s just nearly impossible to shoot it editorially for sure these days, nobody really has both the timeline and budget for it, and as you wrote, trying to manage film scans from the road is nearly impossible, especially since I never found anyone in the Bay who scanned film quite the way I personally saw the colors and tonality.

My camera route, as a family tree lineage went: started with a Hassy 503cw in high school, switched to a Mamiya RZ67 in college, then added the Mamiya 7 shortly a couple years later once I could afford one. The 7 was for anything loose, fleeting, and reportage-based; the RZ was for posed portraits, tighter shots and more considered details, as well as the more rigorous, architectural-esque shots. I always shot them as a duo, one on each shoulder, really trying to utilize the strength of each. Together, they offered a very complete-feeling representation of how I saw things on assignment, and though it was a bulky system, I just saw them as different paintbrushes used on the same painting. Most every film project on my site was shot with a mix of both cameras.

Then digital came along. I started with the original 5D, really hated it and felt like I’d switched from a Land Rover Defender to a Honda Accord. Felt horrible, soft, quiet, realllllly inarticulate in terms of how I envisioned an image with that camera vs. what that camera captured. To be honest, I’d really struggled with all dSLRs for that reason: they don’t 'render space’ or give the same perspective as my mind/eye see things. I think growing up with medium format film, and shooting it for nearly a decade, got me to trained to see a scene and know how medium format would capture it, what lens I’d need, etc, and I’d *know how to make that shot happen* with my camera before I even put it to my eye.

I’ve never had that ability, to be frank, with any dSLR. They could have cool sensors to high heaven, but to this day, for me and only me, I find that dSLRs really flatten out space, you loose a robustness of perspective, things feel a lot more planar and less… interconnected? Kind of like the way 4x5 really seems to envelop and tie together space, I have a hard time making dSLRs touch on that same feeling.

I began owning digital: a 5D, then 5D II, then 5D III; I’d roll up to a shoot with my Mamiyas and the 5D, with intentions of shooting the digital, I’d take three shots with those Honda Accords, and go “bleeaaaaahhhhhh gross I hate it” and grab the Mamiyas, despite the cost and time down the road, because I really, truly felt like I was unable—if not incapable—of making good images or images that felt like they were mine with those cameras. It was a HUGE issue. This was only 2-3 years ago, almost all my peers had moved over to mostly all digital and I felt like this slipping luddite, the kid held back a grade, the grandpa who wasn’t able to adapt with the times.

Then, even once I had shot entire assignments digitally, there were all sorts of tonality issues that I was struggling with. I felt like I knew the Imacon and Flextight like the back of my hand, and that I could extract nearly any tone or color out of my film that I wanted. I saw these shots happen on my ground glass in camera, and I knew how to get back to that point, and the film added a little bit of magic. It felt like alchemy, I loved it, then I get dropped into Lightroom with all these new codewords like “clarity” and “grain" and totally new panels. Like an airplane pilot who moved from the cockpit of a plane I’ve flown for a decade to a totally new foreign one. So that was a whole new additional setback. When I talk to friends about the post-processing part, it really sounds like it didn’t come easily to most anybody, and that everyone struggled through their own re-interpretation of how to find their ’new digital voice’, if you will.

Around the time of all this, I got the Pentax 645z, which I think was a lot of photographer’s gateway BACK to medium format, but in digital form. Around this time, this camera with this sensor finally helped me get back to that ability to shoot how I was seeing with my Mamiyas, which was a huge relief. This camera was the beginning of my decreasing use of film. My lab also closed around this time, so in many ways, this somewhat forced my hand. Like you, and others, there were things I loved about the Pentax (the sensor was incredible, controls were pretty easy, lenses pretty affordable), and things I hated (the shutter sync speed, the fact that it looks like the Pontiac Aztec). But the files off this camera really helped me navigate Lightroom much more robustly, and I was finally able to make images I was happy with, for really the first time ever. Which was a huge relief.

At this point, I also had a major breakthrough. I came to realize that most all RAW files look like total shit at the get-go, but that they have a lot of latitude and potential, and that it’s up to you to interpret how you envision the final output of these files. That’s why you see all this crazy post-processing these days, histograms and tonalities stretched and pulled like putty. Back in the day, you’d look at a contact sheet, and immediately know if you had a good frame or not… if you exposed it well, if you got that magic. It was more binary, almost no interpretation was needed. With digital, I’ve had to switch my mindset into more like *mining for potential in an image*, knowing full well that I may essentially need to resuscitate it from a very lifeless and uninspired state. Film is a natural lake and digital is an artificial lake. It’s up to you to make that artificial lake as nice looking, or at least interesting, as possible.

In case you’re still with me… the other issue I was running into with the Pentax was the inability to tether well, and I had a spate of work in early 2017 that required tethering. A friend in Stockholm had just listed his Phase system, and though it cost more than my car, a lot more, I did some calculations (actually I didn’t TBH) and hoped that I could begin to make up this investment. Bought the whole kit: Phase IQ250, XF body, prism and waist level, 35, 55, and 80mm lenses, batteries. Everything I needed. Had made up 25% of the purchase price two very busy months in, and I’ve since made it all back in rental fees. The camera is hideously, stupidly expensive. It’s just absolutely absurd, and I do know it’s a completely untenable purchase for a lot of photographers, which I recognize. But it’s the only medium format with a waist level option right now, which makes it feel like my RZ, and the shutter sync goes up to 1/1600th of a second, which I lean on often. So I’m not going to say, “this is the only camera that works for me”. The Pentax did too, minus the tethering. But I do think Phase is a good investment, especially if you can rent it back to yourself often enough. Editorially, just grab the Pentax.

If you can, just try to hold a Phase XF with the waist level. It’s no RZ, but it’s the closest digital camera I’ve found, which means a lot. It’s a camera I have FUN with and enjoy shooting on. It feels incredible and solid and heavy. I feel like I’m back on the continuum of where I was with my Mamiyas, and that I’m able/capable of making the same type of work with the Phase as with the Mamiyas; I see with these cameras the same way, which has been a game changer. I still have a huge stockpile of film in my fridge, and I do think film makes a superior image, but I think at this point, it’s all going to be for personal projects during travels, when the time and place are right.

Yeah, truly your third paragraph is *it* really. Nobody is making special RAW images, the quasi name of the game is really about recognizing potential in a flat lifeless raw file, and knowing what you can do with it. And when you don’t have the knowledge or skills or foresight of how to make that image look the way you want, you tend to want to pass over it. I’ve learned SO much about raw file processing since I got the Pentax and especially the Phase, and it’s really just building blocks in terms of learning step by step how to make those blue skies the color you want, the gross sharpness go away, etc.