Cinestill 800T & Ilford HP5 400 At Night

I didn’t like Cinestill 800T the first time I shot it a couple of years ago.  I was using the 35mm format at the time, and ended up testing it out  randomly on a sunny day at a petting zoo.  The results were definitely different than what I used to in terms of color negative film, but I didn’t see any advantage over using something like Kodak Portra.  The colors of Cinestill 800T get pretty funky when shot in daylight (if you aren’t using an 85 or 81 filter), but that’s because it’s a tungsten balanced film.  When I heard that Cinestill 120 was recently released, I decided I’d give it another try but this time I’d shoot it under the dim glow of tungsten bulbs at night in Victoria BC.

Shooting medium format at night is actually quite a challenge when relying on available light and still trying to use a fast enough shutter speed to make portraits without any motion blur.  I brought a sturdy tripod, but it still wouldn’t be enough because the lighting was so dim.  I decided to push my film (one stop for Cinestill 800T and three stops for Ilford HP5) in order to be able to shoot at 1/30th - 1/60th of a second with the lens wide open at f2.8.  Pushing film allows you to meter the film faster than what it’s ISO is rated for, and a consequence of this is that it also increases the contrast and grain of the image. 

After scanning in the negatives of the Cinestill roll, I finally understood where the film really shines.  This film turns nighttime city streets into a dreamland when other color films can suffer from some pretty severe color balance issues.  I noticed that the unique halo effect that Cinestill 800T in 35mm has on light sources is noticeably less prominent in the 120 version.  The color palette is also quite cinematic and muted, which for me only adds to it’s appeal.  The fact that this film hasn’t yet been replicated as a digital preset also adds to the intrigue.  I can say without hesitation that I’ll be using this film a lot more often in the future.

I also brought along a roll of Ilford HP5 Plus 400 in the 120 format as well.  Given that the lighting was so dim, I ended up pushing the film to iso 3200(!).  It’s situations like this that most photographers take for granted, with their digital cameras that have amazing low light capabilities.  With film, I really had to be extra careful with how I shot and scanned the film to get a nice result.  I’ve always loved HP5 for it’s classic look, wide exposure latitude, and very reasonable price.  As always, I can happily say it did not disappoint. 

Black and white film is always pretty special, but I’m absolutely in love with it for night portraiture.  I’ve always been drawn to classic fashion portraiture, and I feel that black and white film helps to lend a timeless quality to these types of subjects.  From the high contrast to the wonderful texture of the grain, it just feels otherworldly.  One of my goals with this shoot is for you the viewer, is to not really know when these images were taken just by looking at them.

I learned a fair bit about using film in low light situations and have a couple of takeaways that might be useful for you.  If I had to do it again with just ambient light, I’d probably shoot a fast 50mm lens on a 35mm camera at around f1.4 or f2 in order to get a fast enough shutter speed (ideally 1/60th or higher) i without having to push the film.  I do like the end result of pushed film, but it was noticeably more difficult to correct in the scanning process.  For that reason, I’d probably choose Ilford Delta 3200 over HP5 and consider the added grain an artistic bonus.  Lastly, I think I’ll try this again but with a strobe or battery flash along with a large soft modifier such as the Photek Softlighter, which is my go to light source in studio environments.  That would resolve any worry about not being able to freeze my subject, and it would add another dimension of high end quality to the final images.  

If you’re just getting started in film photography, I think the most trustworthy place to buy used camera gear is KEH Camera.  If you have any thoughts or experience on shooting film at night, I’d love to hear how it went.  If you haven’t tried it yet, I highly recommend you give it a try.  Everything just looks so different when the sun goes down.

Summer Through The Lens Of A Monochrome Single Use Camera

Ah the lowly single use camera.  If you’re under 25, there’s a good chance you’ve never even picked one up.  To the rest of us, at one time or another the single use (or throw away) camera was an essential travel item for summer vacations and social gatherings.  For the uninitiated, they include 27 shots, a fixed focus plastic lens, a built in flash, and no other adjustable adjustable controls whatsoever. I worked at a photo lab for a few years, and must have seen thousands of these little cameras get developed in that time.  The underwater single use cameras were especially popular, though the results often left much to be desired in terms of image quality.

I vaguely remember being under ten years old and using one on summer vacation one year, but other than that I’d never given them much thought.  That all changed when I had to send my Zeiss Ikon ZM rangefinder out for repair for a few months, and wanted a temporary substitute that I could use for candid travel snapshots.  Enter the Ilford HP5 Single Use Camera

The biggest draw for me here is the film itself.  You’d be hard pressed to find a more classic emulsion than Ilford HP5 Plus 400.  With it’s beautiful grain structure, wide latitude (which is pretty important when you can’t control exposure on the camera), and timeless look, HP5 is about as good as it gets in black and white film photography.

Now, I normally take pictures with my favourite focal length, which is 50mm.  A 50mm lens on a 35mm camera is pretty close to the same perspective that the human eye sees.  When traveling however, it can be an advantage to use something a little wider to capture an entire scene.  The Ilford camera comes with a semi-wide angle 30mm-ish lens, similar to what your iPhone captures in terms of field of view.  In practice, I actually really appreciated the wider perspective the camera afforded me.  

I ended up buying two cameras for a weekend in Vancouver, and back home here in Victoria:

Make no mistake, single use cameras aren’t suitable for any kind of professional work, mainly due to the variety of “happy accidents” that they can produce.  It’s easy to accidentally place your finger on the lens, and weird light flares are often par for the course.  Aside from that, I do recommend playing with cameras like these on your next trip.  They’re a lot of fun, very portable, and will definitely change how you approach making images.  

