Blog – Movie Reviews

    I have sold all my digital gear

    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.

    End Points: Half way thoughts

    If this blog is a little incoherent, it is because I am writing it on the train home from Upminster, the station at the East end of the District line.

    I travelled to Upminster as part of End Points – my project to take pictures at the ends of London underground lines. It is as much about the journey as the photographs – I wanted to get out into the bits of London (and beyond) that I would have no real reason to go to otherwise, discover new places, and wander around them for a few hours taking pictures (and usually getting something to eat). It is not explicitly an ethnographic study, but the places that we live are interesting, and I like to explore. Importantly, it has never been the aim to ‘capture’ these places in a photograph, or boil them down in some way to a few images – the project is all about my responses to the places I visit, and hopefully, getting some nice pictures.

    Upminster is significant because it marks the half way point of the project – I have been heading to stations in no particular order, this one just happens to be the one I picked today. However, I thought, as we’re half way there, it might be a good time to reflect on the project, and what I have learned so far.

    Learning 1: What is interesting?

    What I hadn’t banked on is that I’d have to drastically re-evaluate what makes an interesting picture. Some of the places I have visited so far with End Points have been, subjectively, boring! I started the project with Chesham – ‘village like’, green, cute, nice graveyard, then Brixton – vibrant, graffiti’d, busy and exciting. After these, Morden seems lifeless. There is no graffiti in Morden, the streets are quiet on a Sunday morning and you only need walk for five minutes and you are into roads with seemingly identical houses for miles.

    However, that this meant there were no pictures to take was a misconception, and it really misses the point of the project. If (and it is an if) miles and miles of suburban houses really is all that Morden is, then this is what I should have been taking pictures of – just because I have thought pictures of people, markets and shops, trees and gravestones are cool elsewhere, this isn’t what makes a picture interesting, and it is certainly not what captures my responses to Morden.

    This leads me on nicely to my next point…

    Learning 2: It is important to wander

    One of my favourite pictures from Morden is a set of tumbledown lock up garages. I liked it because it could be anywhere – the overgrown road feels like it is in some rural village. The picture was taken almost directly behind the train station, down a tiny alleyway with a sign asking people not to use it as a toilet, and past some kids hanging out of a window asking what I was taking pictures of. I didn’t have to wander far, but I did have to leave the high-street and venture down an unpromising looking alleyway to discover the picture.

    End Points picture of Morden Copyright Timothy Whittlesea

    I have not set any rules for myself about wandering – keeping vaguely close to the station is important, but some of the places I have visited are so small that finding 36 interesting photographs could be quite a challenge without walking a fair distance to see what I discover.

    Learning 3: Prepare to be unprepared

    Most of the places I have visited have taken a fairly significant amount of time to get to, more than enough time to do a little preparation – perhaps look up some significant buildings, see what the locals recommend, maybe even decide where to get some food. However, I didn’t do this with my first station, and I have decided I won’t do it for any of them. Somehow, being completely unprepared feels right. Sure, I might be missing some amazing photographs, I am sure that I have been just one more turn away from something special. But the project is about experiencing a place as it is – not through the lens of trip-advisor, yelp or Instagram. As a consequence, the pictures are representative of my time in that place, rather than someone else’s – and what I thought was interesting was what I came across on that day.

    Learning 4: How many ends are ends?

    My final learning is actually more of a pondering. I set out my end points at the start of the project. The issue was with lines that have more than one branch, so, technically, have more than one end point. In this situation I have chosen to travel to the station at the end of the furthest point from central London. As I see how significant the differences are across all of the places I have visited though, I am beginning to think this might do a disservice to the branch lines, and the stations at the end of them. It would be a much larger undertaking (I’d be perhaps a quarter of the way through now, rather than half) to visit the end of every line on the over-ground network (which I have assumed is one single line) and the DLR, however, it might be what makes the project feel like something that is really complete.

    For now, I think I am going to finish the initial list – then I will make a decision about where to head next!

     

    Kentmere 400 Vs Fomapan 400 – Battle of the…

    I have been using Kentmere 400 for years now, primarily because its comes in at the cheaper end of the spectrum compared to Ilford and Kodak offerings, but also because I think it performs better than its price point. I guess that having used it for so long is also a factor, but I have a lot of confidence in Kentmere 400 that I don’t have with HP-5, especially when shooting in lower light conditions.

    I decided to give Fomapan 400 a try after discovering that it is exactly the same price as Kentmere 400. Why experiment with something new when I am comfortable with Kentmere? Well because as Neil deGrasse Tyson says, ‘Exploration is what you do when you don’t know what you are doing”. Also because in Rodinol Fomapan 400 takes two minutes less to develop than Kentmere 400, that two minutes could change my life…somehow.

    The experiment started by shooting a roll of Kentmere 400 and a roll of Fomapan 400. The only concession I made to scientific method was shooting them both on the same day, so there were similar lighting conditions. But, as might have become evident at this point, my film choices are not exactly highly informed, I wasn’t about to shoot test targets or anything ridiculous like that – I just used both films as I usually would, then developed them according to the manufacturer’s instructions. What is really important to me is that the film isn’t expensive, is easy to use, and gives me the images I want.

    Lets talk grain. I shoot 400 films and I use rodinol on everything. I have not just accepted that a certain amount of grain is inevitable, especially with a cheaper 400 film, but I actually like the grain. It is what says it’s a photo shot on film, it is the personality everyone is looking for with their Instagram filters.

