Ever since I first started photography—like most people who do, I imagine—I dreamt of achieving a level of skill that would allow me to make money with it. I’ve never had the illusion that I’d be able to quit my day job; professional photographers don’t make that much. I had settled on the goal of perhaps getting enough money to pay for a new piece of gear every so often. Do enough weddings, for example, and get a new L-series Canon lens or a new digital body.
Then film came along and turned my whole world upside down. First off, it made my photography better. You’ve heard the arguments—you’re forced to shoot less, so you get more discerning before you even trip the shutter. However, it also seemed to be harder to choose film as a means to shoot for hire. Let’s continue with the example of a wedding. What’s great is that I can actually separate the cost of film and processing from the cost of what you might call my “talent and time. ” After all, shooting film is a lot less work than shooting with a digital camera. If I were to shoot the wedding digitally, there’s the very joyless tasks of downloading the images from the camera, sifting through the images, post-processing, and so forth. It gets a lot harder to determine what all that extra time is worth, whereas if I send my film out to a lab, the costs are set in stone beforehand, and it’s easier to point out to the theoretical client what their money is going towards.
Nevertheless, I get the sense that a lot of photographers getting hired nowadays are digital shooters who don’t take the cost of their post-processing effort into consideration, or even worse, who don’t even do any post-processing. As a result, they charge way less than what I would, and probably less than what they should, all things considered. In the end, though, it all leads to me having a lot of enthusiasm and zeal for doing a job that no one really wants to pay me to do.
Getting the Gig
Even though the market forces are conspiring against me, film photography is still an activity that I’m fiercely devoted to, and I let everybody know it through Facebook, Flickr, and everyday conversation. I don’t know how many of my friends think (or know) the level of my obsession with my hobby. But since I never shut up about it, it was no surprise that, when my department threw its annual winter party in January, I was asked to be the event’s quote-unquote “photographer. ” Since I’d be taking pictures anyway, I wouldn’t get paid, but they would reimburse the costs of film, processing, and a set of prints. This wasn’t a paid gig, per se, but it was tremendously helpful in keeping me hopeful that I’d eventually start getting real jobs.
Another instance of being a real extrovert about my enthusiasm for film was when I paid a visit to Dr. Steven Garrett after getting my Hasselblad 500C/M. I had needed to pay him a visit for something unrelated, and I always carry my camera with me. When he saw the camera, he remembered its impressive reputation back in its heyday and I took a simple portrait. After it was processed, he was quite fond of the photo:
Dr. Garrett, by the way, is someone who understands the importance of media, especially in an era when most researchers are willing to settle for any photo taken on a cheap point-and-shoot digital camera. For example, during a recent conference, he teamed up with a correspondent from MSNBC to put on a mock interview session, to convey how important it is as a scientist to be able to communicate in such a public forum. He’s clearly a man who puts stock in quality of media when trying to communicate something. So, it should have come as no surprise that Dr. Garrett approached me about having his portrait taken in the lab for some upcoming reports and presentations. I was slightly surprised, however, that in addition to picking up the tab for my film and processing costs, he’d be compensating my time and effort as a photographer. I just landed a real gig.
Doing the Job
So now, Dr. Garrett was not just a professor, but also a client. The first step would be determining what it is that he would want—this was easy. We determined that he wanted posed shots in his lab alongside his various instruments and apparatuses. The more difficult task was the pre-visualization of the shoot—what I imagined the finished results would look like. When I first accepted the job, we went straight to the lab so that I could see the equipment he was going to be “using” and the various light sources in the room.
Ever since the days when I was a digital photographer I followed the work of blogger David Hobby, who runs strobist.com, an excellent resource for learning the basics of off-camera lighting, especially on location. Correspondingly, I also had all the necessary equipment for doing an on-location portrait session—speedlights, umbrellas, grids, and so forth. So as we visited the lab, I started toying around with ideas about which of these I’d want to use.
What bothered me about the lab was a large window to the left, which would be letting in a lot of daylight from where I didn’t want it. Fortunately, it had a curtain on it that helped cut down on the light. Also, electronic flash dumps its light so fast that you can use ultra-fast shutter speeds. I would be able to employ the 1/250-second flash sync speed of my Nikon FE2 to effectively kill the effect of the window, leaving very little time for the location of the sunlight to ruin an otherwise good shot.
Despite having both feet firmly planted in film, I never did get rid of my digital camera and I’m glad I didn’t. I used it on this occasion to proof the lighting locations and relative intensities. In the days before digital, this was done primarily with Polaroid backs, which would give you an idea of how the lights looked within a minute. However, with Fuji Packfilm being expensive and time consuming, I had no moral qualms about using a digital camera to give me instant feedback. Of course, I also have my trusty Gossen Luna-Pro F, a light meter which will determine exactly which aperture I would need in case my digital camera didn’t work.
So, on the day of the shoot, I let myself into the lab half an hour early to start setting up the equipment. Then, I got Dr. Garrett to come down and let me proof the lights, which thankfully were nearly spot-on when I took my first digital shot. I reviewed the LCD display with him—yes, we “chimped” together—and then put the camera down. He asked why I was putting the digital camera down, and I said, “That was just to make sure everything looks good. The real photos get taken on film.” The rest of the shoot was spent taking the photos and directing my subject to pose in certain ways. Surprisingly, this was the tougher part of the shoot, and I imagine it might have gone much more poorly had I not had a good rapport with Dr. Garrett.
So, here are some “select” pictures from the shoot. For those who are interested, I used two Nikon SB-26 speedlights, one through a white umbrella on camera left, and the other with a cyan gel through a 1/8″ grid on camera right. Both were triggered with PocketWizard transceivers. My camera of choice was a Nikon FE2, loaded with Agfa Precisa CT 100 slide film:
More Gigs To Come…?
I think that the biggest takeaway from this gig is that I can actually do this sort of thing on film, and choosing to do so isn’t a disadvantage. The pictures came out splendidly, and more importantly, Dr. Garrett thought they were well worth the money. However, I also learned where I’m lacking doing portraits. Suppose I were working with someone I didn’t know that well, or even a fashion model. I need to learn to build a rapport quickly, and to know what I want from a person who is posing for me. Using film would be a double-edged sword: I don’t get any instant feedback that the images are working, but the fact that I’m confident enough to forego that feedback should translate well for my subject.
And lest I forget, I should start investigating what the deal is with taxes. I have access to a small business center on campus, so it may be worth my time to drive over and see if anyone can give me some tips so that I don’t (For the record, I’m considering the check a “donation.” After all, the entire sum can be blown on my next order from Freestyle Photographic Supplies.)
In the end though, I get the feeling that I may start getting some more portrait gigs. I’m also comfortable with the fact that I’m going to be shooting everything on film. Whether that’s a deterrent or an incentive remains to be seen.
Dan Domme is a film photography enthusiast and PhD student in the Acoustics department of Penn State. He’s been a serious photographer for the last two years, and now shoots nearly exclusively on film. You can view his Flickr stream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/yeknom02/ or his photography blog at http://dommephoto.wordpress.com/