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Three tired tropes of analog photography

Three questions regarding film photography bear some quick study and quick disposition.

Is the cost of film actually significant?

Everybody likes to complain about the cost of film. Every time prices make their annual 10% uptick (or as McKinsey types like to say, “uplift”), people complain that this will spell the end of their film use.

Yet they are still around to complain about it the next year.

You might find yourself chasing film that is a dollar less a roll. Today, TMY 135 (well, now 135TMY-2) costs 7.50 a roll for 18 rolls if commercially loaded — or $109 for enough raw film to load 18 cartridges (variable cost 6.05, plus 80 cents roll fixed cost for the first 18 cassettes you do (this is a function of their service life, which is 3 loadings). It is not entirely clear what bulk-loading gets you here – an opportunity for scratched film, the chance to expose a bulk roll while getting into the loader, losing consecutive frame numbers, and ending up with a cassette that is either missing DX codes or pops apart if you drop it. One thing it does not get you is an actual cost advantage, especially after you spend an hour or two cleaning and loading the cassettes for each 100 foot bulk roll.

But, yes, Kodak and now Ilford price bulk film high. So take it down a notch. Say you buy Ultrafine Xtreme (I’ll predict that when/if it comes back in 400, it will be $59 a roll). There, your variable costs drop to $3.33 a roll, for a total cost of $4.13. This is cheaper in dollars, no doubt, to the tune of $67 per 18 rolls of film.

That seems like a lot unless and until you start thinking about the rest of the process. Even if you priced your own labor at the aspirational minimum wage of $15, a day of shooting (call it four rolls of film – which would be optimistic for serious, non-pro photography) would incur:

  • Eight hours of taking pictures ($120)
  • Four rolls of film ($13.32)
  • Chemicals for processing (call it $4)
  • Two hours of processing the negatives ($30)

So in this calculation, which I think you’d agree is a best case, the choice between TMY commercially loaded and Ultrafine Xtreme is $16.68 out of $167.32, or roughly 10%. That assumes you get at least 3 uses from bulk cassettes and does not factor in the cost of a bulk-loader. Actually, it doesn’t factor in the 10 minutes it would take to bulk load the 4 rolls of film. But you get the picture. And if your day of sightseeing only yields one roll of film, you’ve saved maybe 2%.

Let’s move on to the bargain category where film is “almost as good.” Yes, Ultrafine is cheaper, but yes, you have to use more filtration on blue skies, which means that it is not quite as fast for landscape work. On some more primitive cameras, the sprockets sometimes rip out if you overstuff a film cassette. Even as a frequent Ultrafine user, I would comment that TMY is more than 10% better than Ultrafine, quantified however you want: true speed, negative toughness, ability to be pushed, sharpness, or fine grain.

Bulk loading is not the only place people seem to spin off into attempts at cost-savings. There seems to be a lot of pursuit of developing-world-quality film because it’s cheap. It’s great that [fictitious] Nemopan Stasi-Special Ortho 25 is back on the market, but remember, there was a reason Nemopan went out of business. It wasn’t just our hypothetical Nemopan that went out of business. A lot of top-quality companies like Agfa and Fuji also departed film manufacturing, leaving only two clear survivors. Oh yes, two survivors and a bunch of zombified brands trying to revive their glory days selling into command economies.

Is film at all helpful for risk management?

Get too close to APUG (whoops, Photrio), and you’ll get schooled about how digital is so much less archival than film. Just think, if there is that nuclear war, you can still see 35mm transparencies or prints (assuming, of course, they were not incinerated along with their owners). Or if for some reason every one of the ten hard drives you keep as backups failed to work. I would posit that if there were an event that wiped out all electronic devices, looking at vintage photos of any type would be a sixth-tier priority.

The archival superiority of film may or may not be true (having seen my share of faded film from the 1980s – I can’t say that it is), but what is definitely true is that film photography is risky. Every single thing in the film imaging chain involves a risk.

  • You could fat-finger your bulk loading.
  • You could drop a reloadable metal cassette and have the ends pop off.
  • You could get mishandled, spooled down bulk film.
  • You could absentmindedly open the camera midway through a roll of film.
  • Your subject could blink.
  • You could blow the exposure.
  • You could shoot an entire roll at the wrong speed.
  • You could set the wrong ISO on the meter.
  • You could blow it in development. Or your lab could.
  • You could ruin wet negatives.
  • You could even get defective factory-loaded film.

These things have small but real probabilities, and the terrifying range of ways things can go wrong continues to broaden with the passage of time. Everyone who has shot film over more than a couple of years has had at least one of these things happen. By comparison, a much smaller number of people has experienced an SD card failure.

A failure with film – because it stores a latent image until developed later – generally means the loss of a lot of time and often situations that cannot be repeated. It could be a foreign vacation. It could be a client job. It could be your young family. Time only marches in a forward direction, and subjects don’t like to redo whole projects.

Risk is part of life. Risk is definitely part of film photography. That’s fine. We all know that. But there is little that advocates for compounding risks by doing important things with untested cameras, with sketchy old film, etc.

Is film cheaper than digital?

I will confess to having been in the past a big proponent of the argument that film is cheaper than digital. That was true, seventeen years ago, when a 35mm negative could deliver a 24mp (4000dpi) scan and digital cameras like a D2x cost $4,500, cropped lenses to 1.5x and got to 12.4mp. The math went something like this: a digital camera is super-expensive, and processing regular pictures is y dollars a roll. All of that was true if your film camera was a sunk cost, and yes, in 2004 costs, it would take a lot of $3 film plus $12 processing to hit $4,500 (so 300 rolls of film, more than most people who shoot in their entire life).

But as Gen-X Luke Skywalker would say, every single word I just said is wrong (today).

First, in 2021, the idea of “film” as distinct from “digital” is specious. Since the early 2000s, almost every commercial output from color film has been digital. Minilabs have not used optical printing for decades now. Every negative gets scanned to become a print, even ones destined for chemical photo paper. Likewise, the home audience has to convert negatives or transparencies to digital to make them visible to any stranger other than magazine readers, gallery visitors, or slide-show watchers. Actually, getting into a print publication or a gallery almost always requires digitization for submission or curation.

Second, the sunk-cost equation has reversed. The “film is cheaper” argument was last effectively made before 2008, when camera phones started to stand in for point-and-shoot cameras. Today, a camera phone takes better pictures than any Canonet ever did, and those pictures are immediately ready for use on the internet. And nearly everyone in the developed world owns one. The “demise of digital,” as some would trumpet, is really more about the disappearance of lower-end digital cameras as separate appliances. If every phone is a digital camera, production is actually up year after year after year. In this context, entering film photography is the extra-cost exercise, usually starting with a film camera that — due to the magic of attrition — has become really expensive.

Finally, the price-to-performance equation firmly favors digital over 35mm. Labs don’t give away full-resolution scans with photo processing. That means you end up doing it yourself. A high-end 35mm film scanner pulls 4000dpi, or let’s call it 24 megapixels. If it’s a Nikon, you actually get almost that much useful information. A good film scanner costs about $2,000. To that, you can add from 4-8 dollars a roll for film and about an hour of scanning time per roll. A 24mp camera will set you back $400-1,000 these days, no extra cost. Want 42mp – which exceeds what anyone without a Flextight or drum scanner can do? How about $1,300?

You just can’t make the argument that film is “cheaper” with a straight face anymore. Fun, relaxing, and a change of pace – but not economical.

Guerilla darkroom 2020: what to do with all that stuff

So three months went by in the blink of an eye, and I didn’t get around to Part Deux. Ok. Better late than never. Now that you have your unreasonably large arsenal of cheap darkroom hardware in place, let’s talk about some developing techniques.

The Box-Step. I had a professor in graduate school, a colorful character, ex-Marine, current pilot, and general hellion. He would write obscene puns into his own seating chart and then read them back and ask what other hellion wrote them. And then chuckle. There was a Jennifer day. There were pokes at city-slickers who didn’t know what a screw augur was (I’m pretty sure that he left Nebraska before he ever saw one in person). But I digress. His greatest line was that in school, they make you think that everything would be [a tango] but that when you get to the real world, it’s all a [box-step]. The bracketed words here stand in for obscene descriptions of something else. If you’re over twelve years old, you’ll get the joke. But Professor X did have a point: there is too much fanciness and not enough solid technique. And that goes for developing.

