Film diaries: thoughts, truths and realizations

During the course of the last few months – shooting a grand total of a roll and a half, and processing one – I’ve had a few thoughts. Admittedly, these may be premature given that I haven’t even seen what came out of roll 2 yet, but I’ve already had a number of observations along the way which I thought I’d share with you all here.

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Muse at work. F2T, Delta 100, 45/2.8 P

The look is very different. I think it’s very polarizing: what you gain is highlight headroom, at the expanse of shadows (to some extent). And there’s grain everywhere, even in the highlights; but it’s non-uniform, non-digital, and varies in size enough that it adds texture rather than distraction. I find that I definitely like it when the light is directional; I don’t like it at all under harsh sun/ midday especially in the tropics, because it seems you lose most of the midtone definition. Here, digital’s linearity seems to help considerably with exposure latitude.

Digital passed film resolution a long, long time ago. Even shooting fine grain film and processing it in a reasonably clean developer – Delta 100 in DDX – the grain is still very noticeable. Oddly, it doesn’t seem to affect the ultimate resolving power of the medium, but what fine details are there are somewhat indistinct compared to what can be achieved with digital (duh, due to the digital nature of the constituent medium – i.e. uniform block pixels.) I will try PANF in colder developer next time to see if that helps. The last time I shot/ scanned seriously, I came to the conclusion that there was at most somewhere between 8 and 10 MP of equivalent resolution in a good negative or slide – I don’t think that’s changed; I’m just not seeing any more of that regardless of the lens used. In fact, if I had to compare the output, I’d say Delta 100 feels much like a D700 shot at ISO 3200+, with similar tolerance for lenses. I must have messed something up in the developing, because I don’t remember Provia 100 being this grainy. Bottom line: we’re utterly spoiled by modern digital; even the RX100 handily outresolves 35mm film – if it had better dynamic range, I’d probably use this as my copying solution instead. Whoever is still complaining about resolution out to have their head seriously examined, probably with a baseball bat.

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The Vase. Hasselblad 501C, 80/2.8 CF T* on Ilford Delta 400

That said, I’m seeing a very healthy amount of detail from my Hasselblad negatives: single pixel detail is being resolved at the 20MP level (the magnification limit of my ‘scans’), and I suspect that there may be about ~40MP worth of real detail in a low-ISO 6×6 negative. This makes sense, since the area is approximately four times the area of a 35mm negative.

The Noct-Nikkor has some noticeable focus shift issues wide open. Even on film, you can see the focus plane move as you stop down (or shoot wide open). I think this lens is going to have to be partnered with the D700 for future use, or a D600 with live view and an LCD magnifier.

35mm film is very forgiving of lenses. By f5.6 and sometimes even before, all of my ~50mm lenses (45P, 2/50MP, 58 Noct) all look equally sharp and pleasing. I actually prefer the 45P’s rendition wide open because its slight field curvature I feel adds to the image in the same way the 2/28 Distagon’s does. The good lenses, remain good, of course; some of that magic still comes through – the 2.8/21 Distagon comes immediately to mind – but it’s not as obvious as on a D600 body, let alone a D800E.

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Graphic inverse. F2T, Delta 100, Zeiss 21/2.8

I like the negatives more than the positives sometimes. This appears to be a consequence of the scanning process (or, specifically, the D800E imposing its own tonal response curve onto the reproduction) more than anything; still, some of the really abstract, graphic images seem to work better if tone-adjusted and kept as a negative. Perhaps there’s a creative avenue to explore here…

I work faster with film than digital – even if my camera has no meter. The inability to chimp or make iterative improvements to subsequent shots means that subconsciously, you put all of your effort into getting it right the first time and being absolutely sure before you shoot: this is both efficient, and makes you better. One, or at most two, frames, and I’m on to the next shot. This definitely wasn’t the case with my previous experiences – perhaps my skill level has improved a bit since then.

Each roll is a bit like receiving an old-fashioned letter. Both in the fact that you have to open the container to see what’s inside, but more so because you aren’t 100% sure how it’s going to turn out – you remember most of the images (I suppose that’s like anticipation when you see the sender’s address) but there’s enough variables in the developing that the tone – no pun intended – of the message might not quite turn out how you’d expect – either good or bad. I suppose there’s also the aspect of ‘will-it-or-won’t-it-arrive?’ anxiety when you’re doing your own developing, too.

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Zigzag. F2T, Delta 100, 58/1.2 Noct

Individual style is much more difficult to impose without lighting or postprocessing. I suppose this seems obvious in hindsight, but I’d say that 50% (or more, if you rely on filters and HDR) of an individual’s style is imprinted during the postprocessing phase. I know that personally, it affects my tonal map and color signature; the latter is gone with B&W film, and the former is highly dependent on the film type, developing and scanning process (and subsequent conversion). I’m trying to write a conversion action that takes my raw file and turns it into something approximating the image I expected at the time of shooting; it’s not easy because there are multitudinous variables. I suppose I could process each one individually, but that would defeat the point of shooting film: I actually don’t want that much control, otherwise I might as well shoot digital – there are fewer steps to achieving an output image, and far more repeatability.

I’m not really seeing any differently with 35mm, but the shots that work are not the ones I expected. I think compositionally, nothing much has changed. But I’m even more acutely aware of the quality of ambient light now; situations in which I’d make up any deficits in the scene for with postprocessing (uneven light, overly harsh light, colour casts etc.) are pretty much no-go with film. The positive upshot is that the scenes that work are simply gorgeous in tonality. I suppose this does actually affect the way you compose, since shadows always define the shape of an object.

