I defected from digital three days ago with the purchase of my first film camera; a Hasselblad Xpan. My decision to move to film was arrived at slowly, although reading some of the posts on 35mmc in the last few weeks might have given me the final push I needed. So in return, I decided that I would like to contribute and get involved as I have much to learn.
I am halfway through my first roll of film as I write this, so this is something of an ode to my first two years in photography and explains why I felt the need to switch to film. This post contains digital photography. But if that doesn’t put you off then please read on!
Embarking my photography Adventure
Encouraged by a friend, I decided to embark on my little photography adventure two years ago. I was familiar with photography through my career as an advertising art director, often working with commercial photographers to create images for campaigns. However, my main motivation was just to do something pure and creative for myself rather than for a brand. I had encountered Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’, Josef Koudelka’s ‘Gypsies’ and William Eggleston’s ‘Guide’ as a young art student. All ground trembling experiences for me at the time. I had always had this kind of photography at the back of my mind and I was excited to find out what kind of photographs I would take.
After a bit of research, I decided to ditch the SLR route and buy a pocketable camera that I could carry around at all times. I was busy and would not have much time to go out and specifically take photographs. I settled on a Ricoh GR Digital; compact, with a good quality lens and a manual operation option with which to learn the basics. I made a conscious decision to eschew technical photography manuals and magazines and stock up on inspirational photography monographs. After all Robert Frank wouldn’t have had a subscription to ‘Amateur Photographer’ now would he? I began to amass a collection of coffee table tomes by snapping up bargains on eBay and Amazon. If I was ever stuck for ideas I would just go to my ‘library’ and emerge inspired.
When I was a fledgeling art director someone gave me some great advice: ‘copy the greats until you understand what you are doing, then you will eventually find your own way’ – That’s exactly what I did and it worked. After a few years of struggling, I was able to fluently generate my own ideas and execute them in original ways.
I didn’t set out with such lofty intentions with my photography. I just wanted to start my photographic adventure and have some fun along the way. But as I discovered that is exactly what happened anyway. The shots I thought were interesting all seemed to resemble the style of a famous photographer I had seen before. Funny and a little frustrating at times but not unduly worrying as I’ve been here before. It’s all part of the journey.
So with my tongue firmly in my cheek, here’s a walk through a few of the highlights of my first two years with a camera…
My ‘Tony Ray Jones’
I saw the dog out of the corner of my eye and snapped. This scene was in a local village that was dressed with vintage signs for a period TV series that was being shot that week. When I saw the sign I thought I had a winner. Now of course, looking at this ‘quirky English’ photo two years later I realise it’s ‘school of Tony Ray Jones’. Not too worry though. Far better photographers than I have come under his influence too…
My ‘Martin Parr’
Pick up a copy of Martin Parr’s early work ‘The Non-Conformists’ and you will see Tony Ray Jones’s influence writ large. It contains Parr’s charming early black and white work before he moved to colour and developed his own distinctive style.
It’s easy to see Martin Parr’s influence in this photograph I took by a New York landmark. At the time I remembered I liked how the man’s body language echoed that of the statue. Now it just looks like a reject from ‘Small World’ Martin Parr’s satire on tourism. Doh!
My ‘Elliot Erwitt’
I spied this unequal pairing at a train station in Paris. A witty ‘visual one-liner’ I thought to myself as I reviewed the photo over a coffee. A few weeks later somebody told me it reminded them of an Elliot Erwitt. I looked him up. Wow. They probably meant a badly cropped, over processed, copy of an Elliot Erwitt.
My ‘William Eggleston’
No prizes for guessing this one. Can anyone who takes a colour image like this escape his influence?
My ‘Josef Koudelka’
I initially walked right past this scene on a street in France, looking for gentler fare. But the irony of the barefoot sleeper by the shoe shop was too much to resist and I went back. I applied the Tri-X filter in Silver Effex to it when I got back home. Picking up my copy of ‘Exiles’ I realised that I had created something in the style of Koudelka.
