A lifelong journey

Posted by on Aug 27, 2013 in Tutorial | 44 Comments
A lifelong journey

»Amateurs worry about equipment, professionals worry about money, masters worry about light… I just make pictures.«
Vernon Trent

When I first started getting into photography, I shot a Canon Rebel. I eagerly waited for the golden hour at the end of each day, spending my time exploring the Irish countryside shooting little details in nature that were drenched in yellow directional light. I couldn’t get over how pretty and exciting everything seemed to me during that time of the day. I didn’t worry about any of the above and was completely content with my photography. For the last time.

After a few months, shooting during the golden hour alone didn’t satisfy me anymore. I started spending hours on post-processing my images to give them a certain handwriting that, together with my shooting style, would help me achieve a more cohesive look. A little further down the road I changed systems and bought a Nikon full frame camera due to technical problems with my Canon. When I switched I didn’t think about anything but addressing the auto focus issues I had.

I thought a good picture is about the photographer and their creative eye, nothing else. I was convinced that gear didn’t matter at all. In fact for me it didn’t – unless I was shooting a prime lens with a large aperture that would reliably lock on my subject when I shot into the light. I was never a pixel peeper and I don’t approach photography very technical. But most importantly, I simply hadn’t found my perfect match yet and wasn’t aware of that. It took me a long time to see that I was wrong.

1843
Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm 1.4 G (Lightroom 4)

Over time my preferences changed again and I realized for myself that extensive color work isn’t a substitute for anything that’s lacking in my images. I took my post-processing back to achieve a more natural result.

If I look at my pictures from before that time I’m surprised by how far I took it with altering the original colors, it’s almost like people wearing too much make-up without realizing it. The more authentic looking I liked my pictures, the more frustrated I got with the Nikon color palette. I basically felt like I had to spend hours in post work just to fix something that should be right straight out of camera (their 2DX color profiles help a little in case you have the same problems). Being frustrated with both Nikon and Canon for different reasons, I was ready to leave both behind, move on and buy a Leica M9.

I always loved the color palette of Fuji Pro 400H and after experimenting with emulating the look of film digitally to match my results with film, I read about the Fuji X-Pro1 and was intrigued. I compared the image quality, colors and dynamic range to the Leica M9 and decided against a digital Leica. I purchased a Fuji X-Pro1 together with the Fujinon 35mm lens. This little camera completely changed my workflow. I was impressed by how close I could get the results to my actual film scans with relatively little effort. I decided I was done with ever buying a digital camera again (I might change my mind about that if Fuji ever releases a full frame version of the X-Pro1).

0938
Fuji X-Pro1 + Fujinon XF-35mm F1.4R (SOOC vs. Lightroom 4)

But no matter how much you tweak a digital picture, even the ones from the X-Pro1, you simply cannot get the tonal response of film. That means digital images look somewhat flatter and artificial. Film gives an image more depth, texture and the results look more pleasing and natural to the eye. These are subtle differences but they are noticeable, especially if you compare the same scene side by side. Not to speak of the obvious differences in color.

I ended up selling all of my digital Nikon gear and buying a Hasselblad 503CW and a Leica MP to compliment the X-Pro1. For me personally, the images a Hasselblad produces in combination with the Carl Zeiss Planar T* 2.8/80 are the most beautiful you can achieve with a medium format camera. I just love how the lens renders, with such beautiful tones, so much clarity and the most wonderful bokeh I have ever seen.

2110
Hasselblad 503CW + Carl Zeiss Planar T* 2.8/80 (Kodak Portra 400)

The Leica MP is a classic and so is the Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 1.5/50 that I shoot on it. The lens is the modern technological reincarnation of the classical Sonnar 1.5/50 from 1930, the fastest standard lens of its time. It’s an amazing lens that does unbelievable things with light when you shoot it wide open.

My Leica is exactly in the middle between the X-Pro1 and the Hasselblad. It’s a film camera, it’s very portable, discreet and the Zeiss Sonnar draws so beautifully that there really is no substitute for me in a 35mm camera. I like that the MP has no red dot, just an engraving on the top plate. It draws a lot less attention than my M6 because of that, people simply don’t recognize it.

