Yellowstone: Tiles on Film

In March of 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant did something remarkable; he created the first National Park in United States in an area of Wyoming. This park, known today as Yellowstone National Park, comprises over 3,000 square miles and hosts more than 4 million visitors each year. Those visitors have come to see the over 10,000 geothermal features that comprise the park - ranging from the famous Old Faithful geyser to small steam vents - two-thirds of the world’s geysers are located within Yellowstone.  

The geysers and thermal features of Yellowstone are famous for numerous reasons, least of which is the color. Few places in the world are home to the vibrantly colored pools that dot Yellowstone’s landscape. These memorable colors form the basis of a dazzling mosaic, captured in individual tiles.

Today I am sharing a selection of images - dubbed "tiles" - that were taken with a medium format Rolleiflex film camera. The tiles were shot using Kodak color films, and other than scanning the images, slight cropping, and dust removal from the scanned negatives, there are no other adjustments. The vibrant colors and surreal abstract art is the natural look of these film images.

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Review: RNI All Films 4 Pro

Over the past few years, there's been a resurgence in film photography- folks are going out to buy vintage film cameras and put them back to good use. Two years ago I joined the ranks of photographers returning to film and analog photography techniques. Since then, I've studied printing in darkrooms and explored a variety of film processing and development techniques.

As consumers flock to buy old film cameras, companies are joining in the movement by offering "easy out" film photography.... that is, film photography without the film. One such company is RNI (stands for Really Nice Images), a London-based company selling film presets for digital Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.

Two weeks ago, RNI approached me asking if I would review their "All Films 4 Pro" software suite, which retails for $122 US Dollars. Full disclosure, they provided me a free copy of the software in exchange for my review- though I have reviewed this with the mindset that I had just shelled out my hard earned cash for the software personally. This lady can't be bought with free software (but maybe for cars).

Anyway, I downloaded the software and began the installation on my MacBook Pro. While they offer the features for Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw, I only tested it for Lightroom as that's where I now do 90% of my editing.

Essentially the software is a suite of Lightroom presets designed to make your digital images look like they were taken on film. So if you aren't awesome enough to rock some film and learn a little development, this is how you can get the "look" with your digital files.

The installation of the software was relatively uneventful- RNI provides detailed step-by-step instructions for installing all of the presets and features, and it took me only a few minutes to complete. The software package took approximately 100MB of hard drive space.

After the installation, I restarted Lightroom and saw that I now had hundreds of new presets in the development module. So many presets that I stand no chance of capturing them in one screenshot...... 

When RNI says the software includes "All Films" they are only slightly off.... it includes presets for the most common films, and then a healthy stock of more obscure film. There was only one film I love to use frequently missing from their list, which is the Adox line of film, specifically the Silvermax film.

Anyway, I had a bit of shell shock seeing the list of film choices. It's actually overwhelming! To help with the organization, RNI has folders for each type of film, as follows:

  • RNI Toolkit (contains features like frames, vignettes and lens effects)
  • RNI Films 4 BW (Black and white films)
  • RNI Films 4 Instant (obviously, instant films like Polaroid) 
  • RNI Films 4 Negative (negative color films/ films developed with C-41 chemicals)
  • RNI Films 4 Slide (color slide films / films with development in other chemical combos)
  • RNI Films 4 Vintage (a selection of films that aren't produced anymore)

Ok, so I haven't come close to shooting a 10% of the films offered in these presets, so I stuck to presets for films I have used - Kodak, Ilford, Fuji, etc. As noted previously, my beloved Adox Silvermax is missing from the preset list.

Test 1: Finland Window

I took this photograph on my Leica SL Type 601 in Finland a few weeks ago, and the colors and textures are a good subject to explore the various film presets with. We'll start with the original image as I edited it, then go through a list of presets. Read the subtitles for each to get the film preset name, and click on the files to see an enlarged version.

My original file - edited without any RNI presets

Color Negative Film Presets

Kodak Ektar Preset

Kodak Portra Preset

I don't shoot much color negative film, but when I do, it's either Kodak Ektar or Portra, so those are the presets I can fairly judge. Before applying either preset I thought about the films, what I know about how they render colors, and formed my expectation for how the preset would look, then clicked the button. For the Kodak Ektar, the resulting image is pretty true to my expectation - colors are bright and vibrant with strong black tones. The Portra, however, was not what I expected. In my experience, Portra renders nice pinks and red hues, which is why it's popular for portraiture. But the reds and pinks in the wood became muted and the black looks wimpy. 

