The Regression Begins

I've been in somewhat of a photography funk lately.  Don't get me wrong, I love taking pictures.  I love getting out and exploring with my camera.  Something has been troubling me about the whole thing though.  You see, I work with computers at my day job.  I stare at their screens and interface with them all day.   I take pictures of stuff I like to get away from all that.  Sort of.  Shooting with digital cameras, I'm still interfacing with a computer.  I have to tell the computer in my cameras what I want to do.  I have to navigate menus.  I have to look at an LCD.  When I'm done taking pictures, I have to take the memory cards home and feed them to my home computer.  Then, I stare at the screen for hours on end post processing the digital data I gathered.  Oh, to spend less time staring at a blasted screen!

I've been shooting for some time now with a Canon 5D and a Fujifilm X100.  I like both cameras.  Actually, I love the X100.  I shoot with it more often than the 5D.  I'll make the fixed 35mm equivalent lens on that X100 work for everything from portraits to landscapes.  The only time I haul the 5D out anymore is when I absolutely need another focal length or to demonstrate to someone that I have a "Pro" camera.   I like a lot of things about the X100, image quality being at the top of the list.  Lately though, I've realized that there is something else that really endears that camera to me: the "analog" feel.

The X100 has dedicated shutter and aperture dials.  The aperture dial is on the lens where it belongs.  Yeah, the dials operate by wire to tell the camera's processor what to do.  They feel like analog controls though.  When I'm shooting with the X100, it feels a little less like I'm interfacing with another computer system.  It has a bit of soul.  Just a bit.

Recently, a friend of mine asked me if I'd like to borrow his Canon AE-1, a circa 1976 35mm film camera.  It was the shit in its day, at least as far as consumer oriented 35mm cameras were concerned.  Yeah, I was down with trying it.  Apart from a bit of experience in my youth with a Polaroid camera and some Instamatic 110 and disk film (remember those?) cameras, my film experience is almost nil.  I was ready to give it a go.  I needed a bit of analog in my process!

I started with a roll of Kodak Tri-X 400 Black and White film and hit the road.  The AE-1 felt great in my hands.  A bit heftier than my X100, a bit smaller than my 5D.  The controls felt great.  The AE-1 has an auto exposure mode, basically a shutter priority program mode.  I turned that crap off and shot full manual.  The slap of the mirror and that old shutter curtain snapping open and shut were music to my ears.  I trusted the camera's meter for the most part, making educated guesses as I tweaked the exposure for some of the more extreme dynamic range scenes.  No LCD to review, only instinct to get me through a 24 exposure roll.

Enough talk, here are some first shots.

 I had my film developed and scanned through Precision Camera.  After waiting a couple of days, I felt like a kid at Christmas, eager with anticipation and a little nervous that I'd get back a roll of crappy exposures!  I got back my developed film and a CD of high-res TIFFs scanned from the negatives.  The negatives themselves looked good, at least to my untrained eye.  Back at home, I fed the CD to my iMac.  I had to smile; the images looked fine, although a bit flat.  With plenty of room on both sides of the histogram, I used Lightroom to boost the blacks and highlights.  Some images got a little dodge and burn with the adjustment brush in Lightroom.  Maybe a little vignette on one or two.  I removed some dust spots.  Time to process was a fraction of what I usually spend on my digital files.  Apart from what amounts to simple contrast adjustment, I was OK with letting the scanned files be what they were.  Quick and relatively easy.  Yes, I did a little post processing on a computer but at least some of the photographic process was analog and that felt good.  I may be on to something here.

I'm pleased to report that out of that first roll of 35mm film I did not have any shots that I would throw away.  That probably speaks more to the exposure latitude of film than my own skill with the media.  Maybe it had something to do with the fact that my exposures were limited.  I picked my subjects and compositions more carefully.  Without an LCD for instant feedback, I was more thoughtful in determining my exposure.  No firing off frames to see if I under or over exposed.  One shot, one exposure, one image.  Digital cameras and a pocket full of memory cards tend to make us snap happy.  That is not always a good thing. 

Most of my photog buddies think I'm nuts.  My good friend Mark said I was regressing.  He may be right.  Whatever it is, it's a good thing - at least it feels that way now.  Am I abandoning digital?  No, I don't think that will happen.  I do plan to experiment more, try different films, and get a better feel for this analog stuff.  No idea how deep I'll delve into it.  Doing my own developing?  Printing from negatives?  Too early to say.  One thing is for sure, I want my own film camera now.  Got to get me one o' these!