An Interview with Stephen Wood
Film, he says, “takes away distractions and leaves you in the moment. As photographers all we can do is capture moments.”
It’s the great debate. If you’re a photographer, maybe you already know, but there seems to be a debate about whether to shoot old-school, physical film (you know, with negatives and processing chemicals and that beautiful little winding noise in between each shot and at the end of the roll, where light leaks aren’t photoshopped in but are the happiest of accidents) or pick up a digital camera. Which one is better? What are the pros and cons of each one? You might think this article will give you the answers, but it’s not that kind of story.
Let me be honest first. This is a slightly selfish story. I’m writing about photography as a photographer, and I’m pumping up the medium I love the most, and to top it off, this article was done in collaboration with my film lab. So much confession at the beginning of one article!
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I’d like to introduce you to Stephen Wood. He works for the family owned PhotoVision film lab down in Salem, Oregon. He’s one of the smartest people I know, and I’ve had the privilege of getting to sit down with him on multiple occasions to talk about film photography among other things that we agree and disagree about in the industry we find ourselves working in the most (the wedding industry). Every time I talk to him, I walk away learning something new about photography, film or even just seeing the world in a different way.
The History of PhotoVision
Let’s start with a little history first. PhotoVision was purchased in 1968 by Stephen’s grandparents. Their decision to purchase the lab came from the hope that they would be able to use the money to put their children through college if they chose to attend. The choice came down between this lab, a camera store, and a convenience store. “I’m glad she chose the lab,” Stephen said, referring to his grandmother.
Back in the ‘70s, film development was all done by hand in a dark room, the way you picture it and the way you see it in the movies. They served customers who brought their film in regularly. “It wasn’t like it is now where people keep all their film and send it in all at once”. People would shoot 1-2 rolls of film at a time. Stephen tells me that the max they ever saw was 10-20 rolls for a wedding. I ask why he thinks this is the case. He says it all comes down to education. People were much more particular about their technique 30 years ago. They were educated in photography, they learned how to shoot on a film camera, they used every tool in their toolshed to make the best possible image, and they weren’t willing to waste money to capture the same exact shot over and over knowing that they would have captured it to perfection the first time around. They used tripods, studios, fill lighting, monopods, anything that would guarantee that they captured the shot. They understood aperture and shutter speed in a way that most photographers don’t seem to understand these days, not in the same way. The lab thrived during this time.
In 2002, the rise of digital cameras had begun to put a strain on PhotoVision. Photographers who had once spent nearly $20,000 on film processing found that they could now purchase a camera for $3,000 and pocket the rest of the money. The problems for photographers began to show when they realized how much time and effort editing digital images would take. Some photographers began to shut their doors, others never even delivered the products to their clients anymore. PhotoVision was dragged into the middle of these situations several times. PhotoVision found themselves being contacted about reaching photographers who had previously printed images for their clients through PhotoVision even though they now had no work from those photographers. During the time between 2002-2012, PhotoVision had to let go 15 of their 20 employees. Only one person worked there who wasn’t a Wood family member. Their role changed drastically. No longer were they able to serve a stable community of clients, it was the time to get scrappy. Stephen tells me they did everything that was asked of them even if they did not know how to do it. They would take on jobs for slideshows, teaching photoshop, VHS video transfer, creating custom products, greeting cards, and books. Stephen says, “we literally became somehow kind of like the Geek Squad except we’re a photo lab and that doesn’t even make sense, but still it happened” with regards to the fact that PhotoVision was helping people fix their computers. In 2012, a local photographer, Erich McVey, who is now world-renowned for having his work published in Vogue, Martha Stewart Weddings, Brides, and so many more publications, and who also happens to be a close family friend of the Woods, came to Stephen wanting to talk about bringing film back. He’d been shooting weddings years already, but found that after his own wedding he wanted to find a way to cut back on the amount of editing he was doing for his clients. He was hoping that shooting film could be the answer to this problem. Stephen says “he forced us to get a Fuji scanner”. He’s laughing as he tells me this. While there had already been photographers holding onto their film roots or making the change towards it before 2012, this was when PhotoVision started to see a resurgence. Stephen believes that a lot of photographers are switching back to film as a response to the “monotony of editing digital images”. He says that he even feels a certain sense of dread picking up a digital camera and knowing the amount of work he’s about to create for himself when he presses that shutter. Other reasons photographers have made the switch to film is “the look”. Many photographers, myself included, have gone through the process of shooting digital, seeing film and trying to recreate it with presets and then choosing to flat-out make the jump after realizing that we’re just not getting the look we like. And for many photographers, the medium of film isn’t as important as just getting the look. It’s something I’ve been hearing a lot more these days, and one of the reasons I wanted to showcase film as a medium in this piece.
