So You Are Thinking of Getting Into Real Estate Photography… (Part 2 – Gear and Standards) by Michael Jin

So You Are Thinking of Getting Into Real Estate Photography… (Part 2 – Gear and Objectives)

 

Disclaimer: Everything that I say here is from my own experience. I did not learn how to do this from a mentor or a company that was already established in the business. It is a role that I transitioned into naturally through other work. My learning process has been a combination of reflecting on failures and doing a lot of online research. The conditions that I describe are my own and not everyone goes through the same experiences. Every market is different, and you will likely encounter your own unique challenges. If you are reading this, be mindful that my words are not gospel nor are they intended to be. They are simply the honest experience of someone who is working in this field. I am sharing this to give you all an unfiltered look into my world. You can pick out good things for yourself and try to identify things that you might want to potentially avoid. Beyond sharing my thoughts, I can offer no guidance because you are not me and I am not you.

 

Are you equipped for real estate photography? One of the common questions that comes up in any genre is about gear. Gear, gear, gear, gear. Ask one hundred people and you’ll probably get one hundred different answers. Before I get into the issue of how you need to equip yourself, let me get something straight here:

Real Estate Photography is NOT Architectural Photography.

They are similar in that in the sense that both involve photographing buildings, both interior and exterior. The differences between the two are purpose and allotted time. Architectural photography is generally considered a higher-end, more artistic endeavor where you are normally given a space, given significant resources in terms of scouting time and time on location, and you are expected to highlight the details that make the space or structure stand out. Many architectural photographers will spend some time to scout the location beforehand, check the lighting situation, determine an ideal time to shoot, and come in with a structured game plan and shot list to approach the property. Architectural shoots also nearly always involve a perfectly staged property that is clean and aesthetically appealing from an interior design standpoint.

Real estate photography, by contrast, is far more functional. The objective is to display the space in a pleasing way to get people into the door so that the real estate agent can talk them into buying it. Unless you are dealing with a vacant property that is a lockbox situation, it is extremely rare that you will be given much time to do your job. Every minute spent in an occupied home is a minute that you’re inconveniencing the homeowner, tenant, or even the real estate agent. Taking too much time can potentially damage the relationships and lead to the resident no longer being willing to cooperate with the agent in terms of showing, which is bad. When it comes to real estate photography, you want to approach each job with a game plan that lets you get in and out as quickly as possible and thus, you will often find yourself relying on post processing far more than an architectural photographer who can take time to make sure that the shot is right in the camera.

Entering an occupied home also puts you at the mercy of the interior design decisions of the occupant as well as their hygienic decisions. Peeling paint, lighting fixtures missing bulbs or with mismatched bulbs, cracks in the wall, a foot of clothes covering the entire floor “Hoarders”-style, these are all real-world situations that you can walk into and you will be expected to solve the problem quickly because many real estate agents are afraid of potentially offending the homeowner (or tenant).

Real estate photos, unlike architectural photos, are also likely to only appear on the web as part of the listing on sites such as MLS, Zillow, Trulia, etc. and printed small in flyers handed out at open houses. Architectural photos may make it into print in high end magazines, be featured in portfolios, or even printed large to hang for display so there is also a difference in output to consider.

The Gear

For full disclosure, I am currently a Nikon shooter so for the sake of simplicity, I will be referring to Nikon products. You can shoot real estate with just about any system as long as you find equivalent gear. Don’t focus so much on the specific models, but focus on things like focal length because you’ll probably have to look for whatever the closest thing is that your own camera manufacturer (or third party brand) offers.

In order to get into real estate photography professionally, you are going to need a camera, a lens, and a tripod. The camera should ideally be some sort of interchangeable lens camera such as a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) or MILC (Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera). Your bread-and-butter lens will be a wide angle zoom lens. The tripod should be sturdy enough to hold the camera still without shaking. The basic principles on which all of these recommendations are built are as follows:

  1. Real Estate Photography does NOT require high resolution images.

  2. Real Estate Photography is done on a tripod.

  3. Real Estate Photography employs a deep “Depth of Field” (high f-stop).

  4. Corrections and compositing can be done in post-processing.

It’s important to note here that as of this writing, you will probably be presented with 3 major options in terms of the sensor size of your camera: Full-Frame, APS-C, and Micro 4/3. The difference in sensor sizes results in the same optical focal length having a different “field of view” depending on the sensor. This phenomenon is often called the “crop factor” of the sensor. If you would like to learn more about this, please refer to this video by Gerald Undone, which I think does a pretty good job explaining the phenomenon:

As of this writing, I would recommend getting either a Full-Frame camera or APS-C camera since the current wide angle options for Micro 4/3 bodies seem to be a bit sparse.

The Camera Body

Remember how I mentioned that real estate photos generally only appear in web-size or fairly small print (like 8.5”x11” max)? That’s your blessing if you are getting into this because you don’t need to worry about shelling out for a high-end camera body with tons of megapixels. Even the most basic entry-level cameras today such as the Nikon D5600 DSLR Camera have more than enough resolution to satisfy any real estate agent and you can even go back to purchase an older used model such as the Nikon D300 for $200 or so and have a serviceable camera for real estate photography. If you are just dipping your toes into this, I would highly suggest that you do exactly that and buy yourself an older APS-C camera body used and take the little bit extra to spend on a good lens rather than the other way around. As long as your camera has 12 Megapixels or more, you’re going to be just fine for 99% of real estate work.

Of course there is much more to a camera body than just megapixels. If you do some reading, you’ll read all sorts of stuff about dynamic range, low-light performance, autofocus, etc., but frankly, most of it is not of real concern as you will be working on a tripod. This allows you to keep your ISO setting low so that you don’t run into any noise issues associated with high ISO shooting and there are plenty of ways around the dynamic range problem in a controlled shoot like a real estate job.

You might be asking here why I even bother bringing up the more expensive Full Frame cameras if they are clearly not needed and my answer would be simple: Quality. The truth is that most companies are currently treating their APS-C line as their lower-end “consumer” line. This means that the better quality lenses tend to be released for their Full Frame cameras. If you really want to get into this, then eventually you’re going to want to impress your clients with every bit of quality that you can draw from your equipment so that’s when I would say that Full Frame becomes a factor. Of course you can also opt to go with Fuji who do not have a Full Frame camera line and thus release absolutely amazing lenses for their APS-C cameras.