My ‘Lee Friedlander’
The Statue partially obscured by the complex foliage screams ‘American Monument’ by Lee Friedlander. Which is only fair as I’m constantly inspired by his work.
My ‘other Lee Friedlander’
Its on the street, it has complex reflections, it’s in black and white. Yep, It’s another ‘Friedlander’. I have a lot of these in my portfolio!
My ‘Luigi Ghirri’
A wonky version of Luigi Ghirri’s well-known image from the 1970’s with books instead of hats. Of course, Ghirri’s hats work better than my books, they have more grace and wit. I hadn’t seen his photograph at the time I took this; but the bonus is i’m now a huge fan of his work.
My ‘Robert Frank’
I shot this in ‘Robert Frank mode’ I know his work so well it’s hard to avoid sometimes. It’s an image I’m still fond of. I like the glamour of the dress juxtaposed against the dark terraced houses and the litter in the foreground. I shot quickly for the ‘feel’ of the image then applied a filter to increase the grain and give it a ‘film-like’ appearance. If had not have seen ‘The Americans’ all those years ago I perhaps would never have turned my lens on this scene. Or indeed been moved picked up a camera.
Of course, all the photographers above had early influences to inspire them too, before moving on to find their own unique style. I can only hope that sooner or later I stumble across mine too. We all need initial inspiration and a point to start from and I’ve had great fun creating these images.
For a while, I thought I would just progress in this manner using digital photography. But I began to feel that there was no quality to what I was doing. I was aimlessly snapping and sometimes immediately discarding the images I would see on the back of the Ricoh’s screen. I liked some of the images I was shooting but I couldn’t ever achieve the final look that I desired. I was lost in processing, tired of navigating menus, SD cards and charging batteries. My enthusiasm began to dry up until I realised that I needed to shoot on Tri-X rather than apply the Tri-X filter to a jpg file. I needed to introduce an element of chance and magic into my photography. The wonderful images in the books I had been studying were shot on film. There was a disconnect between what I wanted and the equipment and methods I was using to try and achieve it. I also needed to gain some real photographic knowledge that I was not getting from shooting digital.
Moving to film seems like a big commitment and a steep learning curve but I’ve never felt so excited about my photography. I’m going to the same places I did with a digital camera and I’m seeing shots I just didn’t see before. With a finite number of shots on my roll of film, I feel myself slowing down, considering whether it’s worth releasing the shutter for the image in my frame lines. If I do press the shutter I know that moment is over and I’m on to my next shot. Not reviewing the image on a screen moments afterwards. I find myself more aware of light conditions and yesterday I even googled ‘hyperfocal focusing’. It feels like the start of a new adventure and I’ve not even shot my first roll yet.
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26 thoughts on “Finding my way in photography – part 1 – by Nick Holt”
Great stuff Nick, inspires me to buy more photography books rather than lust over gear.
Clearly a Hasselblad is not so easy to carry round as a Ricoh, will be interesting to hear how you get on with it.
Thanks Richard. Books are money well spent I think! The Hasselblad is definitely less pocket friendly so I find myself going out especially to photograph as opposed to more opportunistic photography.
Your Robert Frank, Tony Ray Jones and Koudelka shots are excellent, and I think you are doing yourself a disservice by seeing them as imitative. If you’re doing that kind of photography in contrasty black and white it’s inevitable there’s an element of visual precedent, but that doesn’t mean your voice won’t come through. Absolute originality is hard to achieve, people shoot everything from 10 x 8 chromes to digital key ring cameras, – it doesn’t mean they have anything to say.
I prefer using film cameras, but it’s a mistake to believe the medium will bestow magic dust on your photographs. A great shot remains so whatever camera it’s taken on.
Thanks! Wise words. Definitely the hardest thing about photography for me is to try and define my own style. It’s been a few weeks since I wrote this and i’m enjoying my experiment with film. Definitely no magic dust yet! It’s making me more aware of light conditions and has introduced more of an element of chance into my photography (mostly through my inexperience with film). But has also curiously made me realise the good things about digital too. For me content is king and i’ve come to realise that I need some kind of project or theme that interests me. Then to decide whether it suits film or digital.
