Dark-room processes – given that they have been around for basically forever you’d think that every possible innovation must long ago have been made. To find out if this is true, in this post I’ll be exploring two (not especially) new innovations that might make the whole process simpler. Is a new era of efficiency upon us, or should all just accept that life in the dark-room will never change and Ansel Adams it for the rest of our lives? Fun (maybe) fact – Adams didn’t use a timer when making enlargements, he had a metronome in his dark-room, and used it to count exposure times by ear.
So, this all began when I came across a couple of tools designed to make that most critical of dark-room processes a little simpler – they are ‘test-strip makers’ – little thingies designed to help make the process of making test strips a bit less time consuming.
The first of these promises to really turn the whole process on its head. It’s a little piece of translucent plastic with a graded pie on it, it is pretty self-explanatory:
With its grandiose promises of saving me ‘time, money AND chemistry’, I picked one up and headed to the darkroom. Diligently following instructions, I exposed for a minute:
So apparently all I needed to do now was choose the piece of the pie that I thought looked best, and expose for the length of time suggested.
It wasn’t entirely successful – in theory the section of the pie I chose, and the final image should match. I actually chose the 32 second exposure, even though this ‘felt’ like it was going to be too long. Those suspicions were confirmed, and the resulting image came out darker even than the 48 second segment. I was fairly confident that I had been diligent about the rest of the process, making sure that the only thing that was changing was my exposure times. There were some issues with the negative I was using for this experiment, (which you can read about here), and I wanted to give the tool a fair shout, so I had a few more tries, and ended up with the same problem each time, massively over exposed images.
To be fair, I think the degree of over exposure was consistent, I think it may be possible to spend some time with it and re-calibrate the suggested times down to where they might work properly. However, given that I was promised time saving, this didn’t seem like something I wanted to do.
As for the other two claims, that it would save me chemistry and money, I don’t really understand how this would work, given that I still need to process my exposed ‘pie’ sheet in exactly the same way that I would a test-strip. Equally, the size of the test exposure is bigger, meaning that more paper is used, actually costing more money. But for these ludicrous claims of time/money/chemistry savings I could almost forgive the ‘test-strip maker’ it’s questionable performance if it was sold as something that might help you get around having a really accurate exposure timer, or even as something to help people who might struggle with making a traditional test-strip for whatever reason.
And so, I moved on to the second test-strip making tool I had bought along to the dark-room – the ‘Paterson Test Strip Printer’.
I slightly take issue with the use of the term ‘printer’ in that whilst this thing aims to help create a regular test strip in a slightly more controlled way, but it certainly doesn’t ‘print’ it for you. The instructions do a pretty good job of explaining how it is used:
As you can see, it’s potentially a nice way to get a good even test strip without having to move a piece of card. However, you will still have to put your strip though the same chemistry as usual, and you’ll still have to stand around flipping down those flippy things every three seconds, so it’s not really going to save you any time. That said, Paterson don’t make any claims about this thing – it is sold as a test-strip printer, that’s all it claims to do!
In use the Paterson Test Strip Printer is a bit of a nightmare. The first issue is that you have to have a very specifically sized piece of paper, which fits into its ‘grooves’. Anything too big bows up in the middle, and anything smaller doesn’t stay in place.
The other issues relate to getting your image in focus on the test strip. Unless you work out some sort of system to hold the thing in place under the enlarger (I am thinking blue tack) it is going to move around a bit as you flip down its flippers. Likewise, it raises your test-strip paper up slightly, meaning that you are going to have to re-focus the image when you are done making the test-strip and have moved the tool out of the way. Obviously, it is not critical that your test-strip is super sharp, but it’s important that it is clear enough for you to determine the correct exposure time. My attempt looked like this:
In conclusion, neither of my wonder-tools for test-strip making turned out to either save me time, or make a better product than I would have got using an old piece of card. Neither were they any more fun/intuitive/easy to use than the old piece of card method either.
This is not to trash the companies that make these products for trying, and there might even be a place for them for some photographers process, but it has become clear throughout my experimentation that these innovations fall very much into the category of ‘if it aint broke’. I know there are some cool dark-room innovations out there, which I will definitely be exploring in the future, but most of them seem like were developed home-brew style to solve creative problems, rather than trying to refine a process that is already pretty tight. Sticking with the cardboard method yields acceptable results.
