Film photography: HiFi or LoFi?

Which is your shooting style?

In the middle of the 20th century major advancements were made in the ability to record and playback audio, from vinyl LPs, to reel-to-reel tape, to FM radio and better amplifier design. Collectively this better sounding audio was marketed as High Fidelity or HiFi (which is also the nickname that wifi is a spin off of).

By the time I came along in the mid 1970s pretty much everything was HiFi. In the 1990s cassette based 4-track studio-in-a-box type of devices came out designed to be a sort of scratch pad for musicians. Some bands like Sonic Youth, Beck, and Ween took these relatively horrible sounding boxes combined them with all sorts of entry level effects and equipment and started a LoFi aesthetic. Turns out that after hearing reasonably high quality audio for 40 years makes crappy audio sound interesting. What these artists tapped into was a sort of love for auditory grit and grime and using that grime creatively.

Similar things have happened in photography. Focus and shoot cameras became a reality in the 1970s notably with the Canon AE-1, but Nikon, Minolta, Olympus, et al all made reasonably easy to use cameras with high quality optics.

While the SLR revolution made quality imaging possible for millions, these cameras were still expensive. More casual users were stuck with lamentable forays into affordable photography that included things like the Kodak Disc camera or 110 “focus free” cameras. Everyday consumer cameras took fairly poor pictures until the 1980’s when the price point of AF 35mm “Point and Shoot” cameras put one in just about every household.

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I first noticed a distinct LoFi photography aesthetic in 2003-ish a couple of years after I started taking a strong interest in photography.

The site that first really grabbed my interest in LoFi photography was DigitalSucks.com which had the tag line “If it ain’t plastic … IT AIN’T REAL.” At one point I started submitting to the site and even had one accepted IIRC. The site is long gone. It was short lived and went offline in 2006. The link is to the Internet Archive version (thanks IA!).

The idea here was to shoot with toy or plastic cameras. Medium Format 120 cameras such as Holgas and Dianas were the weapons of choice with 35mm promo cameras (like the free camera you’d get with a subscription to TIME magazine) pulling up the rear. No light meter, no way to tell if the image was in focus, just a couple apertures, one shutter speed, and a single element plastic lens.

Though it didn’t take as long the photography trend paralleled the music trend (and actually there was a video trends as well). After seeing uniformly acceptable images for so long, what would have been considered flawed images had become interesting. Still today the ubiquity of HiFi imagery on every smart phone has made niche for LoFi photography so much so that there are apps to mimic the aesthetic digitally.

If you are considering shooting film HiFi or LoFi is pretty much your first choice. Both results are easy to obtain, and they’re not mutually exclusive. Just because you shoot one doesn’t mean you can’t shoot the other.

If you want to start with hifi you can do it simply with a 35mm SLR and pretty much any one will do. Theoretically you can get something like 90mp off a 35mm frame but achieving that in real life is another matter. Using an older flat bed film scanner it’s more like 10mp which is more than adequate for web display.

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The real magic come with printing in a darkroom. I’ve blown up 35mm shots to 16×20 and been impressed with the results. If you want to go up a notch from there, a 6×4.5 medium format camera is a great place to start. They’re fairly inexpensive and the quality will pop out at you even in an 8×10. The larger the negative, the more visual information you capture and can reproduce.

While shooting 4×5 can be challenging the results are yet another step above medium format.

Treman WaterfallTweet this!

Like audiophiles buying special cables for their sound systems, HiFi photography is a rabbit hole you can explore until your heart’s content without ever finding an end. The quest for sharp, crisp images of astonishing latitude that make wonderful prints is easy to start and can last your lifetime.

You can also settle on what you like. There are a couple camera/film/developer combinations I truly enjoy. It all depends on your own tolerance for diminishing returns. At some point it costs more and more to make smaller and smaller improvements to the fidelity of your imaging system. Some people are happy with a Contax point and shoot 35mm and others truck a 7×17 panoramic camera around. Neither is right or wrong, it’s all personal preference.

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On the other end is LoFi photography. Much of the LoFi movement has precipitated around Lomography. Lomo cameras started in Russia as cheap plastic consumer cameras and visiting Austrians fell in love with them.

Eventually they started making lomo cameras and expanded to make Holgas, Dianas, and invent new LoFi marvels. LoFi film cameras are usually available in 35mm or 120. While Lomo cameras are great for what they are, I tend to think they’re a bit over priced. If you want to start in LoFi photography the place to start is either with a Holga or a promo camera. Even Time Magazine promo camera on Lomography.com You can find promo cameras at thrift stores often for under $5.

Promo Camera Shots:
Corporate Light Toy CameraRainy Day Monument Toy CameraTweet this!

LoFi photography is an entirely different rabbit hole from Hifi photography. Hifi photography is a quest with a direction it has a goal or an aim. LoFi photography is more trial and error, more testing to find out how a specific camera is crappy, finding what types of subjects compliment your camera’s type of crappiness. It’s more, “Eh why not? -snap-” More shooting, less planning, less predictable results. With LoFi photography there’s also modifying your camera to be crappy in specific ways, or reducing over-craptitude.

Holga Shots:
Holga Flash TreeBaltimore Cemetary HolgaBaltimore Alley HolgaTweet this!

Can you have it both ways at the same time? Yes you certainly can! Just like you can listen to a LoFi band on a HiFi system, you can put crappy lenses on great cameras. The first thing that springs to mind here are Lensbaby lenses. Lensbaby’s first and flagship product is a take on the old plunger cam. It’s a single element lens on the end of some flexible tubing you mount to your camera. You focus by manipulating the lens (I’ll do a write up on this lens later). Lensbaby has since come out with many more products and has improved on its original significantly.

But it’s not the only option. There’s the Sima Soft Focus lens, Holga lenses adapted for SLRs, the 100mm Portragon, Loreo lens-in-a-cap, and I’m sure others. A friend of mine, Andrex Moxom, mounted a lens from an infamously crappy Great Wall medium format camera onto a Hasselblad camera body. He calls it “The Great Hassel!”

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Search ebay for a Darlot lens and you’ll be surprised at how expensive they are. Many large format photographers love the very special way this specific turn-of-the-century lens makes out of focus background look eerie.

On top of specific lenses you can put a pinhole lens on just about anything. Pinhole is probably the original LoFi photography before LoFi was ever a thing. Unfortunately putting a crappy lens on a good camera doesn’t always produce results as gritty as an actual camera. On the plus side you’ll end up with less throw away frames with the reliability that comes from a decent camera body. Many people find this to be a great in-between solution as you can always switch lenses back and get Hifi and LoFi on the same roll.

New Orleans Jazz Player lensbabyShot with a Lensbaby

The only reason for any of this is to support the subject matter. It doesn’t matter if you take an ultra hi fidelity image of your messy living room or a snap a toy camera pic of it. If the subject isn’t interesting the approach alone isn’t enough to carry the image. You might get a little more leeway with LoFi but it’s not a lot. From my experience, which is by no means definitive, I like to shoot interesting things with lots of detail, like waterfalls or abandoned buildings in HiFi, while more abstract or minimal subjects benefit from LoFi.

How about you? What do you prefer in your photography: almost hyper realistic detail or authentic, gritty imperfection? What do you like to look at? What is your approach and do you use any unique or different tools to get there?

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