Developer. Get out of your head that you are going to do 1+200 standing Rodinal development. Put pyrocatechol-whatever in the back of your mind. Caffenol. Copex Spur-whatever. Buy a packet of D-76 (or equivalent) or a bottle of HC-110 (1+31!) and take it from there. Dig up your film manufacturer’s data sheet. Not “the Massive Dev Chart,” which I can tell you firsthand has some unusual and very obviously wrong information in some entries. Start with basics. Start with the book. The brave men of Kodak and Ilford killed themselves working on these meticulous tables. Do honor to their memory.

Mixing. Mix your developer well. Don’t be afraid to use very warm water with D-76. It’s actually shockingly difficult to break, cooling time is harmless, and solidified powder at the bottom of a bottle is unrecoverable. Let your developer sit overnight so that it returns to room temperature.

Temperature control. Here’s a life hack: if your darkroom is within 5 degrees C of any of your data sheet’s developing times, you temperature control your developer (only) and leave the others at room temperature. This is part of the reason you let the developer sit overnight. Five degrees C is not enough to make a difference for stop bath, fixer, or anything else. Most basements seem to be at almost exactly 20 degrees C, which is why that is a good temperature to pick. Most tap water is easy to get close to 20º C because it is traveling through pipes in earth that is 20º C.

To rapidly warm developer, put the bottle in a tub of warm water and monitor the temperature periodically. Do not let the thermometer touch the sidewall of the bottle, and agitate the bottle every few minutes.

To rapidly cool developer, pour it over a reusable “ice pack,” be it the kind that is like a foil sheet of ice cubes or a solid blue plastic block. This way the temperature goes down without dilution. Otherwise, you can lower a plastic bag full of ice cubes into your container of developer to cool it down.

Development time. Like I said, if your room temperature is within range, pick the time/temperature combo on the data sheet and run with it. If you don’t have a data sheet, a good starting point for normal-ish developers and normal-ish b/w film is 7 minutes at 20º C.

How do you calculate that time? The first question is “small tank” or “big tank.” Generally, for an eight-reel Paterson, you’ll use the big tank. Surprisingly, you will be fine using that for the 2-reel version. Small versus large tank in Kodak parlance is mainly a function of how easy a container that size is to agitate. You will not be rapidly flicking 2.5L of liquid in a tank with one hand.

Do you start the timer when you start pouring developer in or when the tank is full? It actually doesn’t matter, as long as you always do it exactly the same way. I generally start the timer when the tank starts to sound full (you will hear a gurgle) and take the first couple of seconds of the timer to fill the top.

Fill level. The tank should always be full enough that at least 1/3 of the light-trap cone (this is Paterson, remember?) is filled with developer. Do not do the bare minimum. Modern films have surfactants (like soap) in them that make them wet more evenly. This means bubbles. And your bubbles must have a place to go, above the film. Unless you want weird dark spots on your clear 35mm skies.

The burp. Get that lid on. Press hard in the middle to force the air out and make a tight vacuum seal. Hit the bottom of the tank on something reasonably firm (but not concrete!) so that any air bubbles release from the film. Do an initial agitation per the instructions. Then open the lid and let the bubbles bubble over the sides of the light trap cone. Reclose and start your cycle.

Development and agitation. Programmatically, this is how I would execute a 7-minute development with a 2.5L (8-reel) tank. This is based on “large tank” assumptions. The large tank format provides less streaking through 35mm film holes, and you can pretend it is more like standing development. In my exercise, these are the times shown on the timer (any waterproof digital kitchen timer will do, preferably one that counts up after it runs down to 0).

  • 7:00 (not running yet) – start filling tank from a container that can pour fast, like a wide-mouth bottle (see previous article).
  • 7:00 – start timer with tank almost full.
  • 6:50 – agitate and “burp” the tank.
  • 6:05-6:00 – end over end 5x
  • 5:05-5:00 – end over end 5x
  • 4:05-4:00 – end over end 5x
  • 3:05-3:00 – end over end 5x
  • 2:05-2:00 – end over end 5x
  • 1:20-1:15 – last real agitation
  • 0:15 – pour straight down into a wide-mouth container
  • + 0:10 to +30 – fill with stop bath and rapidly agitate

You’ll note that this seems none-too-precise. The fact is that it takes about a 10% difference in developing time to make for an obvious difference in the end-negative (N+1 needs 25%, and N+2 generally 50% extra). 7 minutes is 420 seconds. So even if you have 15 seconds of “imprecision” in the process, it is not that impactful (example: how long is the stop bath taking to fill?).

If you can do the process consistently, then all you have to do after that is dial back your total time as needed to adjust the contrast of the negatives.

Push/pull processing. Shooting Tri-X 400 at EI 320 is pointless. It’s not significant for most purposes. Shooting Tri-X at 1600, though (see top picture here) can be helpful. Push processing generally brightens the highlights by making them more dense on negatives. It does not, repeat, does not really change the speed of the film, which is defined at midtones and below. So you tend to get normalish pictures from mid to high but a lot more blackness below middle grey. Pushing is good for overcast days or flat light; it is not very helpful if you generally lack light. Pulling supposedly improves shadow tones, but modern, straight-line films just need more exposure.

Standing processing. This is mainly for when you have an emergency or can’t identify what film is in that bulk canister. Standing processing tends to compensate all over the negative so you have a moderate tonal range. The downside is that it is a moderate tonal range that tends to defeat the “curve” built into the film and is miserable to print on RC paper. Standing processing takes a long time. Standing processing can lead to streaking. Standing processing sucks if you don’t actually need it. As a good friend of mine told me, standing development is good for taking pictures of lit filaments in lightbulbs and outside of that, covering screwups. Like communism, everyone thinks this would be a good idea if someone could just execute it correctly.

Pyrocatechol. Isn’t it amazing that a chemical that causes cancer can’t cure people’s poor photographic technique?

Caffenol/urinol. I’m not sure if the latter is real (I read about it in a lab book), but if you’re too cheap for HC-110 or Rodinal, you probably shouldn’t be using film.

Exhaustion. If you stick to 20 rolls of film per gallon of developer, it’s generally unnecessary to adjust the development times for successive batches. You pour the 2.5L of used back into the big container (1 gallon, 5L, etc.) and then pour from there for the next batch. Why does this work? Because 2.5L of developer is almost double what you actually need to develop 5 rolls of 120 or 8 rolls of 135. This is because exhaustion of developer is a function of film area (expressed by Kodak as square inches it’s about 80 for a roll of 120 or a roll of 135). It’s not how many rolls. It’s how much surface.

Stop bath. The only thing that stop bath does is change the pH of the film to arrest the development. Indicator is best. Ilford odorless is the best of those. You could probably use vinegar or even water to do this, but stop bath is cheap, and there is no reason to take chances.

Fixer. Fixer usually takes the solution back up to acid (a couple fixers are actually base in nature), which is why it is an archiving problem. Start with the fixing time on the bottle, but you can also take the cut (and undeveloped) end of a piece of film, drop it in the top of the tank, and monitor until it goes clear. Double that time, and your film is generally fixed.

Fixer does not take the purple stain out of film. It removes the unexposed silver, converts the exposed silver, and takes off the anti-halation backing, which is the milky opaque stuff on the back of the film. Anti-halo dye is generally removed by the developer and the fixer remover. And failing that, just put your b/w negatives in the sun for a little while.

Fixer remover and rinse. This process neutralizes the acid fixer and finishes off the dye. Take the light-trap cone out of the tank. Fill your tank with plain water and let it sit for a minute. Dump and refill with water plus a capful of Heico Perma-Wash. Let that sit for five minutes. Dump it out and see all that purple dye go down the drain. Your final rinse is 5 minutes or eight changes of water. That’s it.

Wetting agent. Photo-Flo 200 is designed to be used at 1:200. Try to understand what that means. Generally not more than half a cap to a tank. Too little, and it doesn’t work. Too much, and it gets gummy and nasty. May I recommend this? If your arm-span is long enough, hold the film in a U over a vat of water and Photo Flo. Run it back and forth in the U, dipping the “vertex” into the solution. This technique uses far less solution and also prevents Photo-Flo from getting all over your tank and reels. This U technique – which I cadged from an old Kodak instruction manual on developing orthographic film – helps make sure that the solution sheets off quickly, especially when you finish the cycle (I recommend 10-15 cycles of the U). For this solution, I would recommend distilled water with the Photo-Flo, although you can still get occasional water spots no matter how pure the water.

