Film…it’s simple…and beautiful!
By Max Marinucci
First of all, I want to pile on and say that Steve is doing a great job here and we should offer our support for such informative, no bull site. Photography is fun and weʼre here to enjoy it and get inspired without worrying about chromatic aberrations and lens sharpness. Again, thank you Steve for putting so much time and effort into this. (From Steve: Thanks so much!!)
I have written this article for those who want to take some time away from digital photography or simply want to get back to basics for a bit and have never considered or experienced shooting black & white film.
For many who have grown up with nothing but digital photography and files, the notion of black & white film feels like some foreign relic which may be nice to look at but have no idea on how it was produced and if it can be replicated today. This article is for those who may be interested in discovering (or re-discovering) the simplicity and beauty of black and white film and are willing to spend a little time engaging in something that will not give instant gratification. Before I go on, let me extrapolate a bit on this point: instant gratification. We have become the society of NOW, where waiting for something just doesnʼt seem acceptable. If we take a picture, we want to see it NOW on the back of our camera, on the LCD screen. It sucks…well, letʼs take another one, and another, and another. While this is the norm these days, patience and parsimony are virtues to be cultivated and nourished. When shooting film, you immediately accept the fact that it may be a little while before you see the fruits of your work and, by living with this, you will become more disciplined which will in turn carry on to your digital shooting as well It also means that shooting everything in sight without any thought into basics like light and composition is out of the question since you only have 24-36 shots in a roll of 35mm and it makes no sense in spending time/money developing thoughtless junk. This is a valuable exercise in restraint and it brings us to actually THINK before we shoot. Would you have taken a picture of your toes with film just because you can? I sincerely doubt it. I personally have become a better photographer by shooting film because again, when I do, I pay more attention to details, and, since time is money I donʼt want to waste either by developing and scanning too many duds.
So, you may ask, why do you need to shoot black & white film anyway? Well, first of all, film still looks better (in my book at least) and second, you may start enjoying photography again in all its glory. I use Leica gear and enjoy my digital M9 but, there have been instances when I have shot the same picture with film and it very often blows the digital away. Even with today’s advanced technology, it is very difficult to reproduce the look of film in digi-world. Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro does a great job converting to b&w but the picture still looks, well..digital. Film still has that extra latitude and dimension that makes it unique and special. I will not get too technical here because I want every novice to understand the process and be enticed by the small challenges, be excited about producing something unique while having a feeling of satisfaction, not frustration, at the end.
You will probably not be able to reproduce the works of Ansel Adams (no one can) but certainly use those as your inspiration and take comfort in knowing that such beautiful masterpieces were taken with now ancient equipment, film, and most of all, an thorough understanding of nature, light and composition (yes, along with lots of technical stuff as well). There is a deep sense of pride that comes into play when one catches that moment, nails the exposure and develops a good negative which can bring life to a special picture. The process, the anticipation, the fact that YOU are in control (not your camera or digital software) will bring forth a sense of accomplishment that, in todayʼs digital world, we now rarely get to savor.
Before I go on, let me explain that what I have outlined below is a “hybrid” system designed to work well in today’s digitally oriented world and it will bring outstanding results once you have mastered a few steps. As Ansel Adams’ famous quote goes ” the negative is the composer’s score and the print is the performance”. But, few these days will go through the trouble of darkroom printing, which requires time and dedication (oh yes, and a good amount of talent). So, what do we do with the negative? Well, if you are just taking pictures of your kids or casual snapshots, you can just bring them to your local lab and get prints within one hour. They will probably look okay. Now, if you are getting a little more serious and want more creative control, today’s digi-world let’s us do what one would do in a darkroom but on a computer screen. To keep it simple, you need a good scanner (I use the Epson 750V Pro) and Adobe Lightroom (yes, you can use Photoshop if that’s what you like and you’re familiar with, but in the interest of keeping this SIMPLE and for someone just starting out, Lightroom is THE ONE). The new version of Aperture is also great and these, unlike Photoshop, do a fine job at keeping things simple and well organized. Also, most of us today look at pictures on computer screens, iPhone, etc so most never actually get printed. The following system will easily let you upload your favorite b&w film pictures onto Flickr, Zenfolio, etc with great output quality.
Please note, everything written below refers to 35mm film.
Film: you have choices.
As always, photographers (like musicians) get bogged down by too much gear and too many choices. It’s okay to try different films and you will eventually choose different ones for different situations or looks. Having said that, for now, try to find a favorite and stick to it. By doing so, you will achieve some consistency, results you can predict and, more so, repeat. It’s okay to experiment but only when you have mastered the task at hand and you know what you’re doing. Don’t try to be a jack of all trades, master of none.
Film Speed: faster is not always better, just different.
If you start looking on the internet, you will once again be bombarded with tons of information. Much is useful but it may also confuse you and prevent you from starting out without getting extremely frustrated and, ultimately, give up. Every film has an ISO rating on the box. Shoot it at that speed. More on this later but let’s just leave it at that. Now, generally speaking, slower film (50-100-125) will give you tighter grain (or close to none in the case of Kodak T-Max100). As speed goes up (400, 800, 1600, 3200) grain will increase noticeably (also your choice of developer will
determine that but again we want to keep things simple so we will not dig into this one at the moment).