    I have pulled two similar photos from each roll to compare – I chose these specifically because they have some big chunks of sky, and because both were shot with the same camera, lens and aperture. I have not done any post-processing on the images.


    Fomapan 400


    Kentmere 400

    There is perhaps a very small difference in the darker areas of the sky, but this is marginal, so marginal in fact that I am not really sure you can call a winner. Even if there was a huge difference, what is a winner in this situation? More grain, less grain? What else should we look at to call this epic battle of the films?

    Well one thing I noticed with the Fomapan film is that it performs well in lower light conditions, and that the resolution in shadows seems particularly good. To test this out I selected another two images from the same rolls, both of which have particularly dark areas. For both I have pushed the contrast right down, and the brightness way up. As you can see, whilst we still have some detail in the shadows on the Kentmere image, our Fomapan has some pretty fine detail right across the image. It is nice to know that detail is there, especially if I was thinking of taking this negative to the dark room and might want to pull it out in some of those areas:


    Fomapan 400


    Kentmere 400

    This sort of latitude falls within my ease of use criteria – I take most of my photos outside in standard British weather, and I need a film that can be under or over exposed occasionally and still give results that I can get acceptable images from. In this regard Kentmere 400 has always served me well, however straight out of the camera, I think Fomapan performed better than the Kentmere.

    Now we have a dilemma, my one roll experiment seems to be telling me that the Fomapan 400 is not a bad film for my taste – the issue comes that reviews of this film are absolutely all over the place. Some people love it, some hate it. This really seems to centre around people getting very variable results in different developers, the sense that you’ll get excessive grain (especially in Rodinol), and that the film doesn’t shoot well at box speed – a lot of people commenting that you’ll need to shoot at a far lower ISO to get the best results.

    So which is the better film? I can definitely see that whereas the Kentmere 400 is tried and tested, seems to give consistent results, as I have personally found, and is generally quite well respected as a cheaper 400 film, the Fomapan 400 is divisive. It is a bit of a marmite film that gives some very different results depending on the use case.

    I absolutely understand that for someone looking for a lower grain and more of a modern look the Fomapan emulsion isn’t going to work, but then, I am not really sure that the Kentmere 400 would meet this requirement either – neither of these films wins in that department. Personally though, as someone who accepts, even likes grain, and isn’t averse to the look that you’ll get out of both of these films in Rodinol I am definitely thinking that the Fomapan offering will get a few more chances to impress.

    Lightroom experiments – fix it in post?

    When I was 18 I was involved in making a short film. Throughout that process the refrain when anything was less than perfect was ‘fix it in post’. Sound was a bit low – ‘fix it in post’, lighting wasn’t quite right – ‘fix it in post’…terrible acting – ‘fix it in post’. I wasn’t responsible for editing the film (and I can only assume that all the parts I was responsible for were absolutely fine), but it never saw the light of day. It was buried, and even those of us who worked on it never got to see it. I think ‘fix it in post’ killed the film.

    So is the same true for photography, can make mediocre images look spectacular with some lightroom trickery, or is ‘fix it in post’ simply the delusion of the not-so-great photographer with an adobe subscription? I scan most of my negatives (because I don’t have a big enough basement for a dark-room, or a basement at all for that matter). Whilst all of these digital files are ripe for some lightroom alteration I tend to not do any more to my images than I have the ability to in the dark room. This limits me to altering the contrast, making crops etc., but nothing drastic. This is as much out of laziness than any sense of the maintenance of artistic or photographic purity.

    This does mean that if I do choose to print anything in the dark-room I usually have the skill level to get the image looking similar to the way I have it looking in lightroom. This got me thinking though, what if I wasn’t constrained by my ability in the dark-room and unleashed the full and terrifying power of lightroom?

    So I grabbed a couple of images that I wouldn’t usually consider for printing in the dark-room, ones I think are ok, ‘nothing special’ images, and I ran them through lightroom. For each one I did the sort of processing I’d usually do, basically just messed with the contrast and got the image looking the way it should had I been a bit more careful whilst developing. Finally, I tried to ‘fix’ the images. I still didn’t stray too far from the contrast and curve tools (I certainly didn’t venture into the realms of filters), and spent a bit more time on specific areas of the images. The biggest difference really was the amount of time I spent working on the images.

    So was the extra time worth it? The resulting images are much more dynamic, the editing has allowed me to pull out the interesting bits, and give everything much more depth. However, I am not sure that any of the images have been improved to the extent that they go from being so-so, to ‘good’ – you probably can’t fix so-so images in lightroom.

    I did do one last edit on the composition of one of the images and I think this had a far greater impact than any of the work I did on contrast. It changes the focus, takes out the clutter on the left and reduces the amount of road at the bottom of the image.

    This doesn’t really count for my great lightroom experiment though, because if I was going to print this in the darkroom this is exactly what I would have done, and in that context we wouldn’t have lost anything like the resolution we have by doing this in lightroom. Darkroom win. So finally, what happens if we decide that our bike-rider needs to be going at 100 miles per hour (ok, I had to move over for photoshop to get this amazing effect).

    One lens, one camera

    When I first started getting excited about photography I did as many people do, and went out and bought the most expensive camera I could afford, and a whole bunch of lenses. More lenses, the thinking goes, mean more versatility, and more versatility means always getting the best photo.

    The collection kept growing and I got to the point with my digital setup that I had two fixed primes (28mm and 50mm) and two zooms covering every length from 14mm to 200mm. The issue was that even when all of these lenses did leave the house with me (which was very rare), actually switching a lens for a specific shot was something that basically never occurred. I’d put on one of the primes (usually the 28mm) and it would stay there all day.

