analog

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.

Fuck People, Fuck Their Opinions, and Fuck Their Ideals by Michael Jin

You that saying about opinions being like assholes? It’s true. Everyone has a god damned opinion about everything—myself included. Sometimes, such as in the case of your employer’s opinion of you, these opinions matter. Other times, such as in the case of the opinion of some random passerby you don’t know, they just don’t. Regardless of whether they matter or not, we work so hard to cultivate our self image so that people form positive opinions of us, don’t we? Be it our personal image or business image, managing social perception is a very real thing that we all engage in on some level.

We buy certain clothes, we cut our hair in certain styles, we listen to certain music, we drive certain cars, etc. Businesses conduct focus groups to determine which shade of purple gets the most positive reactions or which programs get aired. The fucked up thing is that it all makes a great deal of sense to manage your image because you never know what kind of situation might arise and there’s no second chance to make a first impression. That random passerby that you flipped off might be the person conducting your job interview later in the day. Some guy you pulled up to and swore at might end up being the waiter at a restaurant that you visit. It’s only natural, then, that we would hedge our bets and try to be the best version of ourselves that we can be at all times—or at very least the most socially acceptable version of ourselves.

I’d like to preface the rest of this by saying that I don’t believe that we ought to be complete assholes to one another. There’s room in this world for civil discourse when it comes to areas of disagreement and whenever practical, I believe that physical conflict is something that should be avoided. That having been said, I do believe that this practice of social image management has led to the repression of something very critical to all of us: our very humanity.

Somewhere along the line, we’ve decided that this ideal social image that we’ve created for ourselves in the process of managing our social images is the way people ought to be rather than understanding that far from our default human nature, it’s merely a facade that we construct as an act of enlightened self-interest. We then denounce those who deviate from this fabricated ideal as crude, rude, crass, unenlightened, or whatever other negative term we can come up with to codify them as lower forms of the human creature. Then we apply social penalties in the form of hiring practices, housing practices, boycotts, etc.

Of course there certainly exists a contingent of people who probably belong in these categories and certainly deserve to be demonized. I’m not going to argue that everyone is somehow good in their own fucked up way. Some people are just horrible human beings and a blight to society. This is not meant to be an apology for murderers, rapists, burglars, or drug dealers (that deserves its own post). This is about people who might swear, make an off-color joke, or hold views that are not popular. It’s about the guy on the football team that likes to sing Taylor Swift songs in the shower or the cheerleader that wants to get a face tattoo. It’s about people being who they are and accepting reality for what it is rather than the idyllic vision of it that we hold in our minds.

You see, we are not these perfectly manicured creatures that we expect ourselves to be. The fact that we so often have to suppress our urges to gain social acceptance means that we are effectively being told that we are not good enough for society as we are. Our anger is not acceptable for society. Our lust is not acceptable for society. Our greed is not acceptable for society. Hell, we have 7 Deadly Sins that are codified that pretty much cover the gamut of our base urges. Whether it’s by parenting, a religious institution, the legal institution, academic institution, or just the confluence of plain old everyday interactions, we are told that the person we desire to be is unacceptable and that we must, instead, desire to be somehow “better” than our real selves. So we create these masks for ourselves and we become chameleons, adjusting out behavior and language to different situations. In the process, we often lose sight of who we are on the inside and, in doing so, lose the ability to empathize with those that choose not to play this game.

How does any of this relate to photography? There are a number of ways, but I suspect that if you think about it, you’ll know them. Photography, like fashion, has its trends that come and go. Photographers, like country club members, have their own manners of interaction. Photography communities, like political parties, so often become echo chambers of people voicing the same ideas, patting each other on the back, and hounding anyone who dares to disagree. As for why I started to think about this issue, I’ll leave you with this.