It’s different for medium format, though: 6×6 really has a neat zen balance about it that I’m rather enjoying.

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For film, bigger is definitely better. Or harder/ faster/ stronger/ whatever adjective you prefer. And if you’re going to be shooting it in old, manual, quirky cameras without meters anyway, it’s never, ever, going to be convenient – so you might as well go large. Different story with digital, of course.

I keep forgetting to remove the damn dark slide. Enough said. One of these days, I’m sure I’m going to bend or lose it when I’m in a hurry.

Developing is both simple and hard. There aren’t that many steps to it – mix chemicals, open cannister, load reel, put inside tank, seal tank; add developer and time; rinse; add fixer and time; rinse. Hang to dry. Scan, or print to taste. The trouble is, many of the critical steps are both impossible to repeat exactly one time to the next, and there are several of them. And batches of film aren’t always consistent. I’m sure there’s an art to all of these things, but that’s something much like digital processing: you can only get a feel for it through experience. Perhaps once I’ve developed enough rolls I might get some of the touch too; and maybe then I’ll write about it (i.e. when I have something worthwhile to say). Also, 120 film is considerably more difficult to load on the reels than 135; I suspect it’s because the film is both wider and seemingly slightly thinner, too.

To say a particular film has a ‘signature’ seems to be as much a fallacy as saying a particular sensor has one. The development process affects the outcome to such a large extent that I don’t think it’s possible to separate it from the outcome – i.e. it’s really not all down to the film. I certainly don’t have the experience yet, but I’m pretty sure I could make most B&W films turn out the way I expect once I have some handle on their native tonal characteristics and that of the chemistry – much like the various raw files from different cameras.

I need to figure out this drying business. By sheer dumb luck, my first roll turned out okay; the problem was drying it. I rather unwisely decided to hasten the process by wiping the film with a microfiber cloth – it worked fine for the first few frames, then really buggered up the ones at the end with streaks and scratches (presumably from something that got stuck in the cloth). Moral of the story: go buy some hydroflow agent, hang and have patience. Or maybe a rubber squeegee thingy.

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Dust spotting isn’t as bad as I remember it to be. It seems that my early slides picked up a considerable amount more dust than these B&W negs – no idea why. But what used to be easily 10+ minutes of spot removal is perhaps 30s on a bad image – a very fragile-emulsion negative such as PAN-F, for instance; and one or two strokes on a clean one. Incidentally, it’s the same technique that I use for retouching dust on watches.

Highlight roll-offs are gorgeous. I suspect this is because most of the dynamic range is in the highlights – something to do with reciprocity error or perhaps the underlying photochemistry of the medium. There’s always a bit of gradation left in even the brightest zones, and nothing ever seems to truly overexpose (unless you do so by more than three or four stops).

That said, there’s not as much dynamic range as I expected. Perhaps this is not entirely accurate. The dynamic range is there, it’s just not distributed as I expected; I’m used to the extreme linearity of the D800E and its brethren, which let you basically expose to the right and be almost sure that all of the shadow information will be there. With film it appears the cost of the wonderful highlight tonality are very compressed shadows. Personally, this means to get the tonal style I’mm after, I’ll have to expose my primary subject highlights in zone 7-8 and let the rest fall where it may, but specifically look for scenes which work with heavy shadows.

How much of the tonal qualities of them D800E are being imposed on my ‘scans’? Unfortunately, without printing, there’s no real way to know – any digital conversion is going to result in some…reinterpretation, I suppose, of the original tonal values.

I doubt I can get anywhere near the same color accuracy with film. Although color films have some latitude to their working ambient light Kelvin temperatures, there’s simply no way you can have film that works at 5500K for one shot, and 4375K for the next – but you can with digital. For this reason, I’m just not going to bother with color film – for now.

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Inverse (this is the negative). Hasselblad 501C, 80/2.8 CF T* on Ilford Delta 400

Ah, grain. I’ve always been of the opinion that there’s nothing wrong with it, so long as your image is in focus and your idea is clear; film has just made me recalibrate my expectations. Hell, ISO 1600 from the OM-D looks better at equivalent magnifications than ISO 100 35mm film…

So far, it’s been an interesting experiment – both creatively and in an attempt to better understand some of the technical and artistic history behind photography and why some particular images look the way they look. For instance, I now understand why most film street photography is both grainy and very high contrast; similarly, I’ve developed a new appreciation for Salgado’s developer and printer – I would still love to see his negatives though, to figure out how much of his look is down to light at the scene, how much is down to developing voodoo, and how much of it is down to skillful printing. In the meantime though, I think so long as I’m shooting with a serious focus on creative development, film is probably here to stay for me. Time to pick up more 120 for the ‘Blad; I have a feeling I won’t be doing much 35mm film shooting because it isn’t quite the creative break I wanted. 6×6, on the other hand, is absolutely magnificent. MT


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  1. If you’re having problems with shadows lacking in detail then you’re simply not exposing properly. Film isn’t digital in that you don’t expose for the highlights. Shoot whatever film you’re using at half box speed. Meter a zone three shadow but close down just one stop to place the shadow area on zone four. Cut development by 20%. You’ll have robust negs that will have plenty of shadow detail and the reduced development will stop the highlights getting too dense. Maybe not so good for scanning but then film was designed to be enlarged in the darkroom. 😉

    • Nope, no issues at the moment – these are earlier negs, to be honest. I’ve since changed my workflow for both developing and scanning; as you point out, my negs are optimized for scanning rather than print.

