Greg Pak: Photography

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I’ve started shooting 35mm film again after a 20 year hiatus, and I love it with all my heart. You can see my photographs on Grainery, Instagram, and Twitter, and you can back my analog photography guide and memoir 35mm Love Letter at Crowdfundr!

Shooting portraits on film

I didn’t take many portraits when I was was shooting 35mm film in high school and college. I focused more on vérité or journalistic shooting, trying to capture spontaneous moments on the fly. But since diving back into film photography this year, I’ve had a huge amount of fun shooting portraits of friends. I’m still aiming for spontaneity and life in every shot, but I’ve come to really love the vibe that comes from setting up a special time to meet a friend and take their picture.

I think that life during an ongoing pandemic has made these sessions particularly special to me. Looking back on these photos, I find myself marveling over how happy everyone seems. I started shooting these portraits when meeting friends in person was still incredibly rare for me, so each moment meant a lot.

I also think that folks can respond in a special way when they know you’re taking their picture with 35mm film. The camera looks cool. The process takes a little more time and care. And there’s a sense of permanence, legacy, and history that comes with having your picture taken on actual film. So the moment generates a kind of quiet excitement that can contribute something lovely to the images you capture.

Finally, the fact that we always meet outside for COVID safety reasons and often go for a walk gives everything an organic, natural feel that’s good for the body and soul — and the final pictures.

Joe Illidge, Brooklyn, NY.

In May, I did my first comic book signing in over two years, and the great comics editor Joe Illidge came by to say hi. It was an outdoor signing hosted by Anyone Comics in Brooklyn, and we could not have asked for a more glorious day — breezy, cool, and lovely. I think we all felt pretty great, and I love the way this photo came out. Shot with a Canon FTb and a Canon FD 50mm f1.4 on Tri-X.

Marc Guggenheim, NYC.

I shot this photo of fellow STAR WARS comics writer Marc Guggenheim with a Canon T60 and a Canon nFD 50mm f1.8 on Tri-X. The sun was going down and I shot pretty wide open, so there’s a nice narrow depth of field and a lovely glowy effect with the park lamps in the background. Folks generally prefer the Canon FD 50mm f1.4 for portraits, but the plain vanilla f1.8 did great for us here.

Evan Narcisse, Austin, Texas.
Becky Cloonan and Michael Conrad, Austin, Texas.

Comics creators Becky Cloonan, Michael Conrad, and Evan Narcisse were awesome enough to come out to say hi during my outdoor signing at Dragon’s Lair Comics and Games in Austin, Texas, this June. We found a cool place in the shade on that blazing hot day to shoot a few pictures. Evan was fun to frame with the funky shopping mall architecture in the background. The height difference between Becky and Michael made a horizontal photo tricky, but turned out to be absolutely perfect for a vertical shot. I forgot to change my ASA from 200 to 400 for this roll, but Tri-X is a forgiving film and a lab in Garland pulled it a stop to great effect. Shot with a Canon FTb and a Canon nFD 50mm f1.4.

Fred Van Lente, NYC.

I’ve hung out with my INCREDIBLE HERCULES and MAKE COMICS LIKE THE PROS co-writer Fred Van Lente more than just about anyone else in comics, so it was a total pleasure seeing him in person in April for the first time in a couple of years. The moment was made even more special because this was the first roll I ran through my newly repaired Canon New F-1, the camera my mom bought me back in high school. I’m pretty sure I used a Canon 50mm f1.8 for this shot.

A few practical pointers that work for me

  1. I like black and white for portraits. Feels special and timeless and somehow zeroes right in on emotion and character for me. All of the portraits on this page were taken with Kodak Tri-X 400.
  2. Lots of folks love 100mm or even 135mm lenses for portraits. But I’ve had a ton of good luck with a regular ol’ 50mm lens. You have to get a little closer with the 50mm, but that’s felt fine and maybe even preferable when photographing friends. Someday I do want to get my hands on a 100mm prime, though, just to see!
  3. Lower f-stops create narrower depth of field and allow you to separate the subject from the background in a lovely way. I try to avoid the very lowest f-stop, since that setting tends to be less sharp on most lenses, so most of these images were probably shot around f2.8 or f4.
  4. I try to avoid harsh direct sunlight on my subjects to avoid losing people’s features in shadows. But I also try to find interesting frames with some interesting light in the background, like the dappled light on the leaves in Joe’s portrait above. The trick is avoiding too extreme a difference between the light on your subject’s face and any other light in the image. But black and white negative film tends to have pretty good latitude and can handle a decent range without blowing out.
  5. I often photograph friends after we’ve talked for a while or taken a walk. That gives us a chance to relax and bond a bit, which almost always makes for better, more natural photos.
  6. I try to shoot a lot of photos in a pretty short amount of time so I get a decent number of options without tiring folks out. I don’t generally shoot dozens of images — I’m a little more selective, trying to stay in the moment and press that shutter release with intention when that magic happens. But I also firmly believe in shooting more than I think I might need, because you never know what will go really right or wrong. I probably shoot five or six frames for every image I really love.

