Sunday, January 5, 2014


I have had a camera in my hand since I was 13. I remember receiving for my 13th birthday, a minolta XG-SE and a lens. My father shot with Nikon, and I think he got me a minolta so I wouldn't use his lenses. I would shoot a couple of rolls of film, hand them off to my father and he would have the prints processed. I was never told 'you are shooting too much'. The product of this time with a camera in my hand was that by the time I was 18 I had an excellent understanding of the workings of cameras and film. At 18 I got lucky enough to work in the film industry due to the help of a relative - which is almost exclusively how people got work in the film industry in New York at the time. Film school graduates were actually looked down upon, because they had a lot of knowledge but no real practical skills. On a film set, even though I was the absolute bottom of the totem pole, I had time to see amazing cameras and lights, and because of my experience I had a great understanding of how they all worked. The principles are exactly the same, light, is traveling through a lens, to land on a piece of film. You can control the amount of light that lands on the film to change depth of field, just like in a still camera.

After about a decade I wasn't sure what I wanted to do in the film industry, and decided to take a break. A friend offered me work as an assistant to a professional fashion still photographer, and I jumped at the chance. I was back in the world of small simple cameras exposing one frame of film at a time, and since I had been doing that for practically my entire life, I felt very at home.  After a couple of years I moved into steady work at a stock photo agency. We shot every day, and every day was different. Today we will be shooting sculling on the Charles river, with the camera in a chase boat. Tomorrow, we are shooting men in business suits in a studio doing nothing but shaking hands. The next day we will shoot nothing but sliced fruit. I learned to build sets. Light them, and deal with every aspect of a photography shoot. After discussing the results the photographer wanted, I would light the set. Determine the exposure. Set the cameras. Load the film. Rewind the film, and reload the film (hundreds of times) and then send the film to the lab. But you don't just send the film to the lab.

The first thing is that you had to shoot slide film - because for publication you needed to be able to do a color separation, which you can't do from a negative - and slide film has a very narrow  contrast ratio. About 2.5 to 1, which means it has a very narrow range from light to dark that it can expose. Stretch that range too far, and the shadowed dark areas will be black. Push it too far, and the lighter areas will 'blow out' and go white with no detail. Processing film was an art. You would tell the lab to 'clip' certain rolls, which would mean that they would pull the beginning of the roll out of the canister about six inches, cut it off, process it, and send it to you. From that little piece of film - usually around 2 or 2.5 frames - you would decide to push or pull the rest of the roll. Which essentially means add light or subtract light from normal. Then they would finish the roll with your instructions and you would hope you were right.

I left the industry around the time of digital revolution. For most of the time I was working in stock, we would shoot slide film and then use high res scanners to get digital files. This way we had a 'digital dark room' called adobe photoshop to do whatever we needed to a photo. This meant we had the beautiful look of film, with the control and effects of digital post production. When I left, high end digital cameras were coming onto the market that were finally affordable, meaning under $10,000. I didn't like the look of digital. It just didn't look.... good. There was way too much detail. It was way too crisp. It was also, way too easy. Instead of shooting 80 rolls of film and not knowing what we got until the next day, you could shoot thousands of images - at no cost - and see right away what you needed to do to get the shot. It took a lot of the art out of the job. I was pretty disgusted with the industry by the time I left, for a lot of reasons. But digital was a big part of it. I loved working with film. I loved having the skill set I had developed over a lifetime of working with film. I loved film. And digital was taking it away. When I slid into minimalism, the first thing I did was dispose of unneeded slide film in boxes. After editing a roll of film, what is left over goes into storage. I realized I was storing things I would never need. But to this day, I have a crate of probably 500 nearly perfect slides. Pictures of models, and trips, and friends. I won't part with them.