  2. ” .. enough variables in the developing that the tone – no pun intended – of the message might not quite .. ” … heh Great line .. maybe your next career will be as a writer . … hmm.. writer photographer .. great combination – lucky you 😀

    PS and slightly OT One great writer/ photographer I bumped into on flickr – picks the appropriate words for his photos ..
    ahora pasa una gran nube...

    • Hah! If I’m not a writer, where on earth did the 600+ articles and 1.3 million words of content on this site come from? 😉

  3. I really enjoyed this article Ming 🙂

    “To say a particular film has a ‘signature’ seems to be as much a fallacy as saying a particular sensor has one”

    I keep thinking the same – there is a lot of chatter about the Fuji X cameras having this mystical film look and forum users often poke fun at rival options such as the OM-D saying they are ‘too digital’.

    The funny thing is, most of these guys then post process their images, adding contrast and sharpening it – so it ends up looking far more digital than anything out of any camera.

    Surely it’s the photographer who has the signature – in the way he/she composes and processes. I liken the camera to a paintbrush really – it’s a tool, not the deciding factor of how good an image will be (to a degree at least).

    Talking of the Fuji’s – you don’t seem to cover them much. Do you have any exposure or opinion on something like the X-E1? Do you see the ‘magic’ that a lot of others do?

    • “Surely it’s the photographer who has the signature” Right on.

      I don’t cover the Fujis because they don’t really fit my needs, and support/ raw conversion issues make them not very practical workflow-wise.

  4. Oh, and regarding “resolution”. These days we try to map digital resolution to film resolution or vice-versa in pixel counts. I think that’s apples and oranges, and they’re only placed together in the same basket these days because we’re so used to digitizing things. It’s probably better to compare native printed results with each medium. Not that I’ve done it, but it seems like the only way to truly normalize for results. Would be an interesting experiment.

    PS: When I paste a link in, it becomes a big fat YouTube video player. I apologize for that — it’s not my intent to do that to your blog. My apologies.

    • You know, I have a master printer friend who’d undoubtedly be interested in that experiment…let me get some 35 negs I’m fully happy with and we’ll go from there.

      • Sounds great! I’ll be very interested to see the results, or, since that can’t really happen first hand, read about your impressions.

  5. Great post, as usual, Ming. Your film results are gorgeous, and I enjoy them just as much, if not more, than your digital work. Seeing your “slide copier” results makes me feel a bit goofy for painstakingly scanning my negs. However, there’s got to be something wrong with what you’re doing — seems crazy to put a beautiful neg through the bayer ringer :-).

    Regarding grain, detail, etc. I find that, having shot film (again) pretty seriously over the past few years, grain *makes* the image and gives it needed texture. I really don’t care much for super-smooth digital B&W any more (I used to). I recently rented an M Monochrom and found that I much preferred the high-ISO shots because they had a little texture from the little bit of noise that was introduced in that way. I did a series of videos on that experience over here:

    Anyway, I have a few filmic suggestions for you to add to the pile:

    – Glad you found a drying solution. I just use LFN and let my negs air dry — I don’t touch them! They’re done in an hour or so. But I’m in CO, US, and we have very low humidity. I still think it’s best not to touch a drying negative. The emulsion is soft at that point and easily scratched. Your blow-dryer idea sound like the trick in your humid environment.

    – Regarding film’s dynamic range and blocked shadows. Consider this: if you’re shooting in bright contrasty light, overexpose by one stop (or two) and underdevelop by a compensating stop (or two). I do this with incident metering, but it should work fine with reflective if you’re careful of your metering. Anyway, this will bring up the shadows and keep the highlights from overcooking. It’s essentially “HDR” for film, and is my go-to recipe for sunny shooting. The Hassy will allow you to have a back for those conditions, and other backs for other conditions. Don’t worry, though: if for some reason you shoot the +1 roll in shade, it will just come out very flat. That’s fine, just pump it up in post.

    – Regarding the plastic Paterson-style reels. That’s what I use, and I have no issues (once I stopped using a changing bag, anyway). I consider 120 to be super-easy to load (easier than 35mm in my opinion). The trick that works for me is to feed the film into the gap, and then pull it through from the other side to get through the ball bearings, etc. I’ve never cut a roll of 120, and this works just fine. Since you have to cut 135, there’s no harm in cutting it “on a curve”, so I do that, and it helps a bit, too. I demonstrate the “pulling” thing here.

    Perhaps everyone does it and I have discovered something obvious :-). But it really helps, IMO.

    Keep up the great work — you’re a really inspiring photographer.


    • Thanks for the tips, Mike. I’d not considered +1 EV in sunlight and pulling development – interesting idea. Too used to shooting digital and doing the opposite to save my highlights. My only worry is that with ambient temperatures being pretty high here, it’s going to make for very short development times (and possibly uneven development). The other option – which is perhaps stylistically closer to what I’d do anyway – is metering for the highlights and shooting Majoli-style 🙂

      As for the scanning/ copying process – alignment, focus etc are fiddly and fairly critical, plus there’s the conversion afterwards. I don’t know if it’s any faster than scanning, to be honest. But I suppose it’s more a case of making do with what I’ve got rather than going out and buying a new scanner. I’ve built an even more fancy frame for copying film now – it’s made of spare Lego Technic parts and has adjustable guide rails and takeup spools at either end to allow me to perfectly advance the film one frame at a time, keep the camera at precisely the right height and hold everything in plane…

      • I was wondering the same thing about running a film negative through the “bayer ringer”. Film has much smoother/richer toneality than digital cameras. Do you lose that toneality when taking a picture of it with a digital camera? How come you don’t lose the toneality with scanners (high end drum scans and/or low end flat bed scans)? Ming’s D800 scans certainly look good and they’re very sharp. But are we not seeing the full potential of the original negative?