Why I Love Analog Photography, Part Three: Accepting Fuck Ups

A lovely shot of the Empire State Building — with a strange pattern along the left side created by a light leak streaming through sprocket holes in a bulk film loader. Canon T60, Canon nFD 50mm f1.8, Tri-X.

Earlier this year I walked past a person sitting on a park bench who was staring straight ahead, looking devastated, while their friend said, “Everyone fucks up sometimes. Everyone.

I think about that all the time, because it’s true, and as someone who tends to be brutally unforgiving of his own failures, I need those kinds of reminders.

So one of the things I love about analog film photography is that if you’re shooting film, you’re probably fucking something up. And that’s okay.

There are dozens of things you can screw up when you’re shooting analog film with manual controls on decades old mechanical cameras. Missing the moment you wanted to capture and goofing up focus and exposure are the most obvious mistakes. But maybe you mis-loaded the film, or opened the camera before you’d fully rewound it. Or your camera might have a shutter capping issue or a light leak or some quirk that’s scratching your negatives. Your lens might be hazy or dirty or just kind of crappy. And if you’re rolling your own bulk film and developing your own negatives, you could goof things up a thousand more ways.

Your mistakes might ruin your images. Or they might be something you can figure out how to work with or fix. Or they might even create something surprisingly gorgeous. Whichever way it goes, you’ll survive and learn and it’s okay…

…because everyone fucks up sometimes. Everyone.

So here are some of my fuck ups from this year of shooting film, some of which were agonizing, some of which were delightful, all of which I learned from.

Canon FTB, B&H/Canon 50mm f1.4, Hoya +4 filter, Arista EDU Ultra 400.

This is very basic. I missed the focus on this shot. I’m pretty new to macro photography — I never had the lenses or filters for it when I was younger. So I’m still figuring things out, and it’s a challenge to nail focus on tiny objects blowing in the breeze! But in this case, the near miss produced a pretty gorgeous image that feels dreamy and strange instead of just wrong. I actually think I’d have a lot of trouble nailing this look if I were going for it, so I should feel pretty lucky.

Canon AT-1, Canon nFD 24mm f2.8m, Tri-X.

I don’t have room for a darkroom for prints in my New York apartment, but I’ve been developing my own black and white negatives at home. I’ve been very happy with the results — the negatives I develop at home are generally much cleaner and scratch-free than negatives I get back from labs. But I screwed up here, using exhausted fixer that left those brownish vertical bars along the top of the frame. I knew my fix was a little old, but I was too eager to develop this new roll of film to replace the batch. Live and learn!

Canon AT-1, Canon FD 50mm f1.4, Hoya +4 filter, Arista EDU Ultra 400.

I still have no idea what happened here but I love it. The bottom of the frame here is fogged — hence the light haze. But in addition to the fogging, there’s a series of strange liquid droplet images underneath the clover. I assumed they were water marks from uneven film drying. Maybe I added too much or too little PhotoFlo to the final soak of the negatives before hanging them. But when I inspect the negatives closely, I can’t see any marks on the surface of the film that would indicate dried liquid residue. So I’m wondering if those droplets are some kind of double exposure, but I have zero idea where or how I could have made any kind of double exposure like that. This is bulk rolled Arista EDU Ultra 400 film, so there’s the possibility that through some manufacturing or packaging quirk, the film was fogged and imbued with these liquid images, but that feels like a stretch. An ongoing mystery! But the image is actually kind of beautiful!

Canon T60, Canon nFD 50mm f1.8, Tri-X.

