Transitioning from film to digital An Olaf Willoughby interview with Stephen Cosh

This month’s Olaf Willoughby interview is with Stephen Cosh, one of the co-founders of The Leica Meet and a street photographer for whom nothing beats the allure of film. So he set about establishing a brand new workflow to transition from film to digital.

 

It’s been almost two years since we last spoke, what’s changed in your photography?

I’m continuing with my street photography, workshops and exhibitions but the big change is the way I now make images and in my workflow, which has even become a way of life. I am obsessed with film, shooting it, developing it and manipulating it digitally.

I have been shooting film since the 80’s when I first discovered photography, but being an early adopter of digital photography, I forgot about film for a good ten years. In fact it was digital photography that led me to Leica and a love of using digital M’s that led me back to film. I purchased an M7 in 2010 and an M3 in 2012 and I began taking film seriously again.

Of all the cameras I own, the M7 is by far my most used tool and because I use it more than any other camera It has become my favourite. I shoot medium and large format cameras too, but nothing feels like the M7 in your hand. It makes me want to shoot. In fact, it made me want to shoot so much that five years ago I was sending so much film to labs that it became a financial necessity to start processing my own film. I had never done this before but between YouTube and friends, I learned the basic chemistry and process.

I’ve never been one to do things by half, so I designed and built a modern darkroom and invested in good scanners that not only improve the quality I was get from my film work, but increase the speed of the whole process too.

So the process is basically shoot film, develop it according to your desired outcome and then scan the negative into a digital file and process the file digitally in applications like Lightroom and Silver Efex Pro. Recently I have heard this process being called “Figital”.

The question I get asked most is ‘Why?”. I get that. I understand these days people want speed, reliability and less risk to their photography but film photography is growing again, rapidly. For me it’s all to do with the love of grain.

A good grain structure in an image makes it feel authentic, it makes it ‘look’ like a photograph. Indeed there are many widely used software applications and plug-ins that simulate the grain of film on digital photos.

I see ‘Figital’ as the best of both worlds. You get the classic grainy old-school look of film with the flexibility of digitally processing.

In fact if the scanners and software that I’m using nowadays were around at the dawn of digital photography, I think less people would have jumped as quickly and stopped shooting film.

Not all projects are smooth sailing. Have you had any setbacks and what were your learnings?

Working with film is like anything else, the more you do it, the better you get at it. There is no doubt that working with film is slower and more expensive than digital, but I feel that when you shoot digital you are “taking” a picture and when you shoot, develop, scan and process film, you are “making” a picture. The process is much more involved and I find the results much more rewarding.

However, there is a fairly big learning curve and financial investment required if you have not shot and developed film before. Firstly you need to understand the limitations of film versus digital. Film has some obvious downsides compared to digital such as cost per shot, not as good in low-light situations, incredibly slow to develop and scan and of course you need a darkroom set-up and a good understanding of film developing.

And yes, you do hit a lot of problems. Working out how to develop for certain looks or choosing the right film for certain subjects. It’s just a much more involved process than digital photography, so there are many more potential problems.

What Leica equipment do you use and how is it particularly suited to the needs of this project?

I use a Leica M7 and a Leica M3 for 35mm photography and a Hasselblad V System and an Alpa 12SW for medium format. If Leica ever decided to develop a medium format film camera, I’d be their first customer and there would be many more behind me. But as I said above, my main photographic tool, the one that goes everywhere with me is my trusty M7.

The M7 is so well engineered. It’s built like a tank, yet it feels light and nimble. It also sports a very accurate metering system allowing you to shoot in aperture priority and leaving you nothing to do but frame, focus and fire. With the M7 I mostly shoot street and use the 50mm APO Summicron almost exclusively.

The APO Summicron is great on film. The lens itself delivers a contrasty image on digital, but when you match it with Kodak Tri-X it’s fantastic. It’s also a light, small lens and is well balanced with the M7.

Are there any technical or workflow challenges you’d like to mention?

The process is fairly rigid :

  • Take the shot (or 36 of them)
  • Develop the film
  • Dry the film for a minimum of 3 hours
  • Scan the film
  • Process the shot in Lightroom (or any photo editing app)

We all know how to do the digital processing bit but it’s surprising how few photographers these days have any darkroom experience. You need that knowledge to make this process work. Understanding film development is really important too. There are a plethora of different films, developers and techniques that when researched and refined will make a huge difference to your negatives.

