film 101

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Adventures in Film Photography: A Pro Digital Photographer Dives In

Guest Post by Tristan Jud. Tristan is a husband, photographer, and the founder and editor of RAW and RAW Live on Facebook. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Instagram.

My story starts over a year ago, back in April to be exact. At that stage we were posting one Interview with a photographer a day on RAW and I had come across Rachel and her film work. It didn’t take long to find “I Still Shoot Film” and my curiosity started to swirl inside me.

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At that stage I was still reserved about shooting film. I had no idea and thought It would be a large expense, shooting and then getting the film developed and scanned, but more on that a little later.

About a month after we published the first interview with Rachel and I had started to follow her blog more closely, I got the opportunity to chat over skype with her. Her passion for film and “her babies” as she calls her film cameras,  inspired me to perhaps delve in and give film photography ago.

Onto my earlier point, my concern was the ongoing cost of shooting film. I was still in the mind set of shooting in a digital medium where it was not uncommon for me to fire off 200-300 frames per shoot. Thinking like that and looking at the development and scanning costs, were proving that this little experience could be very costly.The monetary aspect was one thing but what about the extra time.

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A few months had passed and I started to follow a few street photographers who all raved about shooting street with film and rangefinders. I had tried my hand at street photography before with both my phone and my dSLR, but the experience wasn’t there. The dSLR was too big and I didn’t feel like I could blend in. My experience with shooting street with my phone wasn’t too bad however I still wanted to shoot film and see what all the fuss was about.

I hopped on eBay to look at some rangefinders. I bid on a few and didn’t win, which was a pity, at the same time I was checking out vintage markets but I wasn’t finding anything special there. Then one day I came across a “new-old stock” Fed 5. I thought since it’s brand new I may as well grab it while it’s available.

At the same time I ordered 3 rolls of Ilford Pan 400 to test it out. I wanted the full experience, I had decided that I wanted to develop my own film and scan it myself.

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The film arrived the same day as the Fed 5, I timed that right. It was time to load some film and head out.  The first roll was purely trial and error. I had no idea what to expect and the whole shooting experience was completely foreign to what I was used to, everything seemed a lot slower.

I had been told that film was fairly forgiving when it came to exposure, well thats true. The funny thing is though, I found that I was thinking more about my shots. This is something that has been documented countless times.

After the first roll was shot, which actually took me about 3 days. It was time to develop. After reading the instructions getting everything together it was time. Shout out to Peter Bowdige for giving me a spare bag, spools and canister for developing. Anyway with great anticipation the film was drying. It looked good as negatives. They weren’t all completely white or black so I knew they weren’t over or underexposed.

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The scanning was done and the photos were there in front of me. The photos were crap but the experience was amazing and since then I’ve been hooked. My developing is still hit and miss at the moment. Sometimes I nail it other times I’ve agitated it too much or something and the photos aren’t as clear as they should be, however I look at it completely different than digital. I look more at the photo and what is captured than the actual sharpness and level or grain. I think the unpredictability of film and the entire process of developing it gives you greater connection to the image. You actually feel like you are creating something more than just capturing it on a sensor and tweaking what you don’t like in Photoshop.

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Since then I’ve been shooting lots of street photography, I published an article on how to get started which has been translated into Italian by Cultor College and has spurred a followup article with a few more things that I’ve picked up.

Where to from here, well I’ll continue to shoot street photography on my Fed 5 but I’m going to start moving into shooting landscapes and portraits with a Minolta SRT101 that I have. Eventually I’ll get myself a medium format, something that I have my eye for at the moment. I’m also going to look at how to incorporate some film into my portrait work, so there seems to be a place for film in my photography life after all.

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What is ISO (Film Speed)?

As a follow up to understanding aperture, I thought it would be nice to go over the basics of film speed or ISO (formerly known as ASA.)

ISO is the speed of the film, also known as the number printed on the box and the canister. FujiChrome Velvia 50 has an ISO of 50; Ilford Delta 400 has an ISO of 400.

ISO or Film Speed is expressed as a number, which is generally doubled as it gets higher. For example 50, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200. There are several exceptions to this, such as Ilford FP4 which has an ISO of 125.

As I explained in How Film Works, photographic film is made up of millions of light-sensitive silver halide crystals, which we call grain. The lower the film speed, the finer the grain; the higher the film speed, the fatter the grain. Larger silver halide crystals have more light sensitivity than smaller ones, so a higher ISO will be more sensitive to light than a lower one. An ISO of 50 or 100 is not very sensitive and requires bright light, which means that if your camera’s fastest f-stop is 3.5 or higher, you would not have enough light to do interiors (for example) without a flash. An ISO of 3200 is extremely light sensitive, but also has very prominent grain and therefore a specific style. It’s also very easy to overexpose if shooting in direct sunlight.

This is where fine tuning the balance between f-stop, ISO, and shutter speed comes in to achieve the desired result.  When you look at a manual SLR, you’ll see a little dial with all of the film speed numbers going from 25 or 50 up to 3200 or 6400 (depending on make/model). Setting this dial is only for the light meter and will not have an effect on your exposures. Ideally, you would set the ISO, and use the light meter to balance between f-stop and shutter speed. If you’re not sure what the light meter is, it’s that little needle you see when you look through the view finder, and you want it to be in the middle for a correct exposure. My next sentence may seem obvious, but hey you never know: You need to have batteries in the camera for the light meter to work. This is why manual cameras take batteries; the batteries have nothing to do with the shutter or any mechanical part of the camera.

Here’s a little film speed guide (these are just my personal recommendations):

  • ISO 50 (or lower): Bright sunlight (the beach in the afternoon, for example), studio lights
  • ISO 100: Bright sunlight, bright overcast, studio lights
  • ISO 200: Sunlight, overcast, some shade, studio lights
  • ISO 400: Outdoor (sunlight/overcast), indoor (during the day or very well lit)
  • ISO 800: Outdoor (very overcast), dusk, interiors, motion/high speed
  • ISO 1600: Night, interiors (day or night), motion/high speed
  • ISO 3200: Night, interiors, motion/high speed

Again, there are always ways around this, such as using an external flash head at night with an ISO of 100.

Next item on the agenda coming soon: Shutter Speed

Photographic Film 101

Here is a very very basic rundown of what film is, in general, for those of you who are curious or interested in understanding more about chemical composition in photography. I will say that once you have a solid grasp of how paper and film are made and the chemicals used to develop them, it’s easy to venture off into the world of alternative processing… which is super fun. I’ll go more in depth later about alternative processing (personally I have always wanted to do albumen prints but have never had a darkroom to myself where I could) but for now let’s start with the 101 of how film works:

Film is composed of layers. Many layers. These are different for color, slide, black and white, and instant film but all contain millions of light-sensitive silver halide crystals (what we call grain) that you expose when you pop the shutter. While the other layers are crucial, for our purposes we will be looking at the light sensitive layers. Color film has three layers of silver halide: red, blue, and green.

Slide film has a few more layers than C-41:

Black and white paper is what we call “orthochromatic” which is basically a fancy word for “red blind.” This is why you can print black and white in a darkroom with the redlight on, allowing for minimal vision, whereas when printing color you must remain in total darkness. Very weird, and kind of fun. Technically you can still buy orthochromatic black and white film, but it’s not very common. Most black and white film today is panchromatic, which means it is sensitive to all colors of the visible light spectrum. The layer composition of black and white film is simpler:

You’ll notice they all have what we call an “antihalation” coating or layer, which is basically applied to the back layer to absorb stray reflecting light from the film emulsion.

So basically, that sums up how film absorbs light… um, for beginners.