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Why I shoot film: A reflection on photography (part 3).

Our post today explores the second of my four reasons for shooting filmĀ – and this one is really quite an obvious one. It’s because of the film itself.

Today’s shot is of a curious laneway that I noticed one afternoon when I zigged instead of zagged in my walk from work to the train station. I’ve started walking to a station that’s slightly further away from work, but has a more direct service. This has two benefits – first, I generally always get a seat and am spared the longer route via the City Loop. Second, I have a walk after a day at the office, which goes a long way towards better mental health. But I digress…

The thing that makes this shot relevant for today’s post is not so much where it’s taken, but rather what it’s taken with. This is a type of film that I discovered only recently (others discovered it much earlier!) called CineStill 800T. This is actually motion picture film, that an enterprising small business pre-processes and then respools onto 36 exposure rolls, enabling those of us not able to work with large rolls of film to experience the joys of this particular stock. It has a lovely tonal range, is tungsten-balanced rather than daylight-balanced so is well-suited to shooting at night in the city under artificial lights, and has a lovely fine grain structure. As part of the pre-processing, CineStill are forced to remove the anti-halation layer of film, meaning that these fascinating warm halos appear around bright light sources in the shot. This makes it an extremely interesting film to work with – when I have a roll of CineStill loaded, I find myself seeking out these little light sources as I imagine the impressionistic result and how it will shape a scene. In other words, my way of seeing and responding to the world is influenced directly by the choice of film I have loaded.

The shot I shared in yesterday’s first foray into my film journey and accompanying rationale was Ilford HP5+, which is probably my favourite black and white stock. It has a wonderful exposure latitude, meaning it’s a forgiving film to shoot with as I can generally claw back detail in the highlights. It has a rich palette of midtones, and the transition between those tones is really smooth. It does have visible grain, but I don’t find it too edgy or intrusive – it’s there in the background just adding that extra depth to the shot.

Now, I hear some of you proclaim that this is all fine and well, but there’s nothing stopping me from being able to reproduce these effects in digital, especially with the range of film emulation presets available for very little cost and very great convenience – just press a button and there’s your HP5, with none of the waiting around for processing. And that might be true – in fact it almost certainly is with HP5 in particular, although I’m yet to see a CineStill preset that comes anywhere near the actual experience of shooting with that slightly idiosyncratic film – but for me the whole fun of shooting film comes from the constraints and opportunities that each film presentsĀ before capture. That is to say, when I have HP5+ loaded in my camera, I tend to seek out images that I know will suit that stock – often scenes with strong lines (architecture is particularly well-suited), and a wide range of tones including deep shadows and strong highlights. And when I have CineStill loaded, I go out searching at night. It’s a kind of productive constraint – the limitation that fuels my creativity.

So every film presents a kind of signature in its particular balance of tones, grain, and colours. Every film is a tool of sorts, and I relish the challenge of working with each tool. Oh sure, it can be frustrating as well, such as when I load ISO100 slide film shortly before a week of rain and greyness and darkness descends. But even that poses the kind of creative challenge that I enjoy resolving. Well, either that, or it gives me a justification for owning two film bodies!

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