The Lens(es)

I am not going to lie. This is the single thing that has always caused me the most grief because there is just so much conflicting information. Some people will argue that you NEED a Tilt-Shift Lens to photograph real estate properly (bullshit) and plenty of people will preach about not shooting “too wide”. In short, the smaller the focal length number, the wider your “field of view” is—this means that you will capture more in your frame. Being the practical person that I am, I am going to give some very practical advise here.

  1. Make sure that your lens is “rectilinear”. That means avoid anything that is labelled a “fisheye” lens.

  2. Buy the widest rectilinear zoom that is available for your camera body.

For the Nikon APS-C system, a good entry-level lens for real estate would be the Nikon AF-P DX NIKKOR 10-20mm f/4.5-5.6G VR Lens. You could go even wider by paying a bit more with the Sigma 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6 DC HSM Lens. At the wide end, these lenses translate to 15mm and 12mm on a Full Frame camera. Yes, these lenses are not the most impressive specimens nor are they going to be able to open up very wide to let tons of light in, but most of your photography is probably going to be done around f/8 anyway so the aperture limitation is of little concern. I’m sure that there will be people who want to crucify me for this advice, but let me tell you a few things.

First, this is a business and you want to treat it as such. Once you make the minimal investment in gear, it sets you up to make profit, which you can then CHOOSE to invest in upgrades later down the road. The $276.95 hit on the Nikon 10-20mm is made up pretty much immediately while it will probably be more stressful to pay off a purchase such as the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED Lens for their Full Frame system even though that’s a far better lens. Don’t worry. There are eventually good reasons to shell out for those much better lenses, but focus on creating a viable business and getting the basics down before you start worrying about the differences between cheap lenses and expensive lenses. I’ll discuss upgrades in a future entry because not all upgrades are equal in terms of their return on investment.

A short word on Tilt-Shift lenses before we go further. Tilt-Shift lenses are essentially lenses that allow for movements that are not possible with a standard lens. They permit you to alter your perspective and change your plane of focus. One of the most visible uses of this that you may have seen is the “miniature effect” where a person can taken a photograph of a real landscape and make it look like toys.

An example of the “miniature effect”. Photo by Tim Easley on Unsplash.

Tilt-Shift lenses are actually very valuable tools in the architectural photography sphere, but they are expensive and the time it takes to fiddle with one is probably more than you want to be spending on your average real estate shoot. Tilt-Shift lenses are also “prime lenses” as opposed to zoom lenses, meaning that they only have a single given focal length. This makes them a lot less versatile in terms of adjusting to a given space. They are also likely to be complete overkill since we can apply software corrections instead. The argument for Tilt-Shift is largely to “get it right in camera” and not waste pixels, but remember that real estate photography does not require high resolution to begin with. This doesn’t mean that nobody uses them for real estate, but it is less common than standard wide angle zoom lenses. If you want to buy one, make sure you get familiar with its use before going out on a shoot because there is definitely a learning curve.

The Tripod (and Ball Head)

We have arrived at the last major piece and I will not pull any punches here. Get the sturdiest tripod and ball head that your budget can afford because these three little legs will be responsible for keeping your camera still and stable while you photograph. This doesn’t mean that you need to go out and buy some $1500 outfit from Really Right Stuff, but get a solid offering from a brand like Feisol, Manfrotto, 3-Legged Thing, etc. A good entry-level tripod will probably run you around $200-$300 (assuming you don’t go for weight-saving carbon fiber) and it will last you a LONG time as long as you care for it properly. In general, I would recommend that you get a ball head that is “Arca Swiss Compatible” since that is more or less the industry standard for accessories such as tripod plates and L-Brackets. If you just want to “Buy Once and Cry Once”, then my recommendation at this time would be the Feisol Tournament CT-3342 3-Section Rapid Carbon Tripod along with an Acratech GP Ballhead with Lever Clamp. For the price, it’s difficult to get a more solid setup than that.

Note: One quality-of-life thing that you might want to get yourself is a wired or wireless shutter release for you camera. You can get around this using you camera’s self-timer so it’s not strictly necessary, but it just saves a huge pain in the ass.

Anyway, that’s it for now. I’ll see you guys in Part 3 where we’ll get down to some “Quick and Dirty” real estate photography (before we work our way up to something more refined).

So You Are Thinking of Getting Into Real Estate Photography… (Part 1 – An Introduction) by Michael Jin

©2019 Michael Jin. Self portrait.

Disclaimer: Everything that I say here is from my own experience. I did not learn how to do this from a mentor or a company that was already established in the business. It is a role that I transitioned into naturally through other work. My learning process has been a combination of reflecting on failures and doing a lot of online research. The conditions that I describe are my own and not everyone goes through the same experiences. Every market is different, and you will likely encounter your own unique challenges. If you are reading this, be mindful that my words are not gospel nor are they intended to be. They are simply the honest experience of someone who is working in this field. I am sharing this to give you all an unfiltered look into my world. You can pick out good things for yourself and try to identify things that you might want to potentially avoid. Beyond sharing my thoughts, I can offer no guidance because you are not me and I am not you.


Having done this for a few years now, I have decided to collect some of my thoughts and feelings about this profession and write them down. Every now and then, I come across an article or a video that talks about how real estate photography is a great gateway toward becoming a professional photographer. There is one common thread that seems to run through all of these articles and videos. It is that real estate photography is:

  1. Easy

  2. Cheap

  3. A good way to make money to buy more gear.

Truth be told, real estate photography can certainly be these things. Like so many things in life, much will be determined by how deep down the rabbit hole you want to go and how seriously you want to take it. Here are some of the thoughts of a person who has been actively doing real estate photography in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan for the past three years and five months.


A Long Bit of Background

I was not always a photographer. I never dreamed of being a photographer. From the age of 8 until I was in my mid-20’s, my father owned a 1-Hour Photo in the Bronx. I learned how to load the machines with film when I was in elementary school. In junior high school, I spent my weekends helping customers, taking passport photos on an old Polaroid camera, printing on the old Agfa printer that we had, color correcting just by looking at negatives, and loading paper into magazines in the darkroom we had in the back. I spent my high school years continuing to work at my father’s place on the weekends. By then, I was developing black and white film for customers, framing photos, scanning film, digitally restoring photographs with Adobe Photoshop, taking studio photos for First Communion, Graduation, etc. and giving all manner of photographic advice to customers. At that point, I was pretty much able to run every aspect of the business on my own and I frequently did after school and on the weekends.

