Our Gang – Not quite as old as the camera

Nancy - The Thinker
Nancy – The Thinker (photo by Joni Agnew)

I had a fun time with the gang last night, photographing them on a 1920’s Kodak Pocket No. 1A which I bought at an antique shop on Whidbey Island for $20. It is is great condition and had one tiny pinhole light leak in the bellows which I repaired with a dab of liquid electrical tape.

I’m not sure I’ll use this camera much, but I can’t image a digital camera still working in at the turn of the next century. Another thing to consider – 8 shots to a roll, 8 shots published. Not sure I can say that about digital either.

Randi - Our Classy Lady
Randi – Our Classy Lady
Judy and Jerry - In Love
Judy and Jerry – In Love
Jerry and Joni - Long Friends
Jerry and Joni – Long Friends
Jerry - The Joker
Jerry – The Joker
Jean and Chuck - Posing
Jean and Chuck – Posing
Darrel - Get Me Out
Darrel – Get Me Out
Chick - As A Kid
Chick – As A Kid

Beautiful Poison – Lessons in developing my first roll of B&W

Beautiful Poison
Beautiful Poison
Hasselblad 500 C/M, 80mm T*, f/4, Ilford Delta 100, D76 1:1

In a previous post, Lessons in Digital and Film,  I described some of the lessons I’ve learned from the process of using both digital and film. One of my lessons is not to underestimate the advantage of controlling every aspect of the process – from exposure to print. This revelation came as I was struggling to scan some negatives which, I believe, were not developed with the best of care (Ok, I think they were over developed bringing out more grain and contrast than the film should have shown). Then and there, I made up my mind to start developing my own negatives and begin to mature my own flavor of an analogue/digital hybrid process that I would control from start to finish.

This morning I developing my first roll of B&W film in 34 years. In my senior year in college I signed up for was Photography 101. The only requirement of the class was to end up at the end of the semester with a stack of hand printed and mounted B&W prints. We learned development, printing, and mounting. I don’t really remember any specific lectures or teaching sessions but I have a copy of “Upton and Upton” around here somewhere. I do remember always having my camera, shooting all around San Francisco, and the quiet slow mornings printing in the darkroom.

Oddly enough, I remember almost nothing about the developing process except those spiral steel reels. So I set off on some research to learn about developers and stop and fix and ordered up a bunch of stuff which arrived Friday. Yesterday headed out shooting and developed my first roll this morning.

Here is what I learned:

1) Find one development formula that seems reasonable and stop.

Everyone says its easy, and after this morning I’ll agree – it is. However, with today’s democracy of information, the ease with which anyone can publish information on almost any subject, what the newbe finds is an every wandering conversation of subtleties, nuances, variations, and opinions. It would be easier if there a dirth of information and the uninitiated was led into thinking that there is just one “MASTER RECIPE” per film that is found on the film manufacturer product sheet. I was a nerve rattling journey of fear, uncertainty, and doubt until I just stopped looking and locked down on my approach to chemicals and methods.

2) Just say yes to presoak.

I decided to do a presoak for one simple reason – seeing one video showing the dumping of inky-black presoak water into the sink. Mine was inky-black too. Just seemed like a clearer way to start.

3) The meaning of the phrase “clean negatives”.

Many sources of information suggested to open the tank and look at your film at the end of the fixing process to inspect that the film “was clear, not milking” and ensure that the fix was complete. One source even opened the tank before fixing (really!, I didn’t try that). Not one source, however prepared me to for the magenta tinged film base I would see. I also noticed that as I dumped some initial tankfuls of rinse water into the sink, that the water itself was was magenta, so clearly something good was happening and I was actually rinsing off the last of any remaining dye on the base emulsion. And lo, at then end of my 10 minute rinse under slow running tap water a clear base negative emerged. Ah that’s what they meant by “clean negatives”.

4) “I just want to say one word to you, just one word… Plastics” (from The Graduate)

When looking at tanks and reels, just go with the Samigon Universal Plastic Developing Tank and Reels. They are easy to load, the tank didn’t leak, and the recommendations of chemical volume on the bottom of the tank covered the reel perfectly and still left room for good agitation. Using plastic reels was way easier than what I remember of spiraling 36 exposures on to stainless steel reels. Also when you live in a warm climate (like me) I figure that plastic won’t conduct the warmer room and hand temperature like stainless steel.

5) Remove the film backing before starting to load the film onto the reels (applicable for 120 film only).

I practiced loading the reels several times with a sacrificial roll of film and I found the hardest part was not when starting, but when finishing the loading. I found it really difficult to get the film untapped from the backing paper and if I accidentally loaded the film onto the reel past tape it was really hard to recover. Then I saw a video where the guy just removed the film from the paper first, re-rolling the film into a reversed roll while he was doing this. Another trick was that when he got to the tape, he removed the tape from the backing paper first then from the film. This was much easier and I was left with a simple coil of film only ready for loading onto the reel. (Of course, all this happens in the changing bag!)

