True Confessions of a Film Shooter

November 19, 2008  •  Leave a Comment

Nikon F6 and MB40 50mm14
Wow-where do I begin? A lot has happened in the past 3.5 months, so let's see if I can get caught up with at least some of it.

 
On August 9th, I fulfilled a long-time dream by taking delivery of a brand-new, factory fresh Nikon F6 35mm film camera. I purchased it from Adorama (New York), my favorite place to buy camera gear on-line. I have purchased all other Nikon F bodies pre-owned. This one, however, was the first purchased new. I wanted that new, "Nikon F experience" just once before-well, before they killed the Nikon F line... What an absolute dream camera it is.

Now before you're tempted to go off on a film vs. digital wrestling match, let me say I'm done wrestling with this issue and have finally settled on the following statement: for some things digital makes perfect sense. For everything else, there's film. Now, whether it's medium format or 35mm film is another question entirely, but the point is made. When I shoot a photograph I really care about, beyond an assignment or work, I shoot film.

Please don't misconstrue this statement as I don't care about my assignments or my work – nothing could be further from the truth. Digital shots for me just seem to have a shorter life span in theory. One good power surge, hardware failure, file corruption, virus, crash or EMP (electro magnetic pulse) and they're gone. They're just 1's and 0's, folks. And what percentage of your digital photos do you actually print and keep? It's easier, really, to just keep viewing them on the computer, isn't it? Film, on the other hand, is tangible matter. It exists outside the realm of the computer. Like the Hollideck on Star Trek. On the Hollideck, everything feels real and appears to have substance. Once you leave that room, though, it can't come with you. It doesn't exist outside that room.

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So it is with digital photographs. You can't take a digital file off the computer and burn a negative with it, but you can take a negative and make a digital file with it. So I shoot film for things I deem a longer life-span desireable. There's also the idea that, in our life time or our children's lifetime, will the media used to store digital photographs be readable? Will CD's exist, for example, 50 years from now? If not, a maintenance issue has now been created. For digital photograph libraries, which can be quite large, the issue of converting them from one file format, one storage medium, one hard disk, one archive to another now becomes necessary. During this process there is risk. Far from iron-clad reliable are today's computers and storage media. With film, short of fire or flood, all you need is a reliable storage system that won't be obsolete in a few years and you'll always be able to view your images. This has tremendous value beyond today's needs for me, and is worth investing a bit more time in to preserve. I could go on and on, but that's enough for now. Film is real, and I like real stuff.

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To be honest (true confessions of a film shooter), I think another one of the main forces that drove my return to film was the feeling that I never got it quite right before. What I mean by this is, digital made me a better shooter. With its instant feedback, histograms, large displays, somewhat limited dynamic range, and overall ease of use, it was easy to figure out what I was doing wrong when a shot didn't work (which was often). As this happen, I'd compensate, try again, and ultimately figure out what I needed to do to fix it. This was essentially impossible with film. There was too much of a delay between making the photograph, viewing the photograph, then remembering what settings were used and how they needed to be tweaked. Old, bad habits were revealed using this new, digital process and rather suddenly it seemed I'd begun making the images I had in my mind when I made the photo. The return to shooting film for me was at least partially, in a sense, going back to pay homage to a medium I'd previously squandered - and now desired to do it justice – armed with this new-found knowledge. There's more to it than that, but certainly there's a component here I'd previously not admitted to myself.

Back to the F6, with no hesitation- the Nikon F6 is the finest camera I've ever held in my hands and shot-bar none. And - he arrived just in time to accompany me on my trip to Zion National Park in September. What a perfect thing (more on Zion later).

If you do a search on some of the forums regarding the F6, you'll probably run across the following smattering of opinions. "...why on earth would anyone buy a pro film camera today with digital being so easy...?" or, "...digital image quality long ago surpassed film-why would you shoot film?" or, "...film is dead." However, you'll also run across the film devotees and diehard film shooters who have a different take on things. They have nothing but praise for the Nikon F6, and I for one am extremely happy to have and shoot it. It's a work of art and makes incredible photographs and is my new best friend (except my wife, son and dog).

