Project BW36 #1

A new Photography Project

For a general summary of photography projects and their purpose, please see this page..

Pentax MX film camera exactly like one I owned.

A few weeks ago Glenn suggested a black and white film roll project where you commit to taking 24 or 36 photos in black and white to simulate a photographer’s experience in the old days of pre-colour film photography. I found the idea appealing and decided to push the envelope a little further and commit to shooting and posting every photo of a digitally emulated roll of black and white 36 exposure film, using only my 50mm lens.

In my mind’s eye, I imagine that I’m emulating something like this Pentax MX with 50mm lens. And why not? 

BW36 #1 – Project Parameters
  • Shoot 36 images in manual using a 50mm standard lens and the camera’s built-in light meter.
    • Manual settings provide an added challenge but they’re easy to overcome.
    • I decided not to require manual focus because modern viewfinders assume autofocus and don’t include a microprism.
  • Photographs must be contiguous. 
    • To emulate film fairly, the photos must be in serial. This project negates the possibility of dropping out and back in.
  • Flash may be used.
    • Flash is not digital-specific. We’ve been using flashes in photography since its inception.
  • Only basic exposure and dodge/burn/graduated filter tools may be used.
    • These are the basic techniques used by photographers in a black & white darkroom.
  •  No image cropping.
    • Unnecessarily harsh, but I set it as a project parameter anyway, to expose composition wins and fails.
  • Final processing in Nik Collection Silver Efex Pro.
    • For that film look, processing the image in Silver Efex Pro ensures that the final result appears as close as possible to a real black & white print.
  • Post all 36 exposures here.
    • This is to simulate the cost of film photography. Taking digital photographs is as near zero-cost as you can get, but in committing to posting all results I give myself reason to hesitate before taking the shot, just as I would when shooting film.
BW36 #1 – Project Conclusion

I didn’t start the project immediately because, despite its apparent brevity, it’s actually quite a sizeable commitment. Taking only black and white photos, *strictly* 36 times in a row on a single lens, when I have so many things I want to photograph, is not something to take lightly. I’d easily rattle off 36 exposures in the space of an hour of being out and about and doing photography things, but not in a purely black and white context and not when every image would be placed in public view. No, that’s not a light commitment, it’s deliberately airing your dirty laundry in public.

By an incidental stroke of good fortune, though I didn’t notice at the time, I began the project at exactly the 5,701 mark – the 5,701st photo that I’ve taken with my D800; filename “800_5701.NEF”. By the end of the first day of shooting I was only up to 5,712 – 12 images into the project and not a single one of them would I consider a “keeper” – a photo to keep, much less share publicly. By the end of the second day I’d only made it to “800_5717.NEF”. On the third day I didn’t take a single photo, nor on the fourth or fifth! Five days and less than half way through the project!

Things were not going well but oh boy was I having flashbacks! I had completely forgotten what it was like to shoot film, and to shoot with only one lens – a situation I hadn’t been in since I was 16 years old, when I acquired my first SLR camera – a Zenit-E with the oddest looking East German 50mm f/2.5 pancake lens. M42 screw-mount, naturally.

On the sixth day I was becoming frantic. My camera was tied up in a project that wasn’t getting completed and was holding things up. I fired off a shot with barely any thought, out of desperation, just to progress the project a little. Annoyed with myself, I hunted around for something with a little more value. I found a discarded Coke can in the grass and snagged a shot. I was pleased with the image but I knew that it wouldn’t have the visual impact in black and white that it could have if it were colour.

On day seven, while out visiting the dog parlour with Maisie, I seized the opportunity to take a walk in one of my favourite local woodlands, the Meanwood Valley Trail. Among the trees – my favoured environment, I was finally able to find enough subject matter to “finish the roll” and, with a couple of selfies tagged on the end, post the results. At last, I’m free again!

I remember now that, before digital, I’d often have one roll of film in the camera for weeks on end, never daring to waste frames on inconsequential subjects or situations. It was never the case that I was uninterested in photography, but the expense of photography meant that “prospecting” – shooting for the sake of shooting – was rarely an option. I’d forgotten how slow my photography moved in those days. I sure do remember, now!

But what I found particularly interesting was how much the photos in this project remind me of the photos that I took when I was a teenager, on that old Zenit-E. It’s not just that they’re all taken with a 50mm lens, although that definitely is a component, but my compositions and my choices of subject are all so very reminiscent of those early days too. I’m left questioning how much I’ve improved my photography over the years, versus how much more of an impact the progression to digital has made when, given the same conditions, there is so little to differentiate photos with nearly 40 years between them. Food for thought.

So my post-project analysis is that these photos are absolutely dreadful. This really is airing dirty laundry in public. I would not consider sharing a single frame from this series, had I not committed to doing so before starting. I have a much stronger appreciation for the advances in technology that have happened since I first took up the hobby, and also a new-found gratitude for the lenses and equipment that rest in my camera bag. I realise now that the shortfall in my own photography rests solely in my own vision.

BW36 #1 – Project Result