by David Matthew Knoble
This is part two of a two part series on black and white film. This part dives into the cost of using film and the workflow of developing film and scanning the negatives for digital processing thereafter. Techniques like this can be dry reading, so bear with me and I’ll do my best to keep things interesting!
After someone gets over the fear of working with chemicals and light-sensitive film, they frequently ask me about cost. In so many ways, film work is less expensive than digital work. Even ignoring the typical desire to upgrade a digital body every two years, film can be less costly even in the long run.
A Leica M film camera can cost as little as $800 but I would recommend investing $1,000 to $2,000 for one that is in good shape and does not need a calibration as soon as you buy it. Using a Leica Store or other reputable group that checks out equipment is typically more reliable. However, if you haven’t already guessed, the cost does not stop there.
In the grand development scheme, the next most expensive equipment purchase would be a scanner. Luckily, there are commercial centers to get negatives scanned. You can always look for a local photography club that works in film and get help. If not, you can drop between $600 and several thousand for a film scanner. There are even two Hasselblad film scanners costing more than a Leica M60!
Development is a different matter. A few beakers, a development tank with reels, a timer and thermometer can be purchased for $200 or less depending on the type of timer you use. Otherwise, everything else you need is purchased as you use it.
Film costs typically less than $10 per roll and chemicals (developer, stop, fixer and wash) are less than $100 for everything. Chemicals last for different periods of time and numbers of rolls, so expect to order chemicals every now and then.
You can also buy a bulk loading container and re-usable film cartridges for well under $100 and reduce your cost per roll of film by about 1/2. It takes practice, but I bulk load 90% of my film now. In fact, I bought two bulk loaders on eBay for $20 each.
If you don’t mind shelling out a few dollars and really want a nostalgic treat, try using the old Leica brass film cartridges (FILCA and IXMOO). I have a dozen of the IXMOO which work in my Leica IIIC. They work in M bodies up to some early M-6 models. They are a joy to load and use. I also splurged on a Leitz film cutter and negative template to cut the tabs on my film.
The bottom line is that black and white film cost is easily spread out over time and doesn’t have to cost a mint. You can also gradually add the more expensive equipment and do more yourself. The choice is yours!
I like smooth tones and sharp images. Unfortunately, with film you typically get one or the other unless you use extremely slow films with very specific developing chemicals that are harder to find and more expensive. Back in the 1970’s and 1980’s everything I used was Kodak. There was all kinds of Pan-X, Tri-X and other X films and D-76 was the developer of choice. These films had reasonable contrast and smoother tones, but were not the sharpest of films. Along comes the T-Max films with a different grain shape and a new developer. My personal opinion is that the grain was more evident in the film, but the image was sharper.
Today, my favorite films are the Ilford varieties. I use FP4+ which is rated at ISO 125. I shoot that film at 125 because it matches shutter speeds perfectly, no 1/3 stop or 1/2 stop conversions. (Remember Sunny f/16 says 1/125 second at f/16). This is a classic smooth and contrasty film. I use Ilford DD-X developer and Ilford’s fixer because they are well matched with the Ilford film and provide not only sharp negatives but allow me to change speeds with some films. Other developers are more restrictive. I also use Ilford Delta 400 speed film. This is a slightly more grainy film, but sharp. More importantly, with the DD-X developer, the recommended ISO is 500. Once again, shutter speeds are easy to convert. With the DD-X developer, the Delta 400 can be exposed between 200 and 3200 so it is very versatile.
I will occasionally shoot the Ilford Delta 3200 for fun and I have really taken a liking to the Fuji Neopan 100 Acros film for two reasons. First, it has an impeccable level of detail and smooth tones, and second it is a thinner emulsion (plastic part that becomes the negative) so more light gets through when scanning and blacks are much darker. It is a little more picky when putting on a reel to develop, but creates superb images. Oh, and yes, we cannot forget Kodak Tri-X although it is tougher for me using ISO 400 which doesn’t match a shutter speed.
I won’t lie to you, developing film takes time. In fact, it takes a lot longer than a digital process. This is why we see so many more digital images on the web today. But, taking the time is rewarding as I’ve already said, so let’s dive into my workflow. Others will have different opinions, and that is ok.
Developing film is a little like being a chef. Each photographer has their own recipe and they will swear by it. If the results are great, then the recipe works! So, don’t worry about exactness, but worry very much about consistency. Developing is about being able to get the same results every time.
