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Tuesday, 19 June 2018


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Can blogs have 'like' buttons? this is great!

I got started in photography in high school with a 4x5 Speed Graphic. The Leica came much later.

Instead of using film, which slows down the feedback loop that is so important to learning anything, why not have a digital camera converted to monochrome-only operation instead?

There are now several companies offering this service and at least one of them does so for (what strikes me as) a reasonably modest price; i.e., a lot less than what a years's worth of film / developing / scanning or printing is likely to cost.

This will not only address your reason(s) for advocating the use of film, but also provide the photographer with immediate feedback, which is far more effective than providing feedback a few hours or days later.

About a thousand years ago, in my first year as a teacher at a new school, I was asked to teach a grade 9 photography class. The thirty students were there mostly because they didn't want to take any of the other electives and because they wanted to wander the halls of the school, poking their heads into classrooms with the camera as an excuse. I had no budget, three cameras and three enlargers for the whole class. It was a battle to keep the students involved, busy and under control.
To teach darkroom basics we first made photograms, and to get them to understand how cameras work, we made pinhole cameras. But then what? A view camera would have been fantastic, but it wasn't even an option. I wangled a sturdy refrigerator box from a local store and turned it into a giant pinhole camera. On a sunny day my four most unruly students carried it out to a hill near the school and one by one, the students walked into the giant camera and saw the image of the school and the trees projected onto the back surface. It was fun, physical, and they learned something that day.

Yes, watching that first print develop is transformative magic.

That's why I still shoot B&W film, even if you don't get to watch, there's something so wonderful about the process of developing film. It makes me so happy. Even though I know I then have to scan it.

Plus, there's no digital process like Kodak 2475 Recording Film (grain!). (Well, maybe there's some software that can simulate that grain, but I'm not in a rush to find it.)

And last but not least, it'll teach you to take the lens cap off before shooting. In a great BBC documentary about Brian Duffy - "The Man Who Shot The Sixties", he recalls substituting for Irving Penn at a portrait shoot of a famous German conductor Otto Van Klemperer, where he forgot to take the cap off, cause he was used to SLR's and never shot Leica before. So there's that. Or just shoot Hasselblad. Snobbery factor should be about the same, and at the very least you won't end up with a whole roll of black frames.

Also recommended, photographing with one focal length for one year- eventually covering those lenses you would most consider using. It goes miles in helping you understand how each particular focal length sees and interprets various scenes and subject matter. Not only does it help you in effectively selecting what tool is best suited for the job- it also helps one crop in camera, when it most counts, without the loss of any valuable film or sensor real estate.

I didn't chime in to respond to your original question, but as one
who has used film from the 1960's right up to the present I agree with your analysis. Compositionally, nothing compares to seeing the world through a view camera. I find use of the rise and fall movements so beneficial...you can set the horizon line exactly where you want it to be. And the shift...moving the subject ever so much to the right and or left without having to change the camera position so the composition is "just right". And of course perspective control....no converging verticals in those architectural shots. And the process..closing the shutter, stopping down the lens, inserting the film holder, removing the dark slide and then making sure everything is just so...then triggering the shutter.
You feel more involved...you feel more invested with what your are doing. Instead of snap, snap, snap, snap....mindless shooting...or to be kinder "intuitive" behavior, you slow down and really think about what you are doing. Obviously subject matter is limited compared to more portable equipment. But once you start shooting with a view camera you establish work habits that will
make you a better photographer. I do shoot digital and I love the
instant feedback and the versatility of the medium. But every so often I have to get back to the View Camera and enjoy the tranquility it offers.

As an addendum..it is true...seeing your first print coming up in
the developer is magic. Something everyone should have the
opportunity to experience.

I really do understand your logic and sentiments, Mike. You understandably believe that becoming familiar with photography's most fundamental technologies - ISO, lens focal lengths, lens apertures, et.al.- will better-enable "students" to enjoy photography and to develop skills for future professional or avocational use. Maybe.

But if the "students" you have in mind are truly of the sub-20 year old age I have my doubts. Every indication I see is that photography's "fundamentals" are in the process of changing in ways that will nearly obliterate the usefulness of those lessons. The days of the single-lens camera, for example, are drawing to a close faster than may be evident. The degree of digital mediation in even the most straight-forward photography will make today's version of digital photography quaint. The technologies are very nearly ready. The money is ready and already being invested, primarily in surveillance applications.

By 2035-2050 a Sony A7R3 or Nikon D850 will seem like Toyo view cameras to young and practicing photographers. But I'll bet that there will still be folks making images with film of some kind!

