Of all the photographic forms I enjoy the most, the portrait stands above the rest. I’m not the first to observe that they uniquely capture a moment in time (to me, the essence of photography) and a great portrait will tell you something about the sitter. But perhaps the simplest joy I receive out of the exercise is that I know that my work will be meaningful to someone – whether it is the sitter or someone who loves them.
I wanted my department to have a unique look when it came to our headshots for the university website. As a history department, I thought a vintage style would suit us and it became my rationale for getting out my circa 1953 Rolleiflex 2.8c and over the course of the 2021-22 academic year, grab portraits as I could.
Another development, if you will forgive the pun, is that I decided to take the leap and begin processing my own color film again. I had done so thirty years ago in college, but if you know anything about the process, you know that it is very temperature sensitive. Back in the 1990s this meant wasting a lot of water by immersing chemistry bottles in a running water bath. Fortunately today we have better options. A company called CineStill is not only making simplified C41 and E6 chemistry, they have a sous vide unit designed to mix and bring your chemistry up to exactly the right temperature in a matter of seconds. I can’t recommend it enough.
I began using E6 (CineStill CS6) process on Fuji Velvia 100 film that I happened to have on hand. I’ve always enjoyed the color balance but I soon learned when I went to buy more that it had been recently discontinued! It was also too saturated for the kind of portrait work I had in mind. Enter Kodak Portra 160, which combined with the maximum 1/500 shutter speed and wide maximum aperture of the Rollei makes a great pairing for outdoor work.
At the same time I decided to take in parallel more conventional digital headshots with my Fuji X-T4 and Fujinon 56/1.2 portrait lens. Some of my colleagues actually preferred these much more modern (and did I say conventional?) images. And they did look good. There’s no missing the focus like one might with the Rollei, and the crisp, dust-free images certainly made my life easier.
Shooting digital and film side by side revealed something that I wasn’t expecting, however, and that was the remarkable performance of Portra 160. The Fuji raw format affords significant latitude and stands alongside the rest of the manufacturers who sit at the technological forefront of modern mirrorless cameras, but I was finding that there was simply more latitude in my Portra negatives. The nearly 90MB .tif files produced by the Epson 850v scanner (using Silverfast‘s excellent software) left me with just so much with which to work. If I exposed the shot properly in the first place, the rest was relatively easy.
This brought me to a conclusion about shooting film that I think may get lost at times: Particularly among those who shoot vintage equipment (and by some measure this is everyone shooting film) there is a tendency to rely on the notion of effect. That is, the color science, glass, and optical geometry of medium format film becomes in of itself what lends the image character, and thus, becomes the photographer’s main goal. We see this in the extreme with conscious decisions to use expired film or embrace of low-grade optics. And I suppose there is an aesthetic to all of it. But it seems to me that in doing so, film photographers are forgetting the potential for performance in film. That film isn’t about a sort of optical degradation reflective of the past, but instead something that can yield performance that under the right conditions, with the right equipment, rivals and even surpasses high-end digital imaging.
Below is my image gallery, which you can enlarge by clicking on any photo.