Gear Theory

Shooting film, XP2, my laziness and other comments on entering the world of analogue photography…

June 18, 2013

I don’t consider my self particularly qualified to talk about film with any authority. It’s silly really as I do have some experience, just not as much as it feels like a lot of other photographers out there in Internet land have. I’m not confident my terminology is correct, but to be honest I’m not especially fussed if it isn’t. If anyone ever wants to correct me on anything I say on this blog, I am all ears and more than happy to learn… I learn stuff just writing the thing … so anything else is definitely a bonus!

I read an article the other day that was aimed at digital photographers looking to start shooting film. It mentioned how there seems to be some sort of elitist attitude within the film shooting community but that digital photographers should have no fear of talking to us film photographers, because above all else we are all photographers and the medium doesn’t matter! I applaud this sentiment, but a perceived elitism remains.

I should feel qualified to talk about film, I’m quite comfortable shooting black and white process film. I have been developing my own film for around 5 years and whilst I haven’t experimented with many chemicals and films I have found some combinations that particularly appeal to me. HP5 for example is a favourite of mine, I went through period pushing it in ddx with quite wonderful results. I just don’t shoot black and white process film often, mainly because I can’t be bothered … but more on that in a mo!

Im going to say FP4, but if truth be told, I can’t remember … shot on the hassleblad and deved in the kitchen

I suppose my “issue” if that is the right word, is that there always feels like there is someone out there who knows more, is doing something “better”. It’s funny, I don’t get the same feeling with digital, I’m confident with digital, that I am learning what I need to and achieving the most I can at any given time. I quite confidently make a portion of my living out of my digital photography skills and feel I know enough about the art to talk with some confidence about it … Ask me the same questions about film and I will have a lot less to say for my self.

Taken for UHES
A digital photo taken for – Shot on my D800 with 28mm 1.8, processed in lightroom, I knew the shot I needed to achieve even before I had seen opportunity to take it.

I think the problem is that there are a few elitist film photographers out there. I’ve come across a couple and even within the last few years I have been naive enough to have gotten into arguments with them (I have learnt not to bother trying in more recent times). I’ve even heard my self defending digital, as if it needs defending… There is no talking to them, it doesn’t matter what you know, what you have achieved etc they will almost certainly have done more and better with more skill … They have probably mixed their own chemicals, will be aware of many more processes etc than you and through their years of experience will have almost certainly developed an incredibly refined and accurate method for extracting the most amount of detail, finest grain and best tone curve out of a probably discontinued film that they have a stock pile of in cold storage. They will claim that the introduction of digital was the end of true photography and that although digital has its place, it is a place of pure convenience as the quality of film will never be matched (sorry if that sounds like you … I know not everyone who has done those things is elitist, it’s just that an elitist will go to great pains to tell you these things). Because these elitists exist and have a voice the rest of us part time(!) film photographers can get tarred with a similar brush. This is unfair, there are a million and one reasons to shoot film just as there are a million and one reasons to shoot digital! Both have their place, both provide advantages and indeed disadvantages over the other. And that isn’t taking into account the fact that simple personal preference outside of any supposedly objective facts might come into play.

On top of this is, even non elitist film photographers do quite a lot, perhaps unknowingly, to perpetuate this elitism. There is often a distinct divide between the two “sides”. I see so many websites dedicated to film photography, so many twitter folks hashtagging #Ishootfilm or similar. No wonder there appears to be a clique that “outsiders” feel they somehow have to earn their wings in. The irony is not lost on me by the way, I appreciate I am writing this on a website dedicated specifically to a type of film camera… I’m not even saying that all the proactive film users are doing wrong by banging on about their use of film ad nauseum, all I am saying is that with the odd elitist mingled in with the rest of the film shooting community it can all become a little daunting to the outsider. After all, you never know who you might be conversing with out there in the “twittersphere”. I still feel it now, poking tweets at people, commenting in forums etc I often feel like some sort of young upstart with no right to comment on such things … And thats coming from someone who has been taking photos for 21 years, two thirds of which were with film cameras!