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So I took my shiny new F6 to Zion for a fall foliage workshop offered by the Zion Canyon Field Institute's Michael Plyler. It was the first time I'd met Michael and I now consider him a good friend and photographer. If you get an opportunity to attend one of these workshops I'd highly recommend it. Not only will you learn good technique pointers, have tough questions answered by experienced folks and have a lot of fun, but you'll find some off-the-beaten path things to shoot, learn when the good light is and see things the ordinary visitors will not – which were all things I'd highly anticipated leading up to the workshop. I was not disappointed.
 
The workshop began on a Thursday, September 18th and ran for 2 days. So I got my calendar out and started planning. Annie agreed to hold down the fort while I was gone, and I got a wild hair idea. I googled the Subway and began the permit process. The Subway is one of the most famous hikes in Zion National Park. It has become so popular that they've instituted a lottery system to obtain the necessary permits to do the hike. Because of the nature of Zion, at the edge of the Colorado Plateau, flash flooding is a serious danger in many of the side canyons, and the Subway hike follows one of these canyons. Because of the off-time of year and off-day of the week I was interested in doing it, I was able to get the required permits. My day was the 17th of September.

So I headed out from Fort Collins on Tuesday, the 15th, and by that evening - just as the sun was setting - I was at my first stop: Goblin Valley State Park, Utah. It was a gorgeous evening with a gentle breeze as I paid my $6 at the entrance and asked the ranger where the good sunset shots were. "The valley," he said. Light was fading fast so I didn't waste time. I headed up the road, enjoying the strangely shaped rock formations being blasted by the sun on one side, deep in shadow on the other side. I didn't make any photos here as I was in a bit of a hurry to get to the main valley. With great anticipation I rounded the last bend before the parking lot, visions of Desert Solitaire hovering in my mind. Of course, that's not the end of this story...
 
I think I saw it before I heard it, but as I rounded the final bend there seemed to be a tremendous amount of activity in the parking lot. My first thought was, "hmm, I guess I'm not the only one who cares what Goblin Valley looks like at sunset..." Then I saw the 2 semi's, their backs open, ramps down, and people scuttling busily in and out, pushing hand carts with black boxes stacked, wrapping cords, talking on walky-talkies, and the low murmur of power generators. "hmm..." I thought, "what's all this then?" I pulled into one of the few open spaces in a rather large parking are at the main valley overlook and headed for the bathroom. "What's going on?" I asked three guys hanging out by the biffy. "Music video shoot," they said. "Of who?" I asked. "The Killers-I don't know if you've heard of them..." "Nope. Good luck." Just then, I saw a guy dressed in vintage MTV "I wanna be a rockstar" clothing walking up the hillside-complete with silly hat, makeup, funky big, black, high-heeled boots and all. If I could have cried without embarassing myself I think I would have. So much for my peaceful desert evening.
 
I loaded up my LowePro Phototrekker AW with what I thought I'd need and headed into the desert to try and escape the fray. As I walked from the car, a helicopter started its engines and groupies climbed in for a tour of the valley at sunset. I envied them, being able to get above all this and look down at a gorgeous time of the evening. I covered my eyes and my camera as the copter took off, kicking sand and dirt everywhere then watched as it slowly vanished into the pink and purple sky-the sun hitting the metal skin once it rose to a certain elevation. It was quite beautiful. Off I trod, seeking peace in the desert for an hour or so this evening.
 
I spent a few very pleasant hours in Goblin Valley that evening but needed to press on. I'd made reservations in Torey, Utah, just down the road outside Capital Reef National Park, so packed up and headed there, concluding day 1 of my trip. Despite the chaos at the parking lot we were off to a wonderful start and a quite nice birthday present to myself that first day.

 
 
 

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