Drawing With Light


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For the past few months, I've been taking a dive into film photography. It started when I was hanging out with a friend of mine, and he mentioned that he bought an old medium format camera. This sparked in me a great interest which would start me on the path of yet another expensive hobby. Wit the experience of one high school semester of photojournalism more than a decade ago, I decided to take up the art of film photography.

Thankfully, the height of my expenses would not begin immediately. My parents, being incurable pack rats, still had their old film cameras. I dug them out of the closet and began to examine them to determine what kind of repairs I might need to preform. My dad's camera, though in excellent cosmetic condition, had a fatal operational defect. Though the exact cause was not to be known, the mirror would catch on the back of the lens after releasing the shutter. Try as I might, this camera would need a professional's touch. My mom's camera on the other had, while having some cosmetic damage and some debris in the viewfinder, seemed to be perfectly functional. The light meter even seemed to work properly. So, equipped with a functioning camera, I set out to buy a roll of film (a challenge in it's own right in the current year)

And now to break with this weird narrative writing style. I don't know what prompted that, but you shan't have to endure it any longer. The camera I ended up with is a Minolta SRT201, a fully manual 35mm camera from around the 1970s. The only electronic part in it is the light meter. As stated earlier, the camera is fully operational, though I intend to clean the viewfinder and replace the light seals after I'm done shooting the current roll of film. Finding film to shoot in a brick & mortar store was a bit rough. I ended up finding a 3-pack of FujiFilm Supria X-TRA 400 at CVS. Walmart had a spot for Kodak UltraMax, but no film on the shelf. I've gone back since then, and they just have the Supria 400 now. Unfortunately, there are no camera stores in my vicinity, otherwise I would have gone there. I also found a few rolls of expired Walgreen's branded film in my parents' camera bag which might yield some interesting effects.

I've now shot one roll of the Supria 400 and one roll of expired Walgreen's film. Being the way that I am, I decided to process the film entirely at home. This involves two major steps: developing and scanning. The developing process is actually quite straightforward. It's a little different for color vs black and white, but it's well documented and not too difficult at all. Since I've been using color film, I decided to purchase the CineStill C41 developer kit. I did not buy their temperature control system, because I already own a sous vide machine. The equipment required for home developing is pretty universal: a light-proof tank, a changing bag, a timer or stopwatch, and nitrile gloves if you care about getting chemicals on you. For color developing you'll also need some way to keep the chemicals at the right temperature, like a warm water bath. I used the aforementioned sous vide machine. Then it's just a matter of putting in the chemicals in the right order for the right amount of time. Color processing technically has an extra bleaching step vs black and white, but, in CineStill's formulation, the bleach and the fixer are combined into a single "blix" step. Anyway, I developed the roll of Supria 400 that I bought, and, as far as I can tell, nothing went too horribly wrong. I did drop the developed film on the floor a couple of times, but there was only a little damage. I'll try not to do that next time.

For the scanning step, there are a couple of options for home scanning. The Traditional method involves a high-resolution flatbed scanner. These tend to be quite expensive, and they don't often play along too nicely with free software systems. The other method, which I decided to employ, is called DSLR camera scanning, and it's exactly what it sounds like. You basically take a picture of you film with a digital camera. I read somewhere that the amount of information in a frame of 35mm film amounts to between 12 and 14 megapixels, so you can get away with a pretty inexpensive camera. I bought a used Canon EOS Rebel T2i which has an 18mp sensor. It also has mirror lock up which is a nice way to reduce vibrations. You don't want to use just any old lens, though. A macro lens with at least 1:1 image representation (true macro) is best. You also want a relatively short focal length. I made the mistake of buying a lens with a very long focal length. It turns out that lenses with longer focal length also have a longer minimum focusing distance, so I ended up with my tripod extended to its maximum height and the film on the floor, a very difficult to use setup.

After you've got your film developed and scanned into your computer, you're going to want to convert your negative into positive image. There are many different pieces of software you can use to accomplish this. I chose to use darktable since it's free software, and it's "negadoctor" module seems to work quite well. There's also a plugin for Gimp for converting film negatives, but I haven't looked too much into it. I'm not sure how well Gimp handles raw image files, either. I'm not going to get into the ins and outs of converting negative. I only know the basics, and I don't think I'm very good at it yet. I've managed to get a couple of images to come out looking right, but I don't know if that's due to poor exposure, poor developing, or poor use of software. Time will tell as I get better at all three of those.

I plan on buying a better macro lens which will at least make the scanning process easier, if not make my scans sharper. I also intend to switch to primarily black and white film, in part, because the film and the chemicals are cheaper than color, but also because I find myself artistically attracted to black and white. I see a lot of things that make me think "I want to shoot that in black and white," and I think there are many situations where color doesn't really add to the composition and may even hurt the final picture.

And now for the moment none of you have been waiting for: I've added a gallery page to my website where you can view selected images I have created. Don't get too excited yet; it's not that good. This first roll in particular was mostly shot before I actually read anything about composition, lighting, exposure, etc. I don't know if I'll ever produce "good" photography, but I will at least improve, and my progress will be visible in my gallery.

P.S. I don't read my blog posts before I post them.

By Michael


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