Camera: it does not matter!
When it comes to shooting film, you have so many choices and many of them dirt cheap these days. Frankly, your choice of camera may be possibly dictated more by the lenses. I love Leica because of its simplicity, timeless design, ruggedness, and most of all, lenses. You can buy a good M3 for less than the price of a new digital pocket camera and use lenses made all the way to the 1930s. If you shop eBay, you can get a nice M3 with a 50mm Summitar for about $1500. The Contax G2 system is another winner with Zeiss lenses. Nikon also made some great film cameras and the Zeiss Ikon is also just fine. Having said that, I am partial to Leica because it is SIMPLE. There is only one adjustment knob on an M3 (or a modern M7 as a matter of fact) and that is shutter speed. You will not get bogged down by dials, knobs, menus or tons of useless junk designed only to sell the newest and greatest without respect for a user who demands simplicity and just wants to shoot without getting his/her brain cluttered with junk. Trust me, the less you have to think about camera settings, the better off you will be.
With black and white film you need them for some creative work. On a beautiful day, with sun and clouds, without a filter you will get little separation between the sky and clouds so you want to add a yellow filter (light or medium) or red to dramatize those skies even more. Yellow or green are also essential for skin tones when shooting outdoor.
Do you need a darkroom? NO!
Unless you are willing to do your own optical printing with an enlarger, no you do not need a darkroom. You can get a simple setup to develop your negatives with little money and use your laundry room, kitchen, bathroom to develop. B&H sells black changing bags and the few other supplies you need to successfully develop your roll of film. You will basically need:
Black changing bag to load your roll into the tank
A Paterson plastic tank (single roll is fine to start with) as these are much easier to load than metal ones. (can be found at B&H Photo)
A film retriever (to get the lead out of the exposed roll) Graduated containers to mix your chemicals Developer Fixer (can be found at B&H Photo)
Wetting agent (B&H Photo)
Film Clips (B&H Photo)
A sponge squegee (B&H Photo)
Thermometer (B&H Photo)
A cheap baby medicine syringe to measure developers to be used straight such as HC110 or Rodinal.
The Steps are simple
Load film into tank, developer, stop bath (to stop the action of developer), fixer, wash, hang to dry. That’s it. Basically, two chemicals, as I use a water stop bath to be gentle to my precious film which doesn’t need an acid environment to stop development.
Again here we have a bunch of choices. Photographers have their favorites with certain films and we donʼt want to turn this into a complex subject. We want to keep this simple and to give consistent, repeatable results. Enter Kodak HC110. It was good enough for Ansel Adams, it’s good enough for all of us. It comes in syrup, can be mixed straight from concentrate and has great shelf life. HC110 can be diluted in a few different ratios but again we won’t confuse anyone with that here. Let’s just say that DILUTION B (1 ml of syrup for 32ml of water) works for everyone. So, for a single roll Paterson tank, you squeeze 9ml of syrup (with those plastic baby syringes you can get at your local pharmacy) and mix with 281 ml of water to make your 10oz (290 ml).
Fixer – Ilford Rapid Fixer. Mix 72ml of fixer and the rest water to make 10oz.
Temperature: you can use tap water but I say DON’T. I use a gallon jug of Poland Spring distilled water for each roll of film developed. I use 68 (20c) temperature so you will probably need to put the jug into a water bath and bring it to temperature. With black & white, temperature is not as critical as with color but you still want to get and stay very close. Very important.
Real World Example:
One of my favorite films is Ilford FP4+ (iso 125). At this speed, you can comfortably shoot outside in daylight, with or without filters. Developed with HC110 it gives great tones, grain, and it scans real well.
Developed in HC110 Dilution B, I use 9 minutes developing time at 68 (20c) degrees.
Using your film retriever, take the lead out of the roll and cut it straight with a pair of scissors. Put your tank, roll and scissors into your black changing bag and zipper up!
Load your roll into the spool (practice with a roll in daylight just to get the hang of it first) in the black changing bag. Make sure you have closed the tank and take everything out.
With a timer (I use an iPod touch and Digitaltruth massive development chart app) pour the developer into the tank and immediately start the countdown. Close the tank as quickly as you can and perform 4 slow and gentle inversions followed by two-three firm taps on tour table surface to dislodge any air bubbles. From this point on, you will perform 3 slow and gentle inversions at the start of each minute and one single inversion at the 8 minute mark. Again, two firm taps on the tabletop after each inversion cycle.
Start pouring your developer out five seconds before the time expires and then pour your distilled water stop bath. Agitate (invert) continuously for one minute. Pour the water out and now dump the fixer into the tank. Four inversions the first 10 seconds and the same at the start of each minute thereafter for a total of four minutes.