        • I’m wondering that myself, to be honest. I do know that the results I’m getting from the D800e ‘scanner’ are much better than what I got out a dedicated flatbed film scanner previously; I don’t know if that’s because of five years of improvement in scanning technique, or whether the camera-scanner really is better. There’s probably more tonal information to be had from the negatives, but if lit such that the dynamic range falls within that of the D800e – and it usually does, because my histogram doesn’t clip at either end – then I’m guessing the loss probably isn’t that great.

      • I hear ya. I recently saw a comparison somewhere (can’t remember where. was that you?) of some D800 scans vs a regular flat bed scanner scan of the same negative. The D800 clearly won in terms of sharpness/detail captured from the film compared to the scanner. It crushed it as a matter of fact, imho. Falling within the range of the capture devices DR certainly would help, but will the transitions from dark to light look the same and be as smooth?

        Just thought of another question, and somewhat off topic. Is it possible to use the D800 in the same manner for color negatives? How do you handle the tint/color of the film base when flipping it from negative to positive on the computer? Sorry, this is probably a silly question and really shows my ignorance of analog/digital conversions.

        • That’s a good question – I don’t think so, but then again the files are so plastic they’re fairly easy to manipulate into whatever shape you want. I’ve taken to developing a single curve for each film type I use, then batch processing.

          I’m sure you probably could use it for color, but you’d have to do a separate hue-saturation adjustment layer or color profile to take care of the shift for each different film type. You’d also need to do the same kind tonal mapping as you’d do for B&W too. Since I have no easy way to process C41, I admit I haven’t tried it yet…

  6. Carlo Santin says:

    I like film simply because it achieves a look that digital simply cannot duplicate. I don’t really care about resolution or dynamic range…pretty much any new digital camera is more than good enough now and the film vs digital debate no longer interests me. There are situations where I would prefer to use a digital camera, but overall my preference is for film. I agree, 6×6 is wonderful…there is simply not enough real estate on a 35mm neg, though for street photography it does still hold a certain appeal. I find 120 much much easier to load onto a reel, and to scan. For drying I’ve used a solution of water and vinegar or water and vodka (very small amounts)…soak the reel in the solution for 5 minutes after the final wash, hang to dry in the shower and give it a quick squeegee, come back in the morning and the negs are clean and clear. I use all Ilfosol chemicals, liquids not powders, no fuss or bad smell and pretty consistent results.

  7. Thanks for the article and images! Can I ask what you technique you use for dust spot removal when drying? Sounds effective! Although digital scanning is film’s contemporary saviour, for me the beauty of B&W film comes out in the darkroom – I recently did a bit of printing with Ilford RC Pearl and Satin, which have a lovely texture and finish, glossy without being pasticky (if that makes sense)… someone I know creates digital negs for this reason, which is something I might look into too.

    I live in Perth, Australia, so I have to wait for winter before I feel like I want to put a roll of B&W in my camera, just insn’t suited to the climate here…

    • I rinse in Ilfotol diluted to spec after washing, then hang it up in an air-conditioned room. After hanging, use an air blower to blow the water off the celluloid side (the emulsion side has to dry naturally).

      Perth – 40C+? And I thought we had temperature problems here with developing…

      • Thanks for the tip, I will give the air blower a try.
        Yes, maximum temperatures in Perth can be over 40 for several days in a row, and recently its been humid too.
        Makes for nice sunsets and sunrises, but not much fun in the middle of the day…

  8. Your negative shots are cool. But the first portrait is incredible.

  9. You should try a modern developer – Xtol. It is very forgiving, is low grain, full film speed, and excellent dynamic range. I shoot a lot of 4×5 black and white, which I scan. It has proven to be the best. You can go to a 1:3 dilution from the stock solution to extend developing time in hot climates. With conventional film, you want to make sure you have properly exposed your shadows for the detail you want, then pull (shorten) the processing a bit for scanning, as opposed to silver printing. It gives much better dynamic range:

  10. Reblogged this on Ledesma Photography and commented:
    A wonderful explanation on film, its limitations, resolution, its quirks and its beauty. Another enlightening post by Ming Thein who’s quickly become my technical go to photographer. Fancy a good read, then go for it.

  11. Getting consistent results from film is simple – but difficult. First, buy an entire “brick” or package of film from the same batch. There are codes on the bottom of the film boxes. Purchase at least 25 rolls. Store in a cool place. Test the first roll. If you develop your own, make sure the temperature, mixture, agitation, and timing is consistent. Dust is another animal – good luck with that. Obviously, using a pro lab with thousands of dollars of temperature, chemical and dust controls makes this journey a lot easier.

    • I’ve narrowed down the problem to temperature and agitation. Dust, drying and consistency I’ve solved; odd contrast and halation is partially due to me originally being over-clever, buying XP2-400 (a C41 film) thinking I could find a local 1-h minilab – nope – and then having to develop the entire brick myself in B&W chemistry. The self-masking layer makes for some bits that don’t scan well because they’re too opaque.

  12. No, not quite the same as the third party add on Lindahl darkslide holders. The newer Hasselblad A12 film back 6×6 chrome 30212 or black 30213 has the darkslide holder built in by design and is more curved – not the same shape or thickness as the Lindahl add-on to an older model. Google “Hasselblad 30212 OR 30213” and look at images to see the shape.

    • I’ll check it out. The one I’ve got is definitely a Lindahl and somehow just ruins the lines of the camera and back. It is practical, though.

  13. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Ming Thein!

