Those who’ve followed the F6 Project know I started developing my black and white film again in early 2016. I’d developed film many years ago but it had been a while. Fortunately it’s just like riding a bike and once I got around all the stuff again – with a little help from my friends – remembered what to do.
This year I decided it was time to develop my own color film. I’ve never developed color film before, instead choosing the convenience of sending it to a local lab. What I’ve re-realized developing black and white is that processing my own film has become a matter of creative liberation – and convenience. Working with the medium from start to finish without relying on external variables or influence contributes to the authentic artistic experience. Keeping it all in house. Less of a ‘control freak’ thing and more of a ‘control enthusiast’ thing.
Ive also grown impatient with even the most expeditious labs (I don’t know what it is exactly I resist when it comes to mailing my films…). And then of course there’s the cost savings. With shipping, this kit came in at about $40 and will do 20 rolls. That’s north of $200 at the lab. But perhaps the most compelling reason to develop one’s own film is, some of you may simply not have another option. What good is even the best film camera if you can’t process your film?
There are a few key differences between developing color vs. black and white films at home – most notably – temperature control. Black and white film is much less sensitive to minor variations in temperatures. Temperature matters – but in the ball park is usually good enough. Color is different. Minor variations in development time and temperatures can dramatically swing an image’s color one way or another. This is what always held me up. And, wanting it to be simple, inexpensive and of course reliable. I’m all for experimentation and the whole lomo experience as a means of having fun and trying new things. But if I’m going through the time and expense of shooting color film I need to be able to depend on what comes out the other side. I care a lot about color and I want it to be right. Just on the other side of that though is, if you scan your color images (as I do), correcting minor color shifts in Photoshop or Lightroom isn’t a big deal.
I found the CineStill Cs41 video on line:
It looked pretty straight forward – and they even had the solution for heating water to the correct temperature. Unfortunately my experience with the footbath heating solution was unsuccessful. Water took too long to heat and when it did, the maximum temperature listed in the literature was 95° – not the 103° expected. So I have a new, in my opinion better option for heating chemicals. TRU makes a triple slow cooker, each bay with 2 quart capacity and individual three-level heat settings. The low setting seems to top out about 100° to 101°, so just under the recommended 102°. The medium and high settings exceed the recommended temperature, so working tap water and the dials on the crockpots to maintain temps isn’t difficult. Remember too that during development you need to keep the temp consistent at 102° for 3 and half minutes. That’s not a long time and you can put your tank in the tub between agitation to keep temps consistent. During the blix phase temp is less important and a few degrees either way isn’t going to matter. Again – you can put the tank in the 2-quart containers of water to keep the temp up between agitations. The TRU triple slow cooker ran about $40 at KOHL’s. And – we can use it at Thanksgiving to keep the stuffing warm.
One reader commented on a bit of misinformation in the video above: Stabilizer is not optional. “B&W film has silver in it that prevents fungal growth, but colour film doesn’t have enough silver. The stabilizer contains an anti-fungal as well as a wetting agent, and if you don’t want to find your negatives mouldy in a couple of years you must use it.” Thanks to Chris from Ca!
The Cs41 quart kit cost $24.95 and with shipping it’s more like $40 (you get free shipping with orders over $75, but one thing at a time… I want to make sure things actually turn out before spending more money). After the order processed the kit didn’t ship for 3 weeks, but it finally showed up and I was excited to dive in.
I opened the box and found instructions – printed in 5 point text, folded up on a 8.5″ x 11″ single piece of paper. I found my reading glasses and started to work through what it took to actually use the Cs41 kit. It’s called “Cs41 “Color Simplified” Quart Kit for Color Processing at Home.” There is also a short-cut card provided with all the times and temperatures you need.
Once the chemicals are mixed it’s pretty straight forward. If you use the recommended developer temperature of 102°, development time is short – only 3:30. The Blix and rinse cycles are longer, at 8 minutes and 5 minutes respectively. You can use the same tanks and reels you use for black and white.
I took a deep breath and did two rolls; a roll of Ektar with some mixed lighting situations and a roll of Portra 160 with all daylight exposures. The Cs41 kit handled both with ease. Color emerged natural and unbiased.
I few things I learned on my first batch:
It takes a while to get the chemicals heated to the recommended 102° so start the heating well before you want to begin processing.
I’m unclear what the shelf life of the mixed chemicals is, but understand it’s finite. To maximize chemical’s effectiveness a good strategy seems to be to mix a batch of chemicals once you have a large batch of film to process.
The instructions list a pre-rinse as optional. I elected to do so, and judging by the amount of gook that poured out of the tank afterwards I’d recommend the same to anyone. If you don’t pre-rinse, all that gook makes its way into your developer. Because you re-use the developer I can imagine the cumulative effect not helping maintain color as the roll count climbs.
The Cs41 kit ships with a small Push/Pull Processing & Variable Temperature Development Chart. This is hugely valuable because it concisely provides all the information on time and temps you need. Though 102° is listed as the target developer temperature, the chart provides optional times for lower temperatures – all longer than the 3:30 suggested at 102°. If you’re not in a hurry and want to experiment with lower temps you have the info needed.
The stabilizer left some pretty harsh residue on the film. Though I’m certain I mixed the dilution properly, after speaking with a colleague he recommended I dilute it even more. I’ll try this next round. I’m also going to try a squeegee to trim excess liquid from the roll rather than allow it to simply drip-dry for an hour. I’m not a big fan of water spots and residual nasties on the film once dried.
Something new to me – but not those who’ve developed C41 before: unlike black and white, you can mix different film speeds in the same tank. C41 development times remain the same regardless of ISO speed, unless you push or pull. So you can run a ISO800 film with your ISO100 film.
Pay attention to recommended agitation. It’s not a ‘more is better’ scenario. According to the instructions, “variation in agitation may result in slight color shifts. Insufficient agitation shifts words red/excessive agitation shifts towards cyan. In hind site, I probably leaned a little toward the excessive agitation on these first two rolls.