The way people are shooting film is different than before digital cameras were introduced in a few ways. Quite a lot of us are coming from backgrounds of having learned to shoot on digital which means we’ve had limitless frame counts to get the shot rather than the 16-35 per roll you would have learning photography on a film camera. Because of this, we’re shooting way more film in the transition. We’re allowing for the mistakes to be made and shooting 70 rolls of film at weddings to make sure we got the shot. The other way that film has changed is the lack of education we have. “When you learn primarily through trial and error… there’s a lot of foundational information that’s just not there… because access to that information, in the first place was, at best, elusive if not entirely unavailable,” Stephen says. He also emphasizes that the lack of education is not for lack of trying or hard work and he says there’s a lot of talent on the creative side of things. These photographers are working hard to understand their medium, but even for photographers who have degrees in photography, the information just isn’t the same as it was before digital photography became prevalent.
As far as processing of film goes, Stephen says the processors do the same thing they did 30 years ago. The change comes from the computers that run the processors being better than they were before. At the end of the day, it’s still chemistry at a given temperature and agitation at a given interval. The sequence of chemical steps is the same.
Here’s how film is processed:
- 1) Film is logged into the system, “written up”, put into Ziplock bags and organized by process (black and white or color) and film type (35 mm or 120)
- 2) Then it’s distributed to the appropriate processor for that type and format.
- 3) There’s a dark room! It’s a complete dark room with absolutely no light, not even infrared.
- 4) Film is put onto the processors and is done entirely by touch. The technician has memorized where everything is in the room since he or she can’t see anything. That’s pretty crazy, guys.
- 5) An hour later, the film comes out of the processor on the other side and dried.
- 6) Film is moved onto staging racks to cool.
- 7) Medium format film gets an exposure reference sheet captured.
- 8) Film moves onto another set of racks for scanning distribution and makes its way to the scanners.
- 9) Scanners collect an order to color correct with the customer’s preferences.
- 10) Film is moved to second color correction step where the entire order it looked at as a whole. The program PhotoVision uses was built in-house and is similar to Adobe Lightroom. It does white balance and exposure adjustment. This is used to even out inconsistencies between frames.
- 11) Quality control! Film is checked for chemistry spots, frame edges, scratches.
- 12) Automated uploading system is the last step before an email is sent out to the customer. And it’s the happiest day for all film photographers everywhere.
Advantages of Film
I asked Stephen about the advantages of film vs. digital and vice versa, and I secretly only wanted to hear the advantages of film. The truth is that he told me exactly what I wanted to hear. Yes, digital cameras are powerful. And we know they can handle low light better than film in a lot of situations. But, they present so many choices, so many options. Digital cameras cause photographers to have an obsession with the back of the camera. We spend so much time checking the image we just took, that we can become distracted and miss the moments that are unfolding in front of us. Film, he says, “takes away distractions and leaves you in the moment. As photographers all we can do is capture moments.” And he’s absolutely right, which is why I won’t even list any other advantages of digital. Like I said at the beginning of this piece, that’s not what this article is about. I asked him about the disadvantages that come with film, namely with the environmental impacts. At the end of the day, the cost of distribution carries the largest environmental impact. Shipping and storing the film and its chemistry will take the largest toll on the environment as well as the amount of electricity used by the processors and the dryers. Other than that, there are well tested ways to clean and properly dispose of the chemistry used for film processing. Metals (mostly silver) are removed from the liquid, and the rest is safe to go down the drain, he tells me. The silver then gets reused.
In terms of benefits to the photographers’ clients. Film can handle skin tones and much more effectively reproduces natural skin tones. There is less retouching necessary because of the increased grain. Film also forces your photographer to slow down, capture your moments more accurately and without missing them. Stephen says, “You’re going to get a more attentive photographer, as a client”. Your photographer will also focus more on composition, time the photo to capture the best shot rather than shooting while hoping for the best. You’re going to get a better set of images, a more consistent set of images.
