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.

A new etiquette for smart phone usage

Related to my last post, I saw contrasting behaviors amongst guests at a wedding I recently attended.

  1. Four people were sitting at their table, after dinner, all heads down, interacting with their smart phones and not each other.
  2. One person, isolated herself from the reception by sitting at an out-of-the-way administrative desk, was intently typing a message on her phone for several minutes.

So, again, I get that phones are important methods of connecting us with the world beyond our immediate vicinity. They are very powerful. I know not what the four people were doing in the first situation. I believe that whatever the woman in the second was doing was very important to her. Therefore, I would like to propose the following social etiquette for smart phone usage:

  • If you are amongst people who are one-degree of separation or less from your acquaintance, excuse yourself from the situation before using your phone.

The one-degree or less part is specifically designed to encourage you to expand your social circle beyond social networks. You know, IRL (ahem, in real life). If you are at an event upon common purpose, then behave like an adult for christsakes, and interact with the others around you. If, on the other hand, you have uber urgent matters that must be attended to, do not be so rude as to isolate yourself RIGHT IN FRONT OF THEIR FACES. All it takes is a demure, polite, “Oh dear, this is important” and walk-the-fuck away. If it isn’t that important, then continue to attempt to engage the others in conversation. If you’re having trouble doing that, here are about 10 million results for conversation starters.

Of course, more than one degree of separation is hard to know in any given moment. If you’re walking down a crowded street, I don’t think there is any need to excuse yourself from the sidewalk. Or on a bus. Or train. If you’re among true strangers, fine, update Facebook about the creepy dude with the big camera. He’ll be posting about you later, so its only fair.

The Resurrection of Conversation

Perhaps you’ve seen this video, or heard complaints like it–smartphones have destroyed our ability to interact with each other in person. Babycakes Romero [sic] took a bunch of pictures of people using their smart phones in public, seemingly ignoring their companions, and his gallery went viral.

One of my favorite photographers, Zack Arias, called his series De_Vice. Pictures get passed along, with plenty of guffaws on Facebook showing lines of people consumed with their smartphones. Those of us over 30 like to mock younger people for their complete immersion. We all laughed at the video showing a woman fall into a mall fountain because she was consumed by her phone.

I’m not saying the interpretations of these images are wrong, but it is entirely possible they don’t tell the whole story. Photographs don’t show the moments before or after. They don’t show what’s going on in the minds of others. Heck, 99.9% of the time, they don’t even show the screen. Allow me to add captions to Zach’s images (linked here without his consent).

From: Smith & Bennett Attorneys Subject: Case #2015-12333 The court has granted your request for a restraining order. If you see him, call 911 immediately.
I am so tired of waiting for his dad to pick him up. He better answer his damn phone.
Dude, I’m in a really tough bind. Could you spot me $200?
Refill submitted.
“Mother isn’t doing well. You should get on the next flight.”

Yes, we are at a time in our society when we are obsessed with our phones. But there is a good reason for that–they’re really fucking useful devices! We all know this, and live this every day, but for some reason, it is fun to poke fun at what we think other people are doing. Yes, some are playing games. Yes, some are “just” checking social media. But aren’t Facebook or Twitter or Google+ just evolutionary steps in how we communicate? I’ve been having conversations with people “on-line” for 30 years (I dialed into my first BBS using a 300 baud modem)–things are different now, but they’re still conversations. Are they at the expense of the people we’re with? Yes, sometimes. Am I writing this blog post on my laptop while my wife does something on her phone in the same room? Sure. Does anyone think that while we’re in the presence of other human beings that 100% of that time has be spent interacting with them?

So that’s kinda my point. These photos show moments, anecdotes, when people aren’t paying attention to “real-life”. It isn’t that simple. Real life goes on through our devices as well. And sometimes what is going on “on-line” really is more interesting/compelling/important than what is happening right next to us.

So now I’ll prove my point by presenting you with anecdotal photos showing people enjoying their time in person, no phones present. Because, believe it or not, sometimes people do that.

See what I mean!?!? No one is using phones anymore!


Adventures in Film


Friends recently handed me a pile of expired, unexposed film. I long ago sold my personal film camera, but my wife has consistently resisted that urge. She has a nice Pentax with a 50mm f/2 and a zoom lens. There’s an almost silly hipster resurgence in film but that didn’t stop me from giving it a try. I’m a fad jumper, and I don’t care. Especially when I can jump on the fad for under $20.

The fist task was to replace the batteries in the Pentax so that the light meter could actually work. Amazon to the rescue, and I now have more button cell batteries for less than it would have cost me in gas to get to a local store to pick them up.

Next I had to figure out what happens to “expired” film. I read a few articles on the interwebs, and the basic learning is that over time the chemicals on the film become less sensitive to light. How much less is a guess. Plus, high temperatures accelerate that process. My newly acquired film had been sitting in a barely temperature controlled warehouse. Who knows where it had been before that. I decided to treat the Kodak BW400CN film as if it was ISO 200 rather than ISO 400.

7I probably should have treated it like ISO 100. The pics are acceptable, nevertheless.

Anyway, I loaded the 24 exposure roll and set about looking for images that were film-worthy. And that was the first lesson: although I was eager to see some quick results, I was conscious that I had only 24 shots on the roll. I wanted every shot to have the potential for being a keeper. I wanted each shot to be, in a very 1970s way, one that I would put in a photo album…

23… until there were fireworks. While I was watching fireworks, with the Pentax close at hand, I kept thinking “It will be a total crap-shoot. You have no idea how long the shutter should be open. You have no idea how these will turn out. You can’t possibly make a decent image of fireworks on film.” Challenge accepted, says I. I tried 11 times and got three usable images. Honestly, I’m pleased I got just one since I was totally winging it: my shutter was set to bulb, and my finger controlled the speed.

3I enjoyed (at least temporarily) the process of slowing down, intentionally making pictures, and not immediately knowing how they turned out. One problem, is that I can’t see when there are potential problems in the film, such as on Nick’s chin, above.

21The second problem is that it was tough for me to see that I hadn’t obtained a sharp focus, like in the image above. Clearly this isn’t a “grab” shot. They were posed. And I set them in a line so that at f/2 I had a chance of getting them all crisp. But I blew it. The leaves on the left are sharper than their faces. This is clearly a photographer problem–I could have blown focus on this shot using a digital camera. But at least with digital I would have had the opportunity to know that I had blown it, and retake it.

There are other shortcomings with this set of images that I might be able to improve upon:

  • the film grain is heavy, almost as if I had added it deliberately to make it look like film. This may very well be an artifact of the expired film. I’m putting the rest of the expired film rolls in the trash and will buy a few rolls of fresh film.
  • in the top photo, the expression on my father-in-law isn’t the best. I will, again, attribute this to photographer error–I think he was mid-comment while I was focusing, and I snapped the shutter while he was remarking on my post-film (lack-of) abilities. A digital image would have allowed me to see that I had taken a less-than-optimal image and tried again.

Finally, there’s the cost. A single film-based photo will cost me a minimum of $0.70. Even if you include the cost of dual-drive storage on-site, and off-site storage, a single digital photo will cost me $0.003 to store indefinitely or $0.17 to have printed (at Costco, natch).

I’m not saying I’m done with film. But boy I sure do love me some digital benefits. There may be more to come.