film advanced

thoughts & research into film shooting and processing.

Emulating Film with Filters and the Leica M-D typ 262

So VSCO discontinued support for their desktop Lightroom and Photoshop film presets in March, due in no short part to mobile filters being far more profitable than profession tools.

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These preset kits have helped me more than once with my editing workflow- I like to get the approximate look with them and tweak from there. Even if your not looking to emulate a film look completely, they give you a great starting base to modify and start making your own preset looks. In many ways, VSCO is partly responsible for the renewed appreciation of the ‘film look’ in the mass market dating back to 2012 when these packs were initially released.

Originally, each pack cost $119 each! Maybe back then, paying this price seemed reasonable compared to actual film processing, but by today’s standards it's hard to compete with many other mobile platforms offering quality film filters for free. Instagram and Wifi-to-phone applications are so ubiquitous now, that Lightroom presets are an afterthought compared to plugging the much more marketable 20$ year subscription.

Simultaneously Fujifilm has also announced the discontinuation of Superia 1600- which for me was a real blow. High Speed films were my favourite to shoot with, and the grain and colors in Superia are fantastic. But now that prices have skyrocketed on the last of the stock (and on all FujiFilm), this is probably the last roll of it that I will ever shoot.

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For my last few shots left on a roll of Superia 1600 (also known as Natura, but its exactly the same), I decided to compare it to the digital preset, to see how closely the filter would resemble the real thing. I shot these on the same lens (35mm Summicron ASPH) and the same settings and put them side by side.

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So first of all, there is a noticeable difference in quality, because the film scan is lo-res (more apparent in viewing the full size files). But ignoring that, which is mostly inconsequential to this comparison, I have to say, the greatest variation between the two is grain structure, but digital grain simulations never looks like the real deal because of the lack of randomisation. In terms of color, once you have the temperature right, they have a very similar treatment. Which is also kind of interesting because I didn’t shoot with a color correcting filter, so my lab gets points for correctly color calibrating this.

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The interesting thing is, I shot my digital on the Leica M-D, which is ironic because it simulating not only the VSCO film but also the experience of shooting it on film. I had no back screen to check, just a light meter inside the viewfinder and aside from lack of an advance lever, it was an identical feeling. When I loaded the images out of the SD card, I had them set to apply the Superia 1600 filter automatically, so getting the pictures onto Lightroom is like an extra large contact sheet or running it through the SP-3000.

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When I bought my M-D I thought it was a going to be a once in a lifetime camera, that Leica would bring out and discontinue once they realised the ridiculousness of a digital camera without an LCD. It makes your job harder, for no better reason than romantic nostalgia. And that’s also why I love photography and weird cameras in particular. As much as I like shooting for the product, I also enjoy the process just as much, and for all the frustrations I have with the M-D, the moments where I nail the picture are worth it. It seems that part of the market agrees with me, because Leica has released the M10-D with the same concept and consumer in mind.

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For me this fusion makes a lot of sense- shooting with a camera like the M-D simplifies photography into its most basic components, while also shedding the tedious work associated with development. For some that process is a joy, but for me as an ex-minilab worker some of that joy has been sucked out of it for me. I am also used to being able to shoot a roll, and have it dev and scanned by the end of day on the way in and out of work, so when I drop a roll and they tell me to come back in a week to pick it up, the appeal has long faded. Especially when I understand the process involved.

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I started shooting with toy cameras like the Digital Harinezumi, and that’s what the M-D kind of embodies for me; it’s a grown up toy and there’s no shame in that. I love the kind of process that comes with shooting the M-D; streamlined and simplified but mainly for the novelty and the feel but with far more than just 36 exposures. For me, the emulation of the look has gotten so good that there really isn’t much need to use the real thing anymore.

After working for such a long time in the film lab especially, a lot of the nostalgia and enthusiasm I had for film process has dissipated. For a time, I would process up to 120 rolls of film a day- from pulling the leader out of the canister, to development, scanning and packing. In the holidays we got so crazily busy that even holding a canister of film made me feel physically sick from the association with what had become stressful and tedious work.

I think it’s like that Otto Von Bismark quote, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”

Shooting with film emulation presets and a Leica M-D is my equivalent of Impossible Meat; a sustenance to a hunger that I can no longer sate, because I can’t stomach the process behind the slaughter of animals. Aside from the odd experiment, I’ve decided I’m pretty much done with film for the time being. I used to be just a weekend shooter- which is fine for film, because it doesn’t start to dominate every partition of your life. But now that I take 1000’s of pictures a month, I need a digital camera, simply because I don’t have the money, nor the space to store piles of negatives, let alone carry them with me overseas.

I think my experience with film too, will reflect the journey that many young late comers may have with the medium. A burgeoning enthusiasm at first, but as they come to shoot more and become more serious about photography, it will be shirked largely for the convenience of digital. Film was my gateway drug into photography, and it taught me to really think about my shots before I clicked each shutter. I learnt from it the tonality of beautiful photographs, from emulating film styles through presets or my own editing technique.

James Cater