I got back my second roll of film the other day. I wasn’t crazy about the results, at first. I’m in the midst of an experiment with film. One that I started recently with a 45-year-old Rollie 35 and a new box of Kodak Ektar 100. The unexpectedly good results from that camera hurled me into more experimentation.
If you are familiar with my work, you know that I like saturated colors. I use HDR, not to create technicolor clown vomit, but for richly saturated “realistic” images. My exploration of film is for the same end goal — rich colors — though through a different process. I see the colorful portraits from Steve McCurry and I’m mesmerized. I’ve come to find that much of that unique color is through Kodachrome, a film which is no longer manufactured or being developed. In fact, Steve McCurry shot the last roll of Kodachrome which was documented through National Geographic. You can see his images here. And while Mr. McCurry is known for portraits, he also shoots urban landscapes. This is what really interests me.
I’m not trying to replicate a certain style, rather I’m trying to capture a richer, more organic look. For all the love I have for digital photography, I feel that its images look clinical. This may work well in certain cases, but the analog softness also entices.
I shot these photographs with a modern Canon Rebel T2 film camera loaded with Kodak Portra 400. Portra, as the name suggests, is geared more for portraits. To that end, many of pictures on this roll were of people and family snapshots. The Rebel T2 is as easy to use as a modern digital camera, other than not getting a preview on a LCD screen. It takes none of the fiddling and manual setup that is needed for the Rollei 35. On the other hand, this computer controlled plastic tool has none of the charm of an old camera.
Being a portrait film, Portra’s colors are more muted than Ektar 100. I knew that going in but wanted to see what it looks like. My first reaction — disappointment. For a person who likes a lot of color, even more than what Ektar gives, Portra was way too muted. Of course, it also had none of the richness of Kodachrome. My outlook changed when I discovered how to apply the right amount of post-processing to create the look I wanted. It wasn’t perfect for every photo but my results are promising enough that I’m keeping an open mind about this film.
No photographic test would be complete without Lucky. I shot him with a 35mm lens probably wide open at f2. His brownish fur was dull before post processing.
I shot Bethany with a 85mm f2, wide open. Post processing has also transformed these portraits from muted to dynamic. I’m happy her skin tones still look natural, even after greatly increasing saturation. Oh, and her hair, yup it was really that red. Portra seems to live up to its name. Skin tones, at least in good light, appear accurate. All I need is some digital post processing to bring out the film’s full potential.
I created candid portraits on 6th Street of women who work at Bikinis Sports Bar. They were more than happy to help me with my film test. Their skin was more yellowish-brown than I liked but Aperture 3 was able to improve the colors.
Would Portra work for non-portraits? Yes, I think. Especially with post processing. Ektar only comes in ISO 100 which makes night work difficult without a tripod — ISO 400 on Portra makes it easier to hand hold especially with a fast lens. I noticed more motion blur with the SLR at slow shutter speeds. A rangefinder or even the Rollei works better, there’s no mirror slap to add unwanted vibration and movement.
The final tally? All photographs came out and there were no true duds. I suffered motion blur in those dark handheld photos, especially of action on 6th street. It probably makes more sense to shoot night action, such as live music, in digital. Unless I use black and white film, that is, and really push the ISO sensitivity. That might be fun to do in the future.
A few portraits achieved something special — something that I think goes beyond what my digitals have produced. One in particular, of my kids, is a true keeper. If I squint long enough, the color, texture and grain has the feel of Kodachrome, perhaps a bit better. I’m using digital post processing to achieve my look, but that’s okay. I’m not a film purist. I see no problem combining the look and feel of film with the power of digital photography.
More tests to come.