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36 Keepers: Working Towards a Perfect Roll of Film in India

When I’m out photographing, my concentration is on making individual frames that matter, working the scene with my eye before shooting, and staying patient for the right moment. I’m not averse to taking multiple frames of the same scene, but I find it’s a better use of my time and film to put the work into getting things right the first time.

This usually provides me with rolls I’m satisfied with, but more often than not there are one or two scenes that stand out from the roll as being repeated shots.

This is more often than not the result of one of my worst film photography habits, something I’m very aware of this happening in the moment. What happens is that as I take a shot, I realize it probably isn’t that good, but instead of doing something drastic to fix it I take another frame with only very small changes made to the composition.

This means small sequences of iterations on a bad idea – essentially the same picture but with slight tweaks. The point at which this happens I’m no longer reacting to a moment, just over-investing in that failure.

These really stand out in my contact sheets, to an annoying degree. I’ve been working on preventing this from happening, and one of the things I tried while in India was to set myself a simple challenge: to shoot a “perfect” roll of 36 exposures which are correctly exposed, correctly focused, correctly framed, and overall decent images. No repeated frames, every shot a unique idea.

For some, this may not be any kind of challenge at all and that’s sort of the point. It’s a small, largely inconsequential plan – just an exercise I wanted to work on so that my shortcoming in this area was at the front of my mind. I wanted all of the images to have merit of some kind, I didn’t want to end up with 36 snapshots — ideally a truly perfect roll would be 36 keepers.

It’s an arbitrary goal, and maybe a bit petty, but this is something that’s bothered me recently almost every time I wind on a new roll; how many frames am I about to waste?

India gave so many opportunities, with so much happening, that I was a little unsure of how I should direct the intent of this exercise. I ended up deciding to dedicate a roll of Ektachrome as one of the few color rolls I shot there to portraits. Street portraiture is not my strongest area, but I did want to have at least a few to show for my time in India, maybe from an odd feeling of obligation. Putting this effort into one roll made sense as (in my mind) I would be able to spend a bit of time on it and then not have to worry about it afterwards.

Portraiture is a nice repeatable format for what I wanted to achieve – I’m used to most factors being out of my control, but by approaching people and asking for permission I narrow down to only needing to worry about the technical aspects before clicking the shutter.

I loaded this roll of Kodak EKTACHROME E100 in the afternoon, while walking along the Ghats in Varanasi, and did my best to start searching for interesting characters to capture. It wasn’t difficult to begin with, but after not many frames I became distracted and decided to include a few street scenes into this roll – while still maintaining the goal of every frame being unique; I wasn’t as concerned about not fulfilling my portrait intent as I was with my original intent of using every piece of that film without waste.

I think the pressure this exercise put on me was worthwhile, and something I’ll be trying to harness moving onwards. Nailing things in one frame caused me to really focus on what I wanted to shoot next, on being highly discretionary over what I wanted to end up on this roll.

It also kept my attention on mitigating possible contextual errors which sometimes occur – things like someone stepping into frame obscuring my shot – I was checking and double-checking my surroundings, maintaining constant vigilance over everything I had the power to control. However, this was only possible because of the slower subject matter I had chosen to work with and isn’t something I can always afford to spend time on doing, especially in faster-paced situations.

There isn’t as much that can go wrong for portrait work, but I still found a few frames where the subject blinked or looked away which would have been solved if I’d just slowed down, and maybe given my subject more notice that I would be shooting. My workflow for the portraits made with permission involved a friendly introduction before asking for a portrait. I didn’t have anyone say no, but I was limited by my desire to make images of interesting characters, rather than just settling on whoever was available in front of me. I would check my exposure before approaching, based on the light in the area they were standing, which meant that once they agreed I only needed to frame, focus, and click.

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