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).
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.
There are several things you can dispense with:
- 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.
- Weighted film clips. Not really needed.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Every man with a hobby or particular skill likes to publish a self-serving, single-criteria test of manhood: whittling, hunting, tiling a bathroom, fishing, purifying rain water, rebuilding a Cleveland V8, growing hydrangeas, surviving a Turkish prison after a bad rap for hashish, brewing beer, operating a sailboat, bedding a strumpet, making an adequate gin & tonic, constructing your own lightsaber, &c.
Now I say unto you that you will not truly be a
man mature adult unless you can generate your own DX coding stickers decals so that you can use underwhelming offbeat slow-speed film in your way-too-expensive point-and-shoot compact camera. Or get your camera to read your Tri-X as 320 because your technique is that good, your meter is that accurate, and that 1/3 stop makes a huge difference. And because you’re too lazy to turn that ISO dial!
I was actually doing the former – trying to use 50-speed film in a Canon Sure Shot (Prima) 120 Caption, a phenomenal camera that oddly defaults to ISO 25 when it can’t read a DX code (the reliable plastic bulk loading cassettes are uncoded…). You just can’t overexpose Pan F Plus… and try using a P/S zoom at EI 25… and what better excuse to trash my home office with bits of paper and foil? And naturally, a child in the household had stolen the only X-acto knife with a good blade, so I wasn’t going to do it by hand.
Commercially-available DX labels are limited in ISO choices, and they are also surprisingly expensive. Also, film photography these days is about reinventing the wheel. You can make decals, in a completely overwrought and overly-technological way using a machine that might already be in your household: the pattern cutter (Cricut, Brother Scan ‘n’ Cut, etc.).* We have the Brother,** so you may need to adjust your technique slightly for the Cricut. A Brother has two funtions: drawing with a marker and cutting with a blade. We will use both techniques.
*I am fully aware that this is most likely to be in your household if you already have a spouse, and that the only way to get a spouse might be to perfect your DX decal skills, which is hard to do without a pattern cutter. Such a conundrum! Better brush up on your beer-brewing.
** The Brother is way more goth than the Cricut.
You will need: your cutter, its pen and knife attachments, a roll of commercial film for reference, a DX decoding chart (available online), some half-page (Ebay) labels, and a roll of self-adhesive metal foil (0.05mm / 0.002 inches or thicker). It can be any metal you want (aluminum, stainless, brass, copper), as long as it is conductive.
The drawn outer box. On your design software, make a box that is 33x15mm. Designate that “draw.” This will contain two rows of six boxes, each 5.5mm wide and 7.5mm high. Make these 12 boxes and position them in a grid. Looking at your DX chart, color the boxes you want to be insulators (i.e., black and not silver). Fill color doesn’t matter. These should be “draw” shapes.
Your DX code. Look at the decoder and figure out what film speed you want. That’s the first row. For the second, row, number of exposures, I would recommend 36 (so the 2nd and 3rd spots insulated). If your camera reads exposure count, it will then rewind neatly so you have 6 strips of 6.
Negative space (conductors). Now change all of the little white boxes (the ones you did not color in) to “cut.” Where they are touching, merge them. In the ISO 50 example in the pictures up top, these will result in one L shape and one T shape.
Optionally, you can also delete the color-filled boxes because they were only there for reference. Your finished label can use white paper as an insulator. But it also looks cool if you leave the solid boxes. That’s what I did for the pictures.
You can also add something to the top or bottom of your big box to remind you which direction the decal points. I make an extra 3mm box that I point at the 35mm cartridge opening. I suppose you could make a really long one if you wanted to.
Clone your decals. Now draw a selection box around your DX decal design and “group” it using the design software. This will allow you to clone and arrange copies without having any of the elements get out of place. I made two rows of 5, spaced 30mm top of one to top of the next, 50mm from left edge to left edge.
Draw the decals. Move the design file to your cutter. Insert a sheet of label paper. Run a “draw” pass. This will sketch the outline of the DX decal, and if you left them in place, draw in and fill the insulator squares. If not, you will just see the outer 33 x 15mm rectangles.