As a friend of mine once said, “if you can bake a cake, you can develop your own film.” I’d expand that for the culinary challenged and suggest even if you can’t bake a cake, you can successfully develop your own black and white and color film. It just takes the right tools, a little time and the desire to learn something new. My bottom line is, I’ll be ordering more Cs41 from Cinestill soon.
I first visited the northern region of the Escalante Staircase area years ago after reading an article on the Burr Trail -but that’s another story. More recently (back in 2007) I hit it from the south, having come up one night from Flagstaff and checked into a hotel in Page, Arizona just off Hwy 89. There was a large canvas hanging on the wall of the lobby and I asked the woman behind the desk where it was from. “Just up the road,” she said, “about 20 miles. It’s not marked or anything, you just pull over the start walking.” So that next day we did just that and what do you know – we found it.
This past trip to Page we thought we’d try to find it again. One late afternoon we set out armed with just a memory and full tank of gas. Soon the land began to change into what I vaguely remembered from 10 years prior and I was hopeful. Then, there on the right hand side of the road was the parking area and it all came back to me. It’s more developed now; a half dozen cars at the trail head and a sign informing would-be hikers what they’re about to see. It’s the Grand Staircase, part of the enormous Escalante National Monument.
Different than a National Park, National Monuments have different structures, different protocols. The Escalante National Monument is a truly vast, wild expanse of land sweeping through central Utah. There’s no single entry point per say, but numerous portals from which to enter. Camping is allowed and exploration is encouraged. It is a able-bodied photographer’s dream come true.
So what does this have to do with the F6? Nothing, really – other than it’s just another place it was with me to record. Ten years ago before purchasing the F6 I was shooting a D2oo. The difference between the two cameras is startling. My friend Dan looked through the F6’s super bright, clear viewfinder and – in comparison to the D750 he was shooting – commented how he wished the D750 had that viewfinder. Funny how we grow accustomed to things and can take them for granted. The viewfinder is one of the features of the F6 I’ve come to rely on most. I’m actually able to see well enough for tasks such as manually focusing and low-light shooting. And compared to the F5, because the focus points light up in red instead of remaining a monotone gray when activated makes everything easier and less distracting when shooting. Yet another reason to love the F6.
To read more about Utah’s Escalante National Monument and Grand Staircase, visit the VisitUtah web site.
This article is a written collection of thoughts explored in an attempt to think through some recent considerations. Every once in a while I get the itch to explore different film formats. The initial inspiration for this article was the recent consideration of diving in to large format film photography.
I’m approaching this from the standpoint of which film format works best for my type of shooting, and why. Not film vs. digital, which grew tired years ago. Both have merits, both are worthwhile. Exploring the choice of film format though, to me has merit. It’s an investment. Not just the film itself but the infrastructure/gear to shoot, process, scan and archive. There are advantages and disadvantages to each format depending on what/how I’m shooting.
I began thinking through buying, outfitting, then hauling around and using a large format system. I considered the benefits and weighed the cost. With that – this article isn’t a attempt to establish the “best” film for everyone to shoot, but the best film for me to shoot based on my own personal creative goals. My hope is this might help others who’ve considered different formats, and they’re able to glean any insights to draw their own conclusions.
One foundational question when choosing a camera system is what type of photography you’re interested in. If you’re strictly a landscape photographer making very large prints, a 35mm film camera probably isn’t your best option. Answering the question of what you’re planning to do with the photographs is important before making the commitment to a system.
Besides prints, printed books are one of my favorite applications for photographs. The ideal resolution of a 35mm photograph is far more than adequate to print any reasonably sized book, even large, coffee table books.
Of course, if you want to go totally old school, pop some corn and fire up the projector, you could have a good old-fashioned slide show (who remembers that distinct smell of the projector bulb as it heats up to throw your beautiful images across a dark room)?
Sheet Film & Large Format
Sheet film’s immense size has obvious advantages to image quality due to the amount of information contained. There’s nothing like it. Gorgeous, super high-resolution images you can zoom into various parts and form compositions within compositions allow printing gigantic prints people will ooh and ah at. It’s truly spectacular. Another advantage to sheet film is the processing. Because you’re not developing 12, 16 or 36 different exposures at a time – and just one – you’re able to customize development for that one, specific shot. This allows custom processing and tremendous creative control for each frame. The down side is, sheet film is expensive and a bit cumbersome to work with. A 20-sheet box of 4″ x 5″ Velvia 100 runs about $72. That’s about $3.60 per shutter release. A 20-sheet box of 8″ x 10″ Velvia runs about $255. That’s almost $13/shot. That’s some pretty serious dough if you’re going to shoot a lot. There’s also the idea that – because something is so expensive to shoot, and you’re only carrying so much film at a time – one may be reluctant to make an image they’re not sure whether it’s worthwhile or not. No one is right every time they decide to frame up and shoot – or pass it up because it’s just not happening.
A few years ago we were climbing Independence Pass returning from a fall colors trip. It was near the end of the trip and colors were in their prime. Light was gorgeous and leaves were twinkling in the breeze. We pulled over just as two large format shooters were breaking down their large, heavy cameras off their large, heavy tripods. They’d pulled over and seen the same forest – but when it came time to frame up – I heard one say it just wasn’t happening; it’s time to move on. My friend and I spent some time nosing around and I came away with this:
This image was made with the superb Micro Nikkor 105VR to reach into the inner depths of what I found interesting in the forest, and compress the layers of trees into an expressionistic style montage. It was also shot with a shallow depth of field because I wanted to accentuate the abstract, expressionistic feel to the foreground leaves. The bokeh on the 105VR is super smooth and optics with ED glass are super sharp. It was the perfect lens for the composition I saw. The image is crisp enough to be enlarged quite large without quality loss.
If I were a large format shooter with only so many sheets of film at the end of a week-long trip and limited focal length lens, would I have been willing to make this shot? Hard to say – but those two guys walked away from the same scene without an image. I was glad to have had enough of the right film and a lens with the right reach to frame up what I saw in that forest, which turned out to be one of the best images from the trip.