If I am judging these presets based on my experiences actually shooting these films, then the Portra comes up a bit short, while the Ektar meets expectations.

Black and White Film Presets

The true test is black and white film. I shoot a LOT of black and white film, specifically Ilford Delta 100, HP-4 and Adox Silvermax. Since Adox wasn't a choice, I experimented with Kodak T-Max, a popular film, but one I don't shoot as often.

Ilford Delta 100

Ilford FP-4 Preset

Kodak T-Max Preset

From my experience, these three presets are fairly true to expected performance, particularly the Delta 100 and HP-4 presets. I have shot hundreds of rolls of each film, and the preset looks pretty true to the tonal composition, contrast, and detail of those films. The T-Max preset is maybe a little heavy in contrast, but I have only shot a handful of T-Max rolls, so I am not the expert on that film.

Other Presets (Slide & Effects)

As previously mentioned, the RNI film presets pack includes some slide and vintage films, plus some effects. I have only shot one roll of slide film before, and it was such an epic disaster to develop that I quickly gave up and retreated to the safety of C-41 color negative film for those times I want color. 

Here's our starting image, again from the Leica SL Type 601. This is Esa, a Finnish man who leads dogsled teams.

Esa, our dogsled guide. Original image from the Leica SL Type 601

I first played with the Fuji Velvia preset, which is the only slide film I'm remotely familiar with. But as mentioned, my experiment developing it at home resulted in a lot of green film, so the RNI preset was sure to be better!

Fuji Velvia 50 preset

Sure enough, nice pop in the colors and beautiful saturation. This is what Velvia is famous for, and the preset delivered. Next I took the same image and played with some of the effects filters. There are a billion effects, from vignettes, contrast, etc.... but I went for "Vintage Lens 4."

Velvia + Vintage Lens 4 Preset

Apparently "Vintage Lens" means reduce sharpness and add a vignette? Because, as far as I can tell, that's what this effect did.

Choices Galore

RNI All Films 4 is full of film preset choices - so many choices that I couldn't possibly begin to represent an opinion on all of them without a heavy amount of BS'ing involved. And I was overwhelmed with choices before opening the camera profiles, at which point I ran for cover. If you want an endless selection of choices, this is your software, but I'd have to start deleting some of the presents I don't like to de-clutter my workspace.

The Problem....

On the surface, RNI All Films 4 offers a lot of presets in their package, which is good considering it's moderately pricey software at $122 US Dollars. But thats the problem. There is other software with film presets (albeit not as many choices) that you can download for free. So you have to be pretty dedicated to wanting almost every film emulsion known to man to shell out the money, and I suspect many folks won't know the difference. If you've never shot film, would you know the difference between the dozens of black and white film emulsions available? Doubtful. 

Which brings me to the next question - who is the target audience? Surely someone who shoots film regularly will just shoot film and bypass the filters. So I am assuming that RNI intends this for a digital photographer who wants to give their images the film look and feel without actually shooting film. But again, so many choices - are there that many Nikon-Shooting-Joe's who know enough about film to appreciate all the film presets?

RNI has a solution for this - which is the Lite version of the software. For $59, you get a smaller subset of the film set, which I expect will appeal to most photographers. If you are enough of a film die-hard to know the difference between HP-4 and HP-5, then you probably shoot them, and don't need a preset.

Sidebar: This Isn't Film Photography

I need to detour away from the RNI product for a second to explain that film photography isn't this simple. I don't just load some film into my camera, snap away and voila. There are two other chemical processes after I take the photograph that determine the look of the final product - development and enlargement. I won't attempt to expand upon this too much, but let me start by explaining that Ansel Adams wrote three very long and detailed books about this process.

To click a preset button in Lightroom - no matter where that preset came from - is disingenuous to film photography. A film photographer goes through three different chemical process to produce a print - it's not just a button click. I can make a film that is light on contrast have more contrast in the final print by changing how I enlarge the negative. I can lighten or darken a negative by extending development by a matter of seconds or changing the water temperature. 

If you want to make film photographs, buy a film camera and learn about film photography. Using presets won't give you the same experience, and your hands won't smell like fixer!