    When I moved over to film, it was very easy to repeat the same mistake – lenses were much cheaper and I could nearly afford the same sort of coverage with primes alone. Again though, 90% of the lenses sat collecting dust whilst just a couple came out every day.

    I don’t think it was just about having the versatility though. There is some gearhead psychology going on that says the more you have the better you are, the more professional you look, or something like that, even when all that equipment is sitting at home out of sight. Worse than this, it is very easy to imagine that a ‘better’ camera will magically give you better images, or that a more expensive lens will compensate for learning that has not taken place – there is always something newer, shinier, ‘better’.

    Then there is the alternative. It is very easy to say that the best camera is the one you have in your hand, but putting it into practice involved accepting that all of those purchases were not really improving my photography, and certainly no one was thinking I was more professional than I am (which isn’t very professional at all). I broke the cycle by moving to a new system (I went from Pentax to Canon), and flatly refusing to buy anything more than a single lens.

    The restriction is liberating. I don’t leave the house with ‘a camera’ and a bag full of lenses, I leave the house with ‘my’ camera – the only camera that I could leave the house with on that day. I have been using the same focal length for nearly two years now and am now able to gauge exactly where I need to stand to get the shot I want, before I have even looked through the viewfinder. But most significantly, my results are consistent. I am not re-learning everything for a new camera or lens, and the ratio of good shots to bad has changed significantly.

    More than this though, everything feels purer. I did the work, not the camera, and the photograph is mine, not the lens manufacturers. it is basic photography, but that’s where the magic happens. One need only look at Cartier-Bressons choice: 50mm. One focal length for basically every shot he took. More stuff doesn’t make better pictures (or photographers). This is not to argue that everyone should give away all their equipment and buy a 50mm lens, but that there is value in finding something that works for you, sticking with it until it you have perfected it, and remembering that anyone who judges the camera, rather than the photograph, has an opinion that doesn’t really matter that much anyway.

    Is 35mm film really that expensive?

    I have been shooting and developing 35mm film for over five years now. When I first started out with film I saw it as something of a side project to digital photography – I took digital on holiday, serious photography projects and the like, then I had my film camera (my first was Ricoh KR-10) for fun film escapades. It was like this for two reasons – I thought film was expensive, and I was less confident in getting the results I wanted with film.

    A lot has changed in five years though, especially around my confidence with film. This has meant that my digital camera has not been out of its case recently for anything other than to take pictures of other parts of my digital kit to list on ebay. It didn’t even come on my last holiday with me, passed over for my trusty Pentax P30. In fact, the digital camera is getting so little use that I am fairly sure its headed for ebay along with everything else.

    So how did I get past that other doubt about film? Is it really as expensive as everyone thinks it is?

    ‘Expensive’ is pretty subjective, so here we’ll be measuring the cost of shooting film against the one thing that is universally agreed upon as ‘how much?!’ expensive’ – A pint of beer in London. Apparently, the average pint in the capital costs £4.20 – we all know this average is bought down purely by Weatherspoons and boozers that no normal human would want to set foot in, so I am going to go with what I expect to pay for a pint at any self-respecting London pub, a round £5.

    I am going to look at my own process, from shooting a roll of film to having a physical print in my hand. There are other ways to do pretty much every stage of this process, but I think I have honed pretty much the cheapest.

    So, with our yard-stick in place, let’s start looking at the cost. There are five things you’ll need to buy before you start – non-consumables if you will. These are a camera, a lens, a film developing tank, a changing bag and a film scanner. We’re basically going to ignore all of these here, because everyone that complains that film is expensive is shooting with a digital camera, and you can pick up everything on that list for significantly less than a vaguely good digital camera (probably about £200 for everything unless you are going all out on a Leica or something). The good thing about this is that the camera and lens you’ll be picking up for next to nothing at the second-hand camera store is likely to be, optically, significantly better than anything but a high end DSLR, and in some cases (like my Canon EOS 5, it might use the same lenses anyway).

    So we’re ready to shoot some film. The film I use the most is Kentmere 400 because I can’t tell the difference between this and Ilford films, and this costs me £3.70 for a roll of 36, or close to 10p a photo.

    When we’re done we head home, crack open our film canister in our changing bag, roll it into our film developing tank, and pour in our developer. There are heaps of different developers out there, but I rarely stray away from tried and tested Rodinol. Now Rodinol costs about £12 a bottle, and its single use. Sounds expensive right? Well, its mixed into a solution with water before use, and to develop a single film, you’ll probably not be using more than about (I use just over) 10 millilitres (obviously this depends on the size of your developing tank). So out of one 500ml bottle of Rodinol you’ll get about 50 rolls of film, that’s 1800 pictures – in financial terms, less than a penny a picture, or 24 pence a roll.

    The next phase of the process is a stop bath, which I don’t use, because it costs money and it is much cheaper to use water – but I should note here that I am essentially assuming water is free. It isn’t, but even if you are shooting digital you probably have to drink some water at some point right?

    Next up, fixer. The same as Rodinol, fixer is mixed into a solution before you use it. It costs about £10 a bottle, and you can mix up perhaps four or five solutions per bottle (we’ll say four to keep the math simple) depending on the size of your developing tank. Unlike Rodinol though, fixer can be used more than once, and I will usually wait until I have a few films to develop before I mix up a batch. So again, to keep the math simple we’ll assume I run four films through the fixer, we’re looking at 62 pence per roll of film, or close to two pence a picture.