And then of course we have hipsters with lomo cameras and everything that comes along with that. For these types, it seems to be “cool” to shoot film, and that just makes me feel like I’m at school again … I never was “cool” and I certainly don’t intend to start trying now. Where there is cool there is the not cool, and those that aspire to be cool … and that creates a divide (at least that’s how I remember it working).

Of course these are just outsider observations on what probably represents a minority of film photographers … but then maybe I’m not really an outsider? I just feel like one a lot of the time. I shoot film, I just don’t bang on about it. (again, the irony is not lost). The reason people do bang on about it is very valid, many want to perpetuate the art … I think we have a lot to thank for the likes lomography and all these “I shoot film” type websites in terms of how they have helped bring it back to, or at least maintain its popularity with the masses. All these things help keep the medium alive … I was chatting to a chap, Mel from Ilford (at the Ilford stand funnily enough) at focus a year or so back, he was telling me they have never sold so much of the stuff! That’s impressive, and very promising!

So, after all that, I’m not now going to tell you why you should shoot film, I am simply going to explain why I do …
It’s not because I think its cool, or that I am elitist, I don’t especially consider the objective quality, I don’t look down at people who don’t shoot film. In fact, I often encourage people to give it a go, although that is more often for the experience of shooting a completely manual camera rather than for the experience of shooting film. I shoot film … wait for it … because I enjoy it! I shoot XP2 mostly these days, colour film sometimes especially since its been summer, but mostly XP2 … Why? Because it’s easy! XP2 in case you aren’t aware is a black and white chromogenic (I just learnt that word) film. In layman’s terms, its a colour process film, It just doesn’t have any colour. You can get it processed at anywhere that processes colour film. The process is C41, which is the same type (basically speaking) as all colour negative film. So, shoot a roll, take it down your local max speilman (other D&P shops are available) and you can have it back within 20mins. I don’t even get prints, not until I have had a look at them on the computer first anyway, and even then I doubt I print on average more than one per roll … probably more like one in every 5 rolls and even then it’s usually a photo of my daughter. And when I do print it’s from the digital file the D&P have given me. After all, their machines print from digital scans these days anyway, so I might as well take the file and make sure I’m happy with it before its printed. I have a pair of durst enlargers that I have never used. I don’t have the space. I don’t have the time to develop film these days, never mind print them.

In detroits
A photo I love, a snap taken in the spur of the moment with XP2 and a Ricoh GR1 – This shot and the shot at the top of this post show one of the things I love about XP2, tonally, its just very pleasing to look at … and that’s with no real effort on my part.

So why specifically XP2? Because the results are to my taste straight from the D&P shop… I stick them into lightroom, often straighten them to correct for my incapabilities when it come to taking a straight photo, but thats it! It’s just a great film, easy to get results that are easy to feel positive about. I can shoot a roll on a weekend, drop it in the D&P on the way to work on monday and collect the CD at lunch time …
But why not just shoot digital … I just can’t cope with it any more, I spend far to much time trying to get the colour right, the tone right, etc etc for images for work. All I want to do is take photos in a way that makes me happy! I worry far to much about my digital images, I have learnt far to many tricks to make them look more like film, have more depth, grainier, cleaner, sharper, softer etc … it’s too much!

Connie at 21 months
A digital image I spent so long trying to make look film like I lost interest in it.

By the time I have finished with an image I have lost touch with the moment I took it! With film, the way I shoot it I feel much more connected to the shot, and I like so many more of the results … And all this from a compact camera, loaded with a roll of XP2! Yes, there are other types of photography that make me happy, but I don’t often have time for them. I have a 2 year old, I run a company, I write this blog, I run a forum, my time for taking photos is limited. I find the sort of photography I partake in fits best with my life. It’s film, but its fairly care free … and that suits me!