    I am not sure I understand what spiral you use in your developing tank.
    Is it the kind where you enter the film at the outside end and push it into the spiral until all of it has entered?

    If so, then the (rather sharp) corners of the film can get stuck now and then on the radial supports of the spiral.
    I used to cut off about 2 mm of the film corners with scissors at an angle of about 30 degrees, and then the film entered much more smoothly.

    Also, if the film is too tightly curled, gently bend the first couple of cm:s of it backwards a few times to un-curl it.
    Cutting off the first cm covered with the tape that attached the film to the paper strip (if that happens to be the end you start with) might help if it is too curled.

    (With my first single tank I used to connect two 120 rolls with a staple and enter both, if unconnected they might move and overlap.)

    As to agitating, a couple of turns every half minute or so used to be recommended. Continuos agitating can cause too much turbulence close to the spirals and result in uneven developement.

    • It’s a Patterson nylon spiral where the film goes in on the outside, and you have to rotate the two halves independently back and forth to load the film. Corners getting stuck makes sense, but cutting 2mm off the ends by feel sounds tricky! In any case, it shouldn’t be so much of a problem because I leave the leader intact until after development. For 120 I do them individually – it’s difficult enough to get one roll to go on, let alone two. Thanks for the tips!

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        The amount you cut is not too critical as long as the angle is about right.
        On the other hand, if the spiral supports are rounded this might not be needed.
        But I have no experience of such spirals.

        • It definitely gets jammed. The sharp edge catching on a lip might well be the issue – no way of knowing for sure since you can’t see inside the spiral when loading it. I’ll give the corner cutting a try and see if that helps ease loading.

  14. What kind of reels are you using? When I started developing 135 I used those plastic reels where you shove the film on to a track from the front and then spool it up. The film moves from the outside in. This is really easy for 135, but much harder for 120 because the film is wider and you can’t get it started.

    What I found for 120 was that buying the really high quality stainless steel reels (made by Hewes:; I still have some if you want them :)) made loading really really easy. With steel reels you catch the film on the inside of the reel and then wind it up from the inside out. I found this much easier to do because all you need to do is hold it in place. You don’t need to get the film aligned with the track … it just sort of falls into the right place as long as you get started correctly. Use a dummy roll and practice in front of the TV for an hour or so and you can do it every time.

    Black and white development is sort of fun and romantic. But fundamentally I don’t miss it. The chemicals always gave me rashes, especially when printing. Still, it’s hard to duplicate that B&W film look in digital.

    • That would explain a lot – I’m using a plastic Patterson reel that has multiple settings for 35 and 120. Do the Hewes reels fit the Patterson tanks? If so, I’ll take one off your hands 🙂

  15. After the last bath in PHOTO-FLO Solution I squeezed the solution away with a high quality chamois. Then I leave the negatives in the bathroom to dry, it takes between 15 to 30 minutes. I used a silicon squeegee before but the chamois is the best solution for me.

    • I’m pathologically afraid of getting any dust or grit stuck in the cloth…have found a process that’s contact-free and fast – Ilfotol and a blower 🙂

  16. Developing at 26 degrees C is usually going to give bad results; while B/W processing is not like E6, there are limits. If you really can’t control the temperature it might be an idea to give a shot to a developer that is not very sensitive to changes in temperature, now if my memory serves Ilford Ilfotec HC is such.

    Now temperature and developer concentration and their relation to the needed developing time should not be calculated with any linear formula, it’s best to see some tested references like

    Film drying everyone wants to always do differently, my method is to add just a little bit of detergent into the final rinsing water and use my carefully washed fingers to squeeze the water away. Then hang with a laundry clip into the most dust free place available. But, everyones mileage will vary.

    And the water purity can be an issue for the process. Here in Finland not really but that is not so common worldwide. Water you’ve been using may not be pure enough, may cause weird things. If so, try to at least mix chemicals into distilled or alike water and final rinse should be done with that too.

    Finally, developer pH value is critical for success. Fixer has acetic acid.
    =>Never let even a small amount of fixer get into contact with the developer.

    • Thanks for your input, Tuomas – based on all of the thoughts so far, I think I need to try a) longer times with more dilute developer, and b) water purification – I’m pretty sure our local water is heavily loaded with chlorine or fluorine; you can smell it if it’s sitting in a bowl or as it comes out of a tap.

      • You can also consider stand (diffusion) development. It’s usually done at room temperature for like 1h or something, depending of course on many things. Rodinal is popular for this job. Idea is that heavily exposed areas of the film use developer faster than lightly exposed areas. So when diffusion (which is slow) is the only way to deliver more developer to the emulsion, the highlights are in deficiency of developer by using it so fast and shadows not. That will increase the dynamic range.

        But when using the usual mixing development, the mixing time is quite critical. 10 seconds every minute vs. 15s per minute makes a difference.

        • If you need to mix to ensure that all areas of the film get equal chemical contact, doesn’t stand development result in uneven gradients towards the bottom of the tank?

          Perhaps less agitation is the way to go…I’m constantly agitating now.

      • Stand development should by any means not give gradients from top to bottom. Why would it? If the developer is well mixed before use it will stay that way minus the developer use by film or impurities. Is it gravity you’re thinking to cause the supposed gradients? If it is, don’t worry, dissolved developer molecules won’t be pulled down “inside” the solution by gravity. They’re light enough to evade gravity forces there.

        • Not sure whether developer is a solution or a suspension – there’s definitely some very fine particulate matter left over in my used developer, which makes me concerned that it might ‘settle’ after some time and lead to uneven concentrations of active chemical. But if it’s a solution, no issue.

