Confessions Of A Film Zealot XI

A brief overview of my analog/digital hybrid process from soup to nuts. Also as a special bonus - what happens to higher speed film as it gets old and then really old. To kick this off my hybrid process when shooting film is extremely similar to pre-digital. For illustration purposes I chose black and white film that I develop myself. Meaning that I actually have to deal with everything including the scanning. Color is even easier since I literally do nothing but hand the film to my lab of the moment.

I do not have a dedicated darkroom at the moment but that's okay. I've become adept at improvisation just about anywhere I have running water. I like to develop at least 2 rolls at the same time and preferably 4. Takes the exact same amount of wall clock time either way so the more the better. Since I do it by hand 4 is the limit of my tanks, 2 if it's medium format. Takes me about 15 minutes.

After I the developed film dries which sometimes is about 30 minutes other times an hour or so depending on the weather I sleeve the negatives in Print-File plastic pages. Write some critical details on the sleeve - like my on-going roll number, development stats and subject. Right now I am shooting mostly Kodak TRI-X it's flexible and bullet proof and developing in various dilutions of Kodak HC-110 and sometimes pyro or rodinal but generally not for people shots. It cost me pennies a roll and and HC-110 while not my favorite lasts forever.

It's easier than you think to do this wherever you are - I've done it while traveling. I've done it in other people's bathrooms and kitchens. It doesn't take long and as soon as you have a method sorted out it's extremely consistent and almost foolproof. Maybe I will do a film workshop with shooting and developing just to show people how easy it can be. Black and White is cheap and easy. Color can be but you really need far more precise controls and the chemistry is a bit less flexible so you need to run a lot of it to get economy and consistency. Usually an automated processor is best.

Now the dreaded scanning comes into play. Scanning sucks. It's time consuming and boring. It goes just fast enough to not allow a lot of focus on anything else but just slow enough to take forever. That's if you scan one negative at a time in a high-res frame by frame film scanner. Scan a roll at a time and it's a completely different story. So I make a contact sheet pretty much the same way I did in my fully analog process prior to even thinking about dealing with individual frames.

I do it with an old reasonably okay flatbed scanner. I jamb the negatives - plastic sheet and all into the scanner in film scan mode and run a quick 8x10 inch at 600dpi. Plenty big for contact sheets. The screen shot at the top is how that looks. If you open it in a new window you can see exactly what I see on my monitor as a result at 100%. Which happens to give me almost a 6x9 inch view of each frame on my monitor. That's perfect to judge negatives - about 6x life-size.

The scan itself takes about 10 seconds but you might wonder what needs to be done in "post". If I felt like running a preview scan and adjusting black levels in the scanning software the answer would be no post. I actually scan flat at 12 bits and set the black levels after the fact - it's faster than running a preview scan to tell the truth. So that's my post processing. I make the film base black. All of 0.2246 of a second and I am done. So let's just say 11 seconds to make a contact sheet.

The really nice thing is this is actually much much faster than making an analog contact sheet. Well it is if you only need to make one or two or some other small number. This is because making one contact sheet or even two is a pain in the ass with setup, mixing chemistry, printing, developing, washing and clean-up. Takes an hour. Funny part is doing a dozen takes the same amount of time - maybe a minute longer. So overall a win.

My exposures are consistent enough where there is absolutely no need for individual treatment shot to shot so I swear this contact sheet stuff in digital is actually faster than dealing with say 36 RAW images shot in maybe 6 different settings.

You may think that things look a bit funky with this contact sheet and they do. See how there is some strange geometric distortion going on with some of the frames - that's because this film was horribly curly and I scanned it prior to flattening it for a few days. Hence each of the negatives are all curvy in the flatbed. I could have gone and got the piece of glass to make real contact sheets but I did't feel like it as I was in "I don't give a shit mode". Why? Well that brings us to the second issue. The strange flatness in the mids and highlights that you may or may not notice. I notice because I know what TRI-X should look like in this developer in my process under the lighting conditions that I shot the images in. This was some of the foggiest TRI-X I had ever seen. It was over a dozen years old and increased fog is what happens with 400 ISO film and faster as it ages.

Here's how much fog there is just setting the base black to the negative sleeve versus the film base+fog…

That's an insane amount of fog. Looking at the negative even from a distance they look somewhat like frosted glass. I would say somewhere between 30-50% of the film has been used up by fog which is the same as exposure. In fact that is exactly what it is - background radiation causing all over exposure over time. Here's a random frame with a slightly different curve - not crazy contrast just more appropriate than making the film base black - more like what would happen if it were actually printed on real black and white grade 3 paper. Paper has curve two - not just the film…

In the darkroom you could print it down a bit too like this…

Moving on I tend to use crops of these types of scans with a slight curves adjustment for web use. There's plenty of pixels to do that. I even make 4x6 prints of them via Mpix a lot. I only do a dedicated film scan at 400 dpi If I plan on making an good print. Typically at 6x9 on larger paper. Just my favorite hand holdable print size with a generous amount of whitespace.

There you have it. That's it. Shoot - dev - contact scan - done. Individual negative scans really don't take too long as long as I am sure I actually want to use the image for something. All in all if I count that all-in time I would say I actually spend less time on my analog than I do on digital by a good margin. When it comes to color - no contest. It's all outsourced one way or another and I shoot it and done. My edit - as in culling is really fast to. By nature I shoot way fewer images so that goes really fast.

