a sandy yellow hat draped over a piece of flat metal shaped like a porpoise

That is a picture of a sandy yellow hat draped over a piece of flat metal shaped like a porpoise, and it is as close to “reality” as I think the Fujifilm X-T4 is capable of making things. It almost makes me uncomfortable, and the act of zeeing out the adjustments I made when I imported it felt very strange. It is just a picture of a pretty mundane thing on a gray day, taken with a camera that was instructed to do next to nothing.

We took a trip to Manzanita over the weekend. It was pretty blustery and misty, so I took to fiddling around with things a little, still trying to see how the workflow I’ve been working on would hold up, and the answer was sort of what I suspected, which was “not well.”

My initial set wasn’t great, and I could tell it wasn’t great while I was doing it. That made having a mess of jpegs and raws to sort through and choke the hotel Wi-Fi bandwidth irritating. I was also fussing around with the auto-exposure lock (AEL) stuff, when it dawned on me that the settings I was using were sort of pre-moody and making it hard to get a fix on metering.

So, when in doubt, swing the other direction:

I’ve never, ever used Fujifilm’s Pro Neg Standard simulation. Its purpose in life seems to be utterly disinterested in one of the Fujifilm value props, which is that collection of film simulations they add to with each new body release (and which they seem to have stopped including in firmware updates for older models). Even Provia sort of pops compared to it. But I was sitting in the room waiting for the worst of the blowing rain to end, fiddling around, and as I was cycling through the different settings briefly landed on Pro Neg Standard and was struck in what is perhaps the right way to see it: Shadows were a little less severe, things seemed just … neutral. Even.

So I spent the rest of the weekend using that as my shooting simulation, and it shifted my sense of post work from “I’m going to wrestle with this one simulation” to “I’m going to build off this foundation.” Starting “clean” made it easier to see what each simulation brought during post, made it easier to discern the changes in tones and shades, and gave me slightly better exposure to work with because I wasn’t fighting the crushed shadows of the Fujifilm simulation palette. It felt more like layering on, I suppose, as opposed to the hacking off of presets I’ve made that try to get me closer to where I think I want to go.

That caused me to look at a few other things.

I’ve always felt hesitant to just “go raw” because it leaves some of that “great jpegs straight out of the camera” value Fujifilm provides on the table. I’ve always tried to build presets that preserve some of that value. But as I spent the weekend capturing fairly neutral images, I realized how much stuff I had going on in the camera’s rear screen (“Q”) menu. It has all the stuff I like to fiddle with to get my presets dialed in: film simulation, shadow/highlight tone, color, sharpness, the two color chrome settings, and more. But out in the field and on a tiny LCD is the worst place in the world to experiment with that stuff.

So I also stripped my Q menu from 16 items down to eight: two of them are things I use infrequently (flash, timer), two I use more often (face/eye detect, white balance), two are ergonomic things (AF type, photometry), and one has an actual impact on raw exposures: dynamic range. The eighth is the preset selector, which I could probably discard; maybe I’d put dynamic range priority in its place.

My “could go back to doing jpegs” fallback are the two hardware buttons I’ve mapped:

  • d-pad left picks presets
  • d-pad right picks film simulations

The use cases for those two are something I’ve done now and then in the past:

I have a few presets that I think of as sort of “primitivist.” They’re sort of extreme and I like to use them for “mood shooting.” I headphone up and take pictures and make myself live with whatever I get. And sometimes I like to shoot in monochrome because the preview makes shapes and patterns pop a little more as I’m composing.

This is all something I really love about Fujifilm’s cameras in general: It’s so easy to tailor the shooting experience. With the two bodies I have – the X-Pro3 and X-T4 – the X-Pro3 was marketed as the “distraction-free” model, with the no-chimping rear LCD. It’s still reflective of my in-camera preset preferences, though, and feels a little more cluttered than the leaned-out X-T4 configuration. I’m looking forward to stripping the X-Pro3 down and seeing what it feels like with the hybrid optical viewfinder and a prominent histogram.

What is film-like, what is digital?

I’ve really enjoyed being on Mastodon in the past couple of months because I’ve found a lot of photographers to follow, and I’ve been letting myself sit with a bunch of different styles. I love the ultra-clean landscape people, enjoy the eclectic experimenters who push hard on what digital lets them do, I appreciate the wildlife perfectionists, and I’ve been watching a few strains of “film-like” thinking.

There’s one school of thought that leans heavily into saturation, low dynamic range, detail loss. There’s another that’s very clean, even, and a little muted. Both are “film-like,” but after a weekend of shooting with a very stripped down setup that attempts to remove as much digital mediation as possible during capture, then layering film simulations and stylizations on top, I began to think about what “film-like” even means. I went to some photo albums (actual ones) and a shoebox of prints from over the years. Everything from muddy little 126 exposures on a camera I kept in a spare ammo pouch to muted, low-contrast stuff my grandfather took with an old rangefinder to sharp, vibrant prints I had from a heavily automated Pentax I had in 2002. Black and white Polaroids, color Polaroids, a pinhole camera I had when I was six.

I’m coming to believe “film-like” is as much a sort of oral history or game of telephone as it is a remembrance of an actual thing.

I don’t say that in judgment or dismissively. It’s just an aesthetic, sort of like neo-noirs, which re-created the conventions of the noir era after the culture had moved on around it. When I come across the film-like stylists as I scroll down my timeline, I enjoy the evocative twinge their work provokes as much as anything, maybe even more than the razor-perfect wildlife shots or inconceivably even, digitally augmented landscapes.

What is it you’d say you actually do?

I’m enjoying the time I have right now to play around with all this stuff. I don’t know if I have any writing in me about what’s going on in my head during this current period, and suspect that just belongs in a journal, but I will say that having the time and space to think about these things and try different things out from day-to-day instead of hoarding my time is immensely restful and restorative. I haven’t been happier in a long while.