Staying Slow, from Film to Digital
In The Slow Approach, we share individual perspectives on what it means to slow down, and how doing so can have a positive effect on our experiences as well as the images we capture.
October: the air is crisp and clear. Not so cold that you feel you’re underdressed in jeans and a fleece jacket. You’ve stopped on this lonely stretch of road in the eastern Sierra, the stretch of California mountains that holds the tallest peak (Mt. Whitney) in the lower 48 states. The road is flanked by golden aspen trees, shimmering in the late afternoon breeze. The aroma of the conifer trees fills the air as they elbow their way into the aspen groves, competing for the precious nutrients buried in the soil.
You observe the light, that marvelous, late afternoon side lighting that is bringing a spectacular glow to the aspens. And the aspens themselves seem to be inviting you to stay, inviting you to linger and enjoy them for a while. And you do. But first, you go and get your camera, and begin your personal creative process to capture these whispers with an image.
This describes how I approach photography: I allow myself time to listen. I don’t go into a location with a specific image in mind, or even a goal of creating one. I have walked away from more photographs than I have taken. If the light, or the subject, or the composition, or all three combined are not there for me, I will not take the photograph. This is a process that has evolved over decades of photography, capturing images with various cameras and media.
I come from a film background, and even with the advent of DSLRs, I still shoot as if I was shooting film. My evolution has crept along over 30 years, starting in my early days hand-holding a Canon F1, shooting at f5.6 or f8 to get clarity, while ensuring that camera movement or blurriness were reduced. As my evolution continued, I started to use a medium format camera, which required mounting on a tripod. The film was also more expensive to purchase and process, and there were fewer images on a roll of medium format film than there were on a roll of Kodachrome 36. So, image creation became more careful, more crafted. And the images themselves were, overall, sharper and more vibrant. But I still wasn’t satisfied. I wanted my images to be even sharper, and if printed, to retain the detail that I wished to see.
By this time I had been studying the photographic work of Ansel Adams, as well as David Muench. I truly admired Muench’s razor-sharp images, and the balanced yet dramatic color of his work. Adams’ black and white work began to inspire me to do black and white myself, and so I took the next evolutionary step and purchased a large format camera. Large format cameras use sheet film, which must be developed by hand or a lab, so the cost is somewhat prohibitive. The film sizes range from 4x5” to 11x14”, with several variants in between.
Large format photography slows you down. It requires a much more deliberate approach. That deliberation is dictated by several factors: you cannot hand-hold the camera, so it must be tripod mounted; there is no in-camera meter, so you have to use a hand-held meter to determine your exposure, and if you’re shooting black and white film using the Zone System, you also have to calculate your development time. You have various movements that you can do with the camera because the film plane and lens plane are independent of each other; and you don’t have a viewfinder, so you have to view the image on a sheet of ground glass in the back of the camera, and that image is upside-down and backwards.
I found that photographing with large format improved my images. With the image being upside-down and backwards on the ground glass, I had to pay more attention to my composition, making sure that I had at least one basic compositional element in the image. I really had to make sure that my exposure was correct: there were no HDR settings here, or the ability to automatically bracket my exposures to allow me one that I liked. Every photograph as I was taking it had to be one that I liked. And, in order to ensure that I was getting the optimum results on each image, I would follow a slow process each and every time. My process has changed little since then, even when using a DSLR.
The first thing I do is scout the area. When I was doing both medium- and large-format photography, I would use a framing card, which was constructed out of thick black mounting board with an opening in the middle that matched the film size I was using. With this framing card I could isolate images, eventually getting to a point where I could hold it a certain distance from my face and know which lens I wanted to use. I would then drop the framing card to the ground to mark the spot where I’d place my camera and go back to my vehicle and get the camera. These days, while I don’t have a framing card for my DSLR, I can visualize the composition of a scene and will use a stick or a rock to mark my spot.
The next step is to compose the photo in the camera. With large format you view the scene and compose your image with the ground glass. With my DSLR, I use the live view function, which was recommended to me by Jack Dykinga. I have even added the grid feature to my live view so that I can set up my composition as I desire, or at least with the Rule of Thirds. And finally, I use a cable release, or set up my timer so that I can minimize camera shake. Of course, all of this dictates using a tripod. Since digital allows me the freedom to shoot as much of an image as I want, I still only shoot 3-5 images, knowing that I will pick one during my processing as the final image.
What have been the results? I have been very pleased with not only the technical quality of the digital images I’ve produced while adopting a slow photography philosophy, but with the artistic quality. I feel that the images I am creating now even surpass those that I took with my large format camera. But there is something more that comes from adopting this philosophy: there is a freedom that comes from allowing yourself as an artist to become aware of where you are, and of what that place is saying to you. I have discovered over the years the advantage of going into a place without the intent to do photography. I allow myself to be influenced by what I see, smell, and hear. And it is usually in those experiences that images present themselves to you, as if they are whispering to you “hey, I’m over here.” I have found that it’s in those moments and those places that creativity flows, and inspiration awaits.