RNI Mobile Apps

RNI also offers a suite of mobile apps for applying these sorts of presets to images and then sharing them on Instagram, etc. To be honest, this is probably the most interesting application of these presets for me personally - I don't use one click filters for most of my photography, but I will use a quick filter if I'm sharing some cutesy selfie on my personal Facebook page. 

I was not given a trial of the RNI mobile apps to review, but based on the photos and videos on their website and Facebook page, I think RNI has built a nice platform for Instagram'ers to modify and share their iPhone images.  

In Summary

The good:

  • Lots of presets to choose from
  • All major film emulsions represented, including a nice selection of vintage films
  • Easy installation
  • One-click use. Easy for any Lightroom newbie to use

The bad:

  • The full suite is pricey, particularly given some of the free choices on the market
  • Adox Silvermax is missing
  • The number of choices can be overwhelming to someone not familiar with film photography

Would I Buy It? Would I Recommend It?

Personally, I would not buy RNI All Films, though that doesn't have anything to do with the product RNI offers. I already shoot film, and if I want the look of film, I'd just grab a roll and go. Some of the features, like the vintage lens presets, are a bit gimmicky too. Not to sound like an elitist, but I shoot Leica cameras - I spend a lot of money to have my images look good and don't have any intention of introducing flaws to a photograph on purpose. 

Would I recommend it? Hum. Depends. I probably would tell someone looking at the RNI films software to start with one of their cheaper and smaller scale products to see if they like the presets before diving into the deep end with preset mania. Had I used the pro version before becoming familiar with film photography, I think I would have been very intimidated by the number of choices. If you don't know much about film photography, start with one of the Lite versions and upgrade later if you like it. RNI lets you upgrade at a discount, and that's where I'd start. 

If film photography does interest you, then also consider spending $50 on a cheap film camera and a roll of film. You'll learn something and have a ton of fun - more fun than you'll have clicking preset buttons in Lightroom!

Have you used any of the RNI products, like their mobile apps? What was your experience? Leave me a comment!

Quick Shot: 12 Hours Apart

Photographers love to shoot sunrise and sunset (this should come as no surprise), so I will often do Internet searches of good locations for these events prior to traveling. And such was the case with my recent trip to the Lake District in England.

Although I've been to the Lake District three times, and some of my favorite sunset images were made in the lake district, I wanted to find new locations so as to not 'repeat' photographs I've already made. The web is a great resource - it can help me scout a location for a good foreground and orientation relative to the sun. 

I can guarantee that if you search for sunset and sunrise images in the Lake District, the location for these images won't return in the search results (unless you are seeing this post!). I found this location miles down a small single track road on the edge of some farmland in the southern part of the Lake District! The orientation of the lone tree, with the distinct kink in the truck, and with the orientation to the sun was perfect for my purposes..... and best of all, it was walking distance from my accommodations and discovered accidentally!

Now as you look at these images, you should know two things: 1) they were made 12 hours apart - one at sunset and one at sunrise and 2) they were made on film, and there is no editing. Okay, there is a little bit of editing - I had to scan them and remove dust spots that show up in scanning, but the colors are legit. The other thing to appreciate is how big one of these photos is...... you may recall once using 35mm film and how those negatives are roughly the size of a postage stamp. For fun, here's a photo of me holding one of these negatives next to a dollar bill...... :-)

I made two images using my large format Ebony RSW45 large format film camera, adapted with a Shen Hao 6x19 panorama film back. Film is Kodak Portra 160.

Sunset...... 7:30pm

Sunrise...... 7:30am

Quick Shot: The Dreaming Tree

I seek inspiration for photographs from all sorts of places - including from music. When I'm not taking pictures, you'll often find me playing around with one of my guitars, though I am certainly a better photographer than musician! 

Anyway, one of the songs that really resonates with me is by Dave Matthews Band, and is called "Dreaming Tree." Like many of Dave's songs, the lyrics tell a story, though there is some interpretation left to the audience to find their own meaning. For me, the song tells the story of growing up - coming to realize that the childhood dreams and ambitions we have need to be replaced with new realities (we can't all grow up to be astronauts!) 

I like the idea of a dreaming tree. A place where, as an adult, I can still go and drift away in fond memory of the dreams I once had. There is a somberness to the dreaming tree - it's not the reality tree - but its a place of pleasantry and warmth. When I came across this tree with my film camera, I thought of the song and the dreaming tree. Here was this beautiful tree - imperfect though it might be - that I could sit under and drift into my dreams.