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I get (almost) all of my film supplies from Parallax in Brixton – they are wonderful, knowledgeable, and the pricing is competitive. They are also not open over the holidays. So, with precious few days remaining before jetting (metaphorically, in reality we drove) off to sunny Cornwall for a few days, I needed to find somewhere else to get a few rolls of film.
Photography stuff is about the only thing in the world that is over-priced and under stocked on amazon, none of the other online players were shipping until after the holidays, so leaving the house was required. I ventured into London with no particular place in mind, but aware that if all was lost I could stop at snappy-snaps and pay £8 for a roll of HP5.
On my journey I walked past the Lumography store in Soho and wandered in. I have never considered purchasing anything from lumo – I am not sure about spending that much money on a camera made of plastic that makes your film look like an Instagram filter from 5 years ago so wasn’t really sure what I’d find. But after a tentative ‘can I develop this with Rodinal’ question to the sales assistant, more to establish if this was film that could be expected to act like film (as opposed to something with fake light leaks built in), I purchased three rolls of ‘Lady Grey’ for the not unreasonable price of £16 (I think).
I had some film! Some searching gave me enough confidence in the film to not run off to snappy snaps for some back up – it seems that Lumography Lady Grey is re-labelled Fomapan 400, which I had used before and got some fairly good results with. I’d recommend going to read that review if you are interested in how the film performs in normal conditions, because the two rolls of Lady Grey that I shot with my camera set up correctly were exactly in line with my experiences with the Foma 400.
The one roll of film I shot with my camera set up about as incorrectly as it could possibly be was what convinced me that Lady Grey (and Foma 400) is actually a much better film than I originally thought.
The story begins with the realisation that Lady Grey is not DX coded, no surprises there given that the Foma isn’t either, although it is beyond me as to why anyone is making film without DX coding. My camera assumes an ISO of 100 for non-dx coded films, so loading the 400 ISO should simply have involved setting the exposure compensation down two stops to make sure everything was going to work correctly. However, holiday over excitement led to me doing the exact opposite, and accidently setting the exposure compensation to +2. Now my camera was not only exposing for a 100 ISO film, it was adding another two stops of exposure. I didn’t notice anything amiss until I got towards the end of the film and the day began to become darker – then the noticeable amount of time the shutter was open for each shot became apparent. By this time though I only had a couple more frames to shoot, so I left everything as it was and decided to see what happened when I developed the film.
The result really should be horrendously over exposed images. Developing the film normally would be an extremely risky strategy – pulling a couple of stops, no problem, but pulling so many that I am not actually sure what ISO the camera was shooting for (something less than 25?) would require a different approach. As the developing time for 400 films is relatively short anyway, reducing this didn’t seem viable, so I decided to do a stand development with a reduced amount of developer. So I mixed up a 1/100 dilution of Rodinol then left the film swimming for about half an hour. This was entirely unscientifically based on dividing the 120 minutes that ISO 400 would take at 1/100 by four.
Amazingly, it worked. My negatives are not perfect, there are a couple of frames where I think the developer has given up, they are quite flat and the pictures I took in the middle of the day are still, definitely, over exposed.
This gallery has some examples with no post processing.
buy a copy if you like.
In conclusion – Lady Gray – it’s an ok film in an emergency, though it costs slightly more per roll than Foma 400. Check your camera settings carefully before you start shooting. Don’t give up hope on something that hasn’t been shot as it should be, it’s a perfect opportunity to try out something new in the development process.Follow twhittlesea.com on WordPress.com
I had a problem – I was in the process of selling all of my digital gear, and needed a 35mm camera to replace my old Olympus Pen, which was small enough to (just about) fit in a pocket, light enough to go anywhere, and would take fixed length prime lenses. In short I wanted the quality I get from my huge Canon EOS 5 and I didn’t want the weight of something like my old Pentax SLR, which is small, but not small enough.
