I’m in a plane to LA from Oakland (Southwest), and wanted to use this hour or so to write and share about my experiences shooting 100 rolls of Kodak Tri-X Film pushed to 1600 this summer.
Why shoot black and white film?
I’ve been shooting color film (Portra 400) for about 2-3 years on a film Leica MP and 35mm f/2 lens, and honestly, I’m just a bit bored by it. I wanted a new challenge and to try something new.
Most of my new work is on a digital Ricoh GR; shooting color street portraits at 28mm with macro mode and flash (also in “P” mode), you see the photos on Flickr. I’ve been enjoying this a lot— but I wanted to try something different for the summer.
Before I left for the summer, this was my travel itinerary (not in the correct order):
I have a problem when I travel; all of my photos are too random. Besides my long-term “Suits” project, all of the photos I shoot while traveling are a bit pointless. So I thought to myself; why not just use this trip to have fun and experiment a bit?
Pushing film to 1600 as an experiment
I had shot all of my Portra 400; so I ordered 100 rolls of black and white film (Kodak Tri-X). I’ve always been a fan of pushed film to 1600 (it adds extra contrast and grain)— and it also gives me a faster shutter speed (allows me to shoot with the Leica at f/16 and 1/1000th shutter at the day).
Also a new experiment; my friend Karl Edwards (runs Streetshootr.com) surprised me with a B+W Yellow filter (I lose a stop of light, but it adds more contrast and makes the sky look pretty dramatic). It was my first trying this out, so I just tried using it without testing it out. After all, I had nothing to lose (as all the photos shot this summer would just be for fun).
Before I continue; for those of you unfamiliar with film, let me explain how “pushing film” works:
Kodak Black and White Tri-X film is standard at ISO 400. However you can “trick” the film by changing the meter of your camera to ISO 1600. Therefore you are technically underexposing the film by 2 stops. But when you get your film processed, you tell the lab technicians (or if you do it yourself); you over-develop the film to increase the exposure.
Why doesn’t everyone always push film? After all, there are a lot of benefits: added contrast, added grain, faster shutter speed. But a lot of people don’t like grain and grit— they prefer lower ISO films (like Delta 100, etc). But for me— I like the gritty and grainy look, and you will also notice that you will get the “faded” look for unexposed photos (what VSCO film simulations look like for their pushed films).
My experience shooting pushed film to 1600
I had a fucking blast shooting pushed film to 1600. I think the problem I have been experiencing is that I take myself too seriously, and I try to over-theorize the photos I shoot.
Shooting color requires a bit more brain-work; you need to consider the color-combinations of your subjects and the backgrounds more. Color is more complex and can be a headache; if your exposure is no good, your photos look like crap (especially with under-exposed color film). A solution is to use a flash with color film (Portra 400), but I don’t always want the harsh look of the flash.
Enter black-and-white film; you can shoot in all lighting conditions, and the photos look fine. Of course it is preferable to shoot in good light, but even when you shoot in flat light with black and white film, it still looks pretty good.
Furthermore, when I shot color film, I shot it at at ISO 400. This means that if I shot at f/8, I would shoot at 1/1000th of a second in bright light (which is fine), but my shutter would drop to 1/60th of a second (or sometimes 1/30th of a second) when shooting in the shade (which is too slow).
The benefit of shooting black and white film pushed to ISO 1600; I could get a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second (at f/8) when shooting in the shade. This meant that I was able to shoot more situations. Also I could shoot at night and indoors without a flash (shooting at f/2).
The Cindy Project
Some of you might have seen my “Cindy Project” photos; which were all shot on black and white Tri-X pushed to 1600.
I love the photos for many reasons.
First of all, I love how I was able to let the photos “marinate.” Secondly, I loved the aesthetic (I can get my digital photos to fool others, but I can never fool myself).
Furthermore, for photographing Cindy, I prefer the soft look of shooting without a flash. For my street work, I prefer the harshness of the flash, but not for the love of my life.
The film Leica MP and 35mm f2 lens was the only setup I had for the summer for the three months. Cindy brought along the Ricoh GR for scanning documents in her archive in Aix-en-Provence, and I used it a few times to make some GoPro POV videos in Paris. But besides that I stuck the film camera.
It was nice, I always just took photos of Cindy at random times throughout our daily lives. Eating breakfast, lunch, dinner, at a coffee shop having an espresso, about to sleep, waking up in the morning, next to a nice window with natural light, or against some nice architecture.
I wanted to communicate my love of Cindy through the photos, and tried to shoot the best with my heart, without making things too technical.
It’s probably gonna be the major project of my life.
Practical tips shooting black and white film
Okay so here are some lessons I’ve learned:
First of all, I’m not sure whether a yellow filter is necessary. I like the look it gave my photos; but I need to experiment shooting more film to figure out how it will look without the yellow filter.