In terms of archival and organization. I think I have gone over it before but it's a breeze.

  • That roll number I mentioned is in the form of YYYY-XXX where the "Y"'s are year and the "X"'s are sequence number. I file tye physical sheets chronologically in a 3 ring binder along with a physical contact print. I keyword and add metadata to the contact sheet scan file.
  • If and when I do an individual film scan I tack on another 2 digit number to that roll number like 2012-002-12 which is just the frame number. I then usually stamp the metadata from the contact sheet and also add any other pertinent stuff.
  • For color it's the same but I add a "CN" to the roll number. For instance 2013-012cn. That's it. I started this long before digital but it works great since I just marry the filename for individual frames directly to a negative's physical location should I need it. If I get Walgreens to do shittyscans™ that' often. For black and white it's often - not over and over just once when I want an individual frame which I usually do not decide for a long time after I shoot for personal work. For a real lab - I almost never need the physical negative again but the storage is not overwhelming.

Simple, easy, just like shooting film is. Now for the bonus about old film. More so 400 ISO and higher. If you are shooting important stuff just don't bother. Really don't bother. It can be really unpredictable and it has other issues besides fog. They are all rooted in fog to one degree or the other. This is even more true for color high speed film.

  • I used the term "used up" earlier. In a sense this is really what's going on. The films light sensitivity is being used up from the shadows up…
  • This much fog is insane. It significantly lowers the actual speed of the film so you are going to need to rate it slower - a lot slower than it actually is.
  • Think of that fog as using up the shadows - hence you are also using up dynamic range in a big way with this much fog. There is way more fog density here then where I usually have Zone III or maybe even Zone IV in normal fresh film. You may not think that's bad since you are over exposing it and raising everything up anyway but you start to push highlights into the shoulder regions at some point which is going to further compress highlights. What should be mid-tones on this roll are already in that shoulder lower contrast region. It's part of the reason that it looks they way it does. You can do this on purpose if you want but trust me it's better without the overall fog which is adding to the grainy-ness and the loss in acuity and detail.

Or… Ignore me - you may like this look a lot. Just do not try this if you only have one roll of some random film that you have no idea what it will look like. If you do like the "bad film" look and artifacts sure - go for it. I for sure like it better than trumped up digital "simulations" of old film. If you are going to actually make some sort of project make sure you have some amount of supply of film that has experienced the exact same conditions over it's lifetime. The only reason I shot this at all was I had 10 rolls and I burned a test roll. That's why I've got images at all. My first attempt was stupid crap and informed my exposure and development in a massive way.

Heck I even bothered to scan a few individual frames. Like this one. Horrible lighting conditions shot with a slow $20 28mm f/3.5 Non-AI lens. I liked it mostly because it shows just how small my granddaughter is compared to her dad.

Yea - got spot that and get rid of the hair over his face I missed when I blew off the negative. So there is the thought process, the actual process, and some notes on old film. If you love photography definitely shoot some film. Use some simple stuff. Not exclusively - I am not that big of a zealot but it's very rewarding and can breath new life into today's overly complex, marketing driven, 77 million digital images per second uploaded - rat race. With a little know how and a little practice I can tell you that negative film - either color or black and white is far far more adept at capturing real world lighting ratios gear free in a more attractive way with no post processing that digital. Try it and stop worrying about fill flash and blow highlights. If in doubt dial in another stop of exposure.

Wanna get started? How much will it cost? Well let's take a look…

  1. Seventies era 35mm camera with a fast 50mm less than $100 for something in good shape that works. Probably less than $50. For a lot of people you can find one that nobody uses somewhere in your house or a family member's house so let's say somewhere between free and $100.
  2. A roll of black and white film about $5 cheaper if you want a lot of it or go with an off-brand.
  3. Chemistry about $10-$30 if you go with HC-110 and TF-5 fixer your all in cost per roll is probably about 10-20 cents for development.
  4. Equipment - all you need is an old tank and a reel or two. New probably about $30. Used much less.
  5. Scanner - go with flea-bay and you can probably find a decent one like I did for $100-$200. Even a new epson perfection is not much money. Dedicated film scanners are another story - stick with a flat-bed until you get serious. Dedicated film scanners are not going to be far better than a good Epson V or upper end Microtek's until you get into some real money or get very lucky. Heck in a pinch you can even use your digital SLR to "scan: negs.

Don't want that much trouble - go with a lab. The only downside is $10-$20 per roll for a good development and scan of decent size. Not too bad actually if you are only shooting a roll/month. If you do a lot of black and white - I would advise the previous setup instead. On the other hand getting 36 beautifully post processed images back and having to do nothing is actually a steal at $20. Look at it this way - RPL charges about $20 to scan and correct a roll of 36 exposure film. They charge $1 per file do do a correction and match to film for digital files. How can this be??? The only rub is that you better make the 36 images count - not a bad idea anyway.

So there you have it. I am going to be shooting more film this year than I have last year. In some cases it's because I like the results better in outdoor uncontrolled lighting conditions. In other cases it's just because I feel like it.

Wanna come shoot film with me? Maybe walk you through developing your first roll of TRI-X? Shoot the shit about lighting and exposure strategies? If so drop a comment and let me know. I think I may try to set up a little film shoot for anyone interested this summer.


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