  17. I find it’s a lot easier to spool the 120 than the 35mm rolls! You have to kind of slightly curl it to get it on the reel and the 120 is easier for me. Every time I do the 35 I end up cursing and saying “i remember now why I only want to develop the 120!”

    • Curl it? Is there a trick to this I’m missing, perhaps?

      • I sue stainless reels eluded to below. When I start the film on the reel by pushing it under the clip in the center I then hold the film in my right hand between my thumb and middle finger and push them slightly together so the film is concave to the reel. I twist the reel and let the film slide into the spaces on the reel fairly easily.
        It’s much harder to do so on the 35mm reel in my experience.

        • Sounds like this one loads from the inside out, which makes more sense due to the natural curl of the film. But I suppose that also means the tank is physically larger?

  18. You wrote: ” … I’m sure I’m going to bend or lose [a dark slide] when I’m in a hurry.”

    Hasselblad eventually made film backs with built in darkslide holders. You might prefer the Hasselblad A12 film back 6×6 chrome 30212 or black 30213 with dark slide holder (aka A12Nd, aka A-12N, aka Type III – were manufactured starting 1997 and are the latest A-series back with built-in darkslide holder).

    • I presume you mean the Lindahls – I’ve got a later A12 with one of those, but I hate the change to the ergonomics – it’s now blocky and has pointy bits, and somehow lost the elegance of the plain back…

  19. Not an issue if you’re shooting B&W 🙂

  20. 55500K ? wow 🙂

  21. Andrew Kok says:

    I used to develop and print my B & W photos when I was a schoolboy in KL many moons ago. The thing I learnt after trial and error is to ensure the developer , stop bath, fixer and final wash were all at 68 degrees or all at the same temperature. This constant temperature will give you the finest grain possible for that film. If the temperature in not at the optimum recommended temperature and not constant for all the solutions, it will lead to increase grain ( my estimate is it can be like tri X pushed to 1600 ASA land developed with care looking as good grain wise as a roll of Tri X exposed at 400 asa but haphazardly developed. I strived for using grade 3 ( normal ) photo paper in my enlargement and printing .The way you rotate the spindle( the speed and how many turns ) in the tank is an art too. Too rapid and you may cause tiny bubbles to from between film and solution etc. I just hang the negatives to dry without any wetting agents but rinsed several times.

  22. “there’s simply no way you can have film that works at 5500K for one shot, and 4375K for the next”

    Get a color meter and some color compensating filters. Definitely slows you down, but you can match the color temperature of the light to your film. It’s how we used to do it before digital. =)

  23. David Babsky says:

    I need to figure out this drying business ..The old school method was to add a little ‘wetting agent’ to the final rinse to ensure the water spreads all over the emulsion, and add a little methylated spirit. Then use rubber squeegee pincers.
    The meths combines with the water so that it evaporates quickly and disappears without drying marks.
    (Bert Hardy, legendary newspaper photographer, told me his job as a darkroom boy was to run down Fleet Street from the darkroom to the presses with flaming prints; the prints had been washed in water and meths, then set on fire to burn off the water-and-meths – so the prints were crisp and dry in the couple of minutes it took to run to the press where the photo blocks were made!)

    • I picked up some Ilfotol wetting agent and a blower – seems to do the job. I can’t find the squeegee here, so I had to improvise.

      Setting the prints on fire seems to be a rather extreme way of doing it…not to mention risky!

  24. I’d be really curious to see a comparison between film and digital. When you next shoot film, can you also bang off some shots with a digital cam, process in your normal way (not particularly to look like film) and compare to the film shots. It’s not something that I can easily do myself. Great shots by the way. Keep working that muse 🙂

  25. Interesting to read about your experiences. Certainly one shoots film for the look these days (or some very special application); digital is very convenient and of a higher quality. Film doesn’t take high-ISO nearly as well as digital, though at ultra low ISO it can be surprisingly detailed. In any case, I would focus on a look rather than thinking too much about grain and resolution. For the record, I don’t shoot much film anymore, but when I do, I prefer 6×6 for the look; enough resolution, different DOF effects due to large film, imposing the square format.

    I don’t quite agree about your conclusions on developer vs. film. Granted, the developer imparts its effects, such as appearance of grain. But the fundamental properties of film do not change. Take for example Tri-X, which is more sensitive to red than most films and has an attractive midtone contrast when developed correctly. Now take Tmax100, which has a typical panchromatic senzitation and a very linear contrast buildup (for film). Those properties remain regardless the development and define the look achievable. Incidentally, printing has a bigger impact for the obvious reasons.

    As a practical tip, constant agitation with hot water is in my opinion not a good idea if doing hand development. Development times should not go below 5 mins in hand development, so I would recommend using a more dilute developer instead. In practice, if you can’t get cooler water, you need to find a developer and film combination that works slowly enough. It does indeed look like some of your pictures are suffering from development problems.

    For drying, dip the film for 1 min in a diluted wetting agent before hanging to dry. Forget the squeegee; the drying agent will give the best result and no manual drying is needed. If your drying space is somewhat humid (there are some intrinsic drawbacks to doing this in the tropics…), you may need a drying cabinet.

    • Steve Jones says:

      Indeed,one of the strengths of a digital camera is surely it’s high ISO ability and it’s exposure accuracy. One of it’s weaknesses seems to be nature and landscape photography. If that’s your thing, it’s hard to avoid artificial looking halos around the sun anytime it is in the frame.Skies don’t seem to have a natural gradation. If I’m looking to determine if an image is film or digital that’s the first giveaway for me.
      Even with extensive post processing it’s difficult to cure. No problem for film. Entirely selfish thought but….
      I hope Ming and many others will keep using enough film so that they will keep making it (so I can use it! )
      We’ve just had a heavy snow here in Japan and everyone is complaining about how hard it has been to get around but I really like how everything seems to slow down in the snow. I like how film slows things down in photography too. It’s a good feeling.
      Digital might be too convenient, rather like fast food, and I wouldn’t want to eat that ALL the time.
      Love the squares!

