I have a challenge for all of you. Especially those of you that did not shoot film for any amount of time or only got serious about photography after you went digital. As soon as I present the challenge I will be willing to bet that you will either outwardly groan about it, subconsciously dismiss it as pointless, or actually fear it for what it may reveal. The challenge has no requirement for you to publicly share the results but it may still generate a significant degree of apprehension and anxiety.
First let me give you the challenge and then let me explain why I think that it may be worthwhile. For some people it could be earth shatteringly transformative - even if it utterly fails the first time. Hopefully you may even repeat the exercise on a regular basis and see where it leads you.
Let's call this exercise the contact sheet challenge. The goal of it is to shoot one contact sheet where more than half of the images actually excite you, move you, are aesthetically pleasing to you, have meaning to you. Give yourself a time limit like this weekend. Produce a contact sheet that you would actually want to share with someone. I could be really sadistic and have you emulate shooting 6x6 or worse yet 6x7 on 120 film where you get a grand total of 10 or 12 images at best. That would mean 6 or 7 would have to really excite you - make you say wow. I won't go that far. Let's simulate one 36 exposure roll of 35mm film.
Here are the additional rules, they are fairly liberal as compared to shooting an actual film contact sheet…
- No peaking, chimping, etc. You have to shoot blind. Feel free to adjust exposure away from what your computer tells you if you are not sure of what exposure would be best. Note I did not say correct.
- No deleting images even if you don't chimp them. When you trip the shutter you are committed. That image ends up on the contact sheet and you have one less exposure you can make.
- Use any ISO you want. In fact you can change it shot to shot if you must but you may want to stick with one for educational and creative purposes. If not save it for the next try. Trust me you may be surprised how creative - even by accident it is when you are stuck with the "wrong" ISO.
- Use ANY in camera setting you wish but stick with it for the whole simulated roll. Seriously - if you want to use a goofy in-camera effect go ahead but you are stuck with it for all 36 images. If you want to use make-eyes-bleed contrast and saturation settings have at it. Black and white - same deal. Yea I know I said I was going to be liberal but the contact sheet should at least look like it came from the same media…
- No post processing adjustments. None. Zip. Nada. You made the choices you made now stick with them.
- Make a contact sheet(s) from your out of camera JPEGs. Here I will give you some leeway. You can make the images up to 6cm x 4.5cm. That would be like having contacts from medium format but having 35mm image count. That's pretty generous.
- Actually print the contact sheet(s). Nope your images will not have any additional wow factor due to your insanely bright LCD or it's 1000:1 contrast ratio. The harsh reality of reflected light prints of small images. If you really must you can add simulated film-roll borders to distract you from the horror ;-)
- Live with them for a week or two. Wash, rinse, and repeat like it says on the shampoo bottles (did you ever wonder why you had to wash your hair twice to do it properly? hmmmm…)
I will bet you that if you have not lived with any of these constraints in a while then you are going to have a tough time generating even 1/4 of the allotted image count that excites you. All you have is the ability to choose your subject, pre-edit, compose, evaluate the light, and angle before you snap the image. No crops, no content aware fill, no ratcheting up the contrast or saturation to surreal levels, no "fixing". Nothing.
With everything that digital capture, manipulation, and publishing has given us there are a few things that it has taken a massively negative toll on. Most of us have become really lousy editors. I mean this in every sense. We do not seem to be able to edit where we point the camera. If the camera gets lifted to the eye - an image is captured. Even if we know it is utter crap we seem to make lots of in camera duplicates of that same meaningless subject, in the same lousy light, from the same boring angle, with zero effort to orchestrate a better or more meaningful or more beautiful composition. We also have no discretion in what images we perpetrate on the world. We take no time to consider - immediately those lousy uninspired images are broadcast to the entire planet.
Meanwhile all of us have become far far "better" image manipulators and retouchers. Better in the sense that we can do it at all. Better in the sense that some of us can make what may have been impractical or impossible to do in a really short amount of time at no expense. Better in the sense that some of us can make something out of nothing and even make our fellow image consumers jaw drop for a half a second with wonderment of "how did he/she do that" kind of thoughts. Too bad the image, the story, the meaning, and the actual subject are relegated to a distant second place in the brave new world of effect. Pointless in most cases.
I say we because I have fallen down that hole as well. I somehow transformed into a subject is secondary to effect photographer. It may have been the industry I toiled in. It may have been the convenience and effortlessness of digital post production. It may have been the ability to produce countless images for "free". Maybe it was the ability to see absolutely in real time what you actually have in the can and the ability to know what you had was "good enough". One thing is for certain - it definitely was due to the removal of constraints. Yes removing constraints can produce positive results. Especially when coming to grips with the basics or doing things that literally were once impossible. They can also be quite detrimental to some of the essential elements what is actually meaningful and good.
This is one of the reasons that I will continue to shoot film on a regular basis for as long as I can. It forces you to evaluate what the hell you are actually doing and why. Yes some masters of the medium continue to produce amazingly meaningful work that is absolutely not disposable but if you look carefully a heck of a lot of them in many ways still work inside the constraints they always have.
Give my contact sheet challenge a go. It might prove frustrating but I assure you you will grow as a photographer if you seriously practice it or something similar on a regular basis. I choose to do it with film but it doesn't really have to be film. I just happen to have some lovely film gear that I like to use. If I didn't then I would do the exact same thing I just described.
Give it a whirl. You don't have to show anybody your results but I would love if you did. It's not hard if your ego can stand a little bruising. In any case I would love to hear how it goes for you and what you did or didn't get out of it.