2014 Photography Year, Projects, Film, Digital, Etc

As mentioned in a previous episode I’m using the dreaded month of January to finish a project shot during the course of 2014. Finished as in out the door not to be looked at, or touched, or tweaked again. I’ve spent an immense amount of time during November, December, and even more in January. It might surprise a few of you as to how that time breaks down in terms of allocation. I thought I’d share that as well as a few other thoughts that have cross my mind while nearing the finish line.

Brief Context

The notion of this project came by complete accident while shooting a why not job I decided to do on a whim. A few accidents and a few visual things caught my eye and before you knew it — boom a project. Not anything especially long-term. Truth is it took me six months from initial thought until I was “done” shooting. About twenty different occasions. I had and still have no clue where the final product might have an audience. Don’t care. I’ll figure that out later — probably by accident. Maybe not.

The deliverables for my definition of “done” are as follows:

  • Shoot the pictures, check.
  • Give the raw material a bit of space before making selects, check.
  • Make somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-40 final prints. Big ones, not HUGE but a generous 24”x36”. Almost done. Takes longer than one thinks to get the density for B+W exactly where I want it across a spectrum of lighting and contrast specifics.
  • Make a book - on paper that’s an expanded version of those final print selections. Maybe 80 images. Almost done.
  • Last… this one is for photo-geeks and contact sheet junkies (like me). A series of proof-books. Not paper ones, just e-books of the same sized prints I use for proofing before going with the big ones. Here’s the difference, the proof-books have every image for every collaboration I shot. Like a contact sheet but full print resolution at 13x19. Each contains some notes on the collaboration, an indication of my selects vs rejects, and a few notes I made along the way. I’m finished these. Not a ton of work, just some clean up and note inclusion and more clear definition of selects. Not a ton of work because I make these things anyway for my own use in evaluating projects.

The Process

I absolutely knew the project was going to be black and white. Nothing to decide there but I made the psychology of it a bit easier by shooting a mix of 35mm film and digital. For each collaboration I shot one kind of film, on the rare occasion I used two. This made any treatment decisions easy for me. I was locked in to a look based on how what film and processing I choose. A real time saver for those that waffle with way too many options when shooting digital. No choices just match up any digital to what the film looks like.

Since I was shooting film I made a decision prior to any particular collaboration of how much film I was going to use. I stuck to that frame count rather than shooting way, way too many shots. Just one of the reasons I still shoot film it grounds me in terms of being “done”. If I shoot digital for too long a stretch my frame count continues to go up and up and up. Funny thing — even with a 2 or 3 or 4 “roll” equivalent decision I still think I over-shot most sessions. I could probably have only ever shot one or two rolls or the combined frame count of 72.

Each collaboration took a different amount of wall-clock time to shoot. In every case the wall-clock time was the important factor — as in it needed to be enough rather than frame count. Slow was the order of the day to get what I wanted. More time spent not firing off frames produced better results. I learned that in the first two occasions I worked on the project.

More on the actual collaboration process later as it varied throughout the project. I learned a hell of a lot and re-learned a few things as well.

Time Spent.

Okay, now we arrive at the not-so-fun part of any project, the part after the taking pictures. Well, at least for me it’s the not-so-fun part. For other people it might be the fun part. I dread it. Here’s the things that took the longest from least amount of time to most…

Matching up the digital and film results to a point where I just cannot tell the difference. I thought this was going to take an amazing amount of work. It took nothing. In fact the research across the 82 options I have took more time than once I made the decision. Part of that is I limited myself to a handful of options in terms of film and processing. Something I did when I shot real film exclusively. I only needed to match 3 films, actually more like 4 because I did use TRI-X processed “normal” as well as pushed. TRI-X in two flavors, TMAX 3200P — RIP, I now only have 4 rolls left and it’s dying fast. Last but not least… Ilford XP2 Super. Never shot the last one before, it’s great in the same way Kodak BW400CN - RIP was great. In fact I keep calling it BW400CN. I’ve even typed that in a few times for key-wording, proof-book notes, etc. I used it on a whim since someone gave me two rolls of it a year or so ago when they were cleaning out all of their film crap.

Aside: XP2-Super, Kodak BW400CN, and the rest of the Kodak flavors of the same basic stuff was awesome and still is for the same reasons a lot of modern C41 color neg is great. Idiotically great dynamic range, awesome latitude in terms of look. Not real picky about processing (I got mine processed at the cheapest price I could w/o prints). If you are into BW and shooting film occasionally but don’t want to dirty up your bathroom with developing this stuff is amazing. The first time I shot chromogenic BW in the Kodak form I hated it, or I thought I did. This was way way back before mini-labs scanned negs and did digital corrections to put out a digital print. Instead the auto-processors printed it as-shot on color paper. Looked like absolute dog-shit like that. Fast forward, now it looks great as it’s scanned and auto corrected for much higher contrast on even drugstore prints that are actually now BW not some off-color whacky low contrast mess. It also prints fantastically on higher contrast grades of real BW paper. In any case all the prints from this project will be digital and it looks great.

The screen shot at the top is from one of my “matched up” XP2 Super sessions. Turns out that Alien Skin Exposure 7 is absolutely the easiest way I’ve found to match up real BW film grain with digital. Even printed oversided where the grain is very evident I cannot tell the difference. Took me a few days of evaluation and tweaking but the tools allow for very nuanced results. Better yet the way the grain engine works it’s repeatable and works across input resolutions — a pet peeve of mine for most other products.

Film scanning: Yep, this took longer than matching the results of the digital. No shit. Boring, boring, boring. Then again I wanted high-res scans not low resolution stuff from the cheap processing. Even the default resolution from “pro-labs” is not good enough for the size prints I want to make from 35mm. I need the grain to be scanned accurately and at enough resolution. Costs way too much money for a personal project to outsource. Nikon 8000ED to the rescue. Unfortunately that has to be the slowest device on the planet. At least I could do 12 at a time.

Next up was printing. Printing is slow going especially when you count all the small proof prints and tweaks, etc.

Here’s the truth of what took the longest by far. Editing took the longest. Not modifying, not retouching, not altering. The Old-school notion of “edit”, meaning getting down to what images were in and what images were out. I didn’t touch anything in terms of retouch, etc. I wanted a more documentary look. First I needed to do that for each collaboration (twenty). Then I needed to do the same thing in the context of the entire project for both the prints and the book. Do the math, 20 collaborations, two to four rolls (or the equivalent) each session. That’s a shit load of pictures. Too many. Having actually accomplished this I look back now and can see I have too much choice. Did shooting 72 frames to 144 frames get me things I like “better”. Sure, maybe in the context of a particular occasion but overall I would have to say no.

Take the screenshot at the top for instance(yes, it’s a 100% view for a reason open it in another window if you want to see all the pixels). I found myself agonizing over minor variations. The shot above made the cut instead of very similar shots to the left and right. Why? My typical thing, that little bit of motion blur in the one hand is why I picked this one. I have very similar gestures, expressions, lighting, framing, etc right next to this one. All of them shot based on what I was looking for. Any of them could substitute in terms of looking at the project as a whole. Some of them have the same degree of motion blurs just a hair different — do they capture what I was going for as well, sure. If not then a different occasion on a different collaboration certainly does. Lesson learned — again, for the thirty-thousandth time. Shoot even less. Not in terms of time making pictures, in terms of frames.

More to come, sorry for the long post…


Ps. If anyone cares as to the full reason why Exposure 7 was my utlimate choice in terms of matching digital to real film just ask. Be glad to give you the full story. I spent DAYS, messing around with Exposure 7, Silver EFEX Pro2, and the latest DXO film pack.

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