I dread this word in the photography world. I dread it mostly because I can never get presets to look like my film. Let me back up. What is a preset? A preset is basically a pre-created set of steps that someone else has come up with to edit their digital work in a program such as Adobe Lightroom to make the digital work look like the film that they will eventually get back from the lab. There are people I know who can create the dreamiest images that come the closet to their film scans as possible, but I can never do it. As a tool they are great; however, Stephen does warn that presets can have a damaging effect which is the expectation of what we think they can do for us. People often believe that what comes out of the scanner and what they create with a preset on a digital photograph should be exactly the same. Don’t feel like this paragraph is telling you not to use presets. The main reason I bring this up is to help photographers understand that there are limitations and to set expectations of how close your film and digital can be matched accordingly.
"Right now, we rely on 10-40 year old camera systems because it’s all we have."
Will Film Stand the Test of Time?
I got a little nervous when I asked Stephen if film was around to stay, and there was a longer than comfortable pause on his end of the Zoom Call. “I would love it to, but I can’t say for certain”, says Stephen, finally, about the longevity of film. In order for film to stick around, there needs to be more widespread use of it, but in order to have more widespread use, we need new camera systems. Right now, we rely on 10-40 year old camera systems because it’s all we have. In the early 2000s, the ecosystem that supports film was lost, and if that doesn’t come back, if we don’t get new processors, scanners, cameras, etc., film will be lost and left behind. Currently, Stephen is building a new scanner at PhotoVision.
Stephen had five pieces of advice to share with newbie film photographers, and I definitely think this is one part of the article you should make notes on or screenshot if you’re wanting to take on this medium.
- 1) Don’t tiptoe into shooting film! If you don’t fully commit to the process, you’re going to end up in a split-mind mode rather than being able to completely focus on shooting film. I can personally attest to this one. It can really stress the brain to go back and forth between film and digital.
- 2) Embrace failure, maybe not on a wedding day. Choose shoots where you can mess up and redo it if you need to, but don’t avoid failure. Failure is the quickest way to succeed.
- 3) Don’t obsess over matching your film and digital. Just accept the fact that it will never be a 1:1 match.
- 4) Don’t have the expectation that you will never have to edit your film. There will always be some level of communication between you and your film lab that gets your scans close to where you want them to be, but your film lab is not you. They will never be able to perfectly scan and correct your film.
- 5) Communicate with your lab, and don’t lab hop. Lab hopping will not allow you to build a relationship with the people who are processing and scanning your film. The more your move around, the less consistency you will have.
Quick Tips for Traveling with Film
If you haven’t heard, CT scanners are being added to many airports around the world and not just for checked luggage. This is for carry-on luggage. These scanners are strong and will cause clouding of your film if you let it go through the scanner. I should know, I’ve had it happen. So to ensure that you don’t have an issue with clouding, follow these simple steps when traveling anywhere with film.
- 1) NEVER put film in your checked bags.
- 2) Assume the airport has CT scanners.
- 3) Ask for a hand check.
- 4) Research the country’s travel security agency to figure out their policies concerning flying with film. Understand whether they are going to be friendly about you asking for a hand check because there are definitely countries who aren’t.
- 5) Make the decision of whether you should have film shipped to you in your shooting location and to ship film straight to your lab once you’ve exposed it. Stephen suggests going with a company like DHL, but he also says you have to choose the service you have access to.
Read old photography books. “There’s a lot of really good, really relevant information out there”.
Don’t make it harder than it needs to be. Stephen quotes Erich McVey here saying, “set yourself up for success”. Be willing to slow down, to use the tripod. Don’t make problems bigger than they need to. Make sure you understand the basics. That will help you to achieve beautiful photographs and to be the best artist you can be.
Stephen and I have had the chance to sit down on several occasions and chat about the point of photography. We seem to agree on most all of these points, and the biggest thing that we’ve chatted about is that making pretty images is only scratching the surface of what photography is about. Photography is about making clients look the best, capturing moments, creating history, and somehow, there’s a whole society of people who have lost the understanding of that. Photography isn’t about making easy money. It’s a difficult medium, and it’s the lasting memory of people’s lives.