Photograph with the Ebony 4x5 RSW45 large format film camera

Insanely Huge Film

I have shot a lot of film, and I consistently prefer large film sizes and the resulting large negatives over the smaller (35mm) formats. There's something awesome about holding huge negatives and seeing your images come to life in such large formats.....

Until I got the Ebony RSW45 film camera, I wasn't able to use any custom film backs for large format cameras, but the Ebony allows for the addition of an accessory from Shen Hao that allows for the capture of 6x17 panorama images. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, that's okay too..... just enjoy the photos!

Anyway, I've been doing some local test shooting and development of demo rolls to ensure I know how to use the equipment before taking it on location. While these photos practically come out of my back yard, the aspect ratio and insanely huge size of them makes them a real treat for the eyes. So today I'm presenting some insanely huge film..... if you are interested in the way I shot these, stay tuned for an eventual review and discussion of how I make these images. And yes, this is all one long piece of film - no fancy Photoshop tricks here!

Click on any photo for a full size preview!

Quick Shots: From the Streets of London

Few things bring me the same pleasure and thrill of opening a fresh roll of 35mm film and exploring a city with the aim of making 36 photographs. While it's almost impossible for me to produce 36 "keepers" with any one roll, that's the goal, and I find that I have more keepers from any one roll of film than a similar 36 digital images. 

All of the images included here were shot on one roll in one day of walking around London with my Leica M7 and a 35mm Summarit lens. Apparently I had a thing for feet that day ;-)

Ghosts

Football

Hang

Tophats

A local

Leaning

Doorway

Ride Along

Selfie

Slacks

Crossing

Lookup

Carry Film in Your Underwear: The Danger of Flying with Film

For the remaining die hards like me who still shoot with film, flying can be more stressful than it should be. Flying introduces the possibility that our film will be x-rayed and destroyed by airport security. For the most part, I’ve been very lucky, but my luck ran out returning from a trip to Swedish Lapland.

Long story short: the plumbing in our house burst before Christmas and caused me to evacuate the contents of my studio to protect them from water. For almost 6 weeks, my photo studio has been spread across the kitchen, living room, hallways, and part of the upstairs. Although I usually use a lead lined film bag when flying, in the chaos of this forced relocation, I couldn’t located the bag, so I tossed the film into a ziplock and asked for a hand inspection at the airport.

Security officers in the United Kingdom and Stockholm were friendly and happy to hand inspect and swap the film with the explosive residue inspection tools. As a result, I arrived in Sweden with all my film safe and not zapped by an x-ray machine. I was carrying two rolls of Adox Silvermax (ISO 100), two rolls of Ilford HP-5 (ISO 400) and two rolls of Ilford Delta 3200 (ISO 3200) film. My concern was really with the high ISO films, which I would need in the limited sunlight of northern Sweden, so with my film un-zapped, I felt confident that I was going to be safe and sound and shot away.

Unfortunately, my confidence was misplaced. After shooting several rolls in my Leica M7, it was time to fly the exposed, but not developed, film home. At the Lulea, Sweden airport (which is very small and not at all busy), I politely asked if they could hand inspect the film because the x-ray machine could damage it.

No. 

After some back and forth, I was given several reasons why my film could not be hand inspected. These border on absolutely absurd:

“Because the explosive swab machine needs to be able to swab the inside and outside of the film capsule”

Obviously, this is absurd. The film capsule cannot be opened as that would expose the film to light. But even more nutty is that the explosive residue detection is extremely good. They often swab the palm of people’s hands to see if they have been in contact with explosives and the machine can detect these traces even after a hand washing. There is absolutely no way I could pack the inside of a film capsule with explosives and have the machine NOT detect it. Please. Swap the film, determine it isn’t a mini bomb, and let me proceed on my way.

“Because you don’t have a letter from the Sweden Government that explicitly states you, Kristen Meister, may have film hand inspected and not x-ray inspected” (this came from their supervisor). 

What? First, there is no mention of requiring such a letter on the Swedish airport security website. The Stockholm airport website recommends hand carrying film, and makes no mention of such requirements. But according to the airport security supervisor in Lulea, unless I have a letter from the Government of Sweden, thou shall not have film hand inspected. Do I need to have the Pope bless this letter too?