Also, if you are going to push your film (and shoot with a film Leica during the day), I would recommend shooting pushing one stop (to ISO 800). Why? Because even though I pushed to ISO 1600; I used a yellow filter (which reduces my exposure by 1-stop). So effectively I was shooting at ISO 800.
But then again— I suppose if you want more grain and contrast; it is good to use the yellow filter (or a 1-stop ND filter) to shoot at ISO 1600 at all times, to have maximum contrast and grain.
Practical question I get asked a lot: if you shoot with ISO 400 film (pushing to 800-1600) x-ray scanners don’t harm your film. I have heard things on the internet that they do harm your film; but in my experience I have never had any issues. I heard the only problem is using ISO 1600-3200 (stock) film — that will ruin your film.
Traveling with film was a pain (it is heavy); but ironically enough it leads to more peace-of-mind (you don’t need to worry about your hard drive crashing, or having to constantly backup your photos). Sure someone could steal your film; but I think thieves are more likely to steal your laptop or external hard drive over your film.
Benefits of shooting film
One of the benefits of shooting film this summer: I wasn’t up until 2am every morning looking at my photos on my computer. Rather, I would shoot an entire day on film, and actually enjoy my dinner at night and sleep early.
I also like the distance it gave my shots— certain photos I shot I remember wanting to see the photo immediately (because I thought it would be a good shot). But in reality after letting the photos sit for about 3 months and then finally looking at it— the photos were a lot less epic than I remembered. So shooting film helped disconnect myself emotionally from my shots.
Therefore when I was editing (selecting my best images); I did it a lot more objectively— I forgot haven taken half the photos, so it was like I was judging someone else’s photos (not my own). And you can always kill someone else’s babies easier than your own.
Shooting film also leads to peace of mind; you don’t worry whether your camera has enough megapixels or whatever. With digital, I always want to upgrade my camera. With film, there is seriously nothing you can really “upgrade” (the ‘sensor’ of film will always be the same). Don’t forget; more megapixels, more problems.
If I started photography all over again
To be frank; if I started photography all over again (or if I were giving photography advice to my 18 year old self), I don’t think I would recommend myself to shoot film.
Film is expensive, cumbersome, pain in the ass, and not good for beginners when you are trying to learn aperture, shutter speed, exposure, focusing, technical settings.
In-fact, I think only experts should shoot film— because you will screw up less.
So if you want to learn to shoot film, I recommend mastering digital (shooting full-manual on your digital camera) then experimenting with film.
In-fact, I don’t want to tell you what to do or not to do. Just do whatever you want. If you want to experiment with film (color or black and white); you have my full blessing. Some practical advice:
With color film, I recommend shooting Kodak Portra 400 (expensive, but colors look fantastic for skin tones and other warm colors). Get them processed at a local drugstore (unfortunately most Costcos don’t process film anymore; that is where I used to get it processed).
With black and white, if you can afford it, have the lab do it for you and scan it for you. If you’re on a budget, learn how to process your own black and whites and just do it in a changing-bag at home, and pick up a cheap scanner (I recommend Plustek for 35mm film— that is what I started off with). Also for black and white film, I recommend Kodak Tri-X (only film I’ve personally shot with, because it pushes to 1600 amazingly well, has a huge history behind it). I heard great things of ILFORD HP5 (my friend Charlie Kirk shot his entire Turkey project at ISO 400) and the grain and contrast on it looks superb.
Side-note; apparently HP5 and processing/scanning black and white in Saigon is really cheap, so I might start shooting film when I live in Vietnam for a year (August 2016-March 2017). Or who knows; I might just shoot it all in black-and-white on the Ricoh GR.
Film or digital?
For me personally I have boiled it down to the following:
- Shoot film if I can afford it.
- Shoot digital if I’m on a budget.
I can get my digital shots to look pretty good— but I would still say at the end of the day, I prefer the slower process of shooting film, and I still think aesthetically film looks way better than digital (something I haven’t been able to emulate with Silver Efex Pro or VSCO presets is highlight retention that black-and-white film allows).
Furthermore, I like the idea that 200 years from now someone can see my original negatives. I doubt anyone will be able to read my original RAW files 200 years from now (think about how you used to save school reports to floppy disks— where can you even find a floppy disk reader anymore?)
The ultimate goal is to print more photos; and especially put together photo books.
I had lunch with my friend John Hall, who did a workshop with Jacob Aue Sobol recently. John gave me good advice— focus less on social media and Instagram; focus more on making books. John also wrote an article on what he learned from the workshop.
Apparently Jacob shoots only 60 days a year— but shoots 1,000 photos a day straight for 60 days. That is 60,000 photos (digital, of course).
I think that is a better model; rather than shooting everyday (for the sake of it)— better to shoot a short period of time (but very intensely).
Apparently some of the most prolific authors only write for a month or two the entire year, and use the rest of the time to read, reflect, and collect inspiration. I think it is a myth that you have to write everyday to be a great writer. While it is true that some of the greatest writers write everyday (Murakami and Stephen King)— there are also many great writers who don’t write everyday (Nassim Taleb being one of my favorite).