Large format is also a bit cumbersome to haul around quantities for extended trips. I know people do it and get some great images – but as much as I admire and respect the image quality of the good shots resulting from such an investment of time, money and energy – I guess it’s just not something I’m willing to do.
120 Roll Film and Medium Format
Medium format roll film is a higher-volume alternative to sheet film, coming primarily in two flavors: 120/220. 220 provides the same physical frame size as 120 but provides twice as many shots because the roll is twice as long. But it’s tough to find these days – and doesn’t alleviate what I view as the more significant problem of shooting medium format: the larger size of the cameras.
The technical attributes of a medium format system are impressive. Initially I thought of it as the “goldie locks” format: not too big and cumbersome, higher number of shots per load, more detail in the negative… was it just right? It was clinically perfect; large negatives providing way more detail and information than the resulting print required. Beautiful, yes. But was it getting the proverbial drink of water from a fire hose?
I enjoyed my Mamiya RZ67 system- until it came time to use it the field. At that point it became a boxy, cumbersome beast. And even with a good assortment of high-quality lenses the RZ never was quite as wide – or close – as I wanted.
Then when I’d go out to shoot there was the internal struggle with what system to bring. After all – because of its flexibility, bringing the smaller format kit was a given. Its smaller form factor and a mind-numbing array of lenses and accessories provided a clear advantage. Bringing the medium format system too, meant doubling the amount of gear I had to fumble through when it came time to shoot. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve fumbled through bags of gear searching for a doodad in the dark. Just too much stuff, I’d mutter under my breath as a headlamp flickered on low batteries and fingers hoped to land on the one item so I could get back to work.
In 2009 I took a backpacking trip into Rocky Mountain National Park to photograph the Spear Head, a gorgeous, granite blade jutting out of Glacier Basin. I was a little younger and stronger then and figured what the heck, I’d just bring it all. I intentionally didn’t weigh my pack until after the trip. It weighed nearly 100 pounds. I’ll never do that again – I was miserable. I got some decent photos but really struggled beneath the weight.
Dynamic, Fluid Compositions
For me artistically – somehow the content of the medium format frame usually lacked something; a spontaneity, a whimsy, surprise. Larger format systems often lack the ability shoot off the hand; to respond to fleeting or decisive moments worth photographing as they appear.
To fully realize the benefits of the larger film size, shooting from a tripod is often required. This usually (but not always) means slow to set up and often resulting in a somewhat rigid, undynamic angle resulting from reluctance to mess with a perfectly level horizon, for example. The net result is a well-structured but often stiff, stagnent image. Still, I kept trying to talk myself into believing the larger, ‘higher quality’ image was worth the trade off. In the end, with reservations, I sold the RZ system. I’ve missed it occasionally but believe I made the right decision.
So then, lets take stock so far: 1) It seems one of the things I value is portability, and the ability to remain flexible to my environment – and have a camera in-hand when it yields an image. 2) I also value consolidating systems and gear as much as possible to avoid hauling around too much incompatible “stuff.” 3)Having the flexibility to shoot a larger number of images per load has also proven valuable. 4) While I do use a tripod, I also value the fluid, dynamic composition shooting off the hand allows. 5) And the ability to fine-tune composition through focal length (which by the way is one of the reasons I prefer SLR cameras instead of rangefinders) is a real plus.
35mm Cameras, systems and Great Design
OK, if portability is so important why not a point and shoot camera? This introduces the idea of aesthetics and style to the equation; the tactile component; what brings beauty, elegance and joy to the process. Photography isn’t bereft of beauty; not simply an analytical equation or assortment of facts and figures. It’s art.
To shun the aesthetic component of photography is to strip the very essence of its role as art. This aesthetic component extends to the tools used in the process… it doesn’t mean you can’t make a good photo with an ugly camera – but why would you want to?
Stripping photography of aesthetic value and trying to turn it into pure pragmatism is like eating bread and water all the days of life because it’s convenient. Give me a solid, well-designed, well-built, rugged tool over a fragile, plastic box any time. Yes – the point and shoot will fit in my pocket and be very portable. But the aesthetic and flexibility hits are just too great.
The design of cameras; their usability, tactile layout, human engineering, curb appeal and just joy-in-hand is a real thing. It’s why some cameras resonate with some but not others; why people collect – but don’t use – cameras. The engineering, thought, devotion to manufacturing excellence and even quirkiness/funkiness – is all a real thing. Art, beauty and great design are most excellent qualities in life.
O.K. you say… beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Where’s the beef? What about the practical, the functional side of shooting a 35mm film camera?
How about weather sealing? Fatigue-minimizing ergonomics? Drop-resistance? A mind-boggling assortment of lens? Modern benefits like super sensitive electromagnetic shutters made of space-age materials? How about low operational noise? Rapid frame rates? Underwater housings? Interval exposures? Remote triggering for positioning in difficult or dangerous places or to capture wildlife.? And of course the aforementioned accessories? Interchangeable backs and viewfinders, for example. The list goes on and on because the 35mm system has been so popular for so long, and so many have wanted to do so much with it.
When initially exploring a system the first temptation may be to think “oh, I don’t need anything fancy…” But as your passion for the art of photography grows and you want to experiment, wouldn’t it be nice to not have to start all over again with a new system? The benefits of a contemporary 35mm film camera combined with today’s film is an awesome total photographic experience.
OK, so along with the points raised before, some sense of style, design and aesthetic appreciation is important to me. Got it.
So let’s look at the attributes of 35mm film itself and see if they line up with creative goals:
35mm roll film attributes
35mm is convenient. Not as convenient as digital, but more convenient than large or medium format. As roll film (not sheet film) with 36 frames available on a roll, you can load it and shoot a good many pictures before it runs out. When it does, because it’s so tuckable; stowable, it’s easy to have another roll or 3 in your pocket, ready. So being able to take a few rolls on a hike, for example, is pretty nice. It doesn’t mean you need to shoot it all – but if you need it, it’s there.