    Now you are pretty much done – you might want to rinse your film in some wetting agent, but a litre bottle of that makes up 201 litres of solution, so it will basically last you forever. Because we don’t want to get into the math of adding on fractions of a penny I am adding it to the start-up costs and forgetting about it.

    Negatives are dry and we have got them scanned into the computer. We are at the same point as we would be with a digital camera and we have spent around £4.50 on our roll, or 12 pence a picture. Yes, we have spent more than the zero pounds that shooting with a digital camera costs, but we have still spent less than the price of a pint.

    We also have our negatives, something physical for all of our effort. However, I stipulated at the start that we’d be looking at the cost of 35mm from taking the shot right through to having the picture, as a physical print, in our hand. You have two options here:

    The first option, and this is what I do with most of my photos, is to scan the negatives and get them printed. The service I use charges 9 pence (though there are often offers that make it much less than this) for a 6” by 4” print. Obviously, because I have digitised my negatives, this would be exactly the same regardless of whether you used a film or digital camera – there is no cost benefit to digital over film here.

    Where film starts to work out cheaper though is when you are looking at larger prints. You’ll use the same chemicals (and almost the same process) that you used to develop your film to make a print in the dark-room. Yes, you’ll pay for paper, but on a per-print basis this is significantly cheaper than buying larger prints of digital photos. For example, 25 sheets of 8” by 10” paper will set you back about £17 – 68 pence per sheet, whereas to get a digital print of the same size will cost you £1.25. The difference of 57 pence is more than enough to cover our 12 pence per photo cost of developing, and the same again to make up all the chemistry you’d need to develop paper prints (even assuming we’ll be making up more to fill up trays).

    There you have it – shooting a roll of film costs less than a pint, and, in the very specific case of wanting an 8” by 10” print its cheaper than digital. On top of this you have all of the benefits of 35mm, here I am talking about top notch equipment that costs next to nothing, full frame, archival storage of your work, beautiful pictures etc. etc. but that is beside the point – just remember, every time you hit the shutter on your 35mm camera you are spending about 12 pence, about the equivalent of taking a sip of beer.

    Canon 500, 50E & 5 EOS Parade

    Lets get one thing very clear from the start – the picture above is horrible. I make no apology, I couldn’t be bothered to get out a camera so used my phone. With that out of the way, there is something else we should get clear – when we speak about a 35mm SLR camera body, we are basically talking about a light proof box with a hole in it, and a way of mounting the important part of the whole thing, the lens, in front of some film. Someone with some tape and some cardboard could, in theory, create a camera body that produced images of identical quality to those out of a camera that costs many thousands of pounds (looking at you red dot fetishists).

    With that in mind, when we’re reviewing 35mm cameras without taking into consideration the lens, we’re basically reviewing usability. And usability, unlike image quality, is entirely subjective.

    Recently I have taken possession of three cameras from Canons EOS series, the 5, the 50E and the 500. For anyone unfamiliar with the Canon numbering system, the lower the number the ‘better’ the camera, but because the series has been around for a long time, now well into the digital age (Canon simply put a ‘D’ on the end of the numbers now) differing release dates mean that a more recently released camera with a higher number might be ‘better’ than an older one with a lower number.

    The 5, the 50 and the 500 represent a spectrum of EOS cameras, from something like entry level with the 500, a camera for the more serious photographer with the 50, and the 5 representing a semi-professional, or ‘prosumer’ model. Canon call these ‘entry level’, ‘enthusiast’ and ‘professional’ levels. Our 5 and 50 are in the ‘enthusiast’ class, and the 500 is ‘entry level’. These days they can all be picked up for less than £50 without lenses, but when they were released the price difference between the 500 and the 5 was fairly significant.

    So, what is the point of this post? I wanted to explore what an ‘enthusiast’ gets that a regular human doesn’t, and see whether it makes any difference at all to me as a camera user in 2018.

    The biggest difference is the size and weight of these cameras, the more you are paying, the more you are getting, literally. The 5 is a heavy lug with a lens attached, whereas the 500 is plasticy, its lighter. I shoot primarily with a 40mm lens, and whilst the body of the 5 dwarfs this pancake, it looks right at home on the 500. None of these cameras are going to fit in your pocket though, and if you are investing in a good quality strap the additional weight of the 5 isn’t a huge issue.

    That extra weight on the 5 and 50 means extra features. Note here that all three cameras have aperture priority, shutter priority and full manual modes – basically all anyone should ever need – so any other ‘features’ are all really just part of the process of convincing us that these cameras are not just boxes with square holes. An example of this is ‘eye control’ – a feature that was introduced on the 5, then left with the 50 (I think this is what the E refers to). This mode lets you select a focus point just by looking at it. It’s very cool – I have no idea how it works but the camera knows where you are looking in the viewfinder, highlights the nearest focussing point, then focusses there! Its magic, and the first time you use it you’ll feel like you are in blade runner. Then you turn it off and never use it again. Same with the many other features the 50 and 5 have over the 500. There is only one custom feature I have turned on which is available only on the 5, and that is to leave a small section of film outside of the canister to make home-development simpler.

    Frame rate is also fun to compare, the 500 has a frame rate of 1 – you point your camera at something and it takes a picture. The 50 betters this with a frame rate of 2.5. This means you can hold your finger on the shutter button and take a series of shots in quick succession, more than two a second. The 5 though is ridiculous – it has a frame rate of 5 per second. This means you can burn through a standard 36 frame film in less than eight seconds. This is a faster frame rate than some modern digital cameras, and remember this camera isn’t just opening the shutter, it also has to move the film along for every shot. The 5 also has some insane shutter speeds (8000th of a second!) – like everything else, unless you are doing some extremely specialist photography you are never going to use these features.