That wetting-agent contamination is not a big deal (note as above that “bubbling” when you add developer is actually coming from a coating on the film, not some insignificant amount of Photo-Flo residue), but it it doesn’t take much to hang up the little ball bearings in plastic reels.

Hang dry. Hang up your film in a reasonably humid area (basement or bathroom). This allows slower drying (less violent curling) as well as helps cut down on dust. Never, ever, never let drying negatives be so close to each other that they can kiss. If the emulsions get stuck together, it’s game-over.

See how you did. If your negatives are too dense overall, cut back on exposure. If they are thin but have blown-out highlights, you need more exposure. If they lack contrast, extend the development slightly. If they look bulletproof, cut the development slightly. This is a learning process. Note that in an era of scanning, overexposure is not your friend because scanners struggle with dense silver hightlights on negatives. For optical printing, you want normal if not beefier negatives, since there is a ceiling for improving contrast (5+ on Ilford papers).

Guerilla darkroom 2020: hardware selection

Well, it’s been almost 20 years since I’ve did any updates on the original Guerilla Darkroom on the old site, so let’s bring things forward to this year. I’ll assume that the purpose of your darkroom work is getting to negatives for scanning, though almost all of this applies to regular printing.

Goal: get finished negatives. Do not scratch. Don’t go broke. Use what you have on hand. This part will deal with the equipment side. The next installment will cover chemicals and some finer points of (or really, cheats at, technique).

Special hardware

The three critical pieces of infrastructure that you do not have at home are (1) a developing tank and reels; (2) a changing bag; and (3) a thermometer. Let’s take these in turn.

First, get a Paterson Super System 4 tank. A new one (old ones tend to get chipped around the base, and their locking lugs may be loose). A Paterson Super System 4 developing set (tank, agitator, 2 reels) is $34 on Amazon. It’s hard to beat that. Consider that you may want to develop more than one roll of 120 at a time; realistically, this calls for a Multi-Reel 5 or larger.

Don’t screw around with Samigon/AP/Arista clones of older Paterson System 4 stuff.

  • Old-style tanks are not much cheaper.
  • Old-style tanks share the vice of older System 4 tanks: using a gasket to seal, being really easy to cross-thread, and therefore leaking all the time. Super System 4 uses a rubber cap over the whole top, and its funnel/light trap bayonets in.
  • Super System 4 can be agitated using a key that fits through the hole in the “funnel.” This is like having a vertical Jobo.

Do not complain about how much tanks cost. Film photography is expensive. It is a luxury good. You picked this path. Tanks are a critical piece of the developing puzzle.

Steel tanks are functional and use less liquid, but they require a lot more skill in loading film onto their reels. The big argument for steel has been that plastic reels degrade over time. That’s not borne out by my experience; I have some plastic reels that are 20 years old now – and still reliably load 120 film. It all boils down to keeping the ball-bearings clean and not warping the reels through hot water or abuse. Steel reels also are single-size: so you have reels for 35mm and reels for 120, and never do the twain meet.

As to reels, there is little to recommend actual Paterson-brand reels (except that they are basically free with the Paterson kit pictured above). Any compatible type will work, with Samigon/AP/Arista reels being slightly less nice but having a slight edge for newbies because they have loading ramps. Note that with these ramps, you will have to separate the two halves of the reel to safely remove the developed film. With no ramps, you can flex it out if careful.

Second, get a big changing bag. You will use this in lieu of a darkroom for film work. Some bags at Adorama, for example, can hold a Paterson 8-reel tank. To be frank, there is nothing to recommend finding an actual dark room. The inevitable result is that you notice little pinhole light leaks and freak out. Or you get disoriented and misplace things. With a changing bag, you are no worse off for not being able to see what you are doing, plus you can watch television while you load reels. Just don’t wear your Apple Watch or your tritium-lumed vintage watch. Actually, you shouldn’t do that in any circumstance where you are loading film into tanks.

Do not waste time trying to improvise a changing bag. Yes, there are Depression-era guides that tell you that they can be fashioned from sweatshirts, etc., but film had a much lower speed back then, and if you get light-struck film, you waste all of the efforts you made shooting pictures in the first place.

Finally, get a good glass thermometer that can go several degrees above or below 20C and has fractional gradations (recommended: Paterson PTP381, 15C to 65C). Metal thermometers are sometimes hard to read, can fog up, and never seem to be as accurate. You won’t break the glass thermo as long as you keep it in its square-profile tube. This is $25-30 well spent, since an accurate thermometer can mean the difference between usable and unusable negatives. Overly dense negatives are not fun for printing and really not fun for scanning.

Other hardware (not so specialized)

Timer. Could be anything that can be set for a time between 1 and 7 minutes. LCD kitchen timers are great. Anything that disappears when not stimulated (like the iPhone clock app) is not. Try getting that phone unlocked with wet hands. The Massive Dev Chart app has timers built in. And noises. And klaxons. We’re easily amused.

Film leader retriever. This can be used for two different operations. One, you can retrieve and trim the leader square at the end (if you bulk load film, and your camera has a rubberized takeup spool, you may have just left it square). Bonus points for rounding the corners to make the film load smoother into the reel. Two, you can pull all the film out of the cartridge, which obviates opening the cartridge (generally something you would do with a bottle opener – caps are crimped on really, really hard). Many people reload commercial cartridges by leaving a little film out and attaching the new film to that. Here is the Ars Imago (B&H house brand?) version ($10), which is the latest knockoff of the classic:

Scissors. You can use any household scissors. I would recommend something sharp that cuts straight. So not pinking shears.

Measuring vessel. A 1000ml graduated cylinder is customary. If you use HC-110, gradation in ounces may be more practical (since you mix 4 oz of developer to 124oz water to get 1+31, i.e., dilution B). If you want to see a real artifact of the past, some British grads have imperial ounces as well as US ounces and mL.

If you want to get really lazy, you can measure exactly 1 gallon of water into your storage bottle (or 4L, etc.) and mark with a line where the water level is. Dump out the water. From then on, you only measure the concentrated developer and simply fill with water to the line. Surprisingly, or maybe not, the width of a chisel-tip marker line is precise enough. Make sure you use this special bottle on a level surface.

Storage bottles. Bad news here: the thin 1-gallon bottles used for distilled water make really poor darkroom storage bottles. They do not seal well, and the thin plastic is permeable to oxygen. That said, if you are not storing chemicals for more than a month, no problem. Eventually, you will want to save any 1 gallon or 5 liter bottle from store-bought photo chemicals and repurpose it for storage of diluted chemicals. For example, I have an old Photographers Formulary TF-4 concentrate bottle that I user to store diluted Ilford fixer.

Dump bottles. Your life will be a lot more fun if you can quickly dump chemicals when you change stages of developing. The dollar store had some cylindrical 1-gallon cereal containers marked off in liters and fractions of a gallon. With a 20cm opening, these can catch your dumped chemicals. Key qualities of a dump bottle:

  • Has a wide mouth so that a tank inverted above it will dump straight down.
  • Holds at least 2.5L of liquid – the capacity of the biggest developing tank – and preferably a gallon – 3.8L – because you can also use it to mix chemicals. Try stirring chemicals through the opening on a milk jug.
  • Has straight sides.
  • Has something to hold onto (like indentations) and is not slippery. Developer is basic (not acidic), and you will find that like soap, it makes everything it touches slick.

These do not need elaborate seals or even really to be airtight because you are not using these to store chemicals. Having lids is preferable

Kitchen-type funnel. You already have this, though I don’t recommend using it for food or drink thereafter. If you have a spare Paterson “cone” for a developing tank, that also makes a good funnel.

Drying rack. For rolls of 24 frames or 120 film, you might find that a rolling laundry rack with a “grid” style top shelf is very practical (if you already have one). You can clothespin the film to the grid, and use more clothespins to weight the film ends. Film does not curl as aggressively as it used to, so you don’t need weights.

If you don’t have a rack like this, your “top” can be made from a two-clip trouser hanger that you already have in your closet – and hung off whatever is convenient (overhead pipes, usually).

36 frames of film require a lot of space and long arms. This requires being hung from the ceiling.

Not critical.

