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Despite our increasingly digitized culture, interest in analog processes is still on the rise. At a time when most of what surrounds us are ephemeral computations of zeros and ones, there is an indisputable appeal to photographs shot on black-and-white analog film.
For photojournalist Peter DaSilva, this appeal is rooted in having something tangible, “having an archive that’s not going to evaporate because the medium has changed or due to the incompatibility of files and systems.”
His distinctive style of run-and-gun street photography is unmediated and direct. “What I saw and how I captured it is how I’m showing it to you,” he explains. “And once you get into a look and style of shooting, the film you use becomes a major part of that look.”
This is the fifth installment in a series featuring the many stories and myriad reasons prompting users to switch the brands they work with. To read about other photographer’s brand switches, make sure to visit the links at the end of this story. The following views expressed are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent that of B&H Photo.
Photographs © Peter DaSilva
Analog film was a staple for DaSilva at the start of his 30-year career. Yet during the transition to digital, his role as a freelancer for the Associated Press in San Francisco made him an early digital adopter for work assignments.
“I pretty much stopped shooting film for a while, but I got back to it about six or seven years ago, and decided that I might as well go for it,” DaSilva says.
Part of his motivation was the growing backlash about image manipulation in journalism circles. “I thought to myself, ‘If I shoot film, nobody can question it,’” he says.
While he continued shooting digitally for major clients such as The New York Times, if there was time at the end of a given shoot, DaSilva asked his subject(s) to pose for a few more shots on film. “I found a little niche with the way I shoot,” he explains. “I would submit those images with my digital work, and editors slowly started to recognize this as different, and then started asking me to shoot film.”
DaSilva shoots digitally with a 35mm-format Canon 5D Mark II, but his true camera of choice is the 120mm format Rolleiflex twin lens reflex. He works with three different models of varied focal lengths—a Rollei Wide (55mm f/4), a Normal (75mm f/3.5), and a Tele (135mm f/4).
“The wide and the tele models are quite rare, with production runs of less than 4,000 for the original vintage cameras, as opposed to 60,000 to 80,000 for their normal cameras,” he says. “Depending on what I’m doing, I have all three cameras with me, either in a bag or in the car,” DaSilva explains. “If I’m shooting on the street or doing portraits I’ll just pick a camera for that particular day or that situation.”
Since these cameras lack internal metering, DaSilva judges his exposures on the fly. “Shooting on the street, I don’t have any control over my light, so I could be in deep shadow in one frame and in bright sunlight in the next,” he says. “My exposures are pretty accurate 90% of the time, but I try to land in the middle so I’m not blocking up my highlights.”
Additionally, he compensates for hard-to-manage contrast situations after capture by developing his film to yield a flatter negative. This lower contrast is also advantageous to his system for copying images using his digital camera.
“At first, I used a 4 x 5 Leaf scanner, “but it took forever to do a full scan,” he says. “So, I went back to my roots of making dupe slides. I devised my own copy stand with my Canon D5 Mark II, and I shoot a raw file with my signature full-frame look. I’m able to have quite a bit more flexibility with a raw file than what you get with most scanner software,” he adds. “I can take it anywhere, so as long as I have a digital camera with me I have a scanner. And, obviously, as cameras improve, my files will get better too.”
After counting on Kodak Tri-X film for his photojournalism work since the early 1980s, and adding Kodak T-Max to the mix for lit studio work in the mid-’90s, DaSilva switched to Ilford films about six years ago, first trying out Ilford HP5 and then expanding to Ilford’s Delta film line.
“Long-term consistency is my foremost priority,” he explains, “so my main consideration in making a switch was the unknown future and availability of Kodak films, as well as price increases. They were shutting down different film lines, certain chemistry wasn’t available anymore, and prices were going up. If you’re trying to be consistent about something, that’s not what you want when planning for the future,” DaSilva says.
His switch happened quickly, as prices started to rise, and as his consumption of film soared to some 300 to 400 rolls per year. “Once I started shooting hundreds of rolls annually, a couple of dollars per roll made a big difference,” he adds.
While quality considerations were not a primary factor in DaSilva’s switch, inherent differences between various film lines are worth mentioning.
In general, he finds Ilford HP5 to have similar characteristics to Kodak Tri-X, while Ilford Delta films are a good comparison to Kodak T-Max, with finer grain and increased sharpness.
“T-Max had a certain type of sharpness and Tri-X had a signature grain that seems to build up,” he says. It definitely seems to block up more in the shadows than T-Max or Delta. So, your images are contrastier and the grain structure is a lot larger. It’s a texture that you don’t get with a fine-grain film—kind of like over-pixelated.”