35mm still relatively inexpensive and available. Even if your local drug store no longer stocks/develops film, it’s easily obtained in quantities at a moderate cost. So if you pick up a brick or two, store it in the ‘fridge and use it over a span of time – it’s a great value.
35mm has a 3:2 aspect ratio that’s pleasing to some and not others. Some call the 6:7 aspect “perfect” (i’m guessing it’s the ones who developed the camera who decided it was perfect)… because you don’t have to crop for 8″ x 10.” Others say 6:45, which is pretty close to 3:2. Still others site the advantages to the square format because you don’t have to turn the camera on its side to shoot portrait. Whatever… I don’t know if it’s an old habits die hard thing or what, but I find the shape of the 3:2 frame agreeable to virtually any composition; either horizontal or vertical. Some things frame up better side to side, others top to bottom. And turning the camera on its side to shoot vertically being labeled “too difficult or inconvenient” reminds me a Seinfeld episode where Elaine complains about having to shake the juice before opening it. It’s not complicated.
I’m a believer in the L-bracket because with certain cameras I do shoot on the tripod regularly. The L-bracket provides fast, sure, solid mounting in either horizontal or vertical position. But the real power of the 35mm form factor is being able to easily hand-hold the camera.
The future of film
There are still plenty of different emulsions available from which to choose. It’s true – chrome (slide) films have taken a hit in past years. But other films are emerging in their place, and they’re really, really good. Still – Velvia 50 on a tripod with a good lens is capable of amazing image quality. Today’s 35mm film is relevant because it’s better than anything produced in the past. Kodak’s Portra line, for example, has been completely retooled, and it’s awesome. Portra 400 is not the same 400 speed film as yesteryear.
When I visit one of the few remaining camera stores in my area I ask how film sales are going. Every time I’m told the same thing: we can’t keep it on the shelves. People are still buying lots and lots of film whenever they find it available. Add mail order from local suppliers like Denver Pro Photo here in Colorado, or national mail order retailers like B&H out of New York- and continued availability seems assured.
I think it’s safe to assume the heyday of large-scale film production like we saw in the past is behind us. But there are new players emerging, and businesses seem to be consolidating, positioning themselves for future success. I for one am very encouraged. To form some idea of how many people are still devoted to film photography take a look at instagram and search something like #filmisnotdead, or #filmfeed, #analog, #filmphotography, #analogvibes or countless other film-centric hashtags. Film is very alive and very well.
35mm film is easy to work with. Because it had such a wide commercial appeal, having it processed is easy. Processing it yourself is even easier, as I’ve recently been reminded. The tanks to hold it are smaller, the reels are smaller, the chemicals are less. Everything about 35mm is smaller and easier to work with. Yet, done right – the image quality is amazingly high.
What about image quality? Let’s get this out of the way: this is where you get into the limitations of 35mm film for certain applications. It will never produce a 30″ or 40″ or large print as cleanly as that big, beautiful 4″ x 5″ piece of film – or today’s super high-resolution digital cameras. So if that’s the goal, 35mm is the wrong tool. But… how many times have I actually wanted to print a photograph that large? Not many. The rest of the time, something in the neighborhood of 18″ x 12″ with a nice, 2″ matte all around is more than large enough. And if it’s a good shot I want to go larger with – if technique is perfect and equipment is first class – I can.
The 35mm look
When people think of 35mm film often time they think of grainy, black and white (or color) photojournalism photos made over the years. There is a reason those images look like they do. Often times photojournalism films were in the ISO400 speed category and therefore had a courser grain. The reason was pretty obvious: as a photojournalist you need to be ready for anything, in any light. And a 400 speed film was a good way to stack the deck in your favor. The point of the photograph wasn’t how sharp or perfect it was – the point was the content of the image itself. So a “great photograph” might be great not because it’s super sharp and has no visible grain, but because it’s a compelling image.
Today’s 35mm film is capable of many other things beside grainy photojournalism photos. A fine grain 35mm film like Velvia (color slide film), Kodak Ektar 100 (color negative film) or Ilford PanF50 (black and white print film) has virtually no visible grain and possesses tremendous enlargement capability. So many different “looks” can be created with different 35mm films, developers and scanning or darkroom technique. See the “look” heading down further for more on this topic.
To the casual viewer who couldn’t care less what type of camera was used to make the picture – they see the contents of the frame, not the technical attributes of the photograph. The photographer is the only one who cares what camera was used.
It’s the same sort of thing that makes a digitally captured photograph look different than a film-recorded photograph. Most people would see the contents of the frame, not the presence or lack of subtle tone falloff, clipped highlights or grain/no grain. With today’s digital post-processing techniques, one could choose to process that “look” right out of a 35mm made image if so chosen.
When I parted with my RZ system – as painful as it was – I consoled myself with this: when I go out to shoot, everything uses essentially the same F-mount, Nikon system. I can use virtually any lens on any camera, film or digital, and everything just works. There are of course caveats in the details. But largely it’s true, and it’s reliable. And I like that because it reintroduces simplicity to shooting and allows me to enjoy the process of creating again. UPDATE/FULL DISCLOSURE: After this article was written I decided for those normal to wide shots where a little more resolution would help, adding back the ability to shoot medium format was a good idea, and picked up a Mamiya M645 1000S. It’s considerably smaller and more compact than the RZ system and with one lens, fits perfectly into the bag above. The M645 uses the same, screw-in cable release as my older Nikons, the same Kirk ball-head mounting plate I’m already carrying, and has a easy Mirror-Up mechanism. A 58-77 step up ring allows use of the same filters and lens accessories I’m shooting with the Nikon lenses. So now technically I’m back up to two systems, but now the MF rig is tiny and self-contained.
Easy Film Processing
As mentioned in a previous post, recently I’ve begun developing my own black and white films again, after a 30 year hiatus. To say I’ve enjoyed the process again is an understatement. I should have done it years ago. But I had a great local lab available and didn’t need to.
Processing your own black and white film is extremely easy. There’s a small, initial investment required for tanks, reels and a few odds and ends, but after that your cost per roll drops to virtually nothing. Contrast that with $10-$12 from commercial black and white processing and the cost savings is significant.
