My Film Cameras and Gears Journey
Endless Gears Upgrade
The shallow depth of field or the lack of “bokeh” was one of the main reasons for the change.
From Canon 50mm f1.2 LTM to Noctilux 50mm f1.0, my later photography years were a period of endless gears upgrade as I focused heavily on the character of the different lenses. Trying the “King of Bokeh” Summicron 35/2 version 4 was not enough, I upgraded to Summicron 35mm f2 V1, “8 elements”, and this beast has a special power in bringing black and white images to the next level.
You know that feeling when your instinct tells you something isn’t right? I definitely get that with cameras. I’ve listed the gears I tried below. For some, I almost knew immediately that they won’t be the ones I keep, but for others, I might have owned them a couple of times. I strongly believe that the gears you own represent your photography mindset at the point in time; people’s taste and perspective change at different stages, there should be no shame in wanting to try something new out of your usual gears, it’s the variety that would lead you to another stage.
In 2014, I had my first backpacking trip in Germany, that’s when I forced myself to pack one camera and two lenses only. Surprisingly, it was a very pleasant experience. Given that I had so few equipments to play around with, I had a lot of time to fully understand the characteristics and performance of the different lenses and films at a short time. By the end of it, it even got me started on colour negative films.
After so many years, my philosophy is this: to only have one lense at each focal length. Just pick up a lense that you like most, at its best focal length, and start compositing. I am more of a rangefinder person than film SLR because I find rangefinder coupling easier to use. I tried many SLR cameras including Nikon F2, F100, Canon F1, point and shoot cameras Yashica T5, Rollei 35 (and the list goes on), but none of them gave me the full control. After all, I would still choose my Leica M2 over others.
Exploring the Medium Format Cameras
My dark age came in 2013 when I sold all of my beloved Leica cameras. It took me almost a year to start looking at cameras again and that is when I ‘met’ Hasselblad 500CM. I have never tried medium format before and I thought, why not give it a go and see if it can help me pick up my photography passion again.
I quickly moved from 500CM to GW690II simply because I found the focusing screen hard to use and hard to handle. The Texas Leica is very reliable but it was never my first preferred camera, so I found him a new home in 2018. I have tried Pentax 67 twice in 2017, the images impressed me so much, the creamy bokeh from the 105mm f2.4 was superb it was slightly heavy to be carried around. I brought the “Tank” with me on a trip before but I sold it right after, that was when I knew I am not a medium format person.
I am sure everyone has their own habit and preference in capturing images with different cameras. For me, I try to really understand the camera by using it, but if I can’t comfortably enjoy its companion, I will get rid of it. I tried not to have too many items in my dry cabinet. I landed with a Rolleiflex 2.8F in 2017, hoping this creamy lens will do the magic for me. But indeed, this 120 format didn’t work out. I think the reason was because I couldn’t break my personal style and shape it to fit this camera. But if you are a portrait person, you should definitely try the medium format.
Out of Curiosity: Large Format Photography
Now that you are halfway through my article, the logical guess for my next step would obviously be large format. To backtrack slightly, I actually tried Large Format Cameras at a much earlier stage when I was picked up photography because I felt the best way to understand the subject is to start with the traditional equipments. I spent quite some time with the Chinese made Shenhao 4×5 camera sitting on the tripod, a Petzval classic brass lens and a Schneider 210mm f5.6 lens, shot mainly with black and white sheet film and Fujifilm Instant Pack Films.
I was shocked and impressed with the image results from large formats, and this 4×5 (10cm x 12.5cm in actual measurements) gives you rich textures and sharpness as the size of the film is so large. I like how large format photos gives you high quality and you can possess a basic weekend photoshoot set-up at a relatively cheap price. I believe there is always a trade off between size and quality, but I am happy that I experienced the whole process of shooting portraits with large format cameras and enjoyed the time with friends walking around with this wooden box. Its emphasizes is on the communications between the subject and the photographer. You are moving from an “Observer” position to an actual “Involver” place. You stimulate the photographing process because the portraits and movement require extra care. Each shot requires the subject to stay still until the shutter is pressed and usually this process might take up to 2 minutes – focus, check the reading, set the lens aperture, change the aperture back to normal mode and shutter speed, make sure the subject is still holding the position then insert the film black, remove the plate, take the shot.
This form of communication and trust furthered developed myself to be an “involver” in different photography environments, to quickly blend in with the shooting subject and environment.
From Black and White to Color – Golden Age
I first started shooting mostly with black and white films in 2010. Probably similar to many beginners, I was inspired by Magnum photographers. The form and texture of black and white are so strong that they capture the soul and mood of that moment, and at the same time, you can play around with the light and show easily. For my backpacking trips in 2014 and 2015, I shot only with black and white films, and used some color slide film when in Europe. But I still felt that something was missing. There should be warmth in a photo. I went to Cambodia in 2015 and started using color negative films to capture the vibrant colors in South East Asian countries (Cities Snap). I have seen so much work from photographers using color reversal films in these countries, with other popular countries including India, Cuba and Mexico. Before that, my Black and white to color films ratio was 9:1. Between 2016 to 2018, the ratio increased to 7:3, the 70% is color! In 2016, I bought a few rolls of Kodak Super Gold 400 (Jp Ver.), it is cheap with high quality and I especially like the warmth that Kodak films give me.
My favourite black and white film is Kodak Double-X 5222 black and white film. But today, I try to use only 2 different films in Black and White and 2 different films for color. Ilford HP5 and Kodak Tri-X, Agfa Vista 400 and Kodak Portra 400. Occasionally I shoot some Cinestill 800T at night too.
Seasonal changes of a photography journey
It changes depending on the your mood state at the point in time. Have you ever wondered why human has to try so many things, go through trial and error, before knowing what we truly like? Sometimes, I find myself quite stupid, wasting so much time to go round a big circle before finally landing at where I am now. But on the other hand, I know I need that experience. Each small incident from these great memories made me clearer and clearer of what I really want to shoot, and my preference of color palette in the digital world. Another big benefit is, once you have tried everything, you will grow this sense of content with your inner self, and that made me less prone to making impulsive purchase significantly.
What Camera am I using now
So 8 years in, what is my current photography goal? The hardest thing to achieve is not about mastering a camera so that you take a good picture, but how to use a camera to create your own series of images that tell great stories. My ultimate goal is to be able to establish a colour tone and composition style that is unique to my character. I am satisfied with my Leica M2 who has been a great traveling companion; my other favourites also include Hasselblad Xpan II for panoramic shots and the pocket size Rollei 35 T. Go take a look at this short interview clip “Film is alive” if you are interested, it captures some great views on film photography and I had the honor to be featured.
I love film photography because it not only let me capture the scenes I like but freezes the mood with it.