My intro to film photography
A post detailing my introduction to film photography, including black & white processing, finding a decent negative scanner, and pondering how to make my own prints at home.
About a year and a half ago, I decided I wanted to try my hand at film photography after spending some time browsing Flickr and falling in love with the aesthetic. I was surprised to find that I could get anywhere from 10-15 megapixel "equivalent" in resolution depending on the film type and scanner. I knew my parents had an old bulky film camera in storage, so I asked to borrow it. I didn't know much about film cameras at the time, or whether or not it was any good, but it turns out that their old Canon AE-1 SLR was the perfect camera to use as an introduction into film photography. It had a full manual mode, as well as shutter priority auto, and was in near-mint condition. It also came fitted with a 50mm f1.8 lens (which was the "kit" lens at the time), which meant I could use it in fairly low light conditions without the need for a flash. My parents used this camera since the day they bought it in 1981 until it was retired for a digital point & shoot in 2003. Still works perfectly.
I bought some Fuji Superia 200 ISO film, being one of the only consumer brands available these days, and went shooting. Without any means to process or scan the film myself, I had London Drugs develop and scan the film for me. I ponied up for the deluxe "high res" scans, but they turned out extremely crummy. Below is an example of the extreme pixelation visible at full zoom level. Note that I am not zoomed in beyond 100%, this is a screenshot of the image at 100%. I am not sure if the lab screwed up or what, but it was basically unacceptable.
Developing at home
I knew I needed to invest in a proper film scanner if I wanted to be serious about this. So I thought about it more and decided that I might as well develop my own film, too. I did black & white in highschool, how hard could it be? I looked into home development of color film, and I kept seeing the same two words often repeated: "difficult" and "expensive". I decided I should start with black & white to see if I liked it first. I bought some Ilford HP5 400 ISO film—again being one of the only consumer brands widely available—and went shooting.
Sadly, it took me over a year to finish my first roll of black & white film. When I finished it, it sat around even longer as I procrastinated buying all of the chemicals and equipment needed to process it at home. Finally I decided to sit down and do the proper research into what I had to buy, and went to the only retail store in town that still sells darkroom chemicals and equipment. There are about a million different "how to" guides for DIY black & white film processing, so I wont go into details here, but you're going to spend between $100 and $150 for the initial set up, depending on where you live. It's likely way, way cheaper in the United States vs. here in Canada. Once you have everything, your only ongoing cost is going to be chemicals, but they have a ridiculously long shelf life.
One of the questions I always get asked is "do you have a darkroom?", and the answer is no. I am lucky that our laundry room is completely dark, and you only need to work in pure darkness when transporting the film from the roll into the development tank (takes about 2 minutes). Once you have the film in the tank, you can do your processing work in full daylight as the tank itself is light tight. I use the Paterson Super System 4, which comes highly recommended for beginners. If you don't have such a room in your home, you can buy a darkroom bag!
The development process itself is actually ridiculously easy, and extremely forgiving. You have a lot of room to screw up temperature and development times, and your film will still come out pretty decent. My first attempt produced some impressive results in my opinion, however I accidentally scratched some of the frames when trying to squeegee off the water. Invest in a proper film squeegee.
I went through a few different used scanners that I got for cheap on Kijiji, before actually doing proper research into worthwhile models. The one I ended up with is an Epson Perfection 4870 from 2004 for only $40. Despite being a decade old now, the fundamentals have not really changed that much and you can still get very good quality scans using older equipment. The newer ones are faster and sharper, but I am more than satisfied with what I have now. I found out that anything in the Epson 4xxx line is fairly good. The 4990 is actually very good, if you can find one for cheap. As for new models, the V600 is the best entry level film scanner at just under $200.
Below is an example of the quality I got out of a crummy CanoScan LiDE 700F compared to the Epson Perfection 4870. Note that the 700F is not old at all, it's still being sold for $150 new, but check out how pathetic it is:
The difference is clearly night and day. I decided to scan the stuff I had previously developed at London Drugs to see the difference. You be the judge:
Despite the advantages of the better scanner, you still can run into a lot of problems. In order to get the best detail in your scans, the film needs to rest a few millimeters above the flatbed surface. The included film holders do a good job with this, but if your film is excessively curly, you'll get a distortion pattern in the image where the glossy film makes contact with the flatbed glass. These are called Newton Rings. Not to mention they'll come out a bit fuzzier. Newton rings are the bane of every film scanner's existence, but if you leave film under some heavy books for a few days, the curliness should go away enough for quality scans.
The next logical step is for me to make my own prints. I found an old Omega C700 condenser enlarger at a thrift store for only $60 (with a "Property of The University of Alberta sticker on it), but it was missing the negative holder. I can buy one on eBay for pretty cheap, and I might need some light filters to control contrast as well. The Omega C700 has been in production since the 70s or 80s, and you can buy a new one today for $500 USD. The old ones go for around $60-100 on eBay, but the shipping cost would be monstrous. It's huge. That said, I think I lucked out on my score.
So far I've been pretty satisfied with home development and digital scans, so I haven't really explored the print making side of things yet. Luckily, I think you can use the same development chemicals for making wet prints that you use for the actual film development, so it won't cost much extra to make the jump.
Tell me more!
Since diving into film photography, I've bought several accessories for my Canon AE-1. Lenses are a bargain, because the mount type (FD mount) was insanely popular at the time. I bought three new lenses for under $100 total from KEH.com, and they were all in basically mint condition. I got a 70-200mm f4.5 for $17, a 28mm f2.8 for $40, and a 135mm f3.5 for $30. Thrift stores are just crawling with old film SLRs and accessories for under $50. It's crazy!
I've also bought a lot of fun old cameras. Way more than my wife would like. The thing she doesn't know is that every one of these cameras is awesome and worth keeping! Here's a list to date:
- Olympus OM-10 SLR w/ 50mm f1.7 lens
- Pentax ME Super SLR w/ 50mm f2 lens
- Minolta Hi-Matic AF2 rangefinder
- Olympus Stylus Epic point & shoot
- Olympus Trip 35 rangefinder
- Olympus Pen EE half-frame rangefinder
- Konica C35 rangefinder
- Petri Touch rangefinder
I am in the middle of shooting test rolls with each of these cameras and you'll eventually see individual blog posts about each. If you want spoilers, you can check out my Flickr page for more photos.
I intend to try my hand at making prints this year as well, so I'll have to make a separate post detailing that process when the time comes. Since I began this hobby over a year ago, I did more reading into processing your own color film at home, and it turns out I was quick to assume it was much more difficult and expensive. They make kits that include the chemicals you need, and they're pre-measured in the correct amounts. It even comes in powder form so shipping is not absolutely insane. But I think I need to use up my current supply of black & white chemicals before I spend even more money.