Oddly enough, the day you posted "Leica as Teacher" was the day my inherited Leica IIIc came back from repair and cleaning. Today was the first day I've ever used a film camera, Tri-X. I was not trying to be artistic, just photographing where I was. I've not see the results yet.

With the Leica the last steps are focus and shoot. With my digital camera, bringing the camera to my eye was the first step and then I adjust my settings. Preparing for an exposure with a digital camera feels slower.

I had to consult my exposure table to determine my settings then set the camera rather than adjusting the settings with buttons and seeing what the results might be in real time. It caused me to think about my exposure before bringing the camera to my eye.

My old eyes are blurry on a good day, trying to determine if I was in focus through the rangerfinder was near impossible. It was frustrating for the first 5 exposures then I let it go. Focus as best I can then concentrate on the composition.

When learning to use a film camera, keep a record of each frame's settings. There ain't no metadata with film.

After you press the exposure button, immediately wind the camera to the next frame.

The camera I happen to have does not matter too much when I am having so much fun with photography.

Mike, is this is some kind of revenge for when some old timer, back in the day, made you do some wet plate?

I don't know if this is true, but Cartier-Bresson is thought to have said, your first 10,000 photos are your worst, implying that you need to shoot about 10,000 frames to justice to the mythical "Leica as a Teacher" type of experience. To commercially develop a roll of film, with no proof or scan, it takes about $12 per roll of 36 exposures. That comes to over $3,200 total in processing charges for 277 rolls of film. Add to that the cost of a simple rangefinder camera in the used market (~$200-600 with a single lens on it). Add to that the cost of 277 rolls of film on ebay (about $1,600), and a used negative scanner for about $200. The total cost would be over $5,000. On the other hand, you can get a new Leica Q (full-frame with a fixed 28mm lens) for $4,250. You can keep it beyond your first 10,000 frames with no additional cost.

I think the fact that you compose with a view camera under a dark cloth while looking at an image that is upside down, backwards and with very limited depth of focus presents a teachable moment.
This encourages looking past subject matter to composition and tonal relationships. It is also good for your soul to go under a dark cloth from time to time and just lose yourself for a while.
Maybe the camera manufacturers could add a "view camera" setting for live view that replicates this way of seeing. Nice way to clear your head if you get stumped.

I got serious about photography in the early 1970's and did it professionally for several years, so obviously started with film. Today I'm 100% digital and don't miss the darkroom at all. I'm not really sure using film is the thing that teaches us something though (other than how to use film). I believe what creates the learning experience is taking away automatic exposure and zoom lenses. I find two things lacking in the people I tutor; they don't understand the usefulness of the various exposure settings and they don't have a mental image of the field of view of various focal lengths. In the 70's I used all prime lenses and I know what a particular focal length is going to look like. People using zooms never build that mental catalog of focal lengths.

All of those things that Mike suggests are fundamental to photography but are much more quickly learned with the digital camera. Relative brightness and darkness, color balance, focus, depth of field can all be appreciated in an instant by looking at the LCD and the histogram. The shortness of the learning loop is critical. The lag between firing the shutter and looking at the film or a contact sheet or a test print is remote compared to the instant of review while the desire of the image is still fresh in the mind.

It has been suggested that there is no need to use film to learn these things. The idea that black and white is somehow essential is a mistaken notion. That is, it is simply a particular slice of limitations that we learn to manage. Filtration affecting the appearance of certain colors? All much more easily done and more accurately done in a digital camera.

In some sense using film is like a clever trick like doing photography with one hand tied behind your back. I am reminded of assisting a photographer many years ago and loading infinite numbers of 120 and the Hasselblad backs. Late at night as things got boring we would practice loading A-12 backs behind our back with our eyes closed. Yes, there were things to learn by doing that: the fundamental position of the rollers, getting it under the lip, inserting the film into the holder, making sure the slide was in the right way. You had to be mindful of those things. But all it taught you was had allowed in A-12 back in the dark behind your back.

One of the most prominent elements I hear in these dozens of contributions is the value of the view camera. I get the view camera; there is nothing better for demonstrating the principles of focus or bellows extension. But after that, there's the mechanics of loading film Holders (see A-12 above) and the processing and drying and then plopping around in the dark room… Just shoot me now.

So, sketching around with the Leica and Tri-X? I can feel the experience in my minds eye having done that. However, I get the identical spirit with my Fuji X 100 with the much greater advantage of working the image, framing, exposure, color on my feet.