I think the point I am trying to make is that, should you be interested in shooting film don’t feel overwhelmed by the learning curve, don’t feel shut out by the perception of elitism, or that you should or shouldn’t be cool. It’s taken years for me to gain some sort of peace of mind with what I am trying to achieve, so don’t expect that to happen over night either … Just buy a film camera, even if its a crappy point and shoot, stick a roll of film in it (try XP2 you might just like it!) and see what happens! Most importantly, do it for your self, that’s the key here, thats what any hobby should be about, and really, that is what taking photos should be about … Enjoying it … for your self! Not worrying about what the elitists or cool kids think, just worrying about what you think!

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  • Reply
    June 19, 2013 at 6:41 am

    Brilliant, Hamish. “All I want to do is take photos in a way that makes me happy!” – says it all 🙂

  • Reply
    June 19, 2013 at 9:14 am

    Cheers Rob 🙂

  • Reply
    Some thoughts on film photography and my use of xp2
    June 19, 2013 at 10:44 am

    […] some general thoughts on my use of film. Its a little ranty, but hopefully vaguely interesting! Shooting film, XP2, my laziness and other comments on entering the world of analogue photography&#82… Sony RX100, Nikon D800, Nikon FM2n, Voigtlander R2a, Yashica T5, Ricoh GR1 Top Ten […]

  • Reply
    June 20, 2013 at 10:13 am

    I found this post through a retweet and reading through it I struggled to think about where I would fit in your film photographer definitions. I think photography is like any creative art, you get some people who love just one format whilst others love them all. And with the internet, you get a lot of people talking about it – some very loudly, some very openly whilst some people are insular, focusing on what they do whilst others judge… I think confidence in any art comes from trusting what you do know and also knowing what to listen to and what to ignore because ultimately, you are expressing yourself, not other people.

    I’ve been blogging about film for 3 years now and I still feel like I don’t have a truly confident voice about it – but then I’m not sure I ever will because photography is a constant learning process, and over time you realise that what you once thought is now very different. I think rather than sharing definitive things, I like to share what I’ve learnt with other people and let them decide on what they take from it through my results, thats all you can really do.

    I’m looking forward to going through more of your blog.

  • Reply
    June 20, 2013 at 10:47 am

    Hi Rhianne

    In answer to your first comment, I think thats my point … there are a lot of other types of photographer beyond the ‘Elitists’ and ‘Cool Kids’ that I have mentioned, I just highlight them to make a point about the rest of us – you (seemingly) and me included.

    And as for expressing what you are and not other people … Yes, that really is the crux of my post I think! I couldn’t agree more.

    I think though that because it is a natural thing to share photography with the world, as we do in blogs and on forums etc. there is a tendency to forget that we are doing what we do for ourselves and slip in to a trap of trying somehow to impress others. After all, there is a buzz in getting a positive response to a photo from others. It’s nice to hear that others like what you do, but ultimately it should definitely be about you liking what you do!

    The never ending learning curve is one of the most interesting things about photography for me, I can always learn more should I wish too. But another thing that is often forgotten, is that sometimes its nice just to work with what you have already learned, or at least not push your self to hard. They is a lot of aspiration to achieve and achieve more and better in the western world. I run my own business, and I am constantly pushing to get better at what we do, earn more, grow etc. Photography can be an escape from that mentality for me sometimes … I can learn more if I want to… Else I can just do it, no aspirations to impress others, no desire to get better and better, just go out and look for moments to snap and be happy with the results. For me, as i’ve said in my post. Shooting XP2 with a compact, for now at least is the best method to achieve that goal.

    Thanks for reading, and your comment. Off to have a look through your blog now … feel free to post a link to it here if you like?

  • Reply
    John Ferebee
    June 20, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    Thanks for this post. I’m trying to learn film and have been self conscience about not being good at it – yet. Your correct, however, it’s me that needs to be pleased not others. Seeing improvement and learning is what makes it fun.

