Shooting film with stuff I don’t have: patience and money

I’ve been playing with film just a bit recently. It all started with friends giving me some expired film. I had the first roll developed by Walgreens and was less than pleased at paying lunch-for-two to get it developed. So I figured my next step was to try my hand at developing film myself. So I popped another roll into my wife’s 35mm camera and went to play.

And this is when the interesting stuff started to happen. On a long-weekend family vacation, I took both the film camera and a point-and-shoot digital. I wanted to shoot film for the experience, but I didn’t want to chance important moments to expired film and my as-yet-untested developing skills. So I slowed down mentally (I know, not too tough), and searched for images that “deserved” to be shot with film. But at the same time, I also captured images with the decently-capable P&S because I knew it would get the shot. I was also careful to NOT try to duplicate images. My goal was not a “digital vs film” comparison, but rather a Rick-on-film vs Rick-on-digital. So I had to let my mind wander into the film landscape, knowing that I had limited frames to work with. The blessing of the vacation was that it wasn’t a once-in-a-lifetime trip; my wife and I have done this trip 6-8 times as a couple. That’s not to say that the images and relationships aren’t important, just that the images aren’t going to be the only long-lasting memories from the trip.

So I had some expired Kodak CN400BW film in the camera, and I started researching B&W film processing. In principle, it isn’t too difficult. Load the film into a developing tank in a dark bathroom. Out in the light, pour in some developer, agitate and soak for X minutes. Dump and add “stop” solution. Soak for 30 seconds. Dump and add Fixer, agitate and soak for 3-4 minutes. And voila, developed negatives. So I bought my first batch of chemicals and developing tank for about $60 at MPEX. I calculated my break-even point at 7 rolls of film.

Perhaps you noticed that I left ‘X’ undefined above. Yeah, that’s where the art of film developing comes in. Oh, and I mentioned that the film was “expired” right? One more thing, the film was supposed to be developed in C-41 chemicals, but I had B&W chemicals. A wee bit of Googling and I decided to try processing the film in B&W chemicals for 12 minutes as one post suggested. And another thing–some processing times at listed at 50% dilution, others at full strength. I have no clue what that one random Internet post was for. 12 minutes. That’s all I knew. “Normal” B&W processing would be in the 5-8 minute range.

And based on my previous experience, thought I, my film was underexposed, probably due to the expired nature of the film. So I had been treating the ISO 400 film as ISO200 or ISO160, essentially over-exposing by more than a stop. Do you sense where this is going?

I developed the film and then tried to scan it, But my film wasn’t laying flat, so the scanner couldn’t get sharp focus on it easily. Until I cut some plexiglass from a picture frame as a make-shift film lay-flatter. Then I got to see just how shitty my pictures came out.

img316-3 img306 img306-2 img315 img316 img316-2

Yeah, that’s meta analog on digital, biotches. My wife was all like “I heard your shutter.”

OK, they aren’t terrible in a film-era-student-in-the-lab-with-a-drunk-professor sort of way. And they look way better when made web-sized than when viewed largishly.

Oh, and by the way, I lied. I did make a few pictures with both film and digital. Just because. Here’s the equivalently cropped and post-processed version of the bridge shot above.

P1030091So, anyway, I was underwhelmed by my film results. I had successfully developed two rolls all by my self, so that was an accomplishment, I ‘spose. There were just too many not-quite-by-the-book variables to know what was right and what was wrong.

Are you still with me? Fantastic. I write this stuff for me mostly, but I’m happy you’re reading it too. So let’s talk about how I turned my curiosity about film up to 11.

P1030177In the digital world, “medium format” is the shit. It is lauded and praised. It is amazing, says every photographer who has ever seen it. If a one-generation-old DSLR is less than $500, then a one-generation-old digital medium format camera is less than $5000. Yes, they are 10 times more expensive for 2.5 times the sensor size.

And that probably was true in the film era as well. Since you can buy very nice film cameras for next to nothing, then that means you can buy very nice medium format cameras for 10*next-to-nothing. And that’s what I did. Stupid? Perhaps. Goofy? Oh yeah. The Pentax 645 and 80-160mm lens pictured above cost me $260 including shipping on eBay. My son called it the “bigger, blacker, camera” a la Cards Against Humanity. Developing medium format film is exactly the same as developing 35mm film, except that it costs twice as much (kinda… don’t take that literally). So I bought a couple of rolls of film (not ‘expired’ this time) from my local MPEX, natch. I loaded a roll, and took the beast to a family birthday party.

No, wait, first I took a selfie. In a bathroom mirror. Because nothing says “serious photographer here” than a bathroom selfie shot onto 600mmx450mm of celluloid.

img320-2Now for the family pics.

img321-3 img320 img321 img321-2So I had two challenges with the roll. A couple of the images have the film type on the left edge: Kodak TMAX 100. FOR. THE. LIFE. OF. ME. I thought I had bought TMAX 400. So all my images were underexposed by 2 stops. Or more. Because there were a couple of shots that I intentionally underexposed because the light was so dim, that I was counting on my ability to enhance in post. So I googled “push processing” and developed my film in such a way as to make it look as if it were exposed correctly. It didn’t work, but thank Adobe that Lightroom was able to help me recover digitally where I failed in analog.

A handful of these images turned out OK. The pics posted above suffer from two major problems: photographer frugality and scanning tech impatience. Yup, both are me. My developing technique still needs work, and my desire to clean my scanning surfaces and film is seriously lacking.

And yet, through the problems, I can see something alluring, intoxicating even, in these images. I don’t yet know what it is.

I’m convinced that film developing is a craft that really deserves to be learned in an apprenticeship. I followed instructions as best I could, but there are so many details left unstated. Developing film is kind of like making a bechamel–no matter how precise the instructions are, there’s no accounting for the practitioner’s experience. I learned to make bechamel with my wife’s guiding hand, but my first film developing was done in the dark. [Rim shot, please].

I have one roll of medium format film left. After I make images with it, I’ll have it professional processed and scanned. Then I’ll decide if I’m keeping the bigger, blacker, camera.