My Revisit to Film SLR Cameras and Black and White Photography In Yosemite Valley

Captured on Ilford XP2 Super 400

The early dawn of digital photography promised endless quantities of free high resolution, simple to create images.

That high tide has certainly been achieved, with the world’s photographic beaches now covered with unimaginable amounts of digitally created images. From iPhone, DSLR and high-end medium format, digital satisfaction is at an all-time high. People seldom mention film these days during our photography classes.

Photography has always been with me in some form or another for years. Never leaving my conscious thought process since picking up my first real film camera in the 7th grade. That would be an antique Kodak Junior 120 and a Brownie camera. Both were hiding on the shelves of my Mother’s antique shop and part of her collections.

I loved the classic results when I got those black and white 120 prints back from processing.

Later my family, would invest in a Pentax K-1000 SLR for family shots and travel photography. I latched on to it quickly, learning its form and function.

In my later years, I recalled the excitement of enrolling in my first high school photography classes. This was a pivotal moment for me. It was the first time I locked into something I felt happy about and excelled in until I attended college commercial design classes with even more photography. Access to all this is what I wanted in the world of photography.

Now at my fingertips: cameras of all kinds, reams of film and the darkroom time to develop and print.

My first real personal film camera was a Pentax MX SLR camera. I used it for years, along with a few 35mm film compacts for personal adventure sports activities. There were no thoughts of instant electronic still imagery entering my mind, except for some early video projects. Film always ruled the world of still photography. But soon, digital photography seeped into my photographic world through a gift from a family member of a used 2-megapixel simple camera. The image quality was marginal, but a new era of infinite imagery arrived and has been the norm for me since the early 1990’s to the present.

Last Spring, I was captivated by the HBO drama Vinyl. Its backdrop takes place in the 1970’s record industry. There was an episode where one of the main characters was portraying a photographer. In one scene, she’s using her Nikon film camera. Taking a short breath and addressing her subject between each shot, then mechanically advancing each frame, followed by a satisfying slapping sound of the shutter.

This particular scene stayed with me for quite some time afterward. I thought it might be interesting to get a few of my old Pentax MX cameras out and see what shape they were in. I recalled replacing its seals on of them a few years back as a project. I had no real intention of using them again professionally.

It was mostly a sentimental journey of sorts to get my hands on them once again and appreciate their crafted mechanical elegance.

My modern Nikons have no such romantic appeal, except for their high degree of technical excellence. They’re basically purposeful beasts designed to get the job done. I’ve been shooting Digital SLRs for years with no real thoughts of the old Pentax single frame film cameras except fond sentiment.

Captured on Ilford XP2 Super 400

A few months went by. We had clients booked for our Yosemite Valley photography classes. While gearing up for this trip, I had the thought of taking one of my old Pentax cameras on the workshop, along with a roll of black and white film, and a red and yellow filter. I thought I would capture something of the valley in the old school style. I selected a popular high contrast black and white C41 film that’s simple to process most anywhere. I would then have the negatives scanned. All said this journey was quite a revelation after being away from film for years and being immersed in a digital world for so long.

I was amazed at the ritual and simplicity of it all.

From researching and selecting the proper black and white film and filters, to replacing the 2 small light meter sodium batteries, and setting the ASA or film speed, it all seemed so uncomplicated. As I carefully loaded the 36 exposure roll of film into my old Pentax MX, that’s when it hit me. I have only 36 frames and I’d better make each one count! That thought hadn’t occurred to me in years.

After shooting Yosemite Valley’s granite spires, waterfalls and climbers for a few days. I returned home and sent the roll off for processing.  It was a nostalgic journey to see the results.

The dynamic range and fine grain of the black and white Ilford film was impressive.

I forgot how great Black and White film grain could be, completely different from anything I’ve done with my modern full frame Nikons, even with access to all the latest black and white conversion software. I’d say I had at least 12 film photographs I really enjoyed. My film keepers as opposed to it I would have shot digitally seemed much higher. I’m guessing because using film slowed me down quite a bit. Each image was carefully composed, slowly and methodically. Each lens was selected, aperture chosen and light metered carefully. If I didn’t see a perfect shot, I moved on to another location. I didn’t want to waste film.

Not having to look at the back of a digital camera was quite enjoyable as well.

It didn’t matter because I couldn’t change anything if I didn’t get the shot. No chimping here! I might’ve taken another of the same shot with a slight adjustment, but that seldom happened. I felt more in the moment with nature than I did with my digital camera, as my eyes spent more time seeking perfect compositions in nature with my limited 36 frames. Once I heard that sweet shutter slap, I really didn’t think much about it, because my task was completed and satisfying in a different way from digital. No adobe photoshop and Lightroom editing here, except for a slight exposure adjustment. There was basically a zero workflow.

Here are my feelings about film as opposed to digital. While digital photography has reached amazing heights in precise and flawless image reproduction, it has no real consequences for bad technique. I consider black and white film a more elegant and decisive art form altogether. Full commitment to its process and to the fundamentals of photography are key to its success.

If you have been shooting digital for some time and want to improve your capture and creative success rate with digital (especially when it comes to Black and White landscapes), you might want to dig out your old film SLR camera and pop a role of 36 exposures in and see what happens. Like me, I’m sure you’ll be surprised and you might enjoy the overall experience of shooting film on occasion.

All the best,
Mark Jansen

If you would like help with growing your creative photography skills, we can help with a variety of private and group photography classes and workshops with Jansen Photo Expeditions.

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Mark’s interest in photography and love for landscape photography draws him into some amazing places and he freely shares this knowledge on his photography workshops. He researches his subjects extensively, making many trips to selected areas waiting for the perfect light, an interesting approach to the subject, and just the right moment. His goal of "freezing time for others to enjoy" is what drives him to create his visions and teach workshops.

Mark offers photographic workshops in numerous U.S. and International locations with his business, Jansen Photo Expeditions. He is an expert and personable instructor, expedition leader and award winning, visionary photographer. 

Mark has over 25 years of professional fine art and photographic experience. He has a passion for landscape and classic aviation photography and provides large scale commercial installations of his fine art photographic murals and print works throughout California. He works with both small and large corporate businesses in helping them project a powerful impact through his images.


About Mark and Holly
Mark and Holly Jansen
Jansen Photo Expeditions
(805) 701-8807 or


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