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The colors of the American Southwest on film: chapter 3 in lessons learned

When I think about the colors that dominate the American Southwest, I mostly see 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 hue of these colors in states like New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado that makes them feel.... different. Add to that the fact that these colors show up in some of the most amazing landscapes I have ever seen and you can see why I was excited to capture all this goodness on film.

Santa Fe main square: adobe orange meets blue sky

Those of you that follow this blog 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 forementioned states kept me firmly in that state of mind. I thought that the colors of the Southwest would show up beautifully on film with its soft transitions between tones. 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 was a true user error. I managed to underexpose pretty much all of the 5 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 on 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 photos 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, to not meddle too much with the output and accept what I get.

My underexposure error prevents the airiness of the scene to come through

The second lesson is something I still haven't resolved. Even when shooting at f8 or f11, I somehow managed to get smeared corners when shooting wider landscapes. I don't know if this is also user error, 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 landscape looking all smudgy. Update: I took my camera to the fine people of Amsterdam Camera Repairs and they told me the the lens is indeed very hazy with all elements contaminated. It was in real need of a service which it is getting at the moment..... The final user error fortunately happened only once. A classic rangefinder mistake; I left the lens cap on 🤦🏻‍♂️.

What a mess! Smeary corners and focus seems to be all over the place even though shot at f11

Back to the colors. The next photo is relatively mundane but captures the colors well, even with my exposure fumbling. The scene is a street corner in the town of Gallup, New Mexico. The light was harsh, being mid-day but somehow managed to look softer than at home. If the colors 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 of it and decided to bring them together in the frame. The 'El Morro' theatre dates back to 1928 and its pastel colors and mix of old and newer cinema characters in the windows makes for an interesting shot. With the older truck in front, this photo might have been taken in 1985, the year the Goonies was released, instead of 2023.

Cinema history captured

I am starting to get to grip with composing in the square format but I am not sure 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 a shot I would have loved to shoot in landscape. The view from our train cart as the train bends to the right and reveals itself to us would come out stronger, I would have been able to show the line of the tracks that were 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 train and a highly recommended thing to do when in the area.

The next two photos represent different times. The first one is 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 seemed to be out of service for quite some time, but is a modern building nevertheless. Both buildings had great contrast with the deep Colorado blue sky.

Old but not forgotten
Forgotten but not old

On the bottom right of the Pioneer County Office photo, you'll see I missed to remove a string of dust. This brings me to another chapter of lessons learned when shooting film; digitizing 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 outsource to a lab who do a fine job. I did want try to keep as much of the workflow in my own hands, so that meant I had a choice to make in terms of how to digitize the negatives. I started with what I thought would be the easier method; DSLR scanning. The long story short of that is 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 way too time consuming. I am sure you can do it faster than I did it but I also didn't enjoy the extra steps this method introduces.

Arizona has a great flag as captured here on this barn

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-digitize 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 was coded in the nineties (it probably was) but it does what it needs to do. The only challenge I sometimes have is that I am 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 on the scanner, without any holder, gives me the best results.

Newton's rings visible on a scan but just flipping the negative usually takes care of that

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.

Back in time

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, like the one I took below of a lady weaving. 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 point of view and then take my one photo and hope it turns out well. It's a different process and I enjoy mixing it up with my digital cameras.

It's been quite a journey, both the metaphorical one and the actual one in the American Southwest. It is a place of raw beauty, of deep history, in geological and human sense, and its colors are a feast for the eyes. I look forward to return to it and having mastered my film skills a little better next time.


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