Putting ‘Pro Digital Vs. Plastic Fantastics’ in the title of this post is a little misleading. To me it’s not really about one type of camera being better than the other. Although I love to shoot with plastic toy film cameras and have also begun experimenting recently with a beautiful late ’60′s model Yashika Mat – 124G (definitely not a toy), I’d be hard pressed to pit any of these cameras against each other, or even in competition with my digital Canon 5D Mark ii. I imagine it would be like saying to a parent, “Which child do you love best?”
I’m in no way a purist on either side. In my opinion it’s the final image that counts, not which tool you use to make it.
That being said, I love the look and feel of film. Most digital images to me are boring straight out of camera. I end up having to do more work in Photoshop to make my digital images evoke more emotion… or to actually look more film-like. To me the look of film is emotional. It reminds me of the images from the magazines and movies that filled my childhood. But sometimes it takes a certain amount of balls to make a cool image. There are risks that need to be taken. Experiments to be made. Plastic toy camera’s and pro DSLR’s both lend themselves to experimentation in completely different ways.
For myself, when it comes to experimenting with exposure, digital wins hands down. Nothing beats being able to have the immediacy of that digital image to double check getting the right creative exposure. This first image is a good example.
Paths Of Glory (taken w/the Canon 5D mark ii). 2010
I was asked recently to take some promo shots for the band Paths Of Glory (see previous post). While hanging out at the band’s practice space, a guy working there saw my camera and said he had a great location for me. He then lead me down a labyrinth of hallways to a pitch black staircase. The stairs lead up to a vacant room lit only by the moonlight coming through a skylight. It was a pretty awesome abandoned looking room… except no light. Luckily I had my 5D mark ii and an on camera flash in my bag. I knew if I posed the guys in front of the window and shot using the flash and a slower shutter speed, the flash would freeze the band, while the slower shutter speed would let in a kind of glow of ambient moonlight behind them. It’s a photo that could have easily been done using film of course, but it’s so nice in a tricky situation to experiment with different exposures until you get the one that feels creatively right without having to guess or waste film.
Where with a digital camera you can fiddle with exposure and details, shooting as many pictures as you want to your hearts content, with a toy film camera you tend to shoot more deliberately while embracing all the accidents. You shoot deliberately because you only have a small number of exposures to work with. You embrace the accidents because… well, you haven’t any choice. You’re shooting with a cheap hunk of plastic. Your image becomes a relationship between what you’ve planned for it and the unpredictable element of your little toy image maker.
If you follow my blog you probably already know that I’ve fallen madly in love with my Holga 120 TLR.
Recently, along with another Holga which I have yet to break in, I’ve acquired the new Lomography Spinner 360.
The Spinner 360
The $135 price tag on the spinner almost begs to argue that it’s not a toy, but pulling a string to take a picture convinces me otherwise. It’s a pretty simple camera to operate. You load the camera with 35mm film. You pull the string. You let go, and the camera spins in a circle on it’s handle capturing a full 360 degree panoramic image. When it was time to shoot the band, it was the first camera I pulled out of the bag.
As for embracing the accidents, I found the spinner to work perfectly. Image wise the photos came out exactly how I imagined they would look. The ‘accidents’ with this camera really happened in post when I found out that there wasn’t a single lab in town that would scan my panoramic images for me. You see the spinner takes one long photograph which is the equivalent of 4 standard size 35mm prints. This apparently makes it very difficult for a lab to scan as one continuous image. The best the lab could do was scan each 1/4 image of my panorama individually, but unfortunately ended up cropping each 1/4 down a bit. This made it impossible to seamlessly stitch the photos together in Photoshop. As it turns out, I think the images look better this way.
Paths Of Glory (taken w/the Spinner 360). 2010
For instance, the shot above is from a 360 panorama cropped way down and stitched together from two different tries with the spinner. As it turned out there were light flares from the edges of the scan that seemed to isolate perfectly the lead singer between his two band mates.
Another aspect when shooting with the spinner is because it is taking a 360 degree photo, the photographer will almost invariably end up in the shot. Although I knew I could crop myself out of the images, I thought it would be fun to allow the band members to take photos of themselves. This adds a whole new level of experimentation where the photographer becomes less of an image maker and more of a facilitator of others to take part in the process. The image becomes more of a collaboration.
In this shot the band members photographed themselves against a wall in an alley behind the Mecca Cafe in Seattle. When the scans came back they were of course cropped down but also each scan had a different color quality to them. I think the differences in the scans and the fact that they can’t be evenly stitched together once again actually makes for a more interesting photo of the band.
Paths Of Glory (taken w/the Spinner 360). 2010
View It Larger Here.
Now the Spinner in my opinion is expensive enough to border on not being labelled a toy. A Holga on the other hand can be purchased from B&H for under $30. You can be a bit more cavalier with the camera itself. Some people even drill tiny holes into their Holgas in order for every exposure to have a light leak. I’ve modified my Holga to increase those kinds of ‘accidents’ as well (see my Holga Modification Tutorial Here).
For the Paths Of Glory shoot I wanted to do something different so I did one more modification to the Holga. I taped a square cut from a plastic sandwich baggy to the Holga’s frame size mask. Then I burned a whole through the cellophane square with a cigarette lighter.
This is the kind of experimentation that I would obviously never attempt to do with my DSLR. Plus the more I shoot with my Holga, the more I’m beginning to believe it is magical.
Paths Of Glory (modified Holga). 2010
Scot McCullum of POG (modified Holga). 2010
I think this final image is my favorite from the shoot.
Paths Of Glory (3 consecutive exposures, modified Holga). 2010
View It Larger Here
I think the polarization some photographers have over their tools is ridiculous. The argument over Canon vs. Nikon, digital vs. film, pro cameras vs. toy cameras all boil down usually to some limiting preconception that the tool is more important than the final product. It’s why we have scores of Hollywood movies out now made with the most state of the art equipment which end up only dazzling us with their imagery and yet are completely forgettable. They lack soul. They’ve traded story for tools and content for equipment. In the end, as with any work of art or entertainment, it’s the story that should end up trumping everything else.
* Paths Of Glory is lead singer James Francis (RiverRed), drummer Scott McCullum (Gruntruck, Skin Yard, Slippage), and bassist Carlos Salazar (Hell Monkeys, Suction). Check ‘em out Here. They completely rock!