One of the first challenges any photographer needs to get over is to realize no camera, film, digital or whatever will come in the future, will ever be able to “see” as well as our own eyes. This is sort of ironic because in order to make memorable photos you need to have a good eye, but no camera will see as good as your eye. With experience you can learn how the camera sees and once you are able to do that, once you are able to understand the strengths and limits of your specific camera, then you can really make that visual instrument sing, so to speak. The same can be said for black and white film. All mediums of film including their ISO have specific strengths and weaknesses and need to be understood before your mental visualization can be rendered successfully onto film. This week, because I was out of 120, I decided to pull out my first film SLR. I began the film world on a 35mm Minolta srT100x. A wonderfully simple and accurate camera. I shoot with prime, fast Rokkor lenses and really enjoy using it. So I loaded up some HP5 and “…hit the streets a-runnin’” as ZZ Top says. I was in an area of Makati, Philippines with lots of rough concrete structures, street food vendors, school children, etc. All very good for street photography.
Once I got home, developed the film in Kodak D-76 at 1:3, and had a chance to go over the negatives I was very pleasantly surprised. I’ve been shooting medium format for several months and had forgotten some of the strengths of 35mm (I had begun to believe the idea that a bigger negative is better). Because the negative is smaller than 120, you will have a completely different feel and quality to the image. For what I shot, the 35mm was able to capture the raw, tactile sense of the concrete, grit and grime of the streets of Makati in a way the medium format camera would not have. This is not to say it is better or worse. We are not talking technical science here. This is about feeling and mood. This is beyond intellect. This is personal expression with the goal of achieving on film what was visualized in the mind at the moment of exposure.
Is 35mm the best choice for every kind of photography? No. Just as no one lens is the best choice for every kind of photography. The point here is to understand your camera medium and truly understand your film. When you feel you know the two inside and out and have a clear direction of what kind of photography you want to make, there are no limits.