. . . If anyone was to tell you that ‘film is dead’, suggest to them that they place a post on Twitter and include the hashtags #Film #Photography. Leave to simmer for a few hours and if the number of favourites, enthusiastic responses and re-tweets they’ll receive are anything to go by, film is apparently continuing to grow in popularity – and I for one can understand why.
Leaving aside the obvious attractions of its inherent image quality, the ‘feel’ and the limited number of exposures available (with the benefits this brings to your photography), there is also a level of anticipation and excitement when it comes to viewing your finished images, which is impossible to achieve with digital. (UPDATE : Unless you’re shooting the Leica M Edition 60 – My 3-Part review starting here).
These unique qualities can be experienced whether you send your films away to be processed, or choose (as I do) to do the work yourself. However, it’s only in the darkroom that you’ll experience the full gamut of emotions.
Take for example the last two days, one Mamiya C33 TLR and four rolls of ‘expired’ Ilford FP4 Medium Format film.
It began a few days ago, when I accidentally tripped over my ancient (and beige) National Geographic canvas camera bag, poking out from under a table – “Ah the old Mamiya” I thought. Very shortly I’d pulled the camera from the bag and soon discovered there were also four rolls of unexposed black & white film in a front pocket. A quick once-over and several film-less test shots later confirmed everything was (somewhat surprisingly) in good order. The old grey-matter quickly got to work and in no time, a plan was hatched.
Fast forward to yesterday and I find myself in Bowness (next doors to Windermere) in the Lake District. It was Easter Sunday, which meant not only very expensive (revolting) takeaway tea and even more expensive (dry) chips but also many, many people – a large proportion of whom were eagerly ‘snapping away’ with their DSLR’s – A Street Photographers Stealthfest.
Extra ‘camouflage’ was afforded by the camera I was using. As I’m sure many of you will already know, the C33 is a TLR camera, which means that the shot is framed and composed through a waist-level viewfinder, a beautiful 6x6cm window on the world. Naturally with the camera hanging round your neck, you spend 100% of your shooting time looking downwards and into the popup shroud surrounding the ground glass. That a camera from 1964 can mimic so exactly the modern-day phenomena of the ‘iPhone Hunch’ (how did they know?), is not only the perfect ‘cover’ for my photographic exploits, but also the equivalent of a magicians ‘slight of hand’. Other people instantly assume that you’re not taking pictures, but are in fact fiddling with the camera, or even looking at your iPhone – they simply become oblivious and ‘switched off’.
Of course there’s another less obvious side to shooting such an old camera – passersby regard you as something of an odd-ball and to be honest, not a serious photographer. “Old School” was a phrase I heard muttered on more than one occasion and possibly some sympathetic laughter, though this might have been a mild case of paranoia on my part (or was it?)
Regardless, the Mamiya C33 performed its duties admirably, exposing its way through the 4 rolls of film in less than 3 hours. That’s 12 shots per roll equaling 48 frames in total. It transpires also that far from being the ‘slow’ Street Photography cameras that TLR’s are portrayed as, the C33 (once set up for the average light conditions) can be focused and the shutter tripped just as quickly as any other manual camera – helped no end by the incredibly clear image and easily discernible depth of field displayed on the ground-glass.
Which raises the question “Why should it not still work as the designers originally intended?” Putting aside any mechanical problems brought about through wear and tear or neglect, there are no reasons not to expect the camera to provide the same competent picture taking abilities it was capable of ‘back in the day’? Of course being a film camera, the ‘truth’ takes a little longer to discover than merely plugging an SD Card into a reader – instead requiring several intensive hours in the darkroom.
Hence it is here in the film photographers laboratory, that dreams are made or shattered. Sure the techniques and materials used have been developed (no pun) and practiced and perfected over the past 120 years or so, but that doesn’t mean they’re totally fool proof – as I almost discovered, the hard way.
After loading the first two exposed films onto their reels and then securing them in the light-tight Patterson tank, I turned to preparing my usual developer, Rodinal.
No problems there, or so I thought. Take 10ml of developer and add to 990ml of water at a temperature of around 20 degrees Celsius – what could possibly go wrong?
Fortunately on this occasion, that valuable old commodity known as ‘experience’ came to the rescue at just the right moment – I noticed that the one litre bottle I’d poured the diluted developer into, was more ‘to the top’ than usual. It suddenly dawned on me that I had in fact added my usual 20ml of Rodinal to the water and thus making a much stronger 1:50 concentrate instead of the required 1:100. Luckily the only harm done on this occasion was the loss of 50 pence worth of developer and not (thankfully) my negatives. A lesson learned in attempting a one hour ‘stand development’ process when your usual is 12 minutes ‘intermittent agitation’.
Which leads me to the ‘excitement’ part of the film experience – for until the process is complete, you just never know what to expect. In fact and for no matter how many years you’ve been processing your own films, that very moment when you open the processing tank and hold your negatives (very carefully) up to the light, is always a ‘new’ experience. Other words that could just as easily describe this event may include worrying, sickening, unnerving or impatience etc?
To cut a very long story short, all four rolls were processed, rinsed, squeegeed and then hung to dry, where they currently wait as I type this article, for scanning tomorrow.
Of course all being well, I’ll have approximately 48 images of what I hope capture an essence of the “Quintessential Britishness” – a project I’d set for myself when planning the day trip to Bowness – and I hope, the subject of yet another eBook?
UPDATE: You can now download (FREE) and enjoy the results of this day trip in my new eBook “The British – A Pictorial Guide for Other Nations”.
Incidentally, if you shoot film and have thought about processing your own, I made a video nearly 3 years ago where I explain what’s involved from start to finish. Video below. 🙂
Click to buy Ilford FP4+ Medium Format Film on eBay.
If you are looking to buy a Mamiya TLR camera, eBay UK always has a fine selection of used cameras here.