There are several things you can dispense with:

  1. Squeegees. These come packed with some older developing sets. They can be used to dry film faster. They are also good at scratching film if you don’t keep them clean. With the right wetting agent and a not-too-dry environment, film dries on its own in about an hour anyway.
  2. Weighted film clips. Not really needed.
  3. Hose-type rinsing attachments. If you use hypo-clear, the wash time for 35mm is not very long anyway. Plus these attachments tend not to fit any modern faucet. The longer you run water, the more likely you will have a temperature transient that can ruin your film.
  4. Forced-air dryers. If you are a photojournalist in 1965, and you have to rush out that print for the rotogravure section. yes. Otherwise, they are space- and energy-intensive. And are actually frustratingly slow.
  5. Sous vide heaters. Much the rage for color, if your bent is black-and-white, you don’t need any artificial temperature control. I’m as much a fan as anyone of using kitchen tools, but you can leave this one alone.

Fadeout: Ilford Pan F Plus

If you’ve never wondered what it’s like to be at a stage of your life where you feel like you are just waiting to die, I recommend bulk-loading Ilford Pan F Plus and not using all of it before the end of summer. When the light gets poor, using up a roll of film this slow can be as excruciating as watching your grandmother shooting a single roll of 110 film over three Christmases.

Pan F Plus is described as “35mm, ISO 50, high contrast, super sharp black & white film with very fine grain. Ideal for studio photography and bright, natural light.” It has considerable charm and makes great pictures:

  • It includes fine grain and a ton of contrast, no matter what you use to develop it (HC-110 dilution B, however, has a very, very short development time).
  • It also makes it easy to shoot outdoor pictures with phenomenally shallow depth of field (witness above, a 50/1.4D AF Nikkor).
  • It holds overcast skies reasonably well.

It’s a classic b/w film, with a classic film speed. It is not a specialist film, as some might claim. It’s actually what a normal film would have been 50 to 70 years ago. It’s no Tech Pan. As a historical note, the Kodak closest product would have been Panatomic-X at a blistering 32 ASA, discontinued in 1987. Panatomic-X was also a general purpose film.

If you shoot medium format, an ISO 50 film can be something of a hair shirt, since it is difficult to get hand-holdable exposure with lenses that often have f/3.5, 4.5, or smaller apertures unless it’s a bright, sunny day. And sadly, most medium- and large-format lenses perform poorly wide-open. Shooting this with a medium-format SLR? Hope you have a sturdy tripod. Thirty-five millimeter, though, gives you fast lenses – which makes things more fun.

That said, the most curious – and soul-crushing – feature of Pan F Plus is its tendency to disappear. The impact of this image fragility is that you pretty much have to develop what you shoot, as soon as possible after you shoot it.

Although this keeps your photos current (by force!), you also find that it’s just as much work to develop one roll of film as eight. I asked Ilford for an explanation of why latent images fade so much faster than with any other film. My smartarse best-guess hypotheses were:

  • Somebody made a bad bet with the panchromatic doping back in 1992, and nobody bothered to change the formula to keep the image longer.
  • Kodak fans like to joke that Ilford makes the second-best product for any application, and Panatomic-X has left the room. Of course, the same Kodak fans like to needle poor old Tri-X, too.
  • Being owned by a pension fund (or venture capital company) means never having to say you’re sorry. Unfortunately, the income-generating pressures on both Kodak and Ilford have borne this out: some product has disappeared, and everything has become more expensive. Because shareholders.

The actual answer is (direct from Ilford staff – hooray for answering!):

a compromise with some other desirable characteristics. The basic formulation is probably the closest to the original of all our film emulsions even though it was updated several years ago. We have customers who are very attached to its particular curve shape and any emulsion redesign would inevitably change that so we are reluctant to touch it at the moment. However, we do review all our products and it is likely that at sometime in the future we will probably either update Pan F+ or replace it.

The note went on to explain that you should refrigerate the film after exposure to forestall this. Some of these points are expected (people liked the look…. refrigeration slows down chemical activity), and some are puzzling (it sounds like some Ilford formulas changed a lot). I like this answer. It means that one day, forgetting a roll or two of shot film will not spell disaster.

But you have to wonder: if I waited long enough, could I keep shooting the same roll of film over and over and over again, and only develop it when I had shot 36 frames I liked?

Of course, during a quarantine, anything passes the time.




Did we ever really understand film?

One of the coolest developments ever. But do we know what to do with it?

The word Columbusing has become a thing for describing the phenomenon by which a person believes that he is discovering something that in reality had always existed. It certainly seems possible that this is happening when people try to write reviews of cameras or films. I have now read hundreds of the film reviews in particular, and as an old-time Gen Xer, I realize that these writers are in a position to do one thing: demonstrate whether they as photographers can get a good image out of the material. The rest is of limited use.

Cachet qua cachet

Often, but not always a film review article will take this rough agenda. I think if you go back on my old site via the Wayback Machine, you may even find me doing this (though at the time I was writing about film, the cachet step wasn’t there, since almost all of today’s discontinued films were still sold then… In the early 2000s, when most of those pages were being written, film was just starting its tailspin.

Cachet signaling. This is the prelude. Usually consists of a description discussing how “those in the know” understand Film X (likely discontinued before the author ever picked up a camera, or in some cases was born), some information cobbled together from Google searches, and how the author came into possession of the now-expired film of unknown history, storage conditions, etc.

The low-sample test. Film X is frequently shot with a camera of significant vintage and unknown meter accuracy, sometimes used in conjunction with a meter of a certain age. Film is either commercially processed or done once, whether by the book, by guess, or by the Massive Film Development Chart (which can also be a crapshoot). Bonus points are awarded for random-guess compensations for the film’s age. Double secret bonus points if a restrainer is involved.

Abstraction to what the film is “about.” Author concludes that Film X is magical for xyz reason and that you should pay some scalper (or re-labeler) big time to get it.

Just stop here for a second. I am impressed at how good some of these writers are at photography. They have an eye. They can take a good picture and make a pleasing output. But nothing else they are doing is very instructive because their experience is not accurate or repeatable.

Call it a generational thing (or maybe half-generational) thing. As a group, Baby Boomers walked away from film photography and neither preserved nor transmitted decades of institutional knowledge on the subject. Most Gen X people know film as something you would shoot and take in to be processed. Even for them, unless they made pictures professionally or for a hobby, film photography became disposable as soon as digital became cheap. Which brings us to the millennial children of boomers: a knowledge discontinuity leads to satisfying feelings of discovery. But just as Columbus’ setting foot on Hispaniola did not mean a “new world” for peoples who were already there, superficial film reviews provide little (and really no) novel information.

Do b/w films really have looks?

But let’s back up to something in the cold light of day: with a few exceptions that came really late in the day, film was never really designed to have an aesthetic “look.” It was always designed to have a function. That drove aesthetics. To a point.

Almost 20 years into the 21st century, conventional black-and-white film has no real mysteries. For most of recorded history, film followed a pretty regimented set of tradeoffs: slower film had finer grain and finer tonal rendition. Things got grainier and lost dynamic range as film increased in speed. Although tablet grained b/w films helped increase performance, most of what you see in black and white films is the product of design tradeoffs rather than some deliberate aesthetic proposition.

Recall that the basis of film photography was science. I would suggest that, after a lot of time developing film, the differences between films of a given type and speed are actually relatively minor compared to the effects of varying developer, time, temperature, and agitation. Let’s take an example: Tri-X and TMY are different films, right, Tri-X with an S curve and TMY straight? Here is that classic Tri-X characteristic curve.

Ok, and here is your philistinic, “robot,” “soulless,” TMY, also developed in D-76:

Now develop both in T-Max developer and overlay the curves (black is TX, red is TMY). Don’t have a heart attack, but there are far more similarities than differences in response. Maybe a minute’s difference in developing time. Oh no…

But wow, this was like the holy of holy in differences in “look,” right?Nothing should be very surprising here; tablet-shaped film grains aside, the reaction of silver halide molecules to photons has not changed at all in 150 years of film photography.

So today, some films are grainier than others, some are contrastier than others, some are faster than others, normalized for a developer. But the choice and deployment of developer (if not also every other step of the output chain) can hugely influence or obliterate the “curve” which is the seat of the “look.” In other words, film is just a variable, and from a tone and grain standpoint, perhaps it’s far less of one than we thought.

Did consumers ever actually understand color film?

When you get to color film, things get more complicated because these start with silver halide, which is bleached out and functionally replaced with organic dyes. Color dyes are fickle.

