Big Bubbles (no troubles)

What sucks, who sucks and you suck

Little Can of Magic

Little can of magic This is a roll of Kodak BW400CN, a 35mm C41 process black and white film, and it might just save my life, photographically speaking.

When I fell into photography over four years ago, mainly due to an absence of anything better to pursue, life was fairly simple and, more to the point, much more rewarding. I put a roll of colour film in the camera. I shot the roll. I took the roll to a high street lab and, three days later, I picked up an envelope of prints and negatives. I viewed the prints and picked out the best ones to insert into an album, which then formed both a record of progress and an easy way to peruse the best of my work to date.

Then I bought a film scanner, so I started to scan the negatives for posting on forums and web galleries. But raw scans are inferior in quality to the originals unless processed first in an image editing program. So I had to learn a bit about using the GIMP to titivate my images. Nothing clever - at first. Just an auto levels adjustment and some basic unsharp masking: much better.

But then a creeping dissatisfaction sets in, mainly caused by the discovery of other techniques. From example, once I learnt about edge-sharpening, it was no longer sufficient to simply apply unsharp masking to the whole image. Too crude, too straightforward, too generic. Now I had to ensure that only those parts of the image which required sharpening were changed. Eventually, I managed to automate the process with a script but even then…the edge mask often benefitted from a little manual adjustment. And there was still the dilemma of how much sharpening to apply, to what radius, with what threshold and, oh to what desired end? From there, the amount of time and effort that went into each image increased even more rapidly than the quality of those same images was improving. Sample colourisation, tone curves, blend modes, etc. - I hoovered up these extra tips and tweaks, and tried to use them all. On everything.

By now, I’d mainly switched to chromogenic B&W film, but the scanning issue remained and besides, it was costing me a fortune in processing costs (usually an extra quid or more for B&W). Seeing an opportunity to learn some new tricks, optimise development and slash production costs, I started developing my own film. After all, I reasoned, I didn’t really need prints as I was mainly posting my shots on the web. If I wanted them, I could always print my own from the negative scans (which was the only end result I cared about), and they would be better and more personal.

They would also, of course, require considerably more of my own time to produce.

Of course, I soon discovered that my ability to shoot film vastly outstripped my ability to scan and edit the individual images (even assuming a ratio of three acceptable shots per roll), and then - with the arrival of a family - it began to surpass my capacity to develop the rolls. Sheets of unscanned negatives piled up, accompanied by a small but constant number of rewound but untouched rolls in the drawer. (One tip to maximise your resources in this situation: only ever shoot even numbers of the same type of film at the same settings; that way you ensure that you can always develop two at a time in the tank.)

And then I went digital. No, I didn’t - I added it to the load. Because hey, I wouldn’t need to develop and scan each shot now, right? And I’d delete the shots that weren’t worth the effort. Naïvety, thy name is Ade.

In the first place, although you avoid faffing with chemicals and scanners (and start with a much better quality image file to boot), you’re plunged into a whole new world of raw conversions, image manipulations and 16 bit editing paradigms (exemplified by a new generation of image editing tools such as LightZone). The amount of time spent per image isn’t going to decrease - just the opposite. Oh, you can batch-convert entire sets but no, who’s going to do that when there’s still 0.05% of quality in the pixels of each individual image to be pulled out?

Secondly, despite your best intentions, you still end up with 1GB image dumps to store and sort. Even if you do ruthlessly delete the misses, that process still requires viewing and considering each image. Frequently you have repeated sequences of a subject that are more or less the same, which makes it very hard to decide which one to keep…oh hell, keep them all! Or you’ve taken a hundred shots of your Junior Research Assistant sleeping and deleting any of them - even the blurry ones - is bound to cause you sleepless nights of regret for the rest of your life because she’s your baby.

No, digital does not save time or automatically produce fewer images of higher quality, unless you’re Saint Perfect.

What did I have to show for all this effort? Actually, much less than before. Most of the end results were 600x400 web-sized JPEGs. A select few were printed at home, with varying degrees of success. (I soon learnt that if the first print wasn’t right, there was very little chance that I’d manage to return to it and try again - there were always newer shots to process by then.) Very occasionally, I managed to cut a mount, frame and hang the finished work. Once the walls were full, that more or less ceased. Of course, the pictures overall were a lot better - but as my output slowed to a trickle, there was less satisfaction to be had from the process.

As if that wasn’t enough, I even started employing the full panoply of techniques on my Unpopped posts, a photoblog that was originally intended to be a “low-maintenance” way of exploring new topics and ideas. I was obsessed, and not a little stupid, with the possibilities of it all.

So, to summarise:
Then: Colour film, processed by a third party, resulting in one “finished” print per shot. Time spent per shot = time to shoot.
Now: Digital and B/W film, individually processed at home, resulting in web JPEGs and the odd finished print. Time spent per shot = several hours.

…Which brings me neatly to my current predicament. At current count, I have two rolls of undeveloped film, four partially shot rolls, half a dozen scanned but unedited rolls and several directories full of digital images, including shoots of my friends child and my father’s dog from which I promised to produce mounted prints. And no actual photos to show for it. I can’t press the shutter button anymore, despite those unfinished rolls - I simply daren’t. Each click adds another one to the pile of good intentions unfulfilled.

And that’s where this roll of BW400CN comes in. I can put it in the camera, shoot it and then hand the rest of the process over to someone else, until I receive 36 finished monochrome prints that I can sit and pore over. Maybe even a CD, so that if any of them are really good, I can quickly post it to a gallery. They won’t be dodged and burnt, toned, cloned and cropped in the way I might choose, but they will at least represent “what I saw”. And, more to the point, I’ll have shot some pictures. The expense is a minor inconvenience, but I doubt I’ll be shooting more than one a week, if that.

I’ve considered an equivalent digital workflow, which could involve batch-converting a set of image files using Bibble with the B/W and toning plugins, then burning those to CD and taking it to a lab. But the slippery slope of ultra-manipulation beckons - it would be too easy to start tweaking the output for one or two shots, just to optimise the result a little, only it’s still not quite right so I’ll just fire up LightZone… The limited latitude of digital capture makes this even more likely, since there are always shadows to be opened up and highlights to compress. No, stick with fillum.

Now I just need to find something new to photograph…