As wonderful as cost is – it’s perhaps the least compelling reason to process your own film. You also have the ability to try different developers to produce different looks. Then there’s the convenience of shooting and processing your film on the same day. Add to that the feeling of actually creating something with your hands again and the case for developing film at home is solid. Don’t wait like I did. Jump in with both feet and enjoy it.
A Buyer’s Market – Finally
The overabundance of high-quality tools with which to work in 35mm is one of those pinch me moments we don’t get enough in life. Really, really good cameras and lenses are ridiculously inexpensive on the used market thanks to people simply retiring their tried and true friends after experiencing the convenience of a first digital camera.
A few years back I picked up a Nikon N8008s for $26. It retailed new for about $500-$600 in the late 80’s, which in today’s money is around $1,100. I often wonder how many wished in hind site, a year or two later, they’d held onto their trusty 35mm friend rather than selling it for pennies. I’ll bet lots. It’s a shame, really. Things don’t suddenly become useless because something new comes along. This is an on-going problem in our culture; not just for cameras but other consumables too. After spending so many thousands of dollars on digital gear from 2006 to 2010 I’m pretty happy to get a great-working camera for $26. Be warned though: the used market has caught on and prices are rising.
Of course, being the best of the best, the F6 is still considerably more expensive than $26. And the F6 is the focus of this web site. After all, the F6 could be one of the greatest reasons to continue shooting 35mm film. Or – perhaps shooting 35mm film is one of the greatest reasons to have and use the F6?
A few weeks ago I did something I’ve been meaning to do for years: began developing my own black and white film again. After a 30+ year hiatus, the time had finally come.
Up until last year I’d been fortunate enough to have one of the best pro film labs in the country only minutes away. I’d always told myself when they shut down, I’d begin. Due to a variety of unfortunate circumstances that time came last year, but I held on, continuing to search for a suitable alternative for the next several months. A few weeks ago I finally said Uncle and put in an order to B&H.
I suppose there are reasons that seem suitable at the time why we do things like wait… and it’s easy to second guess decisions in hind-site. But I’ll say this: I wish I’d done this a long time ago. Today’s film processing is essentially the same as 30 years ago, with a few key differences. Patterson tanks and reels are one of those differences. The last time I tried to wind a roll of film onto the old, stainless spiral reel it was a catastrophe. The Patterson reels are easy as can be. Another reason is the lack of dark room. A nice, big changing bag took care of that. The chemicals and process are all pretty much the same – and now it’s actually fun – especially when compared to the alternative -sending it out, waiting for at least a week. And there’s the cost. Dramatically less developing yourself, even after gearing up with fresh, new supplies.
Then there’s the creative control you have over your films. For whatever reason the ILFORD Delta family of emulsions has always resonated with me. I shoot other films too – but gravitate back to the ILFORD films when the fridge is empty and it’s time to reorder. It’s simply not a feasible request; asking a commercial lab to custom develop your film with different developers than they’ve standardized on. With that, I’ve always wondered just what qualities in the film I’m missing out on by not experimenting with different developers and simply accepting the lab’s standard. Now I know, and will never go back.
Recently I’ve been considering something else I haven’t completely thought through, but will give it a go here. There seems to be many who become interested in photography – using the digital camera as a gateway. This can be a great thing. The digital camera’s immediate feedback provides invaluable tools for learning about light, composition, exposure, etc. About 10 years ago I was amongst this group. I’d been involved in photography for many (many) years prior, and to be honest, had just grown a little bored with it. There were times I’d go on a trip, shoot lots of film, then simply leave it undeveloped in my file cabinet – sometimes for years. Along came the digital camera and immediately I was enthralled. The curtain was pulled back on the seemingly long, mysterious process of going from the snap of the shutter to viewing the final image. There it was on the camera back; no more mystery. No more anticipation. What seems to happen with people who become newly interested in photography through digital cameras is – they grow bored with it. It turns out for me that mystery and anticipation was actually one of the benefits of the process, not a detractor -as I think it might be for those who get a digital camera and have a “perfect” image handed to them milliseconds after its exposure. Once the novelty wears off it becomes less interesting. This isn’t always the case, but I have seen this pattern repeat itself.
My stint with digital lasted about 3 years before migrating back to film. Now I enjoy both digital and film, but admittedly leave my digital camera home unless there’s a specific reason to bring it. Now, developing film again has deepened my commitment to film and made me even more focused. It’s such a treat to shoot and develop a roll yourself within the span of days rather than weeks or months. The quite satisfying feeling of actually making something with your hands returns.
I’ll encourage anyone who’s ever thought about developing film passingly but deemed it too complicated or expensive – to think again. It has been said to me and I agree; if you can bake a cake you can process your own film. Give it a try.
Sometimes returning to your roots is a good thing. When we lived in Santa Fe from the mid 90’s ’til 2000 I was in a different phase of photography. In recent years I’ve enjoyed returning to this beautiful country with a better understanding of light – and how to coax more out of a frame of film with subtle adjustments here and there. Below are a few recent images from our last visit to Santa Fe, the F6 loaded with Velvia. The meter in the F6 is a perfect companion to the narrow exposure latitude of this sometimes tempermental emulsion. A good 2-stop Neutral Density Gradient and occasional use of a 81A warming filter can help coax light into cooperating with Velvia, producing very pleasing results.
A big thanks to Richard Photo Lab in California for their excellent work developing all the film from this trip. It was the first time I’ve used Richard but not the last. They handled a large, complex order well and all the films were properly labeled and processed.
A few weeks ago I needed to get out – as in far away from the computer – in a big way. The weather wasn’t good along the Front Range and checking the iPhone confirmed pretty much any place within easy driving distance was experiencing the same. It looked like the only thing to do was out drive the front. I fueled up, stopped for the requisite Americano and headed into the rain not knowing what the day held. Not knowing what lie ahead isn’t just part of the fun – it’s the reason I go.
