Musings on Photography

Film, part two

Posted in equipment, process, Solo Photo Book Month by Paul Butzi on May 22, 2009


Ed Richards raises some interesting points:

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 might not have needed 100 images plus backups, it’s true. The big thing, though, is that even though I’m pretty fast with the 4×5 when I’m in practice, it’s just not nearly as fast as the 5d. It’s heavier and bulkier and harder to move around. So I’d have to slow down some. Not a lot, but some. And that would slow down my ride up the learning curve. I’d probably do just as much bracketing – maybe more. It’s not just a matter of pointing the spot meter and calculating (although that would be complicated – how to you adjust for reciprocity when you’ve got brightly lit areas and nearly dark areas?)

And as for backups – what constitutes a once-in-a-lifetime opportnity? I can’t just call up the Paramount and say “Gosh, I ruined the film I exposed when I was there. I know you have a show on the stage, now, but could you please strike that expensive set so I can re-shoot?” These people who control these theatres are being very generous and supportive, but they do actually run a working theatre. The windows when I can get in there and photograph are narrow, and the patience of the people letting me in there is finite, and I *really* don’t want to get a bad reputation that will make it hard to get into other venues. I want a good reputation that opens doors for me.

So far I’ve worked on 23 images from that session. Let’s figure that I would have exposed two sheets for each of those ‘keepers’, plus two for similarly sized host of ‘also rans’. Some would be heavily bracketed, some not. So either I’m really fast with the 4×5 and burn film with abandon, or else I’m coming away with half as many images.

Coming away with 10 images when I could have come away with 25 seems a poor compromise. And it’s definitely not an improvement, no matter how you cut it. And I’d argue that the whole point of deciding between two technologies is ‘getting the photographs you want’. I mean, that’s the original reason we’re having this discussion – the proposal that this focus on technology (e.g. using a laptop to get rapid feedback) was getting in the way of getting the photos. Right?

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.

Ok. You don’t find there’s an advantage to digital over 4×5 once the camera is on a tripod.

I see the following disadvantages:

  • It’s going to be really hard to focus this really short lens (figure a 75mm lens, which I don’t actually own) in near darkness. And depth of field is going to be an issue, going from 35mm to 4×5. I was working with a 24mm lens at f/8 and f/11. That means I’ll be right up against the limit with a 75mm lens, working two stops down at least from the 5d. I’d be working at f/16, f/22. My exposures just got, not just a factor of four longer (now they’re up at the two minute mark) but more like 8-10 times longer – round it off and call it 5 minutes. That’s ten minutes per setup, just to expose two sheets of film. Ten minutes, that is, instead of 30 seconds.
  • Composing is going to be exciting. The ground glass on a 4×5 with a 75mm lens is pretty dim, even with a fresnel. And the existing lighting in these spaces is pretty low. It’s hard to see what I’ve got with the fairly bright finder on the 5d, so the 4×5 GG will be useless. Now, with the 5d, I can make an exposure and check the composition on the spot. And with the 4×5, not so much, unless I’m burning up expensive polaroids.
  • Some of these photos were made with the camera in awkward positions. Ever made a photo with a 4×5 looking straight up? How about with the camera cantilevered out over a balcony railing? How about with the camera backed up hard against a wall?

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?

Yeah. Not having movements would be a hassle. I’ve been using the 24mm TS-E extensively. I suspect the 45mm TS-E and the 90mm TS-E might be in my future.

10 Responses

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  1. Gordon McGregor said, on May 22, 2009 at 1:07 pm

    You could always learn to paint en plein air too and do it that way.

  2. Tom Aellis said, on May 22, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    Well, I first have to say that both your Film part one and two were very well written. It unusual that I get to enjoy such a command and words. Well done.

    Next, your images, your art, are wonderful. I’ve been watching for quite a while. You have command of your tool as well. That leads me to my reply….

    I no doubt was a bit short and unclear with my comment on your first post about “how you could do this better”.