I think having a simple tool that reliably works was one of the great ideas behind Leica cameras before they were transformed into a boutique brand whose products are often stored under glass and not used. I don’t believe in that. I think Leica has a wonderful heritage and their cameras need to be shot, not looked at. The Leica is my camera for life and it will probably carry many marks when I can hopefully pass it on to one of my children one day.

0804
Leica MP + Zeiss C Sonnar T* 1.5/50 ZM (Kodak Portra 400)

I don’t seem to be the only person who thinks of photography being a lifelong journey of development and growth. I receive many emails from fellow photographers that I really appreciate and very few don’t bring up gear. It’s difficult for me to give advice on what camera to choose or whether to shoot film or digital. That’s a very personal decision and one that matters a lot. What’s good for me isn’t necessarily the right choice for someone else. The best is to try different things until something feels exactly perfect for you.

I think finding the right gear is tremendously important and shooting the right gear is an essential part of the creative process. It took me years to figure that out for myself and there is no science behind that really, only feeling. It’s not about shooting expensive gear, the price tag doesn’t matter. But finding the right camera/lens combination that resonates with you is one of the most crucial parts in making a good image.

1514
Contax 645 + Carl Zeiss Planar T* 2/80 (Fujifilm Pro 400H)

I think technical aspects like megapixels or ISO performance are vastly overrated. It’s much more important to identify for yourself what you would like to see in your images. Then you can decide what camera you would like to shoot, or even more importantly – which lens. In an ideal world you start with the lens and work backwards (and hope you don’t end up liking a Leica Noctilux). For me, personally, it’s the Zeiss Planar 80mm on my Hasselblad.

Shooting the Hasselblad means so much more work than any other camera I’ve used before. And that’s the beauty of the manual process, it feels like craftsmanship. To me it feels exactly right. I obviously love shooting my Leica too, but it’s not the same with the MP. Even though there is a lot less labor involved, I have to work much harder for a good shot. It’s almost like playing an instrument or meeting the right person. If you find the one that’s made for you, everything just falls into place.

1491
Fuji X-Pro1, Leica MP, Hasselblad 503CW, Sekonic L-398A, Kodak Portra 400 and Tri-X 400

Part of finding the right gear is being able to reduce your tools until there is nothing more to take away. Another part is being able to identify your own style.

I know a lot of photographers whose work I really love. But what they do is often very different from my own photography and I wouldn’t necessarily shoot like them or use the same equipment. I also wouldn’t be good at what they’re doing. I believe that if you can embrace that, you will be able identify our own strengths better and develop your own signature disconnected from other people’s art. At the same time you will be able to look at their work without missing anything in your own. If you are not content with your photography, stop following other people’s work for a while. Clear your head, focus on your own vision.

I believe this is a lifelong process for every photographer. No artist can ever “arrive” and be 100% content. Where would the urge to create and improve come from otherwise?

44 Comments

  1. Riley Joseph
    27. August 2013

    Great post Johnny. I need to read blogs like this every so often to reel me in to what really matters in my photography.
    Your photography, whether from digital or film, is always compelling to me.
    Cheers.

  2. Matt Day
    27. August 2013

    Once again, an awesome post.
    Love your work and love your perspective on photography just as much, Johnny!

  3. Johnny
    27. August 2013

    Thanks very much for your feedback, Matt and Riley.
    I’m really happy you enjoyed the read.

  4. Mike Fraser
    27. August 2013

    Great post, Johnny!

    The more and more I do this (photography, that is), the more I come to understand that producing great photographs is about finding a process that works well for you. Like you, it was the Fuji X-Pro1 that opened my eyes to this (and, in parallel, the Fuji X100). It offered a simple shooting experience that just spoke to me, and the results it gave me were in line with the type of output I wanted from a camera.

    My Leica M6 and Mamiya 7 followed from that ethos; both are simple cameras that get out of the way and let me make the images I want to, without any nonsense. I’ll be adding a Hasselblad 500c/m in the coming weeks, too.

    It’s interesting to note that you have three cameras in that photo above, all of which offer a very similar angle of view. One might be tempted to think this is redundant in three camera systems, but as you point out, each camera brings something different to the table in terms of how you see the world.

