Thursday, 6 November 2014

Digital vs Film, Colour vs Black and White, Old vs New, Ed vs Ed

As promised, a more comprehensive look at my changing photography styles. There's some crossover with the previous post but hopefully it will complement rather than clash!

I've been noticing a shift in my style lately. That's not an unusual thing - all photographers, probably all creatives, go through a gradual change of style as they gain experience, knowledge and equipment. Certainly for photographers choosing equipment is a big factor in determining their shooting style. It's part of the defining feature of photography as a discipline - a blend of art and science, with both parameters being infinitely variable.

For me, at this particular moment in time, my style is changing due to the availability of certain pieces of equipment. If that makes it sound as if I've taken a conscious decision to let my equipment define my style, that's not the case. It's more organic than that and opens up a small window into the workings of a photographer's mind (and let's face it, us photographers are complex beasts so we only want a small window opening!).

The pieces of equipment in question are a couple of film cameras. I started out with film as a kid in the dim and distant late 1980s and that's never really left me, so I feel a bit naked without a mechanical anachronism hanging around somewhere in the collection!

First up was a 1966 Canon FT QL, bought for the astronomical sum of £16 from everybody's favourite auction website. I bought it to replace my Canon AV-1, which is a really sweet little camera but doesn't give me the ability to shoot fully manually. In broad terms there's nothing wrong with that but I enjoy having control over every shooting parameter, even if I come to the same conclusions as the automatic systems!

Anyway, three days after I got the QL, I had a chance to do something that I thought was still far in the future - get hold of a medium format camera. It was an offer I couldn't refuse so I suddenly, and unexpectedly, became the owner of a Zenza Bronica ETR-Si and a couple of rolls of Ilford Pan-F to go in it. The 35mm Canon is now my take-everywhere camera and the Bronica lives in my camera bag for serious work. It's a glorious beast of a camera to use, and the 6x4.5 negative format - depending on who you talk to - gives me an image 'resolution' that's somewhere over twice that of my digital camera.

All of which finally brings us to the crux of the matter. Shooting on film is very different to digital. On the surface that's probably a strange statement to make and I'd agree with anybody who said as much. Regardless of the technology, you're looking through a viewfinder and a lens at the same scene, and you're committing that scene to storage by pressing a button. There should be no difference, and if you ignore the psychology of the situation, there isn't.


Knowing that you're shooting an analogue camera does things to your mind. The combination of manual focus and a mechanical shutter release, coupled with knowing that the image will be recorded on a piece of valuable film that can only be used once, makes things so much more immediate. And certainly at this stage of my career, when money is tight and film photography is still the hobbyist side of things, I can't afford to blow roll after roll of film trying to chase one photo so each shot I commit to has to be reasonably spot on.

On top of all that, the lack of information in the viewfinder, and the fact that older optics tend to be of a higher quality, gives a real feeling of being 'in' the shot that's being composed. Things become a lot more intimate and the compositional mind tends to lean towards detail rather than expanse.
I've taken the decision to process my own films, so that means shooting black and white for me. Colour can be processed at home but it's a lot less tolerant than black and white and a much more complex procedure. Also, as I've alluded to previously, I'm very much in favour of black and white for art photography.

So taking all that as a whole, I've suddenly found myself in a situation where the side of me that celebrates monochrome photography has been forced - not necessarily in a negative way - to divorce itself from the side of me that revels in the wide-angled,big sky feeling of my digital photography (Incidentally, the digital side of my work is pretty much the opposite of what I'm writing about here. The equipment - my prized wide-angle lens - was purchased as a result of my changing style).

The upshot of all this is that my digital work - and I suspect this has been more obvious to the outside observer than to old tunnel-vision here - is getting more colourful. I initially thought that all of the shots that form my portfolio would be black and white. These days I'm wondering if I'll ever shoot a digital monochrome again! It's as if shooting on monochrome film has left me free to explore colour, and the potential of the digital camera to record and manipulate said colour, a lot more than would have been the case if the side of me that shoots on film had continued to dominate my thinking across both types of photography. And to be honest, I'm enjoying it. Finding something new to experiment with is the lifeblood of any photographer's technique and I'm no exception. Previously, my main concern was in reproducing colour as the eye sees it, rather than the colour that the camera's sensor picks up. And in hindsight, that's a bit daft, because everybody perceives colour differently. That was brought home to me not long ago when my partner was enthusing about the purples in a sunset and the best I could do was to mutter a sheepish "what purple?"

It's also a happy coincidence that, at the moment anyway, colour prints seem to be a lot more popular from a commercial standpoint. And for the record, that had to be pointed out to me - I'm quite rabid when it comes to matters of artistic integrity so the concept of abandoning my values just to come up with a popular product is anathema to me.

In the long run, hopefully, the black and white will return - once the darkroom I'll be sharing is up and running, I'll be able to make my own prints from film and once I'm back into the swing of doing that I'll be selling those through the website as well. I suppose I'll have effectively become two photographers by that point. Call the men in the white coats...

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