Field Notes

Emmanuel College Residency – Day 50

In many ways this summer was an experiment. Participating in an artist residency was a new experience for me, so was being in Boston, but these things weren’t really experiments, they were opportunities to do something new. What was an experiment was seeing if I could make work in the same manner I have been over the last few years while shooting digitally instead of on film.

Film is magical. I think anyone who’s developed prints in a darkroom would agree. The act of seeing a photograph come to life in a tray of developer is pure magic. Although the debate between analog and digital is certainly over, and digital won, there are still a lot of things that make film worthwhile and perhaps even better in some types of photography. An easy example is larger formats and how digital is nowhere near touching the quality and possibilities offered by medium and especially large format photography. There is just no digital equivalent, yet. There are other examples as well, of course.

Up until recently I have shot all of my personal projects on medium and large format film. There are so many reasons for this, but mostly it boils down to preference. I prefer the process and qualitative aspects of this choice. However, there are some aspects of the process I detest, and slowly over the last few years I believe these feelings have grown to the point where I felt forced to try something new.

The main issue I have been dealing with is the cost associated with the post capture process of film. This includes developing, scanning, and color correction–basically everything that has to be done once the film is exposed. Partially these costs are financial, film costs money and developing it does as well, but the bigger issue has been the costs in terms of how much time some of these things take. In an effort to save money as well as control every aspect of the process to the highest specifications within my ability, I have always scanned and color corrected all of my own images. And over the past few years as I have photographed more and more the time dedicated to these tasks has grown and grown.

I constantly feel behind and worry that I will never catch up.

Thus, over the past year I have been thinking more and more about how to continue making photographs in the way I like to make them but with a digital camera instead of an analog one. This led to countless conversations with other photographers and lots of online reading. My trip up to the U.S. / Canadian border in February 2017 (An Edge to America) was in a way a test to see if I could wrap my head around shooting digitally. The key here is to note that the hurdles that stand in my way are not technical, but rather psychological. I am the barrier: how I like to work, what I find pleasing, how I approach people, and my perception of myself.

This digital litmus test in February generally proved positive and so I started to think more seriously about next steps. I started to weigh different options and camera systems and settled on buying a used medium format digital back. It would provide the most bang for my buck and hopefully mimic, to a certain extent, how I photograph with my Hasselblad. At first I bought a used PhaseOne back along with a newer Hasselblad body, but the system didn’t work and I shipped it back to the seller. Then I came across the same PhaseOne digital back I was looking to buy but mountable on my Hasselblad 500 c/m. This system would lack automatic focus but it would enable me to continue using the same camera and lenses I have been using all along. It seemed like a great option, if not the best option.

Now, a few months and a thousand exposures later, I feel like I have a much better perspective on the whole thing. The experiment has been a success. The digital back allows me to photograph in the same manner as if I was shooting film. The only serious drawback I’ve experienced, and it is quite serious, is that the digital back is cropped down from the full frame size of a true medium format exposure on a Hasselblad 500 c/m. Full stop. All other drawbacks (autofocus, exposure sensitivity, batteries, etc.) are real but minimal. Once adjusting to them they are easy to accept.

And the advantages are marvelous. I no longer have to develop any film, scan any film, or color correct any film. Using a color checker, as seen in the photograph above, has saved me hours of work and headache. This is a huge deal, enabling someone like me who works entirely independently to be able to much more efficiently produce work and move it along through a systemized workflow. I can spend much more time photographing and thinking about images than on the manual labor of the post capture process associated with film. Plus, I still get to shoot everything with my waist level finder on my 1989 Hasselblad.

I will be posting daily updates from Boston to Instagram with notes about what I’m working on. Please follow along if you like @benhoste