Words and Photos by Robin Pearson
Last Autumn, after shooting Ride UK projects on my digital camera all year, I found myself looking for excuses to use my beloved film camera. These days, digital SLRs are so competent and RAW image processing so flexible that picking up the old medium format equipment seems like the difficult option. And with the inherent costs of film, processing and scanning, it's a real labour of love that can ask a lot of the bank balance, so why would I want to do it?
The reasons are many. It's a completely different experience for both the photographer, who gets the joy of using a beautifully designed old machine to capture an image, and the rider, who must put extraordinary trust in who they're shooting with. Plus there's the fact that, obviously, it's impossible to review the photo until the film has been processed. The younger readers might think this idea bizarre but, trust me, shooting on film is an exciting experience that can only be described as magical.
Some people use a kind of machine-gun approach to photography, picking up a camera and shooting recklessly on automatic modes until they get the image they're happy with. My 1980s Bronica SQ-A is basically the antithesis of that – you only get twelve shots on a roll of film, you have to wind it on by hand and there's no light meter, so all exposure adjustments have to be measured off-camera and set manually.
"Limitations help channel our skills to make us more productive."
It all sounds very restrictive, doesn't it? Well, I don't see that as a bad thing. I enjoy working within restraints – it breeds creativity and focuses efforts. Just like a BMX rider pushing the limits of their local skatepark or inventing new tricks on a kerb, limitations help channel our skills to make us more productive.
I'm such a fan of these restrictions that I decided to impose another one: shoot this whole project on one roll of film. This kind of thing has been done before, but I made myself a tight system – I would shoot my twelve frames with six riders, granting each rider one portrait and one action shot. That meant every single frame was accounted for, which added a bit of extra pressure to the situation! Both the rider and I felt this, big time. There was no room for error. Our first attempt would be our last. No second chances.
"I decided to shoot this whole project on one roll of film, with every shot called out. No room for error, no second chances."
You know how it is – sometimes you don't get the pop, sometimes the trick doesn't click, sometimes you have to bail... If any of these things happened I would have to live with it, as chemical reactions would be taking place with our only chance at the shot charging the crystals in the film emulsion.
All this meant I had to be 100% on it with timing. The riding photos were composed and locked on tripod so I could then watch the rider and release the shutter without using the viewfinder, which is something I've always preferred to do. I could then record videos of each trick being photographed too, but that meant I had to pack an extra tripod for the video camera, adding to my camera bag weight, plus I had to bend myself like a pretzel between the tripod legs to shoot each photo!
There's a mutual feeling of reward when both the rider and photographer do a good job. The aim of this project was to nail that feeling, first go, every time. No mean feat! For this reason, the choice of trick was very important – it had to be something the rider was comfortable with and confident doing under pressure, and it had to be impressive.
Shot over the space of four months, as and when the situation seemed suitable, this whole project was an experiment. Given the circumstances I can't really believe that it all worked out as planned!
Many thanks to all the riders for getting on board. Bring on Roll 2...
For more film goodness, check out Scott Connor's Roll On feature.