Continuing our coverage of film cameras and photographers, here’s our latest discovery on Flickr – Dave Lawler. His photostream is full of simple yet breathtaking film photos of everyday life – which obviously stand apart from digital snaps (though he sometimes flirts with digital). He’s a former photographer who gave up the game, only to pick up a camera again just a few years ago, to great effect. If your curious about film, it would be wise to read Dave’s words below.
Name: Dave Lawler
Hometown: Worcester, Massachusetts, USA
Tell us about yourself:
I’m a photographer based in the Central New England region, USA. I work nights, take care of our one-year-old days, and shoot whatever I can in between. We also have a mostly-self-sufficient 18-year-old who’s pretty good about helping out, which frees up a little more of my time, but I don’t have time to shoot often, at least not as often as I’d like.
I pursue photography as a means of artistic self-expression. Things seem to be taking off on their own and I’m sometimes offered work, but I think it’s important to avoid that at this point, at least until my son is school-aged.
I worked as a photographer through my 20s but left the field, a little burned out, abruptly and completely. Following this I spent time in the telecomm industry and went almost 15 years without using a camera. In 2009 I picked up a DSLR and started shooting again.
How did you get started in film photography?
Well I started my second photographic life with a terrific Pentax DSLR, and though the image quality was pretty good, particularly for macro work, the overall experience was lacking. Fortunately I had full-frame lenses for the APS-C body, so I refurbished a Pentax MX, bought some Portra, and I was on my way. Keep in mind I had worked for several years earlier in my life, using film exclusively. For me it really was like riding a bicycle, at least from a technical standpoint. Artistically I’m still re-learning how to see. It might take some time for me to get where I want to be; maybe it will never happen. You never know about these things, but the journey is magical.
One camera and lens for the rest of your life, what would it be?
A Leica M3 (double-stroke) with a 50mm Summicron — no question. I agree that Leicas are overpriced and possibly overrated, but I shot with this combination for a couple years as a (very) young photojournalist and have never felt so ‘at one’ with a machine. I sold it, and selling it was a stupid, short-sighted move; one of the few things I regret. Maybe the only thing I regret. I’ve been wanting to pick one up now that I’m back, but haven’t been able to justify the cost quite yet.
How would you describe the difference between film and digital?
From a technical standpoint you get a lot more latitude with film, at least if you scan carefully, with a decent scanner. I’m assuming the film’s being scanned and not printed in a darkroom. I guess you’re even luckier to have that experience if you’re doing it. I loved working in the darkroom, one of life’s great pleasures for me, but I couldn’t handle the cost of that now, and don’t have the space.
With film you’re almost always working with a larger format too, assuming your digital option is an APS-C (or similar) sensored DSLR. This not only means slightly shallower depth-of-field for most shots (always a plus in my book), but your 85mm doesn’t suddenly handle like a 135mm. Beyond that there’s the image quality that can only be described as indescribable. I think it comes from an analog imperfection that clinically ‘perfect’ digital systems just can’t replicate.
It’s not always about the medium, film versus digital, there’s also the satisfaction of using and older film camera — the sounds, the tactile pleasure, the smell of the film. The possibility that something’s going wrong, that you’re screwing something up because you’re not paying attention. People think I’m nuts but that’s all very exciting to me. I mean, I still take the DSLR out of the closet from time to time, but it feels like cheating. So, you can see how you’re doing by looking at the back of the camera. Great, but where’s the fun in that?
If you could shoot anyone/anywhere/anything, what would it be?
I was lucky for the chance to photograph Bill Clinton way back when, at one of his speaking engagements during his time as President, I guess it must have been 1994. it’s a little thing that no one would remember, but I always felt like I did mediocre work there that day. I was a kid way out of my element. The paper used the images, but It haunts me a little now that I’m active again, and more experienced. So I guess having a chance to sit in with him during an interview, just for ten minutes, to make a few portraits… I’d somehow feel like I finished something.
What is the best thing about film photography? The worst?