Recently I began to handle some rudimentary social media posting for a company. A big part of the company identity and branding involves embracing the heritage and spirit of New York City. There wasn’t much going on in terms of prepared content so I decided to put up some photos that I wasn’t really doing anything with to fill any void. I was told that the black and white film photos that I was posting were “too depressing” and that I should remove the hashtag “#thirtyfivefuckingmillimeter” that I had attached to one of the 35mm film photos that I took. Obviously this is a case of paid work so I went ahead and made the requested adjustments, but it really got me thinking….

I am a photographer who captures real moments that exist in front of my eyes. The fact that the vast majority of my photography is some form of street photography means that these are moments that happen in front of not just my eyes, but the eyes of hundreds or thousands of people everyday. I am not a painter, creating imagery on canvas that only exists in my mind. While we can argue to what degree the scenes that I capture depict reality and how they are presented further affect the narrative, if there is a store with its gate down because it went out of business in my photo I think we can all agree that it’s highly likely that it’s a store that’s out of business.

Yes, New York City has many beautiful sights. It has a beautiful skyline, beautiful bridges, beautiful parks, etc. But for every fucking derivative copy-cat photo of the Manhattan Bridge from DUMBO, there are a million photos of graffiti on walls, buildings in disrepair, homeless people on the street, bustling outdoor markets, people waiting for a subway, etc. The real New York City is not the shit that you see in post cards. It’s the fucking Halal stand underneath the 7 Train. It’s the guy walking down a row of cars stopped at a red light asking for spare change. It’s some dumbass kid doing his little hat/pole dance on a moving subway car. It’s people buying fake Prada bags from some shady street vendor with a cardboard sign. It’s a crowded subway platform filled with sweaty people that look miserable after a day of work and just want to get the fuck home. The New York City that most New Yorkers experience is not the well-manicured greenery of Central or Prospect park. It’s not the pinks and purples blanketing the beautiful Manhattan skyline. New York City is people often cramming themselves into dirty century-old apartments, being dwarfed by gigantic gray buildings, being surrounded by blinking lights and tacky advertising, and endless construction sites. For others, it’s living on a residential street not unlike plenty of featureless suburbs with plenty of parking and not an ounce of character to distinguish it as anything close to what comes to mind when people think of the city.

So if my photography in this city is depressing and it’s nothing but a reflection of things that we walk by everyday, maybe the problem isn’t my photography, but the city that I’m photographing. Or maybe, it’s depressing because the reality of our city doesn’t match the glamorous image that most people have of it. To me, New York City is not glamorous and beautiful nor is it dark and depressing. It just is… No, I don’t find East New York to be a particularly pleasant place to walk around, but it’s no less a part of our city than the Upper East Side. The thing is that I’m a lazy person by nature so I just photograph the shit that I see. I can’t be bothered to fabricate something that isn’t there for me. I don’t live in Central Park. I live near Jamaica Avenue. I don’t drive down Madison Avenue. I drive down Queens Boulevard. I don’t visit Prospect Park. My travels take me to Nostrand Avenue. So I’ll take my photos in color, but fuck if I’m going to run around taking pictures of a city that, for me, doesn’t exist.

So fuck people, fuck their opinions, and fuck their ideals… because people are fucking twisted and have lost sense of reality, whether it’s the reality of themselves or the reality of their environment. Be honest with yourself and accept the honesty of others. Maybe when we stop being a species of fake Ken and Barbie dolls, we’ll start being human again.

Apparently a really depressing image. | #thirtyfivefuckingmillimeter  © 2018 Michael Jin. All Rights Reserved.

Apparently a really depressing image. | #thirtyfivefuckingmillimeter

© 2018 Michael Jin. All Rights Reserved.

Photograph Mundane Things by Michael Jin

© 2018 Michael Jin

In photography, there's a constant temptation to look for the fantastic. We search for unique features, interesting compositions, juxtapositions, or notable events in hopes that it will create visual interest to draw the viewer in. While I don't discount the value of these principals in creating interesting images, I also believe that the constant search for these things can, at times, give us tunnel vision where we stop observing the otherwise mundane world.