I was thinking about my love of film the other night when I went to the movies. I sat in a theater with friends, and watched a digitally projected movie that was really pretty good. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

I really enjoyed this film for a number of reasons. First, I like any film that shows someone with a humdrum life making a choice to have an adventure. And as an adventure film it is pretty good. But the people in the film, Walter and Sean, have a deep love of film. I think Ben Stiller made this movie as an homage to film. Walter deals with negatives all day working for life magazine. Sean still shoots actual film with a camera I actually owned. And there is no better place for Walter to work than Life Magazine. No one has created as much amazing photography as Life (with maybe the exception of National Geographic). The film made me want to go home and look at my old slides. The film is also the first major motion picture shot in Iceland, which is absolutely gorgeous. A dear friend shot there this past year, and told me I should go. I just haven't figured out how yet. I know it was shot in Iceland, because I started researching the film. I was wondering where they shot the 'Himalaya' stuff (Chile) which is where I stumbled across the proof that Mr. Stiller made this film as an homage to film. the proof is in the fact that he shot it on film. In an era when more and more feature films are shot digitally, he made a choice - an expensive one - to shoot film.

As an aside, there is a great documentary called 'side by side' about the switch in Hollywood to digital. It has interviews with many great film directors, and they all have opinions about which is better, film or digital. It is an instant watch on Netflix.

Now, you are probably saying "PO, with all your experience looking at film, you couldn't tell this movie was shot on film?" The answer is, no. Here is why.

I don't like digital still cameras. Yes I own one, but I don't think the images are as good as film - with few exceptions, and I think that is only as recent as a few years. I hate what digital did to the still photography world. But you know what? all the things that I think were bad about making still photography digital, made motion film photography better. Much better. I have absolutely zero problem with motion pictures, or any film really, being shot digitally. Ben stiller said he heard a lot of people talking about how much digital film cameras looked like film now, so he thought, why not just shoot it on film. I suspect the days of that being an option are limited.

If you are an individual and you decide you want to shoot a movie, you can buy a digital camera, and a computer to edit your film, for the cost of purchasing the raw film stock, and processing it. Your feed back is instantaneous, and on a film that costs thousands of dollars a minute to make, it makes sense. I am fascinated by cameras like the Arri Alexa and the Red Epic. Personally I would really love a Red Scarlet. But it is way more camera than I need. I shot a 30 minute documentary about paddling the inside passage and edited on my laptop. A decade ago, that just wasn't possible.

This is where my love of the GoPro comes from, it puts such incredible opportunities in your hands, and is relatively inexpensive. That in my lifetime I have gone from working with HD cameras that were massive and connected to a truck, to fit in the palm of my hand is incredible. When I worked in the film industry I assisted for a cameraman who owned an wind up  EYEMO. The EYEMO was a small 35mm camera that was designed literally for combat. They were mounted to Sherman tanks in WW2, they were rolled down hills, and dropped out of airplanes. They were made of heavy steel and were almost indestructible. I really think the GoPro is the EYEMO of the 21st century.

Then, later in the week after seeing "Mitty" I stumbled across an article on Century old film sheet negatives were found. They were found in Antarctica, and they were taken by someone on Shackletons famous "endurance" expedition. They have never before been seen. And they are amazing. Try doing that with an SD card.


  1. You know what you would have liked? I stumbled onto the location shots for Mitty on 5th ave a while back and it was one of the most tremendous shoots I've seen in the city. Block after block of cops and PA's and cranes and lights and crowd control. I've never seen anything like it. Massive.

  2. Yes, the interview I saw with Ben stiller, he said they wanted to do as many effects shots as practicals, instead of cgi. They had video of them shooting on fifth.

  3. shoot a new full frame dslr, until full frame was available i'd agree with you re: film vs digital stills

    1. You're right, I haven't shot with a really high end DSLR in a while. I was primarily speaking about the time when the industry was in transition. But I stand by my statement that it is easier to be a great photographer now, then it was then. You can see what you're shooting when you shoot it. You can't do that with film, and it is that simple.

      thanks for the comment.