  5. Johnny
    27. August 2013

    Thank you for your feedback and for sharing your thoughts, Mike.

    I’m glad you liked the post. It’s really interesting, I’ve met so many people lately who are either shooting more film since they purchased the Fuji X-Pro1 or they’ve purchased a Fuji to compliment their film camera. I think that’s great.

    And you’re right, technically all three cameras have a similar angle. But they produce completely different results. Which is why none of them is redundant.

  6. Megan
    27. August 2013

    Can you recommend a camera for a beginner photographer? Obviously, I can’t afford a Contax… but would love a camera that shoots film that I could play with and learn on.

    LOVE your work – ever thought of having an online course?

  7. Johnny
    27. August 2013

    Thank you very much, Megan.

    As I tried to say in my blog post, it’s really difficult for me to make a recommendation. It really depends on your shooting style and your budget.

    If you just started out with photography, any 35mm film camera with manual controls and a 50mm f1.8 will give you good results. Just make sure you shoot in manual, work with an external light meter, use decent film and send your work to a good lab. In general I would much rather spend money on a good lab then on equipment.

    I’ve not thought about an online course, but if you have further questions please feel free to send me an email.

  8. Peter
    28. August 2013

    I really enjoy your website. If I remember correctly, I think you had experience shooting with the X100 or X100s. Where I live, I’m unable to rent or really use one without actually purchasing it first. I’m curious to know if there were something apart from the focal length or the ability to change lenses that led you to settle on the X-Pro?

  9. Johnny
    28. August 2013

    Peter, thanks very much.

    I’ve never had the chance to try an X100 or X100s. I didn’t purchase one because of the focal length. The X100s has the same sensor as the X-Pro1. If the 35mm equivalent works for you and you don’t need interchangeable lenses, there is no reason to get an X-Pro1.

  10. Jim Gamblin
    28. August 2013

    Your last two paragraphs, I believe says it all. Some years ago I was visiting a Buddhist temple in the San Francisco area. While wandering around I came to a beautiful wood carving. The only signature on it simply said “A priest in training”.

    When I asked my guide about it, he told me the maker of this beautiful piece of art had been a priest for twenty-five years when he made the carving. What the guide did not tell me was whether the training was meant as a priest or as an artist, perhaps in this case it was both.

    Thank you for your insightful post.

  11. Johnny
    28. August 2013

    Thank you for sharing this story, Jim.

    It matches perfectly with what I tried to say in my post. And I think you might be right, probably both. :)

  12. Ryan Lam
    28. August 2013

    Hi Johnny!

    Great post! I have the same journey as yours. I started photography with film than going over to digital, back to film and now digital again but ended up with Fujifilm cameras for the digital “film look”. I had the same longing for Leica cameras but after a short love with the X1 I gave it up. Even their newest cameras are somehow technically way behind other brands. That’s a little bit depressing when you pay that high price for their cameras.

    I like your photos and your website! Keep it up!

    Ryan

  13. Johnny
    28. August 2013

    Thank you for your feedback, Ryan.

    When the M9 was released it was state of the art, but that was 4 years ago. I didn’t expect it to be technically superior. I tried the new M (type 240) recently and for me it has lost the Leica feel.

    I think the MP is the last real Leica. But I also see that there is no market for a camera like that.

  14. Ibrahima Diallo
    28. August 2013

    Hello Johnny,

    I am working in the Centre of Research and Studies on Renewable Energies in Dakar University and I take many pictures for the institute. I really like this website and your photographs.

    Yours kindly

  15. Johnny
    28. August 2013

    Thank you very much, Ibrahima.

  16. Chris
    28. August 2013

    Hi Johnny,

    Wonderful post. One thing I am very curious about is how you go about processing and scanning your film. Perhaps you have covered this elsewhere.

    Wondering what scanner(s) you use and anything else you might share about your workflow. Also are you printing? And if so from the film or the scan?

    Thanks for your response.

    Best, Chris

  17. Johnny
    28. August 2013

    Thanks very much, Chris.

    I have touched on this topic here, I believe film should be processed and scanned by a skilled and experienced pro lab for the best results.

    My film processing and scanning is done on a Fuji Frontier SP-3000 by Richard Photo Lab in California. I use Lightroom for all of my color work in digital, but I usually don’t have to work on any of the scans I get back from RPL.