      • The newer sensors handle highlight blowouts much more gracefully than earlier generations; CCDs seem to have a problem with highlight bleed.

        As for skies and fine tonal gradations in the highlights – it seems that’s to do with the nonlinearity of film; there’s no 100% saturation point, so you’ve always got a bit more potential dynamic range. With digital, when the photosite well is full, it’s full, and it blows.

        Would love to shoot Japan in the snow…should look fantastic in monochrome on medium format.

    • I wouldn’t quite call them conclusions – I haven’t had a chance to extensively test a wide range of developers and films under controlled situations; I don’t feel like I’ll ever have a conclusion to this end as there are a lot of variables. And yes, the scanning/ developing process has a much larger impact on the final output than we give it credit for.

      I might try more dilute developer – does halving the concentration double development time, or is there some nonlinearity here?

      Figured out the wetting agent – combined with a blower, no more drying problems 🙂

      • There is no non-linearity per se, but if you have too little of the active chemical, the film won’t develop fully. I suggest following the manufacturers recommendations when it comes to temperatures, times, dilutions and agitating — after you establish a consistent process, you can start to modify it. Now Ilford doesn’t actually specify using DD-X at anything else than 1+4, so it might be an issue. Remember that if you see too much contrast, your generally developing too long, too hot and/or agitating too much. If shadows are coal black you’re not exposing enough. With that simple rule, many basic issues can be solved.

        Some minor things to note with weird effects are that you should tap the tank so that air bubbles get dislodged, make sure the chemistry is properly mixed and goes high enough and that all solutions are of a similar temperature to avoid thermal shock. I’m in the camp that favors a prewash before development, but not everyone does. The whole development process is something of a Kung-fu kind of thing, where one practices and achieves certain serenity while perfectly executing the required steps.

        I noted that you’re dealing with loading 120 on Paterson reels. I’ve done in many times, it does indeed require a bit of practice. You could sacrifice a roll (outdated film?) to practice loading in daylight. It’s harder than 35 mm because it takes more dexterity to get the film on the takeup spool properly, but once you get it going it should be easy. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the design of the reels, it just requires a bit of practice and a calm mind.

        • I’m going to run an experiment with something a bit more diluted, and then another control with less agitation…hopefully one of those will give me the answer. The problem is, I’ve developed several rolls identically – same dilution, same agitation, same film from the same batch – and the results were different again. No idea why…

  26. I just got 2 films developed – first time I’ve shot film in a long time and probably the first time I’ve shot seriously with film ever! I cheated and got recommended a good lab to develop and produce a contact sheet. So far I have been impressed with the tonal map and though not quite the style I process my B&W in, it is still pleasing. I will be printing these with a help of a friend who has a dark room and will be interested to see how they turn out.

    I generally am not a shooter who shoots lots of frames as it is, even with digital. I prefer a more deliberate style, but even with film and knowing each shot ‘costs’ you it took me a fair while to get through the two rolls which is surprising. I also shot with a focus on ‘interesting’ light and agree these shots came out best (along with reflections and layered images).

    Last point, I was also shooting with an Olympus Mju 2 compact which is pretty much full auto – exposure wise not too bad which (yet again) surprised me, a little under exposed on a few shots but not bad at all. Even lower light situations where I would typically need ISO 1600+ with digital, the pictures have turned out better than I thought. An interesting experience overall and probably try it again soon 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing your experience – by the way, that Mju 2 has a very good reputation for having a stellar lens. The leaf shutter helps with low light and borderline shutter speeds, too; grain does the rest 🙂

  27. On shooting films, other than personal fun in the process of shooting, processing and sharing and/or joining a photo competition, what do you see the potential in film images for use in commercial?

    • To be honest – not a lot. Some specific fine art or portraiture applications, perhaps. I’m limited to B&W at the moment because of a lack of good local labs, and the fact that I can get much better control over color if I shoot digital.

  28. Kristian Wannebo says:


    Film resolution:
    In a book from the first half of the previous century I found prints of slow film (ISO 50) developed to maximize resolution which resolved 80 line pairs per mm.
    With a frame size of 56 mm squared this would equal the Nyquist limit of 80 Mpx.
    So the 40 Mpx you estimate is probably what you can get when developing for good photographic quality.

    Kodak Superikonta III.
    If you are looking for a 6×6 cm film camera to put in your coat pocket, this is IT!

    Sharp lens, Zeiss Tessar 75 mm f:3.5 .
    (Same optics as in e.g. Leitz Elmar 50 mm f:3.5 .)
    Coupled range finder, quite quick, still usable in moderately low light (ISO 400 at f:3.5 1/20 s).
    Front lens focusing down to 1 m.
    Fairly good optical viewfinder, I could keep my glasses on.
    Folds to very compact size with rigid mechanism.
    Aperture and Time scales coupled.
    Built in simple (no battery) exposure meter, gives value in EV which you set on the coupled scales.
    A very quick camera to use, film winding (with mechanical stop) is slower though than on Rolleiflex or Hasselblad.

    This was one of my first cameras, for many years it was always on a strap over my shoulder in its standard fast opening leather case or in a large pocket, always set for quick hyperfocal use.
    The lens is sharp enough for snow or frost on the twigs of a tree in the sun.