I remained exceptionally polite during this exchange and even pulled up TSA and UK regulations that stipulate film can be hand inspected. The security officer conceded that if the United States and the United Kingdom, two countries with very strict airport security, allow for hand inspection, that they should as well, but “his supervisor said no.” He also recognized that the Stockholm airport recommends hand inspection and all Swedish airport security should be the same, but shrugged a helpless “tough shit” response.

After pleading my case, it was clear that I had no option and that I was just going to have to hope their x-ray scanner was set to “light toast” vs “full crisp.” And in a case of full circle irony, the Swedish airport security in Stockholm, which is a busy international airport, was more than happy to hand inspect the film. The security agent even joked that all the appointments for film inspection had been filled for the day, but laughed and inspected it without any further pleading. Thank you to her! 

So what have I learned? Sadly, it might be easier to smuggle film in my underwear than to have it inspected by hand (joking!) Next time I’ll travel with low ISO films only so that if I do meet an absurd security policy, I have less risk of having the film damaged. And maybe I’ll start to print and carry copies of Swedish regulations regarding hand inspection of camera film.


Update: upon developing, it was determined that the x-ray machine was set to "medium toast" - there is some slight damage to the ISO 3200 film, but the other two rolls look good. Still, I'm pretty irked and will continue to recommend the underwear smuggling method of flying with film! ;-)

Quick Shot: Following My Lens Through London

Street photography is all about making impulse decisions. You get a split second to try and capture a natural human moment before it disappears, never to happen again. There are no do-overs in street photography.

On Saturday I took my Leica M7 35mm film camera with the 50mm Summilux f/1.4 and a roll of Ilford FP-4+ for a walk in downtown London. My goal was simple - see what came in front of my lens and take 36 photographs. When carrying my digital camera I will be more liberal with my shots as I am only inconveniencing a few electrons if I mess up, but film isn't so forgiving. I get 36 exposures and its up to me to make them as great as I can.

After developing the roll and scanning the images, I am left with 11 "keeper" shots - a great ratio of shots to keepers! These are straight scans with no editing. As you'll see, a lot of interesting things found their way in front of my lens yesterday.

En route

En route

Conversation

Look right and wait

Empty train station

Tube station

Shopkeeper's window

Down

Reflected icon

Drizzles

Scribbles

Riding

Part I: The Joy of Medium Format Film

This year I discovered the joy of shooting medium format film, and it has completely rejuvenated my interest in film photography. To start my series on medium format film photography, I'll share with you what makes this photographic medium so attractive.

Background

I started shooting large format film, which is about as backward as it can be! I enjoy it, but large format requires big cameras, a big tripod, and isn't exactly an easy system to shoot in a busy environment. So although I loved shooting film, I didn't do it but every so often - for "special occasions."

Interest

I really didn't know much about medium format film (since I had been shooting large format) until early 2015. I often spend a few hours before bed surfing the internet and searching for the work of other photographers to help inspire me. One evening I discovered the work of Vivian Maier, a photographer whose work only became well known after her death. Her work intrigued me - there was a rawness and curiosity to her work that made me explore more. Upon researching her work, I found she shot with a Rolleiflex camera, a brand that was relatively unknown to me. 

My collection - Rolleiflex T whiteface, Hasselblad 503CX and a Rolleiflex 2.8F

Rolleiflex

Off to Google I went. I quickly learned what a Rolleiflex camera is and about the type of film it shoots. The Rolleiflex (called a Rollei for short) is a twin lens camera that uses one lens for framing and focusing and the other to capture the image. Compared to the large format view camera, the Rollei is very compact and portable - perfect for travel.

120mm Film

Part of learning about the Rollei involved learning about medium format film. These days, the term medium format film most often refers to film that is 120mm in size. Each resulting negative is about the size of a post-it note. It offers the big negatives with full resolution that I loved about large format, without being so massive that it's hard to travel with. 120mm film is shot on a roll, each roll is 12 images. 

A Square Affair

At first I wasn't interested. Unlike the other film sizes (large format and 35mm), 120mm film is normally shot as a square. There are other rectangular shapes, but they aren't as common - it's almost entirely a square format affair. This did not appeal to me. It seemed faddish- probably because Instagram has made square photos popular on the internet. And everything I shot was cropped to 16:9 (widescreen) format. How could I go to square after being in love with big rectangles?

