Visualisation for Film Photographers
Originally published at Emulsive.org
Visualising a photograph is the act of imagining in one’s mind’s eye how an image will finally appear before it has even been made. It is an essential skill for photographers: the business of assessing a scene or situation and following a series of known steps to get the desired result. Photographers have an array of techniques and media at their disposal, something that can make the task of visualising a daunting one. Arguably, film photographers are at an advantage in this respect because of a considerable limitation of their medium. They cannot quickly ‘preview’ the image (as with digital) and so must rely on previous experience. The task of visualising for a film photographer has its own idiosyncrasies, and these add spice and vibrancy to the act of photographing. What follows is my attempt to summarise a variety of factors that come into play when visualising a film photo, as well as some practical advice gleaned from my own experience as a film user.
The medium itself
Before we begin, it is worth pausing to consider what happens in the act of making a photograph, because this will help us in breaking down visualisation as a concept into smaller, more manageable parts. A photograph is a ‘flat’ representation of a fluid and changing three dimensional world. The photo is fundamentally a translation or re-presentation of the world, mediated by the medium itself. The medium has a particular character all of its own and this puts a stamp on the scene or things in the image. We film lovers have a penchant for film because we enjoy the particular properties that film bestows on our favourite subjects. It creates a recognisable ‘look’, and we engage in a game of searching for situations with which to exploit this translation. We put into play a creative recipe of how we want the world in our images to appear. When we start to learn photography we are unaware of the nature of the medium, or, to put it differently, are inexperienced in the medium and how it might flavour our images. If we are disappointed it is because there is a mis-match between our expectations and what the medium delivers. Given time and a gradual acquaintance with different films, formats, darkroom papers, and so on, we start to tailor our choices and our technique such that our expectations are no longer dashed but fulfilled and pleasurably exceeded.
Starting to visualise
So where do we begin this sizeable task of negotiating so rich a medium, so as to better visualise our work? There is no easy answer to this question, but you can ask some systematic questions as a photographer and hopefully develop an awareness of your own personal recipe or vision and how to achieve it. For me, this is a continual work in progress, a ‘journey’ and not a destination - much as learning about photography more generally is. In a sense, I don’t fully understand or know my vision, but I have a series of preferences which deliver my personal photographic choices. I regularly look at the work of others and observe my own reactions to see if there isn’t something I could take into my own work. I have a mental storeroom of things to try when the opportunity allows, be it a kind of framing, a certain kind of light, a use of colour, an emphasis of grain, and so on. Such a set of preferences has for me, perhaps inevitably, changed over time.
Know thy emulsion
By shooting film we build one strong choice into the game right at the start. What look does your film give? Is it colour or black and white? Fine or generously grained? High or low saturation? Does it have Fuji Velvia greens or Kodak Portra pinks? What a fabulous medium we have as film photographers! Thinking of this choice never fails to excite me, and one of the reasons I might on a given day pick up my film camera rather than my digital one. It is tempting to say there should in principle be no surprises as to how our film will look. This however can be deceptive as the medium so often has surprises in store. I have considerable experience with Ilford’s HP5 plus black and white film, and it can look quite different depending on developer choice and approach to printing. Try under or over-exposing Kodak Ektar and you will be in for a shock: colours range from gentle pastels to radioactive hues. So the advice in this section is simple. Get to know your emulsion through use and testing. This work can’t be circumvented. (Sorry, I didn’t say visualising properly was going to be easy, but what is that is worth doing?)
Focal length determines the field of view with which we frame the world. I hardly need tell you that we will create very different images if we shoot at 21mm rather than 85. Focal lengths have associated traditions, and practitioners will often have a reputation based on a clear preference. Many novices begin with kit zoom lenses that make a wide choice of focal length a basis of their photography. I can’t help feeling that this mitigates against the discipline of learning to ‘see’ through the frame. I know it did in my own practice. I found moving to primes kick-started my photography because I was able to repeatedly assess the scene with a particular field of view in mind. This filters through to the body, and you find yourself instinctively refining your physical position in relation to your subject, often resolving many issues of framing before you raise the camera to your eye. Similarly, you are able to reject a shot, simply on the basis that your position cannot be changed, and that the vantage point doesn’t suit your lens. Sometimes not trying to take a shot is as important as trying. You will notice that what is emerging here is another call to become familiar with the medium you are using. Focal length, as well as associated issues such as subject distance, and the distance between near and far objects, put their stamp firmly on our pictures.
Aperture and shutter speed
Copiously covered elsewhere, so I will only give them a brief but deserved mention. So much depends on what you want to do, so I ask some modest questions. Do you know the difference between your favourite lens at f9 and f11 in your ‘typical’ shooting situation? What about f2.8 and f4? Ask yourself the same type of question about shutter speed, making the necessary adjustments. Shutter speed may be less critical to you, especially if you are not directly using it to creative effect, but a given speed may be stealing sharpness from your shots and you may not know it. Consider using a faster speed. These are crucial aesthetic choices and we can’t neglect them. What suits our vision?