Just loaded my m4 with some Acros, been a while. I Still have a wet darkroom at my disposal. I was 11 when I saw my first print come up, I recently calculated I have about 40,000 hours in darkroom time over the last 40 years. Mike's approach to learning is certainly valid, I know it's helped my image making. guess I need to get out my Sinar soon.

I have my Lumix LX100 viewfinder set to display monochrome. Does that count? (Mainly, I'm trying to avoid getting distracted by colors.)

As many have offered, there is nothing like the experience of seeing a printed image slowly materialize in the developing tray. If the bug is gonna bite, that'll do it. My first encounter was at a USAF site on the Pinetree Line in coastal Labrador that had its own fully equipped darkroom. I had no negs of my own, just printed whatever others left lying around.

I don't disagree with any of this, but I'm curious: would you use Polaroid to provide quicker feedback between "click" and "print"? At least for the introductory sessions??

My own evolution was tediously slow because I had confused two separate endeavors. I wanted to be a photographer. I am an engineer and as such, I can respect and enjoy the engineering a fine camera. So I bounced between Minox and Crown Graphic, willy-nilly. The Minox is a true jewel of fine precision engineering. The Graphic is a marvelously pragmatic design -- brute force engineering at its best. It wasn't until I realized that photography and camera collecting are two different, only slightly related, endeavors that I could admire the interesting cameras on the bookshelf and use less interesting cameras that matched my personal style. I'm not sure how widespread the confusion between the gadgetry and the photography is, but I'm probably not unique.

Really? You pick Leica? One of the most expensive cameras on the planet to be the one you start with?

I know that all these millennials are supposed to be rich, but Leica? Why not send them to a pawn shop and get a manual SLR or manual anything as opposed to a $4K camera to learn on. Sheesh, don't you remember how much time it took for you to get the money together to learn?

Remember HBC was the son of a very rich man or are you saying that only privileged people should be using film.




I wonder how many of your current crop of readers have never used film? Always digital?

That noted I learned more from using a beat-up however still light tight Horseman 8x10 view camera.

Learned how to do the swings and tilts to avoid that annoying overhead light hanging in the middle of the wanted image, by moving, adjusting and playing with the swings and tilts.. The 4x5 back on the 8x10 view camera allowed many things to be done.

What I really do miss is the ability to place the Polaroid film holder on the back, under the glass and take an exposure, just to make sure everything looked good. Polaroid then was somewhat less in price than sheet colour film, so a B&W Polaroid image would let you know
if everything was just right.

One job which really proved what a field camera could do was the interior of an old Orthodox church out in the "then" country. Magnificent inside, it had ceiling lamps hanging down inside, all candle powered and the congregation wanted the photo of the interior with the candles burning. Get the tall tripod, mount the camera on top, climb the high step ladder with black cloth in hand and start working,
without the illuminated candles. Did six Polaroid shots and the priest in charge wanted to look at each, and make comments. The candles were lit. with a long taper, the colour film was inserted. the exposure was done twice, different exposure times and the lights were snuffed. Did one quick photo with candles freshly snuffed and a trail of smoke above each. Eerie!.
My mentor at the time supervised me and he used a small lab that processed sheet film and did the printing.
This was 45 years ago; Today the church is gone the whole area swallowed by an enormous housing development. Sad, in a way.

If a student of photography is truly interested in a deeper understanding of Photography in practice, process and history, it is hard to imagine a more helpful primer than actually seeing a lens draw an image on a ground glass or a picture emerge from a white sheet of paper. The investment of a year learning to control a mechanical device and a photochemical process, makes it richer still.
As you have already said , most people will not have that level of desire, but for those who do, it is an unforgettable experience.
It is not a 'necessary' experience, just a helpful and wonderful one if you are one of those who care to dig deeper.

Amusingly, I read this after ordering 2000ml of a new Mono-bath developer - which I know is not going to be the panacea it claims, but I have hopes that it might make developing a workable negative for my Scouts a reality.

If you are an artist that uses cameras, I'm sure there a compelling case for film unless that's what you want to work with, but at this point, I do think there's something to the physicality of film and development that's of import to folks who consider themselves photographers. Film as hazing ritual, I guess:) But the craft matters, and informs the art.

I make things out of wood using a computer controlled mill, a hobbyist contraption that allows me to use my Illustrator and vector art skills and apply it to the physical world. But I now also have a traditional router table, chisels, hand tools, that I've become more proficient with - I'm not a woodworker, yet, but I understand so much more now that when just using the mill. There's some of that with film, especially view cameras and the like, in having to understand how light is shaped and recorded. You learn an eye for that, and the camera is irrelevant.