Discovery

Although I didn't like the square format of 120mm film, I figured I would go look at a used Rolleiflex and see how it felt and worked in person. It is hard to really get a sense for using and holding a camera by just watching internet photos or YouTube videos - I needed to experience it to decide. Thankfully it's not hard or expensive to find used medium format film cameras; as attics get emptied the market has filled with affordable choices. Of course there's some risk involved in buying a 40 year old camera - parts can be hard to find and issues like fungus and mold become concerns. 

I headed to one of the local camera shops that specializes in film cameras called West Yorkshire Cameras in Leeds, England. They advertised having a mint condition Rolleiflex model T Whiteface Edition in stock for a reasonable price, so off I went. First impression was that the camera was surprisingly small. It was lightweight and straight forward. Instructions for use were easy: load film, wind crank, focus, set aperture and shutter, push shutter release, rinse and repeat. The camera is completely manual - no batteries, no light meter, no circuits to break. This version, the T Whiteface, was in impeccable condition and looked like it'd never been used. Although I was still very skeptical about the square format, I liked the camera, so I figured why not. I bought it and a roll of Ilford HP4+ and went home to play with my new camera.

My Rollei T Whiteface - the camera that started my obsession with medium format film photography

Hesitation and elation

There's something very unnerving about loading a roll of 120mm film, taking some photos, unloading the roll, and developing it at home and hoping you got it all right. One slip up - one little bitty bit of light leak, and it's all gone. You can imagine my relief when I opened the film drum after developing to see a dozen perfect negatives..... phew!

My hesitation with the square format quickly turned into an obsession. I love square format. Its geometrically a very interesting and complex shape to shoot and offers so many different compositions from my normal rectangle. I could start to see the world in square, and boy it made sense. 

Big negatives are the name of the game. Here you can see a roll of 120mm film once exposed, the developing spool, and some finished negatives.

Fast forward

Today I'm all in. I have three medium format film cameras (a Hasselblad 503cx, a Rolleiflex T whiteface and a Rolleiflex 2.8F). With these I have shot hundreds of frames of black and white film - I took the cameras to Africa and around much of Europe. Opening a new roll of 120mm film is like my camera crack - I can't get enough. I savor each of those shots and plan meticulously to get the perfect shot. I have discovered a new creative world in the form of double exposures and taking images that are otherwise impossible with digital. And unlike with the digital camera, there's a certain creative freedom. I don't get to peek at a viewfinder to know if I got it right. I've ruined rolls of film. But those are liberating feelings. I don't have to worry about hitting 100 buttons on the camera, instead I focus on the 12 photographs in front of me and try to make each one count. 

This has quickly become one of my favorite streets to photograph with film. It's located in Cambridge and the row of chimneys is so very British! Shot on Ilford Delta 100 with Hasselblad 503CX.

Coming Soon: Part II - Rollei vs Hasselblad

Quick Shot: Double Exposure

One of the fun things film can do that digital cameras cannot is the art of a double exposure. In film, a double exposure is achieved when the film is exposed twice - with two different images - creating a composite on the negative. 

As a photographer, this is rather fun, because you don't know what the outcome will be until you've gone home to develop the film. In this case, I had to wait almost two weeks after taking the images before I could leave Venice to return to my developing studio. The wait was worth it, and I was excited by the resulting images.

Here's a quick shot to introduce the concept - the first image was of the gondolas along the grand canal. The second image was with my Leica camera in the scene.

Shot with a Rolleiflex 2.8F on Ilford Delta 100 Pro film.

1970s.....? No, 2015 Lion!

Looking at this photograph quickly and you might think it was taken in 1970. It's got that distinctive color and feel of a photograph from 1970..... the feel of a photograph taken with old film.

That's because it is! The photograph is from 2015 and Tanzania, but was shot on a 1970's era Rolleiflex 120mm camera on Kodak color film. 

For the past few weeks I've slowly been developing all the rolls of film I shot in Tanzania and am excited to start sharing those shots, starting with this one of a very friendly lion. Although the composition is a little.... wacky.... I think you can appreciate that I was a bit nervous to shove my arm outside the car to frame a better shot!

The Power of the Darkroom

Since I've started working with enlarging my film negatives in a darkroom, I keep getting the same series of questions.......

  1. Darkrooms still are a thing?
  2. Isn't it expensive?
  3. Why not just scan and print your negative?

All fair questions. Let's break down the power of the darkroom.....