It takes a little trial and error and a fair bit of time to master each film type, however, it’s not a daunting process and this shouldn’t put people off trying it. There are hundreds of development tutorials on YouTube which will help you get started in the darkroom.

Setting up a darkroom is easy. Developing standard films like Tri-X in Kodak HC110 developer is easy. Scanning is easy. And we all know that digital processing is easy in Lightroom.

The difficult thing is making the time. However, if you can make it you will find a few hours in your darkroom, on your own, developing film and listening to some good music is like a little holiday. You are so focussed on the task that it clears your head and makes you relax. For me it’s completes the photographic circle. Shoot the shot, develop the shot, scan the shot, make the photo.

You can see more of Stephen’s work here: https://stephencosh.com/

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Olaf Willoughby is a photographer, writer and researcher. He is co-founder of The Leica Meet, a Facebook page and website growing at warp speed to over 10,000 members. In 2016, Olaf has taught numerous workshops including co-teaching ‘Visual Conversations’, a creative photography workshop with Eileen McCarney Muldoon at Maine Media College in Rockport as well as being exhibited in both London and New York.  

If you have an intriguing project or body of work that we might feature, completed or in progress, contact Olaf at: olaffwilloughby@gmail.com or www.olafwilloughby.com   

 

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7 comments

  • I really don’t want to say it because a lot of shooters aren’t going to like this but being a photographer for nearly 40 years I must: To experience photography on an authentic level you should experience shooting and processing film. I have followed Stephen Cosh for some time and nearly always find something interesting in his work especially when its with the M7 and film. Thank you for publishing the interview.

  • I am middle age now, I started shooting with film before there was any digital, so a process had to be learned. Yes, I too had a darkroom set up; enlarger and all chemicals to process my 35mm negatives. Was a lot of fun!, and I will never forget those moments! I still have those pictures to this day! And they were taken over 30 years ago! I keep the negatives in plastic sheeting stored away in a box. Who can say that they have any digital photos from years away? Love photography also!

    I think a picture is worth 1000 words. I was once in an art gallery in my early 20’s. I saw a photo of a famous person back then, and I stood and looked and looked some more. And really a good picture, this is the closest one can get to the real thing! Think about it. So reproducing that image, as it was in it’s original form, using the same light, reproducing the same look as you see with your own eyes,..this is a work of art! All the digital hocus pocus today? hmmm mostly an illlusion I think. Go around to any gallery and look at some really famous photos, and this is art! This is photography!

  • I do have to disagree with Stephen on one point: a “darkroom” is not, I repeat, NOT a necessity unless you are planning on printing using silver halide or shoot color film where the temperature of the chemicals is more stringent. I have been developing my own Tri-X film since 1978 using a changing bag for putting the exposed film on film reels for development. From there, I can use the master bathroom (which has enough room for timer, chemicals, etc.) in light.

    Currently, I shoot both film and digital but totally agree with Stephen on the difference between film and digital. For me, film is more “real” for the same reasons. I have followed Stephen’s blog for a couple of years now and I take a look every day.

    Thanks, Stephen, for all your sharing. As I transition from a full time newspaper shooter to retirement, I have been using your blog as a daily inspiration!

  • Good article. Until you try it the “beauty” of film is lost on many – digital is so convenient but in a sense transitory – a silver halide negative will last longer than any digital storage media. You never forget the first roll you develop (no matter how good or bad the images are) – for me that was over 40 years ago – the same can’t be said of digital!

    Both have a place – like many I run both.

  • I’ve taken the same road 1 yr ago, returning to my earliest memories of developing in a school darkroom many years ago – a darkroom is indeed optional, the changing bag is all that’s required. What I found more frustrating was actually getting my scanner to work, it took few forum questions and hours before I finally switched to the right software … Lightroom thereafter is indeed easy and so mirrors the darkroom process that I now feel I really do have the best of both world – the swiftness, economy and flexibility (ISO) of digital when I want it, the satisfaction of winding the film after every shot, the waiting and anticipation and sometimes wonderful surprise when the suit already forgotten comes back and is better as imagined… thanks for the post.

  • Very optimistic article! The hybrid “figital” processing is great alternative for those who wants to use classic film Leica cameras without spending too much time in the darkroom.
    Dedicated darkroom is only absolutely necessary to get large wet prints. I’m handling film loading, developing in small bathroom. I even managed to print on 5×7 darkroom paper under small enlarger and in small trays in the same bathroom. Actually, it was very common for in home printing setup during film era days.

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