Going Backwards - Shooting Film for Street Photography

I’ve shot digital for as long as I can remember but for a number of years I have been considering delving into film for my street photography work.

Every time I became adamant about pursuing it, I talked myself out of it.

"What are you going to do with your negatives? How will you print? It’s so expensive! Your hit rate on digital isn’t that great...you have more control with RAW anyway…It will be waste of money"

I don’t think these concerns were inherently false...except for the last one. It’s more difficult these days to get film developed, it’s harder to share physical prints, it is somewhat expensive and you do have an insane amount of control with RAW, Lightroom and VSCO.

So, the question is why bother?

A few months ago, I was getting quite dejected with my work. I was ‘chimping’ a lot, all of my shots had a different look to them and could have easily been taken by 10 different photographers and I was spending more time post processing than shooting. Moreover, I often got so caught up in ‘getting the shot’ that I wasn’t really enjoying what I was doing or where I was in that moment. Every day as the light was fading I had quite a bit of anxiety about not producing something I was happy with.

I needed a change of pace. I had never shot film before, but my curiosity was piqued by an article Eric Kim had written on how he now primarily shoots his street work with a Leica MP, and the street photography work of Andre D. Wagner, for which he uses a traditional film approach.

I knew I wanted a body similar to an X100T. I had grown quite accustomed to its rangefinder-esque operation and size. I researched Yashicas, Zeiss Ikons and almost bought a Bessa R4A.

I ended up finding a cheap M-mount 35mm Voigtländer Color Skopar f/2.5 by chance. I was familiar with the focal length and it was sharp. I wasn’t ready to drop a few grand on a Summicron just yet.

I ended up buying a 1985 Leica M6 from Germany for a great price. With the exception of a couple of cosmetic nicks, it functioned like new. It even still had the plastic protective film on the baseplate.

In the digital realm, Leicas have always been out of the question for me. Nowadays, you can get a solid film body for a fraction of the cost of their digital products. They hold their value amazingly well and are built to last. I’d bitten off a little more than a $40 Yashica, but I felt committed enough to dive into it.

I bought some Kodak Tri-X 400 and Portra 400 and got shooting. I practised my zone focusing, tried to get out of the habit of shooting for the highlights and shot consistently, not knowing what I was going to get.

The camera itself felt great. It had a nice weight and felt well-made. I enjoyed the novelty of winding on the film and advancing it after each satisfying click of the shutter. I read up on how to develop black and white film. I purchased some chemicals and processed my first roll.

I enjoyed not knowing what I’d captured until I pulled the wet spool out of my developing tank and hung my negatives up to dry.

A lot of my shots were underexposed, some were out of focus, but they were there, right in front of me.

After a couple of months of experimenting with film, I decided to make some notes on why I find it worthwhile for street photography and how it has found a place in my workflow.

A methodical approach

You often hear one of the first advantages people repeat about shooting film is that it 'slows you down'

I prefer to think that film forces you to be more methodical and disciplined in your approach to photography. For me, it’s a completely psychological phenomena.

Each shot is costing you time and money. That split second realisation is often enough for me to look through the viewfinder, frame up and realise that this is one of those times it isn’t worth pressing the shutter.

Is the scene interesting? Is the light good? Composition? Moment? These are questions I found myself asking more often with film.

You can of course do this with digital, but for me, it rarely happens that way.

With digital, I feel like more often than not I’ll take shots that aren’t that compelling because in a psychological sense, they’re free. I might even take more than one, trying to make a photograph from something I haven’t really thought about.

Ultimately, I’ll find I have a lot of worthless shots because I’ve mentally switched off. I’m no longer thinking objectively about the scene, just shooting on autopilot and hoping for a good shot. Maybe every once in a while, I’ll get a great shot. Maybe the chance of that is worth it for some. For me, it isn’t.

it clutters my shooting, creates more work when editing and takes away time I could be using to find interesting scenes.

You can definitely be over cautious when shooting, but I’ve found a nice balance with film. It helps me be disciplined with my shooting and stay switched on.

Be outside of your work

Being capable of being unemotional and ‘outside’ of your own work is really important in developing your photography. I personally struggle with this a lot.

I find that film helps me be more objective about my work.

Every photographer knows the feeling after a marathon editing session when you don’t know what you’re even looking at anymore. Once you take a step back for a period of time everything looks fresh again.

Film puts a longer time period between when you take your shot and when you can see the result. You obviously can’t check as you shoot and as long as you keep that little light tight safe locked, your pictures aren’t going anywhere. At minimum the amount of time before I review my film work is about a week, sometimes longer.

I get a rough idea of my shots after I develop my negatives, but I don’t truly see them until they’re scanned.

This may seem like a massive deterrent for some people, but it’s really nice to get a surprise after you’ve removed yourself from the moment.

For me, it means I’m no longer biased by the actual day or mood I was in and distancing myself from this helps me be more objective and greatly assists with my editing process.

Minimise compulsive post processing

I still spend more time getting my black and white film shots ready for the web than I do with the digital counterpart. This is somewhat balanced by the fact that I don’t have to do any work for my colour shots. The processing and scanning is done by a local lab for $10 a roll and sent to me via a dropbox link.

When I edit my digital files, I import my RAWs into Lightroom. This might take 10 minutes. I quickly go through and delete all of the shots that are complete misses. I then start going through my potential keepers, after which I’ll apply some tweaked VSCO presets as a starting point. I’ll often then tweak...and tweak…

Eventually, I’ll have some shots that I’m happy with, but they frequently look inconsistent.

