Ever had one of those days?

I drove out to the Civilian Conservation Corps campsite in Leeds to shoot with my Holga lens and when I pulled out my camera it told me the memory card I was using wasn’t readable.

This is what my Canon 5DMKIII was telling me when I turned it on at the Civilian Conservation Corps campsite in Leeds.
This is what my Canon 5DMKIII was telling me when I turned it on at the Civilian Conservation Corps campsite in Leeds.

I tried formatting it. No dice. I tried pulling it out and reinserting it. Still nothing. Turned the camera off and back on again. Still not readable.

I had a bad card.

Usually I have a couple extras around, I even try to make it a habit of having one in each of my vehicles, just in case I get somewhere and find myself with a bad memory card.

This time, I had nothing. I ransacked my car, looking for a hidden memory card but came up empty.

Frustrating. I had to drive all the way back to town to grab another card.

Luckily Leeds isn’t that far from the nearest Target.

That said, a word of advice to any budding ghost town photographers out there… Always have an extra card. And then, always have another one. Finding out your card has been corrupted and you don’t have a backup is not something you want to discover after you’ve spent hours driving out to a super cool ghost town in the middle of nowhere…

Washington in black and white

There’s something about the middle grey tones in the adobe brick of the Washington City pioneer home that I like a lot.

Abandoned adobe pioneer era home in Washington City.
Abandoned adobe pioneer era home in Washington City.

I don’t think the color versions of these images work as well. I think I’m leaning towards going all black and white with the project but I suppose I could still change my mind.

That’s the beauty of digital. Switching back and forth, seeing the difference is as simple as the click of a mouse. I don’t have to buy black and white photographic paper, darkroom chemicals, or find a darkroom in which to work. I can just change the color mode in Photoshop.

So we’ll see, but for now, I’m doing everything from here on out in black and white.

Abandoned adobe pioneer era home in Washington City.
Abandoned adobe pioneer era home in Washington City.
Abandoned adobe pioneer era home in Washington City.
Abandoned adobe pioneer era home in Washington City.

A few more thoughts on the post production of Holga images

In addition to sepia toning, there are other historical processes an image could’ve undergone. Selenium, copper, iron and gold toning processes, all of which replace the metallic silver in a print with other metals, all exist and each changes the look and feel of an image. Iron will make an image look blue, copper, will give it a more reddish hue and all the other toning processes each have their own unique signatures.

The image of a crumbling wall in Harrisburg, Utah looks somewhat different when it’s had the colors desaturated in Photoshop.

On top of that, in this, the age of Instagram, we all know you can add all kinds of digital filters to change the look and feel of an image.

Filters can make the images look similar to what many of those toners did in the analog age or make the colors fade and look as if the color print were made in the 1970’s or on Polaroid film.

The iron toned or cyanotype version of the image of a crumbling wall in the ghost town of Harrisburg, Utah.

What you choose to do to the image after it’s captured is a mater of artistic choice.

For most of my artistic work, I’ve tried to stay true to my background as a photojournalist and avoid too much manipulation of the image.

I like to be able to assure those who view my work that what I show them in a print is a very close approximation to what the camera actually saw. Not some sort of digital manipulation of what a camera might have captured.

The black and white with the blacks deeply saturated, another version of the image of a crumbling wall in the ghost town of Harrisburg, Utah.

I want to portray reality. That, I feel, is one of the most significant aspects of the art form of photography. It is reality, as it was, if for only a split second. Capturing reality and then sharing the emotion of the moment, the feeling of a brief point in time, that is the challenge to the photographer.

So, for me, the choice really is just black and white or color. Maybe sepia. But definitely not much more than that.

Black and White vs Color

Most of the images I took with my Holga when I first began this project were taken on black and white film.

The original color image of a crumbling wall in the ghost town of Harrisburg, Utah.

I did add a sepia type coloration to the images in Photoshop after I scanned them into the computer, however.

When I was an undergraduate studying photography at NYU long, long ago, we learned about alternative processes and did some sepia toning. Sepia toning is the process by which the metallic silver compounds in a black and white print are replace with more stable silver sulfide compounds. The increased stability of the silver sulfide means the prints are likely to last much longer than an untoned image would. It also happens to change the image from consisting of shades of grey to shades of brown.

The sepia toned version of the image of a crumbling wall in the ghost town of Harrisburg, Utah.

Most people incorrectly assume those old brown colored images became brown simply due to age. In reality, those old images were converted to brown and white images shortly after they were printed in order to make them withstand time.

It’s a pretty simple process, you just soak the prints in a combination of potassium ferricyanide followed by a sodium sulfide solution.

In the digital age, sepia toning is even easier and can be done with the click of a mouse button.

The black and white version of the image of a crumbling wall in the ghost town of Harrisburg, Utah.

But that leaves the digital photographer with a number of choices. Do you showcase the original colors captured by the digital camera? Do you convert the images to black and white? Do play on the audiences assumptions that sepia toned images feel older and convert the images to a sepia color to evoke a feeling of age?

This is one of those choices that comes down to the preference of the artist. At this point, I’m not sure which choice I’d like to go with. The nice thing is that, while printing and toning those images would’ve taken hours in an analog world, with Photoshop, switching between the three choices takes just a few seconds.

Benefits of a Holga lens on a digital camera – part 2

The biggest benefit to shooting with a digital camera and a Hogla lens is the fact that you can shoot at much higher ISOs.

There are three ways to adjust the exposure of an image. Shutter speed, (how fast the shutter opens and closes), aperture, (blades inside the lens open and close to allow more or less light in), and ISO, (in the old days it was a measure of how light sensitive the film you were using is).

