For all you lost, disheartened ‘photographers’ who’ve cut their teeth in the digital era and feel inauthentic because of the gaping void at the heart of your photographic knowledge and competence, to wit knowing nothing about the classic technical history of the film medium, I’m here to convince you that the process of film photography is fun. And doable. And you can do it. And I’m going to tell you how to do it, from beginning to end.
As you’ve long suspected but have been resistant to admit, unlike your digital photography, film photography is ‘authentic’, it’s real, it’s tangible. It keeps alive the physical connection between the light and the recording medium. Nothing is dematerialized and transcribed into digits that must be re-materialized by some arcane process you know nothing about. The trace of your subject physically remains – forever, right there on your negative. Translated to a gelatin silver print, the trace remains. This is mystical. It is often life-changing. Ask Roland Barthes. Roland Barthes may have been run over and killed by a laundry truck while walking to his lecture at the Sorbonne, but Roland Barthes’ mother lives ( see Camera Lucida). This is profound.
It’s time you become a ‘real’ photographer. This is simply a statement of fact, not an accusation or a boast by your betters. It’s time you acquire both the technical knowledge of film capture and the skills for its proper subsequent development. I’ll show you, in easy baby steps, how you too can become competent shooting, developing and printing light-sensitive photographic film, preferably for our purposes 35mm B&W film. I’ll explain to you how to print those negatives on silver gelatin paper and produce a stunning, tactile object you can matt, frame and hang in your summer home on the Cape.
Forget color. I’m not going to talk about color film photography. That’s not real photography. B&W film photography is real photography. Hard stop. Once you’ve mastered the B&W analogue process, you are now a photographer and not simply a button mashing monkey taking bokeh saturated photos of sad, inauthentic people. You now have joined the list of veritable photographic giants like Atget, Brassai, Walker Evans, HCB, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Josef Koudelka, Robert Frank, Antoine D’Agatha, Trent Parke, Dragan Novakovic and Tim Vanderweert.
This is Where the Good Stuff Happens
To start your authentic photographic journey, you are going to need the following: 1) A black paint Leica M2, M3, M4 or functional equivalent, a Nikon SP or S3 (these are the last legitimate fully mechanical, unmetered 35mm cameras); 2) a roll of 35mm B&W film, preferably Kodak Tri-X or Ilford HP5 of 24 or 36 exposures, although you may also use a roll you’ve bulk rolled yourself (extra points); 3) a dark room as in a room you can make mostly dark; 4) a development tank to develop your film; 5) photo chemicals to develop your film; 6) a photographic enlarger; 7) photo paper to print your developed negatives; 8) photo chemicals to develop your latent prints; 8) photo trays large enough to contain the size paper you’ll be printing on; 9) a supply of water to wash negatives and prints; and 10) a means of drying both negatives and prints once developed.
You do not need a computer or an internet hookup. You need no books or instructional videos or charts of Silver Efex pre-sets. You don’t need to take a ‘Sold Out’ seminar in Innsbruck where you wear Leica logoed hats, fondle assorted digital Leicas and interface with false gurus who banally advise you “it’s all about the light” and assure you competence beyond your wildest imaginings if you simply buy all their books at steep discounts and, most importantly, “always wear a camera”. As a general rule, avoid anyone who advertises such digital seminars with photos of film wrapped around their head. These are men who are not to be trusted.
You Too Can Make a Silver Gelatin Print Like This With a Simple Film Camera
Let’s get to it. Grab your fully mechanical M2 and an unexposed roll of B&W film. Take the film from its box and load it into your battery-less Leica. First, you’re going to need to figure out how to load your film onto your Leica’s removable take up spindle, reinsert the spindle into the M and forward to frame number 1. This is more difficult than you might think. Leitz, the German manufacturer who hand-made your mechanical M, has specifically made this difficult to remind you that good things require effort.
Start by extracting a few inches of film from the mouth of your film cassette, and insert the tapered film end into the spool so that the teeth hook the perforation. Now wind the shutter lever that cocks the shutter and rotates the spool’s teeth so the film starts to wrap around the spool itself. (Since the film has been rolled up in its cannister for some time – years maybe – it tends to remain curved and therefore to remain slightly raised by the teeth, which are often unable to hook it). Fiddle with it.
With practice you’ll eventually learn to press it with a finger against the teeth and get it rolling that way. Other folks opt for pre-tensioning, placing slight pressure on the rewind crank, taking care not to exert excessive force which would tear the perforation or release the film from the receiving spool. It either rolls on at this point or you start over…or you quit. (Giving up is always an acceptable option when it comes to the practice of film use. Always remember this. There is no shame in saying fuck it and giving up at any point in the process. You can always come back another day and try again. I cannot emphasize this enough).