    (Beware of the version with Tessar 75 (or 80 ?) mm f:2.8 , it is a soft lens, good enough for portraits.)

    • Kristian Wannebo says:

      NOT Kodak, but Zeiss Ikon

    • Looks like an interesting camera; I’d been thinking about a 6×7 RF at some point too – perhaps that Fuji thing.

      80MP on 6×6 assumes that your lenses are resolving at this level, and grain isn’t degrading your microcontrast – useable resolution is probably going to be a lot less, so I do think the 40-50MP or so range is probably about right for most situations.

  29. Don’t give up the idea of color film so soon. The first time I saw my Provia 100 slide film on a light table it was like a revelation. I never thought the colors could be so crisply separated and true to life on film, and having it as a physical object is like stealing frames your life’s reel. Now I’m shooting with Velvia and Kodak E100vs. The grain is so tiny that I can barely focus on it. I really urge you to treat yourself and buy a few rolls of 120 color slide film.

    The quality of these scans don’t do the film justice, but look at the colorful ones and tell me you don’t want to try that:

    Also check out Ashley Pomeroy’s meditation on film grain and the intentional/unintentional character that a film has:

    • Oh, I used to shoot nothing but slide – Velvia and Provia – during my earlier film phase. The problem is that now there are almost no labs left that can handle it well locally, and it’s very expensive to boot. I plan to do a landscape trips to Japan in the autumn, shoot only slide, have it processed and scanned locally before returning to Malaysia. E6 processing is definitely not something I want to do at home…

  30. The only time I experienced truly remarkable dynamic range with b/w was when I used the zone system. That was truly a revelation for me, but required many tedious hours of testing one particular film with one particular developer and a densitometer. And then I’d have to do it all over again to switch ISOs or to try a new developer. I got some remarkable 16×20 prints shot from an old, cheap Canon AE-1 using the zone system. And it made pulling prints (chemical, not digital) a real pleasure.

    • It can work but as you say…the chemical portion of the process has to be 100% consistent every time otherwise the results won’t be as expected. And this is nearly impossible to do in practice.

  31. I’ve only taken to film recently after having never really used it seriously (grown up as a child with film and in my photography formative years digital exploded) so am having a great amount of fun with it – especially black and white. The latitude available for exposure is something else and the grain adds real character… however being that I don’t process myself and may only ever venture to process b&w myself it’s an exceptionally expensive way to go, and somewhat risky with the generally terrible processors in my home town. There is a definite zen value to shooting film if you are so comfortable with digital predominately.

    As an aside, I’m really not a fan of the glow that is surrounding some of your subjects in a few of these images. I’m not sure if that is more post-processing or film response but it gives the images where it is quite strong a tacky HDR feel. However I just noticed viewing the images on your website rather than in the gmail email viewer lessens that phenomenon so perhaps is slightly colour space related?

    • I’m not sure about the extended latitude – I think a good digital file from one of the current generation of cameras has more useable, clean stops – but the tonality and character of film are hard to argue with.

      The haloes are bothering me too. I can’t figure out why they’re showing, other than it’s got to be something to do with the scanning or development process. I’m definitely not doing any HDR, so that’s not it. Like I said, I’m still not happy with the digitization process…interestingly, I’ve noticed this kind of thing on a lot of other, older film images too – many of Salgado’s (which we know were dodge and burned) and Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ (which I’m guessing was, but don’t know for sure) – perhaps there is something here to investigate. In the second (vase) image, the halo is dark on one side and light on the other – which makes me wonder if it’s chemical rather than digital. Not all of the images show this, though; it seems to be only the ones where I used fresh developer.

      • With regard to the halos, what you’re seeing is border effect, a type of adjacency effect caused by uneven development at areas of high contrast. If I remember correctly from my darkroom days, the two factors that are at play here are the dilution of the developer and the type or frequency of agitation. Dilute developers and infrequent agitation will both contribute to increased border effect.

        • Aha, that would make sense – thanks for the explanation. The only problem is that I do constant agitation and use DDX in a 4:1 dilution – could the temperature possibly have something to do with it? I’m stuck with relatively high – 26C – temperatures as a consequence of living in the tropics…

      • I honestly don’t know, Ming. It’s been a long time since I gave any thought to my film developing technique – the darkroom has been in storage for years… I think it would bear some further investigation though, because the adjacency effect is obvious. Once you’ve seen it on one of your own negatives, it becomes hard to ignore in other’s pics. If I were going to research it, I’d begin by looking at some of the old classic photography textbooks.

        You know, it wouldn’t be too difficult to get the temperature of your chemicals down to a more reasonable 20C/68F. In the summertime we would set up a shallow plastic tub (a cooler would even work) and keep working containers of developer, stop and fixer in a water bath, cooled with a few ice cubes. The larger volume of liquid in the tub will keep your chemistry at a constant temperature longer than individual containers on a counter would. Constant temperatures lead to consistant and repeatable results.

  32. Mark Olwick says:

    It’s both fun and interesting to watch you rediscover film (I’ve been shooting it for 40+ years). There are many things I agree with, and a few I don’t. For example, each film certainly does have a personality and look depending on silver content, grain structure, base, etc, but as you say, developing does too. The choice of developer, temp, quantity and frequency of agitation, etc all contribute to the end result. It’s in the dance between film, developer and photographer where the artistry lies. There are an infinite number of combinations.

    Have fun!


    • Oh, definitely. Don’t forget to throw the digitisation and/ or printing process into the mix, too…bottom line, there are a lot more variables than with digital – sometimes a good thing, sometimes not.


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