If the uncertainty of a throw away camera is off putting, Ilford HP5 Plus in general is an extremely reliable film that’s also available in 35mm, 120mm medium format, and even large format 4x5 varieties.  

What about you?  What are your experiences with single use cameras or black and white film in general?

Thoughts On Film Photography

Let’s start from the top.  When I was 17 years old, I first became interested in taking pictures.  For my Christmas present in 2004, my mom let me pick out a digital camera from a local electronics store.  I knew nothing about cameras at the time, but a 4 megapixel Nikon point & shoot caught my eye.  I left the store a very happy kid and started taking photos of my friends skateboarding nearly every chance I could get.

That camera was a lot of fun honestly, but there was something seriously lacking.  I wanted to be able to control the shutter speed to freeze the action of skateboarding mid trick, and even more so I wanted to be able to blur the background of portraits and still life subjects.  The Nikon Coolpix 4100 was a fully automatic camera, meaning I’d have to look elsewhere.

I ended up connecting with a really great local photographer in Edmonton Alberta, where I grew up.  I knew his images were amazing, so I just asked him what camera he used.  He suggested the Canon EOS Elan 7n, a fantastic electronic SLR with automatic and manual modes.  After the first roll of Kodak T-Max 400, I knew I’d made the right choice.  Though I still had a ton to learn, the images were exactly as I’d hoped.  Full of depth and character (I was using the 50mm 1.8 mostly at the time), and the images just had a completely different look from the digital point & shoot images I’d been taking earlier.  I ended up shooting a lot of film that year.  From cheap drugstore films, to Fujichrome slides, to the legendary Kodak Kodachrome.  

After graduating high school, I decided I wanted to study photography in Vancouver.  The school I’d chosen was the first of it’s kind to offer a digital photography-only course in North America.  I quickly realized my trusty film SLR wasn’t going to be enough.  Just before starting school, I acquired the Canon EOS Rebel XTi digital SLR.  This camera was just like my film camera, only “better” because I could see the image immediately.  I can say for sure that I learned the fundamentals so much faster thanks to digital, as I’m pretty sure it would’ve taken me at least twice as long with film due to the lack of instant feedback from the LCD screen.  Needless to say, I stopped shooting film altogether, and sold my film camera for a fraction of what I’d bought it for.  Film was dead anyway right?

I know I’m pushing film pretty hard here, but I’m not necessarily writing digital off for good.  Full frame dslr and mirrorless cameras are wonderful to use, especially when speed is required.  Also, digital medium format cameras are slowly but surely becoming more affordable, and the autofocus is getting better with each iteration.  One of the big draw that film has for me is the large capture area.  A 6x7 negative is just gorgeous to hold in your hand and shine light through.   I’m sure digital will get there soon enough, but I’d rather enjoy this way of shooting on a large format today.

What about you?  Has your experience with film and digital cameras been similar?  

Near the end of my schooling, I started to tire of taking pictures.  Maybe it was the stress of balancing school with a busy job, but the magic was gone.  I took very few pictures in the years that followed, and when I did take pictures, I would spend hours trying to tweak them to look like film (this was a couple of years before VSCO came on the scene).  It might sound funny, but seeing the end result of the image on the back of a digital camera had a couple of negative consequences that I wasn’t aware of for quite a while.  The biggest problem was that I didn’t have the self control to not look at the images on the back of the camera as I was taking them.  I mainly shoot portraits, and when you’re not focused on engaging your subject, the resulting images can suffer.  Another issue is that I didn’t have anything to look forward to because I was already certain of every image I’d taken.  This can be a great thing in some situations, but when I shot film, waiting for the film to be developed was like being a kid opening presents on Christmas morning.  

All of this being said, I think the following quote from renowned portrait photographer Norman Jean Roy sums it up nicely:

When you shoot film, you don’t have the luxury of seeing every single image coming out. And because of that, you stay very focused. Everything [becomes] hyperreal, so when you get it, you get it another time, and another time after that just to make sure you got it. As a result, you have a much better version of, I think, the moment. That’s much more real, honest, and broken, too.

— Norman Jean Roy

Out of frustration, I eventually found my way back to film with the Canon EOS 3 (a fantastic camera by the way).  I had a lot of fun with that camera, but as I started to get more into studio portraiture, I realized 35mm film wasn’t going to cut it.  My heroes in photography all shoot or have shot at least medium format film cameras, so I figured that would be a good place to start.  A Hasselblad would’ve been really nice, but my budget didn’t quite allow for it.  I ended up getting a Mamiya RZ67 for a fair bit less than the cost of a Hassy and haven’t looked back.  

I know a lot of photographers (myself included) struggle with the dreaded Gear Acquisition Syndrome.  But shooting with a medium format camera finally satisfied my desire for ultimate image quality.  After getting my first roll developed, I gasped.  The magic was back for sure.  

Since going back to film exclusively, I’m excited to pick up a camera again, and not only that but I’m fully present when photographing people.  In turn, my images have gotten better and I actually spend less time going through my images because the bulk of the decision making has already been dealt with when I pressed the shutter button.  That’s not to say there aren’t frustrations.  I’ve loaded film incorrectly on a couple of occasions with different cameras, and that was pretty heart breaking.  I’ve also bought used cameras on eBay and realized that I was sold a lemon more than once ( I recommend KEH Camera for used cameras).

I know I’m pushing film pretty hard here, but I’m not writing digital off for good. Full frame DSLR and mirrorless cameras are wonderful to use, especially when speed is required. Also, digital medium format cameras are slowly but surely becoming more affordable, and the autofocus is getting better with each iteration. One of the big draws that film has for me is the large capture area. A 6×7 negative is just gorgeous to hold in your hand and shine light through. I’m sure digital will get there soon enough, but I’d rather enjoy this way of shooting on a large format today.