1. Yes, darkrooms are still a thing, but increasingly rare. Where I live outside Cambridge, the closest public use darkroom is a little more than an hour drive away, but it's worth the drive. While I could (and will eventually) build a darkroom in my house, that will have to wait until I am not living abroad, so a public darkroom is the way to go. There are several websites dedicated to helping you find a darkroom, such as http://www.localdarkroom.com

2. Name something in photography that is not expensive and you win a prize. For me, darkroom printing is no more expensive than my inkjet work. My consumables are the light sensitive papers and chemicals. In my case, I don't pay for chemicals because I have instead opted for a membership at a darkroom (The Photo Parlour), so my chemical cost is really my membership cost. Factoring in the cost of paper and assuming I make around 50 prints a year, my cost per print is around $3 - and that's good and large paper (8x10 or bigger). In digital printing, my costs are ink and again paper. The paper I was using, which is again a high quality paper, cost $2.75/sheet and my ink costs were about $2 per print. In fact, all factors considered, I once calculated that my "startup" cost for inkjet printing was almost $1000! 

Let's assume I make 50 prints at 11x14 per year. My cost per print in the darkroom, including my membership fees, is about $4/print (also assuming some margin for mistakes and re-prints/ test strips, etc). The cost for the same 50 prints done at home on my inkjet printer is $5/print (I probably have less "waste" since a printer is a very.... mechanical..... object!). 

Bottom line - it's always cheaper to mail order print, but that removes the "art" from a lot of the work. I enjoy watching my prints appear before my eyes, so for me, the costs of personally printing are worthwhile. And, in my current situation, the darkroom doesn't cost more than inkjet!

3. I really didn't appreciate the true magic of the darkroom until I began using it. This sounds stupid to say, but I always thought about my prints as having one single proper exposure. I thought there was one version that was the "proper" version (as conceived by the artist, not technically proper) and you print that version. I was blown away when I watched prints that were dramatically different come from the same negative...... slightly longer exposures in the enlarger made some prints darker and moody, while the same negative with less exposure time was light and bright. I was blown away. I can make two different prints with two different moods from the same negative? I know, it sounds stupid, but I never really considered this.

Suddenly a new world was unlocked. I now visualize an image thinking "is this a dark and moody photo, or a light and cheery photo?" ---> I am thinking about the development and enlargement before I take the picture. With digital photography I would think about the end product, sure, but I didn't think in the same tonalities and with the same possibilities that film has stretched me to consider.

The best example of how to get the different tonalities is best seen in a test strip. Check these photos below - the different slices are the same photo, but different lengths of time in the enlarger. Each has a different look and feel and none of them is "more correct" than the other.

Let's revisit a recent negative - one of a boat on the beach of Dungeness. I scanned and posted it several days ago, but let's review the original negative....... looking at it below, it's fairly dark and the image we see is a digital machine's (scanner) literal interpretation of the negative. There isn't much creative interpretation - the scanner is just trying to represent the negative in a series of shades of grey - really simplifying my image into a series of 1's and 0's. How sad.

Obviously, this is a lovely photograph! But it's not the print I imagined when I clicked the shutter. The print in my head was much lighter. MUCH lighter. It was almost white sky and the boat was very light, as though it was drawn in pencil. It was a happy photograph, while this is a little dark and moody. Off to the darkroom!

I did a test print and decided that my first print would be at an exposure of 10 seconds with no dodging or burning - just a straight print. Here's what that looks like:

This is certainly lighter than the scanned "literal interpretation" from the negative, but the sky is still too dark for my liking. I ran another print at  5 seconds, but that was too washed out - needed more contrast. To boost contrast in a black and white print, we add magenta filters, so I went crazy and added 50 magenta to the filtration (for scale, 15 is more "normal"). I ran another test strip and determined I liked the look of the print at 9 seconds. I realize this almost the same exposure as the previous print, but the magenta filtration requires more time to compensate, hence the minor change in image time. Here's the print at 9 seconds with 50 magenta in the filter (I also burned the bottom right part of the rail a little more.

Perfect! This is actually my final print - there are several others that I used to tweak the dodging and burning and show slight differences in the foreground, but this was my final version. 

So why bother with the darkroom - that's why! Look at what an incredibly diverse set of prints I got from a negative that, to the scanner, looked very dark. The darkroom has unlocked my creative potential and has me visualizing my artwork in a whole new way.