Formats, finders and frame lines
Film format has a direct bearing on depth of field, and the shape of differing formats adds another factor in the character of the image. Moving ‘up’ the formats, from small, to medium and large, yields a decrease in depth of field at a given aperture. 35mm has a peculiarly ‘long and thin’ shape, 645 is more ‘squat’, but not as much as 6x7. 5x4 has a traditional and elegant feel. Such differences impose associations and are built into our cultural memory, shaping our expectations as to what message a picture is trying to convey. Tap into such associations - look at examples by established photographers - and you can begin to make them work for and not against your vision. In any event, you need to be aware of the format in your camera bag and again whether it can be put to good use in the unfolding conditions.
Framelines and viewfinders are perhaps a more subtle, but still important, factor in our visualisation. I revel in the ‘frame within a frame’ view of my Leica M6TTL (with 50mm lens attached). It allows me not just the oft-cited advantage of seeing what is about to enter the frame, but a clear sense of my framing choice as a ‘picture’ plucked out of a continuum of stuff. It puts me in mind of the excellent advice of a friend: when you are looking through a viewfinder and about to press the shutter, ask yourself ‘is this a picture I really want?’ He also told me to scan the edges. Sound advice. The nuances to this multiply when we consider waist level finders, the SLR view, and indeed no finder at all. Equipment and its use has a subtle but pronounced effect on the way we envisage our work and we do better to become aware of it.
Organising the frame
Where do you place your subject in the frame? How do you divide your frame so that it feels harmonious (or disruptive and edgy if that’s what you’re after)? What do you do with the edges? Are objects neatly aligned and the frame acknowledged, or are they cut off, or at such a distance that it feels like no frame exists at all? How does using the frame help you to isolate something in order to create a new reality in the picture? A scene that is mundane to our eyes can look quite surreal when a small part is framed. The frame has the power to make strange and wonderful juxtapositions (look at Joel Meyerowitz’s work for a fine example). How big is your subject relative to the frame? There are some wonderful examples of images where the subject is tiny, and we feel a moment of revelation when our eye finally retrieves it. Look at your work and evaluate what framing devices are in play. Begin to consciously look at the work of others so as to see what devices and tactics you might be missing out on. You may even become aware of devices that you are over-using (I know I have those). Organising the frame thus becomes another folder in our mental storeroom of things to try. We’re making our visualisation work and challenging ourselves to extend or refine our work.
Developing and printing
The darkroom, digital or chemical beckons, and our film must be processed before we have the results. What effect does this have on the look of our pictures and our style? As with all the parts of visualisation, it’s pretty clear that this is a subject in its own right. I can only make a nod in its direction in this short article. Choice of developer, approach to raw processing, choice of darkroom chemistry, paper choice, even film agitation, all leave their mark on the shots. Consider the chemical case. The combination of film and developer produces a specific characteristic curve. Developers can emphasise or suppress grain, they can enhance the feeling of sharpness, or bring out subtle midtones. Yet we don’t see this effect without darkroom paper. Different papers have their own characteristic tone curves and these in turn act on our negatives. I had a moment of revelation last year when I was mapping out film, developer and paper combinations I had tried. The possible combinations are staggering, and we may not even be aware that we are creating such interactions. A paper that you are using may have plenty of contrast in the highlights, but less separation in the midtones. This may be enhancing your negatives or simply working against them. You might find far more satisfaction with a paper that has better midtone separation. To put this in terms of visualisation, your materials might be working against, rather than enhancing, your particular vision.
Putting it all together
Photography is a broad church and the path to improving your personal skills of visualising is determined by the kind of photography you want to do. You have to think about the work you admire, the equipment and media at your disposal, and the technique you are going to use. I am not advocating anything new when I say that preparation and knowledge are key. Yet I’m also inclined to see visualising as a job of continuous work. The richness of our medium has an unending potential to re-invigorate what we do; we continue to learn and the act of taking pictures gives us feedback too. The task of improving our vision is never complete and we should revel in this. If you are able to reflect as I suggest and appreciate the various elements that make up your own photography, you will be in a better position to consciously work on and extend it. Using the list we have drawn up is but a starting point, and I hope a useful prompt for continuing your adventures with the wonderful medium of film.
I can’t end this article without making two recommendations for further reading. Ansel Adams’ book The Camera is a classic statement of the case for visualising. I also direct you to Michael Freeman’s excellent The Photographer’s Eye and its companion books The Photographer’s Vision and Mind. Freeman does a fine job of breaking down different approaches to the frame and framing, and does so with clear visual examples drawn from his own considerable work and experience.
Copyright Richard Pickup 2016