There are a number of different ways to connect with my favorite haunts – North Park/Southern Wyoming. Memorial Day this year marked the opening of Trail Ridge Road, which connects the front range with the deeper mountains through Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a bit circuitous route, but any day beginning on Trail Ridge Road is a good day no matter what happens next. I headed up to the Park, bought the annual pass and wasted no time getting high. That’s a eyebrow-raising phrase here in Colorado these days… what I mean is quickly gaining elevation. On a week day there was little traffic – one of the wonderful benefits of being able to take off in the middle of the week instead of waiting for the weekend.
At the bottom of Trail Ridge you wind up in Grandby T-boning at the intersection of Highway 40. A right takes you towards Hot Sulphur Springs and Kremmling. I stopped at the market in Kremmling for a break, the weather already improving, and considered my route. I only had the day, needing to be back that night – so was somewhat limited by daylight. The western edge of North Park is unofficially bound by 40 as it winds up over Muddy Pass. From there I picked up 14 and headed east towards Walden.
A great thing about being open to the day is a willingness to detour onto new roads. There are roads I’ve driven by many times making a mental note to return someday to explore as time allows. Nearing Walden I came upon one of those roads; a dirt road peeling off across the pasture lands to the east. With plenty of fuel and a cooler full of fruit and water this was the perfect opportunity and I didn’t hesitate.
I have and shoot a lot of cameras – many of which I was carrying on this day – all loaded with different films. I think back to a story once read about Robert Frank (The Americans) who was one day detained in a small town by a police officer who noticed he had an unusually large number of cameras visibly scattered about in the car. I smile as I think about the packed Pelican crate tucked safely in the back of the Subaru, beneath a foil space blanket to keep it cooler in the high-altitude sun shining through the rear window. I also make a note to check the cooler containing extra film brought along at the next stop.
I know some people think you should only only shoot one film, getting used to its characteristics in certain light, the look it produces etc. I understand the reasoning behind this – but toss it out the window. Different films are for different light, different applications, different scenes, different subjects. A film camera loaded with roll film can only practically shoot one roll at a time. Having different cameras loaded with different films allows greater flexibility for an image that may be better suited for a chrome (slide) film, or C41 (color negative) or black and white.
There has been a great deal of rain in Colorado this year; a wonderful break from the high and dry monotony pestering ranchers, farmers and other ag-centric folks over recent past. All this rain has turned browns into greens; refilled drainage ditches, draws and ponds, and contributed to an overall pleasant aroma to the high prairie. Standing water also means lots of bugs.
After Rand I picked up 125 North towards Cowdrey, veered left at the Dean Peak Junction and was on my way North into Wyoming.
I was eager to shoot my new F5 for the first time and had both it and the F6 on the seat next to me just in case. Sometimes things catch your eye and digging a camera out of the crate takes time. Only a few frames had been made thus far in the trip. Light during mid-day isn’t ideal, which is why that time is spent moving between places – to be in position for the edges of the day. Often times I’ll think I see a shot and head down a dirt road looking for the right vantage point. More often then not things don’t line up, or the light’s wrong, or there’s too much mud (which has happened a lot this year), or I’m met with a “No Trespassing” sign (I always respect No Trespassing signs) and the detour is chalked up to a learning experience as I head back to the main road. As I’m driving down a double track or dirt road I’m always considering my exit plan. Once while trying to turn around on a double track in Sweetwater County the car became stuck – high-centered in the middle of no where. I try to avoid this.
About the time I rolled into southern Wyoming it was later in the day and the light had improved considerably. I’d left rainy skies far behind and was enjoying fresh air, brilliant bluebird skies punctuated by dramatic, enormous cloud masses as the edge of the front just passed through quietly lumbered its way east.
Riverside, Wyoming is a quiet town just north of the Colorado/Wyoming state line. I pass through Riverside often, en route to other destinations. This day it marked the point I was to turn east and head home. The Trading Post sits on the corner of Wyoming 230 and 70. The tired me planned on rolling right on by – until I saw the clouds, and what the light was doing. Thanks to the high pressure system chasing the front east, the air was freshly scrubbed and crystal clear. Brilliant light screamed across a fresh atmosphere and slammed into the wood siding, red roof and white accent signage. I suppose I’ve spent enough time cruising around to notice a gas station or two – and this was spectacular.
No tripod, no filters, no nothing other than f8 and be there. 2 frames clicked off the F5 loaded with Ektar and on I went. My real goal was trying to hit peak light on Snowy Range Road and I knew I’d be cutting it close.
Snowy Range Road – like Trail Ridge Road – is closed during winters. Signs along the approach alert the traveler well in advance whether it’s open or closed. Even with all the snow the mountains received this year I knew I was safe and car churned its way up the steep grade. I spent an hour milling about looking for a good composition vantage point based on what the light was doing – but wasn’t able to line up what I’d hoped. I used to become anxious during these moments, but now I’m relaxed. If the world aligns and an image is presented – wonderful. If not – you’re up in the mountains watching this etherial scene unfold. Where else would you rather be? A scene doesn’t need to result in an image. Just relax and enjoy not being parked in front of the computer.
Undiscouraged, I packed up and headed further up the road towards Libby Flats to catch last light on the Overlook. Almost immediately after making the one frame, shadows swept up and over, engulfing the stone structure until morning. It was time to head home. I put in 440 miles that day (and I wonder why I’m chewing through tires so fast). Driving home in the dark I was satisfied; happy to have been out wandering in the west with no agenda and plenty of cameras loaded with film. The net result was, I felt rested and ready to face another day tomorrow – at my best thanks to the break.
The other day I was on an assignment and pulled a rookie move. I became so preoccupied talking and laughing with the client, fiddling with light – diffusion panels to knock the sun down; fiddling with power levels on the SU-800 and SB-R200’s – that I forgot to change the ISO after previously shooting a 400 speed film. I don’t typically use the DX setting – preferring instead to set ISO manually, especially when using custom rather than rated ISO’s. I realized my mistake halfway through the roll and was pretty embarrassed – though the client never knew.
