Blog – Photography

    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.

    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.