This one nearly broke my heart. My friend and fellow STAR WARS comics writer Marc Guggenheim was in town a few months ago, and we met up for an outdoor, COVID-safe, adult playdate in the park. I brought along my camera and Marc was gracious enough to consent to sit for a few pictures. It was the first time I’d photographed a friend since I’d gotten back into 35mm film, and I think I’d subconsciously set some pretty high expectations for myself. So I was thrilled with the luminous look of the Tri-X film when I developed it, but horrified to see the thin horizontal scratch across the middle of the frame and the weird light leak on Marc’s chest at the bottom of the frame.

But all this just gave me the chance to hone my Photoshop skills. I used part of another shot to replace the spot blown out by the light leak, deployed the clone stamp to remove the scratches, and lightened the shadows over Marc’s eyes a bit. Marc liked the resulting image so much that he’s now using it as his official headshot in his big-time Variety announcements!

The scratches troubled me, though — I was using a new-to-me Canon T60, a Cosina-made, Canon-branded plastic fantastic that had immediately become my favorite walk-around camera because it’s got all manual controls, weighs just 361 grams, and uses all my great legacy Canon FD lenses. And this lovely camera was scratching negatives?

After several weeks of testing and pondering and re-testing, I finally figured out that the camera’s take-up reel was slipping, which was allowing the film to rub against the horizontal ridges that had inexplicably been built into the inside of the film door. I loved the camera so much I took the extreme risk of drilling a hole in the plastic take-up reel so I could glue it to the metal rod it encircled — and that seems to have taken care of the problem. So here’s an instance where an agonizing screw up led to a triumphant fix-‘er-up!

Canon FTb, Canon nFD 135mm f3.5, 2x teleconverter, Fujicolor Fujifilm 200.

My latest and greatest mistake! I shot a bunch of photos at the beach using an unbranded 2x teleconverter I got as a bonus in a camera auction. A 2x teleconverter doubles the magnification of your lens, so my 135mm lens worked like a 270mm lens, which is great for shooting wildlife. But… I did a crappy job of cleaning the lenses on the teleconverter. The smears on the glass led to the haze in the middle of the images. There’s a decent chance some of that haze comes from the crappy optics of the teleconverter itself, but my fingerprints on the glass sure didn’t help.

Film’s not cheap — a brand new 36 exposure roll of Tri-X, the classic black and white film I grew up shooting, costs about $11. But you can bring those costs down if you buy a bulk loader and 100 foot rolls of film that you can roll onto individual, reusable cartridges.

So pretty early in my re-introduction to 35mm, I started looking for bulk film loaders on auction sites and was delighted to find one with some old film still inside. I inspected the lead, decided it was probably Tri-X, shot a test roll, and developed it. I was right — it was Tri-X! But the film was deeply fogged, producing prints that were nearly black on the edges and pretty grainy throughout.

This doesn’t really qualify as a fuck up — I knew that film this old would probably have some issues and I (correctly) overexposed a couple of stops to accommodate. And I kind of love the results! Some day I’m going to dress up in a suit and take photos of myself against a fabric background using this film and pretend I’m a 19th Century time traveler.

So I suppose you could classify this last example as an experiment. And maybe that’s another way to think of everything I’m doing with 35mm film — or maybe even a good chunk of life itself. We’re experimenting, figuring out what works, and learning every day from our success and mistakes.

As a final example, I just hit “Publish” instead of “Save,” so this post is now live and I’ll gracefully exit stage left, laughing at myself.

All the best and more soon!

Just the southern wall of the AMC Village 7 in NYC, but…

I remember sitting on this sidewalk and leaning against this wall, lounging in the sun while waiting to go see a movie with a bunch of NYU film student friends 28 years ago. We’d just finished an incredibly intense few weeks of shooting our 16mm short films, and the feeling of relief and calm was palpable. I remember realizing that day that at that moment that I didn’t have a single care in the world. Incredible.

This image, taken all these years later, doesn’t quite do justice to the memory, but I’m gonna go back from time to time to check the light at different times of day and see if I can improve on it.

Minolta X-370, Minolta MD Rokkor-X 45mm f2, Kodak High Definition 400 (20 year old expired film, overexposed by two stops).

Why I Love Analog Film Photography, Part Two

For the first part of this series, click here.

When people talk about why they love analog film, they often focus on the glorious look and feel of film images. And I talk about that, too! But it’s also true that high end digital cameras and post-production software can reproduce some of that film look.