I decided to continue on, hoping the lab would bail me out, and was blown away by the results. They were perfect. Kevin at Digi-Graphics said, “I’ve never pushed Ektar 2 stops before but it’s great film. It should be just fine. If it were junk film not so much. Who knows… this might be exactly how you should shoot Ektar…”
As it turned out, those were prophetic words… with a few caveats.
These images are scanned in using the Nikon LS-5000 and VueScan. I ordered prints with this roll – something I don’t usually do – and they were awful – unusably awful – the red channel completely flooded blocking up the center of the flower in one, big, featureless blob of red-ness. When I saw the prints I thought, “Uh-Oh… I’m busted” and the negs sat on my light box for nearly a week as I mulled over what to do. I’d also made a few digital frames as back-ups and began considering tweaking them into what I wanted for the final images.
Last night I took another look at the negs on the light box with a loop. I could see plenty of detail in the red regions of the film and thought what the heck, it wouldn’t be the first time the prints were disappointing but the images were still good. I sat down and started scanning and was – once again – blown away by what film does. Even though the original prints were unusably awful there was plenty of information there. The question was, how to get to it. A little VueScan magic did the trick. Switching to Manual mode I began adjusting values in the red channel for scanning. Turns out about half of the standard setting did the trick and all that lovely detail began to reemerge.
The F6 has the unique ability among other film cameras to leverage Nikon’s Creative Lighting System and this was a perfect opportunity to see what the R1C1 Close-up Flash kit could do. The flowers were in direct sunlight, so a diffusion panel was used to neutralize the bright, Colorado sun. The SU-800 Commander head was mounted to the F6 and set to an even 1:1 Group C, Channel 1. I typically use Group C for my Macro work because Groups A and B are used more often for the SB-800 and 900 for more common lighting tasks. The Flash Sync Mode on the F6 was set to “Slow,” and the Sync Speed (Custom Setting Menu item E-1) was set to 1/250FP allowing sync speeds greater than the 1/250th of a second using Auto FP High Speed Sync. The SW-11 Close-Up Adaptors were used to position the light extremely close to the center axis of the lens, providing a very mild, straight-on, diffused light source, but perfect for picking up reflected detail in the water droplets. The goal was natural-appearing lighting with that little extra something. Though it hadn’t rained in a while, I flicked some water on the leaves, then hit it with a spray bottle for a little extra sparkle on the petals.
I’ve said before but it bares repeating: the Creative Lighting System is indeed one of the unique attributes of the F6 causing it to stand out amidst other film cameras. At the end of the day photography is largely about how light interacts with medium. Being intentional then about how to use that light is one way to direct, or shape, the contents of the frame. In the spirit of Tomohisa Ikeno “Value of Unique Pictures” discussion (please click here), the more I shoot the F6, the more interested I am in exploring the unique images it’s capable of. Nikon’s CLS figures prominently into that exploration.
As it turned out, shooting Ektar at ISO400 – while not something I’d have thought to do intentionally – produced great results. It allowed working with higher shutter speeds to combat a slight breeze shifting the flowers ever so slightly. Pushing Ektar also amplified the natural tendencies of this already vivid, contrasty film. “Yup. Pushing a color film increases grain, saturation and contrast at the expense of latitude. Pushing an already saturated film super saturates it,” said my buddy Eric, well versed in matters of darkroom chemistry. Given that Ektar is already a finely-grained film, the increase in grain is nominal, if noticeable at all. But the increase in saturation is very noticeable – and to a lesser degree a bump in contrast may also be seen. This explains the flooding of the red channel in the initial prints.
These images are directly out of VueScan with no adjustment to color or contrast at all. Normally when scanning Ektar there’s a certain degree of color adjustment required to get the images looking right to my eye. Here – they just jump off the screen with no adjustment what so ever.
So in case you ever need to push Ektar, do it with confidence. It works great. Just be mindful when you go to print the images that you adjust the color properly. The resulting super saturated images may exceed most printers’ ability to reproduce the results. This I know for sure: I’ll be shooting my next roll of Ektar at 200 and pushing it a stop to experiment. Who knows… I may have just stumbled bass-ackwards into a new look.
For the past 10 years now the city of Fort Collins, Colorado has sponsored, in conjunction with Bohemian Nights Music, the New West Fest; essentially a birthday party for the city and fall jamboree for Northern Colorado, focusing heavily on live music. The scale of the event is difficult to grasp. The city blocks off the core of famous Old Town and people wander freely with children, strollers, the occasional huge stuffed animal won at a carnival game, and open containers. It’s a truly great event we’ve come to enjoy more each year.
This year we met friends for Saturday night’s Library Stage line up and first to play was a band from Nederland, Elephant Revival. I can sum up our feelings about Elephant Revival in one word: utter bliss. OK, two words. Elephant Revival hails from the small, mountain community of Nederland, Colorado – at the foot of the Indian Peaks Wilderness and hovering in the clouds 30 miles above the city of Boulder. Years ago while working in Boulder I had the good fortune to live in Nederland and can attest to its unique, authentic, Colorado vibe – perhaps one of the reasons Elephant Revival resonated so much with me. Surely some of you have felt this before so hopefully it’s not a new phenomena I’m trying to describe and you can all smile and nod your heads as you remember… but every so often there are bands and performances that create something really special for you. Somehow, through the combination of elements produced in a show; the atmosphere created by the actual music’s rhythms and tempos, instrumentations and arrangements mixed with the musicians and their artistry, countenance, performance, expressions, posture, dress and demeanor all – viewed through a modest use of light and a whiff of atmosphere – something special happens – and the audience is transported to another time, another place. That was Elephant Revival for me on Saturday night. Thank you, Elephant Revival. For that brief period I forgot the rest of my life and vanished into your world.
Photographically I’d made some decisions the day before on how to approach this year’s New West Fest. Friday’s opening act, Shatterproof, also held a special draw for us. Their electric violin player T.J. Wessel’s family are friends, and we stood front row in the hot, late afternoon sun watching this band of talented young musicians go at it. As I looked around at the building crowd I smiled upon realizing that 1 out of every 5 had either a DSLR strapped around their neck, or some sort of electronic “phablet” held up – fingers extended – to record.