For example, I agitate my film the same way, every time, no matter what! Agitation is inverting the tank while developing to put fresh chemicals in contact with the film. I agitate mine 4 times in 10 seconds every 1 minute. I also agitate 4 times as soon as I pour the chemical in the tank. Turning upside down and then right-side up is one agitation. It’s almost like a dance move!
Ilford has great literature available to read about its film, developers and the process. I have all of them on my iPad for easy reference. After shooting the film, it has to be developed, dried, wiped of dust, scanned and imported into Adobe Lightroom. From that point on the images sit right beside and mixed in-between my M240 and Monochrom images.
Developing is really just chemistry. I have acquired some 1000 ml plastic beakers and various dark brown plastic storage bottles to mix and use chemicals. While I have begun using my iPad for a timer, I still pull out my old trusty, large number, Gralab timer (If you’re over 40, you know that a Gralab timer is akin to a Gossen Luna Pro).
My laundry room has a large stainless steel sink (which I installed on purpose) and a countertop. The two real keys to developing are the temperature and age of the developer; and the amount of water you use (I believe in conserving resources). Of course, you must also be consistent (Have I said that before?).
So, if you’ve never done it, developing film goes something like this:
- mix chemicals and put developer and fixer in refrigerator to cool down
- put stainless steel tanks and film inside a black bag to keep out all light
- with arms inside, take apart film cartridges one by one and put on reels
- remember to close top of tank before opening the black bag!
- pull chemicals out of refrigerator and read temperature
- look up development time for that temperature, film and ISO
- set timer for development
- develop, stop, fix, wash, archival wash, final rinse, rinse aid (now you are a chemist!)
- hang to dry and squeegee to remove water
- scan dried negatives to computer
- cut negatives and put into archival sleeves for permanent storage
- import into Lightroom and start having fun!
This does seem daunting at first. However, except for a scanner, the materials are extremely inexpensive. Less than $100 can get you started if you use an iPhone timer.
There is an app called ‘Massive Development Chart’ [http://www.digitaltruth.com/devchart.php] for the iPhone and iPad that has a large number of films and development times for even more developers. It has a conversion calculator for not only adjusting times to temperatures, but if you have to mix developer at a ratio of 1:4 (1 part developer to 4 parts water), you can put in the volume (32 ml for example) and it tells you how much of each you need! You can also adjust any of the development times to suit your needs. I find the adjustment is not the same as the Ilford charts, so I customize it to the charts.
I have gotten the process down now so that I can develop two rolls of film in one tank in a little over 40 minutes start to finish, meaning the negatives are drying and all the beakers and tanks washed. Some would chuckle, but I literally pour chemicals into the storage tanks and put them away while the next chemical is doing its work. So, by the time I’m washing the negatives, all the chemicals are put away and I only have to wash the beakers.
For the really detail minded, I put developer in the refrigerator until it is about 68 or 70 degrees F. I mix between 500ml and 1000 ml of developer to try developing at least 4 rolls of film each time and frequently 6 or 8 rolls. I’ll develop two rolls, put the developer back in with the unused amounts, and then develop two more rolls at 140% of the development time, adding 20% more for each two rolls thereafter. I won’t bore you with all the details, but the chemicals get used up, so there are some tricks to making the most of the developer. Ilford has great PDF’s on this process, so I cannot take credit for it. Ilford has another great PDF on washing which uses much less water than conventional methods and still gives archival quality rinses.
Scanning is the best part in using film, because you finally get to see what you created! I actually dry my negatives on a hanger in a doorway with a white door as a backdrop so I can peek at the negatives. However, until you get them scanned to a screen, you cannot tell if they are in focus or scratched.
I have been using a Nikon CoolScan 5000 ED [http://www.nikonusa.com/en_INC/IMG/Assets/Film-Scanners/2010/9238-Super-COOLSCAN-5000-ED/PDF/COOLSCAN_Brochure_1007.pdf] for over 10 years. I bought some extras so I have a reel in the back that allows me to scan an entire roll of film, uncut. The scanner feeds the frames one at a time and rolls them up in the back to protect them. When I’m finished, I just cut the negatives and store them. The big advantage is I can go do something else while the scanner works for me!
If you buy a scanner that only uses cut negatives, be sure you know how long a strip it can scan. Nothing feels worse than setting up a new scanner and then learning it will only scan strips of 5 frames while all yours are cut with 6 frames.
The Nikon scans to 4,000 DPI and has a maximum density of 4.8 (says Nikon). In practical terms, the density appears more like 3.8 or 4, but that is still great. This scanner also uses LED’s for a light source so the negatives stay cooler which means the focus remains constant. Also, it means you don’t need spare bulbs!
