Visualization and Film Photography

by Ron Van Harten

As a follow-up to my previous essays on visualization, in this article I will share select photographs made on film with a detailed description of the thought process, the choice of tools, and technical considerations that were involved. I have chosen two starkly different photographs (both landscapes) to discuss. I hope that these photos with the accompanying narrative will prove interesting and helpful to beginning film photographers and perhaps guide more experienced photographers in advanced techniques and approaches. Of note, Photography Life contributors John Bosley, Laura Murray and Vaibhav Tripathi have previously written excellent essays on film photography that may also be of interest.

On three key topics (film scanning, the view camera, the Zone System) during the discussion, I will briefly digress to provide additional background, as I feel that will help the reader understand the concepts and technical processes. A complete discussion of these concepts is beyond the scope of this article, but I have made an effort to provide references at strategic points that should provide a more comprehensive treatment. Although some of the principles and tools here are applicable solely to the film photographer, the underlying process of visualization applies equally to photographers of analog and digital formats. I should emphasize that the construction of each photograph below was based on the process of visualization and the intersection of light, artistic vision, and skill.

After humble beginnings in learning the process of film and visualization nearly five years ago, I currently use a wide variety of formats and film stocks. In particular, I use small, medium, and large formats with both color and black and white film. I do not discriminate. I tailor my choice of tools to the objective and that will permit me to take command and control of the situation at hand. For example, I use 35mm for moving people and objects, large format for static objects (stills, landscapes, portraits) and high technical image quality, and medium format as a practical compromise among bulk weight, image quality, and in the face of rapidly changing light where work flow speed is of the essence. Although the choices of film emulsions have diminished significantly over the past 10 years, there are still a plethora of excellent professional and consumer film stocks from which to choose. This year, based on aesthetic, process, and technical considerations, my tools of choice have become large format black and white sheet film in the 4 x 5” and 8 x 10” formats and the view camera, although I still immensely enjoy roll film and color film. The merit of these choices will become manifest in the descriptions below and on the second page of this article.

So, let’s start with this first example – a landscape. I made the photograph below last summer during a hiking trip to the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park in Washington state. For those who are not familiar with this area, Olympic National Park and its beautiful rain forests are one of the hidden treasures to explore in the US. It is a bonanza for hiking, camping, wildlife photography, and landscape photography. This photograph represents one of the more classic and beautiful sites within the Hoh. I chose this photograph because of the visual mood it evokes, the interesting lighting, and the challenging approach to exposure. This was actually my first visit to this park. During my research of this park, I had heard and read all the positive reviews from fellow hikers and photographers. I had seen the photographs in magazines and on the internet. But, even those accounts could not do justice to the striking beauty and pristine mood that I witnessed with my own eyes.

The day before I set forth on this modest hike, it had rained. During a break in the weather around mid-morning, I set foot on the trails. Aside from the annoying mosquitoes, I had never felt more at peace with nature. The mood was uplifting, the air was clean, and the sights mesmerizing. Trekking through this rain forest felt like I was in the midst of Middle Earth. Beautiful, yet surreal… During the late morning, sunlight was starting to break through, and as I came across this turn in the trail, I was stunned at the site of the shaggy moss-laden maple trees and surrounding ferns. I was so taken aback from this view that I stopped in my tracks, dropped all of my gear, and sat down to admire this beautiful site. Following a fresh rain, the contrasty backlighting made the greens *pop*!

I had to work quickly, because the sun would soon create excessive (and uncontrollable) contrast. For this scene, I instinctively knew what film to capture the essence and physical attributes at play: Fujichrome Velvia 50. Also known as transparency film or color reversal film, Velvia 50 has been a legendary selection for landscape photographers for over 25 years. This slide film is a joy to use because it can create vivid, contrasty, saturated, sharp, and highly 3-dimensional images. The weaknesses of this film are that the exposure latitude and dynamic range are narrow compared to print film, which make it technically challenging to manipulate with difficult lighting. Yet, when the photographer is in command and control of the light and his/her technique, Velvia 50 delivers the goods.

My other tool choices for this shot were my medium format camera, the Mamiya 7 II and a wide angle lens, the Mamiya 43mm f/4.5 L. In the 6 x 7 cm format, the 43mm focal length provides an angle of view that is similar to that seen with a 21mm lens in the 35mm format. Due to its light weight, relatively small size, few bells and whistles, and superb image quality, this camera has become my “go-to” camera for hiking over the years. This system is so good that it even rivals the quality of 4 x 5” film. It has never let me down.

