film

Contact Sheet: Josie

I adopted Josie years ago. She was a sweetie but was incapable of being around other dogs, and my life at the time involved being around other dogs. We found a new home for her with a lovely woman who enjoyed dogs but had none. What she did have was 5 acres of land and immediate love for Josie.

Josie contact sheet. Tri-x, shot with the Hasselblad.

I recently ran across the above contact sheet taken shortly after bringing her home. I love medium format contact sheets, since they make a fun polyptych. I often make a second contact sheet expressly for hanging. Sometimes I make a third and cut the small images out for my journal.

I could cheat with digital photos and make something similar, but it’s not the same.

Roll-100 (Hasselblad 500C/M)

I took the Hasselblad for a walk today on the same route as the one last week with the Leica MP. It’s a lot heavier! This was a roll of Delta 100 that expired in Jan 2011. I didn’t know what to expect, but it looks ok to me.

I don’t know what I want

This has been a tumultuous week for me, photography-wise. Early in the week, I made this silver gelatin darkroom print of a 35mm frame of HP5 film.

On my walk. Ada, MI Silver Gelatin print (Leica MP, HP5)
On my walk. Ada, MI Silver Gelatin print (Leica MP, HP5)

It’s a photo of some weeds I took while out walking. That’s it. But I made it using my favorite camera and it’s a “real” chemical photograph on actual paper. I like it very much.

Then yesterday, I took the following self-portrait using my new Fujifilm X-T5 digital camera in my home studio.

Studio Self-portrait (digital)
Studio Self-portrait (digital)

Here’s my dilemma: I like them both, but never equally or at the same time. One moment I love everything about shooting film with my Leica and printing using only light and chemistry in the darkroom. It feels like making art, even when the objective technical quality is lacking. In fact, the lack of technical quality is what I look for when shooting and printing film.

Then, a moment later, I can’t understand why I’d bother with all that when I could simply shoot digitally and easily produce a clean, sharp, colorful self-portrait using strobes and backgrounds without all the finger-crossed guessing and expensive failures.

What all this means is that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to commit to a single form of photography. There are too many fun and exciting options to limit myself to just one. It also means I’m unlikely to ever develop the “Baty Aestheticâ„¢” that I always think I should have. It means I’ve no “vision”. Oh well, it’ll have to be OK that I’m all over the place, creatively.

Darkroom printing with borders

I like the way prints look with a small black border around the image, like this:

Darkroom print hanging to dry
Darkroom print hanging to dry

I know some people file their negative holders but that means no cropping and there’s no way I’m precise enough with framing to not crop about 90% of my images at least a little.

What I did instead is cut a piece of poster board ever so slightly smaller than my usual print size. I place this over the image after making the initial exposure and do one more quick 5-second exposure for the border.

This works, but it’s difficult getting the board lined up evenly. For now, I’m writing that off as providing uniqueness but I’m still looking for something better.

I taped the edges with dark tape so it’s easier to see in the dark.

I almost always print 6″x8″ on 8″x10″ paper, so this will be fine most of the time. If anyone has a better technique, I’d love to hear about it.

Scanned black and white darkroom print of power tower and tree branches
Scanned 8×10 silver gelatin print. I’m testing my homemade border-maker mask. It’s a bit hard to get even.

Roll-099 (Leica MP)

From my walk. Ada, MI.

I took the MP on my walk and was determined to shoot an entire roll. It was overcast, dreary, and the path I walk is pretty boring, but I did my best and made it through the roll.

This roll was shot at 800 and developed in HC-110 (Dilution B) for 7.5 minutes.

Back to scanning film with a real scanner

Epson V750 film scanner on my desk
Epson V750 film scanner on my desk

I tried, I really did. The Wise Old Internet guided me into changing my film scanning process from a dedicated flatbed scanner to using a mirrorless digital camera setup. I did everything right. I bought good equipment and the right software.

I hated it.

To scan using my flatbed, I load the negatives, hit “Prescan”, confirm that things look ok and press “Scan”. I go do something else for a while and come back to a folder full of JPGs. I edit the files by adjusting contrast and cropping as needed in Lightroom or whatever and I’m done.

What the internet told me was that I needed a mirrorless digital camera, a quality Macro lens capable of 1:1 magnification, a copy stand, a bright, even light source, film holders/transports for every size negative I plan to scan, and Negative Lab Pro (which requires the use of Lightroom Classic).