Not only that— but if a photographer or author makes 1 strong body of work in his/her lifetime— he/she has fulfilled their life’s mission.
Even with me, I hope that my “82 Lessons From the Masters of Street Photography” will be my main book for my life. All the other books I have written before was just practice for this main book. In-fact, I am in the process of making a Version 2 of the PDF version of the book, which is further going to be distilled and made more useful.
Also with my photography, if I die with just having “The Cindy Project” completed; I will be satisfied. Even with my website portfolio, I intentionally keep my series limited to 3 projects at a time. If I want to add a new project, I must remove an old project.
Yet I am constantly distracted by social media, Instagram, Twitter, reading comments. Is Instagram going to be around 200 years from now? I highly doubt it. But physical books will last 200, 300, even possibly 1,000 years from now. This is another reason why I am working on a paperback version of the “Learn From the Masters” book, rather than just publishing them as PDF’s or e-books.
Lessons shooting film
Some other tips shooting film (that has helped me, part of these are my own personal learnings and mental notes):
- It is always better to overexpose film than underexpose (in post-processing you can do “highlight recovery” or reduce exposure with the scanned JPEG images, but you cannot do “shadow recovery”).
- Buy/travel with more film than you think you need (it is better to have 10-20 rolls of un-shot film than to find yourself in the middle of a trip needing to buy more film). As a rule of thumb; buy 25% more film than you think you will need.
- If you are pushing your film, use a sharpie to write “1600” (or whatever you push your film to) after you’re done shooting the roll of film (so you don’t forget). In-fact, label your film before you load your camera with film, so you don’t forget.
- It is better to shoot 1-roll of film on 1 interesting scene rather than to shoot 1-2 photos of a bunch of random stuff in a day. Don’t be afraid to “work the scene” if you see something good.
- When in doubt, just shoot the photo anyways.
- Follow your gut when shooting; don’t listen to your brain.
- Shoot selfies of reflections in mirrors and shadows (it is nice to have a self-portrait of yourself).
Film Street Photography Articles
If you want to learn more about shooting film, check out these articles and resources below:
- What I Learned Processing 164 Rolls of Film After Waiting a Year
- Introduction to Shooting Film in Street Photography
- A Guide on How to Shoot Street Photography on a Film Leica (or Rangefinder)
Just got off the plane, jumped in a shuttle to Union Station, and uber’d to Downtown LA. Just dropped off my stuff at the studio, and chilling at Umami burger before the workshop.
For now, I’m going to focus on shooting more of these “street portraits” with the Ricoh GR in color. Funny story; I found an interesting lady sitting next to me who looked like a character. She actually oversaw me writing and looking at photos on my laptop, so she started to chat with me about photography (she also did black and white 35mm film when she was younger). So I showed her some photos, then asked if I could make her portrait. I took several photos, and think it is the first time I have ever made a portrait of a stranger on a plane. Perhaps can be a start to a long-term series.
Anyways, I am fighting everyday the urge to buy new cameras and lenses and whatever. But I need to remind myself that the limits of my creativity is never my equipment; but my own creativity and imagination. And my courage— I need to hesitate less when asking to make images of strangers, and I need to remember to also make photos that please myself, not others on the internet.
Thank you always for being part of this journey; Godspeed.
Black and White Photo Book Recommendations
John Hall was over my apartment and I lent him some of my favorite black and white photography books. If you want to start your own collection, here is what I recommend:
- “Exiles” and “Gypsies” by Josef Koudelka
- “Minutes to Midnight” and “The Black Rose” by Trent Parke
- “Good Dog” by Yusef Sevincli
- “Songbook” by Alec Soth (thanks to my buddy Bob in London for the copy)
These are probably currently my favorite black and white books— you will love them.
Film camera recommendations
If you want to experiment with film, I recommend just buying the cheapest film camera you can afford and see if you like the process (Canon AE-1 is good, or ask your mom/dad for a used old film camera). Also for point-and-shoot, check out the Contax T2, the Olympus XA-series cameras, and Ricoh GR1-series film cameras (eBay is usually your best bet). For all things film-related, check out my friend Bellamy Hunt from Japan Camera Hunter.
At the end of the day, it matters less what camera/lens you use in film photography— more so the type of film you use, and how much you enjoy the process.
Film won’t make you a better photographer; nor will digital. The only thing that will make you a better photographer is to build up more curiosity in your life, and to gain inspiration from the masters of photography, and to just live and enjoy your life. Remember; the point isn’t to be a good photographer, but to enjoy your life.
Lots of love, now I am going to enjoy my Truffled Beet Salad; then have a nice fatty steak for dinner (later tonight).
@ Umami Burger, Downtown LA, Broadway, Friday 2:27pm, Nov 13, 2015.
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