Feature Friday – Julie Cumming

by | Apr 2, 2021 | Interviews & Features | 0 comments

Hi Julie, Can you tell us where you’re from and how long you’ve been shooting film?

Hello! I’m from Blair Atholl in Highland Perthshire, such a beautiful area of Scotland. I’ve been shooting 35mm film since 2016, which is when I discovered a bag of old camera equipment in the cupboard which belonged to my late Grandma in the 1970s, including a Praktica MTL 5B. It was the first film camera I ever shot with – only to discover that it is broken and there were no photographs on the roll. Oops. I still use the lenses found in that bag though, the old glass in them is stunning.

I was studying at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Dundee at that time, so I was always ready for a new creative challenge. I’m very glad I stuck with the challenge of film! Even if I have not got the MTL 5B fixed yet. One day I will, and it will become my daily shooter.

How has your relationship with film changed since you first started shooting?

I would say that (hopefully) I understand film more now. When I first started, I had no idea what the different film stocks meant and how everything works inside cameras. Thanks to help from my boyfriend (an excellent black and white film photographer), discovering old instruction booklets, making film photography friends on Instagram and watching YouTube, I understand the variations in film stocks and what each kind of camera does now.

The more I shoot film, the more I slow down with it. Though controls and settings start to come more quickly and naturally, I find myself aiming for perfection and, therefore, slowing down and really considering every single composition and its makeup.

I’m a big fan of your landscape shots of Scotland, what’s it like to shoot there?

Thank you very much! That’s kind of you to say. The landscape around me is so inspiring. Last summer, I was out on a photo-walk up in the hills of Glen Tilt and at one point I found myself stopping and just saying to myself, “Wow”. It is stunning. You do need to take gloves in the winter though, that’s for sure! And some kind of cover for your camera for when the rain inevitably starts.

In Scotland, we are blessed to have a whole range of landscapes within driving distance of each other. You could be on an east coast beach shooting fishing trawlers one day, then up in the highlands amongst the mountains the next day, or in a bustling city surrounded by neon lighting at night. All of this means that I am extremely excited for the day that I can go on a road trip and shoot film all over the place, trying lots of different styles and film stocks and seeing what works for each location.

When you are composing your landscapes, do you have a particular method or thought process you apply to it?

It depends where I am, really. If I am photographing landscapes in my hometown area, I always try to convey the ‘feeling’ of that place, as I know the area well and I think one of the most special things about being here is how the landscape makes you ‘feel’. Whether it be trees welcoming you on your walk by framing a gently lit path, or majestic rolling hills sheltering you from wind and rain, I find it is the feeling that I am mesmerised by and compelled to try and capture.

When I am somewhere unfamiliar, I find that colours and shapes are what drive my photographs – normally inspired by work I’ve been enjoying by other photographers at that time, or even by the colours and styles of album artwork and films that I’ve been viewing.
I never really consciously thought about how big a factor light is in landscape photography until I did a photo-walk with @stuartjbutler, a wonderful landscape photographer and friend. He taught me to look for interesting light, and that is something that I try stick to now. Sun bursting through a clearing in the woods is always a winner!

I understand alongside your photography, you’ve also published a book – how was that experience and how did it come about?

Yes! I self-published ‘From Home’ in November. I work in a café where I live, and love it when the locals come in for a coffee and tell me fun stories from their childhood in the area. For a small, quiet place, the area of Atholl has a lot of wonderful history. When I realised that these stories and anecdotes are not being documented, other than in passing conversation, I set out to change that by putting together a book of interviews with local residents, hearing their stories and accompanying them with photography of the area as it is now. It was an amazing experience! It was a privilege to be trusted with peoples’ stories and history, and to be responsible for documenting them for future generations of Atholl residents.

It was great fun. It was a lot of work – it took a year in all and I was lucky to have guidance from so many people and organisations, including GrowBiz – but I would do it again in a heartbeat. I was fortunate to be supported by Creative Scotland, Young Scot and the Grand Lodge of Scotland financially, so that I could afford to use a Scottish print company, Bell & Bain Ltd, who produced a beautiful hardback book with foil detailing on the cover.

The best thing about the whole experience is that readers of the book have been cheered up, felt a sense of nostalgia and to have a sense of ‘company’ when reading it, during the lockdown. That’s the most important thing.

What camera(s) are you using at the moment and what’s been your favourite so far?

At the moment, I use a Canon 500N, which I bought from a student at university for £25 in 2016, and an Agfa 535 Optima: again, bought in 2016, but for £3 from a reuse centre.