I’d still argue that there’s a serendipity to shooting film that produces unpredictable but beautiful results that you’d never discover merely by adding a film look to a digital image. And of course there’s great value (and sometimes more efficiency) in using the original tools to achieve a certain look instead of cobbling it together after the fact.

But even beyond that, I love shooting analog film for multiple other huge reasons. Here are just a few.

Slowing Down by Choice

My Canon Demi, a little half-frame camera with a busted light meter. When I shoot with this, I REALLY slow down, in a great way. Shot with a Canon T60 on Arista EDU Ultra 400.

I’m prone to fury when companies or products or institutions waste my time. I’ll give you a good rant whenever you like about the way the attention economy is designed to monetize our time, so everything about the internet is designed to increase “stickiness,” slow us down, and keep us anxiously clicking and scrolling our lives away.

On the other hand, I’m a huge proponent of slowing down by choice. So the extra time and care involved with film photography feels great to me.

Before I started shooting 35mm film again, I’d constantly peer at my phone while running errands or taking walks around New York City. Since my phone is connected to the internet and the internet is designed to generate agitation and clicks, my walks would often increase instead of decrease my stress.

But when I’m walking around with a camera, I’m not looking at my phone. I’m slowing down in real life, looking at my surroundings. I’m observing color and light and frame. I’m thinking about visual storytelling. I’m noticing how the city operates, how things are put together, how people move through spaces. I’m living in space, seeing things, learning. And I end up feeling rejuvenated instead of exhausted.

A ghost or a cloud of steam? Shot with a Canon New F-1 on Ilford HP5 400.

All of these benefits are achievable with any kind of camera, digital or film. But my most convenient digital camera is my phone, which is connected to the internet, which likes to distract me, so using a film camera removes me from that temptation. And the extra focus that manual film shooting requires means I’m even more immersed in each moment in a very good way than I would be with a more automated system.

I also love the fact that when shooting film, I can’t immediately peer at the image I’ve shot. After I take a picture with a digital camera, I check the image immediately, because of course I do. But that breaks up the flow, pulls me out of the moment.  When I’m shooting film, I stay focused on the scene, looking through the lens, observing my environment. And that’s a beautiful thing in an age in which our ability to focus and pay attention has been destroyed through commodification.

The Comfort of Mechanical Objects

The steps involved in shooting film further ground and calm me by their connection to actual physical objects and reality. Manually focusing, turning the dials to set exposure, pressing the shutter release, and advancing the film are all physical actions with haptic feedback from actual machinery. It all feels so good.

I love the sound and reverberation of the mirror slap. I love the little solid clicks of the aperture ring. I love knowing how the camera actually works, imagining the aperture blades contracting and light going through the lens to hit the film inside the camera during the split second the mirror rises and the shutter opens. The whole thing makes sense, which seems tiny but is deeply comforting in an era full of existential threats that make no sense at all.

I also love the fact that when something goes wrong with an old camera or lens, there’s a decent chance I can figure it out and maybe even fix it myself. Without advanced training in microchips and circuitry, I’d have almost no chance of fixing a modern electronic camera. But when I got an old manual camera that wouldn’t advance, I opened the bottom of the camera, studied the mechanics, and reconnected a rod that had slipped off of its piston. Incredibly satisfying.

Good Cameras for Bad Eyes

I have terrible eyesight. So when I try to shoot with a digital camera like my 10 year old Panasonic DMC-GX1 that uses a screen instead of a viewfinder, I have to peer over the tops of my glasses to get close enough to the screen to focus, which feels awkward and throws me off. I can hold my 10 year old Canon Rebel T3i digital SLR up to my eye, which is more comfortable, but the viewfinder feels much, much smaller than the viewfinders of my old 35mm cameras, which is a bit of a strain on my old eyes.

So when I started shooting again this February with a Canon TLb and a Canon FTb, I felt like I could breathe again. The big, bright viewfinders let me focus in a split second without even thinking about it, so I can frame and capture fleeting moments on the fly much more easily.

New York City on a regular ol’ nifty fifty prime lens. Shot with a Nikon F20 with a 50mm f2 lens.

