By David Matthew Knoble
The young 9th grade boy was one of three onlookers as I showed my camera to his teacher. It was 11am and I stumbled on a high school art class painting a construction wall on Main Street. After taking about three frames I struck up conversations. I had just explained what camera I was using after the teacher remarked, ‘That’s a Leica!’
The young boy casually asked, “can I see the pictures you just took?” Replying with a grin I told him, “No, this is a 1949 film camera, I have to develop the pictures first”. His volley continued, “so is their a display on the back where I can see the pictures?” I turned around my Leica IIIc with a 35mm Summaron attached so he could see the shark skin leather back. He shrugged his shoulders and went back to painting.
It was easy for me to understand where this lad was coming from. Technology has changed considerably since my first box camera and no high school student knows what a rotary dial phone is anymore. What amazes me more is the number of adults that might have the same conversation with me. So why would I shoot film with a dinosaur? I’m not going to pontificate on the resolution of film versus digital or the exposure latitude. The reason is much less complex. But, to test your skills, see if you can tell which of the images here are from film and which are pure digital.
The art of shooting film has enhanced my photography skills every year. I spend almost equal time shooting film as I do digital. The pure-bred digital cult is quick to ask me why I would spend so much time bulk loading film cartridges, winding exposed film around reels inside a black bag, checking the temperature of freshly mixed chemicals against tables and charts while piling up beakers like an Iron Chef cook off. My answer starts out simple – it’s because all that work forces me to slow down and think and I get better photographs as a result.
Computer Chip = My Brain
My film cameras have no computer chips and no batteries. My brain does the work. Bright sunny day? No trouble! ISO 125 means 1/1000 second at f/5.6. Start shooting! Yellow filter? Take it down to f/4.0.
Even if using a light meter sometimes or all the time, converting film speed and light to the proper manual exposure exercises your thinking muscles. After a time, it gets really easy. More importantly, it carries over to my M240 and Monochrom.
Too often in today’s technology I believe we rely on a computer to think for us. It would be easy to let the M240 set a shutter speed for me. But it is a reflective meter and that backlit subject just came out too dark. Ok, open up a stop and shoot again. Still too dark? Try one more stop. Peeking at the LCD in between exposures and shielding the sun with my hand it looks like I finally got a good one. It’s a shame it took so long that I missed the shot I originally wanted. Working with film can help alleviate some of that trial and error when a reflective meter doesn’t work.
Film Breeds Confidence
Someone wrote recently about One Shot Harris. What a great name! Harris was known for only taking one shot because it was all he needed. The Pittsburgh newspaper frequently published several of his images each issue. If you work with film long enough to get the right exposure you have developed confidence – the same confidence needed to use something like the M60 with no LCD.
Without confidence, I might shoot 8 exposures of one scene varying f/stop and shutter speed just to make sure I got one image that comes out properly. Almost sounds like running a digital camera at 3 frames per second for a few seconds to get just the right shot. Checking the LCD let’s me make sure I captured one I like and re-shoot if necessary. Film, on the other hand, makes me wait until development to see if I made the right choice for exposure.
See the image below. It’s from Summer Camp and the boys were really hot, so it was time for water filled hats to cool them off. I was using an M-4 with a Summicron 35 attached. I set the exposure, focused and waited. When they put on their hats, I snapped the shutter. It was two weeks later until I found out I got the shot. I only had one chance and I only took one image. That’s confidence.
This same confidence spills over to a camera like a digital M, adjusting when necessary. Yes I chimp some like the best of them. But I don’t need to and that’s key.
Handling the Unexpected
I spent early July in France alternating each day between film and Digital. The day we walked through Montemarte I was using my Leica MP to keep weight down. I would use the built in meter to check the grass or dark blue sky for middle grey. Half way through our walk, my battery died. I kept shooting using the Sunny 16 rule and got about an 80% keep rate on exposure. That gives me confidence. Here’s a shot below from that walk.
A year ago, I wouldn’t have thought of wasting film by guessing. Today, my guesses are much more educated and while I stop and think, I don’t mind trying. There are some great sunny 16 charts on the web that provide guidance down to candlelight, or a dimly lit room inside a house. The only way to master this type of shooting is to try it and then develop the roll quickly while everything is fresh. Adjust your thinking and shoot another roll.
I still carry an incident light meter with me set to ISO 125. I’ll be randomly walking and guess at the light level checking it with my meter. I use a Sekonic Studio Deluxe II which has no need of a battery. It’s the old dial and needle concept, but I find it easier to read and you can read EV directly off the dial. This is an easy practice method with instant feedback and no waste of film. I also love the Sekonic L458dr because of the spot meter built in and the Gossen Starlight which has a zone measuring mode.
While I use Sunny 16 for most shooting around town, landscape work is different. The zone method is impeccable for still life. The point is the subject is still so you have time to think. Zone work with rolls of film is challenging. So, I modified my approach for bulk work. Instead I just spend much more time setting an exposure.
I measure the dynamic range of the scene and set middle grey. When I use the Gossen, I meter a tone and set it to a zone on the display. Each other area can then be measured and the zone it will fall under will be displayed. It’s an easier dynamic range exercise. I cannot over emphasize the value of colored filters. I use yellow and green colored filters. These improve contrasts and overall quality of the negative. You can experiment here with digital RAW images and Lightroom. The same concept applies!
I have used a variety of manual film cameras over the years and some have stuck with me. I started with an M-4 and then added an M-6 ttl. As digital took hold, I sold some older cameras. I bought an MP which I have taken backpacking and love the mechanical nature with a light meter built in. Then I added an M-2R which I loved but eventually sold because my aging eyes didn’t like the yellowing of the rangefinder. I also started using a IIIC which has two windows, one that is zoomed in, making focusing easier. But I have to say my favorite is a chrome black M-A with the black chrome 35 summicron and 50 summilux. The clarity of the finder and heft of the body is great!
I really enjoy using film, but I also grew up using film. In fact, most people that did start with film still use it occasionally. My hope is that some digital-only folks will give film a try. Even if the film is commercially developed and scanned, you learn the skill and patience.
For those that think film is dead, ask the product development team at Leica. They saw fit to give us two models of strictly mechanical film cameras – one in chrome and one in black. Leica also still offers the MP and M7, so four bodies are available. Film is not even close to being dead.
Slow down. Treat an SD card as a limited resource and the shutter as a one-shot device. Concentrate on getting the right exposure and timing the shutter release just right. That is the skill of a great photographer! Now go shoot a frame or two. In Part II I’ll talk a little about my development and scanning techniques.
David Matthew Knoble
Ok, did you decide which images were from a film camera? All are from a Leica of course and the list of cameras and lenses is below.
Img 1 – 2015, Leica IIIC, Summaron 35, Ilford FP4
Img 2 – 2014, Leica MP, Noctilux f/1.0, Ilford FP4
Img 3 – 2015, Leica M2-R, Summicron 35 ASPH, Ilford FP4
Img 4 – 2007, Leica M-4, Summicron 35 ASPH, Ilford FP4
Img 5 – 2015, Leica MP, Summicron 35 ASPH, Ilford FP4
Img 6 – 2015, Leica MP, Summilux 50 ASPH, Ilford FP4
Img 7 – 2013, Leica MP, Summicron 28 ASPH, Ilford Delta 400
Img 8 – 2007, Leica M4, Summicron 35 ASPH, Ilford FP4