Close your eyes. Now open them. How many pictures do you see around you?
Like many other things, photographic technology has become so consumer friendly we’re constantly flooded with imagery. It’s in the camera manufacturer’s best interest to put their product in as many hands as possible. Everyone wins… except appreciation.
Not that long ago achieving an image took at the very least three hours, but usually much longer (I’m speaking from experience, so within the last thirty years).
8:00AM, pick up film. This should be the easiest task, but you have to consider available light which determines film speed, the type of light which determines the film’s white balance and the brand as different brands yield different textures.
Film also had an expiration, which was an incentive to shoot.
8:37AM, run to the studio and grab the light meter and some Polaroid. This is where it gets dicey as you have to know your camera and math because you’re preparing to shoot 12, 24 or 36 frames without instant gratification (and if you’re shooting large format, wear your lucky socks). When I assisted I’d hear “I want the back at 16 and 8 up front, diffused, with 11 only on the models face” and have ten minutes to accommodate while the clients and talent looked on. Below are some Polaroids from my time assisting Jeff Sciortino (note the light meter with me in every shot).
Polaroids were our window into the future and we'd often record the exposure settings on the winners.
9:14AM, begin shooting the Polaroids. Once you’re satisfied with the lighting you’ve got the green light to go to film, however, if it’s a commercial shoot you need the client to sign off on the Polaroid too, so add an hour.
9:37AM, begin shooting film. With every shutter release you might wonder if the lights all fired or if the film advanced okay. When you only have 12, 24 or even 36 exposures, each frame is valuable real estate.
10:07AM, one of the rented lights in the back continues to misfire. The rental house should be able to help, but it pauses the shoot for 15 to 20 minutes. This happened to me maybe one out of every ten shoots. I’d have to call Helix rental on Jackson Street in downtown Chicago and talk with those guys, which I imagine is like calling NASA if NASA consisted of sarcastic, incompetent morons.
11:27AM, the film’s all exposed. Time to head to the lab and if it’s a commercial client DO NOT forget the purchase order.
11:45AM, the film is at the lab. The film takes three hours to develop unless you rush order it, but that comes at a premium. However, you may want the film pushed to add some brightness so you order a snip test. The process time doubled.
If you choose to develop your own, prepare to enjoy an extended period of peace and quiet. So long as you know what you’re doing this can be a very therapeutic exercise. All you have to do is follow the simple instructions shown below.
The people at the labs were great people and good at what they did. I either used Precision Imaging on Grand Boulevard or Gamma Imaging downtown on Superior (both have since changed names or moved). If my order was entirely black and white I went to Print Lab on Homan in Humboldt Park. Some of those folks were genuine chemists. In fact, the TV show Braking Bad was originally going to be about dark room labs, but critics thought that too controversial so they chose crystal meth instead.
3:00PM, receive the film from the snip test. As you suspected it could be pushed 1/3 so you call it in. Keep in mind, starting a film process now will finish up around 6PM or later. Some labs close at 5 or 5:30PM. Your choices are asking the lab to accommodate or to begin the process first thing the next morning. The latter would be no problem unless it was Friday. “They change the soup out over the weekend, so the snip test would be unreliable. Ask them to stay late.” Which meant I had to stay late and wait for the lab to finish so we could send the film to the client on Saturday. Not cool.
6:01PM, the lab drops off the film. Now you can review the contact sheets and make selects and, of course, have a drink. After that you’re home bound.
8:31AM, at the lab because they couldn’t possibly open at 8AM. You hand back the film and a list of selects for printing.
9:45AM, the first run of prints arrive. Not satisfied with two of them. Call the lab and reprint them brighter, with more cyan.
10:52AM, the two new images are in your hands. Satisfaction rushes over you.
So, exactly two hours and 52 minutes later you have images. One day, and two hours and 52 minutes later.