Monday, November 12, 2012

Oh, the Joys of Film

I've been shooting with all sorts of film lately. I'm talking about stills, not the single roll of movie film (super 8mm) I recently shot.

On the old blog, I had an interview with one of Japan's preeminent bondage photographers, Sugiura Norio. When I asked him why he'd switched from film to digital, he explained that digital was so much easier than film. At the time I hadn't begun shooting film so the profundity of his comment was lost on me.

Not anymore.

I'm shooting with a 35mm stills camera a friend gave me. This thing came out in the '70s, I believe. It's not plasticky like most digital cameras today. It's made of metal and it's about twice as heavy as my DSLR.

Unknown film type -- taken with disposable camera
I've been experimenting with Kodak negative film and Fuji transparency film, otherwise known as reversal film. I've shot the cheap Kodak Gold stuff at 100 ASA and currently have a roll of the more expensive 800 ASA Portra film in my camera.

The higher the ASA number, the better off you are shooting in low light.

Digital cameras kick film's ass when it comes to ASA (aka ISO). These digital cameras nowadays have ISO ratings in the stratosphere. They practically see in the dark.

I mentioned that there are two types of film, negative and reversal. Negative film is just like it says; the image is reversed on the exposed film.

A cropped negative
As you can see, the negative is an orange color. Usually people just have these printed at a lab or a one-hour photo shop. To save money, or if I have anything a little risque on my roll, I won't have prints made and just request the exposed negatives. Then I scan them at home and turn them into photos on my computer.

The problem with negative film, though, is once it's been scanned, it needs to be "inverted". In other words, the colors need to be reversed. This is easy enough but what you actually end up with is a picture with a lot of blue in it.

A cropped negative that has been inverted
I've spent hours and hours trying to figure out the best way to color correct these problematic pictures. I've looked at written tutorials and YouTube videos. One guy explained how he came up with a snazzy filter to get rid of the blue. I tried to follow the steps to the letter but all my attempts failed.

The corrected image -- more or less
Just yesterday, after continued fiddling, I found a way that works and it's much easier than the homemade filter approach. It's not perfect and the image still requires some massaging with photo editing software, but it does get rid of the blue cast. I've also found that, the better the photo to begin with, the easier it is to fix in post production. Some of my photos are so bad, nothing will save them.

The photos in this post were taken so long ago I can't remember exactly when I took them. I'm estimating about 15 years ago. They were taken with one of those disposable film cameras. After finishing the roll, you take the little plastic camera to the one-hour joint and they process your film and make prints. You walk away with the prints and leave the camera behind.

As you can see from these scans, I've gotten the blue out but my color "correction" is all over the map. The skin tones are the important thing and that's what you really need to pay attention to.

I once saw a digital photo that everyone was oohing and aahing over. The photographer had used Photoshop, or some such software, to jack up the contrast and saturation to, as they say in the biz, really make it "pop". Well, it popped all right. And the model's skin was a sickly color that made it look like she was suffering from jaundice.

I've definitely had my ups and downs even in the short time I've been shooting film. Some of my photos have come out so awful I've thought about just giving up and going back to digital. Then I make a picture that turns out okay and, as an added bonus, it actually looks like film. It's a subtle difference sometimes and I will admit that I can be fooled by digital shots. But all too often, when I see a digital photo, it looks digital to me. And I really hate that look. So suffering with film is worth it, at least so far.

I decided to include these images with this post because they were shot on film. They were taken with a plastic disposable camera with cheap, grainy film inside. I just found the prints and negatives while doing some cleaning. I didn't even remember having them with me here in Japan. The negatives were a bit dusty but I decided to go ahead and scan them and, in the process, I stumbled upon my new method for removing the blue -- so it turned out to be a fortuitous discovery.

Are these good photos? Not at all. If I had a choice now between this throw-away camera and my digital camera, I'd use my digital camera. But today I can choose between my DSLR and my SLR and, for now at least, I'll go with the film camera.

I mentioned transparency film, or reversal film. It's also called slide film; you know, sit around a darkened room while dad bores everyone with a slide show of the family vacation. Ah, those were the days.

I'm liking transparency film more than negative film. For one thing, when it's processed, the image isn't reversed. It's like a mini photo there on that strip of acetate with tiny sprocket holes on either side. What you see is what you get. You don't have to "invert" it in software after scanning. Back in the day, magazines preferred this type of film for color covers.

I recently attended a photo exhibit of Sugiura Norio's work at a gallery in Shinjuku. There was a light table and on it was placed a series of color transparencies of some of his most amazing work -- stuff that had appeared in magazines like SM King; images that seem almost iconic today. I was struck by the fact that I was standing there looking at the original exposures of these classic scenes just as they had come out of the master's camera.

I should note, however, that Sugiura and many other professionals shot, and shoot, their stuff on medium format film. I have read that some magazines still insist on medium format which produces a much larger "positive" than 35mm film and results in higher quality. No digital and no measly 35mm for those magazines.

I'm not crazy enough to get into medium format film and cameras -- at least not yet. For now, I'll try to make do with humble 35mm and see what happens. I think it mostly boils down to lighting and the skill of the photographer. Actually, lighting and skill pretty much go together, don't they?

The photos in this post are a good example of how amateurish 35mm film can look but I've gotten some pretty good results with 35mm transparency film when the conditions were right. The trick is to get the conditions right more consistently.

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