Interview with SIMON CHESTER, UNITED KINGDOM
Get a camera and a roll of film. Shoot. Develop. Repeat.
Mind telling us about yourself and your story on how you got into film photography?
Simon: Hello, I’m Simon. Thanks for sending these questions over and taking the time to read the rambling answers! It’s great to see the community around film going from strength to strength.
I used to work in a pharmaceutical company back in the 90s and I used to have to photography and develop my experiments for documentary purposes. Later I got into running the dark room for the research department. Then I drifted away from photography for a few years until about 2005. I got a Canon Rebel Digital camera, and then a 5D. Great cameras but I have always felt “disconnected” from the photographs take with these cameras.
I couple of years ago I decided to reconnect and use film as a platform to improve my photography. The idea was that since film is expensive I would have to be picky and deliberate about my choice of shots. And hopefully by being more deliberate I would end up getting better.
I picked up a Canon AE-1 for about $80 and spent another $150 on a 50mm and a 24mm lens. It felt so good to look at a split screen and hear the “snik” from the shutter. It was like coming home.
What type of film do you use and what camera do you use it with? Why do you prefer these?
Simon: Primarily, I shoot with Leica M4-2 and a 50mm Zeiss f2.0 Planar. Film wise, I normally have FP4+ and HP5+ in my camera and fridge. In Vancouver in the winter it’s pretty often dark in the winter so HP5+ is always in my camera. I love the look but for shots of people it’s a little too grainy for my taste. In the summer, the FP4+ works better for me outside. The two film stocks look pretty similar to me, especially the way I process them.
I’m basically pretty lazy so I tend to use a stand process (see below) for film development. That can make the grain a little more predominant.
I love the look of the ILFORD film. I think it’s important to try and develop a consistent look to your work even though you need to experiment as well. I’d like people to look at a photo of mine and say it looks like my work.
The camera is a dream. Quite literally. I have been dreaming about it for years! And honestly, it’s as good as I imagined it would be. I dislike my digital cameras due to the separation between me and photography they create. People move so fast and expressions change so quickly that I want to know when I push the shutter the photo is taken. I cannot stand the delay nor the endless arguments I seem to have with the autofocus. The Leica is immediate. It does nothing for me, it doesn’t even have a light meter. But I know it will do exactly what I ask of it. It’s also light (sort of), small, and unobtrusive. I can be present on the street but not obvious.
Right now I’m shooting without a light meter. It wasn’t my plan but I went swimming with my iPhone and I was using that as a light meter. So now I have to try and guess the light which is turning out to be an interesting exercise. I’ve got a bunch of charts in a notebook I carry and I look at the scene and make a choice based on the lighting on the subject. The Sunny 16 rule has been around forever so there’s plenty of guidance on the internet on what to do. Shooting outside during the day is really simple, especially with film like HP5 which has a lot of latitude. There’s another rule I love “f8 and be there” which works well on the street. If you set the speed of the camera to the reciprocal of the iso (eg 1/500 for iso 400 film) and the aperture to f8, you can pretty much guarantee to get a usable negative during daylight outside. Since it’s 2 stops up (f16) to bright light and 2 stops down (f4) to open shade you can be good to focus on the composition instead of worrying about the camera.
I also have a Canon AE-1. Everyone should start with something like this. Ridiculously cheap and fairly bulletproof. The lenses are cheap too and it makes you think about photography not about cameras.
Stand process for Black and White
1:100 dilution of Rodinal
a. Wash film in room temp water for 1-2 min
b. Add Rodinal at room temp and invert 5x
c. Stand for 30 min then invert 5x and stand for 30 more min
d. Pour out Rodinal and then wash 2x in running water (I use this instead of a stop bath since the dilution is so low)
e. Add Fixer (Ilford Rapid Fixer 1:5 dilution) and invert for 30 sec. Stand for 30 sec. Then invert 5x and stand for 60 seconds. Repeat 5x invert and 60 sec for a total fixer time of 3 min. Pour out the fixer back into the container.
f. Wash - fill with water and invert 5x. Empty. Fill with water and invert 10x. Empty. Fill with water and invert 20x. Empty.
g. My final step is to add 1 drop of photoflo to 600ml of water and add that to the tank for 30 seconds. Empty and pull out the film and wipe off GENTLY with a wet shammy and hang.
