Film Photography

It’s been a few years since I’ve developed my own film.

When I was taught photography in the early 2000s, film was just beginning its transition out in favor of digital photography. It was still early though, and you could develop film at most drug stores, and could even rent a darkroom if you wanted to develop and print your own work. My first film camera was bought in 2003, a Nikon N65. It had a number of automatic settings, but would allow for some manual control as well. It was short-lived, though. Over the next year or so, I bought a Nikon D70, 8 megapixels of gloriousness. Of course, most modern smartphones will do better than the D70, but at the time, it was good to be able to capture some higher quality images on the fly. In fact, as I cleaned up my files, I came across old RAW files from this era, and I was glad that I had made the investment.

Early image shot on my N65.

From 2005-2007, I went to art school because I was sure that photography was the path for me. While I still treat it as a hobby, the career part never panned out as I had hoped. I had realized that it was too much work to go in business for myself, and I didn’t have the capital to do it. In 2009, I decided to go back to school for a bachelor’s degree in business instead, and I am in a totally different industry at the moment. Most companies do require a bachelor’s in order to work for them, so it made sense to pursue this. Some of the photography-related businesses that I worked or interned for around this time gave me some critical experience, and I am glad that I at least attempted this path. However, I think that I am better off today than if I had never started over.

Over the years, I have owned various digital cameras, mostly Nikons where I can’t exactly recall their naming schemes. The most recent digital camera that I owned was a Sony A6500, but I noticed after about a year that it would not port the original RAW files to my smartphone through their wireless software, so I sold it off. That was an incredible disappointment, and I have been holding off on a digital camera until I know it will become useful again for me.

Film Photography Today

I still have film development equipment and a film camera. In fact, I could develop 35mm film in my tiny apartment if I wanted to. The cost to do it is dependent on the chemicals and film that I would need to invest in, since both of those do have expiration dates. I don’t shoot enough film at the moment to warrant a large order of chemicals. About a year and a half ago, I had bought some with the idea that a girlfriend at the time and I could spend some time on this for fun; we had broken up before that became a reality, and I finally pitched the chemicals about a year later.

I guess the question is, why would anyone want to shoot film in 2021? There are an abundance of digital cameras, digital software, etc. Smartphones keep pushing the boundaries of photography and photo processing. I am also seriously impressed with the mirrorless cameras that keep coming out. For readers of my blog, I am not someone who looks back into old technology, but always forward into the future. This post might seem out of left field, because I would never suggest to someone to buy a fax machine or a printer, for example.

Drive in restaurant.

The answer to this question is a little complicated, but it’s down to the difference of a digital sensor to capture light versus a chemical process to produce imagery. There’s a certain look that film gives that an Instagram filter cannot recreate, just by nature. There’s something about not having that instant gratification, trusting your ability to compose a frame, see light, and understand your equipment that makes it worth thinking about.

How does someone get into film photography nowadays? From my research, film scanners haven’t really changed much over the last decade, save for maybe a USB-C port. The same companies appear to be making the same devices that I used when I was in school. As long as you have the ability to scan and edit your images on a computer, you’re most of the way there. Film cameras can be easily had from eBay, and there are stores that still fix them. I believe KEH fixed a camera of mine years ago, and they still appear to be in business. You can easily buy film from Amazon, or a local camera shop which you should be supporting.

Once you’ve shot on a film camera, you have a few ways to develop those images. You could do it yourself, or send it out to a lab. There are still a number of mail-order labs that develop film, like Dwayne’s Photo (the last lab to develop Kodachrome film). If you didn’t want to invest in scanning equipment, you could have most labs scan the film for you as an added service.

Max, the family cat.

While looking through my old notes, I did find directions on how to develop TMAX film, one of the more common black and white films still sold:

TMAX 400 Development

Step 0: Prep Work

  • Soak chemicals in 69°F water for approximately 15-30 minutes before development to ensure consistency.  Any sudden change in temperature could shock the emulsion.
  • Put out everything else that needs to be used during the development process.  This includes stirrers, expired fixer container, paper towels, etc.