At some point last year, I went out to take photos near my house and I took a photo of some graffiti on the wall.

© 2017 Michael Jin

It wasn't anything fancy—a throwaway shot, really. I was just pushing frames and wasting film. I didn't give any real thought to composition or anything else when I took it and frankly, I forgot that I had taken it for some time. There was nothing particularly special or notable about it since I walk by graffiti everyday and as you can see, we're not exactly talking about a Banksy here.

One day, however, I noticed that it was gone. Someone had put a fresh coat of paint over it to cover the graffiti, as happens so often in this city. I drive by this wall on my way home from work everyday and I cannot for the life of me tell you how long after the wall was painted that I finally noticed that this graffiti was gone.

It's so easy to get so focused on finding the different that we lose sight of the familiar. When we get on the bus, we put our heads down into our phone or close our eyes to sleep. When we leave the house, we just walk right by all of the perfectly ordinary scenery with nary a thought about it. On some level, however, that scenery is constantly in flux. On a smaller scale, it's a bit of graffiti being erased from a wall. On a larger scale, it's the gradual transformation of neighborhoods.

Take a moment once in a while to look around and occasionally photograph the mundane things because before you know it, they might not be there to capture anymore. The bit of graffiti that I took a photo of that day is gone, but it still exists on a film strip in my negative binder serving as a visual document of a tiny piece of my neighborhood's history.

Using The Argus Seventy-Five with Ilford HP5+ by Michael Jin

I asked my father if he had any old film cameras a while back. His response was pulling out an old Canon ELPH which used APS film that is no longer sold and that I would not have the equipment to develop anyway. When I pointed that out, he took out a camera that I initially thought was a TLR. It was the Argus Seventy-Five.

White the camera certainly looks like a TLR, looks can be deceiving. It's essentially a TLR-looking equivalent of a box camera or toy camera that you can look down into to compose. Sure, there are two lenses, but there's no ability to focus the camera so the viewfinder just uses a mirror with no ground glass. The camera has a fixed aperture of approximately f/11 (although I've read f/13 as well) and two shutter speeds to select from: Bulb and approximately 1/60". The focusing distance is fixed at something like 10 feet, which means that it's probably more suitable for street shooting than for portraiture.

Unfortunately, it is designed to take 620 rolls of film which aren't largely manufactured. The ones that you can find are often re-spooled rolls of 120 or small batch productions that carry an absurd price premium (think $15 a roll). I was initially discouraged after seeing those prices, but it turns out that if you try hard enough (like, really really try) you can fit a normal 120 roll into the supply side while using a 620 spool on the take-up side. I loaded up a roll of Ilford HP5+ and the photos above are the results of the single roll that I put through it.

One would think that the lack of controls would make shooting pretty easy, but I found the experience to be maddening. Because there's no way to control anything, you're left to the whims of whatever light happens to be available, which actually made it extremely difficult to expose properly since the light never seemed to be just right. Everything came out either under or over exposed and I suppose that I will consider myself rather fortunate that HP5+ is forgiving enough to deal with such wild swings.

The film was developed in Kodak XTOL (1+0) at 20-degrees for whatever time Massive Dev Chart has. Continuous agitation via inversions for the first 30 seconds and then for 10 seconds each minute at a rate of 3 full inversions per 10 seconds. I do all of my developing and drying in my laundry room so I am constantly waging a war against dust and it seems like this film was a a battle that I very much lost in that regard. Oh well... Shit happens, right?

After seeing the results, I'm not entirely sure what to make of the camera. Its rendering is more clinical than toy cameras that I'm used to seeing and thus it lacks the lo-fi charm, but at the same time, it's not really sharp like a real TLR. The lack of any sort of manual controls is what really gets me most about this camera. Even the Holga that I recently purchased can at least switch between two apertures and adjust focusing distance. While the Argus Seventy-Five looks good on my shelf, I highly doubt that I'll be running another roll through it anytime soon. I'd rather pick up a Holga or get myself a real TLR...