Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Against The Grain

I have never been one to conform to any particular fashion, I like to mix things up: a pair of polished brown 'oxfords', jeans and an Oswald Boateng suit jacket; an old triathlon T-shirt under a cardigan with a pair of chinos... There is a constant though, I like quality. That does not mean expensive, it just means 'right' : the right materials, the right cut and the right colour. It simply goes against the grain for me to wear something that I do not feel reflects who I am. Photography is the same, it does not matter what the technique is, what the equipment is or what the materials are - if they are the right technique, equipment and materials for the job in hand.

Over the years the big film manufacturers have launched many new types of film, there are even now new products appearing (though not nearly as fast as others are disappearing). Almost every time over the last 28 years that one of these announcements has been made, the phrase 'new finer grain' (or some variation of it) has been included in the marketing - and each time my heart sinks... What is wrong with grain? It is the stuff of photography in the most fundamental way. Grain is what we expose, it is the magic stuff that captures the picture that we have imagined - we hope. I always longed for the time when one of the big film companies would say "we have developed a new film that has a coarser grain structure but is just looks really good so we decided we would put it into production anyway"

Interestingly there was not universal acceptance of their 'progress', many of the old favorites endured despite new films coming out just because people liked the way that they looked in the final result. TriX and HP5 are still popular despite the availability of TMAX400 and Delta 400. Ektachrome 64 lasted for many years after Ektachrome 100 and Ektachrome 100 plus came out. That does not mean that the new films were not better, they were just different and change is not always what people want.

Now of course grain is disappearing for another reason. Digital photography does not have 'grain' it has two other things: pixels and noise. Pixels are not like grain in that they have symmetry, once they are big enough to see there is no escaping from them, their ordered rows become dominant until you 'process' them away. Noise is much more like grain, it is irregular and it increases as the light levels decrease but it is not as pretty as grain. No, for digital grain you need to launch Photoshop, to deliberately degrade your image with a layer or a filter to give the 'simulation' of grain. That, for me at least, goes against the grain.

These pictures here are totally genuine. I have used photoshop to adjust the colour slightly, the contrast slightly and the sharpness because if you don't they loose what they had in the original. I also 'spotted' them because my scanner gives me very spotty results. The grain though is Kodak Portra 800 35mm, shot with a Holga 35BC camera and processed by www.wedevelopfilm.co.uk. I cannot deny that when I looked at them I was both delighted and rather surprised at how well they had come out.

Grain is the

photo- grapher's friend. particularly when the subject is abstract, I have always felt that a photograph needs something sharp in it, this does not have to be the whole image but the eye needs something to latch onto before the brain can say "hmm that's a nice picture..." But just once in a while the sharp thing can be the grain itself, it takes a little bravery to show someone a picture that is not sharp but if you get it right there's no need to feel that it goes against the grain...

1 comment:

  1. You're right! Grain can be beautiful.