I also love working with standard prime lenses again. I grew up shooting thousands of images using my mom’s Canon FD breech mount lenses — a standard 50mm, a wide angle 28mm, and a telephoto 135mm. So the boundaries of those focal lengths are permanently etched on my brain and using those lenses feels immediately comfortable and comforting. Zoom lenses allow for a huge amount of flexibility in a small package. But when I use those standard primes, I’m simply at home. Everything looks right to me through those lenses; I instantly know how to frame the scene. When I started shooting with standard primes this year after a couple of decades of using zooms on digital cameras, I felt like I could finally see again.

The Glory of Manual Controls

I’m here talking about the joy of film, but I’m spoiled by my iPhone. I love its ability to take instant snapshots that are perfectly focussed and exposed. I use it almost every day to take practical photos of things I need to share immediately with family and friends and it was the perfect camera to shoot all the images of food that I used in my COOKING WILL BREAK YOUR HEART book. The predictability and speed and pleasant rendering of its automatic exposure and focus made shooting food prep on the fly incredibly easy.

Lush food images shot with a plain ol’ iPhone 7S. A fantastic tool for this specific job!

But when I pick up a film camera, I’m generally stretching my aesthetic muscles more and feel painfully constrained without full manual control of focus and exposure. With COOKING WILL BREAK YOUR HEART, I was shooting into pots and onto plates with uncomplicated overhead lighting. The automatic settings on the iPhone worked great for that. But when I’m out on the street shooting film, I constantly find myself interested in backlit scenes that require more thoughtful exposure or frames with distinct foreground, midground, and background that require specific focus choices and depth-of-field control. And the manual controls for focus, shutter speed, and aperture work incomparably better for me on my old 35mm cameras than my modern digital cameras.

When a shot like this involves a lot of bright sky, an automatic exposure system might expose for the sky and render the building too dark. Manual controls let you split the difference or pick what part of the frame you’re exposing for. I also used a yellow filter on this, which in black and white photography makes blues darker, so the sky ended up darkening to great dramatic effect.

My old Canon FD lenses were made for manual focus — it’s the only kind of focus they can do! So they’re nice and silky and smooth. The more modern Canon EF lens on my digital SLR feels wobbly and uncertain to me when used in manual focus mode.

I’m also a big fan of the needle-and-circle manual exposure indicators in the old Canon F-series of cameras. The needle indicates the shutter speed; the circle indicates the aperture. Line up the needle with the circle and you’ve got a good exposure. More modern systems with digital readouts feel like they provide too much information and too little information at the same time. In contrast, I don’t have to think when using an old camera with a needle-and-circle system; the viewfinder gives me all the information I need and nothing more, so I can set exposure and shoot with the least amount of friction.

I also prefer the analog needle-and-circle system because the needle floats freely and thus gives you a better sense of the actual light reading than digital readouts that can display maybe ten different positions. What if the best light actually is in between two of those positions? The camera’s giving you the LED that represents the closest aperture or shutter speed, but a floating needle would give you a better approximation of exactly how off you actually are. Full disclosure: I’ve grown to love the Canon T60, which uses LEDs, but I still prefer the needle-and-pin.

I Love a Good Bargain

It seems weird to talk about price as a selling point for analog film photography. You can shoot thousands of digital images for a few dollars of storage space on your computer. Shooting a thousand 35mm film images — approximately 28 rolls of 36 exposures — might cost you $500 or $600 for film and processing alone.

But used, vintage film equipment can be incredibly cheap compared to new, high end digital cameras and lenses. The Canon FD cameras and lenses I grew up with are particular bargains right now. If you know what you’re doing and are capable of a few simple home maintenance and repair procedures like replacing foam light seals, you can end up with a serviceable Canon FTb with a standard 50mm prime from eBay or ShopGoodwill for $40 or so. And because they’re not directly compatible with most of Canon’s EOS cameras, the old Canon FD lenses can be shockingly affordable. They’ve gone up in price recently after adapters came out to connect them to new full frame digital cameras, but they’re still vastly cheaper than modern primes.

I know there are brand new digital SLRs that would probably feel great to me to shoot. But brand new digital SLRs of that quality cost thousands of dollars, and a full set of primes would be thousands more.

In contrast, I recently picked up a Bell & Howell FD35 and a B&H/Canon 50mm f1.4 prime for less than $20. Both camera and lens cleaned up beautifully and are a joy to shoot. I also found an unlabeled Canon A-1 on an auction site that I nabbed for a little over $40. The camera had a sticky mirror, but I did some research, learned how to oil it, and now it works just fine.