With my Canon, I mostly use a Pentacon 50mm f1.8 lens from the 1970s, it is just beautiful – one of my Grandma’s. These old M42 screw mount lenses are really tactile and special. The aperture blades on mine are jammed, so it’s wide open at f1.8 all of the time: not ideal for landscapes. For portraits though, it is just stunning to use! A wonderful bokeh.

I bought myself a Canon 35-80mm f3.5 lens recently, second-hand. I’ll be able to take landscape photographs again!

The Agfa 535 was extremely temperamental when I first got it: I think mostly because I didn’t know how to use it properly. I have since done a test roll or two and I just love it. It’s a perfect compact size, its design is fantastically 70s and it is fun to use. It sets the shutter speed and aperture itself, relying on a little light meter at the front of the camera. Focusing involves a wee bit of guess-work, selecting one of three preset focal lengths. It all makes for good fun though!

What advice would you give to anyone looking to get into shooting film?

I think something that I wish I had known when I got into film was that you don’t need to have expensive equipment or film to take lovely photographs and have fun. You can beat yourself up on trying to get expensive or rare gear, when really it doesn’t matter. ‘Budget’ stocks such as Kodak ColorPlus can produce beautiful photographs and close colours and such sort – you don’t necessarily have to spend £10 or £15 on a roll of film to get good photographs. It’s the same with the cameras! Every camera has its own charm. Just make sure it’s been looked after well and tested, and you’re all good. Individuality and charm is good.

My other advice would be to get geeky about film and connect with other people shooting film around you, even if it’s as simple as following them on Instagram. This can be a brilliant source of knowledge and inspiration, I am grateful for finding other film photographers on Instagram and Twitter.

What’s your go to film stock?

Kodak ColorPlus 200. I used to love Fuji C200, but it’s discontinued, which is sad. I used to bulk buy Agfa Vista 200 in the Pound Shop when I first got into film, what a treat that was. A roll of film for £1!

ColorPlus has never let me down. The colours come out just as I would like them to, the contrast is always nice and the grain is fine, but noticeable enough to add character. It’s just so accessible – buying a roll of film for £4 is ideal, especially because I don’t develop myself, so I need to bear in mind that it will cost £8 or so to have it developed and scanned afterwards. Yes, I would love to experiment with other stocks such as Kodak Portra 400, Cinestill 800T, Lomography Lady Grey… but for now, ColorPlus is what I can afford and it’s a pretty trusty companion to have, for focusing on my craft for the day that pricier stocks are loaded up into my cameras.

Who are your favourite photographers/film labs at the moment?

Before lockdown, when I was in Dundee, I used I&N Photo all the time. They provide lovely service and have a rapid development option, with 1 hour turnaround (for colour film) which was perfect for dropping off rolls in between studio time at uni. They also stock a huge range of film, which is great for replacing rolls that you have just dropped off, and provide a high quality printing service too. It’s nice to see your photographs as prints once you’ve had them developed, I think it adds to the excitement.

Since lockdown, I’ve been using the mail-in service at Gulabi in Glasgow. They take care of my developing and scanning, and do it so well. The turnaround is fast, the scans (even at ‘standard’) are high quality and again, they provide friendly service. They’re very popular, and you can see why.

I wouldn’t say that I have any ‘favourite’ photographers as such, because all of the photographers whose content I view, whether in print or online, inspire me and move me in different ways. I have come to know certain photographers’ work more closely though, through following them for a long while, through buying prints, or being friends, so I will share them here.

@kathrynrattrayphotographer is a huge source of inspiration for me. Kathryn is a Dundee-based photographer, and generally a queen when it comes to portraits and fashion photography. The way Kathryn uses environments and their details in photo-shoots is amazing. The colours she captures are a feast for the eyes!

I have loved the work of @liamjamescreative for a long, long time. I was lucky enough to meet Liam once and talk to him more about his photography and cameras, it was just great. I’d say the discovery of Liam’s photographs on Instagram a few years ago was the moment that I started to realise that the people who were shooting film around me could become one of the biggest inspirations behind my work.

@tom8enjamin is my go-to when I need inspiration for architectural photography on film. Tom captures even the most unusual of buildings in such a way as to show their beauty and majesty. I’m lucky enough to have some of his work in print, including his ‘BRUTAL’ photo-zine duo. As much as I love scrolling through Instagram, there’s nothing like picking up a photo-zine and admiring someone’s work that way.

On YouTube, I recently discovered the videos of Ejatu Shaw. I really like them – quick and fun snapshots of shooting film and digital, from editorial to street photography to holiday snaps. Ejatu’s videos always make me smile and make me feel inspired to get out and take photographs! The editorial photographs are always a joy to see.

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