Through it all, I had zero interest in photography. I never thought of being a photographer. The only camera I owned was a Kodak disposable camera that I learned how to reload film into. I knew nothing about aperture, shutter speed, and my knowledge of ISO was limited to advising that you would want to buy 100 or 200 speed film for shooting outdoors and 400 or faster if you were shooting indoors. Those studio photos that I took for those customers all of those years? PROGRAM MODE. Somehow, I managed to be around photography for over a decade and just not give a shit about it. It was only after leaving my father’s store and finding work in a photo lab in Manhattan that I even thought that perhaps I should learn how to use a camera. My first SLR was a Leicaflex because my boss at the time went on and on about how awesome Leica’s were. Imagine my surprise when I showed him my new camera and he told me that I bought the wrong Leica and that I was supposed to get the rangefinder because those were the good ones… Within a year, I quickly progressed to a used Canon EOS-1v and, eventually, a brand spanking new Nikon D300 and a Nikon 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G kit lens. It was my first serious digital camera and I was going to actually learn photography with it. I think I took maybe a couple dozen photos with it before I put it away and just forgot about it.

Fast forward to 2015. The big digital revolution had already happened. The film photography industry crashed and with it, photo labs (both big and small) mostly disappeared into the annals of history. The majority of skills that I had (mostly related to running a film photography lab) were obsolete and I was looking for a job. A lead generation company was looking for a cold caller so I answered the job listing and got a job cold calling on commission. The concept was straightforward. Real estate agents from all over the country would hire this company to call the lists that they provided. We would call homes all across the country from 9AM to 9PM in their time, try to get homeowners to think about getting a “market analysis” for their home, talk about how “our agent” was God’s gift to real estate (we got a short bio on each agent), and set up an appointment for the agent to come see them. A confirmed appointment was $50 and if the meeting led to a listing, it was $250. I called and called and called. Each time I dialed the phone, I felt my soul die a little bit more until eventually I just couldn’t take it anymore because I wanted to hang myself with the telephone cord. I talked to my boss about quitting and he actually decided to read my resume to discover that I had some Photoshop skills so I moved into a graphic design job at the company where I created advertisements and flyers for our services. Strangely enough, this is where I learned about Illustrator and InDesign and essentially got paid to learn how to use those programs on the job.

Toward the end of 2015, this lead generation company was actually doing so well at generating appointments that they decided to say “Fuck it. Why are we doing this for other people when we can just open a real estate company and do it for ourselves?”. We became a real estate company and I continued in my graphic design role. We got listings and I was making flyers, but I couldn’t help but cringe at the cellphone photos that I had to put on the marketing materials. Come January and being the “go-getter” that I am, I decided to make more work for myself by telling my boss that I had a camera and maybe I could take better photos of the homes. I had never taken photos of a home before, but shit… it HAD to be better than what these agents were coming back with, right? Since I was using my own camera and lens, though, I told them that I should get paid separately to do this. I spoke with an agent that was willing to take me up on the offer and we agreed on a price. I would take photos of his newest listing for $75. I dusted off my Nikon D300 (the camera that had not taken a single photo nearly eight years), charged the battery, took my 18-105mm lens, and took pictures of this place. Zero experience and zero research beforehand. That was my first real estate photography job and it was the beginning of a job that would come to define so much of the next four years of my life. (BTW, the photos were fucking horrible and they weren’t helped by my God awful editing job, either.)

Suffice it to say that I’ve improved a bit since that first shoot, but I hope that this introduction will give you a good idea of where I am coming from. Looking back on this first shoot is, frankly, painful. There is just so much wrong with it that I’m embarrassed to say that I received money in exchange for it. I made sure to save this first shoot, though, because it serves as a constant reminder to me of how this all started and where I came from.

If you are reading this and are interested in getting into real estate photography, there’s a pretty high likelihood that you are already capable of producing better results than what you see here. I know that it’s rather cliché to say that, “If I can do it, you can do it.” but I think that the photos that you see above are evidence that this is quite literally true. If you really want to give it a shot, there’s nothing stopping you. I started off with an 8-year-old camera and a kit lens that isn’t wide enough to be appropriate for real estate photography. And even though looking at those photos makes me want to vomit (and it should probably make you want to vomit, too), you know what? The agent LOVED them. This leads into a topic that I’m going to hit in the next post which is going to cover Gear and Standards.

Anyway, that’s it for tonight. Talk to you guys later in Part 2.


Low Self-Esteem and Defending Your Value as a Creative by Michael Jin

©2019 Michael Jin.

I have made no secret of my struggles with depression and low self-esteem. While I take medication to mitigate the effects, they are insidious forces that have a tendency to creep up when least expected. As a creative, there is an extremely fine line that we consistently walk the edge of. This is the line between realistic self-evaluation and destructive pessimism. In order to grow, one needs to examine his work and identify the weaknesses that require improvement. Doing so, however, can cause one to focus on the constant inadequacy that comes with not being perfect. This is a basic inner struggle that many creatives contend with and one that I have spoken about previously.

The struggle is enhanced, however, when it is removed from the realm of personal thoughts to the realm of business. As a creative working within a creative field, we are tasked with not only creating work, but attributing value to it in the form of our pricing. This is a tricky process and one which many books have been written about. Certainly, you can look at pricing across the market and place yourself somewhere that you deem reasonable based upon factors such as experience, brand recognition, quality of work, etc. and it would be a decent solution to the problem, but what happens when you run into a situation where the market is saturated with hobbyists who are willing to work for a credit or some paltry sum that is not viable to build an income from? Do you value your time and work the same way they do? Do you stick to your guns and charge based on what you need in order for all of this to be worth it to you? Do you pack up and find another line of work?

This is not a polemic against people willing to work for free or people who are taking side gigs just to pay for their own hobby. While many of them are genuinely talented and are underselling themselves, they are not responsible for thinking about others. As long as they are meeting their own goals, they are justified in pricing themselves however they choose. For anyone who tries to make a primary income from photography, however, it is a reality that needs to be accounted for. How do you defend your value to the potential clients to whom you are quoting a price for work?