I did some research, which actually really just comprised of working out how much money I had got for all of my digital gear then spending a lot of time watching youtube reviews of old cameras. The fun thing about buying 35mm equipment is that because no one is really making it anymore, you can get a really good idea about build quality, reliability etc. and you know that something better isn’t going to come along in just a couple of months.
The only way I was going to get down to the sort of size I needed was with a compact camera, and realising that I wasn’t going to get the sort of image quality I wanted from the sort of thing my mum used on holiday in 1999, I decided it needed to be a fixed length premium compact camera – of which only a few really exist.
I was looking at the Leica Minilux, the Contax T3, or the Ricoh GR1 that I eventually bought. The T3 was way out of my price range, and I wasn’t so sure about the Leica I looked at in the camera store – something about the shutter button placement and the inelegant hot-shoe put me off. The Ricoh was the once for me.
And so, I have put about ten rolls of film through the GR1, and am ready to give you the lowdown on this brilliant little camera. We’ll get the bad stuff out of the way – and the worst bit really is that this camera is nearly impossible to get hold of in fully working condition. Accept that whatever you are paying you’ll probably have to pay at least a quarter again on repairs. This is for two reasons, the first is that no one sells mint condition GR1s, because no one wants to part with them, and second, because of the notoriously fragile LCD display will be broken on any one you buy. All the screen does is tell you how many shots you have left on the roll, and which shooting mode you are in, but it won’t work, and you’ll have to pay to get it replaced. The camera I eventually bought was sold as ‘in perfect condition’ which in reality meant that everything worked except the LCD. Oh, and the motor, which sounded like a motorbike revving up every-time I took a shot.
These things can be solved with a trip to the repair shop, and are apparently so common that people are fully set up on ebay just to do these specific repairs (if you trust sending your camera off to the unknown). They are not the cheapest repairs either, but as long as you factor them into your buying cost a half working camera + repairs still comes in slightly cheaper than a mint condition one.
Equally, a broken LCD, and apparently even the nosiest motor in the world had precisely zero impact on my use of the camera. I shot three rolls with it in its half-dead condition, and all came out wonderfully. I had no idea how many shots I had left, and I couldn’t touch the mode dial, but the lens on this camera is so good that as long as you can (no matter how noisily) get some film behind it, you are going to be ok!
In terms of cons, that’s pretty much it! If I was forced to, I’d say the viewfinder is tiny, but then so is the camera. It also only sets ISO with DX, but if you care that much buy the next model up, or save yourself some money and get some DX labels. There really isn’t anything else negative to say about it. So what about the positives – well there are many, enough that I have given them each their own section…
It is easy: Remember how I said I had still got great results out of the GR1 even without the LCD screen working? This is because since I have had the camera I have touched the ‘mode’ button about once. It’s a fixed length 28mm lens, so there really isn’t a great deal that a mode button can do. This one simply sets the focus to infinity for…pictures of far-away things, sets the focus to pretty close… for things that are close, sets the focus to wherever you want it to be, or sets it for one shot so you don’t have to focus on whatever is in the little focussing square in the viewfinder. I have used absolutely none of these, mostly because the focus is insanely fast and accurate anyway, but also because with a 28mm lens, you’d be hard pressed to get anything that is more than a few meters away from you out of focus. This is why the camera comes with these set focus modes, the wide angle of the lens (as well as its quality I guess) makes it super easy to get super sharp shots.
It is small: Wait – this is a lie, is TINY. It’s the smallest camera I have ever held, smaller even than most disposable 35mm cameras – and here is where it is awesome, it’s still full frame 35mm! There is absolutely no way you’d ever get a digital camera with a full frame sensor this size, even with the latest technology. It fits in a pocket with room to spare and is light enough that you can easily forget that you are even carrying it. It has stayed in my bag since I have got it, and never once thought ‘I am going to save some weight and leave that out’. Its size means it’s always with you and never a burden. If the best camera really is the one you have with you, then it’s the best camera is probably the GR1.
It is satisfying: It might just be because of the size, or the discrete bulge at one end that makes it fit right in your hand, but the GR1 is so satisfying to hold and use. It doesn’t have the decisive, mechanical click of the shutter that you’ll get with a SLR, but enough happens when you hit the shutter that you know you have taken a picture. It really invites you to point it at random stuff and take pictures.