Cut the codes. Now run the “cut” pass. This is where the magic happens. Do it with a “kiss cut,” or the type that does not cut through the lining of adhesive material. When the cut pass is done, you can pull out (I think they call it “weed”) = the shapes corresponding to the “conductors” – so I pulled a T and an L. You will see the shiny label backing through the holes.
Cut out all the decals as a group. Now cut around all of your labels as a group (I recommend scissors, but you could automate this). This will give things structural integrity because you will next peel them all off in one piece and set them on the top side of your metal foil (your “insulators” should all be attached at a minimum of one edge to the “frame”). From there, you can cut your individual labels as closely as you want.
Trim and apply. Now your metal foil holds everything together. Peel off its backing, position the decals on your cassettes using a commercial cassette for reference, and validate using a DX camera, preferably one that shows you the selected ISO. On a Nikon, for example, you can put the cassette in, close the back door, and if your ISO is on DX, all you need to do to read the cartridge is hold down the ISO button. Do this for each cassette.
You can obviously re-use your design file to make more – and it’s pretty easy to change ISOs in your design file. Just keep a master file in which all 12 of the little boxes are still separate.
You’ve made it! Years from now, when you have 2.5 children, a happy domestic situation, a great job, and a really cool electric car or carbon fiber bike, you’ll know that all this work paid off. If we don’t get to talk then, you’re welcome.
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.
When I was a second-year high school student, my English teacher came in, opened his copy of Adventures in American Literature to a poem, and (purported to) read the following:
I think I shall never see / A poem as lovely as a tree / Blah blah blah. Bullshit / I hate Robert Frost /
It obviously was Joyce Kilmer and not Robert Frost whom he was skewering, but he was making a point. Although teaching methods like this might not seem as radical today, it’s hard not to have that Robert Frost feeling about “Lomography.” Some talent. But mostly boring pictures that are made interesting by lens defects, art defined by intentional and random flaws in raw materials, and a semiotic that has become so routine as ot disappear into the noise of Flickr.
The Lomo LC-A 120 fails of its one essential purpose. Its lens is actually excellent. When you think about wide-angle lenses for 6×6 and up, the 38mm f/4.5 Minigon XL is quite wide. I use a 35 APO-Grandagon on a Horseman SW612, so I have some pretty developed ideas both about what is wide and what is good.
The spoiler alert here is that the LC-A 120 is a combination of a phenomenal lens with what might qualify as the worst $450 camera. In the history of ever. Not the G.O.A.T. but an actual goat.
Lens. Let’s start with the 38/4.5 XL. It is not a real XL like a Schneider 38mm; this barely covers 6×6 at anything but the smallest apertures. But it does have a couple of principal virtues when you shoot it with TMY: it has virtually no barrel distortion and is sharp from edge to edge when stopped way down. You almost have to wonder if this is an Arsat PC lens repurposed into a medium format one.
With black-and-white film, one comment on lateral color shift, which seems to be what gives Lomo pictures their unique “color.” That and film that is way past its color prime.
Click on the picture below and then scan from side to side. Yes, it’s scanned on a Flextight and straightened slightly. But holy frijoles, it looks a lot like a $2k lens on a pano camera (granted, such a lens would cover a frame a lot larger than 55×55).
Focus. Focus is a bit more problematic, having steps of 0.6m, 1m, 2.5m, and ∞. The focusing lever snaps from position to position with a non-reassuring plastic “pop,” does not exactly match the marks, and stays put(!) when you slide the lens cover (and focusing scale!) upward to close the camera. The difficulty of zone focusing when you don’t know the shooting aperture is an unknown margin of error. A 38mm lens on medium format does not exhibit pan focus except at very small apertures. I did test operation with a Contameter external rangefinder (the late plastic one that actually goes to infinity), but if you drop four hundred and fifty on a camera and another hundred on a rangefinder, you might as well buy a Fuji GA645w.