Given my natural proclivity to photograph with film when it came time to plan how I wanted to record this year’s festival – it was a pretty simple decision. The follow up question was, what film. I consider myself primarily a color photographer and for many events and occasions this fits. There are times, however, when choosing black and white film feels like the right move. Don’t ask why because I don’t think I could explain. I just go with it. And so it was for Saturday and Sunday’s outings; as I happened to find myself standing in the crowd, close to the front, transported to this other world.
One of the tricky things about concert photography – especially in the evening – is low light. It’s no secret todays DSLR’s handle low-light situations very well – especially my D3s – which I can push to 3,200 and even 6,400 with confidence of getting a usable image. Film is another matter. But if you’re working with the right film in the right way, there’s potential for some unique images – it just takes a little more thought – and work. The black and white film I revert to typically is Ilford’s Delta line. Delta 400 provides deep, rich long tones, deep blacks and dramatic contrast while also rendering smooth tonal transitions and holding sharp detail. If I were to pick one black and white film to head out with I knew would hold up in virtually any lighting conditions it would be Delta 400. It’s a beautiful film.
The stage’s backdrop is an important part of the photograph. Fortunately those who plan these sometimes elaborate, complex stages understand this. In this case it was a neutral grayish color, probably a stop less than the middle tone of a gray card. The Library Stage faced East, it’s back to the afternoon sun. This was actually good news – providing you were prepared for it. Initially one might be tempted to try and shoot manually. At first glance, light would’nt seem to change much because they’re out of direct sunlight. The problem is, once the lights begin sweeping over performers, everything changes. Spot metering or center weighted metering is the way to go in situations like this. Matrix metering would unnecessarily factor that large, dark backdrop too much while calculating exposure – and cause overexposure of the figures in front. Black and white film has great exposure latitude to retrieve blown or buried data, but it’s always best to get things right from the git-go than have to fix mistakes in post. The solution is of course spot metering and positioning the “spot” on the faces – or other middle value portions of the scene. Easier said than done when performers start moving around. And depending on what lens you’re working with and how far you are from the action – a face or head can get pretty tiny in the viewfinder, making it difficult to get that single “spot” in the right place at the right time. When musicians are stationary – like in the shot below – it’s of course much easier.
The lens to work with is the 70-200/ƒ2.8 VR. It’s fast-focusing and at 2.8 lets in plenty of light to work at reasonable shutter speeds with 400 speed film. I knew I could push Delta to 800 or higher if necessary, but I was getting between 1/80th and 1/125 typically at 2.8 and deemed it good enough, even at 200mm. If that doesn’t make sense, don’t worry. You want to try to keep the shutter speed at 1 over the field of view of the lens you’re working with. With image stabilization (Canon calls is IS, Nikon calls it VR for Vibration Reduction) you can usually get away with another stop. So for a 200mm lens, you want to be working with shutter speeds around 1/200th sec. With VR, you can get away with 1/125. If you have VR and a steady hand, you can sometimes get away with 1/80th or so. The question you have to ask yourself is, will you get better results pushing the film and shooting higher shutter speeds, or a shooting at rated and holding the camera still. It all depends. I went with the later for Elephant Revival and the following act, the Subdudes, and was glad I did.
The next – and final day of New West Fest was the one I was most looking forward to. Richie Furay’s band was on the main, Mountain Avenue stage at 2:30 and nothing could stop me from from being there. Richie Furay is one of the iconic founders of country rock for the past 40 years and is now a pastor at a church near Boulder. Growing up, like so many others, Richie Furay’s music with Buffalo Springfield, Poco and the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band were on my turntable and car’s cassette player nearly every minute of the day. He was and is the sound track of my youth – but I’d never seen him live. For this, Ektar and Delta were in order. I wanted the flexibility to shoot color and black and white depending on things. I reloaded 3 times during the 50 minute set and do believe it’s the first time I’ve ever sang into the back of the camera. Good thing the F6 doesn’t have a microphone like the D3s.
A quick word about metering with the F6. I was again – blown away – at the F6’s metering capabilities. There were a few shots, like the one above, I’d set exposure compensation to -.7 just in case. I knew I could bring it back in post if it were under, but sometimes the Colorado, high-altitude sun was so bright and harsh I was afraid things like light pants and blonde guitars would blow. The F6 tracked everything perfectly – I didn’t need to do a thing except shoot. Turns out the shot above was under by about 2/3 stop. If I’d just trusted the meter I’d have been fine. In camera meters aren’t fool proof or perfect. But I swear, just about every time I’ve second guessed the F6’s meter I’ve been wrong.
Hind site can teach you a lot if you’re willing to look. In hind site… I wouldn’t do a single thing different next year. Choosing the bands and performances I want to listen to – and trying to make good images around those performances – is a great way to enjoy the show and come away with something memorable. Shooting on film is a great way to produce something unique. For the first time, I went to the ‘Fest all three days and my dogs were barking when I finished – but it was well worth it. Can’t wait until next year.
I’ve been going through some old images for re-scan and really missing Kodachrome lately. I’ve also noticed how many more vertical images I made before the computer became the standard for viewing. Vertical images were desirable for publication covers. With 35mm film and a good reproduction they were the norm. These days, with the computer’s horizontal aspect ratio dictating how most people view photographs, it seems vertical images are made less – which is another loss for photography in general.
Unfortunately Kodachrome is gone for good and there’s nothing we can do about it. I’m sure there are digital plugins available for processing that will eventually come close to representing the color cast and complexity of this beautiful film, but as of this writing I’m not aware of them. It also doesn’t help the film shooter diametrically opposed to digitally emulating true film emulsions. Running Kodachrome 64 through a solid, well-used film camera will remain one great joy of living in an era when that was possible.
All images were made with a well-worn, black-body Nikon FE2 and consumer-grade, manual focus Tamron 28-70/ƒ3.5 zoom lens. I’m genuinely sorry I won’t be able to feed the F6 Kodachrome. That would have been something special.