The simple answer is to be better. You need to provide better consultation. You need to provide a better product. You need to provide better service. You need to provide a better customer experience. Above all, you need to be better at simply turning people down. It’s that last part that is probably the most difficult. The notion of the “starving artist” is a real thing and particularly when we are beginning, it is so easy to try to grab any little payday that we can. If someone is willing to pay you $50 and it’s $50 that you didn’t have before, how do you send them away? You can even rationalize it away to some extent. After all, it might just be an hour of work so theoretically you’re making $50/hour, right?

The adversarial nature of negotiations only makes it more difficult. As the service provider, you clearly want to make the most money that you possibly can. The client who has to pay wants to pay the least that they possibly can. So while you are defending your value, it is likely that the client is going to do their best to devalue you and your work. Whether it is attacking your experience (or lack thereof), pointing out problems with your product, dismissing the nature of your job as simply pressing a button, etc. If you get into this business, expect people to diminish your profession to try to work your price down.

On the one hand, every barb that a client levels at me hurts me at my core due to my natural low self-esteem. When these conversations occur, it is no longer an inner monologue beating me up—it is a real person on the other side of the conversation pointing out my weaknesses. It often becomes a spiral where, by extension of the worthlessness of my work, I feel worthless as a human being. This leads me down a very dark emotional path. On the other hand, it angers me to no end when these discussions inevitably occur because I tend to take it all very personally for the reasons I just described. For those that may not suffer from mental health issues in the way that I do, this might all seem the height of irrationality, but depression is not a rational thing. Like I said, it’s an insidious thing that can creep up on you and grip you before you realize what’s happening.

Why am I bringing all of this up and what’s the point? Even though it’s something that I continue to struggle with and something for which I’ve found no infallible solution, I want to let others like me know that they are not alone. Creative industries can be difficult for people who do not suffer from depression or low self-esteem, but for those who do, the nature of the business can lead one down some ugly emotional paths. One thing that I started doing in the morning is looking in the mirror and reminding myself that I have value and that my work has value. When I engage in negotiations, I keep my temper and remind myself that the client is not personally attacking me (usually), but that they have a legitimate concern about how their money is spent and expect me to provide assurances for them in the form of my own defense of my product. Above all, deal with people courteously even when it comes to turning work down. Simply saying that, “Unfortunately, I simply can’t do this at that price.” or “I don’t think that this arrangement is going to make sense for me.” and providing some alternatives in the form of references to cheaper photographers or potential solutions to make their project more reasonably priced is always better than “Go fuck off.”.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the most professional person in the world by a long stretch. I’m crass, I’m prone to severe mood swings, and I prefer to be very informal. I am not the right photographer for every client, but I’m honest about that. I didn’t get into this to be rich (although it would be nice if it ended that way). I got into this because I love photography and I want to help people with my skill set. Regardless of how I may think of myself, I can help people solve their creative problems (within the limits of my own ability) and that extends beyond simply taking on jobs. My value as a creative is to be able to create for you when I can and to lead you to others who can do for you what I cannot. Essentially, my value as a creative is that I actually give a fuck about you (whether you deserve it or not) and that’s more than can be said about a lot of people.

The Road to My First "Studio" Space by Michael Jin

Up until now, I’ve always worked “on-location”. Since the bulk of my work until this point has been real estate photography, it makes perfect sense for this to be the case. As with so many things in life, one thing leads to another, though. As I took on real estate jobs, I was occasionally asked if I could do headshots as well. My response was, “Of course!”. When my father closed down his photo lab, he brought home a pair of SP Studio Systems Excalibur 3200’s and shoot-through umbrellas to accompany them so I just dug those out of the closet and brought them to the office to do some headshots for the agents (Realistically, they were more often half-body portraits because of the variety of ways they needed to be used.). The results of those early shoots was rather mixed. A lot of it was just my inexperience, but some of it also came down to the limitations of the space that I was working in—mainly that I was often thrown into completely random situations and lacked the experience necessary to problem solve at the time.

Jerry Tenenbaum. One of my first paid portrait sessions. (I’m so sorry, Jerry!) ©2016 Michael Jin.

Low-Res File. ©2016 Michael Jin.

Low-Res File. ©2016 Michael Jin.

Often, I was just putting an agent against an available wall and photographing them with my Nikon D300 and 18-105mm f/2.5-f/5.6 kit lens. As you can see above, the results were less than ideal. To be honest, I was satisfied for a while with this as I just did not consider headshots to be “my thing”. I just knocked out the background (using the Eraser Tool in Photoshop because that’s the only way I knew how at the time), put in a replacement, and delivered a low resolution file for use as an email signature or something.

I’ll be the first to admit that this was completely unacceptable and my mentality in those early days was completely wrong. Not only did I think far too much of my own abilities, but I also didn’t take nearly enough pride in my work. I was only concerned with paying my bills and thus, treated my photography (which at the time was just a side hustle) as a way to make a few extra bucks.

For a long time, while my real estate photography steadily improved, my headshot photography did not. It’s only after I started to do photography outside of work and pursue it as a hobby that I began to really love the craft. Even though my personal work was almost exclusively various forms of street photography, just the simple fact that I started to take pride in my work caused me to re-examine the photography that I was doing for work. I knew that I could do a lot better if I took the time to study my craft so I picked up some books and started to learn about lighting as well as portraiture. The result was that I began to improve, although there were certainly hits and misses as I was experimenting a lot.

Julia Vinogradov. ©2016 Michael Jin.

Judah Finkelstein. ©2017 Michael Jin.

Andrey Romanyuk. ©2019 Michael Jin.

Jonathan Anobian. ©2019 Michael Jin.

In the past three years, I’ve read books, watched YouTube tutorials, gone through numerous gear changes and upgrades, and I think that the result is that I’m providing much better results for my customers. One thing that has bugged me throughout all of this is the fact that I continue to be at the mercy of whatever space I walk into when taking photos. Suffice it to say that most offices are not exactly designed with photography in mind, so it’s always a struggle to solve problems.