Flowers in NYC shot on a Bell & Howell FD35 with a B&H/Canon 50mm f1.4 lens. The lens is exactly the same as a Canon FD 50mm f1.4, which is a much desired lens for its ability to get close to a subject and for its beautiful, narrow depth of field at low f-stops, both features showcased pretty nicely in this photo.

Part of the joy of resurrecting these old cameras is ethical and ecological. It feels good to keep old things working in a time of tremendous waste. And then there’s the emotional attachment we develop towards things we’ve put work into fixing. I get a thrill of pleasure every time I press the shutter release on that Canon A-1 and hear that mirror slap.

But yes, I also just love a bargain, and spending an hour poring over ShopGoodwill listings feels like a much better use of my time and emotional energy than scrolling through my Twitter feed on any given day.

The funky logo of the Bell & Howell FD35, which I just love. That font alone makes me happy. Feels like something someone created for a movie instead of something that was actually manufactured and sold, and I love it. And yes, I shot this image with an iPhone — it’s still the best tool for certain jobs!

Thanks as always for reading! I’ll be back soon with more — including some thoughts on portrait photography!



My return to analog film photography

Greg Pak self portrait 1985/2022

I started shooting 35mm still film again this year after a hiatus of two decades, and it’s rapidly become one my greatest joys, filling voids, exercising muscles, stretching my heart, and reminding me how to use my eyes again.

I’ve been posting about this journey back into film in a long Twitter thread you can read here and I’ve been sharing photos on Instagram and Grainery. But given the ephemeral nature of social media, I figured it’s time to create a space here on my own site where interested folks can read a bit more. This post and any related posts should be findable by clicking on the “Photography” link in the menu of this site or by visiting

Where It Started

Jane Pak with a camera, some time in the early 1990s.

My mother, Jane Ellen Riechers Pak, was a brilliant photographer who took thousands of luminous black and white pictures of her family throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In 1984, my mother taught me how to use her Canon FTb and sent me off to summer camp with a 50mm lens and a dozen rolls of color film. A few months later, she taught me how to develop black and white film and make prints in her little darkroom. Over the next few decades, I’d shoot thousands of my own photos for high school and college publications and for myself, my family, and my friends. But in the early 2000s, both of my 35mm cameras developed shutter issues right around the time digital started to take over. So for the next two decades, I put serious photography on the backburner while paradoxically shooting thousands of images with a series of digital cameras that never quite satisfied me.

But after my mom died last August, my sisters and I spent hours poring over her old photographs, and I dug up my own high school and college negatives. And I fell in love all over again with the textures and latitude and grain and memory of shooting 35mm film.

Jane Pak, maybe 2000

This is probably the image that hit me the hardest during those days. I found an old roll of film that I shot in 2000 or so but never got developed.  I vaguely remembered taking photos of my mom on that roll. So I took it to a lab and got it developed… and there she was. The film had gotten foggier and grainier with age, but that maybe makes the image even more beautiful and I couldn’t be more grateful to have it now.

I found a repair shop that specialized in the old Canon cameras my mom gave me in high school and sent them off to be fixed. In the meantime, I picked up an old, used Canon TLb camera body very similar to the FTb my mom originally taught me to use, attached one of my old high school lenses, and shot my first roll of film in two decades.

And I haven’t stopped since.

Why I Love It – Part One

On a sheer aesthetic level, I just can’t get enough of the latitude and texture and feel of photos shot on film. Yes, digital cameras are tremendous and camera phones in particular allow for instant recording of moments that are incredibly precious, sometimes for deeply personal and sometimes for incredibly important political and historical reasons. And great artists create great art with all kinds of tools, including digital cameras. But my eye and heart have been trained to respond to film images with a kind of visceral hunger and joy that’s hard to explain. But let’s try!

First, here’s a perfectly fine image shot with an iPhone 7S on Canal Street in New York City.

Photo of a street scene on Canal Street in New York City shot on an iPhone.

This simple photo represents decades of incredible technological and aesthetic achievement. The first digital cameras I tried back in the 1990s drove me up the wall with their shutter lag, terrible handling of highlights, and low resolution. Now I get a tremendous, high resolution image from my phone. My phone! I know, it’s so mundane, but it’s still astounding.

But for me, it’s not enough.

Here’s the same scene shot in 2022 with a Canon FTb with a standard 50mm f1.8 prime lens on 20 year old Kodak High Definition 400 ASA 35mm film.

