Penguins and icebergs weren’t the only unusual things I encountered on a recent expedition to Antarctica. One of the trip leaders, a 28-year-old photographer named Michael Strickland, traveled from Kansas to the bottom of the earth but didn’t bring a digital camera. What he did bring was three film cameras, 65 rolls of film and an obsession for the analog process of taking photos that has largely been lost in the digital age.
While the ship full of photographers was happily clicking and immediately reviewing thousands of images their LCD screens, Strickland was pointing his light meter, guessing at focus and cautiously taking one frame at a time, not knowing if any of the photos would turn out when he developed his film a few weeks later.
Strickland didn’t exactly grow up with film. He was still in grade school when film photography was popular. So why switch from the convenience of digital? Frustration with stitching large-scale digital panorama images started him down the path. A love for the aesthetic qualities of film and the methodical process of film photography kept him there.
While digital stitching of large scale panorama images has come a long way in the past few years, there are still limitations to the technique when there is motion in the scene or longer exposure times are desired. “With the time it would take for longer exposures to stitch across a scene, you would sometimes lose the shot,” said Strickland.
“The tangible ‘feel’ of film is what I prefer in a final print,” he said. “Grain is always present and provides a textural feel in my prints that can’t be recreated digitally. Film also renders color unlike any other digital medium. It captures very subtle hues and tonality differences that is easily lost in digital photography.”
In his normal work, Strickland shoots large format 8×10″ or 4×5″ sheets of film, standing behind a behemoth of a camera, complete with the arcane bellows. During our trip to Antarctica, he was shooting a 6x7cm Mamiya 7 II, a Linhof Technorama 617s III that shoots 6x17cm, along with a 35mm Nikon F5 camera, given the physical limitations of tripod shooting from a boat.
He faced a steep learning curve in the switch to film. “The first probably 50 to 100 rolls that I shot were completely useless. At that point I thought that I was wasting my time,” he said.
“There was one cold winter morning out on the prairie where I was shooting this barn. Nice hoar frost over the scene, had a beautiful sunrise, and I finally got a good exposure on Velvia 50, which is a transparency film,” said Strickland. “When I got the film back from the lab, on the light table it was just glorious, and that’s basically where the love began. From that point, I sold all of my digital equipment. I bought a 4×5 and completely immersed myself in the world of film.”
In addition to selling large prints of his work, Strickland’s work attracted the attention of Andy Williams at Muench Workshops, landing him a job as a photography workshop instructor.
“There was something about Michael’s work, a bigness of composition, a thoughtfulness, something that I don’t see in every-day digital imagery,” Williams said. “When looking at his images, it is obvious that a tremendous amount of thought and care go in to them.”
Michael has advice for digital photographers based on his work with film.
“You have to understand light. You have to understand what your camera is doing and how to actually create a good photograph, a good technical photograph without looking at the LCD screen as a crutch,” said Strickland. “My best piece of advice is to slow down, to get away from the back side of the camera and look at what you’re photographing and try to experience it.
See more of Michael Strickland’s film photography at michaelstricklandimages.com.