Nick, I love the quirky shot of the couple at the Paris train station. Being imitative can be accidental or deliberate and as BLINX has pointed out it does look like you are doing yourself a disservice be seeing your images as imitative.
We are surrounded by so much imagery today via films, TV and the internet, that we are all bound to make an image that more or less resembles in some way one taken by a well-known photographer. But if any resemblance is only pointed out to you post capture, and was not foremost in your mind at the time of capture, your image is an original. Take kudos for having thought like a great photographer! So, have you set out to imitate, or do these images just appeal to you and you capture them? Personally, I’d be worried if you set out to imitate as this will hold you back in ploughing your own furrow. I’d put all those books in a cupboard and lock it, and hide the key! :D) Then I’d get just one book to inform you of the technical side to photography, and in this context I’d commend Andreas Feininger’s The Complete Photographer to you. It was written in the film era, so not a jot about digital photography. Pure film heaven!
What has surprised me is your choice of the X-Pan as your first film camera. Why was this?
Ha thanks Terry. Interesting stuff! As I said the article is a bit tongue in cheek. Basically I think I just see something I’m drawn too and press the shutter really. So I don’t think I purposely set out to imitate. I’m just familiar with the history of modern photography, and love certain photographer’s work. The Andreas Feininger book was 1p on Amazon, so i took a punt on it. Thanks.
The attraction of the Xpan was to experiment with the panoramic format and the fact that it that kind of camera wasn’t available as a digital version. It gave me the final push to try film photography. It might be nothing more than an interesting diversion for a while but its fun!
1p? Wow! What a bargain. I’m confident that you won’t be disappointed. I’m sure you won’t be, but as it is a thick tome, you can always use it as a door stop if you are. :D) The good thing about it is that it is still relevant today for film users. The X-Pan is certainly going to force you to think about subject matter, and this won’t be a bad thing either, IMO. Have fun, and hopefully we will be seeing some of your efforts on Hamish’s site in due course.
Nick, jumping straight from digital to the Xpan is a big bold step. I bought my first Xpan about 10 years ago and admittedly struggled, but not with the learning curve of a transition from digital to film, as I’d originally started with film, but with the change in framing and composition that the Xpan demands. I sold it about 2-3 years later feeling I hadn’t truly mastered it but, looking back, it was the biggest single regret in my own photographic journey. Having learnt so much more in that last 10 years about photography in general, I have just bought another one and am excited to face that challenge again knowing I am much better informed as to what I am doing! So do take time, that change in aspect ratio is definitely your biggest hurdle, not the transition from digital to film, although to have both transitions is obviously a bigger challenge and i admire you for taking on that!
The obvious choice for the Xpan is landscape style photography, but for street it is unique. The styles that work best in street for the Xpan I think are where the photographer gets as close as possible. Check out EduardoPavezGoye and the_real_sir_robin on YouTube. Above all think “cinematic”, check out Justin Alexander on flickr, his eye is great for this with the Xpan.
Hi Daniel, I guess I like a challenge! Interesting to hear your experiences with the Xpan, especially as you re-bought one too. Is there anywhere I can see your photos? It’s such a radically different format for me. I’m attracted to its ‘cinema like’ style, it seems to fit with film quite well. I can’t see out being my main format but its certainly fun. I also like that not many people seemed to have seriously tackled the format. Josef Koudelka’s work ‘Chaos’ is one of the only books i know of. Highly recommended if you’ve not seen it. I took a look at Justin Stokes’ work too. Definitely agree with you on that one, a very classy set of images.
Hi Nick. I’m on Flickr and Instagram under my name, but I work in theatre so most of my portfolio is very theatre based. None of my old Xpan ones are online, although I might dig out some old negatives to post. Most of them were of my kids anyway so were fairly boring! Thanks for the Koudelka recommendation, I hadn’t heard of him. Looks interesting.