Quick Shot: Boardwalk

Using my digital SLR camera, I was always taking a color image and converting it to black and white, but using black and white film opens a new world of possibilities. Suddenly I find myself evaluating a scene for contrast and tonality and trying to make an educated guess about how that will translate onto the black and white film emulsions.

I had been walking along a coastal section of England's Lake District taking photographs of the sand dunes and waves. While the images were interesting, I wasn't overly inspired with the subject and was headed back to the car when I turned around to see the path I'd just been walking. The late afternoon sun was casting a nice glow across the top of the grass, but there were some dark shadows along the path as well.... I figured it would make for a good black and white image, so I grabbed the Leica MP and fired a single exposure. Turns out, it was my favorite photograph from the walk on the beach!

Shot on Kodak TMax 100; developed in my home studio and scanned on an Epson V700 scanner.

Quick Shot: Misty Lake

I just returned from a long weekend trip to the beautiful Lake District of England, but this trip was a little different from most of my other ones. It's been over a decade since I didn't use a digital camera of some type on a trip, but I "cut the cord" and only brought film for this journey. 

Since returning, I've been busy developing and scanning lots of color and black and white film from the trip and I'm excited to finally share some of the images. This first one was taken at the end of a a boat pier on Lake Windermere. It was a foggy and drizzly morning, which gave the lake a mystic feeling. I really wanted to try and capture that mist, so I pulled out the Rolleiflex, which was loaded with Kodak Ektar 100 film and took this shot. I think it's a great way to tease some of the other Lake District prints coming soon....... what do you think? Ready to see more?

Quick Shot: Classic Vinyl

Around the world, classic vinyl sales are starting to make a return with young folks wanting to enjoy the high quality sound offered by records. It seems we're all going backwards.... I'm shooting more film too!

I had the Leica 35mm MP handy while walking through an outdoor stall selling records in Cambridge. While my friend flipped through the "latest offerings" from the 1970s, I people watched, waiting to strike with a photo at the first opportunity. This older gentleman approached the records and started flipping through this stack. When he plucked one particular cover up for closer inspection, I pounced - shooting quickly to get the expression as he read the cover. I can only imagine what was going through his head..... was he reading the cover from one of the records of his youth? 

Let The Games Begin: Film Shootout

Film is such an interested and complex (and fun) medium to work with for photographers; nothing makes your art more rewarding than developing a roll of perfectly exposed film.

Although the film industry has been in a decline for the past decade with the rise of digital cameras and cellphones with built in cameras, there is still a healthy community of film-heads and analog shooters who can't completely surrender to bits and bytes. For us, the choices are getting fewer and fewer, but the quality continues to improve as companies like Kodak constantly work to improve their films.

As film shooters we have to be willing to commit to a piece of film for up to 36 future images, so a lot of thought goes into selecting each roll or sheet we're going to shoot. Which is why I'm going to undertake a project to shoot as many different films as possible while providing detailed reviews and comparisons of each film.

Here's the thing - I'm not willing to waste a bunch of film to get "scientific" results by shooting the same scenes on the same shooting conditions. That's really not practical for real photographers who walk around all day in different lighting conditions with different subjects. So I'll shoot each roll like I normally would - for the purpose of making fine art prints - and I'll provide my comments and reviews as I go through the rolls.

I will develop all of these films myself, which can also introduce some variation in how a film looks, but I will only use the same developers and process to try and minimize those variations.

Here are the initial contenders for the review. I am going to start with the Ilford FP-4+ and will work through them one at a time from there - check back on my blog and to this post as I'll link my finished reviews on this page. Interested in seeing me shoot a particular film? Send me a note and I'll see if I can get it added to my reviewing list

  • Ilford FP-4+ (35mm and 120mm)
  • Kodak Porta 800 (35mm)
  • Rollei RPX 100 (120mm)
  • Kodak Ektar 100 (35mm and 120mm)
  • ADOX CHS 100 II (35mm)
  • ADOX Silvermax 100 (35mm)
  • Ilford SFX 200 (35mm)
  • Kodak TMax 100 (35mm)
  • Fuji Neopan Acros 100 (35mm)
  • CineStill Film (35mm)
  • Ilford Delta 100 Professional (35mm and 4x5)
  • Kodak Tri-X 400 (35mm)
  • Rollei Retro 80S (35mm)
  • Rollei Superpan 200 (120mm)