Step 1: Developer

Dilution is 1:31 (1 liter of water to 23 milliliters of HC-110)

Use syringe and extension.

  • Agitate for the first 30 seconds, and then for 10 seconds in 30 second intervals for a total of 5.5 minutes (for ± 0 exposure). Dispose down drain when done.

Step 2: Stop Bath

  • 1 minute constant agitation.  Dispose down drain when done.

Step 3: Fixer

  • 30 seconds constant agitation.  Agitate for ten seconds after another 5-6 minutes total.  DO NOT DISPOSE DOWN THE DRAIN.  Pour into storage bottle using funnel.

Step 4: Final Wash

  • Low pressure 10-15 minute wash under the faucet.

Step 5: Photo-Flo and Hang Drying

  • Fill the tank with water and put two drops of Photo-Flo in.  Very slight initial agitation (avoid bubbles).  Total time using photo-flo should not exceed 30 seconds.  Hang dry and remember to squeegee.

YouTube is a great resource if you want to see someone developing black and white film. Until I get back into it, I won’t be posting an official chemical and gear list, but this is an area where someone can easily explore and put together a system for themselves that works for their needs and their space. I have personally not messed with developing color film myself, as it is a more complex process than black and white.

Storing Film

Once you’ve made a quality scan of the film, you should be done with the physical copy forever. There may be archivists that disagree with me, but if your equipment and settings are correct, you should be able to capture everything successfully one time. 35mm film should be scanned at 2,400 DPI, and is equal to 4K or 6K depending on the kind of film that you’re using. It technically has an unlimited resolution due to it being physical, but these settings should be the upper limit of capturing a usable image versus having unnecessary large files stored.

I was reading a blog post recently about 8mm film, and they said that the usable limit of that was 2K. Once you go beyond 2K, you’re not getting much bang for your buck. The same can be true of any other film resolution: hit the correct settings with the right equipment, and there’s nothing more to do with it. That being said, I would store film after development for a short time to be scanned, only because you need a place to safely put them prior to the scanning process. A binder with plastic film holder sheets works for this. Assuming you scanned it the right way, it can be tossed.

35mm contact sheet.

I am not getting into darkrooms and enlargers, where people still print photos using chemicals. While I do appreciate this process and think that it is a step to get your work into a gallery, it is much easier to store and digitally manipulate your film images instead, or at least this is what you should be starting with.

Posting Your Work

If you start to create artwork that you’re proud of, there’s always Instagram to post it on. The biggest downside of this is that your photos will be cropped and not available at full resolution, but it is still the largest following that you can possibly get. Flickr is still in business, as well as 500PX, although I haven’t used either in years. Photo.net is also still around, which is the oldest photo community on the internet – I don’t know much about it anymore, and it looks like they purged my old account. Or, you could create your own website and just post your images there, if you feel the need. In any case, I would always retain the higher quality images somewhere else than any of these sites, and be organized from the start with something like Lightroom. I have lost a lot of work over the years due to hard drive crashes, so I definitely recommend going cloud-first with storing images unless you want to build your own RAID 1 mirrored file server. If you are doing photography professionally, that’s when you should consider a combination of fast local network storage, and a “deep freeze” of images that are not being accessed right away.

Alpacas shot on TMAX film.

Summary

Up until this point, you are probably noticing that everything that I am talking about in this post is expensive. If you like shooting on a digital camera or cell phone, and don’t want to think beyond it, that’s fine. If you do, you can take a step or two into film photography – it’s not dead yet. Photography in general can get extremely costly. You can easily splurge on lenses, lights, camera bodies, computers, and accessories. The return on your investment may never come, but if it makes you happy, you should try to balance the cost to make it work for you over the long term. Consider film to be the exception, creating timeless photographs that won’t fit easily into your camera roll, but will make you a better photographer and artist.

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