2012 is shaping up to be quite a year. There have been dozens of events commemorating the centennial of the sinking of the Titanic; and if you subscribe to the whole Mayan calendar hysteria (personally I don’t), there is the coming end of the world to look forward to.
On a more personal level, 2012 marks the first year in recent memory that I actually shot some 35mm film. That might not seem to be all that earth shattering, but considering that I used to expose hundreds of film rolls in a year, the fact that I actually shot some film after a long absence is a big deal.
I don’t really remember when I shot my last roll of film. Line many of you, I never actually packed my film SLRs away and declared “That’s it – I’m done with film.”
Instead, I started to incorporate digital cameras into my shooting assignments, although the film SLRs remained the real workhorses. Gradually, I started to shoot more digital images, and eventually I found myself hauling film SLRs along on shoots but never removing them from the bag.
Even after I stopped bringing my film cameras on assignments, I still carried rolls of 35mm and 120mm film in my gadget bag. I’m not sure what that means; without a film camera, film spools are useless, but I still shlepped them with me for a while.
Eventually, all the film stuff went into storage and I happily shot digital without looking back. My interest in returning to film comes from, of all places, the online photo sharing site Flickr.
There are Flickr groups for just about every form of photographic pursuit. I’m not sure if there are any groups for shooters using wet-plate glass negatives, but it would not surprise me if there were.
In my case, two groups caught my attention: “One Rokkor Around the World” and “A Roll in a Day.”
The Rokkor group isn’t specifically aimed at film shooters; it involved a single 50mm f/1.7 Rokkor lens that was sent on a grand tour as various photographers used it to capture images from around the planet. I took my turn and shot with lens mounted on a Sony Alpha with a MA/MD adapter, but it seemed that I should at least shoot a roll of film to honor the Rokkor’s heritage. I’ll have more about the ORATW group in another post.
Immediately after finishing with the Rokkor, I learned about a group called A Roll in a Day. As the name implies, all the group members shoot an entire roll of film on a specific day. The kicker is that you have to post every shot, good or bad. You can’t cull the bad shots; you have to post the entire roll.
After learning that the selected day for the Roll in a Day project was the same day as BarCamp Charlotte 7, I knew I would have to participate.
I have posted digital photos from previous BarCamps on Alphatracks in the past, and I intended to shoot the event with the Sony Alpha once again. This time, however, I brought along an oldie but a goodie… A Minolta SR-T MC II circa 1977.
For film stock, I rummaged around in my cast-offs drawer and found some Kodak Max 400 ISO film. Supposedly it had expired in 2005, but part of the Roll in a Day experience is to experiment.
Another problem I faced was the meter battery for the SR-T was long dead. You still can find these batteries if you look long enough, but in the spirit of the project I didn’t want to spend money and time hunting down a battery.
I’m pretty good at estimating light levels, and Kodak Max is fairly forgiving when it comes to exposure. I considered just guesstimating the exposure (remember I would have to post everything, no matter how bad they looked) but instead I decided to try a new app for my iPhone.
Pocket Light Meter is an app that turns the iPhone into an incident light meter. It is not a flash meter, it simply reads the continuos light falling on a scene. Since I wouldn’t be shooting with a flash, I thought it would be interesting to see what kind of results the app would produce.
Pocket Light Meter is available for free, but you can pay an additional $0.99 to eliminate ads. To use the app, you dial in the ISO of the film and then adjust the app for the f/stop you want to shoot at. When you point the iPhone’s camera at your subject, Light Meter will then suggest the proper shutter-speed. Of course if you prefer to set a specific shutter-speed, the app will then indicate the appropriate f/stop. Another very nice feature of the app is that it will keep a record of the exposure settings it recommended, giving you the closest thing there is to EXIF data for film.
Using the reading from the iPhone, I could set the f/stop and shutter speed on the SR-T. There are no automatic settings on a SR-T. Even if I had a battery for the meter, I still would be shooting manual. It seemed a great opportunity to experiment with the Pocket Light Meter application.