The image quality is great: This is really why people like this camera – it has a small but perfectly formed fixed focal length lens that outperforms some cheaper prime lenses. It is super wide, but doesn’t distort at the edges. Generally, that is all there is to say about this lens, it is good.
It is easy: A sense of déjà-vu? Well to end it is worth returning to how easy this camera is to use. I have not mentioned that the aperture can be left in programme mode, but for those that want to there is the option to set from 2.8 up to 22. The camera does a great job with exposure if you leave it alone, but that little dial does mean you have a good deal of flexibility at your fingertips. What is more important though is that leaving everything in programme mode isn’t the same as leaving your SLR on automatic – it doesn’t give you something pretty good, that you could make amazing with some tweaking, it gives you amazing and you’ll only really want to tweak it if you want to do something actually different in terms of aperture or focus. This means that all of that energy you could be using thinking about your exposure, focussing etc., you are now using just on finding amazing things to shoot and your composition.
Given its diminutive size, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were not getting much for your (not inconsiderable amounts of) money with the GR1, but in reality you are getting a brilliant little photo-machine, that you’ll want to carry with you all the time.Follow twhittlesea.com on WordPress.com
I have not posted a blog in a while – a combination of too much going on at work, perhaps a bit of laziness, and some travelling has conspired to make it impossible for me to type so much as a single word for the website. But, I am back home now, work is beginning to wind down for the holidays and a calendar with a few free weekends in it means I don’t really have any excuses not to do some blogging. I am of course beholden only to myself, lest I suddenly develop a huge and devoted readership waiting for my next post – but I like writing, and I suppose that mythical readership can certainly never appear with no blogs to read at all.
My travels were a big step photography wise – having sold all of my digital gear, I took only one film camera – the Ricoh GR1, which I’ll be reviewing at some point soon – and a few rolls of film. It is not the first adventure I have been on with nothing but a 35mm camera, the Highland book is the result of just such a trip with nothing but an ancient fully manual Pentax. However, on that trip I was with people who travelled (and were fully capable of taking far better pictures than myself) with a DSLR. I knew that even if I messed up, there would still be loads of great pictures of the trip.
I had no such luxury this time – it was 35mm or bust, and this meant I went with enough film ensure that I got some good pictures everywhere I went. Returning home, two days of development later, and even more scanning, I had 168 photos of my travels. The thing is, I was using the camera differently, my composition is much less considered, I wasn’t moving too much, and I have pictures of things I’d never even look at back in London. In short, my hit-rate, which is never exceptionally high, isn’t very good across these photos at all.
There are some photos I am proud of, and some of subjects that I think are especially cool, but I think I have got more good shots from a couple of rolls of film in some of the distinctly unpromising places I have visited for the end points project than here. My first response was to wonder whether there is in fact a place for digital, for this sort of ‘snap-shot’ photography. The ‘delete-able’ and ‘one million shots on one SD card’ nature of digital lends itself to creating hundreds of images without worrying too much about what you are shooting until you get home.
An example of the sort of pictures you end up taking when there are no constraints on taking pictures – circa 2013, but for some reason still never deleted
I have thousands of digital photographs stored up, some folders have more pictures from a single day out at the zoo than I took across an entire two-week holiday, and honestly, I look at about 5% of them, and I am proud of even less. Actually, my holiday hit rate was pretty much the same, perhaps even better than it would have been had I taken a digital camera. What I keep coming back to is what these pictures are really for? Are they simply there to remind you of your trip – in which case, do they even need to be great images, or are they there for the same reason I take most of my photographs, to create something beautiful/inspiring/interesting/whatever?
Really, the good, considered, well-shot, not snap-shot photograph can probably do everything. My best pictures of Sydney opera house are not the ones that are immediately, obviously, that building, but those images still serve as a reminder of the tour that I took of that building, and the time I spent there. Good pictures will always be good pictures that you want to share, whereas something you shot without even stopping, of something that might be vaguely interesting, will probably never get beyond a forgotten folder in a hard drive.
So this is a commitment. I am going to maintain my devotion to 35mm, and I am going to shoot less film. If I see something worth shooting, I will give it the time it deserves, and hopefully, by showing those subject respect, this will mean that the images I create will be respectable. I still might make sure there is someone with a DSLR with me in the future though.