Best thing about film photography is being able to pick up a camera that’s 20, 50 or even a hundred years old and still make art with it. Worst thing is when the negatives come back with weird, microscopic crud and dust on them — that’s very frustrating. Most printing I did in the darkroom was on 8×10 paper. With digital processing those negatives are scanned in at poster-sizes and every little processing defect is noticable. it doesn’t happen often, but on a bad day I can be ripping what’s left of my hair out.
What’s your most memorable shooting experience?
I had a job working for a large poultry producer when I was around 22. They flew me all over the country to take pictures of chickens in their 400 foot-long coops. The smell was awful, just choking constantly, and I did this for 6 weeks straight, every day. When people ask me if I want to work as a photographer I think back to all the really awful jobs you have to take to make a living. The romanticized notion of the ‘working pro’ goes right out the window. The job is also memorable in some positive ways. I certainly learned a lot about people, photography, travel, and learned more than I ever needed to know about chickens.
Any scanner advice for new film photographers?
I suggest a flatbed scanner, which allows for scanning any film format. I use an Epson V700, but any scanner with built-in transparency scanning is probably fine. Using this hardware with Hamrick VueScan I’ve been able to work with negs from Minox subminiature up to 6×6, and even panoramic negs from the Sprocket Rocket. The capabilities are there to scan up to 8×10 negs if I ever go that big. The flatbed also scans prints and Polaroids so it’s perfectly versatile.
Scan at a high color-depth (at least 48bit) and a reasonably large dpi. I use 2400dpi for 6×6 negatives, 3600 to 4200 for 35mm.
Adjust colors and levels on the high color-depth file, never in 8-bit mode, to avoid posterization. The scanned image I save from VueScan is opend with Corel’s AfterShot Pro and any remaining color adjustments are done there, before it’s exported to an 8-bit tiff. I’m sure whatever software you’re using for this is fine. Once I’m committed to the final look I export the tiff to the GIMP for final cloning out of dust, if neccessary, and maybe add a small border.
I run everything on Debian linux, which limits to some extent my software choices. VueScan, AfterShot Pro and GIMP all run native Linux versions. They are all available for Windows and Mac as well.
Share five of your favorite photos and tell us about them.
These are some of the crooked back steps leading to my apartment door. I had just arrived home from an unfruitful and somewhat frustrating little photo excursion, just after a really heavy downpour had flooded everything. I looked down into these perfectly calm, mirror-like pools of water on the steps and snapped the last frame on the 120 roll I had going through the Mamiya C-220. I’d had a chance to get out of the house for a few hours that day, probably drove 60 miles looking for something interesting, and the picture finally I got for the day was my own flooded steps. Really fortunate too that the low afternoon sun was painting the clouds in warm light.
Pictures of the kids, teen-aged Alex and 11 month-old Charlie, just a sweet moment between the two of them I was able to catch with a Nikon F, which just by pure chance was beside me on the kitchen counter when Alex showed up at the door. There was a chance Alex was going to come through the door, knocking Charlie on his butt. Don’t tell mom my first impulse was to grab the camera.
This wouldn’t have worked out well with digital, or really with any film other than the color-negative Portra, because the range of light values is quite extreme. Sunlight outside, with the interior lit in places only by indirect sunlight through the kitchen window.
I very nearly tripped over this guy while walking after work one day, completely took me by surprise. He was luckily backlit in a way that enhanced the wet grass and his path through it, otherwise it wouldn’t have been much of a picture. This was, believe it or not, my first roll of film through the Hasselblad — the beginning of a beautiful friendship .
At a living museum near to where we live. With everyone crowding, trying to get pictures of an exhibition going on, no one really noticed this actor peeking out to see what was happening. It’s just a very simple picture that ended up working pretty well. A 200mm lens flattened the perspective on this, created a nice effect, I think.
At a tavern where locals start drinking at eight in the morning. I used to stop in here while on vacation, maybe a couple times a year, before the baby. Folks here are usually relatively normal overnight workers who stop in after finishing their 11 to 7 overnight shifts. Interesting bar scene, just 12 hours away from the real world. This was a simple matter of setting the Hasselblad on the bar and shooting across to the window, framing the shot glasses and beer bottle. Just a very simple composition that I think worked out pretty well, and another on I would have missed out on if I didn’t have a camera with me most all of the time