Film: Dying, But Not Dead…Yet

Simon McCamus 4x5 Portrait II

I love film. I hate film. I love film. I hate film. I spend hours of my time and hundreds of my dollars on film. I wait weeks, or often months, between the shot and the final developed image. I never know if I have the shot: the subject is gone and there are no re-takes. Dust and poor lab work means time retouching the negative to make it clean enough for modern digital eyes and expectations. Most people say that they cannot see the difference…but almost all of them prefer the images taken with a film camera. Film is the woman you love more than you ever thought possible; she is the woman who tosses your heart around like a rag doll.

Last weekend I spent two hours with Simon McCamus, a budding Toronto comedian. Our goal was to capture a few headshots for his artist portfolio. The deal was that I was not going to charge him because I value his art and his commitment to comedy. The benefit of being well-paid for the commercial work is that my personal work can be done as I see fit and without compensation beyond the pleasure of the work. My normal fee, $500, was waived, and we were under no pressure to produce anything other than what we did.

Simon McCamus 4x5 PortraitFor the session I wanted to shoot digital, 6x6cm film and 4×5 inch film. The digital is the money shot, the medium format is the back up, and the large format…well, that is the art. One of my artistic goals this year is to shoot ten portraits with the 4×5 film of artists who are still working to learn and practice their craft. Simon was a perfect candidate.

4×5 film is a bitch to shoot. I have to focus upside down and backwards, without a loupe for magnification, and then demand that my subject not move an inch while I push in a film holder and pull the slide. Given that the last time I shot with the Linhof was March of last year, my film holders were half empty and unorganized. I ended up having to rush to the bathroom, load 5 sheets in the pitch blackness and rush back out to capture the final four shots of the session [I loaded one backwards]. My only hope was to get one great shot; I did.  Total cost: $40 for 4 shots.Simon Mc IV BW

With digital I can take 300 exposures and eventually get a solid shot, but film is a stranger beast. For the digital shots I used my Canon EOS 1DmkIII with a 50mm f.1.2 lens for the colour shot and with a Hasselblad 150mm CFi lens for the black and white. The first thing to notice is how different lenses compress or expand Simon’s face through the series. I feel like this focal length compression plagues most portraits as people feel they should look a certain way which often contrasts how the photographer sees the best sides of the subject.

Simon Mc II

In the end…I prefer the 4×5 film. I suspect that Simon will prefer the colour 50mm f.1.2 shot because it is what his eyes see on a daily basis. Still, how often does a person get to have a photograph taken on them on a forgotten media with German lenses and a large format camera made in West Germany in the 1960s? The challenge for my work in film is now to ensure that I have film stock and a lab that will develop the final negatives. I can keep my scanner running and Photoshop keeps getting better in terms of cleaning up the first scan, but I would surrender if I found myself need to develop sheets in a non-existent dark room.

I might mention that I have to admit that I much prefer the wonky Rapax lens made in America over the Schneider Kreuznach 210mm. The Schneider is sharper and more perfect, but the Rapax [which cost me $100] produces a more mysterious photograph due to its lack of focus and shallow depth of focus at f.4.5.



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