I think that most of us dream of building a studio space at some point and I am no exception. Obviously, I’d love to have a huge room with high ceilings that I can do whatever I want with. Very few of us will ever get to this point, though. Despite the fact that renting out a proper studio would be unrealistically for me at the moment, I have wanted some sort of dedicated space for photography that I could control. For me, the value of it is two-fold.

First, I do not have to turn away potential customers who don’t have their own space where I can set up my lighting to photograph them. If anything, they can always come to me. I am not deluded enough to think that this will alter things so that I never have to travel onto location and solve problems in those given spaces (something that I am much better at now), but it gives me options.

Second, and perhaps more important to me, is that it will give me a space to really be able to practice my photography to bring it to the next level. Until now, I’ve really only “practiced” on the job. I would read about a technique or lighting set-up and then I would have wait until the next person called me because I had nowhere to really set up my lights to practice them on subjects beforehand. I think I’ve come a surprisingly long way working like this, but it is something that does need to change. With a dedicated space, I am free to invite people over and practice without money on the line. This is better for me and better for my customers.

I’ve had something of an “office space” in my home for a few months now since my wife and I moved after having our son. A while back, when I made the decision to transition into becoming a professional photographer, I figured that I couldn’t put off setting aside some space any longer. The only question was how exactly to go about doing this since none of the rooms in our apartment is particularly large with my office space being the smallest room by a decent margin. In the end, I decided that it’s more important for me to have some sort of space rather than the ideal space so while I would love to have a setup that allows for a 10-foot wide backdrop and enough room to back up in order to do full body portraiture, I have settled on a configuration that is pretty much limited to fairly tight headshots for the moment. It’s certainly not ideal, but it will allow me to do some bread-and-butter work as well as practice different lighting techniques.

Can shoot tethered

White and black backdrops are back-ordered.

It turns out that my father still had a Savage Slate Grey backdrop that was in its sealed wrapper in the closet so I grabbed that and ordered an Impact Wall Mount kit. Unfortunately, the white and black backdrops I had in the cart are on back-order (not for too long, I imagine), but in the end, I will have a decent setup to work with. (My original SP Studio Systems Excalibur 3200 monolights are in that red bag.). I think a v-flat or two would be the major things left to add.

I just finished putting everything up yesterday and I have a friend coming over today so that I can take the configuration for a spin. I don’t anticipate any issues, but I can’t tell you how happy i am. It’s not much of a “studio space”, but for me, it’s an incredible step that I’ve taken toward my dreams. Stay tuned for updates and if you’ve been on the fence, I really encourage you to just take the step with whatever you have available. I feel like I waited far too long constantly waiting for the ideal space or setup. With my new outlook, I’m seeing that it’s more important to just start because there’s nothing saying that this is going to be my permanent studio. I can always build from here into a larger space, but if I never start, I will never get anywhere.


Update: Here’s the first portrait to come out of my studio. The model is my buddy and fellow photographer, David Goris.

David Goris. ©2019 Michael Jin.

I Have A Dream... (So Do I.) by Michael Jin

"I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free; one hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination; one hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity; one hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.

So we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was the promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note in so far as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy; now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice; now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood; now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content, will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the worn threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protests to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy, which has engulfed the Negro community, must not lead us to a distrust of all white people. For many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.

There are those who are asking the devotees of Civil Rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality; we can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities; we cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one; we can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only”; we cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote, and the Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No! no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations.  Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi. Go back to Alabama. Go back to South Carolina. Go back to Georgia. Go back to Louisiana. Go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.  Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I HAVE A DREAM TODAY!

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama — with its vicious racists, with its Governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification — one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I HAVE A DREAM TODAY!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be plain and the crooked places will be made straight, “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.  With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brother-hood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.  And this will be the day. This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my father died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.” And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire; let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York; let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania; let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado; let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that. Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia; let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee; let freedom ring from every hill and mole hill of Mississippi. “From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”

- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I had this idea for the company that I do some social media for. It was a play on something I saw on Twitter a while back where NPR decided to tweet the Declaration of Independence sentence by sentence to some rather interesting results. To honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I decided to post his “I Have A Dream” speech on Instagram—not sentence by sentence, but paragraph by paragraph. Each post was one paragraph of the speech accompanied by an image with no quotation marks or references to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. except for an image of him at the rally as the first post of the series.

Shortly after the third post of the campaign, I was called and told to immediately remove the post because it used the word “negro” and the owners felt that it reflected poorly on the company—apparently they were getting text messages from their friends. I explained that it was part of the speech and that it would not make sense to take down that single post and keep the rest. In a sense, it was an all-or-nothing situation. After a short phone call, I was told to pull the plug on the whole thing and put up a generic image because the company did not want to be seen as taking a political stance. So all of the posts were deleted, the scheduled future posts were canceled, and up went a generic image of the rally in Washington D.C. and a generic apolitical message.

I am currently incredibly depressed and, quite frankly, heartbroken by this series of events. Fortunately, I have this platform from which to post my views to a non-existent audience, but at least I’ll be able to get this off my chest. Truth be told, I knew exactly what I was doing when I designed this campaign because I saw the results of the NPR campaign. I deliberately did not put any quotations around the individual paragraphs posted and I deliberately chose not to put the “- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” at the end of each of those paragraphs which would have made it incredibly obvious to any reader that these were words quoted from his speech. I knew full well that some people would immediately get it (especially since it’s written in a manner that few people today would write on social media) while others would simply have their gut reactions to it. THAT WAS THE POINT. The entire purpose of this exercise was to get us to read those words without the bias that comes from context. The reason that the posts were spaced out one hour apart was to give plenty of time to allow people to digest the individual segments of the speech. It was MEANT to challenge us.

Challenge us, it apparently did. So much so that I was forced to pull the plug on it a mere three paragraphs into the campaign. Ask anyone but the most blatant racist about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and you’ll hear nothing but reverence and praise. People will blather on and on about his contributions to the advancement of civil rights and they would be right to. What does it say about us, however, when those same people shy away from the very words that were at the basis of those incredible contributions? What does it say about us that we read them and then complain that they are “too political” to be posted by a company in 2019? It was August 28, 1963 when the speech quoted above was given. Take that in for a moment. 1963. It has been 20,235 days since the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said “I HAVE A DREAM TODAY” to the day that I am writing this blog post. 20,235 days and quoted paragraphs from that speech are “too political” and “too inflammatory” for mainstream consumption.