Assuming you haven’t quit yet and the film has rolled onto the take-up spool in sufficient quantity to hold it there, refasten the back to the camera and take a few idle clicks to check the shutter reset and to advance the film into position for your super-exciting first film photo. The rewind handle should testify to success with its anti-clockwise rotation, your frame counter should read “0” or “1” or “2” or some random digit thereabouts. You have successfully loaded your M2 with real, light sensitive silver impregnated emulsive film. Feelings of great satisfaction and wholeness should now follow, as if a heretofore misplaced key had been inserted into the tumbler of your mundane life and unlocked something mystical. Sit with it for a minute, quietly. Passively note the perfectly balanced weight of your M2 now loaded with light affirming film. Admire your film camera’s iconic contours and simple yet timeless design. It’s meaning will not fail to speak to you if only you allow it, although what you feel now will remain ineffable. Your life has changed, irrevocably. You Sir, are no longer a button-mashing herd animal tethered to a pathetically designed plastic machine producing random digits on a silicone substrate, subsequently reconfigured via obscure Photoshop algorithms; you now hold in your hand a purpose built, tactilely perfect mechanical jewel whose raison d’etre is the miraculous stenciling of the real. You are now an authentic film photographer.
Aperture and Shutter Speed
You now hold a genuine mechanical Leica properly loaded with a roll of iconic Kodak Tri-X ( or if you live in the UK Ilford HP5). You now must engage that combination to, in Susan Sontag’s famous phrase, “stencil off the real.” To do so you’re going to have to set your camera aperture and shutter speeds to give you a proper exposure given the extant lighting condition. Your iconic mechanical Leica doesn’t have a “P” mode or any other exposure mode for that matter. It is totally indifferent to you. It doesn’t give a shit about any desire you might possess to apply hard and fast rules. You are now in the realm of art, where rules have no intrinsic value. Your mechanical jewel-like Leica requires serendipity, not desiccated formulas applied via charts and graphs.
The possible settings on your Leica are threefold: aperture, shutter speed and ASA film sensitivity (now known as ISO). Because your M2 doesn’t have a meter, forget about ASA. Doesn’t matter. You don’t need a meter; it’s ‘rule-based’ affectation at best. Just use your head when setting your aperture and shutter speed. If you must, use the ‘Sunny 16 Rule’ or a variation on that theme. Classic film sensitivity is the equivalent of today’s 25 or 50 ISO, or 100-125 ISO (the most common), or 400 ISO, with the possibility of “pushing” or “pulling”, i.e. extending or contracting the development time to give higher speed or reduced grain and better tonality depending on your intent. Save that for later, after you’ve figured the basics. If you must use a light meter, set it and assume it’s in the ballpark. A good rule of thumb: f16 and a shutter speed equal to your film ISO when outside in sunny weather; f8 when some clouds; f2 and 1/30th whenever inside. For more precision, use your experience of previous mistakes, for they will be abundant. Some hardcore filmies expose using hand-held light meters. This is unnecessary. Perfect exposure is a false god, a neurotic avoidance of the struggle to engage your unique vision.
Fun With Development
Once you’ve shot your 36 exposures and hopefully have rewound the film and extracted it from your M2 ( another iffy proposition in and of itself), you must develop your film. Like most film era peasants, you can send it out to the drug store if you’re able to find one that still develops film, but then you’re just another thoughtless happy-snapper and not a serious film photographer. You must develop it yourself. This is where the fun begins, and the specifics of development assume existential dimensions, fueled by various half-assed theories religiously held by various film era partisans citing dog-eared pages of Stroebel and Compton’s Basic Photographic Materials and Processes (Focal Press: Boston, 1990)
Actual film development procedure is a combination of applied chemistry and witchcraft. Development takes place in light-tight tanks that contain a spiral reel you’re going roll your film onto. Loading this reel takes place in complete darkness, so you need either a darkroom or a changing bag. Completely in the dark you remove the exposed film from the roll ( usually with a can opener and then a scissors to cut the film leader back), you insert the leader into the upper and lower guides of the spiral reel and, by means of an alternating rotation and counter-rotation of the reel’s sides you roll the film onto the reel until the entire roll is taken up on the reel itself. Of course, you’re probably going to repeatedly fail to get the reel loaded because the film, freed from the constriction of its tight cannister, tends to unroll abruptly, slipping from your nervous fingers, and sad attempts to grab it in the dark risks causing small bends in the film sprocket area that will cause the affected section of film to hang up in the reel without allowing it to roll forward onto the reel. Fiddle with it.
