One of the most common questions that is asked from professional photographers is the one of preparation. From picking equipment, the right angle of lighting, the most apt location, to the shoot itself, taking a virtual tour of the thought process of a photographer is quite an experience. Here's Cameron Knight's tour with a Lubitel!
I make my living as a professional photojournalist. And like most people on this website, I’m a total film fanatic, an analogue addict, and an emulsion egomaniac. Ok, that last one might not make much sense. What you might not know is that film and photojournalism don’t necessarily go hand in hand. A huge majority of the industry has turned to digital and never looked back. But whenever I have some time to work on a project, I try to shoot film. And that’s just what I did recently for a portrait series I shot for my paper, Cincinnati’s alternative newsweekly: CityBeat. I’m going to walk you through what I learned and how I executed the final project.
Nothing beats the quality of medium format, and it was the default medium for portraitists the world over for decades. So for my project, I decided to rock out with the Lubitel Universal. Even the biggest camera snobs have to admit that the Lubitel is a “real” camera. It has a wide range of selectable shutter speeds and apertures. The lens has a relatively quick maximum aperture of f/4.5. And what really sets the Lubitel apart from the Holgas and Dianas is the ability to accurately focus. The ground glass with the split image rangefinder center takes the camera to a whole new level.
So here’s the idea. I chose to shoot film for this project not only because I like it, but also because I thought it was fitting for the subject. I chose to make my project about “Grey Collar Workers,” a term I coined to describe people who work in old, rare professions. I made a lot of calls and brainstormed with other people on the staff of my paper. I ended up shooting seven portraits, a number which fit the layout. To prepare, I researched the professions and made contact with people who have jobs “grey collar” jobs in the Cincinnati area. Finally, I started scheduling the shoots.
I lit all of these portraits with flash. I’m not against using complex, multiple flash arrangements, but for these I only used one flash. It was my old Vivitar 283 with a Varipower module. They don’t make the 283 anymore, but they do make a 285. The 285 is basically the same as my set up. I used a small softbox for some of the portraits and an umbrella for others, and for a couple I just used the bare flash.
To trigger the flash, I used the Cactus wireless V2 set-up. It’s an inexpensive two-piece kit. The transmitter plugs into the Lubitel’s hotshoe. The receiver has a hotshoe on it that the flash plugs into.
The other equipment I lugged around was a Minolta Flash Meter V to get my exposures nailed down, a light stand to mount my lighting equipment on, and my digital camera to document the process for you guys and to occasionally verify my exposures (I know it’s cheating, but I was on a deadline, give me a break).
For all these portraits, but one, I used the Lomo 100 ISO color negative film for it’s fine grain. I also find that color negatives are easier to scan than slides. But for one of the portraits, I couldn’t resist, so I used Lomo’s 200 ISO X-Pro for my final portrait. I took the conservative route and processed it using E-6 instead of getting it cross-processed. I’m lucky enough to have a great processing lab in my city that will still do same-day processing on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I want the results to be a little more predictable than cross-processing would allow, and I wanted the look of the image to roughly match the rest of the portraits.
The First Shoot: The Hatter
Before starting this project, I had only used the Lubitel a few times. So for all intensive purposes, this first shoot was it’s maiden voyage. I had scheduled a shoot with Gus Miller, the owner of Batsakes Hat Shop. He still handcrafts fedoras and his shop has been open in Cincinnati for over 100 years. I wanted to shoot him in his work station. In terms of size, the space was equivalent to a bathroom stall and was strewn with all sorts of hatmaking materials. I used the flash bare and put it on top of shelf to bounce the light off the ceiling. Set the shutter speed at a 30th of a second, and the aperture to about f/5.6. This allowed a touch of the ambient light to come through. I also had to be careful to make sure the hat wasn’t casting a shadow over Gus’s face. I sketched out the set up over a shot of the area.
With this first portrait, I experienced two unexpected surprises. The first was pleasant. I was shocked at how sharp the photos were. The triplet lens design that the camera uses has been around forever, and I’ve had bad experiences with inaccurate split image rangefinders before. But my photos were tack sharp and great looking. The second surprise wasn’t so pleasant. As you can see, below there is a large streak down the left side of the image. This is lens flare caused by the fluorescent light in the top of the frame. This wasn’t a deal breaker, but it did teach me to be pretty careful about pointing the camera at any light source.
