Documenting my typical photography working methods, May 2003.
This is a long, dry post: you’ve been warned.
I’ve written-out my basic workflow and suite of working methods here — mostly the technical bits, to get them out of the way and let my mind worry about the more problematic bits. Or who knows, maybe writing this down will reveal some hidden hypocrisy, and removing it will help me leap forward. Or not.
This is not a manifesto, just a current assessment. YMMV.
As I see it, working methods divide into two major parts — why you are making pictures and how you are making them. Hopefully one leads to the other. I have been trying to keep my working process consistent and methodical, which gives me a steady reference point. I don’t spend a lot of time struggling with changes to my method or in dealing with technical uncertainties. By reducing change in areas I think are just necessary evils to the picture-making process, I think I can be more open to change in the other areas. At least that’s the theory.
I like pictures with at least a little meat on them. I’m not much interested macro, in landscapes, in flowers, colorful birds, sport, sailboats, rustic barns, old cars, sunsets, architecture, classic airplanes, driftwood, crosslit nudes on black backgrounds, politicians, celebrities, or other inanimate, emotionless objects. As a momentary diversion, sure. But not day in and day out. I want something with verbs.
I like to photograph people, and to photograph people in an emotionally responsive way requires speed and favors a simple, low-impact profile. So I use 35mm-format cameras for almost all of my shooting. They are small and always ready. I’ve used Nikon and then Canon manual SLRs, and a variety of rangefinders. These days I usually carry my Contax G2, though I also use an ancient Canon IIIc (a clone) or the Canon A-1. The A-1 has been in continuous service since around 1980, never once in the shop (but my F-1 was stolen). I have two old AE-1P’s as backups and the Yashica TLR I had in high school, along with a Canon digital camera. DSLR’s are still too big and clunky for me, to say nothing of expensive, and all but the top ones are lacking at the wide-angle end of available lenses.
I’ve joked that my technique in street shooting is to just keep pushing-in until someone takes a swing at me. It’s not really true, though I do like that 20mm lens.
I shoot black and white film partly because I am cheap and like to do the work myself, and partly because I think that B&W gets at the essence of what I like in a photograph — to add more just confuses things. Color rarely adds emotional content to the sorts of pictures I make, unless it’s a controlled studio context or one is using an orange sunset to enhance the sort of sentimentality that I dislike anyway. I currently like Delta 400 and have been shooting more TMax 100. I buy them both in bulk and have been recycling the same film cartridges for several years. I keep two loaders, one with 100ISO film and the other with 400ISO film.
The worst thing to do with B&W film is to court nostalgia, to attempt to recreate old photos and styles. If I had to go shoot a Civil War re-enactment, I’d be incredibly paranoid about recreating Matthew Brady. It’s been done, by Matthew Brady, and with considerably higher stakes. I can imagine shooting quite a bit at such an event, but it would be to see the people and their interfacing of the present with the re-enactment of the past; trying to get at the real package, not the wrapper. Not just the obvious ironic images of a Confederate officer talking on a cel phone from his Mini Cooper, either (though I can easily imagine myself taking such a shot).
The pictures I take today, I’m convinced, are today’s pictures. If you look closely at your pictures you’ll always find something in them that will be gone tomorrow, and that wasn’t there yesterday. This specificity of time is a key element of the power in photography — not only for the fleeting expression that comes and goes in 1/60th of a second, but all photography. Ansel shot Halfdome on just one perfect-for-him day. My friend Rich shot it on a different, perfect day. Neither day is likely to return.
Over and again, I’ve told myself that I’d come back to such-and-such for the photo I wanted — only to find the people gone, the place boarded-up, the sun uncoöperative. Even if those stars all re-align, am I still the same person who first experienced the thrill of seeing what I failed to photograph when the excitement was most potent? Shame on me.
I carry a camera every day, though mostly it’s unused — but it’s there, and ready.
The Contax Kit
If I know I am going to be shooting outdoors, I have a coat from Eddie Bauer that is both warm and well-supplied with pockets. It can carry a Canon SLR with a 20mm lens in one pocket, two Zeiss lenses, several rolls of film, cel phone & PDA in the other pockets. On warmer days I can carry a small Domke bag, or just the loose camera on a strap. If possible, I carry the camera in my right hand with the strap wrapped around my wrist — not on my shoulder or neck.
The Contax has AF and I ride the focus-lock button quite a bit. It took me a while to hit the rhythm of it but it’s eventually become second nature. Aim, lock, recompose, shoot, release. I had my doubts about using an AF camera because I think that there’s a lot of value in having a physical relationship with the actions of shooting. Holding the camera at arm’s length is not conducive to immediacy. I’ve gotten over it once I figured out how to have control of the AF lock. I used to do zone-focus hipshooting. Now I sometimes do AF hipshooting, but I’ve done progressively less in recent months.
The Contax has no DoF markers. This is too bad, though it makes mechanical sense for the camera’s design. I made a little Excel spreadsheet for the DoF of each lens and f/stop, printable at wallet size — I carry copies of it around in my bags, wallet, etc. Always at hand somewhere.