Exposure controls. The original LC-A was zone-focused and aperture priority. With that setup, at least you know what will be in focus. The LC-A 120 has fixed program exposure that only has one combination of shutter speed and aperture for any EV. The nominal spec is “unlimited” time to 1/500 second, but it’s unclear whether the stopping down is linear to the light level or not. You would think that on a camera like this, you might want to keep the shutter speed low to keep the aperture small. Sometimes the unintentional shallow depth of field works:
You effectively can apply exposure compensation (important when using Diafine) by changing the star-shaped ISO dial on the front.
Viewfinder. The viewfinder is clean and clear. And plastic. And lacking any horizontal or vertical reference marks that would tell you if the camera is level (or square to objects in the picture). This would make architectural photography difficult absent either a tripod and level – or a shoe-mount electronic leveling device. On a half-press of the shutter button, one light means the camera is reading and two means underexposure. Coverage looks like it is about 90%.
Shutter. The shutter operation in the camera is like a press shutter – pressing the button cocks and fires. If you engage the MX switch, you can repeatedly make exposures onto the same piece of films. You can even do it by accident, like this:
You will actually need the MX button for those situations where you mostly press the shutter (releasing the wind and locking the button) but don’t actually take the shot.
Flash. Flash is actually a place where aperture control is important. Lomo has no explanation for how you should use flash except that you should set your automatic flash for 4.5 (as if any automatic flash doesn’t just jump from 4 to 5.6). Shooting with flash does not trigger a short synch speed; everything is essentially rear-curtain.
Build quality. Burying the lede, or not. It is terrible. Horrible. The camera body is plastic. It’s not flexible, but it has all the charm of the pebbled plastic around the back seat of a family sedan. The camera back compensates for its lack of sophistication with wide foam seals.
The film tensioning leaf springs (note to Lomo: thank you for including these, unlike the foam blocks in the Belair) are attached to the film gate, which popped out of the camera the first time I tried to load it. The film gate has two significant (and apparently intentional) light leaks at its upper corners. Oddly, these were not plugged with foam seals. They should be.
Loading is not easy. You need to release the hubs with little switches. Pull the hubs down to release the spools. When you install a spool, at least theoretically, as long as the ramped portion of the hub is facing you, it should be possible to snap the film in. It’s not that easy. This seems like another place where a simpler mechanism (like a metal hub on a leaf spring) would work better and make people happier.
The frame counter does not depend on the movement of the film, just the movement of the takeup spool. Many LC-A 120 users seem to get fewer than 12 pictures on a roll. Presumably this is the product of fat-rolling the film, worsened by the imprecise frame counting that does not compensate for thicker films and backing papers.
I was able to nail it by putting the start mark of TMY right at the right “edge” of the lower-left film guide (i.e., halfway to the camera’s own start mark). I was lucky. Twelve frames took you to within 1cm of either end of a 120 film. Frame counting would better have been left to a red window here. At least the framing would be consistent.
But where from here? The heartbreak of this camera (if you can call a feeling about an inanimate object such) is that like the Lomo Belair 6×12, the camera started with some good bones and a great concept and was executed terribly. The Belair had bad light leaks and poor focus but decent lenses an an automatic shutter. Looks like Lomo landed in the same place here: great lens, functional autoexposure system, rickety everything else.
Maybe the fault is that the lens suggests the camera is better than it is. Maybe I just received an unusually good copy. Maybe my expectations were unrealistic.
You might think for a hot minute about remounting the lens, but when you add up the cost of a (controllable) Copal shutter and a focusing mechanism, plus whatever you are attaching it to, it’s far too much money. It’s also unclear how this lens is mounted in the camera – you might have to replicate a fair amount of the physical setup of the Lomo to make it work. Two of these lenses in a twin-lens setup? That would be neat, but you’d probably be close to the price of a bargain bin Rollei when you finished with it. Well, it was a nice thought, anyway.
Cameras like this are bought by fools like me / But only F&H can make a Rollei.
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.