In Development: Adventures in Film, Volume 24

This episode of In Development is an interesting one for me. I took all of these images on one cold and snowy September morning in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was one of the first (and only) landscape photo adventures I went on where I planning on shooting primarily film. For the most part, I shoot film for the enjoyment of it and for the way it causes me to approach photography…not so much for the technical benefits of the medium itself. When I’m going on a “serious” photo adventure, I tend to fall back on digital: the ability to ensure you’ve nailed focus and exposure in the field, the quick autofocus, the ability to switch ISOs from shot to shot, and the exposure latitude of RAW files are all really nice safety nets. But on this morning, I decided to pack up my Mamiya 7II and use it as my primary camera while I hunted a sunrise at Dream Lake and fall colors in the rest of the park.

I reached Dream Lake long before sunrise and picked out a spot with an interesting foreground composition while watching the stars and trying to stay warm. As morning drew closer, low clouds started to roll in over the peaks and I started to get worried. From my position I couldn’t get a clear view of the eastern horizon, so I wasn’t sure if I’d even get to see a sunrise. I lucked out, though, and there was enough of a gap on the horizon that the morning light crept through for a few minutes to create some absolutely lovely alpenglow and one of the best sunrises I’ve ever experienced.

My Mamiya was planted firmly on a tripod, and I was making exposures every few minutes prior to sunrise, and then I was able to grab a few during the brief period of alpenglow. I was shooting with Velvia 50, which has a very narrow dynamic range (4–5 stops maximum), so when the light appeared I knew that in order to have any chance of capturing the vibrancy of the morning light on the clouds and peaks I’d have to place that part of the scene in zone 5–6 and let the foreground essentially fall to black (since the difference in the brightness of the peaks/clouds and the foreground was at least four stops). Thankfully, I was able to retain some detail in the foreground by using a two-stop soft neutral density graduated filter on a few of the shots, though.

I felt really good about the shoot at the time, and I was expecting great results when I was downloading the scans from the lab. Unfortunately, the results were not great. They weren’t terrible…they just weren’t anything special. I was able to revive two of the images (the only two below that are edited) by fixing color casts (bad scanning?) and adjusting contrast and sharpening in Photoshop and Lightroom, and I’m very happy with those two images. They reflect what I remember from the scene, and I think they’re powerful shots. I had to do quite a bit of work to get them to this point, though, and the results aren’t anything better than what I could have gotten with one of my digital cameras. I’m left wondering what the point of shooting film in a context like this is anyways…

Let’s look at the alleged benefits of film one by one and evaluate them in the context of landscape photography:

  • Mindset/Shooting Slowly: This is probably the number one benefit of shooting film for me. There are times where the light is changing so rapidly that you need speed to get the shot in landscape photography, but for the most part these cases are rare. In general, I think this benefit holds strong in landscape photography.
  • Dynamic Range and Exposure Latitude: Some people argue that film has better dynamic range (the spread in brightness in a scene that can effectively be captured by the sensor/film) and exposure latitude (the amount of accidental over- or underexposure that can still produce an effective image) than digital cameras. As digital cameras get better and better, though, this is less and less of an advantage. Plus, when shooting landscape images you’ll often be using slide film, which has a much narrower dynamic range and exposure latitude than digital cameras. This film advantage – if it even exists anymore – exists solely for color negative film.
  • Colors: If you’re shooting slide film, the lack of dynamic range and exposure latitude is hopefully offset by the vibrancy and rendition of the colors. In my experience, slide film can produce powerful colors, but I usually end up doing a lot of editing on the images in order to get the colors right. Just take a look at the unedited vs. edited images in this post for an example. I’m not sure if this is due to poor scanning from the lab or what…
  • Little Editing Required: Some people say they love shooting film because they don’t have to spend a ton of time tweaking the colors, contrast, etc. in order to get everything just the way they want. For street shots and candid photography, I’m mostly on board with this (depending on how good/consistent your lab is). But for landscape photography, this has not been the case for me. I still end up needing to do a lot of editing on my film images, and I arguably end up doing even more editing on them than my digital images.
  • Size: When shooting medium format film, you always have the option of drum scanning your negative and being able to print something on the order of 4×5 feet at really high quality. Awesome! However, when I factor in the frequency with which I want to print that large and the cost (~$50 for a single drum scanned image) it becomes a little less of a benefit. Furthermore, the typical scans I get back from the lab cost about $30 (along with the development) and are at about 4500 pixels on the long side. That’s smaller than the files produced by my current Fuji files. And finally, when shooting with a rangefinder like the Mamiya, the focus usually isn’t perfect, so blowing the images up large can actually make the image look even worse. So much for the size advantage.

Add to these alleged benefits the fact that film costs more to shoot and all the other benefits of digital I mentioned at the beginning of this post, and I really can’t see any reason to shoot film on my landscape shots (outside of just having fun). Yes, you can get great results, but in the circumstances that produce great film images I don’t my digital cameras would be incapable of producing similar quality images…and the converse just isn’t true.

All that rambling and ranting aside, I really like a few of these images! 🙂 They were taken with my Mamiya 7II with the 80mm lens on Fuji Velvia 50. The negatives were developed and scanned by The FIND Lab, and I made some color, contrast, and tonal curve adjustments in Lightroom and Photoshop on a few of the images.

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