Clearing house

I threw away a load of old slides.

I never thought I would do this, but that day did come. Let me explain, for all those who are feeling faint.

I have been scanning all my old slides and colour negatives, but doing the slides first. For a time I shot almost exclusively Agfachrome, then I had an Ilfochrome phase. Some of the slides, particularly the Ilford stuff, have not aged well. Neither have some of the colour negatives. I also seem to have interminable generic holiday snaps.

So I scan the slides at a reasonable resolution for later use. I don’t bother scanning the junk or duplicates. The good ones get scanned at the maximum resolution I can do.

Then all the slide boxes got marked and stored. And then I realised how much space they took. Having scanned them, I wondered if I would ever open the boxes again? At least the scans can be catalogued and searched – there is no practical way to search through all those plastic boxes.

So an opportunity arose to dispose of what was essentially a load of waste plastic. And now they are gone.

Do I miss them? Considering that they were in storage for years and, until I scanned them, I’d forgotten what was on them, then no. Do I regret throwing them away? Not yet. Do I have good backups of my scans? I hope so.

I can’t see myself doing this with my black and white negatives. Partly because they are much easier to store, but also because I don’t routinely scan every negative on the film. I have a scanned contact sheet and a catalogue description, plus the folder contains any images I have scanned or worked on. It works too: I wanted a particular old photo of a friend recently and I was able to find it immediately.

I know there has been some talk of people throwing away their negatives. I’m not there yet and I may never be, but I have taken one step on the road to tidiness.

What do you think? Do you throw away your slides or negatives?

The opposite of camouflage

So, photography is drawing with light. What we draw is what is visible, so the camera needs to see the subject.

It occured to me that what we want of the subject is the opposite of camouflage. Just as there is a list of things to consider in making something hidden, the same things must be aspects of visibility. So we can make a subject more visible by increasing one or more of the list.

The components of camouflage are:

  • Silhouette
  • Shape
  • Shine
  • Shadow
  • Sound
  • Speed or movement
  • Shade or colour

I guess we can skip sound but the rest of these are ways of making something more (or less) visible. Silhouette is a shape against a lighter background, while shape is just a recognisable shape. The others are more obvious.

To take them in turn: think of a black cat against a black wall. You’d only see it if it smiled. Against a white wall it’s visibly a cat just by its outline. Think of the silhouette adverts that Apple ran for the iPod – was there any doubt what the shapes were or what they were doing?

Shape is probably what we see most often. Changing the shape of a subject through viewpoint can sometimes make it unrecognizable. Think of those ‘can you see what this is’ pictures. So the alternative would be to make the shape very visible and clear. Some shapes are so distinctive that you don’t need to see the whole object.

Shine is a good one. You must have seen adverts for cars or booze that use the shapes of the highlights or shine on the curves and surfaces to show the shape of something. Shiny things will outline themselves if you light them well. There is a Greg Heisler portrait of Luis Sarria that uses the shine and sheen of his skin to make his face and hands visible. There is no background, no context, just this amazing portrait.

Fins & Chrome, Stockton.

The opposite of using a reflection or highlight to reveal a subject would be to use the shadows to shape it. Think of high key portraits where a few shadows shape the rest. Or perhaps how butterfly lighting reveals the nose with a single small shadow.

With movement, think how panning can freeze and isolate an object against a blurred background. Or perhaps how a long exposure can reveal the scene behind the cars or pedestrians.

Rally car at night, sparking as it lands at the bottom of a hill.

Colour should be obvious, but less so to those of us who shoot black and white. This is where filters or film choice matter. A green hill against a blue sky could be rendered as a grey mush. Or you could use a red or green filter or either ortho film or one with extended red sensitivity. For colour choices you have the whole colour wheel to go at. If you want to know why you should care, read the analysis of colours in a cinema film here. All that, for something I thought was just the background.

So there you go – six ways to change the visibility of your subject. Or, I suppose, if you follow the instructions and not their opposite, to hide from the paparazzi.

The commitments

The idea for this developed between listening to Dan Bassini on the Sunny 16 podcast and scanning some old colour slides. Dan was saying how, when shooting film, you can’t be sure you got the shot. There’s no chimping analogue.

That goes double with slide film. Most negative films have a fair amount of latitude, so you are generally safe to overexpose a bit. With black and white film you could also under-develop a bit too. This reduces contrast and means you will likely have something usable on the negative. Think of it as raw for analogue. (And that’s raw, not RAW. It’s not an abbreviation. It’s as annoying as the people who write about LEAN methods.) </rant>

But slides. That really is photography without a safety net. Narrow range of latitude, precise exposure and no way of getting back a blown highlight. What you shot is what you got.

The Enid
Slide film – it captures the colour of the light at the time.

This is why large format shooters play around with spot meters and Zone systems – they are paying the same (or more) per shot than I pay per roll. I’d be nervous too. At least with 35mm I can easily bracket the exposure and not make my wallet cry.

Shooting slide film in large format must be a scary commitment. No way of anticipating what you’re getting and no way to save it if you cock it up. Back in the old days the large format people used to shoot tests on Polaroid, but that’s no longer possible. Perhaps what you do now is take a test shot on an old digital camera that can display a histogram or do the blinking highlights thing. The old sensors had about the same dynamic range as slide film so could show you where you were likely to lose the highlights. But if you’re doing that, why not shoot on digital anyway?

Deck Chair
It really is possible to shoot spur-of-the-moment even on unforgiving slide film.

This commitment thing is not new though. It wasn’t until Polaroid came along that anyone could see how a picture turned out until later. And it was only roll film that allowed an easy second shot. This means that most of the important pictures in history were taken without immediate confirmation. Want to know what it was like? Turn off the picture review on your digital camera.

It’s not impossible but it is pretty difficult to change or adjust a slide later. I scan mine at the lowest contrast setting I have and it can still be difficult to get the full tonal range. I’ve got an HDR setting in the scanning software but that just means I have to convert it later – I might as well get it as right as I can at the scanning stage. Like negatives, good slides scan easily but the bad ones are buggers. By bad I mean deep shadows. There’s detail in there but it’s difficult to get at without losing the highlights or the colour saturation. Some of my slides are old too, so the colours can be all over the place.

Why shoot slide film at all then? Well, I don’t any more. I used to shoot reversal film exclusively though, as it gave the best rendition of colour. This was when we all shot colour negative and had it developed and printed at any convenient one-hour photo shop. Remember Max Spielmann? Even supermarkets used to develop film. But the prints were all done by a machine that averaged the exposure and colour correction, so a good print was a thing of both wonder and beauty. For some reason I decided that slides were the way to go, as the colour wasn’t altered by the processor. Fine if you have a projector, a screen and forgiving friends. Which is why I ultimately switched to colour print.

Yugoslavia
How I miss Agfachrome 50s

I still have a shed-load of old colour slides though, as I said, which I am gradually scanning. My favourite film, Agfachrome, has held up really well and was always forgiving. The Ilfochrome has gone magenta and the Orwochrome varies from ok to almost mono. The commitment is still there though, in little series of bracketed shots and the occasional punchy colours and contrast that sing. I know Ektachrome is back, but I really can’t see myself using it. I can get what I want from digital colour, that’s easier to process and show later and where the extra bracketing shots are effectively free.

It was a grand time, I have some pleasing pictures, but I just can’t find that commitment in me again.