The Plus-X Conundrum

This is an image I made early in my senior year in high school. Made with direct flash on Kodak's Plus-X Pan Film, ISO 125, it has that ugly, hard look with a blacked-out background.
This is an image I made early in my senior year in high school. Made with direct flash on Kodak’s Plus-X Pan Film, ISO 125, it has that ugly, hard look with a blacked-out background.
Compare the last image to this one: it's the same girl (Teresa Belcher), having a laugh at an event called "Little Mac Night." Thanks to it being early in the year as well, and outdoors, I was able to shoot with the existing light, creating a vastly more natural-looking image.
Compare the last image to this one: it’s the same girl (Teresa Belcher), having a laugh at an event called “Little Mac Night.” Thanks to it being early in the year as well, and outdoors, I was able to shoot with the existing light, creating a vastly more natural-looking image.

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.

This was made on a memorably cold, rainy night at a playoff football game in November 1980. Shot with direct flash on Plus-X, it fails to capture the rain falling, or that bright-and-dark stadium light that so many of my football images in my career exhibit.
This was made on a memorably cold, rainy night at a playoff football game in November 1980. Shot with direct flash on Plus-X, it fails to capture the rain falling, or that bright-and-dark stadium light that so many of my football images in my career exhibit.
Here's how we make fan photos in the latter-day, with sky-high ISOs that allow us to express not only what's going on, but where and in what conditions. And do you know who cares that this image is grainy? Other photographers and computer geeks.
Here’s how we make fan photos in the latter-day, with sky-high ISOs that allow us to express not only what’s going on, but where and in what conditions. And do you know who cares that this image is grainy? Other photographers and computer geeks.

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 of Ada Magazine, and every edition of my 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.

Another big downside to direct flash is the unnatural and unflattering way it renders faces, which are the most important thing we are photographing as photojournalists. I made this image in a park at dusk, and the Plus-X ISO 125 film in my camera ruled out shooting with existing light.
Another big downside to direct flash is the unnatural and unflattering way it renders faces, which are the most important thing we are photographing as photojournalists. I made this image in a park at dusk, and the Plus-X ISO 125 film in my camera ruled out shooting with existing light.

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.

Imagine how difficult it must be to capture peak action at a football game if you take this picture (September 1980), then wait eight seconds for your flash to cycle before you can take another.
Imagine how difficult it must be to capture peak action at a football game if you take this picture, then wait eight seconds for your flash to cycle before you can take another.

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.

Boy Scouts present the colors at the first Ada Cougars football game I ever covered, October 28, 1988. It was still quite early in my career, but it was already very clear to me that fast films (in this case, Kodak T-Max P3200), even when they are grainy, made images like this possible. This image was later awarded first place in feature photos by the Oklahoma Press Association.
Boy Scouts present the colors at the first Ada Cougars football game I ever covered, October 28, 1988. It was still quite early in my career, but it was already very clear to me that fast films (in this case, Kodak T-Max P3200), even when they are grainy, made images like this possible. This image was later awarded first place in feature photos by the Oklahoma Press Association.
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1 Comment

  1. “…it fails to capture the rain falling…”

    That seemed odd to me, since I also had days of direct flash and it always *emphasized* the rain drops — reflecting back from them weirdly, rather than making them disappear. Maybe I was doing it even more wronger than you. 🙂

    Otherwise, yes, yes, and yes. The more tools the better, and the high ISO sensitivity possible today is one of the better tools I’ve enjoyed as a casual photographer (when I was actually *paid* for photography, I never had access to very high ISO speeds).

    In a weird sort of way, though, I *sometimes* like the look of direct flash, perhaps because it reminds me of old yearbook photos.

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