    One other point is I’ve rushed though life and digital helps to continue that pattern. I’m not giving up digital but now it’s really fun to spend a day or weekend, as you said, with only 24 or 36 shots and really trying to maximize each of them. It takes time, patience, and that slows me down. A good thing.

  • Reply
    June 20, 2013 at 10:02 pm

    A good thing for sure! There is some great photos on your blog though, so I am sure you don’t have anything to worry about!!

    But yeah, as you say, taking a little more time is a very positive thing to do! The limited shots combined with that extra thought increases the attachment to, as well as increasing the potential quality of each shot.

    If i went out with a digital camera and took 36 photos, I would probably struggle to find 5 I felt it worth doing something with. My “hit rate” with film is never lower than 50%

    Thanks for reading!

  • Reply
    June 21, 2013 at 6:28 pm

    I pick up my XP2 from Boots,they still sell it, it’s convenient to use, gives great results.
    I shoot Digital & Film, I own 12 35mm camera’s and 2 Digital, and enjoy using both just as much as each other, there are benefits to both mediums, firstly, the obvious one of digital, and for 35mm, you can pick up a full frame camera with a great lens for under £30, be that an OM10, or a Yashica T3 and if you’re willing to splash out a bit more maybe you pick up other great bargains, all full frame, and some out right classics, if you compare the cost of a full frame digital & Lens with a quality 35mm, there is no comparison, the thrill of picking up and using a great camera, vastly out weighs the convenience of digital.

  • Reply
    Jamie Zucek
    June 22, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    Hamish, I can’t agree with you more on multiple points.
    I have been shooting film for over 30 years and used to have an “elitist” view on shooting landscapes on Velvia. Then the digital revolution came and at first didnt’t enjoy the process or results and I stepped away from photography for a while.
    I spent the last few years bouncing between different film and digital cameras and to make a long story short I have roles for both now. I have a busy family life and active young kids and so I might pull out the DSLR for a baseball game, film SLR for a visit to the park, and Rollei 35 or rangefinder for a walk around town.
    I keep reaching for the XP2 and Porta 400 exactly because they look so good with so minimal investment in time and effort, in camera or post processing. (I do still enjoy the challenge of Velvia/Provia now and then!)
    In the end anyone in it for fun shoud just shoot what makes them happy, and feel free to experiment with new cameras, films, or processes as they all have their own advantages and challenges.

  • Reply
    Steve Boykin
    June 29, 2013 at 9:41 pm

    Really great article. THANKS!!!!!!

  • Reply
    Austin O'Hara
    July 1, 2013 at 9:00 pm

    You have re ignited my interest in film. I have not used my film cameras (Vito B and Nikon Fe) for over 12 months. I did enjoy the taking of notes for each shot but lost interest when one roll was lost in the post.
    Thanks for taking the time to write this.

    • Reply
      July 1, 2013 at 10:00 pm

      You gotta take the rough with the smooth with film! Lost, damaged or just poorly exposed negs … All part of the fun! You will have to let me know how you get on!

  • Reply
    tani P.
    July 23, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    Bravo! I’m also happily a film & digital shooter; why limit yourself? I love film for the results, but also the cameras themselves. I like how the old, cheap cameras as more machine than computer and I like hunting them down in thrift stores, etc. The film digital divide is wholly mental.
    Photos are photos are photos.

  • Reply
    Peter McCullough
    September 21, 2013 at 12:00 am

    Hi Hamish;

    Those couple of images you’ve posted above shot with the GR1 and XP2 film are superb, I love the rich looking contrast it produces, impressive ok!
    I’m going to buy a couple of rolls of XP2 and experiment etc, should be fun, that’s what it’s all about, fun!


    • Reply
      September 22, 2013 at 9:25 am

      Thanks Peter!
      I’m sure you will get some great results with that zeiss lens of yours!

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