Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Film At It's Worst

You may recall how a couple of months back I was quite involved in showing off some benefits of shooting with film. I was trying to home in on some "non-measurable" properties that film has to offer, particularly in the area of spatial detail - which to me means the ability that film has in portraying separation between overlapping elements, and also in displaying a certain "roundness" or "body" that seems lacking with even some of the best digital equipment.

But I'm also aware of how bad film can be - remember my Post called "worst film ever"? I was amazed at how evil Kodak Color Plus 200 can be - so amazed in fact, I wanted to try it again a few times, with particularly bad lenses, like my Industar-61. In that case, it seems that two wrongs cancelled each other and made it all right!

But now, I have a real stinker to show you. I tried using the Color Plus 200 in a beat up old EOS 500n (Rebel G) equipped with a plastic EF 28-90 Zoom. Ken Rockwell once said that "Canon don't make junk" - well, I'm about to prove him wrong. This time, Bad + Bad = Worst Ever! I've tested this nasty film from Kodak with 1) the really good EF 28-105 USM, 2) Russia's least expensive "system lens", the Industar-61, and finally, 3) this EF 28-90. With #1, the film was giving so much warm-shift, it could barely distinguish between red and orange if you'll recall. With #2, it seemed to be an almost magical combination - don't ask why - it just seemed to be the right film to use in a FED-5 with Industar-61 on a bright sunny day.

Now to #3 - it was bad to the point of shameful. This is the only decent shot I got - and therefore the only one I'm going to display -

EOS 500n, EF 28-90 Canon Plastic Zoom, Kodak Color Plus 200
But there's something else at work here. I've been shooting with film off and on for over thirty years, and most of what I did was to provide subject matter for my Acrylic Paintings. The camera was my sketchbook so to speak. It was only after I got my first digital camera around ten year ago (a Pentax Optio 230) that I began to see photography as an art form in and of itself. In my older days with film, if I weren't going to use a picture as a basis for a painting, then I saw no use for it. That was mostly in the 70's and 80's, as through the 1990's I was neither photographing nor painting. So, yes I am now admitting that it was the emergence of digital photography that once again got me back into visual art. This fact came to my mind last week when I was perusing this website. Moncton, NB is the city I grew up in, and being a very nostalgic person, I totally enjoyed looking at these old photographs.

But I also noticed something else - most of these photos are really terrible, aren't they? I especially mean, technically terrible, by today's standards, no matter if you're talking digital or film. Yes I realize that a lot of thee were amateur photos, probably taken with Kodak Instamatics, but that too goes beyond the point I'm struggling to find here. I think what I might have re-discovered is that before Digital Photography, taking pictures was a particularly unrewarding pass time for most people. It would have only been really serious amateurs, or journalistic professionals that found photography with film to be gratifying - for the rest of us, it was "shoot a roll, then leave it in a sock drawer for six months", because for the most part, I remember having to mail my films away, only to get my prints back two weeks later, and they were almost always disappointing somehow. And not only that, the prints cost 50 cents each, or $1.00 for border-less - that was a lot of money back then.

So yes, I can see how film photography, in it's day, got a bum-rap for amateurs and snap-shooters. Between having poor equipment, and no 1-hour photo places, there was no way to convince most beginners to go out and spend money on good equipment and set up their own darkrooms, "because photography is a really fun pass-time". It has only become fun for everybody since digital cameras came along, and you could work up a photo immediately into real art using a home computer.

Now, film is making a comeback, because digital shooters are rediscovering it, and it can now be put into the very same computerized workflow that you use with your digital camera. No more waiting two weeks - in fact, any 1-Hour Photo places that remain had dispensed with their darkroom approach to printing long ago, and use a ruggedized professional version of the scanning and printing you can do in your own home. I won't say "film is fun again", because really, it was never fun, unless you were of the few who were truly inclined to it; those of you for whom film was your work, and your work was your play. What I will say is that "film is now fun thanks to digital technology". Before that, beginning photographers were given bad service, bad equipment and bad film for relatively large sums of money by today's standards. Maybe Ken Rockwell is right in that Canon doesn't make junk today - in fact all of their bottom-line plastic barrelled optics are quite good when it comes to digital picture quality. But in the 1990's, they certainly did make junk, and this EF 28-90 lens is a prime example, given that using the same lousy film I can get delightful results using the least expensive old lens that Russia has to offer.

In today's world, unlike digital cameras, the old film equipment allows you to experiment. Digital photographs, even with a $100 point-n-shoot camera, are consistently of good technical quality if used within their limits. With digital, you can have a good - better - best scenario, which is limited only by the money you have to spend, and usually, spending more money means that you extend the limits in which your camera can be used in. Film, on the other hand, is all over the map, and it is now "hip" to experiment with bad gear and bad film. But back in it's day, with film, "bad" meant "disappointing", especially for those who spent tidy sums of money on bad gear. The Moncton website is a case in point - a whole lot of technically bad old photos here - the joy lies in the memories of Monctonians, not much in the quality of the photography.

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