Some lovely work on Instagram Daniel. Loving the astronaut shot! Agree, the Xpan format doesn’t really seem to fit with the ‘instagram square’!
Sorry, that should be Justin-Stokes, not Justin Alexander on flickr. My mistake!
Great little article. It’s something that I’ve experienced in the past but the other way around as i moved from film to digital and found enjoyment in lightroom, RAW and how much you can play with files. Now however I’m experiencing moving back to film again after spending too many late night in front of the Mac, plus I’ve just learnt to develop my own black and white so that’s another avenue to explore! Enjoy shooting the Hassy, it’s a camera I’ve always desired to own.
A Ricoh GR and Hassy XPan is a sweet combo for sure!
Thanks Dexter. Nothing beats having a decent small camera that you can have on you at all times. The best shots seem to come up when your’e not looking for them! The Xpan is something i hope I can just run alongside my digital work. I would love to be able to make my own black and white prints at some stage. I remember doing it years ago in college, quite a magical process. I think for me using Lightroom reminded me of my day job, I used it every day along with Photoshop. I know I have a certain digital editing skill set, but I always like to be learning something new. Do you still shoot digital or have you abandoned it completely now? At the moment film is something of an experiment for me but I can’t see me not shooting digital but who knows what the future holds!
Great, article. What I find refreshing about it is it’s coming from the perspective of someone actually acknowledging ‘the greats’ as it were, rather than being overly concerned with the gear or the process. Trying to put your own spin on something is very hard to do, but being humble enough to talk about it and look at what’s gone before is noble. You have a very good library of inspiration there to draw on, I’m trying to buy more photography books and less gear myself – but it’s a struggle. I’m shooting a 6×7 camera at the moment where I only get 10 shots per roll (it’s kinda compact compared to other medium format cameras 😮 ) so I’m having to be super choosy about what I shoot and really slowing down and thinking about it, and I do like the approach over digital – which I find quite unrewarding.
Thanks Neil. I think I tackled photography this way around due to my art school background really. Image content and meaning first and technical considerations second. I realise I have a lot to learn technically and i’m hoping film will help me in this. Perhaps thats why i chose a digital with autofocus first! Interesting your’e trying medium format, 10 shots demands a certain economy, especially if you bracket!. I think i’ll be tempted to try that larger negative at some stage. I get 20 shots a roll on the Xpan. What i’m hoping is that the greater care and consideration I take with the Xpan might eventually translate into my digital work too.
Great pictures Nick and a really interesting article, thanks. I’ve also just got into film photography after using a compact digital for a while. There is definitely a place for both in my life and I love the relative merits of each.
Thanks Richard, a similar step then. Agree, I think it great to do both!
Hey Nick. i love your collection of images but i can’t agree or just don’t like this advice: ‘copy the greats until you understand what you are doing, then you will eventually find your own way’
every image can be explained or seen as copied from someone, even images of all of these persons you wrote their names above.
good luck with your way in photography 🙂
Thanks Victor. I think we just need a place to start, which is probably different for everyone!
Xpan is an excellent camera.
… next is doing your “Nick Holt”
Ha. What great thing to say. Thanks George!
Nick, those images are fantastic. Tongue in cheek, maybe, but it’s hard to find and be comfortable with your own voice. As Miles Davis once said, sometimes it takes a long time to be yourself. But I think the problem is in trying. As soon as you give up trying, what’s left will be your voice. That happened to me with music, but I’m not quite there with photography. But I’d be very happy to have produced the images you’ve shared with us. Looking forward to viewing your film shots,
Hi Rob, Thanks for the sage advice from yourself and Miles. Your’e right of course. You just have to keep shooting…
Some lovely work on your site, have bookmarked it. Didn’t think i’d be chatting with you on photography blog. Funny old world!
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Nick, loved the article and the pictures and completely agree with the ‘copy the greats until you understand what you are doing, then you will eventually find your own way’. I think it’s one of the few ways to find your true calling.