When I think about the colours that dominate the American Southwest, I see mostly a mix of hard and pastel variations of orange, yellow, green, and blue. Granted, you could say this about many other places in the world. But there is something about the hues in states such as New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado that makes them feel…. Well, just different. Add to that the fact that these colours show up in some of the most amazing landscapes I have ever seen, and you can appreciate why I was excited to capture all this goodness on film.
Those who follow Macfilos know that I have embarked on a journey: Shooting film is a novel experience for me. I described it as humbling and, taking my Mamiya on a trip this summer across the aforementioned states, firmly entrenched that state of mind. I thought that the colours of the American Southwest would show up beautifully on film, with its soft transitions between tones. Indeed, I managed to find some of that. But there were more lessons for me to learn to really master shooting film, and a bonus lesson on scanning negatives I am still battling with.
The first lesson
The first lesson arose from a true user error. I managed to underexpose just about all the five rolls of film I shot on the trip. For some reason, I thought I was overexposing the Portra 160 film by setting the ISO on the camera to 100, which of course did exactly the opposite. I still don’t know why I made that error in judgment, but that is why all the images in this post are as dark as they are.
I managed to recover a bit in post, but I did not want to change too much. That was of course one of the reasons I wanted to experiment with film, not to meddle too much with the output and accept what I got.
The second lesson is something I still haven’t resolved. Even when shooting at f/8 or f/11, I somehow managed to get smeared corners when attempting wider landscapes. I don’t know if this is also user error, but I have read some issues with the Mamiya 6 bellows not being extended fully. I need to look into this because it is a shame to see this magnificent American Southwest landscape looking all smudgy.
Update: I took my camera to the fine people of Amsterdam Camera Repairs. They told me the lens is indeed very hazy with all elements contaminated. It was in real need of a service, which it is getting currently…..
The final user error fortunately happened only once. A classic rangefinder mistake; I left the lens cap on!
A street corner
Back to the colours. The next photo is relatively mundane but captures the colours well, even with my exposure fumbling. The scene is a street corner in the town of Gallup, New Mexico. The light was harsh, being midday, but somehow managed to look softer than at home. If the colours seem very saturated, it is because they really did pop by themselves. I didn’t really do any editing on the photos, besides trying to bump up the exposure a bit. I think this street scene worked well on film.
In that same town, about 50 meters to the left, is an old cinema. I noticed a classic pick-up truck parked in front and decided to bring them together in the frame. The ‘El Morro’ theatre dates back to 1928, and its pastel colours and mix of old and newer cinema characters in the windows makes for an interesting composition. With the older truck in front, this picture might have been taken in 1985, the year the Goonies was released, instead of 2023.
I am starting to get to grips with composing in the square format. Yet, I am not sure if I find this the best way to capture a scene. Having the ability to pick landscape or portrait allows you to play with leading lines much more than in a square, where there is little viewing dominance of one line over another.
Below is an example of an image I would have loved to shoot in landscape. The view from our train car, as the train bends to the right and reveals itself to us, came out stronger. I would have been able to show the line of the tracks that was just off frame in the square format of the Mamiya 6. The photo was taken on a train going through the Verde Canyon. Once used to transport ore from the old Jerome mine, it is now a tourist attraction and a highly recommended diversion when in the area.
Old and new in the American Southwest
The next two photos represent different times. The first depicts the oldest standing building in Old Colorado City, still standing as a monument to the times of yesteryear. The second picture was taken in Denver, Colorado. Art and graffiti cover the walls of a commercial building that appeared to have been out of service for quite a time, but it is a modern building nevertheless. Both buildings had great contrast with the deep blue Colorado sky.
On the bottom right of the Pioneer County Office photo, you’ll see I missed removing a string of dust. This brings me to another chapter of lessons learned when shooting film; digitising negatives. When I started shooting film, it was already clear to me that I was not going to develop myself.
This part of the process I gladly outsourced to a lab which does a fine job. I did want to try to keep as much of the workflow in my hands, so that meant I had a choice to make in terms of how to digitise the negatives. I started with what, I thought, would be the easier method — using a DSLR to do the scanning.
The long story short of this method is that I did not like it at all. I bought a copy stand, a light box, and the essential film holder. I found the process of installing my DSLR on the copy stand, setting up the light box and the holder, and then going through every frame one by one to be far too time-consuming. Furthermore, I am sure you can do it faster than I did, but I also didn’t enjoy the extra steps this method introduces.
You end up with a digital photo of a negative, which means you then need to convert it with software. Admittedly, this is much easier with a plug-in in Lightroom, but as I use Capture One Pro, it was not working for me. I ended up going with the second option to self-digitise your negatives into proper digital versions of your photo by buying an Epson scanner.
These scanners get a lot of flak online, but I found working with a scanner much easier than the DSLR-scan method. Sure, the actual scanning of a negative takes a little while. But that minute per negative on a 12-roll film isn’t going to kill me. The bonus is that the Silverfast software that comes with the Epson converts the negative as well. It does a good job and even has presets for most film stocks. The program might look as if it were coded in the nineties (it probably was) but it does what it needs to do.
The only challenge I have is sometimes being stuck with what is known as Newton’s rings. There are loads of posts online about people struggling with this, but I found that just flipping the negative or just moving it to a different part of the scanner surface solves it most of the time. I also found that placing the negatives directly onto the scanner, without any holder, gives me the best results.
Swiffer to the rescue
Dealing with dust is also not too bad. I use a simple Swiffer to keep the surface of the scanner and the negative itself as dust free as I can. The rest is easy to solve in Capture One Pro (or Lightroom). The scanning software has a mode to take care of dust and particles, but I found it very coarse and not very effective.
Even though most of my landscape shots didn’t turn out well, I am happy I took the Mamiya with me. I like having to be very deliberate with my shots, such as the one of a weaver (below). I could easily shoot maybe ten frames with my digital camera and then pick the one I like the best and discard the rest. On film, I needed to walk around the weaving device and decide my perspective and then take my one photo and hope it turned out well. It’s a different process and I enjoy mixing it up with my digital cameras.
The raw beauty of the American Southwest
It’s been quite a journey, both the metaphorical one and the actual one in the American Southwest. Not only that, but it is a place of raw beauty, of deep history, in geological and human sense, and its colours are a feast for the eyes. I look forward to returning after having mastered my film skills.
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