Canal Street scene shot with a Canon FTb on 35mm film

On one level, it’s basically the same image with much of the same information as the iPhone photo. But to my eye, everything is different.

First, the framing of the second image just feels so much more right to my eye. I’ve shot thousands of images over the decades with a standard 50mm film photography lens. So I instinctively know how to arrange things in that frame when I look through that lens. Everything about the frame in the second image feels more intentional, more aesthetically pleasing, and more like a story I want to keep hearing.

My iPhone has the equivalent of a 28mm lens, which is a wider angle than a 50mm lens. I love 28mm lenses in film photography. But it feels too wide for me for certain kinds of shots, and this is one of them. As a result, the iPhone image ends up feeling more removed to me, less a part of the moment than the film image.

Second, the film image handles light in a very different way from the iPhone image. Look at the light glancing off the side of the building in the middle of the frame. In the iPhone image, it’s just… side light on the building? I don’t really notice it or linger on it. But in the film image, that light feels so fresh and crispy I can practically taste it. I keep falling back on food metaphors when I think about it — I drink that light up, I eat it up, it inspires a deep pang of hunger and satisfies it all at once. I just love it, and I don’t generally get those kinds of feelings from the iPhone photos I shoot.

Third, color takes on an entirely different feel in the film image. The iPhone image looks a bit like nice, standard news footage of a city street. Good color and resolution and information! But every different color feels like it gets equal attention, which ends up distracting my eye a bit. The green of the cop’s vest and the umbrella jockey for attention with the red of the sign and the medallion hanging from the streetlight. It doesn’t quite feel like a whole; it feels like just a random snapshot of random stuff.

In contrast, the film image feels to me like a still from a movie, with a kind of built in art direction and intention that comes from the film’s grain and color rendition. In this example, there’s a kind of coolness to the sky and buildings that helps the red elements pop in a really satisfying way. The greens don’t distract the same way here; everything feels like part of a whole.

One way to describe all this is atmosphere. To my eye, the film image has it in droves. The iPhone image doesn’t really have much at all.

Of course, some of this comes down to the specific moment captured — the film image is just a better composed photo with more depth and interesting balance. The truck on the right and the line of people crossing the street towards us just fill the frame and tell more of a story than the much less active iPhone photo.

But I personally tend to find those better frames with a film camera much more consistently than I do with an iPhone. When I’m shooting with a film camera, my eye is up to the camera, looking through the lens. That image fills my entire field of vision and takes all my attention. When I’m shooting with an iPhone, I’m peering at a screen a few feet from my face. The image I’m trying to frame takes up just a fraction of my field of vision and I’m consciously or subconsciously distracted by whatever else is happening around me. I’m not as focused and I don’t find the frame I’m hungry for as often.

This is a very specific and personal thing, of course. But given my background and eye, I feel like I’m really seeing when I look through a film camera. No digital camera has ever quite given me that seamless sensation.

Well, it’s past midnight and tomorrow’s a big work day, so I’ll stop here for now. But this is fun, so I’ll be back later with more.

I’ll leave you with a photo of the Empire State Building that remains one of my favorite images from my first month shooting film again in February 2022.

Thanks much and more soon!

Black and white image of the Empire State Building seen between at the end of a canyon of dark buildings in NYC.


2022.06.25 – I BELONG TO YOU / MOTHERLAND choral music performance in Austin, Texas! Check out the preview of the book!

I Belong to You / Motherland cover

ANOTHER HUGE UPDATE: The hardcover of I BELONG TO YOU / MOTHERLAND is now available for purchase through the 35MM LOVE LETTER campaign! Get your copy today!

HUGE UPDATE: Can’t make the one night only I BELONG TO YOU performance in Austin in person? Now you can buy a $15 digital-only ticket and get a link to a video of the performance in July! Do it now, friends!

Big news, friends. I’m thrilled to report that I BELONG TO YOU / MOTHERLAND, an autobiographical epic poem written by yours truly, has been adapted into a book and a choral musical performance that will be staged by the incredible artists from Inversion Ensemble and Invoke on Saturday, June 25 in Austin, Texas!

Buy your tickets today!

