Musings on Photography


Posted in equipment, large format, process, technique, traditional materials by Paul Butzi on May 20, 2009


Every little while, someone suggests to me that the way for me to move my photography forward is to ‘go film’. This is often accompanied by a suggestion for a specific film or film/developer combo.

Since Tom was kind enough to make this suggestion in the comments, I’ll respond here, and perhaps set a few other minds at rest also.

But first, a bit on my past experience with film. I’ve used film. Actually, I’ve used film over several decades. I have dozens of binders filled with plastic negative sleeve pages, and those dozens of binders hold thousands of 35mm negatives. I used to buy 35mm TMY in 50 roll pro-packs.

And it doesn’t stop there. I’ve exposed thousands of sheets of 4×5 film.

I’ve printed those negatives, too, in a darkroom, on gelatin silver paper, both graded and variable contrast. I’ve spent many, many contented hours in a darkroom, both processing film and printing. I’ve even done color printing in a darkroom, both from color negatives and from transparencies. I’ve had articles on printing on variable contrast paper published in a major photo magazine. I’ve done a lot of work fine tuning a hybrid large format film/scanning/digital printing workflow.

I’m not saying this to brag. I’m saying it to drive home the idea that, to me, film is a known thing. I have been there, done that, and it does not hold much mystery for me. I know it all, well enough to know that it’s not some magic thing that will somehow transform my photography or accelerate my photographic advancement.

Tom writes:

Here is everyone worried and talking about the technology of how they may have arrived at better art. Guys and gals, may I simply suggest one lil’ thingie, please, sometimes, grab for your passion, the photograph.

That’s pretty much what I do – go for the photograph. I’m not particularly invested in technology for technology’s sake. I’m invested in technology to get results. More on this anon…

How could you have taken this better? With a laptop? Maybe a large format digital back, i.e., Phase One 65 gigatons?


Maybe a 35mm Film camera with some 1600 speed film, get in the dark room and THINK. Maybe a small investment in a Crown Graphic 4×5 Large format with some film holders? (ya, they still make the 4×5 film)

Actually, that was my point – having a laptop there would let me get more or less instant, constant feedback on what I was getting. And my view is that that feedback would have let me run up the learning curve faster, with less heartbreak, and better results. As for 1600 speed film – I’ve exposed hundreds of rolls, thousands of frames. I know what tricks it can do, what tricks it can’t, what it’s good for, and when I want to use it. This particular project is not well suited to ANY of the available 1600 speed films.

I’ve been there, done the large format thing (for quite a few years, the only camera I used was a Linhof Technikardan 45s), and if there’s something to which I would NOT look forward, it would be doing this project with a 4×5. To get the tonality I want, I’d be using a relatively slow film – probably Acros, assuming you can still get it in 4×5.

Yesterday, I made nearly 100 exposures, many of which were on the order of 30 seconds or so. Reciprocity departure would push those out into the minute range. I’d be struggling for depth of field in those photographs where I wanted it. Focusing in low light would be a serious trick, even using a laser pointer.

On top of that, doing it in 4×5 would mean either a BIG pile of film holders, or else a serious raftload of quickloads/readyloads. When working in 4×5, I generally make a backup exposure, so for yesterday’s session I would have needed about 200 sheets of film. That works out to 100 film holders (I actually own about 25 regular holders, and enough grafmatics that I could load up about 120 sheets). Or, if I decided to go with packetized film, it would work out to just 200 sheets, and the readyload holder. Badger Graphic Sales lists Acros 100 in quickloads for $2.80 per sheet. So yesterday’s photography would have burned 200 sheets at $2.80 a pop, or about $540 just for film. Either that, or a lot of time spent loading film holders, and about $400 in loose sheet film.

200 sheets of film works out to 20 runs on my Jobo. Each run takes about .5 hour (I have three drums, so I can let one drum dry while I process in one drum and load the third). So that’s ten hours just to process the film. And then I have to scan it, at least the the stuff I want to print. Oh, and don’t forget the cost of the developer, stop, fix, clearing agent. All told, call it another buck a sheet. Or I can have the film run at a lab – call that $5 per sheet. So now my costs are up to something between $600 and $1540, just for film and processing.


Let go, forgot the technologies just for a moment, I’ll beg you this one time. Try and then learn by studying your negs, your prints… Trust me on this one little point, try it, return to digital, and watch your craft in art go up about, oh, 1000 pct…..

There is no ‘forgetting the technologies just for a moment’. There’s just picking a technology that’s available based on your needs. I understand both film and digital – at least to a degree where I can make informed decisions about what technology to employ in a given situation, and make informed judgements about the tradeoffs involved.

I think film is great. I think there’s a place in the photo world for film. But I also think, based on my experience with both film and digital, that there is no such thing as a silver bullet technology. If you’re a photographer, your art can advance using film. It can also advance using digital. Or, as many photographers are finding, by blending digital and film.

Choosing between a film based workflow or a digital workflow involves a lot of tradeoffs – cost, time, space, quality, equipment properties. The choice determines a lot of things, and switching from one to the other changes a lot of things. That change might well jog you loose if you’re stuck. But if you’ve got experience with both, I don’t think changing, and then changing back is going to do much except waste time and money.

5 Responses

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  1. CJ said, on May 21, 2009 at 12:23 am

    Everybody: I think we should club together and buy Paul some film. It’s what he wants really. Clearly it is.

  2. Paul Butzi said, on May 21, 2009 at 6:51 am

    Everybody: I think we should club together and buy Paul some film. It’s what he wants really.

    See? Now that’s what friends are for. They look past the straightforward meaning of words and suss out what you really think and feel.

    By the way, folks, don’t let Colin fool you with all this blathering about small digicams that fit in your pocket. We should break into Colin’s home and sell off all his little cameras, and put the money toward a 20″x24″ polaroid camera.

    It’s what he really wants. I saw him searching Ebay for “20×24” on his iPhone. He wants a big, slow to use camera, and a golden retriever named “Ilford”.


  3. Jeff Kohn said, on May 21, 2009 at 7:07 am

    I agree with Paul’s conclusions. Going ‘retro’ and using film, or old-fashioned manual cameras, is no more of a silver bullet for taking better or more creative pictures than the latest tech gadget. For people who aren’t comfortable with digital technology maybe it can ‘get in the way’ of taking pictures, but for those who have embraced digital it can be a huge productivity boost and can also open up new creative opportunities.

  4. Ed Richards said, on May 21, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    I am not sure the comparison is fair – if you were working with 4×5, would you have needed 100 images plus backups? Would you have needed the backups at all – how many sheets have you actually ruined in processing? I can certainly see the backups in once in a lifetime shots, but when backups get in the way of shooting, it seems a waste. You certainly would not be processing those backups. You also understand metering, so you are not going to be bracketing much. So maybe you shoot 40 sheets and get 10 good shots. Not as much as with the digital, but not quite such a production as 200 sheets.

    I still use 4×5 and digital, and I do not find the 4×5 such a burden. OTOH, I have quit shooting anything with 4×5 that I can shoot as well with digital – no hair shirt mentality. Once I am on the tripod, the advantage of digital begins to dimish for me.

    There is only area where I wonder if it would have changed what you are doing in the theater shots – movements. I would be using a lot of movements, both for traditional perspective and for creative uses. Do you use TS lenses with digital or do you not miss the movements?

  5. Bronislaus Janulis said, on May 21, 2009 at 2:27 pm


    Just wanted to say that I really like the two photos in this post.


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