    I think it may be a pretty safe assumption that not many of us, although some, shoot at the level that you do, that have such a command of the basics of photography and it’s most basic fundemantals. Your subject of the post was, if I can remember correctly, something along the line of “how could you have done this better” and you spoke with relation to 0’s and 1’s.

    I think that you would agree that the last thing anyone cares about is a digital vs. Film debate. Bottom line is “who cares”. It’s a tool. It can be a tool if you are a professional that looks forward to delivering the art to a client or a professional that shoots for a great number of reasons. (I include “professional” as one that is professional in his or her art, not income)

    However, how many photography “masters” and “instructors” and “PS guru’s” have we seen over the last few years? Think about that just for a quick moment. There are so many that have never studied nor work and applied the fundementals of lighting et. al. to their own work to at the very least, make better art for themselves however subjective that may be.

    Photoshop seems to be the answer to so many. I am again, not saying that this is where you were going, it was not, but a great many of your replies have to do with the 0’s and 1’s it seemed, well, a bit sad.

    Now, I do think your post on “film” was a bit off. I’ve just begun with a 4×5 but I’ve been shooting Med format for ages and the same is true for 35mm, when using silver it allows me the freedom to think, to study, to use my minds eye much, much more. It suggests that I better study my subject surrounds way before I show up as I cannot afford to waste the precious resource that as you have well pointed out costs a bit.

    Also, I would suggest that many of your readers to do not shoot as many images while on location as they do not have the “pressure” of coming up with a higher percentage to insure that there is more to pick from to deliver to their client. They may indeed just wish to make better art for themselves.

    That being said, I really do feel that the best way to have captured this shoot would have been using a film camera. Again, not wanting to get anywhere near a flame war on d v. f, to “ME” (that’s important, the “TO ME” part) there is not a digital image that can compare to a Med format frame developed correctly. The depth is just so amazing. TO ME, digital looks quite a bit flat. Again, that being said, I perfectly understand the need for digital as to stay competitive in this enviroment. I would not shoot film if it meant an income on a specific project.

    I will state this in closing, Film photography has now become a “fad” but I think it’s for good reason. First for the most of us, that do not rely on the income, it is indeed, much less expensive. Secondly, a great many are beginning to see “through” the “so-called” experts and photographers. Frankly, I like to call them, in my tiny little mind, wonderful graphic artists. I don’t think there’s a thing wrong with that. But it seems to be an insult.

  3. Bryan Willman said, on May 22, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    I find this whole conversation mystifying. There are always learning curves going on – about the technology, about the subject, about one self. Given the *current* state of film and digital, that is now entirely an argument of preference for all the but most esoteric circumstances (which this is not.)
    And I wonder why people even talk about it anymore, outside of those very special realms.
    It’s your gig, unless some customer demands some particular thing, do your gig your way.

    What I really want to know is – how different would these places look with sets ready, but waiting silently?

  4. Paul Butzi said, on May 22, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    What I really want to know is – how different would these places look with sets ready, but waiting silently?

    They’d look quite a bit different, depending on the set. I saw Thom Paine (based on nothing) performed on a stage that was deliberately cleared of everything. I’ve seen shows where the set consisted of three chairs, a table, and a door set in a free standing doorframe. I’ve seen sets with swimming pools filled with water. I’ve seen sets that had so much impact that when the curtain rose, the audience broke into spontaneous applause, for just the set. Every set is different and makes the theatre have a different feel.

    I would LOVE to photograph a lot of theaters without audiences, but with sets. It would take incredible amounts of work, though, to clear all the hurdles and secure permission from all the artists who have IP rights to what’s on the stage. Set designer, director, scene shop carpenters and painters. Lighting designer. The list is likely to go on and on. Too much hurdle for me, right now. Maybe later, when I can use THIS project as a ice-breaker for that conversation with the artists involved.

