Michael Ash Smith is a commercial wedding, portrait, and lifestyle photographer based out of Barto, PA. As a hybrid photographer, much of Michael's work is done on 35mm and medium format film with some instant film here and there for special occasions. He recently shared images from a wedding he shot over on the Junebug Weddings blog. The difference? Everything he shot that day was with instant film.
If you're familiar with Michael's work you'll know he loves deep, contrasty blacks and punchy, filmic colors. I was really intrigued with how the instant film interpreted his vision. Michael was kind enough to sit down for a quick interview about his experience.
All of the images below were shot on Fuji 100c / 3000b instant film.
FS: Tell me a little about yourself, your photography. When did you first get started?
The cliche statement "better late than never" perfectly describes my life. I always seem to figure things out long after I should have. A love for photography has always been around in my life since I was little - but not in a camera sense. Just pictures. Pictures on walls, in stores, in magazines. I loved going to those small stores in the mall that had hundreds of ready to be framed photographs. I remember being driven to elementary school and admiring the beauty of an overnight snowfall. I remember a friend in High School using an SLR for his darkroom class and loving the sound the shutter made. I've always had a fascination with photography but I never did anything about it.
I didn't get into the art of photography until late 2006 when I purchased a Nikon D70 and started experimenting with the new "digital" technology. At first, I didn't have any desire to photograph people. Every photograph I made was nature or something in the fine art realm. It was less complicated. I controlled everything about it. I picked the time of day to shoot - or where - or what time of the year. It was "safe.' It wasn't until late in 2008 when I was asked by a colleague (at work) to photograph their backyard wedding where photographing people hit me like a ton of bricks. She needed a photographer quickly, and I knew how to use a camera. The idea intrigued me - and I like a good challenge - so on a Saturday in the fall of 2007 I set out to photograph a small wedding.
I left knowing what I wanted to do.
FS: How would you describe your photographic style?
This is tough but probably "my own." It sounds like an arrogant comment but its not meant to be. I believe my images represent me and have their own unique look to them. Yeah, I'm sure some images here and there are similar to other photographers however overall, the look and feel … is my own. This is another reason I love shooting instant film - it helps me stand out just a bit more.
But if you need to have a word to describe my style ... "passionate."
FS: What equipment and processes do you typically use? Does film usually take a back-seat to digital at your weddings?
It depends on the wedding. If I'm photographing a wedding in December in 20 degree weather in Philly where nothing is outside I tend to take a more digital approach. However, most weddings - or as many as possible - I utilize as much film as I can. This usually consists of one medium format film camera, one 35mm rangefinder film camera and 1 instant cameras. I have a few other cameras I throw in the mix as well but they aren't used as much. There's a good mix of 120 and 35 and I don't think either are the majority. Its a good 50/50 split - or close to it.
FS: Why do you still shoot film, what draws you to it?
After a couple years in the photography world I was still unhappy with the processing technique I went through with my digital images. I could never get the look and feel I wanted and had in my head. The most inspirational images to me were almost always photographed using film so at one point I basically just got fed up and starting shooting with film. I fell in love with it almost immediately. To me, shooting film isn't always about the end result. While its a great benefit, the process is so important to me as well. I feel great satisfaction in not being able to see the image I just made immediately. This forces me to focus, anticipate, and slow down. I'm more cautious and careful with my camera (and the images I choose to photograph) which has increased my awareness for quality moments. Film has the aesthetic that allows me to make sense of what I see in my head. The flaws. The depth. The look and feel. It all appeals to me and resonates with me.
FS: Recently, you choose to shoot a client’s wedding exclusively with instant film — can you tell me more about that?
I try to 2nd shoot for friends whenever I can. I adore 2nd shooting and I wish I could do it more often. There's a freedom to it that I love so much. You aren't the priority anymore. You are more free to do as you please (depending on the situation). You don't feel as constrained or tied down as a wedding you are photographing on your own. It sometimes just allows me to shoot more relaxed. My buddy, Gabe Aceves, asked me to tag along to a wedding with him last August. His client didn't specifically ask or hire a 2nd photographer but Gabe asked me to go with him anyway - just to help out and also hang out. I've been wanting to shoot a lot of instant film at a wedding for a while and figured this was the perfect chance to test what I could do. There was NO restriction on me. Since I really didn't need to be there any image I made was "extra" for Gabe. With that freedom, I was able to explore the heavy use of instant film without the worry of screwing up or missing important shots.
FS: What equipment (cameras & film stock) did you use at that wedding?
The 35mm images were all taken with a Canon AE1 with stock 50mm lens and using Fuji 400h. All the instant film images were taken with a Polaroid 195. I had 2 of those cameras … 1 had Fuji 100c color film loaded and the other had Fuji 3000b b&w film loaded.
