Film Is Alive
Film is how it all began for me and probably a lot of other professional photographers.
Not very glamorous, or even extremely functional, but the first cameras that I ever used were disposable. I guess I was probably around 8 or 9 when I got my first one, they were pretty much all I could afford after begging my parents for a few pounds(yes, you read that correctly, £'s) and then I had to beg for a few more to get the photos developed. I didn't care what camera I was using back then though. I wasn't competing with anyone, there were no camera phones or DSLR cameras and not every family even owned a camera. I wasn't armed with the photographic knowledge I have now and this made them somewhat ideal for me, the only decisions I had to make were whether or not to use flash and whether or not to push the shutter button, simple, and it allowed me to hone my eye for composition.
Photography for me was pure, it was real, I saw something I liked and I took a picture of it so that I could remember that moment forever and possibly even share it with family and friends. Most of all I took pictures because it made me feel happy, there was something very powerful about being able to capture and preserve a moment in time and not just any moment, one that I had chosen as being worthy of preservation, one from my own viewpoint, one that no other person in the world would ever witness or experience if I decided to let it go. I would go in search of worthy moments and aimed to create them when I couldn't find them easily.
I would get my film developed by a local professional photographer, David McMahon, in Kilrush. I remember the excitement of waiting to see how the film turned out, to relive all those moments again. I remember collecting my photos from David one time and he told me that the pictures I was taking were very good and that I showed a lot of promise. David told me that if I ever wanted any tips or if I ever had any questions about photography to let him know and that he would be happy to help. Not that I needed any more encouragement then but it was really nice to hear that, coming from an established professional, one who everyone trusted with their pictures. David's words have always stuck with me.
My parents bought me my first non-disposable film camera for Christmas when I was 15. It was a Kodak Advantix C400. I remember going to Clohessys Electric in Kilrush with my folks and picking it out. I remember it offered the ability to change the aspect ratio for each image and one of the options was "Panoramic", I think I used that setting more than any other. I love that camera, I still have it and will never part with it even though the film which can be used with it has been discontinued since 2011. From the moment I opened it, on Christmas, it went everywhere with me. I brought it on our first proper European family holiday, the first time I lived away from home, to college, to family functions and parties, nights out. The Kodak holds a massive sentimental value to me, not only because of the important moments I captured with it but because it was with me when I captured them and because it was a gift given to me by the two people who brought me into the world.
It seems like an eternity since I've taken a picture on that old Kodak and I've used almost every shape and size of digital camera in the meantime. The first few digital cameras that I bought were all Kodak cameras. I think it was probably a lot to do with my familiarity with the brand and the history behind Kodak.
Here are some shots I took with that camera, an insight into my past. If you look closely enough, you can see my shadow in the bottom left corner, and no, my head is not really that big, that would be my sombrero, it was one of the first things I bought on that holiday and I pretty much wore it everywhere, I had no shame!! There's also the boat I bought with one of my best friends, William, in the Adventure Centre where we used to work in Kilrush, and we spent a whole summer working on it before putting it on the water only to see water pour in around the centreboard the very first time, we still sailed it until the water reached our shins. There's Crowleys Garage in Kilrush where I worked happily for 5-6 years, spent many evenings kicking footballs around the forecourt with friends, good times. My mam and dad, styling it up in Porto Colom, I love that pic of them. Some pics from a trek with my dad and uncle to the lighthouse in Porto Colom. Both my dad and uncle have served as lighthouse keepers, and I spent a lot of time with my dad at different lighthouses when I was growing up and this has fueled my obsession with them and the sea. There are loads more but these show the importance of photography, memories that would only have been in my mind had I not taken these pictures. Thanks to the film, the colours look beautiful straight out of the camera, the dynamic range is also a lot better than most digital cameras today, none have been edited in any way, these are straight out of the camera.
I have missed shooting film after all these years and lately I have become obsessed with it. I've trawled the world wide interweb in my quest to get back into it. I also have never shot medium format so I really wanted to make that my first port of call.
The camera that caught me was the Hasselblad 500CM. The 500CM is one of the most iconic cameras ever made, a modified version of it even went to the moon with Neil Armstrong(taking for granted that the moon landing happened for real). A number of features of the camera made it very desirable for me, the waist level viewfinder, the 6x6 medium format, ultra sharp Carl Zeiss lenses and the fully mechanical(no battery ever needed) nature of the camera, it is also modular so it allows a lot of room for customisation, different viewfinders, film backs, lenses, winders, etc. I spent weeks and days in search of the right one for me. Then I found it, I was bidding on two at the same time but I put a lot more effort into the one I ultimately won and bought. It looked to be in great condition, it was extremely clean and it was being sold by a gentleman in a German camera shop who also repairs cameras. I was over the moon when I won the Hasselblad, I now own a genuine piece of history which was made by this very prestigious camera company. My particular Hasselblad was made in 1977, this can be found by translating the letters on the serial number.
The first thing I did after buying my Hasselblad was go to Conns Cameras and I bought 10 rolls of medium format Kodak Portra 400 film. It's great to see that they stock so many film options, both for medium format and 35mm. I buy most of my digital camera equipment there also so I'm happy to know that I'll be able to get film with next day delivery from a reliable store for the foreseeable future.