Did I miss some point in my lifetime when the notion of racial equality and love toward our fellow man became a political topic? Did I miss the memo that suggested that fair treatment of our brothers and sisters of all colors is an inflammatory idea? I thought that these were given things that decent human beings with some sense of moral values simply agreed upon. I’m not talking Affirmative Action, Welfare, or whatever other social policies inevitably get rolled up into these arguments. “The Dream” was not a dream about public policy or government programs. It was a dream about the human heart. If we truly loved each other and saw each others as brothers and sisters with equal value and equal rights, we wouldn’t have to bicker about policies because we would already know what must be done for the sake of our own conscience. I won’t discount the tremendous progress that has been made since 1963, but today served as proof for me that Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Dream” in 2019 still remains a dream deferred.

So in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I will say today on January 21, 2019 that I HAVE A DREAM TODAY. I have a dream that one day we can talk about Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream frankly and openly without fear of some sort of ludicrous backlash. I dream of the day when we can be brave enough to simply speak the truths that we hold to be self-evident rather than to cower behind the facade of “political neutrality”. And cowardice it is, because the issue of human welfare is not a question of politics, but one of our humanity itself.

My 2018 EMULSIVE Secret Santa Experience by Michael Jin

© 2019 Michael Jin. Pentax Super Takumar 55mm f/2 with Sony A7RIII

For those that don’t know, the EMULSIVE Secret Santa is an annual event within the film photography community organized by EM of emulsive.org. The idea is that a bunch of participants all around the world sign up and get paired with a partner to send a gift to so that we can all open our gifts together on Christmas day. Like many of these types of events, the person that you’re sending to is usually not the person who is gifting to you (except in a few rare scenarios) so it’s all a big surprise in the end. When you sign up, you can either choose to ensure that you’re shipping domestically or say that you’re open to ship internationally. Despite the fact that the EMULSIVE Secret Santa is pretty much talked about on every film photography podcast that I listen to, 2018 was the first year that I decided to actually participate.

The thing is that I’m not really a “holiday” type of person. I don’t find any particular joy in the whole tradition of gift exchange and I pretty much want to claw my ears out whenever I start to hear Christmas music all day everywhere I go. I’ve never participated in a Secret Santa simply because I’m a grumpy grinch. I’ve always been of the opinion that we’re all better off just keeping our own money in our pockets and buying the things that we actually want rather than getting sweaters or socks that we’ll never wear and pretending to be happy about it. I guess I’m just not really sentimental in that regard. This year was a bit different, though. I’ve been making an active effort to try to open myself up and be a more social person in general. I figured that the EMULSIVE Secret Santa would be a good way to connect (even if just in a limited fashion) with another person. So I went on to Elfster, which was the site that the event was using to organize, registered as a participant, and waited to be paired.

It took a while, but I finally got my pairing and it happened to be someone in Georgia. Now while the minimum gift value is $20 and all registrants get to create a wish list, we are encouraged to find out a little bit about the person receiving the gift via an anonymous Q&A mechanism built into the Elfster platform. While some people simply ignore this and send whatever rolls of film or camera that they have pre-determined regardless of which recipient they get paired with, EM emphasizes that the idea is to strengthen the community and encourages us to tailor our gifts by using these Q&A exchanges. Figuring that since I’ve gone out of my way to participate, I decide to flow with the spirit of the event and proceed to send a bunch of anonymous questions to my recipient. Then I hear nothing back.

Now I’m left with a choice. Do I just send whatever since my recipient is not responding, or do I wait it out a bit longer to see if he eventually responds? The days keep passing and the Christmas Day deadline looms ever nearer as I keep logging into Elfster to see if there has been any update. I’m seeing all of these notifications in the activity board where people are thanking their Santas for their gifts—some of them cheat by opening the gift early—and there I am feeling like a dipshit for not having sent my gift out yet. Finally, just as I’m about to break, I get a response from my recipient who says that he simply hadn’t been checking his Elfster account. We have a brief back and forth and I get an idea for some film stocks that I think he’d like. I put the order into B&H and I end up shipping it via UPS 3-Day to ensure that it arrives on time since it was all so last minute. Thankfully, I get confirmation through Elfster that my gift was received and I breathe a sigh of relief. Then it hits me. Nobody ever sent me any questions to answer.

So I know I’ve done my part, but now I’m wondering what going on with the other end of this exchange as it pertains to me. Is my Santa one of the people who just have something that they already have in mind to send? Is something on the way? It doesn’t seem like it since Elfster does have a button to press once you send your package to let your recipient to know that something has been shipped (and a separate button for the recipient to press to confirm receipt). I check and there’s nothing to indicate that anything has been shipped and my Santa has been completely silent. My next thought immediately goes to, “Is my Santa one of those dead beats that I hear about who just enters to receive something and never sends anything out on their end?” A system like this is ripe for abuse, after all. It would seem a pretty dick move, but as Christmas gets closer and closer, it looks increasingly common.

Finally I check my Elfster account one day and there’s a message for me.

Untitled-1.jpg

OK. I can understand that shit happens and I know how stressful finals can be. What’s more important? Personal circumstances or a gift exchange? Of course I tell him to take care of whatever he needs to take care of. Clearly, I’m going to be getting SOMETHING even if it’s not on time. All he has to do is drop it in the mail at some point. Right?

Untitled-1 (2).jpg

RADIO SILENCE…

This is a screenshot that I took today as I write this post on January 19, 2019. It’s been nearly a month since Christmas. There’s been no further communication, no confirmation of a package sent, and no package received. Because of this, I’m going to go ahead and put my grumpy hat back on. You see, even if it was part of an exchange, this would have literally been the only gift that I received this past Christmas. I know that I am not the only person to experience this as it is a known problem and it seems like EM and his assistants are working in the background on their contingency for these scenarios, but frankly speaking, they shouldn’t have to have a contingency because people should be decent enough to either abide by their word or withdraw if circumstances prevent them from fulfilling their end of the agreement.

Some people have posted about how their joy has simply been knowing that the person that they gifted to enjoyed their present and I certainly feel the joy that my own gift was well received by the person to whom I was assigned. I suppose I feel rather ambivalent in that I also feel betrayed and angry at myself for allowing to feel this way because I allowed myself to have enough faith in a stranger whom I knew nothing about to get my hopes up. I think I would have almost preferred complete radio silence altogether than that single message that made hope briefly blip on my otherwise jaded and cynical radar.