My goal with this exposure was to capture the quintessence of the intersection of light, land, and vivid color. After framing the scene with my composition card, I set the composition though the external viewfinder. I set the hyperfocal distance to 7 ft and stopped down the aperture to f/16. For filtration, I used a polarizer filter to remove the some of the glare from rain droplets on the foliage. And to adjust the white balance, I used an 81A warming filter.

In this scenario, the rational for the warming filter is two-fold. First, it can be used as a creative tool for adjusting the color temperature of the ambient lighting to adjust the color balance on the transparency. Secondly, based on experience with this film, Velvia 50 tends to be a “cold” film, meaning that although it is a daylight balanced film, it tends to give a “cooler”, or a more blue, rendition to the scene, especially when used in heavily shaded areas such as in this scene. White balance in film photography is a very interesting topic that merits its own discussion in another article. In general, shadows are predominantly lit with blue light, especially from sky light in open shade. If the photographer does not take action to filter out this excessive blue, then the resulting scene has the potential to be rendered cold. On the other hand, if the photographer desires a cool mood, such as in a winter scene, for example, then no correction would be needed. Comparatively, the 81A filter is a low-strength warming filter, followed in increasing strength by the 81B, 81C, and the 85 series.

For determining the proper exposure for both slide and print film, I practice a modified version of the Zone System, which was pioneered by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer in 1939-1940. A discussion of this concept is far beyond the scope of this article, but essentially the Zone System is a systematic approach to determine the proper exposure and development of film for a given scene. It is based on the luminance values of a scene that are categorized into standardized zones of exposure from “zero” to “ten”, with pure black representing Zone 0, pure white representing Zone X, varying degrees of shadow detail and tonality from Zone I through IV, midtones at Zone V, and varying degrees of highlight detail and tonality from Zone VI through IX. In practice, Zones II through VIII are the most useful, as those represent the range of textures that we see on our subjects. For those interested, I would highly recommend reading Fred Picker’s book, “The Zone VI Workshop“, which provides a simplified treatment and application of the Zone System. For the pure technical analysis and original description, Ansel Adams’ landmark book, “The Negative: The Ansel Adams Photography Series 2” is a must read.

With regards to the exposure strategy for this scene, in stark contrast to print film, the imperative in slide film photography is to expose for the highlights. Due to slide film’s tight exposure latitude, if the highlights are overexposed, then that detail is essentially permanently lost. Of course, there are exceptions to this strategy, in particular if there are weak highlights in the scene or if the highlight detail is of no interest to the photographer. For this scene, I desired to preserve as much highlight detail as possible in the backlit foliage. To this end, I metered the highlights in the foliage to the middle left of the frame and placed those high values in Zone VII and let all other exposure Zones fall into place. A priori, I decided to leave my spot meter at home to reduce the bulk weight of my gear and use the native spot meter in my camera.

A *critical* principle in which a photographer must be in complete command in order to correctly set and interpret a spot light meter is that *any* light meter (either within the camera or an external hand held meter) automatically will yield an exposure value that falls in Zone V (midtones), regardless of whether the scene is brightly lit or dimly lit. This is what a light meter is designed to do by default. It is the photographer’s responsibility to *override* that meter reading in order to appropriately expose the Zone of interest. This cannot be overemphasized enough: a light meter sees one thing, and only one thing, and that is Zone V, or the middle of the Zone scale. This is where the skill of the photographer is paramount, especially when using slide film, which is unforgiving with exposure errors. On the other hand, if the exposure Zone of interest happens to fall on Zone V, then of course the photographer would not need to override the meter.

There are many ways in which the photographer can override the meter, depending on whether he/she is using a hand held meter or the camera’s meter and on the characteristics of the individual dials. For my particular camera model, I can only adjust exposure compensation from -2 to +2 in one-third stop increments, which does not leave much leeway to account for multiple filter factors and exposure compensation. There are easy tricks to solve this problem. If I have multiple filter factors, I will typically enter those factors into the film speed dial, which effectively “tricks” the camera meter into exposing for a “slower” film speed. For exposure compensation, I will enter those values into the exposure compensation dial. Alternatively, one can mix and match these settings. It is very simple. As long the photographer is consistent with this approach, then the end result should be the same.

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