Washing process: dump the fixer out and fill with 10oz of water. Agitate/ invert five times. Pour water out, fill again and agitate 10 times. Pour out again, fill and agitate 20 times. Repeat this last step two more times, as you want to remove every trace of fixer. Some people use hydro clear prior to this washing method which is intended to cut washing time from a normal ten minute rinse. I have done this with and without hydro clear and I have found no difference, for whatever it’s worth. Dump the last round and fill with another 10oz of water plus 1-2 drop of wetting agent (this will prevent water from drying on the negs and create water spots) and agitate for one minute. Dump this out and take the roll out of the tank. You could also use tap water (make sure you can get it a constant temperature) and rinse for ten minutes, with a final minute in distilled water with wetting agent.
Drying: do this in the shower stall. Run the hot water to create steam for a minute or so, as this will prevent dust from flying around and forever be stuck on your precious negatives (this is a great tip as I have often seen negatives with tons of dust on them). Unspool the negative, examine if you’d like and hang with clips (one on top and one on bottom to prevent curling) and squeeze the water out with the damp squeege a couple of times. In about one hour your negs will be ready to be scanned. One more tidbit: I have found that Kodak films (Tri-x in particular) curl like crazy and Ilford films do not. When it comes to scanning time, you will learn to love ilford film just for that!
By the way, once you master these few steps, you will have a roll of film developed with a total time of about 20-30 minutes, excluding drying time. You will feel like a kid again, trembling with excitement and waiting to see the fruit of your work. When was the last time you have experienced that with your digital?
Ok, now that you have your dry strip of film, cut it in smaller strips of five pictures and you are ready to scan.
When it comes to scanners, unfortunately you do not have many choices if you are looking for high quality. I use the best flatbed there is at the moment, the Epson V750M Pro and I’m very happy with it’s features and final output. The only other choices would be a dedicated film scanner like the perennially out of stock Nikon 5000 or 9000, which are more epensive, or an Hasselblad X1 which will set you back $13K. You could also find an old Agfa Duoscan on eBay. Going back to Nikon for a second, unfortunately, they donʼt give a damn about film anymore so their scanners are old and merely an afterthought. They are too busy pumping out a new camera every 18 months to keep everyone spending money. More megapixels, 200,000 ISO so we can shoot raccoons and skunks in the middle of the night and new, useless features. By the time we barely figured out how to use the camera, a new one comes out and more money goes out the window. Okay, rant over 🙂
Again, I personally think that the Epson V750M Pro does a very fine job and it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg (B&H has it in stock @ $849 and again, you would have to spend A LOT more to get something better). It also comes with SilverFast Ai 6 which is expensive but FREE with the scanner.
MAJOR TIP HERE: You want these for you scanner! http:// www.betterscanning.com/
These guys sell MUST HAVE adapters and glass plates for your scanner. They hold the film in place and FLAT. Trust me, you donʼt want to scan without them. Like I have said above, Ilford film is okay but Kodak..forget it. Without these, you would have to leave the film flat under a weight for a day or so before even attempting to scan.
Once you have your scanner up and running, create a master folder on your desktop and name it, for example, “scanned negatives”. Then, inside that folder, you will create folders for each roll being scanned and that’s where your scanned photos will go.
Once you have scanned your negatives, you are ready to import the master folder, with its contents, into Lightroom (or Aperture). Once you have that, your pictures are available for any editing like dodging, burning, curves, contrast, brightness, vignetting, etc. If you wish, you can even open your scanned negative into Nik Silver Efex Pro and make use of some of the great features available there.
Once youʼre happy with your picture, with a Lightroom plug-in (which will be standard with Lightroom 3, I believe) you can easily upload your photos directly to Flick or Zenfolio, or export them as a jpeg into a separate folder and then upload directly within Flick, Zenfolio, or any other website that allows you to do so. (Note from Steve: Aperture 3 has this feature as well 🙂 )
Okay, some of us still like to see our precious work on paper. Before we start, even though weʼre not working in color here, you still want to have your monitor properly calibrated to match on paper what you see on the screen. There are great papers available today for inkjets and with some of them you can get extremely close to matching the beauty of optical, darkroom printing. As far as printers, the new line of Stylus Pro from Epson are awesome! I use the smallest (which is not that small) 3880 and I am super happy with it. You can also use older Epson models (like the 3800) and get superb prints. As far as paper, my favorites for black and white are Epson Velvet Fine art, Hanehmule Photo Rag and the superb Harman Glossy FB AI, which can give absolutely stunning prints.
Well, get out there and shoot. Have a great time, pay attention to light and your surroundings, and remember…keep it simple. You will enjoy photography a whole lot more.
From Steve: WOW! Thanks so much Max! This was a VERY informative article and makes me want to get out there again with some film. Truth be told, I have been checking out some used film cameras and hope to buy one soon for those times when I really want the B&W look. So thanks Max!
Max Marinucci is a Leica enthusiast who enjoys shooting film with his M3, M7 and classic Leica lenses. He also owns and operates “The Wine Connection” in Pound Ridge, NY. You can some of Max’s fun film images at his flickr page HERE!
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