When it was still made in a bunch of varieties, color negative film itself was somewhat inscrutable to anyone but pros and the very serious amateur. Moderately skilled (or more accurately, moderately informed) photographers knew that some types of film were better at skin tones than others (such as Kodak Vericolor III), but for the Joe Average, who had a skill level equivalent to most people writing about film, pretty much every C-41 negative film went through a minilab/printer, which was a highly automated way for drugstore personnel to make magic from your little canister and hopefully not destroy the negatives in the process. If you were a pro, you would send your film out to a pro lab where professionals would make magic from your little canisters of film and hopefully not destroy the negatives in the process.

Although competing brands of film within a certain type (color negative, color slide) used different methods of getting to the “right” color, skin tones were the pivot. Color, oddly, never really got more differentiated than high-contrast/saturation (Velvia, Portra VC, etc.) and regular (Provia, Ektachrome, Portra NC…).

Did you ever notice how much people hate on Kodak ProImage 100 for being excessively grainy and undersaturated? Aside from slight desaturation, it’s essentially where 100-speed film was when people stopped putting money into developing 100-speed consumer color film. The point-and-shoot camera – typically with a slow lens – put a high premium on 400-speed performance, and that’s where manufacturers went. The faster film got to the point where Kodak HD200 and 400 were far smoother than good old GA-135. Here is an easy conversion from consumer to prosumer to pro:

  • Gold 100 gen 4 » Extinct » ProImage 100 (rebalanced)
  • Gold 200 gen X » ColorPlus
  • Gold 400 gen 6 » some other steps » Gold Max 400
  • Ektar 125 » Ektar 100 » Royal Gold 100 » Extinct » Ektar 100
  • Royal Gold 200 » Kodak HD200 » Extinct
  • Ektar 400 » Royal Gold 400 » Kodak HD400 » Extinct
  • Vericolor III » Portra 160NC » New Portra 160
  • Portra 160VC » Replaced by New Portra 160
  • Portra 400NC » New Portra 400
  • Portra 400VC » Replaced by New Portra 400
  • Portra 400UC » Extinct

Slide film might have been even more mysterious — and represented a medium that spanned the absolute best professional photography and the worst amateur work feared by man. And nothing in between. You either had it or you didn’t. Transparency film was sold in large quantities to tourists and people wanting to shoot color in the really old days. Which made a lot of sense when a goddamn color photograph was a big deal, even if it took 6/12/36 exposures to get one good one. Kodachrome was a tri-layer black and white film that got an infusion of dye during processing. Slow, sharp, permanent, and capable of delivering a nice looking picture assuming the constellations were lined up. And if they weren’t, blown highlights, blocked shadows, and blue. Slides were the ultimate measure-twice, cut-once medium — but few people bothered to measure. Ektachrome and Fujichrome made it cheaper and easier to generate huge boxes of vacation slides that no one wanted to see — and ultimately faded out transparencies that no one could see.

Today, unless you plan to look at tiny positives backlit by homemade ground glass after the Zombie Apocalypse, or have brought some friends over, Buffalo Bill style, to watch vacation pictures projected on a screen (“it puts the slides in the carousel”), digital photography does everything slide film did – but better. Where you can vary the ISO, get more dynamic range, infinitely adjust contrast and saturation, and crop at will, it’s hard to make the argument that Ektachrome came back for anything but nostalgia and motion pictures. Which is a worthy reason. Let’s just not pretend it’s scientific.

In addition to allowing things to happen that could never happen with a filter-based minilab, the rise of the Fuji Frontier in the late 1990s was really the nail in the coffin of film-awareness. With hyper-sharpening, dynamic range compression, and ultimately, smart automatic operation, the Frontier made every photo look perfect. The technology is not unlike how people deal with negatives today: develop, scan, print (in the case of the Frontier, onto photo paper, using a laser). Today, the Frontier’s weirdly regimented view of the world lives on in the hackneyed wedding presets used on Lightroom by an army of semiprofessional shooters using Canon 5Ds.

And if you remember old film packaging, there is the warning that “color dyes in time may fade” (Gospel of Eastman Kodak, K41:1). Everything on earth is capable of influencing the colors and balance of color films: lot, storage temperature, age, exposure, environmental radiation, magnetic fluids, and phlogiston. The same goes for the output media, which if you’ve seen old Fujichrome slides, can be interesting.

That’s part of why the support infrastructure was so complicated, whether it was a minilab computer or CC10, 20, and 30 filters in cyan, magenta, and yellow. And why pros – once they had a particular lot of film dialed in – like a particular lot of Ektachrome – they stayed with it as much as possible. And even pros sometimes had to lean on color correction experts at labs to make every one of those Glamour Shots® perfect.


Hopefully you have not found this discussion offensive, but as an almost old person, I am not at all hesitant to tell you that everyone in their 20s has a Dunning-Kruger delusion when it comes to the technical aspects of photography. As someone who was there for the twilight of mainstream film photography, I would mostly observe that until the bitter end, film R&D was aimed at making the medium a neutral one that could be manipulated via development, printing, or even scanning – and that today, you can easily mistake random errors for some intentional aesthetic balance.

Browniegate: In hoc signo vinces

20190103_204435.jpgWell, you have that day where you feel like you want to step off the film train. Oddly enough, it was not because some digital sensor came along with massive resolution, or film hit $8 a roll, or the EU outlawed developing chemicals. Or you name the calamity.

Here, it was the product of well-meaning backward-compatibility. I had this thought as I was looking at a roll of TMY shot with a Silvestri H that probably cost $10,000 new. It uses standard-style roll backs made by Mamiya that are bulletproof and have nicely spaced frames. The pictures themselves were sharp, undistorted, and perspective-corrected. But they were ruined for optical printing because backing paper numbers – useful only to people with red-window cameras – transferred onto the emulsion. I felt like Constantine the Great, kinda. I looked in the sky, and the sign of “Kodak 14” was shining down on me. In this sign you will [be] conquere[d].

Browniegate (let’s give it a good name, at least) occurred because Kodak had an issue with backing paper on 120 film (this affected some lots made between 2-4 years ago). Environmental conditions could cause backing paper frame numbers to transfer onto the emulsion of the film and show up in low-density areas, especially the sky. Lomographers probably loved this. Everyone else, not so much.

Kodak handled this reasonably well (but not optimally),* and it has been very good about replacing defective film. Given that they had few choices for backing paper (1-2 suppliers of this worldwide) and that they probably couldn’t anticipate the full range of environmental abuse film might experience in storage, I cut them some slack. We all accept that any time we use film, we could end up with no pictures. Grab the fix instead of the developer. Leave a rear lens cap on. We’ve all been there. But the backing paper thing is not within user control. Unlike the bad roll of film that comes up every hundred thousand rolls of film, the frame number thing hits more often. It’s not like lightning. It’s more like a tornado ripping through farm country.

The what is one thing. But the why is another. Laying aside bad material choices by the backing paper manufacturer, the underlying issue is that frame numbers on paper backing were last needed for serious cameras in the 1950s (the Super Ikonta C may be the last one), and the ruby-window method of seeing what frame you are on persists mainly in (1) Brownie cameras whose design goes back to 1895; (2) Lomography-oriented products; and (3) current large-format roll holders that should know better. There is actually no excuse for this last category, since there is no patent for frame counters that is still valid, and roll backs are only made in LCCs now. It’s the support of these older and cheaper cameras that requires frame numbers past #1 – and in a weird way, the shadow of the 19th century is still causing problems in the 21st.

The bigger question this begs is this: if backward compatibility is a significant part of the business case for 120, does that mean that when the ruby-window market fizzles out, it will take serious medium-format photography with it? Best not to think about that.

*By not optimally, it would be nice to have a new catalogue number for new backing paper, so that people trying to buy film from B&H for critical use would not get stuck with old product – like I did when I was going to Singapore, bought 20 rolls of TMY in March 2019, got 158xxx TMY, and had backing number transfers on every roll of film, with up to 75% of 6×4.5 frames being affected on any given roll. Or maybe use a laminated paper that has punched-out numbers and not printed ones. 


