Cafe Keese Berlin – A film shooting debriefing

Hello everyone,

I hope you did not mind me disappearing for so long away from this blog, I was busy shooting.
We will today go through the Berlin cafe Keese shooting and give you a bit of Behind the scenes peek.

Cafe Keese?

I first became aware of the existence of cafe Keese a few years ago when flickering through the pages of the excellent “Berliner Luft”, a photo book mapping the city and what makes it so particular.
One of the book entries mentioned the “tea club” cafe Keese and the possibility to use phones at each tables to invite someone at another table to dance! I always thought I had to see that and take pictures there.

The idea became more concrete when preparing a recent trip to Berlin. The planning all happened very fast, unusually fast… I subscribed to a Facebook group about photographers and models in Berlin where I immediately stumbled upon Jod de Maupassant’s offer for modelling. Three chats and a few phone calls later we were in!

For once the planning did not involve much research on poses, lighting or styling for the simple reason that the distance with Berlin made scouting preparations impossible…
I was more concerned about how would the film react in very low light conditions and how would it behave with mixed artificial light sources (mainly tungsten for the key lights).

Previous tests showed me that shooting with an iso400 film at 1/15th of a second IS possible with medium format (sometimes without tripod but this is just madness and playing daredevil).

The Gear list:

– Hasselblad 500CM body
– Zeiss 80mm f/2.8 Planar
– A tripod
– Sekonic L-478d light meter
– Two boxes of Fuji pro 400h

So? What do you need? First, you need a tripod. Tripod will be essential here since there is so little light around you. So little that I swear I thought it would never actually work… I’m glad it did.

You will also need a good light meter. Mine is the Sekonic L-478d and it does an excellent job.
The problem is always to find out where to actually make your measurements. Since the club light spots cast a very harsh and saturated light that contrasts with absolute darkness in the shadow, one always must stand at the edge of a good compromise. From what I remember, 1/30th of a sec has been for iso400 the fastest speed I could achieve that day but most of the shots were made around 1/15th or below.

You would also obviously need film. Prior researches on how to shoot in these extreme conditions showed interesting results on forums… I had in mind that Kodak Portra would do a very decent job with low light tungsten settings, but this is a daylight balanced chemical compound. How about finding a good specific film for that purpose?
The perfect film was called Cinestill, but it failed to sustain itself economically speaking after a last failed crowdfunding call and remains not available for purchase.
Their excellent website however compares some films from different brands and demonstrates the relative qualities of my beloved Fuji Pro 400H.

So far, I was only considering Fuji as a film to largely overexpose in bright light to get this fabulous creamy pastel look that fits so well with wedding photography and any white heavenly fashion shoot. But it seems to also do better than others in Cafe Keese’s light.

Now, why analogue?

I had a Canon 5d along with me that day and the dynamic range of film is just miles broader.
Again, consider my poor scanning skills, but what I already obtain through messing around is way richer than what I had on my raw file. Is just a medium format effect? It probably also plays a significant role, yes. Film however completely absorbs overexposed zones without trembling and I wish I could find a way to show you the tiff files or a print to demonstrate how well the hard contrast is handled here!

I won’t hide that the recent acquisition of a Hasselblad did give a little push when deciding which gear should I pack along with me. I however believe shooting film in such a place was highly relevant by nature. Vintage for vintage, the whole club screams out loud for a disappearing art of living and the use of film echoes this! In a way shooting with film would have set a distance, an observatory one, when film accentuates our will for integration. When the club actually opened its door near 3pm, we simply stayed and enjoyed a little dance with our 70+ fellows! The picture was then complete.

The actual shooting:

How did we arrange the poses and settings? Unfortunately no magical recipe here. It’s a see and react strategy fed with years of collecting photo books and browsing the Internet.
Again, there really was not much light available and since we shot without flash we had to ask Jod to place herself where the light simply was. Keeping in mind that the end result would be full of contrasts, I was more looking for good rim lights and strong angles to work with.

The Hasselblad camera forces you by nature to carefully compose, think over it, adjust every detail and finally shoot. This slow thinking process does make a difference. It tackles down any will to shoot action but in the end, that’s not what you are looking for here…

One must really pay attention on how does light fall onto the subject but the very large viewfinder is really helpful here. As long as disgraceful shadows do not get cast by the nose, a hand or an accessory, you would be fine with your shot.

Areas of improvement?

Definitely the scanning process! I told you film can handle a huge dynamic range didn’t I?
Well, it does but then it hits the wall of the scanner specs… The key is to scan your negatives with skills. A set of skills I do not possess yet, but I am working on it. This will lead to suppress the red blown-out zones you can see with the photos above for instance; much cleaner pictures. The good thing is that the negatives can be archived and reworked later when I ll be a bit more confident with this tech aspect.
As for now, I kind of scan blindly with minor corrections, mostly because I want to see the pics as fast as possible appearing on my computer screen! But I will probably rescan my favourites, paying closer attention to the curve and especially the red tones to get better results.

I hope this small insight was helpful to understand the shooting process for Cafe Keese Berlin.
Would you have any additional questions regarding the technical or artistic aspect of my work, feel free to contact me or leave a comment below!

Let me just use these last lines to say thank you to Cafe Keese and it’s crew for patience, but more importantly to Jod for completely stepping in and playing the game so well and a huge thank you to Michaela for commitment, help and kindness!

Hope to see you all soon!

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