Ditching digital

Armed with his father's old Hasselblad camera in Greece, a photographer learns the challenges and joys of shooting with film.

By Stergios Dinopoulos ’17
2016 Artist Development Fellow

Stergios Dinopoulos ’17, an affiliate of Dudley Co-op concentrating in Visual and Environmental Studies, film production track, was awarded an Artist Development Fellowship to create an ethnographically researched short film about Greek anarchical and revolutionary traditions in rural villages. Dinopoulos has served as a Research Assistant to French film director Philippe Grandrieux at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study working on a triptych video installation project entitled Unrest. Last summer Dinopoulos attended the Berlin Film Program offered by the Harvard Summer School. He plans to pursue a career in filmmaking.

My dad was an amateur photograph enthusiast in his 20s. He had a particular passion for macro photography, painstakingly photographing the inner shapes of fungi, ferns and the frozen ripples on the iced surface of rivers. One of the perks of having a father who prolifically shot during the 1980s is that the closet of our Athens apartment has an endless store of old film equipment: ancient obsolete cameras, weird alien lenses and cumbersome machinery whose function is still a mystery to me. I had to painstakingly work to appropriate all the dusty treasures that lay therein, making my first move a few years ago by borrowing his old Nikon FM2, a classic 35mm film camera. I have since become addicted to the ephemeral thrills of film.

Stergios Dinopoulos ’17, 2016 Artist Development Fellow
Stergios Dinopoulos ’17, 2016 Artist Development Fellow
This past summer, as I set off to Crete to begin research for my movie, I ventured into a new, more risky and exciting alleyway of photography. I had been courting my dad’s old Hasselblad – a giant beast of a camera that shoots medium format film, 120mm in a square format. Compared to the quick and agile six-shooter Nikon, working with the Hasselblad is like packing a cumbersome cannon with gunpowder and slinging the beast toward its target. The unwieldy and intimidating instrument, weighing in at 12 pounds and much too large for my small photography bag, gave me a crash course in photographic IQ. Here’s what I learned.

The Hasselblad’s viewfinder is known for its mirrored prism that gives the photographer a mirrored view of his frame. You’re basically looking at your composition through the viewfinder as a mirror image of the picture you’re going to take, which drastically affects composition. The immediate problem that arises from this is the difficulty of “aiming” the camera. When you move the camera to the left the image in the viewfinder moves to the right. When you tilt the camera clockwise, the image in the viewfinder tilts counter-clockwise. You have to move and tilt, too, accounting for the change in composition. For example, if I frame a subject's face in the upper right hand corner of the frame, in the picture it will come out in the upper left hand corner. Also, medium format film has a square 1:1 aspect ratio rather than the classic rectangular 16:9. Having compositions that are symmetrical in the Y as well as the X axis adds a new layer of thought and consideration for framing.

On a normal digital camera you can take an infinite amount of photos. When I am shooting with a Nikon 35mm film camera, I will usually have a few rolls of film with 36 frames each. This immediately forces me to carefully consider what I’m going to shoot and to put extra thought into each composition. The Hasselblad, because it uses large and cumbersome medium format film, has only 12 frames per film roll. I was in Crete for 10 days with seven rolls of film, which meant that I could only take seven or eight photos a day. This meant that often I would set up a shot, get the framing and exposure just right, and then refrain from firing the shutter to take the photo. I would do all the work necessary to take the photo, but then decide to never see the result of my efforts because I deemed that there might be a better shot to take later in the day. This sort of self-restraint was invaluable to me.

Light metering 
The Hasselblad doesn’t have a built-in light meter to measure exposure, which means you have to manually measure the light in a given space with a hand-held light meter. Aside from being another factor that slows down the process of shooting, it also allowed me to delve deeper into the dance of light and how to use it to my advantage. Photography is just painting with light. Using the light meter let me measure the incident light in any setting, meaning that I would measure how much light is hitting the surface of my subject, be it a face, a plant or the sky. After a few days of light metering manually, I started paying more and more attention to how the light was behaving in any situation around me. After a while, I started to intuitively know how much available light was in a space and how it was functioning.

The last challenge – not specific to the Hasselblad but to all film cameras – is delayed gratification. This is by far my favorite thing about shooting with film. As soon as you fire the shutter, the picture is done, and you have no way of knowing what the photo will look like until weeks or sometimes months later when you develop it. This draws the act of taking the photograph into the present moment. And after that moment is done, it is expended. You cannot review what you have done, nor can you worry too much about the result since you will not see it for a long time. This makes the act of taking a photograph so much more immediate. I feel I can inhabit the moment of the photo because there is nothing else to come after the moment is over.

All of the artistic limitations of the Hasselblad, albeit absolutely frustrating, have taught me invaluable lessons in photography. They have forced me to slow down and become more attuned to the nuance of light and emulsion. It seems pointless to write about photography without including any pictures, but unfortunately, just like you, I have yet to see what I have spent countless hours shooting during the last few weeks. For all I know, all the beautifully shaded portraits of my friends in ethereal overcast light might come back to me as an endless strip of white-hot, burned film. That’s the beauty of it.

The Artist Development Fellowship program, jointly administered by the Office for the Arts at Harvard, the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships and Office of Career Services, awards 10-15 fellowships annually to promising and/or accomplished student artists and creators who have an unusual opportunity for artistic growth and transformation. The program is open to all undergraduates currently enrolled in Harvard College, and applications are evaluated by the Council on the Arts, a standing committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. For more information, visit the OFA website or call 617.495.8676.