What do you think film has that digital doesn't have?
Simon: Digital is great these days. The cameras that are available are shockingly good. I can take photos and have them edited in the field and sent to whoever in minutes with just the camera and my tablet. It’s just insane.
But I don’t feel any connection to those photos. They are too ephemeral and inconsequential. I can put my finger on the shutter and spray and pray. I think with digital you shoot lots and apply your artistic vision later.
With film it is very different.
Firstly you can’t see the results until later. So you can’t chimp away. You have to imagine the end result first and then use your hard won experience to try and create that in the moment. There is much more thought process that goes into it. It slows you down and makes you plan your shots. After shooting for a while on film you realize it’s just too painful to take rubbish photos. There are less throw away photos since you have to develop and scan everything rather than just press delete.
Secondly there is a physicality to film photography that doesn’t exist in digital. I’ve been developing film since the 90’s and I still find it magical to see the images on a roll of film coming out of the tank. There is something amazing about creating something that actually exists. And then taking that to the next step and producing prints through an enlarger (something I am planning on for the rest of this year) produces something unique and tangible.
Do you print your own photographs or are you comfortable having them printed in a lab?
Simon: I develop my own negatives since it’s pretty simple and far cheaper at home. Plus I have had just about every single roll of colour back from labs scratched. Seriously, I am shocked by the inability of labs in Canada, UK and Spain to not mess up my negatives. I messed up a few rolls of film in Spain but that was due to the 40 degree heat and me not cooling my developer to low 20 degrees to compensate. I learned pretty fast!
Prints I usually do at home on my Canon printer. But I hope to start enlarging my own prints this winter.
What motivates you to continue making photographs with film?
Simon: A mix of not being able to afford a Leica M10 and the aforementioned love of the process!
Are there any photographers that influenced your way of making pictures?
Simon: I’m not so good at following other photographers. It makes me too emotional and self critical. But I’ve always loved Sebastião Salgado work, both in the look and in the content. My in-laws gave me a copy of Trabajadores and it’s a huge source of inspiration and aspiration.
Do you see any value or merit shooting with film?
Simon: Creating something that exists outside of computers is important. It has a sense of permanence, something that lasts beyond now. It takes time and effort to create and hopefully that means something. Every time I go to see an exhibition by a master it strikes me that the work they are most known for usually comes at the end of a lifetime of work. I recently saw a Monet exhibition and my favourite paintings (bar one from London) were from his later years. Interestingly, he also had to create the garden which he painted. That brings me hope, that my work will continue to improve over my life.
The biggest thing for me is the mental process. Getting out of the rapid shoot mentality and into a visualization mentality. You could also do this with digital I guess, but I haven’t been able to.
What do you think is the future of film photography?
Simon: I’m very happy to see Kodak restarting Ektachrome production. I think there is an increasing interest in film that may keep it ticking over. I think the rise in camera phones is going to gut the consumer digital camera market. I’m not sure that will translate into a restart of film camera production, but who knows? It seems that Japanese Camera Hunter is planning a new 35mm camera. If that is a success maybe others will follow? I guess we should all buy one when it comes out to support the continuance of film!
On the large format side I think it will be years before you can replace a view camera with a true digital option.
What’s your dream photography project?
Simon: Large format portraits of interesting people!
Would you like to offer some good words to those who want to try film photography for the first time? What must they learn before venturing into this format?
Simon: What must they learn first? Nothing! Get a Canon AE-1 (or a Nikon if you already have some Nikkor glass) and a roll of film. Shoot. Get the negatives developed. Repeat. That’s how most people have learned.
Get the camera and shoot some rolls. Borrow or rent a camera. Get the negatives developed (live with the scratches!) and scan them. I have always found prints from a lab don’t do my photos any justice so it’s better to scan and process on a computer. Check with your local library. Here in Vancouver we can use a couple of good flatbed scanners for free at the library so there is no need to go nuts. If you get a disposable B&W Ilford camera you can get a roll shot, processed and scanned for less than $20.
Simon's next move is to shoot with a 4x5 view camera. Stay tuned for that!
Follow Simon on Instagram and check his portfolio there.
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Well now, if you are a passionate film photographer and would like to be interviewed? I’d love to hear from you. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject, "Interview me", and share your story, thoughts, and work related to film photography. I’ll get back to you as soon as I receive your request for an interview.
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