    Why is the 5 my go to camera then? I could take out the 500 and save some weight. It’s all about the autofocus and metering. Let’s get the boring one out the way first – the 500 does some tricky things with its metering designed to make it as easy as possible for anyone to take well metered shots, it involves weighting and averaging the light across the frame in a way I don’t understand. The 50 gives you more control, with 6 zone evaluative metering, and the 5 does better with 16 zone evaluative metering. The upshot is that with the 500 I have found that shots are less likely to be correctly exposed, and that performance in lower light varied a fair amount from an external meter. The 5 however gives me consistency whether I am inside or out, and with a range of different films.

    The autofocus is more important to me though. I don’t really care so much about autofocus zones, even when shooting digital, and the many autofocus zones that offers, I frequently just set my camera to the centre zone and go (for reference the 50 offers three, the 5 offers 5 and the 500 just has the one zone). What I do care about is how quickly the camera focusses. Obviously, this does depend on the lens used, but a quick test across all three cameras with the same lens reveals a big difference in terms of speed, especially in low light. The 500 is not bad, especially outside on a sunny day, but the 5 is blisteringly fast even inside – so fast in fact that it outpaces my digital cameras, and outside in the sun its barely noticeable that its even doing the work. I don’t really understand how auto focussing works, but the 500 also fires out a white light, almost like a mini-flash to aid its focussing, up close its quite off putting. The 500 and the 50 obviously still have to use something to aid focussing, but it’s a more discrete red that doesn’t seem to light up everything in sight.

    This is the only real difference between these three cameras in terms of my everyday use, a matter of milliseconds in terms of focus. However, it is not all about time, its more to do with trust. I absolutely trust the 5 to get the shot in focus, even in challenging conditions, and I know that when I point the camera at something, even if I don’t have time to properly compose the shot I will get something usable. When you are shooting digital and can set your frame rate nice and high and fire off the camera until its perfect this isn’t such a big issue. But on 35mm, unless you want to call on the 5s ridiculous option to run through a roll of film in a matter of seconds having confidence that you are getting the shot (nearly) every time is why I’d recommend climbing the consumer to enthusiast ladder.

    Whichever one of these cameras you chose, pairing them with a good quality lens is essential. Luckily Canon 50 and 40mm lenses are near legendary in their price point to quality ratio, so you still won’t be breaking the bank if you want to go for a fixed length prime. For the sake of 20 or 30 extra pounds to find a well looked after example, you’d be mad to take the 500 over the 50 or the 5 (plus, you know…eye control).

    I developed 35mm film in homebrew beer

    I recently bought a roll of Foma Retropan 320 film – it comes in a nice hipster brown canister and the 320 speed is obscure enough to make it vaguely interesting. I was half way through the roll when it occurred to me to investigate how to actually develop it, and some research revealed two things: for best results you should be using a film-specific developer, and that others have commented that the film does not play well with rodinol.

    I wasn’t about to go out and buy a new bottle of developer just for one roll of film, so I did the next most obvious thing – I developed it in beer..and some other stuff…

    This idea was mostly prompted by this video and some further research into what was actually going on in the developing tank when you add beer, vitamin C and washing soda.

    I won’t bore you with the details, but I was a little dubious about what the beer was actually bringing to the party, when you are adding two other things to a mixture that look suspiciously like chemicals you do wonder, but I pressed on nonetheless.

    So there are a couple of things to note about the video – the first is that whilst we are told, explicitly, to use ‘washing soda’ the soda that is actually used is Bicarbonate of Soda. The beer in the video is Guinness. No one mentions what speed the film is…it might matter, it might not, but its not mentioned. The final thing is that the beer has to be warmed to 30 degrees.

    So here is how I deviated from the video, the first way, as you might have guessed from the title of this post is that I didn’t waste a can of guinness on this experiment – I used homebrew. Well, we actually brewed it at London Beer Lab, but it was brewed by me and my buddies. We didn’t follow the recipe very well, and no one will ever be able to make this beer again because we didn’t record what we put in it. Anyway, the beer we made was a black IPA. The second way I deviated from the video is that I bought washing soda, which is sodium carbonate, not bicarbonate of soda. The final way is that I couldn’t really be bothered to check the temperature of my beer, so I eyeballed it (IE – I put the bottle in some warm water before I started).

    So with all these variables I was not particularly hopeful that I’d be seeing anything amazing when I broke open my developing tank – and my suspicions were correct – it was crap. I had perhaps seven pictures from a roll of 36, and these were so poorly developed that I nearly threw everything out thinking that there was nothing there.

    However, messing with some settings on the scanner I was able to coax a couple of good images from the roll, I didn’t do any post-processing on these, so we can confidently say this is what ‘beer’ would look like as an instagram filter. Also, you’ll notice that because I wasn’t confident that there was anything there at all, I didn’t pay too much attention to getting the film clean before I dried it:

    I was also able to coax a few far less impressive ones:

    You’ll notice a lot of my cat being a model in there, I told her about my beer developing mission and she wanted to get involved, and I am glad that one of the best images is of her.