Here is my final recipe:

  • Presoak: 3–4 minutes in tap water at or near your development temperature. Fill tank, soak (3–4 min), dump, fill tank again and dump immediately.
  • Developer: Kodak D–76 @ 1+1 dilution, 68ºF/20ºC. Agitate first 60 sec, then 10sec per minute for remaining time (as per Massive Dev iPhone app @ 68F/20C)
  • Stop: Tap water. Fill, agitate, dump – 2-times
  • Fix: The Phtographers Formulary TF–4 Rapid Fix – 5 minutes
  • Rinse: open tank with running water – 10 minutes followed by a 30 sec soak with LFN

Lessons in Digital and Film

Penn's CovePenn’s Cove, Whidbey Island Washington
Ilford Delta 100, Hasselblad 500 C/M, 80mm Planar T*

I’ve recently started shooting some film – 120 medium format on a fully manual camera with no meter and no battery. I exploring big quiet landscapes as a compliment to my street work. Shooting both film and digital is allowing me to learn lessons from both worlds.

Do not under estimate the advantage of controlling every step of the process.
With digital you have control over every step of the process from exposure to processing to print. I just got back a roll from, what should have been a good lab, that was totally over developed ruining both the contrast and grain. My developing kit is now ordered.

Cost is relative.
Developing single rolls of B&W at home requires an initial investment of about $150 of equipment and chemicals, a few hours of study, and some practice spooling film onto reels in a dark bag. Developing theroll takes about 30 minutes (including setup and cleanup) and probably costs less than $1.00 in chemicals. Adobe Creative Cloud (assuming you use LightRoom and Photoshop) costs $40/month, takes hundreds of hours to learn, and NAPP membership is $100/year.

Having a limited number of shots on a roll motivates discipline.
When I am shooting film I don’t press the shutter when my brain says “you know that’s not good”. This doesn’t mean that I won’t experiment. Digital is a fantastic sketch book, film is the final oil. Sketching to develop new ideas is good, but drawing drivel is a waste. (Though sometimes drawing drivel is the only way out of a block.)

You can buy thousands of years of experience for $4.19.
A roll of 12 exposure 120 (medium format) Ilford Delta 100 B&W film costs $4.19 on Amazon. It represents thousands of person-years of science, experience, taste, and subtlety designed right into its emulsion. A digital color-to-B&W conversion is spectacularly susceptible youthful exuberance, lack of vision, and any momentary lapse in judgement that can occur while making any one of a hundred of decisions realized simply by pushing around little sliders. (This actually applies to processing your color shots too).

The Tower


Lately as I’ve scrolled through my “friends” posts on Flickr, Facebook, and Google+ I’ve done just that – scrolled through. Very few have made me stop and look. Most have left a different impression. An impression of the processing over the content. As Jay Maisel would say: “I don’t want to see the fine hand of the photographer”.

As I take my first steps exploring my photography through film, and I see the results of a well exposed B&W, I am reminded of the Stieglitz and the early masters. Their photographs had a quality that, although they used many developing and darkroom techniques to coax the best prints from their exposures, never exposed to the fine hand of the photographer over the fine mind of the photographer.

In this image, which I entitled “The Tower”, the representation of the clouds and sky that has been brought out simply by allowing my roll of Ilford Delta 100 to express the magic baked into the science of its emulsion. The final result is not something, I fear, that I would have ever pre-visualized. I am afraid that I have been too steeped in the 21st century digital mania to have done a digital color to B&W conversion with this subtlety.

There’s something Medium in my future

Hasselblad 500CM

As my photography has gotten stronger over the past several years, I’ve become to appreciate how different camera systems impact my photographic approach and results. For most of the past year I’ve been concentrating on my street photography and shooting with micro-4/3rds system, the Olympus OM-D E-M5. Organized more like a ranger finder camera than an (d)SRL, the OMD is small and nimble and does not raise undue suspicion or attention when walking through the streets. At a pixel-peeping level, the image quality may not meet that of the current generation of large dSLRs, but not only is it more than adequate, is has a very pleasing look for street images.

Street photography in Cuba with the Olympus OM-D E-M5
Street photography in Cuba with the Olympus OM-D E-M5

My other camera, a Canon 5dmkII, though now a generation behind, was once the cat’s meow of dSLRs. It renders beautiful images but in my day-to-day photography has been relegated to nature photography like the flower macros I recently posted and this subtle image from Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley.

Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley taken with a Canon 5dmkII
Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley taken with a Canon 5dmkII

I don’t do a lot of landscape and nature photography, but when I do, I pick out intimate slices of the world to show. I fill the frame with trees and their leaves or other shapes and patterns. I’ve always been rather unsatisfied with the modern recipe of screwing on a wide-angle lens,  plopping and interesting object in the foreground, and shooting in HDR (ok, I’m being dramatic). I’m more drawn to the old-fashioned esthetics of showing a beautiful window into the world at the human “normal” field of view. With this approach, unless I chose very small slices of the landscape, the 35mm frame always seems too small.

Ironically enough, the 35mm system invented as a compromise format to create smaller more nimble cameras, is now being housed in giant behemoth bodies like the Canon 5d’s and DXs as well as the Nikon D4 and D800.

So after years of thinking about this and a week of careful consideration and intense research, I just pulled the trigger on a used Hasselblad 500 C/M – a model that was manufactured between 1970 and 1994. The camera shoots a 2-1/4″ (6cm) square format and takes 120 film.

Yes, you heard me right, *film*. And while I’m not exactly thrilled that using this format means going to a film-based system, I feel that this will be a necessary evil in my quest for my photographic vision to see what it is like to shoot in a larger format.

The camera arrives on Wednesday along with 5 rolls of B&W and 5 rolls of color film and I will get my opportunity to see if it lives up to its description on the front of the Hasselblad manual to “provide unlimited photographic scope” and will be capable of taking my “photography to inter, or outer space, and almost anywhere in between.”