Punching your way into film identification

So the usual has happened. You have a pile of undeveloped film. Maybe you didn’t note the processing (N, N+1, N+2) or maybe it’s bulk loaded film that has no label on the cassette (for example, you might find it very easy to confuse Ilford Pan F Plus 50 with Ultrafine Xtreme 400). Or you can’t remember what order you shot film. Of course, the difficulty is that unless you somehow identify the film canisters, you’ll mix things up. And even then, once film is out of the canister and developed, there is rarely a persistent indicator of what happened. Data backs for 35mm cameras are something of a pain, they don’t record everything, and almost all of them are going extinct in 2018. Buy a Nikon F6 that records exif data? It’s a little late in the game for that.

The solution: the $5 arts & crafts hole punch and a $5 film-leader puller

One perhaps non-obvious solution is to permanently mark the film leader. You obviously can’t do this with a pen because the writeable part of the film will get washed off in processing.

The most effective way I have found to achieve this is with craft hole punches, which come in various hole sizes (1/16, 1/8, and 1/4″ – 1.5mm, 3mm, or 6mm), as well as a variety of shapes (round, hearts, stars, diamonds). As long as you make the marks on a part of the leader that will not be discarded (so not the long thin tongue part on commercially loaded film), these will survive the development process and won’t go anywhere until you snip them off. The uses are numerous:

— Bulk-loaded film: If you punch the leaders with a distinctive mark, you can avoid mistaking one type of film for another. For example, where it is very easy to confuse bulk-loaded Ultrafine Xtreme 400 and Ilford Pan F Plus, punching the Ultrafine with a heart will help you avoid mixing things up when loading your camera.

— Processing regime: If you are going to push-process film, punching the leader with a mark (such as a star) either before or after exposure will help prevent you from mixing up your N, N+1, and N+2 films. If you need to, you can use a leader-retriever to pull the leader out and mark it after fully rewinding.

— Order the film is shot: If you can’t imprint the first frame of a roll with a data back, you can use a number of punches to signify the order in which the roll is shot. You can even do this before you shoot the film.

— Camera or lens used: no data back records focal length, and camera bodies of the same make – assuming they even have a film-gate cutout for identification – use the same cutout (for example, Konica bodies usually have a triangle notched into the edge of each frame).

# # # # #


[Pola]roid rage

[2012-09-11] The latest piece of arcania to be pulled back from the edge of extinction is Polaroid pack film (3×4 film in a metal pack). The original was consistent so long as you walked along the razor’s edge of exposure, development, and shooting film that was in-date. The cameras were largely expensive (about $1,000 in today’s dollars), underfeatured by today’s standards (though aperture-priority AE was pretty cutting edge), and oversized. Polaroid pack film died a pretty rapid death as a consumer item, but it lived on for decades as a pro proofing tool (many old medium format cameras supported Polaroid backs that provided test images of varying sizes).

The original Polaroid films failed to develop and picked up color casts almost the very day they went out of date. Nevertheless, people pay big money on Ebay for expired Polaroid films to make intentionally bad pictures. Haven’t these people been schooled on Hipstamatic? This author will not descend into the fray of whether “vintage” or “distressed” photos are saving or destroying photography, but once you decide the look, why not choose the cheapest thing that achieves it?

Fuji picked up the baton with 100-speed color and black and white films and 3000-speed color. These films are, by any measure, better than the originals. The FP100C, in particular, is insensitive to overdevelopment, reasonably insensitive to overexposure, comes with long expiration dates, and almost never suffers from uneven development. It also comes with 10 shots per pack instead of the 8 of Polaroid. Amazing. The best part is that in bulk, FP100C is actually a lot cheaper than the Polaroid products it replaced. There is no more print/neg or extended range film, but Fuji is unbeatable for the volume products.

Limited choices

Let’s talk about the things that shoot Polaroid/Fuji pack film. As a preliminary point, you should really approach buying instant hardware the same way you should approach a relationship based primarily on sex: invest as little emotion as possible in it. Part of it is that you never know when Fuji is going to quit making the film (so don’t be left holding the bag, so to speak). Part of it is that Fuji’s film offerings are limited. And part of it is that as much as you fantasize about shooting in manual all the time, a well-calibrated automatic pack camera can deliver more consistent and reliable results (on calibration, see “Rehabilitation” and below).

1. Really big, really heavy interchangeable-lens cameras. The big three of Polaroid-capable cameras are the Polaroid 600SE; Mamiya Universal with Polaroid backs, Graflex XL with the Polaroid film back. These have the best viewfinders, the best lenses, and the best overall quality. They are also expensive and should come with gift certificates for chiropractors. These cameras can also take medium-format film (with the right adaptor on the 600SE). These have no meters and require no batteries. They have synch for electronic flash. You will get first-rate results for the lenses, all of which were designed in an era where Polaroid made a print-negative film, where a negative could be fixed and projection printed. Today, with the “enlargement” limited to about 3×4 inches, the optics on these cameras arguably are overkill.

If you want a good solution with minimal hacking, try a Graflex 4×5 Speed Graphic with the Polaroid 405 back (4×5 mounting plate, takes pack film). You get macro, rise and limited fall, tilt, and even rangefinder operation. Plus it looks like an awesome retro press camera. Because it is.

At the end of the day, anything that can be adjoined to a Polaroid back can be used as a pack-film camera. In fact, when you consider poor film flatness of pack film and the low precision of the packs (which unfortunately define your film plane), all of the 600SE’s specialization may be superfluous.

2. The 180/190/185/195. The 180, 185 and 190 (European 180) have the combined Zeiss viewfinder; the 195 (like the NPC remake of the 185**) has the two-window Polaroid finder (which is brighter but less convenient to use). They predominantly have relatively fast* Tominon lenses (who? oh, yeah, large format lenses don’t have to be that good…) with an oddball shutter that has two sets of leaves for extra light-tight-ness. They have x-synch, which is good for flash photography.

*for a Polaroid. The lenses range between a screaming f/3.8 or f/4.5. The 185 has an f/5.6 Mamiya lens – but given that Edwin Land made these for his friends, I’d bet the farm they are a lot better than the slightly faster Tominons.

**which aside from the name actually most resembles the 195 in features. The NPC remake is a much heavier-duty camera with a fixed, two-window rangefinder. The “185” appears to be a nostaglia touch for the Japanese market. If you want to buy an original 185, there is one on Ebay for the price of a small car. And no matter how many years into the future you read this article, it will probably still be there at that price.

These are cameras that you want to believe in. After all, the industrial design is incredible. The 180 in particular is a very elegant camera. But the genes of the automatic color pack cameras come out just like red hair and freckles (in fact, I have now been informed by two sources that Polaroid had parts and procedures for converting a 250 to a 180 and a 350 to a 190). The extension mechanism and focusing mechanism feel flimsy compared to the 110A/B or a Crown Graphic; the bellows are made of poor-quality material,* and the viewfinder (when it is properly aligned) looks cool and works well. But for $500 to $600, these are the best cameras if size and weight are driving your decision making.

*polyurethane for the cheapo pack camera; rubberized cheapo fabric material for the expensive cameras. I got a chuckle out of the fact that my 190 has grommets on the left side of the bellows – this would be used for the match-needle meter in the 185; apparently Polaroid was too cheap to make a separate 190 bellows!

Maintenance might be an issue (even more than it is with mechanical leaf-shutter cameras). These cameras typically are sold on Ebay by estate sale scavengers who believe that these are worth their weight in gold. The more-complicated-than-normal shutter design also pretty much guarantees that maintenance will be expensive and hard to arrange. This is not the kind of shutter that you squirt lighter fluid into, Ed Romney-style (if you do, I recommend quickly firing an old 200-volt Vivitar 283 using the sync port – you’ve already ruined the camera, so why not see it literally go up in flames?).

3. The 110A/110B/120 (originally designed for 30-series films). These cameras, if they have not been converted to pack film, are completely worthless (though the scavengers fail to comprehend this). The A has separate viewfinder/rangefinder windows and the B has them combined. Do not confuse the 110A and 110B with useless Polaroids such as the original 80*, 80A, 80B, 95, 95A, 95B**, 100, 110, 150, 160, 700, 800, 850, 900, J-33, J-66. Although these lesser cameras have the same basic chassis, they are either missing modern rangefinders or repairable lens/shutter assemblies – don’t pay a dime for them unless you are replacing a broken part from your 110A/B. The 120 is a “good” camera, essentially a 110B made in Japan. That said, the 110A/B came from an era when America was going places and everything had progressive, if not space-age names: Inconel-X, Rocketdyne, Johnsonite, Avanti. For the 120, Japan was also going places: postwar recovery.