    So it turns out that film developer exists for a reason, I think even if I had followed all of the instructions this wouldn’t have given me anything like the quality I can usually obtain from 35mm. Second, when you are developing with beer, everything smells a lot nicer than when you use conventional chemistry. What is pretty cool about the whole experiment though is that no one will ever be able to develop film in that beer again (we made 60 bottles, and have drunk most of them), these are the only images that will ever come out of that beer, not like all those boring guinness developed images that are probably out there. Will I do it again? No. Are my unique one of a kind images the best I have ever shot? No. Was it good fun? Yes. Should I have just consumed the beer instead? Probably.

    An ode to Rodinol

    I am a huge fan of Rodinal for much the same reasons as many other photographers:

    • You can make up tiny batches so it lasts forever (or for long enough to not have to write a date on it
    • Measuring out the amounts you need with a syringe makes you feel like a cool scientist
    • It is basically an ancient formula, so using it feels especially apt when using older cameras
    • All of the instructions (should be) in German, which … is fun

    There are loads of blogs out there discussing the various benefits of using Rodinal in terms of things like sharpness, grain size and other photographer type things – I’d recommend this one from Ed Buffaloe if that sort of thing is important to you – but what I want to talk about here is how Rodinol represents a turning point in my journey as a photographer.

    I have explained elsewhere how the decision to explore 35mm photography was primarily a result of receiving a not insignificant amount of expired 35mm film for free. It was because the film had expired that I didn’t want to invest money that I didn’t have on having it developed professionally (is that the correct term? Are the people working at fotofast professionals?), just in case it was too far gone. So, after a fair amount of ‘how to’ watching, I ordered the cheapest developing chemistry I could find, in the first instance, Kodak D-76, and some Ilford fixer. It didn’t occur to me that mixing chemistry from different manufacturers might be something some people frown upon, or that carefully weighing out D-76 powder and working out ratios to make up just the right amount to develop one film was anything but normal.

    And it remained normal – making up a new bottle of developer was a chore, I’d save up films for a good while so I could use a batch before it lost all its good developing power, and I built a solid collection of brown plastic bottles from manufacturers with stern sounding names that promised to keep everything airtight but that all eventually succumbed to what I am calling ‘chemical degradation’’. Either way, it was my process, and, because it worked, it never really occurred to me to change it.

    Fast forward a good number of years from when I first began my adventures in 35mm, and my understanding had progressed to the extent that I was seeking out stores that sold film, and these stores also (quite logically) also invariably sold chemistry. More importantly, by this time I felt comfortable speaking about my process to other people, particularly, people who happened to work in those stores that sold chemistry. This was really the turning point – I could answer questions about what I wanted in terms of my process, could confidently say what sort of films I was using in different circumstances, and what I was doing in terms of my photography – and this meant I could unlock all of the knowledge that I wasn’t getting when I was buying D-76 on the internet.

    It was a very short hop from here to someone recommending Rodinal – when you are asking which film is cheapest its pretty obvious that recommending a developer that will last for ages and can be made up in whatever amount you like is going to get you a sale. The biggest thing about this was that it all made sense to me – a conversation that would have made absolutely no sense to me a few years before now sounded completely normal, and it really hit me how much I had learned about 35mm photography.

    None of this changes whether my pictures are good or not, but it has meant that everything has become more affordable and predictable, meaning that I am happy to take a 35mm camera on holiday instead of my digital camera, and have embarked on projects that will require the development of a not insignificant amount of film – all of which I am undertaking with confidence and enthusiasm because of the power of Rodinal, and the knowledge that I had to acquire to discover it. Perhaps if I had been smarter I would have done more research when I bought that first batch of developer, but it makes me far happier to consider how far I have come, and to look forward to the discoveries of the future. 

     

    The ‘Mobile’ Film Scanner

    For the second (and final) part of my ‘digitising 35mm film’ series my plan was to use one of the many mobile phone apps that promise to help you take pictures of your negatives and turn them into something Instagram worthy. Whilst thumbing through the app store though I experienced a strong sense of deja vu – I had definitely done this before.

    A quick rummage through my old photographs revealed the culprit – the very first roll of film that I ever attempted to develop at home. The story of that roll of film is here, along with some scans from my shiny (still 10 years old) new 35mm scanner. At this point I didn’t know if taking pictures with 35mm was going to be anything I’d be taking seriously, so I invested the princely sum of zero pounds on an app that essentially converted negative images to positive ones. This was basically all it did, the interface was terrible, it could only manage one image at a time, and the results look a little like this:

    As you can see, there are a number of pretty major issues with this – there are basically about three shades of grey here, the app said to itself ‘well this seems close to white, I’ll make it white, and this seems close to grey, I’ll make it grey’ and then retired to wherever it is that apps hang out when they are not being used. The other major issue is clearly that it’s nearly impossible to get the framing right when wrangling a film strip and a phone in front of a window for some back-lighting, and the app didn’t include anything to crop the image down.

    But this was in 2014, and surely even if ‘I don’t want to pay any money’ app technology has not progressed, phone camera technology must have?

    So to the app store! First hit is ‘LumoScanner II’ from Lumography. These guys are all about making analogue photography Instagram worthy, so I have high hopes. Even on the landing screen I can see that app technology definitely has improved – I didn’t pay for this app, just like that first attempt many years ago, but this one actually has an interface that looks nice. One of the options is panoramic though, which I am fairly sure isn’t a film format that anyone is using (quick click to confirm, no idea what you’d use it for) so I am beginning to think this isn’t for purists. Maybe it’s a lumography specific format? Anyway, I click on ‘regular’ cos that’s just the sort of guy I am.