When holiday photography goes right – at the Shrine of Remembrance in MelbourneFollow twhittlesea.com on WordPress.com
The only time I have ever taken a roll of film to be developed at a lab has been when I was given some expired film that included a couple of rolls of colour. Colour film is a bit more complicated to develop than black and white, and as such I have never attempted to develop it in my bathroom.
When I started using film I knew I wanted to develop it myself, but I also wanted to avoid spending a great deal of money on equipment that I might only use a couple of times. I have also always quite liked the DIY ethic of putting a developing kit together for as little money as possible. Fast forward a few years, and through a mixture of ebay, freecycle and other people being generous with their old kit, I basically have a pretty great home development setup. However I still get asked fairly regularly what I use, and if it is expensive.
So I put together ‘The Bathroom 35mm Developing Kit Shopping List’. Full disclosure, I put this together a couple of years ago, but I think all of the prices are still pretty much accurate. What the list does is outlines everything you’d need to develop black and white film at home in your bathroom. There are three parts – one column gives you everything you could possibly need (the total is £141), another gives you some cheaper/free alternatives if you want to get started for as little money as possible. This comes out at £56.60 – not bad if you are on a budget. Finally, the last column gives an overview of what the item is/is for.
You can download the list as a PDF here: The Bathroom 35mm Developing Kit Shopping ListFollow twhittlesea.com on WordPress.com
It has all gone – I have just put the last of my digital camera gear into the mail, sent off to new owners, and am now, officially, fully analogue.
It has taken a good number of years. Initially, using 35mm was a fun experiment – something that felt a bit more involved and thoughtful than digital. Then, I started to use 35mm more extensively, upgraded cameras a few times and acquired everything I needed to develop film at home. After this I also gained access to a dark room and learned how to print my pictures, slowly realising that I was taking pictures that were absolutely on par, in terms of quality as those I was taking with my digital camera. It was my film scanner that was holding them back, and more on that later.
At this point I would say I was using film about half of the time, but digital was reserved for holidays, when I felt like I would be taking a lot of pictures. Then came an experiment in Scotland, where I took nothing but an old, fully manual 35mm camera, and three 36 exposure rolls for a one-week trip. After this I decided, I didn’t need digital in my life at all.
There are a number of pragmatic reasons for this. I have acquired a Ricoh GR1, which I will write about after using it a little more, which is absolutely tiny (far tinier than any remotely capable digital camera). It is full frame though. I now have something that fits in my pocket, that will take full frame images! Equally, after my Scotland holiday I picked out some of my favourite images, did absolutely zero post-processing, and put them in a book. They were covered in dust where I had left them for a couple of weeks before scanning them, and on one of the rolls I had used a lens hood meant for a longer lens – something you could never do with digital – so they have a big vignette. They look like something that could have been shot on an Arctic expedition. This was the first time I had done anything at all with pictures taken on holiday, and it was purely because I had shot them on film, and got results that hours of post-processing digital images wouldn’t have given
But more than all of this, the most important reason to own and use a film camera, is simply because it is more fun. Taking a picture on 35mm film is a mechanical, chemical process – you create a tangible, irreversible change that, if treated well, will last for the rest of your life. You are limited by the amount of film you want to carry, and so you think about what you want to record. And finally, developing and printing your pictures is like magic. You’ll never get the thrill of pulling a roll out of the developing tank, or seeing your image appear in the dark room by plugging in your USB cable and clicking through your images.
So the digital camera has gone – this has coincided with an investment in my analogue equipment, and a commitment to spend more time in the dark-room making prints. The film scanning mission continues apace also. My current scanner has a dedicated film scanning option, however it deals with contrast very badly, especially if there is a large area of cloudy sky in an image. This is another reason all my Scotland pictures look far better printed in the dark-room than scanned, they are full of snow! I think I may invest in a more professional solution, allowing me to digitise my negatives to a reasonably good standard – because this way, I still get to play with them in Photoshop, store them on my hard drive, and share them on Instagram, but I still have all the fun taking them.Follow twhittlesea.com on WordPress.com