In April 1979, I was quite proud to be selected to be on the Talon Yearbook staff the following year. At that time, I imagined I would be a writer. During the following year on the staff, however, I discovered that I wasn’t at all interested in writing feature stories, but very much was in interested in being a photographer. I actually wrote very little for the Talon in 1979-1980, but I hung out in the darkroom constantly.
Our yearbook advisor doled out film to us with the eyedropper of necessity. Film was expensive compared to the yearbook’s budget.
However, on a yearbook staff picnic, our advisor’s toddler daughter started chasing some bubbles, and all three of us photographers took pictures. It was a precious moment, but back in class on Monday morning he spent considerable time and effort shaming us about “wasting” film. Thirty years later when I sent him a scan of one of those frames, he was incredibly grateful for it. Ugh.
Anyway, the film we were issued was Kodak’s venerable Plus-X Pan Film, described in its day as a “medium-speed [‘speed’ referring to sensitivity] panchromatic film with fine grain.” It’s easy to look at its ISO of 125 today and express dismay that it was regarded as “medium speed,” but it was partnered with Panatomic-X at ISO 32 on the “low” side, and Tri-X at ISO 400 as the “high speed” offering. So yes, it was a medium speed film in the world of film, but in trying to capture the movement, motion and energy of high school, it was, in reality, quite slow.
I’m sure our yearbook advisor was attracted to the “fine grain” aspect of the film. Yearbooks are printed on glossy paper and with finer screens (higher resolutions) than newspapers, and there are times when the photos are used quite large. In recent years, I have quite a lot of experience with glossy, high-quality magazine printing as the editor and chief photographer of Ada Magazine, and every edition of our magazine has several images that are “full-bleed double-truck,” meaning they fill the two pages that face each other all the way to the edges of the pages.
These experiences, as well as many years in newspaper using film and later digital, has made it pretty obvious that our yearbook advisor couldn’t have been more wrong in making us use Plus-X. The biggest shortcoming of Plus-X is its ISO of 125. In the studio or in bright sunlight, that’s fine, but so many of the events in the lives of high school kids, their events and classes and plays and games, are at night, indoors, and otherwise in very limited light, and at ISO 125, our only option for shooting these events was direct flash.
For those readers of the smart-phone-only ilk, direct flash happens when we put an electronic flash (in high school I had the ubiquitous Vivitar 283) on the hot shoe of our camera. It provides light that I have previously described as “worst light ever.” It didn’t take much of a search of my high school negatives to find examples that adjudicate this assertion.
Direct flash has that blacked-out-background look because light obeys the inverse square law, so each time you double the distance from the light source, it’s four times darker, and often the backgrounds are two or three times farther away than the subject.
Another downside to direct flash is that you have to wait, sometimes as long as eight seconds, for the flash to recycle and flash again, and eight seconds is an eternity when telling moments are happening in front of you.
There’s the rub. Using a 125 ISO film forced us to use direct flash. But in our yearbook advisor’s eyes, anyway, a higher ISO film like Tri-X would make our images “too grainy.” Our choices, then, were fine-grained, direct-flash non-moments, or grainier, better-lit images of real moments.
The choice to me, as a career photojournalist, is obvious. If I had it to do over again, I would load up with Tri-X, and for much of the night and indoor stuff, I would expose it at ISO 1600 and increase the development time, which is known as “push processing.” The results would be grainy moments, but there would be so many more moments.
In the end, of course, yearbook readers don’t care about fine grain, they care about their memories, and shooting like a photojournalist, not like a studio photographer, is the way to capture the best of them.