  18. Ishan
    28. August 2013

    Hi Johnny,

    Since I bought the X-Pro1 in April last year, I came back to photography after nearly thirty years. My old passion rises up and it was for me, that I never stopped creating photos. As a young guy I educated kids in a youth house. They learned developing B&W photos in a darkroom.

    I agree totally that sensors and film is completely different.
    Actually I use a D800E mostly with a Zeiss 135mm APO SONNAR. This combination is a huge step in digital photography. The Zeiss has a wonderful bokeh, wonderful colors, which I need for really good shades of grey in B&W photography which I shoot most of the times. The best images I print on baryt papers.

    At the end of the year, Zeiss will release the first lens of three lenses, especially designed for sensors with 30MP and up. In my opinion, this combination is very interesting and the images are close to medium format for a lower price.

    Gear is not all, but with the right gear, not that with the highest price or the best measurements, I come to a deeper understanding of photography and closer to my own style.

    In Germany we say “the journey is the reward”. :-)

    Ishan

  19. Johnny
    28. August 2013

    Ishan, thank you for your feedback and sharing your view.

    I agree, the right gear is very important and I am happy that you found what works best for yourself. I love Zeiss lenses as well, especially their older designs.

    I think that quality is very subjective. In technical terms, a digital medium format camera can deliver almost “perfect” results. But how the same camera handles light and color might make an image feel cold and lifeless. For me it’s very important how I feel when I look at a picture, not so much whether or not it’s technically perfect.

  20. Rebecca Lily
    28. August 2013

    Really wonderful post, Johnny.
    I’m so happy to be on this journey with you.

  21. Johnny
    28. August 2013

    Thank you, Rebecca.
    I’m very lucky.

  22. Eiichi
    28. August 2013

    Thank you for a very impressive post.
    I’m encouraged very much.

    Thank you!

  23. Matt
    29. August 2013

    Interesting read Johnny, your article really resonated with me. I’m a recent revert to film as I was feeling frustrated with the digital tonal range and palette. This realisation that my personal vision was more suited to film has lifted a creative weight off of my shoulders and allowed me to open up a new road in my photographic journey. I’m not writing off digital completely but what I’ve found is working for me is a mix of the two. Thanks for sharing your vision and insights and I’m looking forward to reading some more of your posts!

  24. Johnny
    29. August 2013

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Matt.

    A creative weight is a really good description, I can relate. I shoot film and digital as well and for me they work together beautifully.

  25. Thomas
    29. August 2013

    Great article, I needed this!

  26. Dave Young
    29. August 2013

    A most thought provoking article. How many times as photographers are we chasing that eureka moment with regards to equipment only to find that once we believe we’ve found it, we then take a look around and find there’s something else we possibly think maybe a better alternative.

    Maybe the lesson is to take stock of what we have as photographers equipment wise, learn the art of photography, and develop a better understanding of processing our images to the level we want them to be.

  27. Ricky Montalvo
    29. August 2013

    Great post. I had the M9 and thought this would be THE camera I’d keep till I die. It lasted less than a year. At the time I had purchased it, I had put my film camera away (Contax G2). I had succomb to the “gear is everything” mentality and as such, I relied on my M9 to make every image I shot amazing. 1 out of 10 shots were ok. I grew frustrated. Then it had hit me. I was a gear junkie and the M9 was not for me. Put simply, it was like I had met a beautiful model while in Las Vegas, dated and hoped to spend the rest of my life with her only to realize all she wants is to party and be single.

    I decided to sell the M9, got the X-Pro1 and an M6. I’ve been happy ever since. I still continue to use my G2 on occasion. These two cameras have changed the way I photograph in such a way I never new when I had the M9 – it seems odd I know but as I said, I’m much happier with this setup.

  28. Johnny
    29. August 2013

    Dave and Ricky, thank you very much for sharing your experience.
    I think it’s great to see how important this really seems to be.

  29. Ray
    30. August 2013

    Hey Johnny – great read (and really love that quote at the start). I agree that this is a lifelong journey and only now am I starting to realize how less is more in this art.