Whatever the final resolution to this will be, I have already decided that I am not going to participate in this event again. I commend EM for doing his utmost to rally the film photography community around this event and doing his best to organize it—even going so far as to have contingency plans in place for situations like mine. That having been said, my experience will be that in an event that was specifically designed to strengthen the bonds in this community, someone entered to take advantage of it and I simply don’t want to lose what little faith in people that I have left.

Good luck, EM. Thanks for trying.

© 2016 Michael Jin. NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4D with Nikon D810.

Micro-Contrast and Other Nonsense by Michael Jin

Even though I don’t exactly have money pouring out of my orifices, I’m always on the lookout for new (and sometimes old?) and interesting camera equipment. One of a biggest benefits of switching from a DSLR system to an MILC system has been the fact that I can find an adapter to fit just about any DSLR or SLR lens ever made onto my Sony A7RIII. Sure, I had by Helios 44M, Helios 40-2, and a few Jupiter lenses back on my Nikon D850, but it was much harder to find lenses to fit that camera since they had to be specifically modified to achieve infinity focus and even when you got one that was, manually focusing on a modern DSLR was just not a very fun thing to do.

Because of this, I’ve found a whole world of vintage lenses that has opened up to me since getting my new camera and this is nice because a lot of older lenses tend to be cheaper than the new stuff. How does one go about sorting out good lenses from bad ones, though? As I’ve said, I don’t have tons of money so I’m constantly reading lens reviews so try to get an idea of their characteristics and performance… and so begins my rant.

© 2019 Michael Jin. Pentax Super Takumar 55mm f/2 (M42 Mount) on Sony A7RIII.

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. As I read these reviews for lenses, I really start to get that feeling. Going through essay after essay of people driveling on and on in their efforts to describe the visual characteristics of these lenses quickly begins to feel like listening to Food Network hosts describing whatever garbage that they’re munching on for the camera. I’m not sure where the language originated from (and I admittedly don’t care enough to go looking), but you start to see the same fucking words over and over again applied to EVERY SINGLE LENS. If you’re at all interested in photography, you’ve probably seen them, too. How many lenses have “CREAMY BOKEH", “BUTTERY SMOOTH BOKEH”, or some variation of this? How many lenses “DRAW WELL” or “RENDER IMAGES WELL”? And, for fuck’s sake, how many lenses have “GREAT MICRO-CONTRAST”?

WHAT THE FUCK IS MICRO-CONTRAST?

© 2017 Michael Jin. NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G on Nikon D810.

More importantly, however

WHY THE HELL SHOULD I CARE?

Unlike most things in life, I’ve actually taken the time to try to look up what the hell “micro=contrast” is simply due to the ubiquity of the term’s use in discussions of lenses and the fact that people constantly talk about it like it’s the most important thing in the world. As far as I can tell, there doesn’t seem to be any universally accepted definition of what this term means nor have I found an unequivocal method of testing for it. It seems more like bullshit jargon made up by people and thrown around in discussions to sound smarter than other people or simply as a catch-all term used to quantify all of the shit that people can’t actually describe with other words.

On the one hand, I get it. If you put me on the spot and asked me to describe how any given lens renders, I would have an incredibly difficult time explaining it to you. If you asked me to start comparing lenses to each other, this would only get more difficult. For you, the reader, this might be disappointing if I was positioning myself as some sort of expert in these matters so I need to find SOME way to describe what’s going on even if I can’t quite put my finger on it. I think “micro-contrast” is pretty much the photographic version of “umami”. You can’t point out exactly what the hell it is, but you “know it” when you encounter it. It also happens to be the universal fallback for any argument that involves justifying the price of a really really expensive lens when every quantifiable metric favors the cheaper lens.

© 2019 Michael Jin. Mir-1 37mm f/2.8 Lens (M42 Mount) on Sony A7RIII.

Whether it’s Bokeh, Micro-Contrast, Peceptual Megapixels (an even more egregiously coined term), or whatever else, I find that I’m really tired of reading about this crap. Here’s an idea: WHY NOT JUST SHOW ME? Considering that all of these reviewers actually have their hands on the lenses that they are reviewing, it’s pretty amazing how much crap some of them can write while not showing a damned photo other than some test charts or the occasional plan gray shot to show the vignette at different apertures. Does anyone seriously care about this shit? If you show me some nice photos taken with a lens, I’m not going to ask you what the MTF chart looks like or how many “perceptual megapixels” the lens resolves.

Sure, tell me what the lens feels like. Describe how well the focus ring is dampened or whether the lens suffers from focus breathing. These are all things that are an essential part of the use of a lens that you can’t convey through an image. But by God, why the hell would you bother trying to describe the visual rendition that a lens creates when you can just take some damned pictures and post them?

© 2017 Michael Jin. Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/1.4 ZF.2 on Nikon D810.

Anyway, I just felt like letting loose after a round of reading through some vintage lens reviews. If you’re a reviewer and you happen to be struggling with how to describe a lens. Do us all a favor and just go out and take a fucking picture.

© 2017 Michael Jin. Helios 44M 58mm f/2 on Nikon D810.

Oh, and the latest lens that I’ve been eyeing? It’s the Jupiter-9.

On Experimentation and Consistency by Michael Jin

Ilford FP4+, and Ilford HP5+

Kodak HC-110, Adox Rodinal

Photographer’s Formulary TF-5 Fixer

HEICO Permawash

Kodak Photoflo

These are the film stocks that you will constantly see in my refrigerator and the chemicals that sit on my shelf. The reason? They provide affordable, consistent, readily available, and provide excellent results.

This doesn’t mean that I do not enjoy other emulsions or chemicals as I am constantly experimenting with new emulsions, chemistry, and techniques. I do, however, base all of my analog photography work off this foundation and I think that this is important. With analog photography, it’s so easy to get mired in the numerous possibilities. Despite the very much exaggerated “death of film”, there are dozens of options and hundreds of combinations available to you in regard to commercially available film emulsions and chemistry. Start going down the rabbit hole of reading opinions on the internet and you’ll quickly find yourself extremely confused. This confusion is only exacerbated these days with the inevitable hype that surrounds newer film releases such as JCH Streetpan, Street Candy, Ferrania P30, etc. many of which could be considered in the “boutique” category in terms of their availability. The same applies to chemistry with the recent release of Cinestill’s monobath. When these things get released, everyone wants to hop on the hype train and try them and frankly, I think you should. Don’t get too carried away, though.

