Every year I find myself heading off to Kodak's head quarters in Rochester New York for their prolab conference. It is a swell affair that fuels me with ideas. I always visit other labs on the trip, and invariably enjoy a wander with the camera. This last trip I felt like bringing my Mamiya7 120 film camera. I love how it feels in the hand, I love the aperture priority, the rangefinder focus and the big negatives it produces.
I am not a film nut. I use a Nikon d700 most of the time and I often travel with a Lumix LX3. But this trip I wanted to see New York differently.
The film I chose was Kodak Portra 400. I broke down the pro packs of 5 rolls into singles so the airport security theatre could inspect without X-ray. And this was to be my first and last surprise: At every security checkpoint, the guards were happy to feel the rolls, and do an explosives test. No questions asked. All I had to say was "this is high speed film, can you please hand inspect". Bingo.
So what was the downside of shooting film? As you would expect flexible ISO was the thing I missed most, although it only caught me out once when I wanted to make the ubiquitous subway photos. In the evening I left the camera behind. I could have opted for higher speed film, but that was not part of my plan.
Managing large rolls of 10 exposures was a bit fiddly, but I shot a lot less and a lot more deliberately. In total I shot about 11 rolls, or about 107 frames. There were few repeats, and few mistakes. Changing the film on the fly is an exercise in dexterity, but years of experience using a Mamiya Press on the racetrack came flooding back and I never missed an opportunity. The camera did not attract attention, and it's near silent "plink" sounding shutter was never noticed. A few saw me winding on, as that lever makes quite a sweep when advancing 7cm of film. The Mamiya7 hangs well from your shoulder and nestles behind your arm, it is light enough to not impede progress in a crowd, and quick to draw up as the strap comes from the right grip, so you find it easily.
I slipped back into the habit of prefocusing, where you judge the distance to subject as you draw the camera up and move the focus to suit and in the same action, checking the aperture suits. For me it was either wide open or f8. All that was left to do was compose and squeeze off a shot. No waiting for AF to hunt, no checking the LCD for the results, no options to tempt.
Actually the option I did struggle with was I kept switching it off for fear of killing the battery. Which is really dopey because it takes months to flatten the battery in the Mamiya. I must learn to leave it on. But years of cautious digital use is hard to shed. What about the results?
I don't think I'm the most objective fellow, I have spend most of my life shooting film. I've pretended to be Ansel Adams lugging my 5x4 kit through the bush and Henri Cartier-Bresson with an Leica M4P in Las Vegas. So perhaps when I say I loved the experience of working with film again I'd been on a sentimental journey... I do like the way colour neg falls off to shadow and pointing it into the sun produces a look that digital struggles with. The physics of medium format gives the images a 'big' feeling, depth of field is shallower, lens boca is more effective. That 80mm standard lens (the only lens I have for it) is gold. It is a grand look.
And there is so much room to move inside the frame, so much resolution. In our experience, 35mm film through an average camera can be scanned to 25 megapixels, and there is room for six 35mm frames in one 6x7! So a big print is like looking through a window. Will I do it again: yes, why not? It is a possible choice, at least in the near future. Will I shoot digital: hell yes, it is fun, fast, flexible. What is my ideal camera: if LeicaM gets a sensor as good as the D800, I'd sell one of my kids.
If you want to see more from my trip, follow this link to Flickr.
PS - Different story but, I worked with Simone Hanckel on our fantastic new sample images we have been using this year, and I shot both D700 and the Mamiya7 with Portra400. Simone's work was astounding as usual, my D700 shots were ok, but I spent the better part of a day working them to get the look and feel I was after...
But the 120 film shots were perfect, I gave the film to John Clarke in our C41 department, he processed and passed to our film scanning department and Karen Tilbrook did here usual great work, and bingo the look and feel was precisely what I had wanted. Not only did I shoot fewer photos, but the result was easier and as good if not better.
Was that me wanting a film look from my photographs, or is it still awesome...?