*The Model 80 was called the “Highlander.” If there can only be one, then why did Polaroid make three?

** “Speedliner.” Based on this name, which sounded like a variety of Hudson 4-6-4 locomotive with aero cowlings, there was no chance this camera would make it out of the 1950s alive.

They are big, heavy cameras for which no native film is made (and has not been for decades). Converting them to pack film always requires the application of a hacksaw (or, more likely, bandsaw) and leaves a camera that – by modern standards – is big, heavy, relatively unwieldy to hold and focus, and they don’t really do anything that a 180-type camera does not. And these conversions are rarely pretty (Exceptions: Alpenhause and, which both generate nicely finished units in a variety of colors). That the Ysarex was special because it had lanthanum glass is something of a modern myth: this came into vogue in the 1950s and 1960s, and many modern, high-performance lenses don’t have it. Rodenstock was not a high-quality, high-volume producer at the time – and the Ysarex was a 4×5 lens that was ported over (a 127mm was a common normal lens focal length for 4×5). According to one account I heard, Polaroid used the Ysarex because it was cheap if bought in bulk. How many Rodenstock lenses do you remember from 1950s and 1960s cameras? My bet is not many. Some Retina IIa cameras had Heligons, but that’s about it…

Conversions of the 110A/B cameras come in various other flavors, including taking 600SE backs (which bulks up the camera pretty considerably) and using 4×5 backs (and onto many of these, you can still adapt a 405 pack film holder or a standard rollfilm holder from a Speed Graphic – but why?!).

All of that said, the lens is well above the performance level of the automatic pack cameras, and the folding mechanism is rock-solid. From a mechanical standpoint, these make the 180/185/190/195 look a little wimpy (except for the NPC remakes, which are a lot less elegant but a lot more butch).

4. The 250/350/360/450. We’ll call these the “automatic pack cameras.” In general, these have a folding design, coated glass triplet 114mm f/8.8 lenses (about a 40mm in 35mm terms), an electronic shutter that runs from 10 sec to 1/1200 sec, six apertures (waterhouse stops) that are activated by permutations of an ASA setting and two scene settings. Bodies are stainless steel (or chromed plastic; I’ll let you hacksaw one to find out).

Depending on the model, you may get features like a mechanical or electronic development timer (neither of which really works for Fuji film with its 3-minute development time), distance-calibrated bulb flash (450), or distance-calibrated electronic flash (360). With the exception of the 360, these are not designed to be used with electronic flashes, but they can be converted with a small amount of effort.

This category also includes cameras such as the 100, 440, etc., but for reasons to be discussed below, they are not high-featured enough to merit the time and trouble of making them work.

5. All the rest. Polaroid made a lot of things that can be classified as garbage: varying combinations of plastic lenses, zone focus, and flashbulbs (but all of them shoot better and cheaper than a Holgaroid…). These cameras appear primarily designed to sell at a price point and to move as much Polaroid colorpack film as possible.* As you may have surmised, consumables are a big business – ask Fujifilm, which makes no hardware but sells millions of packs of peel-apart film a year. The one bright spot in the old stuff is the Big Shot, which uses X-synched flashcubes, has a long snout, and fixed-focus rangefinder. A favorite of Warhol, it is an eBay cause celebre.

* Were the names designed to be ironic? I mean, really, what “Reporter” would use a zone-focused folding camera that used flashcubes? Was the “Square Shooter” designed to photograph the non-hip? Some things are clear from the names: the “Big Swinger” is clearly designed with some capability for recording orgies. Let me know when you figure it out.

Konica made its Instant Press and Fuji made its FP-1 Fotorama. These Japanese cameras are expensive, provincial, and have a lot more in common with the 110A/B than they do with anything else.

Dying a most timely death

Let’s talk about the automatic pack cameras (250, 350, 450 and similarly-shaped autoexposure cameras). Many – most – Ebay sellers do not know how to test these. They buy them at garage sales, listen to see if they click, and then label them as “refurbished” or “converted.” These estate-sale pickers are fairly easily identified by their Ebay IDs or how they list the items (“I don’t know much about cameras, but this works…”). They may disclaim that they can test them at all due to “the film [or batteries] not being made anymore” (both of these claims are actually untrue). Stay away from these people. You may be paying a lot in shipping to receive a non-functional camera, paying for one or more packs of film and a battery to unsuccessfully test it, and then paying a bit to send it back. If you are really serious about these cameras, you might want to pay a bit more to get one from a reputable source (like Option8 on Ebay, otherwise found at

Let’s take the causes of death in turn.

First, the autoexposure system in every one of these cameras is based on a CdS cell that can go bad over a few decades, letting through too much current in low light. This causes a capacitor to fill prematurely – leading to underexposed pictures. This was a common enough problem that the Polaroid service manuals of the era specifically called that out as a failure part – when the cameras were only a decade old. Imagine what they are like at 40. There is no replacing these cells today, and the failure of a CdS cell is not usually a constant adjustment between dark and light scenes (this is compounded by the fact that the film itself has a non-linear response to light that is driven by the shortness of the exposure). The problem is not unique to Polaroid; CdS cells in other things fail too: Nikon TTL finders for the F and F2, Gossen Luna-Pros, and pretty much anything from before the early 1980s. Some type of recalibration is necessary – sometimes this can be done via adjustment of the L-D dial on the camera; sometimes it needs more.

Second, compounding the problem is that the cameras were originally designed for mercury cells (anything that is a PX-anything was originally mercury). Mercury cells have a relatively constant voltage that stays flat until the batteries die. But they did not run at the 3v of the last Polaroid-supplied cells – and certainly do not run at the 3.3v of lithium CR123As (a common conversion). Every little bit of voltage helps create even more underexposure. If you’ve used alkaline batteries (like 625As) in an SLR designed for mercury 625s, you know exactly what will happen. And again, this is not a linear error: it will hit you hardest in low light, precisely where your ability to judge exposure is the least.

Finally, things age. Battery leakage with mercury or carbon-zinc batteries can be a real mess, but alkaline cleans up with white vinegar. Bellows fail (not as badly as leather). Lenses get fungus (very infrequently, thankfully, because Polaroid made pretty much every “leather” part of the cameras out of synthetics that do not absorb the moisture that feeds fungus. And that caustic Polaroid paste can rust out the roller assembly frames.


If you have one of these cameras and want to learn how to make it behave, I have a 12-step program. Auto pack cameras have two major redeeming features that manuals do not: very fast top shutter speeds and infinitely variable exposure. Fixing the exposure is the one you might want to zero in on.

1. Stop worrying about the development timer. The electronic development timer on old pack cameras does not go long enough to reliably time Fuji FP-100C. The former times to 2 minutes; the film really requires 3 – and has about 4 hours of dry-down time in which the picture will darken by what might look like 1/2 a stop of exposure. Sufficient development is the cornerstone of evaluating everything else.

2. Get some modern batteries in there – and stick with them. For the 3V cameras, you can either get snap-end alkalines, put in a AAA holder, or convert to lithium. The latter options can be executed by anyone with basic soldering skills. Whatever you choose, you need to commit to regular battery changes before the voltage drops significantly. Remember, these cameras used cells with very flat discharge curves and under instructions to replace the cells once annually.

3. Clean the rollers. The stainless steel rollers in the camera are often encrusted with the development paste. Though not as noxious as the paste actual Polaroid films used, the Fuji paste is still messy and still can corrode steel parts.

4. Press down the springs before loading. Polaroid packs had metal casings; Fuji has more flexible plastic. Old Fuji films had a flat back that was distorted by the springs in the camera, causing frames 1 and 2 (the “bonus” frames – Polaroid only gave you 8) to jam in the camera. The new Fuji packs have cutouts. With these, it should not be necessary to cut the springs out to prevent the black paper leader and the film from jamming.

5. Fan the white tabs. When you load the film, load the left end first, right end last. The white tabs hang outside the well that the film sits in. Gently fan them.

6. Before you completely close the back, pull the black cover on the film pack out about an inch. This will give you more leverage to remove this tab when the back is completely closed. You won’t accidentally expose the first frame – because that black paper wraps all the way around the film pack.

7. Take the shot. Remember, the “wide” aperture of the camera is f/8.8, which is very slow for a handheld camera. So hold your breath. And keep holding the shutter button until the cocking lever pops up. If you let go prematurely, the exposure will end too early.