When my Hasselblad finally arrived, I was ready to shoot. I had film and I knew how to load it. I had watched almost every online video about the camera so I felt that I had a solid grasp of how to use it.
I loaded up my first roll of Kodak Portra 400 and headed to the beach in Tramore. It was late in the evening and the sun was at just the right point in the sky. 400 is a rather fast film speed for the way I like to shoot, I usually like to get my aperture wide open or close to wide open and use a faster shutter speed to compensate, however, the Hasselblad will only reach 1/500 so in brighter light I'd have to stop down the aperture quite a bit. One of my very good friends was with me and I snapped a couple of shots of him, there was a dog frolicking in the water and a few other things which caught my eye.
Shooting pics with the Hasselblad was completely unlike anything I've ever taken pictures with before. There are only 12 pictures per roll of film, the 6X6 medium format gives a square image so composing images is a bit different than using a camera where you can shoot in standard landscape, portrait or even panoramic modes and then there's the viewfinder.
The waist level viewfinder is inverted meaning that the image is displayed backwards from left to right so when I move the camera right the image moves left. This was a little mind boggling the first few times but it really challenged me to make sure I had the shot fully thought out before I pressed the shutter, the most difficult thing was getting the image level but I feel I've gotten better at that the more I've used it. Another thing about the waist level finder is that it's one of the most beautiful things I've ever encountered to see an image through, you really have to see one first hand to fully understand. The Hasselblad has a dark slide which has to be pulled out of the camera before each image so that the film can be exposed. The dark slide protects the film from being exposed the rest of the time, I did find that a few times I had the shot ready and when I went to press the shutter nothing would happen, I had forgot to pull out the dark slide, on the plus side, the shutter button won't budge with it in so it's pretty much impossible to waste an exposure. Then there's the sound of the shutter, when you press it you know you have taken a picture, the loud slap of all the mechanical parts inside doing their part is incredibly satisfying to hear and feel.
I shot one full roll that day and a couple shots on a second roll and I finished the rest of the second roll while shooting a wedding a couple days later.
Once I finished the rolls, I sent them to be devloped and scanned at The Find Lab, a film lab based in Utah, USA. They had been recommended to me by a friend and they also offered a service where they could provide feedback on the quality of the negatives and this may show potential equipment issues, etc.
The time between sending the film and waiting for the scans was absolutely nerve wracking. Though the Hasselblad looked to be in great shape, it was also 40 years old and I had no idea if it had exposed the images correctly or if there would be light leaks, if I had inadvertently taken any double exposures, I had no idea how my shot timing would be, if the camera had captured exactly what I wanted or if it was a fraction of a second out resulting in a poor expression, basically there were a myriad of issues that could have popped up and only the lab would be able to put my mind at ease. It took about 5-7 days for my film to arrive and they sent me the expected "we have your film" email. Then another 5-7 days before I had the scans and the feedback.
I read the feedback first and my heart sank when it mentioned that there were some heavy light leak issues and that it was most likely due to missing or damaged seals on the film back. There were also a couple of double exposures, I kindof expected that too because there was an issue winding on the film after shots on a couple of occasions.
When I actually downloaded the images though and viewed them I was blown away by the potential of the camera and film, light leaks and other issues aside, the subjects were pin sharp, the colours were stunning, the medium format field of view was there, and the depth of field was beautifully shallow even at f5.6-f8. I knew everything else could be repaired. Here are some images from those first two rolls. The light leaks are clearly visible and even more so on the outdoor ones where there was more light to cause the issue. I still really like these shots though, they are real, they haven't been manipulated or edited in any way.
Even though the light leaks didn't fully spoil the first two rolls of film and though I actually liked the genuine character that I felt it added to the images, I still felt the need to have the camera repaired. I bagged and bubble wrapped the life out of the Hasselblad before boxing it and shipping it to the Camera Repair Centre in Dublin.
A couple of weeks later, after a full service of the camera body, film back and lens and with some brand spankin' new parts fresh from Sweden, I had my Hassleblad back and good as new.
I have been bringing it everywhere with me, when I'm not in my office editing weddings of course. I'm in love with this camera, not just because of the fact that it looks really cool and it's fun and challenging to shoot with, but mostly because I love the overall look of the images that I can create with it, almost like I can transport a scene back to the past. I love how it makes real pictures, how negatives create a real link to the moment the image was taken. I love that I never have to put a battery in it, my eyes, my hands and it's mechanics are all I need to create.
I have also since bought a professional quality film scanner so that I can control that part of the process myself. Hopefully one day I will also do all my own developing but for now that part is just too time consuming.
Here are some images since the camera has been repaired, I had them developed locally in Waterford and scanned them myself. I'm not fully satisfied with the quality of the film developing here, each of the rolls has been returned to me with a small amount of water damage and it takes quite a while to correct that so I'll be sending future rolls out of the country again to be developed. It's unfortunate that I have to do that but I know when I hand my film rolls to a fully professional lab that they will take the best care of them. These are just a couple of shots from a couple of recent weddings in Borris House, Carlow and Waterford Castle, some shots of a friends dogs and a couple of my custom wedding usb boxes, all completely random. I will have lots more to come soon but, as I now have to send the film away, I'll be sending a group of rolls each time.