And, film bodies are fun for the photo hobbyist that is in it for the hardware - if the result you're getting is from the experience, then they are still the most satisfying way to play.

I started in this infernal/beautiful pastime in the film. One thing I haven’t seen mentioned specifically is not truly a product of film as a medium but Is a product of the process of shooting (and printing) black and white film. The opportunity cost. Digital has changed the way I shoot, there is no real added cost to shooting hundreds of pictures, just a little time culling. In the days of a closet darkroom the opportunity cost was very high. Cost of film, chemicals and most importantly time, one exposure, unseen, unknown until hours or days later cost money but more importantly time. In my mind this put a high cost on pressing the shutter button. Each exposure I considered had a real cost, I took more time learning to see, more time looking through my viewfinder. Weighing my choices before committing my choice to film. Now I think we’re much more likely to shoot, maybe move shoot some more fiddle with the settings and shoot again. Seeing something on the screen we’re mostly happy with we stop looking and move on, maybe never looking a little deeper, seeing before we press the release. I guess I’m saying that the commitment in time money and effort, just to produce even a proof from film, encourages learning to look and see in a way that the ease of digital can’t. That in my mind may be the best reason to encourage new photographers to try film.

I believe that many degree courses in the UK make the use of film compulsory in the first year. So you are not alone Mike. I still have a darkroom which is in dissaray now but I intend to ressurect it to show my grandchildren the magic that they will probably never experience again. I will never go back to film though. Why would I want to go back to something so restrictive compared to digital capture?

I spend summers in dark, Warm, smelly, unhealthy darkrooms professionally. Don't miss film photography at all, I thank man's genius of developing digital! Progress!

I recently picked up a Leica IIIf with 5cm f2.8 Elmar for under £500, which I guess is a huge bargain by Leica prices. Yeah, the viewfinder is minute, and there's that thing about trimming the leader and shoving the film in from the bottom, but that turned out to be way easier than I expected it would.

It's a fine piece of precision machinery and I can easily imagine just using that for a year.

I went back to film quite a while back and largely I liked the discipline of only having as many shots as I had rolls of film with me, which forced me to think about the shot more rather than just bang away which was my bad DSLR habit.
I develop my own film and I like the process of that too, lets me express my inner mad scientist - especially if I develop BW film in Caffenol!

I keep getting tempted to venture into large format, but not having a vehicle of my own means dragging around more stuff when I'd rather travel light!

What's the fuss about view-finder black-out? According to my understanding of the technology, it happens *after* you choose to press the button. The information you get from a range-finder after pressing the button arrives too late to change the timing, does it not?

[You get no information from a rangefinder at the moment of exposure. But you still see the subject at the moment of exposure. Not true of an optical SLR. Plus, the shutter lag of a traditional Leica is about 15 ms, and of a mechanical SLR, between 60 and 200 ms. Sports shooters actually learn(ed) to "lead" the shutter lag when shooting with SLRs. (Shutter lag on an electronic digital camera is all over the place, because it depends on how you have the camera set and what the camera has to do first (e.g., focus), and whether you already have the shutter button half-pressed, etc., etc.) --Mike]

David Aiken already answered the question for me, so I have another question that's orthogonal to this.

Given that most student photographers will end up use digital anyway, what lessons do you think are most important to help them specifically master digital images?

I'm never sure about the answer to these questions, but isn't that the point?

As a good friend likes to say, "It won't hurt, might help." He often says this about bicycle helmets. Speaking of bicycles, I'll flip the question. Should new cyclists start with a penny-farthing before riding a modern bicycle? Again, I don't know but I do think experiences inform us and point us in directions.

Might help. Won't hurt.

[Hi Charlie, Well, what do cyclists actually start on? Do they go right to an ultralight racing bike with drop handlebars without ever having ridden a bike before? What about if they're amateurs who have only ever experienced ultralight racing bikes--would there be any sense in suggesting that they try a mountain bike, and a fixie, and a steel-framed cruiser with fenders, a comfy seat, and albatross bars, just to enlarge their experience of bicycling in general? ( https://www.rivbike.com/collections/framesets/products/frame-new-atlantis ) Would they scoff and scorn at anyone who suggested they try other kinds of bikes just for fun? You can tell me; inquiring minds want to know. :-) --Mike]

[Well, what do cyclists actually start on? Do they go right to an ultralight racing bike with drop handlebars without ever having ridden a bike before? What about if they're amateurs who have only ever experienced ultralight racing bikes--would there be any sense in suggesting that they try a mountain bike, a fixie, or a steel-framed cruiser with fenders, a comfy seat, and albatross bars, just to enlarge their experience of bicycling? ( https://www.rivbike.com/collections/framesets/products/frame-new-atlantis ) Would they scoff and scorn at anyone who suggested they try other kinds of bikes just for fun? You can tell me. Inquiring minds want to know. --Mike]

I think the parallels are similar and I believe helpful to try different formats in order to know what suits. Of course the "right tool for the job" applies to both as well ,so maybe we all need 5 bikes and nine cameras!