With film, I spend about half an hour developing a couple of rolls of black and white. I’ll probably spend an hour scanning a roll, but I can do other things during this time. Once my .tiffs are imported into Lightroom, I just set my white and black point and apply some sharpening.

That’s it.

Tri-X just looks like Tri-X. I can save my highlights a bit, and if I’ve messed up a shot, I don’t spend time trying to save it. It just is what it is.

The process of developing and scanning your film is a relaxing process for me. It’s something I can just zone out with. It’s not a subjective process, you just do it.

Ultimately, I spend less time doing subjective post-processing and don’t get sucked into the ‘editing vortex’.

Tactility and Mechanics

With street photography, I usually shoot high ISO, high shutter speed and a small aperture. I rely on zone focusing almost entirely to get my shots in focus.

Now that I’m used to it, I find this quicker than any other method for focusing. 

One of my main concerns with the X100T for street photography is the fly-by-wire focusing. This is rarely an issue in general shooting because the autofocus is really decent. I’ve never had any issues locking on. It also has a DOF scale in the viewfinder, which is handy.

When you need to focus quickly, manually, there is a definite lag there. With the M6, it’s mechanical. There’s no fly-by-wire nonsense or shutter lag. It just goes. The DOF scale is also directly on the lens, which I prefer.

The X100T shutter is dead silent, which is great in some circumstances. However, I do miss the actual sound and feedback of a shutter sometimes. The electronic substitutions just don’t cut it for me. The cloth shutter of the M6 isn’t dead quiet, but it’s quite subtle and has a nice sound to it. Receiving that feedback is something I’ve gotten used to now.

One thing I don’t like about digital is carrying around batteries, especially when they don’t last that long. It is a minor concern for me with my Fuji cameras. I usually carry a few, but the benefits of the camera make up for this issue.

It is however, comforting to have a mechanical camera that will still fire without batteries. The M6 batteries are rated to last for 20 hours of continuous metering. If they run out, I can still shoot. More importantly, I can pick them up cheap from pretty much anywhere.

The camera will also keep on shooting with no meter if I need it to.

Overall, it’s nice to have something that feels great and seems purpose built for street photography. For other types of photography, I’d probably prefer the X100T. For street though, the lack of shutter-lag, DOF scale on the lens and completely mechanical focusing are crucial for me.

The Moment

When shooting street photography with a digital camera, I often get disappointed if I’m not getting the type of shots I want. The lure of 'chimping' is just too much for me to resist sometimes and after a quick review, I’ll often feel like I’ve wasted hours and gotten nothing.

With film, chimping is of course, not possible. I feel it helps me stay in the moment more and not worry about what shots I’m getting or not getting. You never really know until later.

The surprise is a very important thing for me with street photography. Sometimes when I’m shooting digitally, I’ll check my screen and be really happy about a shot. When I get home and review it, it sometimes isn’t as good as I thought. At the same time, the opposite is also true.

With film, you’re completely oblivious about the array of shots you may or may not have taken. When I review them later, I find I’m usually happy if I’ve gotten at least one, because they are all a surprise. You aren’t necessarily ‘expecting’ something specifically. You just take it for what it is.

Reactions

I find with film I’m much more comfortable taking photos of strangers. In my mind, people are less concerned with an old film camera, than a digital one. With the X100T, this is much less of an issue due to how it looks, but it’s still there, whether in reality or just in my head.

With digital cameras people usually automatically think “what are you going to do with it? Is it going on the internet?”

With film, I believe the thought process is generally a little different and film is a little less threatening and just seen as peculiar to most.

The act feels less strange. The photo can’t be “deleted” and for some reason I feel like people think your intentions are a little different with film. In this sense, I definitely take more ‘risks’ when shooting as a result.

It may be completely psychological, but it’s worth thinking about. A stranger’s first question when you take their photo is often “what are you going to do with it?”.

I’ve found in general, most people are disarmed when they realise it’s film.

The Film Look

For most of my digital work I use VSCO presets as a starting point. I usually remove the grain because I don’t like how Lightroom renders it.

At one point, I kinda figured, if I spent this much time editing my photos to look like film, why not just cut to the chase?

The colours are perfect straight away...the black and white tones are fantastic and the grain is not bothersome, even with Tri-X pushed to 1600. It looks natural and just...right.

I am a massive fan of VSCO and believe it is really close but I often sit at my laptop for hours trying to choose the best “film” for that particular shot.

Consistency is something I’ve struggled with. I believe it’s really important for your work to be consistent in its look. When shooting film my processing always looks consistent. Portra 400 looks like Portra 400 and Tri-X 400 looks like Tri-X 400.

Conclusion

I firmly believe there is no one “right” way to make art. If that’s even why you take photos in the first place. Maybe you just want to take shots of your kids, dog or take holiday snaps. It doesn’t matter. Settle on an approach that works for you.

I’ve settled on a mixed approach.

For street photography I've found shooting with film helps me enjoy photography more.

What works for you is what you should pursue. Try as many focal lengths, formats and styles of photography as you can. Once something feels right, you’ll know. That will likely change at some point too. Don’t dismiss things straight away, you may find it works for you.

Has it made me a better photographer? No. I don’t think so. Am I enjoying photography more?

Absolutely.

I love the surprise, the process, the look, the feel and the way it forces me to shoot. 

Peter Davison 2015