    Reflecting on reducing your tools until there is nothing left to take away is where I am now. Funny one of your readers commented on getting rid of the M9 and simplifying to the Fuji and M6. For me right now, the ultimate reduction is shooting my ME with just the 50mm – an ultimate statement in simplicity.

    But after reading Ricky’s comment – I agree that there is always one more step to go – maybe ultimately a cardboard box with a pinhole? ;)

    I am striving for simplicity (a reason I am getting out of most of the social networking style sites) and to just share with a few.

    Love the direction and look you have achieved. It is definitely a signature of yours.

  30. Johnny
    30. August 2013

    Thank you very much for your feedback, Ray.

    I’m not sure if exchanging the M9 for a Fuji X-Pro1 and an M6 was meant as a simplification. If I read that right, the M9 simply didn’t work for Ricky. I share the same experience, I love my MP but I wasn’t crazy about the M9. That’s just personal preference.

    One camera with one lens would make a lot of things even easier, I agree. I thought for a long time I could reduce it that much for myself – but I can’t. There is a certain feel to the images of each camera I shoot that I don’t want to give up.

    I also agree with you about not participating in social networks. I like Twitter as a direct way to communicate. But that’s it.

  31. Jonathan
    30. August 2013

    I normally don’t respond to forums or articles that I’ve read, but I had to personally tell you that I found this article very inspiring.

    I’m a photography student at APSU in TN and I’ve been sort of in a bind as of lately. See, I’ve been shooting with my personal Canon Rebel T3i and I just feel like I’m not as motivated as I once originally was with digital photography. I think some of that has to do with the fact that the darkroom was closed for the entire summer on campus, and I feel like shooting with film keeps my digital processes sharp and more artistic. We all know when we are just pumping photos out and not actually “creating” photos. That happens to be my problem at the moment. I’m starting to realize that maybe the cameras I’m using aren’t inspiring me or pushing me into a direction that will help me improve artistically (including my film cameras). I’ve had my mind incredibly rapped around the idea of trying my hardest to get a X-Pro1. I’ve been reading a lot into MILC products and I really like the idea of bringing back the feel of a film camera with-in the digital realm. DSLRs are just so bulky and noticeable and that is a problem, because I find myself loving street photography, and capturing “true” moments. It isn’t my only passion in photography, but it helps to not lug around a tank compared to a bicycle.

    I also really like the idea of pristine photography compared to this outbreak of “graphic design” photography (not the enhancement of photos such as colors and exposure, but the adding and taking content out of a photo). That is why I love film. It is harder to alter photos in a “graphic design” way, and if you were to do so, it would be such a task and notable achievement (Jerry Uelsmann). So your article made me realize that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to actually go for it and get a X-Pro1. I really enjoy shooting with Fuji film including the Instax brands for instant film. I’ve been using 35mm Fuji color film in Holgas lately to play around with exposing onto the sprocket holes and get longer frames. I know I’m probably just going off a tangent, but the way you explain how to “find your own style” speaks to me, especially when it comes down to the style of one’s equipment. I just wanted to thank you for making me realize that and you persuaded me to purchase a Fujifilm X-Pro1 as my next digital camera.

    With that said though, I was wondering how the X-Pro1’s sensor works on capturing “action” shots. I’m not so much interested in the avenue of sports photography or constant fast action photography, but I also don’t want to compromise the ability to shot in these situations. Also I find myself doing a lot of night photography recently and I was wondering how the X-Pro1 fairs in low light situations and is the open bulb option available on this camera (and how long can it stay open)?

    Thank you again on an awesome article and inspiring motivation.

    Jonathan

  32. Johnny
    1. September 2013

    Jonathan, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    I am happy my post was inspiring and motivating for you. I usually don’t feel inspired by shooting a certain camera, but I do feel more connected with my own work if I shoot the right camera in the right situation.

    A lot of people think the X-Pro1 feels like a Leica or is a replacement for a DSLR, that’s not really the case. It’s a different experience. I think it’s very capable in low light and fast enough in most situations (not action or sport). But I suggest you just give it a try and see how it feels for yourself.

  33. Wim
    3. September 2013

    Thanks for this post! You are absolutely right!

