Film Photography isn’t for hipsters, it’s for the masters

Meet Andy. Andy is a 40 something-account manager with a passion for photography (or so he thinks).  He has bought shitloads of gear. He has the newest Canon or Nikon camera that came out and set him back some 3 to 5 grands. He has the newest flash, two of them actually. He’s already eyewatering the soon to be released next top-of-the-line Canon that improves dynamic range by 0,13 stops and ISO performance by 0,6 stops! Imagine that! He has to convince and bribe himself everytime he swipes his Amex card at his camera store that he really needs this to advance in his photography. He’s not sure why he’s feeling less and less happy though everytime he goes out shooting, and comes back with the same results. My dog shots should be amazingly crips, but they’re not really better than they were when I shot it with my last body.

What’s Andy’s problem? He’s fallen badly ill with a bad case of GAS. Gear Acquisition Syndrome. And he’s not alone.

The internet is an amazing place. Sadly it’s not all rainbows and unicorn-memes. This is a rough transcript (couldn’t exactly remember the exact units the person used) of a comment I found on an internet photography forum discussion about one of Pirelli’s BTS videos of their calendar shoot.

“Come on, how could you even show up with a camera like that to a cover shoot? That camera has a 4.53p/cm pixel density! At least use one that hasn’t got more than a 1.53p/cm density! And that lens, it’s MTF curves clearly show that it’s highest resolution isn’t at f/4 but at f/7.1. Noob!”

This sparked something in me. At first I was flabbergasted. Then I thought it was anger, fury, now I realize it’s the definite trace of despair. We have truly lost ourselves.

I know this sounds quite tragic or ominous, but let me explain further.

Personally, the most creatively fulfulling work I’ve been doing is my Ballerina Project. It’s simple : I love the endless elegance of ballet dancers and putting them in everyday situations is a juxtaposition I love. Seeing some extremely elegant and delicate body dance against a huge steel construction of some kind has something to it. I’ve received praise for the project from gallery owners I know, as well as photography agents. It gets people. You feel it has soul to it. Was it shot with the absolute best camera? Heck no. I’ve shot the project with a range of cameras. Out of the top of my head I remember the Nikon D70s, The Nikon D200, D300S, Mamiya 645 Pro TL, Nikon F-801, Nikon D800, Fuji X100. Are some of them professional? Sure. Are all of them? No. Are the images shot on professional cameras better? No. One of my absolute favorite shots was shot on the D70S. A mere 6MP camera. I wouldn’t dare put it on a forum, because the gear haters would be swarming all over it like vultures on a corpse.

Not the sharpest picture, but then again, it's not about that. Photo by Irving Penn

Not the sharpest picture, but then again, it’s not about that. Photo by Irving Penn

I guess a lot of you think I’m an endless cynic, but I’m really not. The matter of fact is that it saddens me to see people drawn away from the joy photography could be if they weren’t completely corrupted by the other GAS’sers and marketing campaigns. The simple joy that I had making these images for the Ballerina Project made me even forget which camera I was using. I just didn’t care. I can’t remember how many times I’ve had that feeling, but it was there.

We have gotten so envelopped in megapixels, sensor size, iso, dynamic range, pixel density, 12 or 14 bit compression, flash duration that we have lost our way. The old saying “you can do 10 things mediocrately of 2 things very well” is more true that it has ever been.

People are nitpicking on the tiniest details. The tiniest. If a magazine cover appears on some internet forum and the smallest ‘flaw’ is to be seen, you better man up because it’s war.

And here’s why film photography isn’t for hipsters, but for the masters :

With film, you embrace faults and flaws. You accept limitations. With digital it’s never good enough and it’s never sharp enough. It’s always soft, blurry, lacking dynamic range, overexposed, underexposed.
It gives the amateurs something to talk about, something to brag about. ‘Djeezes, that well known photographer still shoots with a Mark II? What a noob, I’m taking pictures of birds and cats around my house but I’m rocking the Mark III y’all”  That’s what I see them doing.

They love it because it makes it somehow possible for them to compare themselves to the greats of the industry. Is it bad to compare? No absolutely not, it’s the road towards growth. But it’s useless to compare based on technicalities. It allows them to have superiority over someone in at least one domain. However, as Eric Kim says, no one looks at Cartier-Bresson’s work and goes ‘Oooh, wauw, look at that lens sharpness!”. Case in point, few of Cartier-Bresson’s photos are sharp by today’s standards, and I dare say he did quite alright for himself.

Pretty sharp, but is it really about sharpness? Photo by Irving Penn

Pretty sharp, but is it really about sharpness? Photo by Irving Penn

Film photography is for masters, not hipsters because it separates the noise from the signal. Once you’ve accepted the limitations, you don’t care about them. You can truely focus on the important things and that’s the image. The message. The styling, the model, the everything that makes up the important parts of your image. You don’t spend the whole shoot nitpicking about the fact that you aren’t using the sharpest lens. You don’t review your images with loathing the fact that they haven’t been shot with what is currently the best.
Not a single pro cares what they shoot with. They’ll have images a 100 times better than you with a point and shoot because they care about what is important. Models, expressions, poses, lighting. They don’t give a crap about bad iso performace at ISO 15432123. They don’t give a shit that that lens is sharper at f/4 than f/3.5. They know it, they don’t care. Don’t mistake indifference for ignorance. Why? Because you won’t look at those things because the subject of the photo will be interesting. The subject matter is brilliant, and it attracts your eye. That was the case with film. That’s in a time critique was interesting. Take a look at Helmut Newton, one of the great masters of the 20th centuty in this video. He’s shooting 90’s topmodel Claudia Schiffer with a Canon EOS analog film camera. In his own words : ‘This is a camera that every amateur can buy.’ Once you look at his pictures though, you very quickly realize they weren’t shot by an amateur and it’s not because of the image quality.

World-renowned photographer Mary Ellen Mark shares the same feeling. In an interview with Ibarionex Perello she clarifies why in this digital age, she’s still shooting film.

You can listen to the whole interview by clicking on the link below. It’s incredibly interesting. Mary Ellen also talks about the shifting landscape that is magazine reportage. She’s pretty grim about it, but sadly I think she’s spot on the money. Most magazines, sadly, aren’t interested anymore in heartfelt inquiries of the human condition through reportage. They want set-up portraits of this week’s 15-minute of fame-attention-whore. Not her words, mine.

Submitting your images on an internet forum is brutal. Most people don’t even look closely at your images, just the technicalities. Don’t include your metadata and you’ll be a coward fleeing real critique. “Oooh, what’s that noise doing there buddy? Can’t afford a D4? And 12 megapixels only? Djeez, what’s it made for ? A postcard?” Note, these comments will put you down creatively and make you think that you can’t make amazing images. Screw them. Screw that. Show them you can. An old camera isn’t a bad camera. It’s just old.

An old camera isn’t a bad camera. It’s just old.

So what to do? Screw the marketing companies. Screw the forums. Screw the critics. Sit down. Jot down an idea. Work it out. Let it rest. Come back to it and add elements to make it more interesting. Go out and shoot with whatever camera. Look back at your images and smile, because they are infinitely more interesting, and thus better than they would have been I’ve you would have hesitated to go out and shoot because you didn’t sport the latest Nikon D-Whatever. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit” – Aristotle”



P.S. In regards to the comments about pixel density, MTF curves and whatnot, these are all actual, real comments I read on several forums who were discussing Mario Sorrenti’s Pirelli 2012 shoot. For anonimity reasons, I won’t post names or such.

P.S II : Before a flaming wars start, I shoot film but i am definitely not a master, just wanted to clarify that. Its about the idea. Not the individual.


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