As some of you might know, I am using more and more film nowadays. From more than a year know, I have been shooting extensively with my 617 panoramic large format camera, loaded normally with the beloved fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film.
You might think that sounds strange in these digital days. In fact, I also use the Nikon D3x, which has spoiled me with some of the best performances a DSRL can offer nowadays. However, and even if in the past I made quite a bunch of panoramics by digital stitching of 35 mm vertical images, I am of the opinion that nothing can beat the beauty of the film panoramic format. There are different reasons for that, and here I am enumerating some of them:
1) I have always had the (maybe stupid) romantic idea that photography should represent one moment. Ok, what about low exposures? you may say…that is not a moment neither. You are right…but it is not the same. I like thinking that my images represent the world passing by in front of the camera, a world captured forever when I close the shutter at the end of the exposure.
2) A big advantage of the 617 film format, compared to digital stitching, is the possibility of capturing moving elements into the frame. Take clouds moving, water rushing, waves crashing against the shore, trees or a barley field swaying in the breeze, people moving, etc. The only way of capturing that is by using a single-shot panoramic camera. Use stitching and you will need to render moving elements as a total blur to enable stitching later on…But doing so, all textures will be gone.
3) What about strange position of the frame, that is to say trying to take an image which is not vertical or horizontal? You cannot really level a panoramic kit to make a neither-vertical-nor-horizontal row of images to be later on stitched together. Take the 617 camera though and you will be able to frame as you like.
4) Another advantage is the possibility of placing the graduated filters the way you want, across the landscape in every single position you need. Use stitching and you will be forced to set the grads horizontally, what does not make sense when the lightness contrast is takin place from left to right.
5) The next advantage is called Velvia. When processing my nikon dsrl files I tend no to spend too much time in front of the computer…and whatever I do I will never attain the same velvia like effect in my images. Velvia was, and still is, a gift from the heavens for nature and landscape photographers. Develop on roll and you will get incredible tonal ranges with really amazing colours. Even its reciprocity failure (its not linear behaviour in terms of sensitivity to light for long exposures) gives the images a nice magenta cast which very often gives an special touch to the image.
6) Another good point is something that reminds the speech of those die-hard large format photographers, something I really adhere to: shooting a totally manual film camera with no bells and whistles really sharpens your skills as a photographer, forces you to go slower and multiplies your rate of “keepers”. Armed with a handheld exposemeter and limited by the narrow velvia latitude of little more than 4 spots, you really need to nail the exposure. For that, you need to take readings from all over the scene, make an ingenious use of grad filters and pre-visualize exactly in your head how the final slide will appear on your lightbox. By contrast, when using the Nikon D3x I become lazy and normally use the matrix mode for exposure, set the manual mode and go, taking a look at the “blinkies” of the histogram to compensate the exposure if needed. In fact, with modern DSRL cameras, it is quicker to shoot and re-evaluate if needed than measure the light with a spot measuring device…That is nice at one point and can make you take images that would otherwise impossible to take (think wildlife or candid moments, for instance), but at the same time you really lose the control. Take a velvia loaded 617 film camera, and the control and responsibility is totally yours. Another side-effect of using film is the fact you shoot less, but better images. As there is a non-negligible cost every time you press the shutter (more or less like a cinema ticket per roll), you’d better know what you are doing when you shortlist your options…
7) Do you like Xmas? What about Xmas every week?…Well, going to the lab to collect your slides is really like Xmas. Tomorrow I will collect from the lab my Iceland slides (some 65 120 rolls)…and I am biting my nails to the bone while I wait. I still remember that sunrise over that valley a few weeks ago…did I get it right?? well…time will tell. You almost forget all the images you took, and then after some weeks there they are, glowing on your lightbox. There is nothing like a nailed slide on the lightbox, i can tell you.
8) Resolution. This is really a BIG advantage. The other day I was day-dreaming about the last digital backs which decorate the rear of medium format cameras like the Hasselblad, Phase One, Leaf and so on. Take the biggest sensor nowadays sold, with some 60 Mpix. Even if the prices have dropped quite a bit lately, you need still to spend the price of a medium car for one of those digital guys. And still, due to the format ratio and when you make some calculations, the answer is quite overwhelming: to recreate the same resolution and print size that I can get with a scanned 617 slide (using a Flextight virtual drum scanner) I would need a 355 Mpix camera!! Well…i think that by 2200 that camera might be at a decent price in the market. Which comes to the point, if you shoot panoramics and want no stitching and big prints, film is still the way to go for quite a long time in terms of resolution. When I scanned my slides on my scanner, I get Tiff 16bits files of around 1 Gb. That is huge, enabling you to print up to 2.40 m, or in fact till the grain of the film is too visible. Here below I am showing a couple of images to show the resolution aspect, with a general view of one of my last images from Seychelles and the crop at 100% of a tiny (really tiny) area of palm tree leaves of the right-bottom side of the image. That shows it all.
Now, you will say, this guy is trying to sell us something or has shares in one of the panoramic cameras manufacturers… No, in fact I will be sincere and tell you there are also serious disadvantages for this system. They are not small, and might deter quite a lot of people of using them, for logical reasons.
1) The cost. Yes, the camera is expensive. As Fuji stopped fabricating the Fuji GX617 and Fotoman its Fotoman 617 MKII (they stopped the production a few months ago), today just Linhof still manufactures their Linhof 617SIII. They make absolute technical masterpieces, but they come at a cost. You must pay more than 15 000 USD to get a camera with a couple of lenses. Then you add the film cost and the developping cost. You need also a quite powerful scanner to get the most of these slides, and that means a flextight hasselblad scanner…umm…. add some other 10’000 USD or less if you can get a second-hand one. …A lot of money, indeed…
2) WYSIMWYG….or What-you-see-is-maybe-what-you-get. Getting used to the digital world really makes using film quite a nightmare. A 617 panoramic camera is a totally manual camera, you have just 4 shots per roll, light tends to be best when you are in the middle of a roll change fidgeting with the wrapping, you never know whether you took the image with the cap on, you do not know if the exposure was ok, you might have condensation on the filters and discover it months later…Take a glorious image in Iceland and wait for a month before you know what happened…difficult to say the least.
3) 617 cameras are big, and heavy. Take them to the Alps and you might quickly need knees surgery…Add some bags full with film, and an overseas trip turns into a nightmare at customs and in the cabin of the airplane
4) The latitude of velvia is about 4 stops. Compare that with the almost 10 you get (when processing the raw file) of a digital file of the nikon D3x. That is a lot of difference…you’d better be proficient in exposing!
5) There is no throug-the-lens here. You take a look through the detachable viewfinder, and suppose parallax effect will not be too big to ruin your framing. Or, you stick back your groundglass and take your pull over your head to compose as a large format photographer does. That does take time, and in any case forces you to set the graduated filters visually more or less appreciating how far they should be from the center…Again, a lot more of experience needed!
So, what is best? As always in photography, it all depends on you, your style, your experience, your situation, your preferences…and a big word jumps onto the stage: compromise. Life is full of compromises, and that is specially true for photography. There is no free lunch, and it is up to the photographer to decide what suits him the best at a certain moment. For the time being, I am really having a big time with my two cameras, and would never trade them for anything in the world right now. But what will happen in a few years? Time will tell…In any case, what it is sure is that technology and tools might change, but photography will remain exactly the same forever. Never forget that!
I would like to end with a question for you reader…WITHOUT WANTING TO START A POLEMIC DISCUSSION, do you think film is dead?…feel free to give your opinion, i am really interested!!