    Pretty much the same format as my 2014 app – a nice square to put my negative into and a big red button to take the image – however now I have a few options! I can tell the app what sort of film I am using, and there are a whole bunch of other things to mess with, including exposure and contrast – Helpful! There is also a little icon with a mountain on it, but clicking it doesn’t seem to do anything, though I feel like I may just not be cool and ‘lumo’ enough to understand it. So the app looks better, how are the images…

    All of the issues that I had back in 2014 remain, getting the negative centred, and in front of a good light source is nearly impossible, and whilst the app looks better, the images absolutely do not. My old app gave an image that is almost the same size, but with a much higher resolution – the detail, dynamic range and sharpness are light-years ahead in my first photo, pretty ironic considering it was taken five years ago.

    This isn’t to trash the Lomography app, there is a place for this, and if you have the time to set up the negatives, and a really high quality phone camera, you can get usable images from this, or at least ones that you could Instagram filter into something usable – but for me, looking for quality, this just didn’t work!

    The moral of the story? You are probably going to struggle to get really good images from 35mm black and white negatives with anything but a dedicated film scanner, and this isn’t necessarily because this is where you are going to get the best resolution or DPI, but because this is the only place that you’ll be able to completely control the amount of light hitting the negative, get it completely flat, and do everything quickly for more than one negative. So thinking about buying a 35mm camera? Factor in the cost of an 11-year-old film scanner at the same time – mine cost me 40 quid!

    My First Roll of 35mm Film

    So I know many people have been following my epic mission to digitise my 35mm negatives…no? Well I know at least one person has been following my vaguely interesting mission to digitise my 35mm negatives, and they will know that I have concluded that it is impossible to do without a dedicated scanner. Enter the Canon CanoScan 8400F – an absolute behemoth of a flatbed scanner that was released onto an unsuspecting public in 2004. Best thing about it – it is all about the 35mm scanning, with fully backlit dedicated film scanning strip…things, oh, and it cost me £40.

    This isn’t a review of the scanner – its old, its clunky, it scans things, it was a nightmare to get working on windows 10 – it works (oh you actually want a review…? Here is one from 2004!). This is the story of my first roll of 35mm film.

    It all began when I responded to a freecycle advert from a guy giving away a whole bunch of expired 35mm film. I didn’t own a film camera, I hadn’t a clue how to shoot film, I didn’t even know what it actually meant for film to be expired – I went along and got it anyway. When I arrived it transpired that he had been a professional photographer for most of his life, and was finally making the switch to digital. He wanted to get rid of a whole bunch of other film developing stuff, some chemistry, an enlarger, I think even some paper – I had no idea what that stuff did at the time, so I didn’t take it – something I regret to this day!

    Nonetheless I went home with my box of what must have been about 40 canisters of expired film. There was a bit of everything, ancient Kodachrome, some medium format which I gave away to someone who knew far more about photography than me, some Kodak 400 (also given away) and some apparently not so out of date Kentmere and Ilford rolls.

    One charity shop visit later, and armed with an ancient Ricoh KR-10, which subsequently developed a truly epic light leak, but which I still have the beautiful Pentax 50mm from, I went on my first photography mission.

    I didn’t go that far, all the pictures were taken within about a 10-minute walk from where I was living at the time, which just happened to be next to a railway line. The pictures were not actually too bad considering I was shooting in manual mode without really understanding what difference aperture, shutter speed and ISO were going to make to my images.

    The fun came though when I developed my first roll. I had decided that this was something I had to do at home in my bathroom – I would never be beholden to those corporations making vast sums of money developing people’s photos. Sums so vast that by this time they had mostly shut down, and I am assuming happily retired. A number of internet how-to guides and a trip to the library later and I was prepared – I had my developing tank, and epic Soviet-era looking thing that I still use to this day and my mismatched chemistry – I distinctly remember using Kodak developer and Ilford fixer. And that was it! My ‘changing bag’ was a very dark cupboard, my stop bath didn’t exist, and I prized open the film canister with a monkey wrench (I still to this to be honest).

    I have to admit that I am pretty proud of the results! The main issue was that I hadn’t had any practice in winding the film onto the developing tank roll, so there are lots of places where it was touching and the developer couldn’t reach it – aside from this though, simply following the instructions on the developer, and being intensely careful (far more so than I am now) about the temperature yielded some pretty nice results – especially now I have put them through my new (old) scanner – and thus began my love affair with 35mm.

    You can read the story of my first attempts to get these negatives digitised here, and my first foray into a dark room is a story for another time – but I will always be grateful for that guy who gave away a biscuit tin full of film rolls to someone who had no idea what to do with them.

     

    The ‘Cardboard Cutout’ film scanner

    Having survived with a 5 mega pixel (read – cheap and crappy) 35mm scanner for a number of years now I have decided that it is finally time to invest in something that produces higher quality images, that hopefully can be used in places other than Instagram. So I have been exploring the confusing world of DPI values and various ‘in scanner’ touch up tools. The strange thing about all of this is that it seems that since the advent of digital photography there don’t seem to have been any major leaps forward in scanning technology, it’s almost as if all the major manufacturers said, “We’ll, you can scan your film now, what more do you want?”. This is means the process is a very involved review of hundreds of ancient scanners on ebay – and the requisite trawl through websites that were last updated in 2008 to find reviews. I’ll keep you updated. Anyway, as this fabled scanner may be a rather long way off actually arriving, I thought I’d have a go at seeing what other 35mm-to-digital options there were out there – and first in this series (of probably…two…) is the method I am christening ‘the cardboard cutout’.

     At its heart this method basically uses a digital camera to take a picture of the 35mm negative. So, armed with my digital camera and a roll of pictures taken in the Scottish Highlands I embarked on my experiments.

