Big Bubbles (no troubles)

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Thoughts on Film

I developed five rolls of black and white film this weekend, mostly dating from 3-4 years ago except for one roll I finished off on Sunday. That cleared almost my entire backlog except for a roll of 120 from the Holga, plus several rolls still loaded in various cameras (including one I, er, started on Sunday). It also used the last of my main bottle of developer and the all-important fixer, so there won’t be any more done without an investment in new chemicals. I wouldn’t say it was fun - I appreciate the results but not the process - but it was fairly painless except for one roll that stuck while I was winding it on to the reel, and that I subsequently had to cut mid-length and develop the last bit separately.

However, I had time to meditate on my use of film while I was inverting the tank and checking the stopwatch.

  • Having a consistent and straightforward process is vital. I last developed a roll two years ago, and previously two years before that, but I had very little trouble getting back in the saddle. All the equipment is stored in a tub and a bucket (which are themselves also part of the kit). The chemicals are in airtight bottles that appear to do a reasonable job of keeping them fresh. I have two Ilford booklets, a Rodinal chart and some handwritten checklists that together tell me everything I need to know to mix the right proportions in the right amounts, develop for an appropriate time and pour liquids in the right order. I also have a clear method for spooling the film on to the reels and some safe options when it goes wrong. And finally, I have a minimally tedious, lightweight scanning workflow so that I can obtain a clear record of what’s on each roll as soon as it’s dry. (I even have a painless way to obtain straight prints of less critical images without a lot of post-processing.)
  • Despite all that, I still managed to put this task out of my mind for four years. Looking at four year old images that you’ve never seen before is odd, and slightly unsettling when you can no longer recall being present at the moment they were taken. More so when your offspring, who are no longer babies and toddlers, are on them. Of course, black and white can lend a nostalgic patina to the most recent of pictures anyway.
  • Café tables HP5 and Tri-X are still gorgeous, and I still have no known way to get that look and feel from a digital camera (nor is any such camera as pleasing to use as my Nikon EM). On the other hand, Delta 3200 is vile; high-rated ISO films are indefensible against digital, unless you purposefully want golf-ball grain and murky shadows. (Similarly, colour transparencies do nothing that digital can’t do better.) I wasted way too much time experimenting with different films and ratings, partly out of curiosity and boredom and partly in the misguided belief that I might stumble across the magic bullet for great photography. Sometimes it worked well (Tri-X at 800 in LC29 1+9 was lovely), mostly it was just a distraction from producing more images. If I carry on shooting film, I’m going to stick to HP5 and maybe Tri-X at 400-800 in LC29, with FP4 in Rodinal on occasion (because it looks gorgeous). Delta, T-Max, Neopan, ObscureEastEuropeBrand? Not interested. And these rolls of 35mm Superia and Sensia? Bin ‘em.
  • There’s a lot of guff about “shooting digital like film”, i.e. making every frame count. I need to start shooting film like digital; i.e. blaze away taking as many shots as possible on the assumption that, even at a low hit rate, this will increase the overall total of good shots. (Look at this guy’s project, for example.) Developing film isn’t so bad providing that you can find an uninterrupted hour and always develop to the full capacity of the tank (which means always shooting films of the same type and rating in pairs). Film is also, in my view, still relatively cheap (and I have a large unused stock built up several years ago) while 500ml of chemical, while 2-3 times more expensive than five years ago, goes a long way.
  • When my film scanner eventually breaks, I will be stuffed unless I can find a secondhand one in reasonable condition at an affordable price or flatbeds have got a lot better lately. This is the downside of relying on obsolete kit.
  • Film curl is still a massive problem - probably worse when the rolls have been stuck in their canisters for several years - with apparently no guaranteed cure.
  • Rodinal would be a great general purpose developer, mainly due to its long life properties, if only it was suitable for 35mm HP5.
  • I’ve got back yard candid shots of the kids on film that kick the arse of any number of digital snapshots.
  • If I had all the time in the world, I doubt I’d need to shoot digital at all (except for occasional random urges to shoot in colour).
  • At this point, thinking “I’ll shoot more film when I retire” may be somewhat optimistic.
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