When comparing Ilford films head to head, he finds the Delta series to be sharper than HP5, with a little bit more dynamic range.
As DaSilva says, “Since most of my work is in a ‘run-and-gun’ street style, I shoot primarily 400 and 3200 ASA film. If I know I’m going to shoot in a studio or a lit situation, I’ll drop down to 125 ASA.”
This stylistic preference for fast film yielded another important consideration in his decision to switch brands, due to the availability of Delta’s 3200 ASA film stock in 120 format.
“I would have loved to stay with Kodak for certain reasons, but one thing that bothered me is that they never offered a 3200 ASA film in medium format,” he explains. “Kodak 3200 ASA film only came in 35mm and the grain structure of that was not the greatest.”
While DaSilva generally rates Delta 3200 at 1600 ASA, he finds the film’s latitude to be “quite amazing,” noting, “I recently pushed a roll approximately three stops and the grain structure held up surprisingly well.”
“This film has really opened up the way I work,” he adds. “It’s given me so many possibilities for capturing something on a camera system with an aperture that maxes out at f/4 or f/3.5, depending on which model I use.”
When he first got back to analog processes, people were giving away darkroom equipment. “I didn’t have enough space for a full lab, but I did have enough room to put in a Wing Lynch processor to run my film,” he says.
On the road, DaSilva relies on a method from his days in wire service journalism by packing a darkroom in a couple of Pelican cases. “You were pretty much able to produce your images anywhere in the world, as long as you had some water and a space to process your film,” he explains.
Initially, he processed his film using Kodak T-Max developer, before switching to Ilford Ilfotec DD-X liquid concentrate in a 1:4 dilution. “I’m actually looking for a little bit of a flatter negative because of the way I do my scanning,” he says “For 400 ISO film, my time is like 8 minutes.”
In July 2016, DaSilva landed an assignment to shoot in his signature style that took him back to his roots in journalism, when ABC News hired him to photograph outside the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. “They called it A Different Look Outside the Conventions, so I was either shooting black-and-white portraits or getting general scenes of what was going on outside,” he says.
“I spent four days at each convention, and carried two or three bodies at a time, because I didn’t know what it was going to yield,” DaSilva notes. “I averaged about 10 rolls per day, and worked out of a hotel room with two small cases, my chemistry and tanks, and whatever else I needed to run my film.”
With time at a premium, he used a single developing tank for four sequential film runs, juggling development, fix, and wash stages in tight succession. “When I was on deadline for the conventions, I wanted to be done in about an hour and a half, whereas it would take most people like three hours or more to develop the same quantity.”
After running the first tank normally and putting the film in a clearing bath, he dried the tank, rolled the next batch of film, and started development almost immediately. He used a single timer for everything, keeping the entire operation in his head.
“I don’t want to spend a lot of time shaking a tank, so when I’m developing the last tank, the first several rolls are in the dryer, the second batch is in the wash and the third is in the fixer. I use a film washer and hypo clear to minimize the amount of wash time, and a forced air film dryer, which is basically a hair dryer with a modified tank. Once you get the process started, it just kind of continues on, and it’s pretty efficient.”
DaSilva is the first to admit that his signature style is not the easiest thing to pitch to clients. “It’s not just because of the film, it’s more the format that gives you that look,” he explains. “I’m pitching in the format that I shoot, which is full frame. I’d also prefer the images are published with borders, so it’s hard to put together a package unless it’s on the Web. Print publications have to fill a space, so they’ll wind up cropping things,” he adds.
A primary concern of this work is DaSilva’s abiding interest in history or, more specifically, the loss of our digital history due to incompatible or outmoded digital processes.
“Part of the reason I shoot film is to actually have a tangible archive that’s not on a hard drive,” he points out. “If you have it on digital you have nothing to pass on to anybody. No one is going to go look through your hard drives later on. No one is going to pick up your phone and say, ‘Oh hey, I wonder what pictures are on here?’ It’s a phone; they’re just going to toss it.”
With this in mind, the significance of DaSilva’s switch from Kodak to Ilford becomes even clearer. “I’m the type of shooter who just wants the brand to be available and consistent,” he says. “Once you get into a look and style of shooting, the film you use becomes a major part of that look. So, I try to get as much on film as I can,” he says, “which is probably more important to me these days than running around shooting digital.”
To learn more about Peter DaSilva, click here to visit his website.
Follow him on Instagram.
To read the other stories in our series, Why I Switched, click here https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/p/why-i-switched.
Do you have a story or some insights to share about switching brands? If so, please add your voice to the Comments section, below.