If you didn’t already know, we shoot almost everything on 120 film. This post is a brief outline of our thought processes in the last few years during our switch from digital to film, including what we like and dislike about film photography.
Two years ago…
We were getting in a rut with our work. Joe and I were shooting more and more, but I felt like our work wasn’t improving or changing and expanding (by the way, at the time we were shooting with a Canon 6D). We experimented with different styling/better styling/new models/experienced models. Nothing seemed to make a difference. We’d shoot a set, and I’d sit down to edit the photos, and YAWN. The digital photos looked technically good – but they felt so bland and dry. They had no personality. I was sick of editing them with our old presets (ahem…vsco). Every time I sat down to edit, I would try to make a new preset or edit in a new way, and everything we tried, we hated.
Joe had always been interested in film photography, but I had put my foot down for so long. In the beginning we both really idolized film photographers. They were cool, they were artists, they supported a dying craft. Now I saw more and more people trying it out on Instagram. I thought “everyone’s shooting film on crappy old cameras, getting horribly exposed, grainy photos and chalking it up to art!” I thought people were using #film to get attention and likes even though their photos sucked.
We had been shooting a few film cameras since the beginning of our photography career, and I had always preferred our digital photos. “What’s the point of having the exact same photo, but crappier and with weirder colors?” I’d ask. I wanted our shoots to be consistent, and popping a random film photo into the middle of the editorial seemed silly.
Around this time, Joe was able to buy a Leica M6 and a 35mm lens – this was his dream set up. “We’re really cooking now,” we thought. Since so many people talked up the Leica, our film work was bound to be great. Nope. To our surprise, we got our photos back and they looked the same as all our other film shots – inconsistent, out of focus, grainy. “Maybe we are actually bad photographers,” I remember thinking. “Maybe we don’t understand proper exposure and lighting.”
I was definitely discouraged. I kept trying to edit our digital photos in a new way. Still nothing looked good.
Some of our early film shots…
Going all in
One day Joe suggested we try shooting a Pentax 67 and go full-on film photography for one shoot. No digital backups to compare to – only film. I was so desperate (this is getting dramatic) that I said yes. We had recently become enamored with several European fashion photographers, and Joe found out they shot medium format film. “Seriously??” “They still shoot film? And it looks that good? And clients hire them and stuff?” Yes yes yes yes…forgot how many yes’s I need.
Our friend just so happened to have a Pentax 67 he rarely used (we’re very lucky). So we decided to borrow it and set up our first all medium format film shoot with our very first male model. I remember the planning for the shoot. It was very thorough in a way I had never been thorough before. We didn’t style it in any particularly complicated way. I grabbed some cool clothes from Joe’s closet as well as a vintage coat we had used a million times. I said, “let’s only bring what we have and use that as a challenge…how can we make a shoot look awesome using only what we already own?” We brought a space blanket and random grungy clothes and asked the model to bring army boots and black jeans.
The thoroughness of the plan actually played out in the posing. I was definitely worried about blowing through a ton of expensive medium format film. I knew that some fashion photographers worked with a shot list, so I thought, “let’s try it.” I pulled reference photos and planned every pose. I drew poses, wrote down descriptions of poses, and saved reference photos to show the model. We were determined to make the most of every shot we took.
The shoot was so fun; It was amazing working with a male model, and the Pentax felt so solid to shoot. I can’t really describe it except by saying the shutter was very satisfying to click. Each snap of a photo reverberated my hand and by the end of the day, my left wrist was carpal tunneled from holding that pentax brick.
Still we were unsure of the film life. The camera was giant, super heavy, took 10 photos before needing new film, and I could barely support the body at the same time I focused because my hand is so small. We looked forward to the scans.
Realizing we wanted to scan our own film
Around the same time that Joe started preaching the gospel of the Pentax, he also slipped in that a lot of our favorite photographers scanned their own film. GREAT. Another hindrance and annoyance to this film thing. So… we buy hundreds of dollars of film…spend money to develop it all at a lab in an inconvenient part of town… bring it home only to meticulously cut it into pieces and scan it onto our computer as giant .tifs two pictures at a time?! How long does that take?? (Turns out it takes a long time)
We didn’t have a scanner, but there was a place called New Space Photography in Portland (it has since closed) that had flatbed scanners like the one we were possibly looking into buying. Epson V850. So we booked a time slot and brought over our developed rolls of medium format film.
Scanning the first two photos in ourselves was filled with much anticipation, but when the previews finally popped up, we were zapped, stoked, shocked, happy, wow. The photos looked amazing, and both of us were immediately hooked. That day is a happy memory in both our minds. I think it was the first time in a while we were really proud of our work – and I think you all can relate as artists, that feeling is hard to come by.
This isn’t to say that we didn’t have trouble figuring out the scanner and getting the correct colors, but since that point we haven’t looked back. It’s been medium format film ever since.
We had been searching for something new, something that would push us, and take our work to a different level, and this was it. I think one of the major points of this story, is that you need to find the camera that works for you and helps your make work you can be proud of. Our friends create amazing work on cameras we disliked and vice versa. If you feel like you want to try film (or digital), but haven’t hit your stride, try some different gear.
Reasons we love medium format
I can see us needing to change our style again in the future. I can even see us going back to digital. But for now, we continue to shoot medium format film because straight out of the scanner, we continue to be happier with our work than before. The depth and three dimensional quality of the images is amazing. Colors, light, and shadows that we weren’t able to achieve before with digital are easy. We like that our images don’t look overly digitized or perfect, but still look high quality. We love the vintage feel, color, and timelessness. We even now enjoy using the Pentax. We love the feel of it and the sound of the shutter as well as the look of the subject through the viewfinder. Until we find another way to achieve all this, we will continue to shoot medium format film.
Fashion photography and medium format
We’ve found that a lot of fashion photographers shoot medium format digital or film. However, if this is holding you back, stop letting it. If you’re good at what you do, no one cares if you shoot medium format or full-frame/35mm or cropped sensor or whatever. Shoot what you want and what you’re good at.
One final point
I think another point to draw from all of this is: if you get in a creative rut, make a dramatic change. Film was our dramatic change. And more specifically, picking up a Pentax 67 was our dramatic change. It pushed us way out of our comfort zone and required that we learn and use new skills.
Aside from this, whether you love digital photography or film photography… Whether you’re happy with your work or not…
As artists we should always be on guard about becoming too comfortable. When we get too comfortable, we lose touch with our creative brain.