PHOTOGRAPHY, STILLS & GNASH: The Good Bad Old Days
The Yawn of Time, Southern Poland, 1970s, photo: Chris Niedenthal

PHOTOGRAPHY, STILLS & GNASH: The Good Bad Old Days

BY Chris Niedenthal

Overshooting is not a good thing. The ‘decisive moment’ mantra can very easily get lost if we switch the motordrive to ‘continuous’ or even just ‘single’

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He presses the shutter, and listens to the motordrive’s comforting whirr. A quick  glance at the back of the camera to check the photo he has just taken. Surprised, he realises there is no image there. To make matters worse, there is no monitor there either. Slowly, it dawns on him that he will never, ever, see an image on the back of this particular camera. This was a “vintage” Nikon F3 from the 1980’s. About as un-digital a camera as one could think of.

The “he” in question refers, of course, to myself, and I was in Łódź shooting photographs on my trusty old Nikon. I had chosen to shoot on colour slide film, just to relive my former shooting days. The F3 was an odd choice, perhaps, as I could have used my somewhat younger, more modern auto-focus F4 – but I wanted to return to my old fixed focal length lenses. No zooms, just heavyweight, wide aperture, manual focus glass.

This was a nostalgic return to my old shooting ways, and I now wonder why I did this. Perhaps I wanted to savour each frame as I shot it; after all, I only had 36 shots on a roll of film. Nowadays of course we can shoot many times more frames on a single tiny memory card, but that can lead to dramatic overshooting. As it is, 36 frames was a lot more than the 12 frames we used to have on the 6x6cm 120 size film we used in Rolleiflexes, Hasselblads and so on, let alone the single shot Speed Graphics of even older days – though I wasn’t around then for that. Overshooting, I may add, is not a good thing. The “decisive moment” mantra can very easily get lost if we switch the motordrive to “continuous” or even just “single” and then bang away without any thought about conserving film. With luck we may indeed hit right on the “decisive moment” – but then that will be pure luck, not the result of an instinctive feeling for the right moment. Having fewer frames to play with makes you think. No bad thing, that!

All right then, so what are the advantages of shooting on film?

Sadly, I must admit, my answer is: there aren’t that many.

Apart from having to think more while shooting, the main advantage is, I suppose, the fact that in the end, you have a slide or negative in your hand, for posterity. Today’s youngsters are used to digital files, computers, monitors, hard disks and so on. They couldn’t care less that their images are stacked away in electronic memory files. Being of a somewhat older generation, I find it comforting to actually be able to see a slide or negative. To hold it in my hand. That way, I know I have a photograph – no matter whether good or bad. With digital photography I always have this feeling of not being sure that there really is a photograph on that memory card, and of being petrified that one day some great magnet will descend from the heavens and erase everything even remotely digital, or that I will inadvertently press the wrong button and erase everything myself. The obsessive need for back-ups is therefore paramount. And yet we don’t really know how long those back-ups will last for – and whether in 30 years time we will be able to access them. A slide or negative, on the other hand, will always be there for you to see at a glance. Or will it? Film emulsions can also fade over time. OK, my 30-year old film files are still in pretty good shape – but who’s to know they will still be good in another 30 years or so.

Apart from the purely physical aspect of film, the great thing about this medium is the fact that you don’t have to worry about how many megabytes a particular photograph has. Simply put, a film slide or negative has as many megabytes as you want. No need to worry about it having only say, 3000 x 2000 pixels, and only 72 dots per inch. You can scan it to as high a level as you want, or at least as much as your scanner can bear. If you want more dpi, pixels and megabytes, you can just give the slide or negative to a professional scanner who will do whatever you want or need.