  5. Ken Hagler said, on May 22, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    It seems to me that this is not really a question of film or digital, but rather of 4×5 or 35mm. If I were shooting the same subject, I’d use a 35mm SLR for it too, and I don’t have a digital camera. (But then, if I had lots of time to work in, I might bring along my 4×5 gear also, to use after I’d got the shots on 35mm. 😉

  6. Chris Klug said, on May 22, 2009 at 9:58 pm

    Just want to chime in that for me, being a former theatrical lighting designer, this SoFoBoMo project is just astoundingly wonderful and beautiful and I’m glad you got yourself the new 5D. Although I love film, your b&w conversions are wonderful. Keep going!

  7. Peter De Smidt said, on May 23, 2009 at 9:01 am

    Like Paul, when I shoot digital, I can do so much quicker than with 4×5. Digital gives me more time to experiment and investigate the location. That said, I still shoot with a 4×5 some of the time. It’s fun, and for some subjects it has qualities that can’t be beat. People should use what they like best or feel like using and not worry about what others are doing.

    A big downside to 4×5 is the cost of film and processing. Recently, I’ve started to shoot a fair amount of E6 4×5, and I really have to think about whether a shot is worth it before I click the shutter.

    Here are some points that can help with LF photography.
    1. Use a viewing frame. I have one made out of model aircraft plywood that has a 4×5″ hole. There’s a string with knots in it that represent the hyperfocal distance of my lenses at f22. If I hold one of the knots to my face and look through the finder, that gives me a pretty good indication of what the relevant lens would look like. Being able to quickly evaluate different compositions like this mitigates digital’s speed advantage a little bit.

    2. Figure out how to set your camera so it’s focused on the hyperfocals distances of your lens at various f-stops. This’ll allow you to focus pretty quickly.

    3. For dim areas, put a small flashlight in the shot to help focus or use a laser pointer.

    4. When photographing in dim interiors, use film with a low reciprocity failure. Fuji Acros black and white film and Kodak’s e100G color slide film don’t need added exposure up 2 minutes.

  8. Alex Brikoff said, on May 23, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    Paul, this sounds like a TERRIFIC project that you’ve started! The first images that you’ve put up here in your blog look great and I’d love to see more. This also sounds like a very ambitious project that will result in a great artistic documentary of theatres in this area. Have you thought about photographing either Benaroya Hall or McCaw Hall? Or, are you going to limit yourself to dramatic venues? Good luck with the project!!

  9. Ed Richards said, on May 24, 2009 at 2:02 pm


    If you were using a 24mm, I would be using my 90mm F4.5. Not a joy to focus in the dark, but I carry a small high intensity LED light I use to help focus. I would probably bracket as well with difficult lighting, but I do tend to just let the highlights go, pulling the development a bit. Black and white film, esp. TMY2, is more forgiving than digital, unless you want to do HDR. (Which usually looks terrible, but might help with your project.)

    Exposures get long and that is a hassle, but less of a hassle when you shot fewer sheets. I have done overhead, and I hate it, and it is hard to do well.

    I have not used the TS lenses with digital, in fact the last time was 30 years with the ancient canon 35mm TS and film. (Not great.) I expect I would shift more work to digital if I added a TS lens, but as you note, it needs a bigger screen to really see what you are doing.

  10. Paul Butzi said, on May 24, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    a 24mm lens for 24×36 used horizontally would be the equivalent of an 80mm lens used on 4×5. So a 90 wouldn’t be quite wide enough. And 80 or a 75 would be fine, but I own neither. That’s problem one.

    Putting a light into the frame is a good trick but slows things down

    We can go around and around, debating the individual points. None of this argumentation will change the bottom line answer:

    Because I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, I need fast feedback, so that I have half a chance of figuring it out right there on the spot, while I still have the opportunity to change what I’m doing.

    Absent shooting crate loads of polaroid, there is no non-digital way of getting that instant feedback.

    With a digital workflow, I can get feedback that is more or less instantaneous and is thus useful to guide me as I learn, WHILE I AM STILL ON THE SITE.

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