The story explores growing up as an Asian American kid in Texas in the 1970s and 1980s and grappling with the sense of not quite belonging while simultaneously feeling totally bound to the environment and flora and fauna of the state. The story’s also an elegy to my mother, Jane Pak, and how she taught me to observe and participate in the world. It’s one of the most personal things I’ve ever written, and I’m enormously grateful to Inversion, Invoke, and to all of the contributing artists for their incredible support and partnership.

Tickets to the in-person performance can be bought through Eventbrite. Please mask up at the show and please do not attend if you’ve been exposed to COVID or have symptoms.

I’m also thrilled to report that the lush, 72 page book of I BELONG TO YOU / MOTHERLAND is available for mail order exclusively for the next month through the Dragon’s Lair Comics and Fantasy website! Just fill out the form at this page! I’ll also be doing a signing at Dragon’s Lair on June 25 from 12-2 pm – hope to see you there!

The book is filled with my mother’s luminous black and white photography, my own photos and drawings from the past five decades, and illustrations by a crew of incredible artists, including Sean Chen, Dustinn Craig, Shing Yin Khor, Ann Smith, and Ethan Young. Please read on for a big preview of the first three chapters!

I hope you enjoy, and please do pick up the book and buy tickets to the performance if you’re so inspired!

I Belong to You / Motherland title page

I Belong to You / Motherland - p. 1

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I Belong to You / Motherland - p. 4

I Belong to You / Motherland - p. 5

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I Belong to You / Motherland - p. 2

I Belong to You / Motherland - p. 10

Announcing the I BELONG TO YOU / MOTHERLAND illustrated book and music project! Virtual event tonight; concert and book premiere in Austin on June 25!

I Belong to You / Motherland cover

I’m thrilled to announce I BELONG TO YOU/MOTHERLAND, a new, deeply personal project created in collaboration with the Inversion Ensemble music group of Austin, Texas, and a crew of incredible artists, including Sean Chen, Dustinn Craig, Shing Yin Khor, Ann Smith, and Ethan Young.

Tonight at 8 pm ET, I’ll be discussing the project with artist Ann Smith in a virtual panel accessible to anyone who donates $50 or more to Inversion! Make your donation before 5 pm at and they’ll hook you up with the link to the event tonight!

I BELONG TO YOU/MOTHERLAND is an autobiographical epic poem that’s simultaneously being adapted into an illustrated book and a choral piece that will be performed by Inversion on June 25 in Austin.

The story explores growing up as an Asian American kid in Texas in the 1970s and 1980s and grappling with the sense of not quite belonging while simultaneously feeling totally bound to the environment and flora and fauna of the state. The story’s also about my mother, Jane Pak, and how she taught me to observe and participate in the world.

Hope to see you at the virtual event tonight, and if you’re in Austin, I’d be honored if you’d consider coming to the performance on June 25 — please see below for more details about that.

And yes, the illustrated book, which will include brilliant work by the artists mentioned above along with my mother’s luminous black and white photography and other ephemera from the 1970s and 1980s, will eventually be available for purchase — more details on that soon!


June 25, 2022, at 7:30 pm — Bates Recital Hall
2406 Robert Dedman Dr, Austin, TX 78712

Inversion presents “I Belong to You,” a spectacular multimedia experience featuring the world premiere of Motherland/I Belong to You, an unprecedented oratorio blending poetry, comic book illustration, and choral music. The autobiographical libretto by critically acclaimed comic book author Greg Pak (The Incredible Hulk, Star Wars) explores the history, culture, and natural wonders of Texas from the perspective of a native Texan during the various stages of his life.

The musical adaptation of Pak’s text by Inversion’s three founding members—composers Adrienne Inglis, Robbie LaBanca, and Trevor F. Shaw—will be sung by Inversion’s flagship choral ensemble and accompanied by guest artists Invoke string quartet and Ethan Shaw (Chili Cold Blood), steel guitarist.

I Belong to You / Motherland will also be published as an original comic book by Greg Pak, commissioned by Inversion, with illustrations by renowned artists Ann Smith, Dustinn Craig, Ethan Young, Sean Chen, and Shing Yin Khor. Audience members will enjoy live, on-screen projections of the original artwork during the performance. V.I.P. tickets include a hardback, limited-edition version of the comic book, signed by the author.
Join Inversion Ensemble and Greg Pak on Saturday, June 25, 7:30 pm in Bates Recital Hall at the UT Butler School of Music for “I Belong to You,” sponsored in part by Dragon’s Lair Comics & Fantasy.

Purchase your tickets here.