All this however, means a certain amount of work. Scanning itself does not take that long, but the chances are that you then have to clean and correct the image in say, Photoshop. The older your film image, the more work you might have to put into it. So yes, the time factor involved is indeed a problem compared to a digitally shot photograph that is really just an instantly scanned image. Sure, you may have to work on it too, to correct it to the standard you want. Essentially though, if you are preparing say, an album for publication, having original digital images makes the whole process a lot easier and faster. And, of course, cheaper. In the old days a publisher would have to pay for the professional scanning of a hundred, maybe two hundred photographs. Quite a hefty bill would ensue for that. Nowadays the publisher expects ready digital images – a considerable cost saving.

Ah, the joys of cost saving. Yes, this is where the crunch comes. My experience in Łódź quickly made me realise that I was doing something that is getting to be very expensive. A colour slide film now costs anything between 35-55 PLN. To process it adds another 25-30 PLN. Slides are far easier to handle if they are in plastic frames, so your lab will do this for another 15-20 PLN. They can also make you a quick, basic and low-quality scan of each frame to make it easier for you to edit your work: that will be another 15 PLN. The result is that each film costs us about 100 PLN to buy, process and frame. In my younger days as a news photographer I used to shoot an average of 10 films a day while working. Nobody complained about that – the films were the cheapest part of the whole process of news gathering. Today, I suspect, it would be hard to expect anybody to pay that sort of money (and remember, the chosen slides have yet to be scanned). A news photographer today supplies his newspaper or magazine with a number of his digital images – and that’s it. No films, no processing, no scanning. Paying 1000 PLN a day for film material and processing is, I suspect, a very strong no-no.

Ah, ardent film lovers will say with a dreamy look in their eyes, but film has a different quality to it, a different feel, magic etc. The depth of field is different compared to a digital photo. Perhaps. The grain structure in film does indeed give a photograph that particular look and feel. So be it – I can’t argue with that. Grain in film images is rather unpleasantly called „noise” in digital images, and camera companies and photographers alike do their utmost to minimise it. Yet on film, a grainy image in low light has a certain charm to it...

This of course leads us to the fact that good digital cameras are wonderful at coping with low, and bad, light. Mixing light sources is something they are good at. On film (more of a problem on slide material, less when on negative stock), a mix of daylight and, say, fluorescent lighting up by the ceiling, can be a nightmare. On a digital camera, it can even look good! More important however, is the fact that on a digital camera you can change the sensitivity at will, something we always dreamed about when using film. Then, if we had a 100 ASA film in the camera and suddenly we needed 400 ASA or even more – we were stuck, or had to have another camera body just for a different film. On digital, you can easily change the sensitivity in mid-shoot, and then just as easily change back. Wonderful!

When using digital compact cameras, however, we come up against two problems: they are generally slow, i.e. there is a time lag problem when pressing the shutter release. All too often, by the time the camera prepares itself to shoot – you’ve missed the “decisive moment”. Digital SLR (single lens reflex) cameras are OK with that, it’s just the compacts that can’t seem to cope fast enough – at least in the mid-price range. The second problem encountered when using a compact is the monitor on the back. It is completely useless in sunny conditions – a problem compounded by the fact that fewer and fewer compacts have optical viewfinders. I hate using these little digital cameras by looking at the screen at arm’s length; I find it annoying just watching people do that. But if there is no viewfinder, then what can they do? Some of the better cameras do have optical viewfinders, but they are generally of low quality and do not cover the same field the lens does, i.e. they cut off a good deal of what ends up on the screen.

Sooo... what’s the point of using film in this day and age?

Really, it’s just for old time’s sake. The good old things from the bad old days.

Beside the Point

The Yawn of Time, Southern Poland, 1970s,
photo: Chris Niedenthal

I like this photo not so much because I shot it myself, but because it shows such a daft situation. A granny is trying to get her grandchild to sleep, but it looks as though she is going to beat the child to it. A nonsense photo really. In our oh-so-serious world, something funny is good to see. In terms of pure photographic form, it’s nothing remarkable. But it raises a laugh, and that’s a good start. Elderly people are always an interesting subject for photographers. Catching them off guard makes them even more appealing. I shot this photograph somewhere in the south of Poland, in the 1970s if I remember correctly.