The ED model scanner which I use also has better glass to focus the negative which means less chromatic aberration (sound familiar?). The scanner will allow me to sample each area multiple times and average them together which helps avoid noise in the image file.
This scanner is expensive and cost me over $2,000 years ago. But, it is one of the best mid-level scanners available until you step up to the Hasselblads. It’s not only convenience, but the dynamic range is so good that poorly exposed negatives can frequently be saved.
The Nikon software does not work with a Macintosh anymore, so I had to find alternate scanning software. I settled on VueScan although there are some other great products. VueScan allows me to use all of the functions built into the Nikon scanner and also outputs a DNG file. I save a setup file for each film type I scan and it allows auto numbering of the scanned files making batch scanning simple.
What does all this scanning stuff mean? For an investment that is still less than a new digital Leica M body, I can get digital quality film files. My scanned DNG files are about 40 mb, or what an uncompressed 18mb full frame sensor produces from my Leica M240! Once these DNG files are stored on disk, I back them up and import them into Lightroom just like my SD cards. From there, the workflows are all the same.
Oh what a bad word! Dust. A film developers nightmare is dust. I use Ilford anti-static cloths to clean negatives before scanning and I scan as soon as freshly developed negatives are dry, but dust still creeps in the system.
So, Lightroom spot adjusting is inevitable! Dust is like the Borg – Resistance is futile. However, a few things can help keep dust to a minimum. Use a water additive in a final rinse so that no water spots form while drying which become dust magnets. Dry negatives away from major walk areas and do not run your clothes dryer while negatives hang helplessly nearby.
Scan quickly and use an anti-static cloth. While I cannot yet vouch for a negative dust vacuum, I have purchased one for 35mm negatives and in a few weeks I should be able to run a strip of negatives through a small steel vacuum that uses ions and anti-static brushes to remove almost all dust before scanning. Its another investment, but less dust means less software cleanup and less time.
Adobe finally added the ability in Lightroom to not only remove spots, but to draw a line with a brush which clones another area just like spot removal. This works splendidly on scratched negatives. Get used to spot removal though, because even the best scans have a little dust.
If you are already working in film, here are a few tips that I’ve learned over the years:
- Be sure the film is really loaded. Put the film in the camera properly, close the bottom and wind one frame. Then use the rewind know for a couple of turns to take up the slack. Wind the next few frames to get to frame 1 and watch the rewind crank to be sure it is turning. If not, you may not have loaded the film. There isn’t a worse feeling than developing a blank roll of film.
- Be sure you take of the lens cap! Same as number 1.
- I use a combination of disposable film cartridges, reloadable cartridges and the old brass Leica cartridges (in M-4 and below, or my case the IIIc). Bulk film is really cheap, much cheaper than buying rolls one at a time.
- I love the stainless reels that have no clip to hold the end of the film. Those clips frustrate me to no end! The other reels have an opening and you just put the loose end in. I can put two rolls of film on reels in about 4 minutes.
- Cup your hand around the film when you are winding it in the reels. It will allow it to easily expand back out into the sides. This is probably the hardest part of film photography. Personally, I do not like the plastic reels that turn back and forth to load the negatives. I think the jam too much and scratch the negatives. But, use whatever you can consistently load the film well with. Practice with a blank roll of film you can expose to light.
- Use your developer in 24 hours and throw it away. Oxygen kills developer and developer is what makes the image show up in the negative. Old developer lowers the contrast and removes detail in the shadows. Fixer lasts longer and stop bath lasts until it turns a dark color (a long time).
- Practice by shooting film and developing it. Shoot a roll and develop it. A single reel tank uses about 16ml of chemicals. You can see what you are doing wrong and adjust it. That is what breeds confidence.
- Scan your film as soon as it is dry. I use an Ilford anti-static cloth to lightly (very lightly) wipe the negative before scanning to remove dust. Dust takes a long time to remove in PS or LR, try not to scan more dust than you have to.
- Store your negatives well. Put them in archival negative sleeves and label them while you still remember what they are. This is your backup. One day when we have 80mb scanners at 10,000 DPI, you can rescan your negatives. There are some images I have in Lightroom that are almost 30 years old, but now are digital.
Practice makes perfect, so borrow materials until you get it down and find out what you want to buy. The reward is something you made from scratch and the dynamic range and detail is just as good as digital. It takes awhile, so take a lot of pictures around the house or just for fun and develop them. Keep notes on what works and try to find ways to speed things up so it remains fun. Happy developing!
David Matthew Knoble. August 2015.