More film processing back; more mixed results

Late last week, I received back from The Darkroom my latest batch of film processing. It was a mixed batch; four cameras, six rolls. And the results were also mixed. To be sure, there were some photos I really liked and am proud of. And there were also a ton of duds I didn’t even bother uploading to Flickr. But this process has gotten me thinking about film, about control, and about those results.

I’m not sure what the actual ratio is, but I’ve said flippantly many times before that when it comes to photographs — digital, or film — for every 100 shots you take, only a handful, tops, are decent images.

Part of my reasoning with returning to film is to slow down, really think about what I take, how I take it; to really understand the technology and the process, and to truly apply what I know. Basically, improving my odds — since at the end of the day, these photos cost about $1.50 to $2.00 each by the time it’s all said and done.

But there are a lot of variables, and while it seems like you, as the photographer, have a lot of control (and you do), at the end of the day, a lot of this is left to chance:

What You Can ControlWhat You Can't Control
Focus (Sometimes)Whether the film advances accurately (or fully)
Focal Length (Sometimes)Whether the film handles the exposure the way you think it will (or should)
Shutter Speed (Sometimes)How color film renders the color (exactly, anyway)
Aperture (Sometimes)How the film will respond to over-/under-exposure (exactly, anyway)
Exposure Duration (Sometimes)How the film will respond when you mess-up a setting
ISO Setting (Sometimes)Whether the camera captured what you think it did — until the film is processed
Over-/Under-Exposure (Sometimes)Exactly what sort of contrast you might get (exactly, anyway)
When the Shutter is PressedHow expired film is going to work out in the end (precisely, anyway)
Distance to Subject (Often)
Film Advance
Film Choice

I’m quite sure there are things I missed in this list. And of course, there are extremes, like my Duaflex II: You can control precisely nothing, other than the film you put in it. You point. You shoot. You hope. My other cameras are more sophisticated; I can control a lot of things. But the final results are not among the things I can directly control. I can influence the outcome, and the more you know, the more you can predict and influence. But make no mistake: You’re not going to directly control the outcome in the ways many of us expect we should be able to.

Take the roll of Velvia 50 I shot. I picked the film because of its color qualities, and out of the 15 shots, just two came-out with results I liked, and in fact, only one of them was truly strong:

Train bridge near La Jara, Colorado.

The way Velvia rendered this was gorgeous in my opinion. (Unfortunately, The Darkroom seems to have messed-up the registration in the scan, but that’s another issue.)

So, is one really good shot and one pretty good shot out of a roll of 15 shots “worthwhile” to me? Yeah, it was. I’m not kidding myself here; I didn’t expect 15 masterpieces with this film on the first go with it. The more you do something, and the more you understand how things work, the more you can control them.

What I didn’t know is that exposure is actually somewhat tricky with reversal films (like the Velvia 50); they have significantly less exposure latitude, or so I’m made to believe. In any case, the really high-contrast shots I tried just didn’t come out that well. I also discovered (and it should be logical) that slow films like Velvia 50 like a lot of light; the other shot I took was taken with some overcast, and the results were somewhat less pleasing overall. (You can see that shot here.)

The photos taken with Lomography 800 on the same trip were generally more satisfactory, but the color rendering of Lomo 800 is unique. The featured image at the top was taken with the film, and you can see more by tag on my Flickr photostream.

Finally, I got back a roll of Ilford XP2 Plus, Ilford’s chromogenic black and white film. Some of those images are on my photostream by tag as well. Those pictures, as well as another black and white roll from my Duaflex II, have taught me that there’s more to black and white photography than meets the eye. I’ve not shot black and white film in several decades, and whatever I used to know about it I’ve clearly lost to time.

But that’s really what makes this film journey so interesting… There’s so much to learn, so much to relearn, so much to explore, to test, to evaluate, to figure-out. I’m making tons of mistakes, and I still don’t think I take awesome photos. But from time to time, I do get lucky; now I just want to improve my odds a little.