I have the 28, 45, and 90mm Zeiss lenses but use the 28mm 70% of the time and the 45mm 25% of the time. When I first had my Canons I used to use an 85mm most of the time, so I’ve been trying to understand what changed in my tastes to change this. I have Canon lenses from 20mm to 200mm, and likewise lean to the wide end. The SLRs are definitely better for long lenses, the 135 f/2 Canon is a terrific portrait lens but heavy and hard to focus quickly.
I have a Sunpak 555 “potato masher” strobe with TTL metering for the Contax, but have recently used a tiny un-dedicated Metz more often. The Sunpak is very bright, which can be a good thing outdoors (even in daylight). I really wish I could find a slick wireless package for the Contax. I have Canon’s 550EX with the wireless controller for EOS, and it’s really excellent for the digicam — small and very flexible. It’s great to be able to just put a strobe in a carefully-chosen corner and subsequently forget about it while working.
After the Click, the Slosh and Scan
I keep written records of all my shooting. Sometimes when I’m shooting rapidly I screw up, but generally I have an exposure log for every roll. The rolls are indexed by date, and easily identified when processing because I keep recycling the cartridges. Each little can has a different ID written on it, so I can quickly figure of that undeveloped roll “FF” corresponds to roll “May03b.” I keep my records using a Palm PDA program called Go-Pix. I like it because it’s flexible — you can be very detailed per-exposure or very loose per-roll or per-session.
Each roll is tagged as a “session” and given a category — “unfiled” are rolls in progress, “pending” for rolls that await processing, “processed” and then “scanned.” I saved these records to my desktop computer and try to print them for storage alongside the printed contact sheet, if any.
I have been using Xtol developer which is also flexible. I used to be a big fan of Ilford HC & Rodinal but when we lived in Hawaii they were almost impossible to obtain — no local Ilford vendor and a $25 hazmat charge added to each $6 bottle of Rodinal. When we returned to the mainland I promptly got some Rodinal but now its too late, I’ve become an Xtol convert.
I change the film in a bag and process it in my kitchen. If the roll was commercially spooled I open the cartridge with a beer-bottle opener. I dilute Xtol 1::1 and use Ilford stop and fixer, probably because Ilford comes as a liquid I’m too lazy to mix Kodak fixer from a bag. I time my development using a PDA program called fototimer. I usually agitate constantly for the first 30 seconds and one or two inversions each 30 seconds thereafter. The later agitations are very mild — I might even skip one or two.
I have both metal and Paterson tanks. I almost always use the Patersons because they are easy and can be used for both 35mm and 120 film. I have a 35mm single-roll tank and a three-roll (or 120 double-roll) tank. When I used the little stirring rod I got surge marks so I just cover the tank and agitate normally.
The film gets rinsed in the kitchen sink then transferred to the bathroom for a final rinse in Photo-flo and then hung in the shower to dry, typically overnight. I use a hanger that I bought at Daiei for $1. It’s designed for hanging wet nylon stockings. I weight the film with clothes pins so that it will dry flat, and I try to angle the film slightly when hanging so that any residual moisture will run to the edge of the strip. Once dry it’s promptly cut into strips of six and placed in Print-File pages before scanning.
For the past couple of years I’ve scanned all film rather than print it on silver paper. We have just started reconstructing the old silver darkroom, however. I use a Minolta Scan Dual film scanner, it has no Digital ICE but ICE doesn’t work on B&W film anyway — no loss. I’ve done comparison scanning, and the little Minolta produces bigger files, with better color, than I could get from a commercial-lab PhotoCD only a few years ago. I save to 8-bit jpegs, if I need more bit-depth on a particular shot I can always come back later and rescan it. I have a cabinet containing binders full of archived negative sheets and proofs, indexed by date.
Though I do most of my regular work under Windows XP and linux, I do almost all photo work on the Mac — mostly for historical reasons. I have a G4 tower with a very nice 21” flat pro Sony monitor that I run at 1600x1280 for both Mac and PC — the monitor’s switchable between two different computers, each with their own mouse and keyboard on the same desk.
Once I scan each roll it’s catalogued and every few months I burn the catalogs to CDs, but leave the JPEG contacts sheets on the HD so I can find things more easily later.
Unless I’m impatient to print a specific frame, I scan the whole roll using Vuescan and then cycle through it as a slide show in Graphic Converter — the closest thing in digital to going over contact sheets with a loupe.
I pass over rolls with Graphic Converter to build icons and bulk-rotate them, but all subsequent computer work is done in Photoshop, and printed on my aging Epson 870. I like printing B&W using Epson’s color inks, I tried the MIS quadtones but got spattering. I’ve spent quite a lot of time building up RGB curves to reproduce a good continuous grayscale that reasonably matches my monitor. It took many test prints. Metamerism can still be a problem.
I like Epson’s Archival Matte paper. I really like Crane Museo paper, but it’s pricey and not right for all photos. I’ve used Ilford’s Galerie and some other similar papers but prefer the matte. It seems right to make an image that’s a different sort of image than a pearl or glossy silver print. In some ways, inkjet on art paper is similar to using art paper for processes like cyanotype or Van Dyck.
So there’s the basic workflow. I could go on. In fact I guess I have.