If all you’re doing is experimenting with this and that, it not only becomes more difficult to focus on your actual photography since you’re spending so much time researching the newest thing that you want to try out, but it’s highly likely that the quality of your work is likely to suffer as well. Aside from the issue of your photographic vision, analog photography is a tactile art that involves the manipulation of physical materials. That manipulation requires an understanding of those materials. Refined control over those materials means a refined understanding of them as well. Understanding here is the result of practice and experience. It’s one thing to read on the internet that a certain film is “high contrast”. It’s another thing entirely to shoot ten rolls of it and reflect on how the settings you used in particular lighting situations translated to that particular emulsion. It’s one thing to read a general line about how agitation schemes will affect the development process, but it’s another to experiment over and over again with the same chemical and film emulsion using different agitation schemes to see the impact. This may sound incredibly obvious, but many people underestimate how important this intimate understanding actually is when it comes to developing consistent results across a body of work.

This is not to say that certain film emulsions naturally lend themselves better to certain purposes or that certain developers are not better or worse for particular results such as softer grain or higher contrast. Every single variable that you have (film emulsion, chemicals, techniques) are tools. Much like tools, however, a tool that you use extremely well that might only be 70% good for a particular purpose will probably get you better results than a tool that you’ve never used before that’s theoretically 99% good for that purpose. I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me “What is the best film for ___________?”. My follow-up question is almost always, “What are your go-to films at each speed?” because when you don’t have a specific stock in mind, those films are what you should be turning to.

While I certainly keep the Ilford duo in my fridge at all times, I have other films there, too. These are films that I bring out for particular purposes when I know that I’m going to do something specific. If I need to push a film to 3200, I prefer Tri-X over HP5+. If I want moody street shooting at 400, I think that JCH Streetpan is an awesome film. If I’m taking a portrait in good lighting, I find Fomapan 100 to be a magnificent emulsion. If I want to throw something in my Holga for added “retro” style, then Retropan 320 Soft gives some really nifty extra-lo-fi results. If I really want tons of tonality on a bright day with some classic-looking grain, then Adox CHS II 100 would be my go-to (unfortunately, it’s been sold out for a while now). For a real cinematic look it’s Eastman XX all the way.

It’s actually quite rare at this point that I think that FP4+ or HP5+ are the IDEAL film for any particular task. If you dig through every possible combination of film and chemistry, there’s probably something that will work a bit better for the desired result. They are, however, some of the most versatile emulsions at their particular speeds, producing great results no matter what I’m looking for at that speed. They are emulsions that I know will not let me down and if I have only these two film stocks in my bag, I feel confident to take on just about anything.

When you start out, you will inevitably experiment and I think that the first thing you should try to find is your personal “go-to” film stocks at different speeds. What are the standards around which you want to build your body of work? As you experiment, you will begin to notice certain trends in your preferences. For instance, I realized early on that I simply was not partial to T-grained films. They have excellent tonality, amazing sharpness, and ridiculously fine grain, but to me they just felt too sterile and I felt that if I wanted that type of look, I could just shoot with my digital camera and convert it to black and white. So I moved toward more traditional cubic grain stocks and my desire for a great tones to serve as a versatile base led me to Ilford FP4+ and Ilford HP5+. Tri-X was a bit too high contrast for me at box speed (although it produces some great results), Acros 100 was a dubious proposition given Fuji’s status as a film manufacturer as of late, and companies like Adox and Rollei were not only nearly double the price here in the USA, but they were often out of stock for months at a time and I definitely wanted my “go-to” films to be something readily available that was probably not going to go away anytime soon. You might feel differently about any number of these things and arrive at a different conclusion in regard to your standard film stocks, which match your own personal style and ethos.

On the chemistry end, after having used Ilfosol-3, XTOL, D76, and other developers that either required mixing or fell to oxidation, I just wanted a highly concentrated developer that didn’t oxidize quickly and could be mixes on demand straight out of a bottle. Rodinal and HC-110 were natural choices for me and they behave differently enough at a range of dilutions that they give me a number of options with just two bottles rather than having a bunch of different developers slowly oxidizing. Again, availability, affordability, and reliability. I personally think that commercial chemistry is a bit easier than film stocks if only because there are less of them out there and quite often, there are only a handful that will be readily available in any area. Sure, the internet changes things a bit, but there’s nothing quite like being able to make an emergency run to your local camera shop to pick up chemistry in a pinch. For many, D76 or ID-11 is their standard developer with something like Rodinal or HC-110 taking a more specialized role. It’s all about personal preference.

Once you’ve settled on your standards, these will become the barometer by which you measure everything else. When you experiment to discover new tools, change only one element at a time. If you’re usually developing in Rodinal with Tri-X, use Rodinal with JCH Streetpan or D76 with Tri-X. Jumping from Rodinal+Tri-X to D76+JCH Streetpan won’t really tell you much about Streetpan or D76 individually, even if someone on a forum might have posted a nice image using that combination. Experiment in a deliberate and systematic manner and you will greatly increase your understanding of new tools that you can add to your creative arsenal. I think an important point to add about experimentation is to take your time getting to know the new thing you’re using. Shooting Retropan 80S today and then moving onto trying out Ferrania P30 tomorrow gives you little time or sample size to develop an understanding of the behavior of Retropan 80S in a variety of lighting conditions. So when you decide to pull it out later down the road, you might encounter unexpected results because you’re assuming that it’ll behave a certain way despite the shooting environment being different. Remember that being an analog medium, film stocks are subject to all sorts of different variables from lighting conditions to the ambient temperature. Take your time with each new thing and develop a good feel for it before moving on. When I try a new stock, I will usually buy 10 rolls at a time because it’ll generally take me that long to form a decent opinion about it.

I’d like to encourage everyone getting started in analog photography to find their fundamental tools first and foremost and then begin to explore the wonderful universe of possibilities from that anchor point. If you’ve found your own standard tools, feel free to let me know. I’d love to hear them.