8. Wait for the development. If you are shooting a relatively rapid sequence of pictures, don’t start timing until you shoot the last one. Then wait 3 minutes and open them in sequence (the exposure numbers are stamped on the back of each).

9. Don’t make snap judgments about exposure. As I mentioned in #1, wait a long time after peeling before changing the lighten-darken dial.

10. Use the lighten-darken dial. You have enough range to brighten by 2 stops (4x the exposure) and dim by 1 stop (1/2 the exposure). The big marks are one stop; the small marks are 1/2. In the old days, Polaroid had such consistency problems that every pack of film came with a base calibration (“one small mark to ‘lighten,'” for example). But with the high consistency of the Fuji film and the poor linearity of the metering you need to understand these settings.

11. Invest in flash if you need flash. These cameras (except for the 360) all have M-synch, which means that the camera will ignite the flashcube 20ms before the shutter fully opens. This is because a flashcube contains oxygen and magnesium foil and does not reach full brightness for a fraction of a second. Why Polaroid was so bent on using these is unclear; it may have had something to do with the reciprocity characteristics of the early pack film (a super-fast flash exposure might change the effective speed of the film).

Although the 400-series cameras use Hi-Power flash cubes, which are supposed to be X-synch, there is really nothing such as X-synch on these cameras as delivered (or on flash cubes…). There are people who have – anecdotally – tested these and concluded that they work with electronic flash, but observation through the back of the camera shows non-circular white images – indicating synching error. You can generally get away with using an older flash fired on full power (giving a long pulse that exceeds the “open” time of the shutter), but it does not fire with the power you would expect – and you will not always get full frame light coverage.

The good news is that converting these cameras to perfect X-synch requires bending a copper contact (as well as some quality time with a modern electronic flash repeatedly checking the shape of the flash through the lens). People of moderate mechanical ability can handle this. If you want to use cubes, get a 450, which has a sophisticated, distance-corrected flashbulb flash. This louver-operated correction (shared with the 360’s electronic flash) is not fooled by subject reflectivity and comes out looking good most of the time.

12. Understand the film’s latitude and color. Fuji FP-100C has almost no tolerance for underexposure, and it has a very cold color balance (at least in my testing). This makes it possible to take reasonably well-balanced pictures in room light or daylight. Be careful about pictures taken in shadow. An 81A gel can help (increase exposure by a little under one small mark). Attach a circular piece of the gel to the inside of a Polaroid 585 UV filter for easier handling. In any situation, err on the side of mild overexposure. Note also that the blue cast sometimes diminishes during drydown.

Fixing exposure!


Ok, so I got to 12 steps before the big secret. You can generally figure out how to make these cameras work. I had a 360 that was massively underexposing. Here is how I figured out how to fix it.

1. Collect materials to make a filter pack. Get a roll of Scotch tape, a ND 0.3 gel filter (hint: Roscolux swatch books have a 50% transmission grey), a pair of scissors, and several boxes of (color) film. Make sure the camera has batteries in it – the kind of batteries you intend to use long-term.

2. Set the L-D dial to the center point. Shoot an average daylight scene (>= EV 10). Develop. Wait. It will likely be dark. Stick one layer of gel filter over the CdS cell (not the lens!). Take a shot. Develop. Wait. If it is still too dark, add another layer and repeat the other steps. On my camera, for example, I figured out that the “normal” exposure was approximately 2 stops off. So ultimately, I used 2 layers of ND filter. You can also use 75% transmission filters if you really want to fine-tune (but it does not seem necessary).

3. Then go to low light (< EV10). Shoot a picture with your filter pack. You will probably find that your pictures are too dark – and blue. No surprise here – slow shutter speeds and low light cause sensitivity loss (reciprocity error) and color shifts in FP-100C film (it’s documented, but it’s a bit worse than Fuji’s graph’s suggest). Dial the L-D dial to +1 and try it again. As long as you can do it within the +2 range the camera gives you, you are fine. You will need to add an 81-series filter to warm things up, though.

Note that FP-3000B (black-and-white) seems to have less of a problem with reciprocity error (and obviously has no color issues) – so once you “zero” the camera outdoors, you should be good to go for most conditions. Be careful with this film – it has little tolerance for overexposure.

4. Why are we doing it this way? Since time immemorial, Polaroid pack cameras have been designed for bright sunlight or flash (hence the f/8.8 maximum aperture). Color film has the best color when shot at a speed of 1/60 or higher. Although these cameras can shoot long exposures (up to 10 seconds), the film won’t – at least not without major correction. That’s also a reason why you want to use the maximum aperture even outdoors with color film. The f/17 aperture at the “bright sun” setting for 75-speed (FP-100C) means that except on the brightest days, your shutter speed will drift into the danger zone for exposure/color shifts and camera shake. Shooting indoors with ambient light, you are really exceeding the camera’s design intent – and so you should be ready to compensate the exposure.

5. Note that any such calibration is only good for the particular camera and type of batteries it is running on.

6. If you suffer from chronic overexposure, you can use a similar process but tape the gel to the back of the lens (inside the camera). Calibration procedures are essentially similar.

7. Now you can get on taking Polaroid pictures of heavily-tattooed blonde women (or is that singular?). Only this time, the effects will be under your own control and not be at the mercy of a decrepit camera. After all, your desire to do the heavy lifting is why you don’t use Instagram, right?

Flash with the 360?


The Polaroid 360 is an odd bird – it has a rechargeable flash that charges for an hour and then (hopefully) shoots 20-30 pictures. The 360 flash interfaces to the camera via a four-pin connector that gives a ready light on the camera and overrides the shutter operation. It also interfaces with a moving lever in the flash shoe that tells the flash the distance at which the camera is focused.

The flash always fires at full power, and moving white louvers cut the output light as appropriate to close distances. The louvers move moderately between 3 and 10 feet and are fully open at 10 feet and beyond (the actual usable range of these flashes is generally about 3-6 feet). The L-D control on the flash gives a lot more control – closing the louvers almost completely at the darkest setting – and between it and the main control on the camera, you can shoot balanced fill shots.

The problems with this flash, though, mirror those of the automatic pack cameras. The NiCd batteries in the flash go bad over time, and even when rebuilt, once the battery is depleted, that means no more flash shots for at least an hour. Because every exposure is at full power, and because the unit has a dump circuit that completely empties the capacitors when you take the flash off the camera, battery life is pretty dismal. If you go for a flash converted to modern, removable batteries, make sure it takes AAs or lithium-ion cells. AAAs do not have the grunt required to charge the capacitors in this flash.

Capacitors also go bad over time – and this can reduce flash power. You might really need to crank up the LD control on the flash.

If you are outdoors, it does not hurt with 100-speed film to turn the camera’s L-D control to +2. This helps keep the ambient exposure in line (otherwise, it could be very short).

The Miniportrait 203: The Next Big (or Little) Thing?


I’m very surprised that no one has yet caught on that the cheapest manual Polaroid camera is the 203 Miniportrait. This camera, originally designed to take passport pictures, has two 125mm lenses, can shoot two of the same or two different pictures on the same sheet of film, has a built-in flash (you pick the aperture on the camera based on focused distance), manual shutter speeds of 60 and 125* and manual apertures of f/8 to f/32. It also has an x terminal that lets you attack with a Metz 45 flash. The internal deisgn of the camera is interesting; it uses two servo-actuated counter-rotating disks to fire one or both shutters.

*Note that there is a “version 2” of the 203 with a blue face that does not have a shutter speed control or 1-2 indicator for which frame is being taken. It does, however, have solenoid-activated shutters and the ability to rapidly fire each shutter in succession, facilitating multiple exposures. Later cameras such as the 209 followed in the tradition of 203.2, immediately eliminating the distance rangefinder and progressively eliminating manual functions.

The catch, of course, is that the 203 (like its big brother, the 403) is only designed to shoot at about 1m. The camera has a sonar rangefinder to tell you when you are within the minimum DOF at f/8. Like a more hip version of the Big Shot, it’s for taking head-and-shoulders shots. The model 78 supplemental lenses (essentially -1 diopters) take the focusing distance to about 2m. Since the lenses are stackable, I suspect that you could get close to infinity focus by using two or more.

These cameras have generally had hard lives and are designed for tripod use, but if you are physically fit and have some creativity, they are a lot cheaper than shelling out $600 for a 180 plus $120 for close-up lenses.