Film Photography with Chris Thorsten

Welcome to our first interview to feature a film photographer. I recently became aware of Chris Thorsten through an article on his website that has been making rounds, where he explains his rationale behind film. In this interview, he goes into further detail. If you’ve ever been curious about film photography, read more to find out why you should give it a shot. 

Chris Thorsten © 120studio.com

Name: Chris Thorsten

Hometown: Central Pennsylvania

Tell us a bit about yourself and your interests. 

I have a science background, so of course I’m interested in the technical aspect of things.  Most of what I’ve learned in photography was self-taught, although I did take a couple of courses way back when.  I also love nature.  While I know we need to extract resources to keep our civilization going, I see landscapes transforming irreversibly.  I want to get pictures of these places before they change.  As just an example, light pollution is encroaching on those few parts of the northeast that are still wild.  There’s really no need to have so much of the light energy we produce getting beamed up into the night sky;  it’s a waste of electricity, and it wouldn’t even cost that much to keep the light reflected downward.  Anyway, I try to take pictures for posterity.  I hope in some way that it can encourage conservation of wild places and open space.  We need these kinds of places more than perhaps we realize.

How did you get started in photography? 

I’m pretty sure it was the Polaroid first.  Around the same time I also had a Kodak Trimlite Instamatic 18.  The Polaroid was my dad’s camera, but the 110 was my very own.  I had such fun with that little camera.  Last year I actually found an Instamatic 18 in a yard sale, and then this year I found out Lomography is selling brand-new color 110 film again.  Anyway, from 110 and Polaroid I graduated to 35mm, and then of course the larger formats.

What prompted the switch from digital to film? 

I was using digital for several years without really thinking about it.  Then, one day I thought to myself, “What’s different about these pictures?  I can’t quite place it.”  That’s when it really occurred to me:  they didn’t look like any of the prints or slides I had sitting around.  I always sort of knew that, but I had never really thought about it– never articulated it– until then.  For example, why did the bright areas of the sky seem to leak into other parts of the picture?  Why did the highlights look so harsh?  Digital also lacked the whole process that I’d once enjoyed.   As odd as it may sound, I missed not being able to see the final product, but instead relying on experience to know when I “got the shot”.  Digital was too finicky with highlights to allow for that kind of work.   Even now, it mostly still is.  I usually review the pictures just to make sure there are no ugly digital artifacts.

Describe digital in one sentence. Describe film in one sentence. 

Digital is convenient and fast, it can yield nice pictures, and the images are sharp.

Film may be slower, but it looks more natural, has better tones, and offers a whole process that’s part of the enjoyment.

One camera/lens for the rest of your life. What would it be?

I was going to pick something in 6×6, maybe, but I like 35mm for its versatility.  I might pick a Nikon 6006 with a Nikkor zoom lens, probably the 35-135 AF.  That may not be what you’d expect, but this combination works for me:  everything from weddings to landscapes.  By the way, I’m glad you didn’t say I could choose only one film.  There are a lot of good ones.  Superia, Velvia, Ektar, Portra, T-Max, Tri-X, pretty much anything by Ilford.  Velvia is my favorite, of course.  If you asked most photographers what’s the best photographic invention of all time, many would say “the digital camera”, but I would say Velvia slide film!

Tell us about your most memorable photography experience.

The choice of film actually has something to do with that, at least for me.  Some of my best photo outings revolved around getting pictures on Ektachrome 100VS or Elite Chrome 100 Extra Color.   I also have a lot of memorable  experiences photographing people, of course, especially in the context of weddings and events.   There’s a particular photo where the bride was singing her favorite song.  This was a memorable photography moment for me.  I was using the Nikkor 50mm “pancake” lens.  There was this horrendously shiny, reflective plastic tent window right behind the bride, and everyone was crowded around.  Manual flash, all-manual settings;  no TTL and no metering:  I just went by the chart listed on the side of that old flash unit.  One photo, and it worked great.  That’s film for you.

However, an experience that stands out in recent memory was really just one that illustrates the basic, everyday kinds of challenges involved in photographing landscapes.  I arrived at a spot I’d been wanting to shoot for a long time.  It was early autumn.  The weather was supposed to be perfect.  By the time I got there, the big puffy clouds were darkening underneath.  You could see there was bad weather on the horizon.  I set up the 4×5, and in my hurry I didn’t have the back seated correctly when I was focusing on the glass.  Yup, the first shot was blurred.  I fixed the problem, put in a new film holder, removed the darkslide, and clicked the shutter.  Just seconds later a gigantic cloud blotted out the sun for the rest of the day.  Making landscape photographs, or any kind of outdoor photos for that matter, often feels like a race against changing weather conditions.  When I get to a location, it seems the sun will stay out just long enough to make me think I can set up the tripod and get a picture…

If you could shoot anything/anyone/anywhere, what would it be? 

Anything??? Close approach to Jupiter or Saturn, using Velvia 50 on 4×5.  How to stabilize the tripod, who knows.   How to get there in a reasonable time frame… no idea.  If limited by reality, why then I’d choose one of the classic locations such as the Grand Canyon or Monument Valley.  If I ever did get around to going, it would again be Velvia 50 or 100 in 4×5.  Or at least 120.  I think there is always some new way to photograph the classic places to keep things fresh.

How has shooting film changed your approach to photography?

Because I started out with film, I guess my original approach was much the same as it is now.  Digital sort of changed it the other way for a while, in that I was chimping through pictures like everyone else and wasting a lot of time.  I’m not saying that process is invalid, because obviously it works for a lot of people;  I’m just saying that I like the other approach better.  Size up the shot, get a composition that I like, and try to get it right the first time.  Then, go take pictures of something else.  One thing I have learned, though, is that if you see something extra-cool, make sure to take more pictures of it than you think you’ll need.  Try different compositions.  Usually I can spot the favorite compositions through the viewfinder, but slight variations can really make a big difference.  Occasionally, what I initially wasn’t excited about would later prove to be my (or someone else’s) favorite.

Please share 5 of your favorite photos and tell us about them. 

Here are some semi-random choices that I like.

I made this one with Fujichrome Velvia 100 (35mm).

This next one I made with a Diana F+, a plastic toy camera that takes 120 film.  I think this was Fuji Pro 400H, a great film for portraits.

I call this one “Lava Sunset”.   This was Velvia 100.

Here’s a black and white scene, taken with Ilford XP2 400.   I liked the way some of the trees were leaning in this.

Finally, here’s the one from that day when that cloud rolled over.  I made this photo just seconds before the scene became heavily overcast.  It has a bit of a surreal quality to it.  This was Velvia 100F in 4×5, by the way.  I really think nothing else on earth can render blue skies quite like Velvia.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these.  Once again, these are just quick choices.  I just picked from a couple folders of scans that were mostly landscapes.  For wedding photos and such (as well as more nature photography) be sure to take a look at my website at 120studio.com.

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