This gets hairy now because we start talking about what it is that makes someone a Photographer or Cyclist vs merely owning a bike or having a camera. Most people start out on a children's bike which does not a cyclist make) We become cyclists and photographers by choice and some of us will try the buffet and some will just go for what seems right and roll with it.

Test riding is always good IMO.


I guess I’m saying that the commitment in time money and effort, just to produce even a proof from film, encourages learning to look and see in a way that the ease of digital can’t.

End Quote.

I have never been sympathetic to the idea that being forced to shoot less is a great way to learn.

I say that all that does is make you learn to take fewer pictures, good or bad. There was never a time when I shot film that I would not wanted to have taken *more* chances at getting a good picture of a good situation and then gotten annoyed because there was only so much film I could carry with me.

My experience is that you learn to take good pictures by taking pictures, editing them ruthlessly, and learning what works and what doesn't. The trick is not in how much you shoot, but in how much you show to other people as examples of good work.

The hard part of the photography game is putting yourself in a place where there are good pictures to be found, seeing those good pictures for what they are and then having the technical know-how to capture them when you have the opportunity. To me everything else: obsessing about camera ergonomics, the constant fussing over material choices and post-processing "workflows" and all the rest of it is secondary. The art is in the seeing and the capturing and knowing your tools well enough to do that well. Anything that makes *that* easier to learn is good.

I'm 37, have an MFA in Photography, and I've made most of my living from photography and related skills (printing, scanning, Photoshop, etc.) for my entire adult life.

I first got into photography in the early 2000s, specifically because of the new availability of affordable digital point and shoots. The speed and control permitted by digital cameras and Photoshop made photography seem accessible and appealing in a way that film photography wasn't. Digital felt to me immediate and tangible, which is strange to think about, since film is literally more so.

Around 2010, I thought I should probably try shooting film (due in no small part to the influence of this blog). I borrowed a beat up Leica M2 with a 40mm f/2, and bought some Tri-X. I spent a few hours shooting a roll, following my usual shooting routines and subject matter. It was terrible. It wasn't difficult (if anything, it was easier than shooting with a digital camera, since the device was so simple), but I felt extremely detached and uninvested in what I was doing. I never tried it again, and I never even developed the roll of film.

A couple years later, I tried shooting with a view camera. Much better. In contrast to shooting with the rangefinder, I felt very engaged with the process, and that ground glass view can't be beat. I shot with a view camera on and off for a few years.

I've quit film for the foreseeable future, mainly because it's quite a hassle, and I don't think the film itself ever made much difference in my enjoyment of the process, or the quality of the results. I disliked the Leica because of the rangefinder, and liked the view camera because of the ground glass. If there was a better local infrastructure to support film (e.g. a place other than Urban Outfitters to buy film, a place to develop and/or scan film), I might still use a view camera, but mostly I just wish for an iPad screen welded to the back of a mirrorless digital camera.

I think my phone would actually be a really ideal camera, if it didn't do so much other stuff. The last thing I want is a camera that rings and delivers text messages and notifications. I worry that cameras as dedicated devices may become endangered in my lifetime. If so, I could see myself building a darkroom.

Thought this was apropos...


I really do not like this idea, and disliked it way back when you first mentioned it.

Shoot only b/w film for a year (and with a Leica yet)? I think using a Leica and a 50mm lens makes image-making far too difficult for any first-year student. It's like saying that in learning to drive a car, you should start by learning to drive a stagecoach (and the more I think about that analogy, the better it gets). I also intensely dislike the mystique which has grown up around Leica, most of which is entirely undeserved. Old HCB as a lot to answer for.

The first thing students should do is—by all possible means—start training their eye; a process which is fundamentally important and which never ends.

I have nothing useful to add to the above. All I can say is the thing I miss most about using film is the film advance lever on my Pentax Spotmatic. The thing was a work of art. I like my current digicams, but I've lost that appreciation of a fine mechanical device.

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