FS: What were the challenges of shooting instant film (over your usual digital / analogue workflow)?
M [partially from original blog post]:
First and foremost, if you are going to try this, I highly recommend using either a Polaroid 180 or 195 model pack film camera. These two (along with the 185 and 190 - way more rare) cameras allow me to fully control what settings I'm using. Most pack film land cameras don't have that option whereas on mine, I can control the shutter speed AND aperture. This makes a huge difference. Starting off I was indoors so naturally I started using the camera with 3000b loaded in it. Right off the bat I noticed I was waiting a lot longer for the right shot. I did 1 dress shot in b&w indoors and 2 color outdoors. That's it. I was considering not doing that at all however the dress was pretty rad and I wanted test out the cameras and make sure they worked properly before using it on a shot that truly mattered. After those shots were out of the way and I was good I then found myself really trying to concentrate on key moments. Here are some observations from the day:
1. With any pack film you get 10 shots per pack so on my 10th shot I needed to make sure I wasn't going to miss something else while I was changing the pack. This was harder to do then I thought and there were several moments where I pulled up my 35mm just to make sure I was good. Since I was shadowing Gabe a lot and didn't really need to be there I didn't worry. If this was my own wedding this would have been a major issue.
2. Peeling a print after the shot is taken. This was a tough one as well. There were a few moments where I took a shot and then held the image unpeeled in my teeth while I took a 2nd shot. I had my bag with me as well and would drop them in there to let them develop. But I didn't want to leave them developing TOO long as it was extremely hot in the house (no AC) and I knew that would cause an issue with peeling. However, it did help with drying. So whenever I was changing a pack or I felt there was a small lull I would peel the print and let the negative dry.
3. Space. For some reason I didn't think about this one. AFTER I peeled the print it needs to dry. And if you are like me and like to save the negative, well this can take up a lot of space. So what I did was find a non-traffic part of the the house and spread out my negatives and let the prints dry. The prints dried pretty fast so every time I came back I was able to store those in one of the boxes the film comes in freeing up some space. However the negatives took a lot longer and before I knew it I had negatives everywhere.
4. 10 shots per pack. Thats not a lot. Some digital shooters can take 3,000 to 5,000 images at a wedding. Film shooters tend to be between 500 and 1000. 10 shots per pack isn't going to get me far and I can't carry around 50 packs of instant film. So I was VERY selective. But I really tried to focus on moments you wouldn't shoot instant on. Tougher candid moments. At the end I believe I went through 3 packs of color and 3 b&w. So 60 shots.
5. Candid moments. Ever try shooting a candid moment with a land camera? Yeah, its not easy. Its downright scary. Moments happen fast. With a regular camera and autofocus you need to be quick and if you like manual focus you need to be quick and even more ready. When you are shooting with a land camera its much harder. You have to have everything set up and truly wait for the shot to happen right before your eyes. This was a challenge but I forced myself to try it. I even used instant film for the b&g walking down the aisle after the ceremony. This was a big moment and fortunately I nailed it with just one shot.
6. Negatives. Many times I don't save the negatives however in this situation, I wasn't able to meter every single shot so I had a few in there I guessed on. And I wanted to save the negatives in case I was over or under on the shot. Keeping the negatives safe and clean was one of the most challenging aspects. Many of the shots had way more dirt on them than usual because people were walking in and out of the room constantly which kicks up dust and dirt. A lot of images I wasn't even able to use the negative. That, combined with the space, was very frustrating. AND if I was outside, where was I going to put the negative? I had to shoot it, store it in my bag, wait for downtime, run inside, peel and store, grab a new pack, then run back out. This is harder than it sounds and I was exhausted by the end of the night.
7. Cameras are slow. Yeah, its a pack film camera made decades ago. Its not the fastest camera on the market. But man, they are the most fun!
FS: Do you think you’ll be offering this service more often?
Yes. A lot more. I've already started offering 100% instant film portrait sessions and plan to use it more heavily in upcoming weddings.
FS: What are your recommendations for photographers looking to branch out into instant film?
Find a cheap Polaroid Land Camera, get some Fuji 100c film and go to town. The best way to learn it is to shoot it. 100c film is pretty cheap .. usually its about $9 a pack. And you get 10 shots per pack. And you can find a Land Camera for super cheap … $10-$40 depending on the model. There are some models that are pretty pricey but you don't need to buy them at first. Just get a cheap one to do some testing.
And stick with it. I've taken thousands of instant film shots over the years and I'm STILL learning. Unfortunately I've also spent a lot of money doing it (haha). It takes time. And effort. And you need to put in the practice to be rewarded. But man, when you nail that first amazing shot - it will all be worth it.