Of course any meter can be fooled, even highly sophisticated dedicated units. No matter what kind of meter you use, you need to evaluate the situation and adjust the recommended settings accordingly.
For most of the shots, I used the settings Pocket Light Meter suggested. I knew from experience that you can get very good results from over-exposed Kodak Max, but thin, underexposed negatives won’t yield great photos. Since I knew that Kodak Max tolerates dark, overexposed negatives, when I had any doubt, I opened-up the aperture or decreased the shutter-speed by a stop or so.
When I shot film in the past, I had a few labs that I relied on for processing, unless I was processing the film in my own darkroom. Both my own darkroom and the labs I used to use are gone, so I opted to just have the film processed at the local CVS store. Being a big spender, I chose to spend an extra fifty-cents for Kodak Processing rather than the standard CVS fare. I purposely chose not to have prints made. I could have scanned the resulting negs, but it was faster and easier to have all the images burned to a CD.
I am happy to say that all but one of the images appear to be properly exposed. In the first image I shot, Pocket Light Meter read the background properly, but the crowd of people in the foreground were seriously underexposed. Still, considering the primitive equipment and out-of-date film, it felt good that the bulk of the negatives offered decent tonal range.
The images on the CD looked a little flat to me. As I said, the rules of the Roll in a Day group require that members post all the images from a shoot. I debated whether it was permissible to adjust the images from the CD.
The way I see it, if I was making prints in the darkroom or if I was scanning negatives on my scanner, I would adjust the exposure to make the images look their best. Who is to say that the automated exposure on the Kodak CD scanner is the correct one? As long as I created an image directly from the negative, without any special effects, I felt it was okay to adjust the overall brightness and contrast.
To be clear, I only allowed myself overall adjustments, no masking or extensive retouching. I simply brought the images into Lightroom and ramped up the blacks slightly. I also used the fill light to open up the tones in some of the indoor images. Again, this is the same capability I would have had in the darkroom,
Technically, if I were working in the darkroom, I would also have the ability to crop images by moving the enlarger head up and down. But I decided to do no cropping. I posted all of the images exactly the way they were shot.
I believe that several of the images would have worked better with some cropping. But I posted the full images; next-time I will have to pay more attention to composition.
Two things were at work in composition. First, the images were shot with older Rokkor lenses, primarily the 58mm f/1.4 and the 16mm f/2.8. I have used these lenses often on my APS-C chipped Sony Alphas. I knew the lenses would offer a wider field of view on the “full-frame” 35mm film SLR. But after using the lenses for so long on a “crop sensor” camera, I wasn’t prepared for how wide a view these lenses would provide on a film camera.
Secondly, the Alpha I use most often does not provide a 100% view of the actual image area. Because of that, I don’t worry too much about framing the image in the view finder. Instead, when I shoot digital, I usually try to get close and do a final, more exacting crop in Lightroom or Photoshop.
With the SR-T MC II, the viewfinder size is much more accurate, so it would have paid to pay more attention to framing. In any case, what you see is what I shot.
You can view my Roll in a Day photo set on Flickr. I am pleased with some of the film images I shot for the Roll in Day group. There are some that are just OK and there are some that aren’t all that exciting. I ordinarily would not have posted all of these online. Fortunately, a couple of the images are quite interesting, helping to save my reputation on Flickr.
So, am I ready to shelve my digital equipment and return to film? Not hardly. The advantages of digital completely overwhelm film. The ability to check my images at the time of shooting, the elimination of the need for a wet darkroom and the ability to custom tailor white balance/ISO on a per shot basis make digital far more useful than film. Not to mention that digital is far more economical to shoot with.
Having said that, the Roll in a Day group has chosen May 19, 2012 as the next day for members to shoot images for the group. If you have a Minolta film camera – or any film camera – there is still time for you to sign up and join us. Join the Roll in a Day group here.
I still have some out-of-date Kodak Max, now I just need to figure out which camera to use.