Portrait Two: The Calligrapher
So I learned my lesson about lens flare. My next portrait was of Ann Bain, a calligrapher. She had a small workspace in what I imagine was once a living room. She had shelves of books, a desk full of supplies and some great art on the walls. For this portrait, I used classic “Rembrandt” lighting. This is created by placing your light 45 degrees off to the side of your subject and 45 degrees above your subject. Because I wanted to illuminate her work area as well, I used a softbox and placed it as far away as I could. The final distance was limited by the ceiling. You can see my set up here.
I decided to shoot this portrait at a low angle because I wanted to include the “Scriptorium” sign that was on her wall. I was a little worried about reflections coming off her glasses, but decided that having her take them off would detract from the picture. She does very detailed work and I thought the glasses would show that. I used a quicker shutter speed with this photo because all of the light in the portrait would be provided by the flash. Because the Lubitel has a leaf shutter, meaning that the shutter opens and closes like an aperture or a flower, it syncs with a flash at all of its shutter speeds. I think the final product turned out well.
Portrait Three: The Farrier
The next portrait really had two subjects: a farrier named Scott Gregory and a horse. Scott makes custom horseshoes and does other horse services. While I set up for the portrait, he was working on the a horse. The lighting here was tricky. I first metered for the sunlight hitting the horse, and then I matched the power of my flash to that exposure. I also used a softbox for this image, but used slight side lighting in an attempt to match the angle of the light hitting the horse. Check out the set up.
The final product is one of my favorite portraits in this project. You may have noticed that all the portraits are square. The Lubitel kit includes masks to shoot 6cm x 4.5cm, 6cm squares, and even an adapter to shoot 35mm film, but I just love square portraits. This particular one has a strong square composition with the beams in the barn emphasizing all the right angles. I also love his expression and the sweat on his shirt. Shoeing horses is no easy task.
Portrait 4: The Bell Maker
The Verdin Bell Company has been in business for over 150 years, and Tim Verdin, the subject of my portrait, is the sixth-generation owner. For this portrait, I decided to use an umbrella instead of a softbox. Frankly, I prefer using my umbrella. It’s easier for me to predict the look of the images I make with it. It also covers a wider area. I replicated the same lighting I used for the calligrapher portrait, but managed to get the light even further away because the warehouse had very high ceilings. I used a 15th of a second shutter speed to try to bring out whatever light I could from the background. I managed to pull some detail out back there, just enough to get an impression of where we were. Here’s my set up.
As you can see in the set up, there are those dreaded fluorescent bulbs looming in the background. I did get some lens flare in some of the images, but was able to work around it. By this stage of the project, I was getting really familiar with the camera. One of my favorite details is the way the exposure count window can be covered up in multiple ways. There’s a real internal black out shade control by a little knob, which I used when storing the camera in my bag. But during shooting, I just rotated the little wheel with the window a quarter turn to cover it up. I could do it with my thumb while holding the camera, which made it very convenient. During the course of the project, I used about 5 rolls of 120, and I never experienced a light leak.
Portrait 5: The Violin Maker
Trying to photography Jerry Witkowski and his work was tough. He works on a flat table, so in order to get him and his in-progress violin, I had to get up high. The wonderful thing about the waist-level viewfinder is that it can also be used as an over-your-head viewfinder. I turned the camera upside down, and braced the bottom against the ceiling at the angle. I was able to focus and compose easily. It’s a very flexible way to shoot. I went back to the softbox for this image, but didn’t drop my shutter speed too much because I couldn’t use a tripod on the ceiling.
This was the only portrait I made using the slide film. Because slide film has less latitude (or dynamic range) than color negative, the shadows are a little darker and a little more contrasty. The tones generally seems warmer to me, but that might be due to the post-processing more than anything else. The two main points of interest in this photo are Jerry’s face and the violin, so I tried to make sure the flash was about the same distance away from each of them. This insures that they have the same exposure and that nothing gets blown out or under exposed. I think the angle on this one makes it stand out from the rest.
Alright, I’m sold. The Lubitel can and will produce professional results. It’s a breeze to use with a flash, even when used in more complex studio sort of way. The lens produced accurate colors and the focusing was also accurate. The lens flare is something to watch out for, but as long as you’re aware of it, it’s simple to overcome. The “grey collar” workers really appreciated that I was doing the project on film. If anyone can appreciate keeping traditions alive, it’s these folks. You may be asking where the other portraits are. Well, I can’t give you everything. Go to http://www.citybeat.com/cincinnati/article-21628-grey-collar-jobs.html to see the rest of the portraits and learn more about the subjects. You can see the final design and layout of the project below.