For every cover of SLO Life that I shoot, Tom (the editor of the magazine) asks me to write a couple short paragraphs about the portrait session. The first time Tom included this small write-up in the magazine was when I started shooting the covers using my old analog Hasselblad, rather than my digital gear. As a result, when writing these pieces, I’ve often discussed the process of shooting film, thinking that it may be interesting to older readers who remember being limited to a mere 36 exposures per roll, or to younger readers who’ve grown up accustomed to the instant feedback of digital photography. What I haven’t written about is why I choose to shoot film. The answer is simple but can easily get complicated…
I shoot film so that I can shoot medium format.
I’ll spare you the plodding explanation of different film/sensor formats. There’s plenty of that kind of thing on the web already, and trust me when I say that most of it is tremendously boring. Pretty much all you need to know is that most digital camera sensors are small, but medium format film is big. Is there bigger film than medium format? Oh yeah. Are there also bigger digital sensors? Yup. But if we’re limiting ourselves cameras that you can carry around relatively easily, and can afford to buy without a taking out second mortgage, the formula holds true: film = big, digital sensors = small.
Why does that matter? Physics.
The bigger your film plane – whether it’s a digital sensor or a piece of chemical emulsion – the faster things go from sharp where the camera is focused to blurry where it’s not. Have you noticed how, when you take a picture with your cellphone or a compact camera, pretty much everything is in focus, whether it’s close to the lens or in the background? That’s because the sensor is tiny. Sometimes you want to have everything in focus, but sometimes you don’t. Bigger digital cameras with bigger sensors than your cellphone let you make this choice to a degree, but with medium formal film, the focus falls off from sharp to blurry very fast. In these portraits of Eric Meyer, my camera is focused on Eric’s eyes, and you can see that they’re tack-sharp, along with his nose and mouth, which are all about the same distance from the camera as his eyes. But even just a tiny bit further from the lens the focus falls off, and things get softer and softer as they recede into the background.
When I look at these pictures, I really lock in on Eric’s eyes and his expression, because they’re super sharp. Anything that might be distracting is quite soft, so it doesn’t pull attention away from the center of his face. For me, the effect that I get using medium format film for a close headshot like this evokes a sense of sitting across from a person, having an intimate conversation with them. That sense of intimacy is a critical part of why these pictures work for me, and why I enjoy working with medium format film.