Sunday, February 21, 2010

Going back through time

Some of you may know that I have recently started shooting film again. Some thought that I was being an idiot, and may well be right depending on where in the convenience / cost / quality / flexibility continuum they stand. To me, film provides limitations that the cameraman must operate within, which ultimately leads to a better photographer.

I said 'again' as if it inspires some kind of nostalgia. Sadly, it does not. I am not saying that film doesn't do it for me -- quite the opposite in fact. I am just saying that there isn't really an 'again' -- the last and only time I shot in film was using a point and shoot Konica cam back in the days of high school, a distant 8 years ago. It came with a motor that makes a whizzing sound after the shutter clicks to advance the film and a much longer rewind at the end of the film. There was also an automatic flash that had a mind of its own.

So there is no nostalgia because there is nothing to miss. I can almost say that I am a film virgin. So you can imagine my excitement when the shiny 37 year old camera arrived about a week after I ordered it on eBay. Huge gamble I must say -- one never truly knows what "excellent condition" really means on eBay -- but nevertheless, the Canonet QL17 GIII arrived in pristine condition. Admitedly, I was pretty upset when it arrived with an engraving on the back cover saying 'Made In Taiwan'. I thought everything was made in Japan back in those days (1972)!

So the little camera arrived. It's the first rangefinder camera I ever used. To those of you who are wondering what a rangefinder is, it is a camera that triangulates the distance to the subject This distance is then transferred to the focusing mechanisms of the lens so that the subject gets in focus.

Unlike SLRs, which has a noisy mirror (that makes the sweet schp sound) that needs to get out of the way before a shot is taken, a rangefinder does not have a mirror -- it is a lot less quieter in operation. This noiseless operation, and its compact size, makes it ideal for capturing the spur of the moment situations, as in candid street photography -- the subject is usually unaware of the shot and is therefore much more relaxed.

Street photography. Now that's a genre of photography that not many people practice and is usually left to bold and skilled enthusiasts who are out there for the passion of life. Rarely ever used commercially for legal reasons. In most of the Western world, photography of anything visible in the public domain is fair game if it is done for personal use. As soon as the photos are sold or published, one needs a written release signed by the subject of the photo -- kinda goes against the spirit of candidness in the wonderful world of street.

Street photography is, against popular belief, not about voyeurism. Street photography is about reportage, on a personal level, and being a part of the dynamics and the vibe. It is not about putting a telephoto zoom on the camera and shooting the action from across the road (now that makes one into a voyeur). No, street photography is about walking around with a camera that does not draw much attention, and catching people going about with their daily lives. It's about catching the extra-ordinary moments of ordinary lives -- the joy of the laughter of a child, the love of a kissing couple under the lights, the vibe of the Downtown districts and catching humour in contrast. If people see the camera, they will either pose for the camera or run away, and the moment is gone.

As I am a purist at heart, I will also tell you that as invisible as compact digicams go these days, these are not good for street. Firstly, they make my decisions and I don't like it when a computer does my thinking for me. Secondly, they are slow -- it typically takes the thing about 4 seconds to switch on and a second to focus, and the moment is gone. Thirdly, the grain sucks, which is a subject for another time. Lastly, the wait to get the developed images is exciting. The con? Well, the wait to fill up an entire roll of film before getting it developed... Can't exactly afford to develop a roll a day in this kak economy!

So I got a vintage rangefinder, like the old masters did. The little Canonet is nicknamed the poor man's Leica. Leicas, now that's a name to consider. These things are built like tanks, for a good reason too. Because street photographers take their cameras everywhere with them, they tend to take a beating or two. Leicas are built to last -- most of the ones built in the 1950's are still in working order and can be purchased on eBay for about $1000 a piece. Now I am not crazy enought to spend that kind of cash on a 50 year old camera, despite the quality. So I settled for a Canonet. Perhaps not built like a tank, but at least like a Humvee (or for Richard, a Jeep).

With excitement I loaded a roll of test film into the camera, a roll of ISO400 colour negatives from Black's. Admittedly not a household name in film, but I thought I would give a cheap film a try before moving onto the old boys like Kodac, Fujifilm and Ilford, just to make sure that the cam works if for nothing else. The results absolutely blew me away.

Before we get to the results, film photography brings about some mysterious anticipation. There is obviously no immediate feedback of results. The suspense makes receiving the prints that much more exciting. There is also the costs associated with buying, developing and printing film, which make me think that much harder before I release the shutter. I spent a lot more time framing my every shot whereas I would have shot 20 with a digital and picked the best one, which in most cases would still be crappy. It forced me to see. The fixed lens also made composition more thoughtful -- no longer relying on the zoom to get things closer, I will walk and move myself into a better position instead.

Another challenge is using fully-manual exposure -- cameras from those days did not really come with many automatic features. The camera does have a single automatic feature in the form of 'shutter priority'. Unfortunately this automatic feature requires a battery to operate but apparently mercury batteries are no longer legal. Oh well. It will be full manual from now on. After seeing the results of the test film, I guess this was a blessing in disguise.

So the results: most shots were underexposed (but still very acceptable results with pleasantly-surprising results). The exception is the shot of Finch Station, which appears to be overexposed by a stop or two. This is the side effect of trying to guesstimate the strength of lighting within the room. It's especially difficult if one is running between a fluorescent light sources and a tungsten. I suppose I should be carrying a light meter too from now on?

The colour of the prints were a lot more saturated than I originally anticipated. Not a bad thing depending on the type of effect wanted, but certainly not my style. I will stay clear of the Black's film in future. Will probably try out some black and white Ilfords to see what I get.

So, much perfectness and excitement found in the first roll of not so perfect film under not so perfect conditions. The small size of this heavy but little metal box means that it will travel with me all the time. Much more much exciting and perfect times to be had ahead!

PS: The thesis is handed in and is now with supervisor. It should be a month or two before it comes back to me with comments. Then it will be another couple of months of fixing up. Until then, there is time to hit the snowy streets before the romantic atmosphere goes away.

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