Story behind the shot - #1

Some of my favourite photos hold a special place in my heart, not only because I like them as images but also because they remind me of what it took to get the shot. This is the first post in a new experimental series - story behind the shot - where I share, well, the story behind a shot!

Here's the photo:

I made this photo at Hong Kong University. It was a Sunday, and with the day off, I was wandering around the university with a roll of Kentmere 400 black and white film loaded in my Leica M6. My goal that day was not so much to shoot as to test the film, pushing it to ISO 1600 for the first time to see how it would perform. So, I was wandering around the university looking for interesting subjects, shooting pretty randomly.

Towards the end of the roll, I saw a girl climbing up the outside of a building. Intrigued, I followed her, and watched as she climbed up to a hidden spot and sat on a curved overhang. The only way I could get a closer look would be to climb up with her, which would be weird since the space was so small. Then I realized that she was sitting on a windowsill. Maybe I could see her from the other side of the window inside! 

I sprinted inside.

She was two floors above the entrance, so I made my way up the stairs. As I reached her floor, I saw her sat on the windowsill either reading a book or on her phone. If I could see her, she could see me, so I would have to be discreet.

Window light on a cloudy day, a dim interior - the lighting conditions were tough and I needed to meter without her noticing. I turned to another window and took two meter readings - one from an inside wall, one pointing out the window - and set my exposure.

I turned towards her.

Her legs were lined up perfectly with the metal bars on the window. It was a captivating image. I framed, focused, and quickly snapped an image and advanced the film. But before I could line up the next shot, she saw me.

She turned and stared straight at me and my camera...before waving with a huge grin on her face!

I waved back. It was a lovely moment, but I also realized that the candid moment was lost forever. I couldn't line up another shot because every time I did she would look towards the camera, so I waved, gave her a thumbs up, and left.

As I made my way home that day, I was excited but also worried. Did I get the exposure right? Did I miss focus? Did I hold the camera steady enough or would there be camera shake? Would Kentmere 400 hold up when pushed to ISO 1600? Such are the perils of shooting film, but also part of the fun.

When I got home, I couldn't wait to develop the film in my makeshift darkroom (i.e. my bathroom).

Load. Measure. Mix. Develop. Stop. Fix. Wash. 

When I was done and had hung up the negatives to dry, the first thing I did was look for this frame. It looked good. Phew. After scanning the negatives, I was so excited when I saw this image on screen.

It was perfect. The shot was exactly what I had visualized in my head at that moment.

Not only did it look great (Kentmere 400 is good stuff pushed to 1600 in HC 110 developer), but I will also never forget the rollercoaster of emotions I felt getting this shot. The exhilaration of realizing the photographic possibility as I watched her climb, the focus in getting ready for the shot, the relief in seeing her wave after noticing me, and the anticipation before developing and scanning the shot - these are the moments that make me love street photography and love shooting film. 

This photo remains one of my favourites of all time. It's printed big and hanging on my wall.

Why I shoot film

Film is experiencing something of a renaissance, which is awesome! I'm lucky to live in Hong Kong, one of the best places in the world to be a film photographer. Film, labs, chemicals, and used gear are available in abundance, and the city offers everything I could possibly want to shoot, from street and architecture to landscapes and nature.

I've read a lot of "Why you should shoot film" articles on the web evangelising the virtues of film - how it slows you down, how the tonality and look of film can't be replicated in digital, and so on.

To be honest, I don't buy a lot of it. Let's be clear: 35mm "full frame" film isn't up to digital standards in terms of detail, sharpness, and lack of grain/noise - not at comparable ISOs at least. Medium format is a different story, but if you're looking for the cleanest shots with maximum detail, digital is the way to go.

There is something to be said for slowing down while shooting, but it's not necessarily inherent to film. When I shoot digital, I can easily shoot 700+ shots a day, whereas when I shoot film I rarely shoot more than two rolls. But there's no reason a photographer can't be disciplined and slow down while shooting digital. There's also no reason why you can't burn through film like there's no tomorrow - when I see a scene that catches my eye, I have no qualms burning an entire roll working the scene. 

It also depends on the camera. Shooting an old manual camera like a TLR or medium format folding camera, of course I'm going to slow down. Advancing the frame, setting shutter speed and aperture, manual focusing, and calculating exposure when there's no light meter do force you to think about each shot. But, if I'm shooting my Contax T2 where everything is automated, I burn through shots almost as quickly as I do on digital - except on film it costs me more money.

So, why do I shoot film?

Simple, because it's FUN.

I find shooting film immensely enjoyable, especially with mechanical cameras that don't need a battery to run. I have to focus entirely on the shot; no chimping allowed. There's nothing to think about except making the image: no menus, no automatic settings. If anything goes wrong, I know it's my fault and can fix it. I get to experiment with different films, each with a unique look, as well as different cameras because vintage film cameras can be so cheap - although prices are rising fast! Seeing my images afterwards is like opening presents at Christmas.

The whole process is immensely satisfying, and that's why I usually reach for a film camera when I go out. I even find developing film relaxing and enjoyable (though scanning sucks...).

I develop most of my photos in my bathroom. It's not as difficult as it might seem at first, and you don't need much! All you need is:

  • Changing bag
  • Development tank (I use a Paterson tank) 
  • Beakers and syringes for measurements
  • Thermometer
  • Mixing tool (I use a simple handheld cake mixer)
  • Chemicals: these are easy to find online, and lots of photo shops in Hong Kong carry them too. For black and white film you need a) developer, b) stop bath, and c) fixer. For C-41 colour film you need a) developer, b) bleach, c) fixer. For black and white film, I use Kodak HC 110 developer, Rollei Citrin stop bath, and Kodafix fixer. For colour films, I use the Rollei Digibase C41 Ready To Use kit, which comes pre-mixed.

Once I'm done, I hang my film to dry in my shower, scan the negatives using an Epson V700 scanner, and make prints with a Canon Pixma Pro-10 printer.

That might not be for you. I can see why film could be frustrating to some. You have to wait to see your pictures. You only get at most 36-38 shots per roll. There's no way to check your images. If you screw up, it costs money. Images are rarely as crisp as digital. But, if you enjoy the process of making images and haven't tried film yet, I encourage you to give it a go. Find a family member's old film camera, or pick one up online or from a local shop for cheap and have fun. 

Happy shooting!