    Experiment one, simply holding the negative in front of a light source, and taking a picture worked ok. It was too difficult to hold everything in position though, and there were some pretty major bright/dark spots from the uneven light source and because it was fairly bright (too bright!) the image doesn’t really have the contrast we need.

    You’ll notice there is a lovely vignette on the image too, this is simply because I used a lens hood for a 50mm lens on a 28mm lens – entirely my fault, and nothing to do with my scansperiment (scanning experiment). The image is a pretty challenging one, a lot of snow, clouds and generally not a huge amount of contrast, but you can see here that even the grass and field borders in the distance are not very well defined. It gives a fairly nice effect – something akin to an old print, but its definitely no improvement over my crappy 5mp scanner.

    So for experiment two I cut a negative sized hole in the end of a box, and with some leftover card and tape created a rudimentary negative holder. I then used a piece of tracing paper to diffuse the light-source, and put my camera in the other end of the box. Holding everything still with the box meant I was able to spend a lot more time getting the focus spot on, and could play with the aperture until I had it where I needed – I figured wide open, as I’d be focussing on effectively a very flat plane and wouldn’t need any depth of field at all, would work best.

    Untitled-1

    And the result is improved on attempt one. My ‘negative holder’ gives a nice lumo frame that wouldn’t look out of place as an Instagram filter from five years ago, but the results are still far from optimum.

    The tracing paper solved the issue of the very bright spots though, and the contrast is much better (it is a more contrast-y image anyway, but it definitely helped. Its also much sharper, probably because of the extra attention I could pay to focusing.

    I did some playing around with one of the images, cropped it and worked on the contrast, and the conclusion – a new film scanner is still required! You can see the rest of my images on this roll below anyway. I’d post a picture of my cardboard cutout scanner, but it went in the recycling as soon as the experiment was over.

     

    What does X-Pro II even mean?

    So you have found yourself here, reading a blog post about an Instagram filter – probably not because you are remotely interested in reading about Instagram filters, but because you want to know how anyone could possibly write a 725 word blog post about them. Well let me tell you how we got this point. I once had a lot of fun at a party by asking people I had never met before what their favourite Instagram filter was. I had recruited a friend to fortuitously join the conversation after the question and volunteer their favourite, thus kick starting a ridiculous conversation about the (entirely made up) pros and cons of various filters. Our first victim didn’t see through the joke, but did think we were ridiculous, and told us so. This, as far as I was concerned was a victory, but it was not quite as amazing as when our second victim joined in, volunteering – ‘my favourite has to be x-pro two’. At this point I felt a little guilty at our ruse, and unable to detach myself from the situation of my own making I was compelled to actually take this favourite filters conversation seriously. 

    The conclusion? The Instagram filters have ridiculous names. Much like paint colours and perfume, filters need names that allow us to refer to them as something other than things like ‘the one that makes everything a bit more red’ or ‘the one that makes it look like sunset all the time’. These names are too long, too descriptive, too much effort. So the Instagram team plucks names out of the air, apparently, if the internet is to be believed, based on artistic styles, their coffee intake, or the name of their dog. There is however one Instagram filter that is named after something slightly more meaningful. X-Pro II, though I didn’t know it the six or so years ago at that party, before I had even picked up a 35mm camera, is named after the results you get from processing a 35mm film in some way other than how it was supposed to be processed. This gives you the nice vignette, higher contrast and popping colours that we see when we use the filter. Hence the name. 

    Except, it is not all as simple as that. X-pro is a short way of saying cross processing. If you are unfamiliar with the way in which films are developed, it is basically a chemical process – you leave the film in various chemicals for certain amounts of time and the film comes out of the end of the process developed. Films are supposed to be developed by using specific chemicals for specific amounts of time – like a recipe. However, because we’re grown ups and no one can tell us what to do, we can develop films with other chemicals, make up random amounts of time to develop for, or even use things we have found in the kitchen in place of our chemistry. Its a bit like getting ready made cookie dough, throwing away the cooking instructions and doing your own thing. Now much like the cookie dough analogy, sometimes this can be delicious, and sometimes you can end up with an inedible mess – the instructions are there for consistency, but not always creativity.

    So what does this mean for x-pro II? Well basically that you very much could cross process a film and get something that looks just like you have applied the x-pro II filter, or you could get something that looks equally cool but completely different. The image below was taken on colour, rather than black and white film. Colour film involves a complicated chemical process to develop (colour film also has to be printed in complete darkness, and nobody has time for that, just one of the reasons all my pictures are black and white), but I chose to develop it with chemistry that is designed to be used with black and white film. Of course, because the manufacturer doesn’t suggest that this is a good idea, they have not told me the amounts of time I had to leave the film in the chemicals for. So I made it up. 

    This next image was processed in exactly the same chemicals. Again, it was colour film, and because I quite liked the blue tint on the first image I decided to process it for the same amount of time (writing down these ‘recipes’ is a good idea). The one difference is that this particular roll of film was from a different manufacturer.

    Two images that are stylistically completely different (they are actually of the same bridge, which is somewhere in Ipswich I think) from two colour films, with black and white chemistry.  This, really, is why cross processing film is more exciting than putting filters on Instagram – you never quite know what you’ll be getting, and if you don’t like it, unfortunately there is no swiping on to the next filter, you are stuck with it forever. Consider this next time you use x-pro II: out there, somewhere, is someone putting random film through random chemicals, and giving their images a look that no one has ever seen before.