Playing with some HP5 and Tri-X

Over the past few months I’ve been using film again, after about fif­teen years of being sole­ly dig­i­tal in most of my image mak­ing. A few months ago I was reunit­ed with the Nikon FM that I learned on and caught the film bug again. That said, I was nev­er much of a fan of the FM as a gen­er­al walk around town cam­era. It is a great cam­era and beau­ti­ful to use but not far enough removed from my Canon 6D, which I real­ly love. The light meter in the FM is also quite good for the time, but I’m total­ly lazy. Even though as a kid I had learned how to think about light and cre­ate an expo­sure, I’m more like­ly to trust the dot and snap than pause and think.

Sies­ta in Orense, Spain.

A cou­ple of months ago while trolling eBay I came across an old Leica M2 with a Leitz Sum­mar lens for £200. Bar­gain of all bar­gains I imag­ined know­ing it must be a bit of a wreck. Turned out it was. Shut­ter was full of holes, tim­ing was off and the body was leak­ing light.

Repairs of this nature are beyond my novice skills, so I sent it off to Red Dot Cam­eras in Lon­don for an over­haul. Weeks lat­er I got an email to let me know that this one was beyond repair. Dis­ap­point­ed I said thanks and that I’d try myself as this cam­era would be used and not put in a case like most of its gen­er­a­tion. Hours lat­er I got a call say­ing they would do their best and only charge me about 30% of the orig­i­nal esti­mate, only the work would not be guar­an­teed.

Ireland’s Eye

The Sum­mar that was with the M2 has a beau­ti­ful dreamy qual­i­ty sim­i­lar to putting a bunch of vase­line on the fil­ter.  While beau­ti­ful, I can get the same effect in pho­to­shop with a lit­tle more con­trol. Since then, I was able to get a Sum­mi­cron 50mm from about the same peri­od in the 1950’s and have been delight­ed with the results. I blew off a few rolls of colour film wing­ing expo­sures and at times pulling out the dig­i­tal cam­era when I was unsure. The Canon 6D is a pret­ty incred­i­ble light meter… even gives a stun­ning pre­view. 

The Kid

Pre­vi­ous­ly, the clos­est I’d come to a rangefind­er was a Con­tax T2 which isn’t one at all but is clos­er than my SLR cam­eras. The M2 is old and the patch is dim. Focus­ing is work. So much so that you slow down. You find your­self think­ing about the image, the light, the expo­sure, the com­po­si­tion and that light sound­ing click and but­tery Leica wind-on which is sur­pris­ing­ly sat­is­fy­ing. Tak­ing pic­tures of the kids is best done when they are exhaust­ed, unable to move and in excep­tion­al­ly good light.

 Paper tiger. Sutton. Dublin.

Paper tiger. Sut­ton. Dublin.

Work­ing dig­i­tal­ly for so many years has been amaz­ing. Not only are the rewards quick and acces­si­ble. So is the learn­ing. There is a great sense of “got the shot”, it’s there on the screen. The mas­sive res­o­lu­tion and tonal range of raw makes tun­ing all but the worst exposed images a dream. We read about 20 megapix­els and won­der if that is enough. 

Then you load up a roll of film like HP5 or Tri-X. The smell gives me flash­backs to being a kid, it’s unmis­take­able. For quite a few shots I’d look at the back of the M2 after click­ing, for­get­ting that there was no bright full colour screen and laugh to myself. “See you in a few weeks, I guess”. Bet­ter make sure I got the F’n shot? More impor­tant­ly, what do I want the shot to look like? Where are my darks, lights and mid­points? What film do I have loaded?  

Belfast School of Art

Weeks lat­er when the prints arrive it’s quite excit­ing and refresh­ing­ly retro. “oOhs”, “Uhs” and “Mms” fol­lowed by a slight sense of sat­is­fac­tion. Pass­ing around prints is nice, more per­son­al than Face­book, 500px or What­sapp and sparks a much more inter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tion that reminds me that we now have two dif­fer­ent types of shar­ing. One that is real, per­son­al and inti­mate. The oth­er is a whole oth­er con­ver­sa­tion, for anoth­er time. 

Ori­fice, Orpheus

Get­ting scans at the same time as pro­cess­ing is also great. A great reminder of how far we have come. None of that depth of tonal range or res­o­lu­tion found in a RAW file. It just is what it is. You either got or you didn’t. Or got some­thing unex­pect­ed that will work out just fine. Hav­ing less depth in tonal range isn’t a bad thing. The whites are there, the blacks are there as are the mid tones but there is a greater degree of sep­a­ra­tion between them, mak­ing the image more graph­ic, stronger in com­po­si­tion. 

Then, there is that grain. The world of dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy obsess­es about noise and loss of depth at high­er ISOs. Sel­dom is there a dis­cus­sion about the char­ac­ter of that noise. Tri-X and HP5 are beau­ti­ful films both with unique char­ac­ters. They are tonal­ly dif­fer­ent. Their grain pat­terns are dif­fer­ent. Like an old friend, they are sur­pris­ing­ly for­giv­ing and great fun. 

Dad and his island. Sut­ton, Dublin. 

Will I give up dig­i­tal and just use film? Hell no. I’m a geek. I love new tech­nolo­gies and all the oppor­tu­ni­ties they bring. My phone is an amaz­ing cam­era. Using old film and cam­eras is like a cre­ative sav­ings account that pays over time.