  34. Johnny
    3. September 2013

    Thank you, Wim! I’m happy you enjoyed the post. :)

  35. Stefan
    2. November 2013

    Great post!

    I agree with most of your thoughts on film/digital, and format too. Having used different systems from small to large format and classical lab work after, I agree with your choice about Hasselblad. Finally I chose two digital systems of Fuji X-Pro1 and Nikon; my individual reason is the cost for our workflow and… sometimes speed too.

    I like your phrase “A lifelong journey”. It is very helpful to know the classical way of how to expose and develop film, make a print, care about the chemicals etc. Some settings in the menus of the cams are easy to understand and adjust to individual purpose; then „worry about the light“ is the same wether film or digital, thats the real journey I think.

    Thanks for your post, yours and others made me change my journey.

  36. Johnny
    2. November 2013

    Thank you for your feedback, Stefan.

    I agree, light is the subject in most of my pictures. Light is what carries the emotion of an image for me, personally. That’s why I prefer film in certain situations – it emphasizes light while digital makes it look more even.

  37. Matt Day
    18. January 2014

    I keep coming back to this specific post over and over. Love everything about it.

  38. Johnny
    18. January 2014

    Thank you so much, Matt! :)

  39. Ash Kennedy
    16. February 2014

    Hi, I’m a bit late to reading this post as I’ve just come across you via an article on Clipboard.

    I completely agree with you about finding your own style and what camera works for you.

    I quit the 9-5 job and started a college course in photography. I notice all the kids are getting parents to buy them expensive DSLRs and I just use my mirrorless 4/3s for most things unless I’m required to use a DSLR. I much prefer using my old film SLRs or Olympus Trip however having borrowed and tested a couple of Mamiya medium formats, I feel I’ve found what works for me.

  40. Johnny
    17. February 2014

    Ash, thanks very much for your feedback.

    I completely agree with you. It doesn’t matter what you shoot as long is it works for you personally. That’s very likely something different for everyone and makes the whole Canon vs. Nikon (or film vs. digital) debate somewhat obsolete.

  41. Susie
    13. May 2014

    Hello Johnny,

    I just came across your blog yesterday and this post resonates with me especially now.

    Up until now, I’ve been shooting photography (film & digital) for fun, but lately I must have changed because I look at them and think they’re not ‘me’. I’m striving to find my own style that represents who I am most, but it’s a struggle to achieve that exact look & feel that I want to emulate in my photos.

    Maybe its my gear, film, lighting or a little bit of everything but you’re definitely right. It definitely a process that is both artistically frustrating but one that urges me to keep going. :)

  42. Johnny
    14. May 2014

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Susie.

    I completely agree with you, “not knowing” and being discontent can be a very important and productive part of the creative process.

    Don’t worry too much about your direction, your style, your place etc. – you can’t plan that or resolve it by thinking about it. If you shoot what you love and do your own thing (not worrying too much about what other people will think of the results), everything else will come to you over time. You already have that all in yourself, you just didn’t discover it yet.

  43. James Tarry
    23. May 2014

    When I was a boy I shot film, at college I shot film, after college I shot film and then when I started working in photography I had to use digital. 8 years down the digital trail, I’m (along with many) finding digital boring, too easy, too manipulative. I tire of seeing the 500px/Flickr images butchered by post.

    I tried the Fujis (not a fan), so I picked up a Zeiss Ikon (didn’t get on with that either), picked up a Hassie, and I feel I’ve found myself again. I shoot work with a digital and everything else on the Hasselblad… it’s slowed me down, made me think about my images more, made me love photography again.

    Two cameras is all I have now (although I am thinking of picking up a film Leica), I’ve sold the lenses I don’t use, minimal equipment tailored to exactly how I see things. Even though we are probably at different stages in our photographic ‘journey’ (so hate using that word) I relate to this post so much (and most of your posts), you are very right: it is a lifelong trip.

    That’s my 10cents worth… :)

  44. Johnny
    24. May 2014

    James, thank you very much for your feedback.

    I agree, I think exploring what really works for you and then reducing your gear is a very important and productive process. I would love to shoot only one camera with one lens, but I love the different look and feel I get from 35mm vs. medium format. It’s great to read that you found your happy place!

Leave a Reply