Shot with a Canon 5d MkIII and a Holga lens.

With a film Holga there is no way to adjust the shutter speed and only two apertures available. The only way to really adjust exposure is through ISO.

The higher the ISO rating of the film you buy , the more light sensitive it is. Most film available in the 120 and 220 formats the Holga uses are in the 100 to 400 ISO range. There are some films that’ll even go as high as 3200 ISO but the quality of the images tends to suffer when you get that high.

The images get grainy and flat. The tonal range, the number of different shades of grey between the blackest of blacks and the whitest white gets very narrow.

This means, most of the time, you’re fairly limited in the situations you can capture on film with a Holga because you need a good amount of bright daylight to fully expose the film. Outdoors, during the brighter times of day, you’re okay but later in the evening, you might as well give up trying to capture the longer shadows and dramatic scenes of the magic hour before sunset.

Digital cameras, however, have made huge advances in the levels of light sensitivity in the last decade. You can shoot a digital camera at ISOs of 6400, 128000 or even 256000 and still capture images with much better quality than you can with the fastest flims.

Throw in the greater flexibility you get when it comes to shutter speed and you have vastly improved control over exposure with a digital camera and a Holga lens. This give a photographer the flexibility of being able to shoot in much lower light situations. I captured the image above at night, under regular household lights in the office of my home. Had I attempted to take the same image with a traditional Holga, even with 3200 film, it would’ve come out black and completely underexposed.

While most of my ghost town images are shot during the day, there are quite a few times when shooting the interior of buildings for example that I;d get frames that were barely more than squares of black.

That’s probably the biggest reason for shooting digital and Holga lens. I can go anytime and shoot anything. I don’t have to wait for high noon and I’m not limited to the out of doors.

Hola – Film vs Digital

The original Holga camera shoots 120 or 220 film – those two film sizes are the same width but the 220 film rolls are twice as long so you can shoot twice as many frames.

Holga film camera

There are a couple of advantages to shooting with the original film Holgas. The first is the light leaks. The camera itself isn’t exactly completely light-tight so the film gets fogged in unique ways every time you run a roll through the camera. Another advantage to shooting on film is the ability to produce prints with a filed negative look. They show not just the image but the surrounding film information as well.

Filing out the negative carrier in an enlarger allows the photographer to show the borders of the image on the negative, usually that includes the film type and the frame number. It’s probably easier to show you what I’m talking about rather than to explain it.

In this image from Harrisburg, you can see the light light leak that creates the white spot in the upper right corner of the frame and you can also see the KODAK TMY in the frame of the image. The TMY identifies the film as being Kodak’s T-Max 400 black and white film. The number to the right of the arrow at the bottom of the image, a 4 in this frame, identifies the frame number on the roll of film.

My Canon 5D digital camera with a Holga lens attached.

Both of those characteristics disappear when you switch to shooting digital images with a Holga lens.

You still get the vignetting (the corners of the image are underexposed to the point where the image looks like it fades into black in all four corners) and the softer focus but you loose the other details.

I suppose these elements could be added in Photoshop but that seems like deception to me. It seems to me the art created through a Holga lens with a digital camera shouldn’t be misrepresented as having been created on film in a traditional Holga.

The advantages of shooting digital with a Holga lens are the ease with which the images can be edited and printed. There’s no need to develop film and no need to scan the negatives. You can also see the images as they’re captured. You know you’ve got what you were hoping to capture because you can see it on the back of the camera rather than having to wait hours or days for the film to be developed before you can see what you’ve captured.

I was very happy with a number of the images I captured in the first phase of this project while shooting film but Im also excited for the prospect of revisiting the project from a purely digital perspective. I’m also excited to see if the advantages of digital outweigh the disadvantages.

The beginning of my experimentation with Holga cameras

As an undergraduate studying photography at New York University, I experimented with a number of alternative processes.

One of my favorite projects involved taking black and white images that I’d shot of some of the power plants in and around New York City and subjecting them to copper toning baths that were hours longer than they were supposed to be.

By the time  I pulled the prints fromthe toner, they were just sheets of paper covered in copper. I then used rags to scrape off some of the copper and expose the image that was still beneath.

It was a commentary on the smokestack scrubbers power plants were being mandated to install at the time to remove pollutants from the exhaust they were emitting.

I also worked with several different types of medium format cameras.

I fell in love with the 6×4.5mm format and went so far as to purchase my own Fuji6x4.5 rangefinder. It was with that camera that I shot many of the documentary projects I worked on as an undergraduate.

I loved that small completely manual camera that was almost completely silent but that produced negatives twice the size of a 35mm camera and allowed me to make much larger prints.

After graduating from NYU and finding a job as a photojournalist, however, much of my experimenting with photography came to an end and I fell into the day to day of shooting 35mm film at photo assignments around Southern Utah.

A few years into my career, in an attempt to recapture that sense of experimentation I decided to buy a couple of Holgas.

In my career as a photojournalist, I was always concerned with exposure, focus, proper developing, shutter speeds, apertures, depth of field, all the technical aspects of the craft. But with a Holga, almost none of that matters.

There is only one shutter speed on a Holga. There are no f-stops, just a switch that has one picture of clouds and another of the sun. Focus is done by guessing. Holgas are one of the most basic means of capturing an image on film.

That simplicity really intrigued me.

I wanted to find a simple way to photograph and to explore the most basic elements of the image.

So I ordered a few Holgas and started to contemplate what I’d do with them once they arrived.