To scan negatives using a digital camera, I first have to mount the camera, level it correctly, set up the appropriate negative mount. Then I make sure it’s focused properly, and adjust camera settings as needed. Then for each frame, I advance the film, trip the shutter, advance, and repeat 36 times. Then I must import the raw scans into Lightroom, load the NLP plugin, convert all of them, then adjust them using NLP. Finally, I have to export positive TIFF or JPG copies from NLP. I just don’t see how this is easier. No one agrees with me, but the old way is better.

35mm film holder for for Epson scaner
35mm film holder for for Epson scaner

What about scan quality? That depends upon a hundred variables. Honestly, I can probably squeeze a tiny bit of quality/resolution from the digital camera scans, but the effort getting there isn’t worth it. My flatbed 35mm scans are fine, although if you read anything online you won’t believe me. “Flatbed scans are shit!” is the usual trope. OK, but they look good to me, thanks.

Also, the grain from dedicated scanners looks better. And if I’m shooting color, there’s no match for digital ICE.

I tried the new way, but I prefer my old-fashioned scanning system.

My camera situation at the end of 2022

Everything changes all the time.

2022 has been another year of wildly rearranging my approach to photography. I’ve gone all-in Leica and back. I’ve been all-in with film, and back. And so on. I do this because I’m more of a camera nerd than an artist.

Let’s start with the film cameras. First, I sold the big Linhof Master Technika. It was a beautiful kit, but I almost never used it. I still have an old Crown Graphic for when I get the urge to shoot 4×5.

I still have three Leica M film cameras: M3, M6, and MP. I tried and failed at selling the M6. Here they are on my workbench:

Leicas: M3, MP, and M6

The M6 is for sale again. I will hate myself for selling it, but it’s dumb to have something so nice (and valuable) just sitting on a shelf most of the time.

I was also able to revive the Ricoh GR1, which I’m very happy about.

Ricoh GR1, back from the dead.

So, what about digital, then? That’s still being tweaked, but right now I’m going with the new X-T5 and a few favorite lenses.

Testing the X-T5

I ordered the X-T5 with the 16-80 “kit” lens. I don’t like zooms, and I don’t love f4 lenses, but it’s a nice all-arounder in a pinch and a cheap way to get it. I have the 23 f2, 35 f1.4, and 56 1.2 on the way.

I’ve stopped scanning film with a digital camera, so I shouldn’t miss the Lumix S5 and Macro, which I’ve traded for the Fuji lenses. I can change my mind pretty inexpensively with the Fuji 60mm macro any time.

I have come very close to buying another Leica M10-R, but I’m going to see how it feels to use the Fuji for digital.

Where does that leave us? To sum up:

Every Day(ish) Carry:

  • Leica MP
  • Ricoh GR1
  • Fujifilm X-T5

Change-of-Pace Carry:

  • Leica M3
  • Hasselblad 500C/M
  • Crown Graphic 4×5
  • Assorted 35mm (OM-1n, Leica IIIf, etc)

How I’m feeling about large format film photography

Self-portrait. Linhof Master Technika

The short version is that I have a love/hate relationship with large format film photography.

I love the detail and depth. I love the tonal values and focus fall-off that seem impossible with smaller formats. I love that I can decide on a frame-by-frame basis what film, developer, or process I’m going to use. There’s no waiting until the end of a roll. It’s as close to instant gratification as one can get when shooting film. I love the big negatives!

On the other hand, everything else about large format is a pain in the ass. I thought I’d do studio and environmental portraits when I bought my first 4×5 camera in 2013. I admire the portrait work of photographers like Judy Dater and Judith Joy Ross who worked primarily with large formats. It turns out I’ve only done a handful, and most of them are self-portraits. An example…

Self-portrait. Linhof Master Technika.

When they work, they really work. There’s nothing like it. But when they don’t, it just ends up being a giant waste of time and money. My “hit” rate is pretty low, so the net result is that I get very few images that I love and a lot more that are mediocre or worse.

And then there’s all the supporting gear needed. Loupes and dark cloths and tripods and hoods and releases and bags and film holders. Not to mention that printing 4×5 film requires a ginormous enlarger.

Film is expensive, large format film is more expensive. Per exposure prices are hovering around $2.25 for black and white and $5.50 for color. Then there’s all the gear for processing 4×5 sheets.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder if it’s all worth it. I guess if I could have a permanent studio with a camera mounted and ready to go, it would be easier to justify all the fuss. But setup and teardown introduces so many opportunities for failure that I’m less and less likely to bother.

Maybe one day I’ll decide it’s worth the trouble, but right now I’m thinking of leaving large format film photography behind.

When I feel the urge for smooth, high-detail film photography, I think that medium format (120) and the Hasselblad will do just fine, and without nearly as much fuss.