Your reel loading troubles are just beginning. The film will offer tenacious resistance to spiraling onto the reel even in the best of circumstances. It also frequently happens that after an initial success and an advance of a few inches, the reel mechanism gets stuck; the two sides of the spiral no longer go forward or backward. No reason given. They just refuse. In reality, this usually happens when the reel you’re using hadn’t been perfectly dried after the last wash and residual humidity glues up the film emulsion to the groove of the spiral. The best you can do is wait while the reel dries completely.
Forcing things at this point usually causes further deformation of the film. Attempts to extract the film have little chance of success at this point, and even if you succeed, there’s going to be no place to temporarily store the film off reel, the roll being damaged during the operation of withdrawal. In any event, you can continue to fiddle about with things till you’re granted some sort of mystical reprieve – or you can toss the now-deformed roll of Tri-X that once held so much promise, turn on the lights, go home, sell your bulk loader and all the bulk film you’ve stored in your dedicated mini-fridge, trade your M2 for a Lenny Kravitz Correspondence digital M with genuine snakeskin covering and swear you will never shoot another roll of film again.
The Film Development Process: A Matter of Chemistry…And a Good Bit of Luck
Maybe, just maybe, you get things right. Now what? Once you put the reel in the tank and close the tank lid you can turn the lights on. Now is the time to pick a developer and dilution, figure out how long a development time you’re going to need based on the type of film, the ISO at which it’s been shot and the current developer temp (if you must, see Stroebel and Compton, Chapter 8 ‘Black and White Photo Development’) or you can just use Diafine and forget all this – more on this later. You’re going to decide what amount of agitation to give the film (inverting the tank at variable intervals) in order to control contrast and grain. Some consult technical treatises like that cited above, others trust their instincts, still others consult notebooks of past successes and failures. Some products you’re going to use are powdered, which means you’re going to have to prepare them in advance and then allow them to cool. You’ll be mixing and diluting chemicals, measuring temperature with special thermometers, one eye on the timer that marks proposed development times.
Anyone not working during film era will be completely flummoxed by the exhausting debates you’re going to encounter about combinations of developers and films and the seemingly infinite possibilities of varying development times, temperatures and methods of agitation to get the look you want (assuming you know what look you do want). Just ignore all that. Do yourself a favor and donate your heavily-annotated Stroebel and Compton to the Salvation Army Book Drive. Take it from me: develop everything in Diafine at anything approaching room temp: 3 Minutes in solution A, 3 minutes in solution B, rinse once, fix for 5 minutes, rinse twice, hang to dry. Forget about consistent temp, hypo-clearing and water turn over cycles. This is the best advice you will ever receive. Trust me.
If you are stubborn enough to ignore my Diafine advice and decide to develop your film in a 1:3 dilution of D-76 or some other developer, your development phase will last five to twenty minutes depending on personal choice, then a short water rinse followed by a fixer solution for 5 minutes to stop development and permanently ‘fix’ the negative image. Drain the fixer and rinse in a water bath. To do this, you’ll need to connect the tank to a water tap using a rubber tube equipped with special adapter that works fitfully at best. Or not. I simply leave the film in the tank, remove the tank lid and fill and dump water into and out of the tank five times. Others more anal wash their negatives in running water for twenty minutes or so and then open the tank, extract the wet film and examine the result : check for density, contrast, possible stains, and the inevitable presence of gunk despite the fact that your darkroom faucet is equipped with an expensive water filter.
To dry your film, first soak it in a dilute mixture of Photoflo for a few seconds (which will allow even drying) and then hang it with laundry pins. Unfortunately, hanging your film exposes it to dust which will adhere to your negatives on the moist emulsion. You are also vulnerable to streaks caused by limestone in your filtered water. Invariably, your negatives are going to have some spots that you’re going to have to deal with at the printing phase. Think of this as part of the authenticity of the process itself, the serendipitous manifestation of entropy inherent in any physical process.
To print your negatives you need an enlarger, an easel to position your printing paper, printing paper, and trays to hold developer, water bath and fixer and a room darkened by a red safety light i.e. you don’t need to print in total darkness. The developer you’ll use to develop prints is going to be different than that used to develop negatives. Why, I don’t know. You can often darken the bathroom and use the toilet as your easel stand, but a real darkroom is the necessary privilege of doing it right, because it will be a relatively large, air-conditioned room, totally light-tight and equipped with temperature-controlled running water. Lighting during printing will be provided by special yellow-green or red lamps , depending on the type of paper used.
Before starting printing proper, you will make contact proofs with a “proofing press”, a glass with six guides in which the film cut into strips of six frames is inserted, hinged on a plane which was in turn is covered with a thin layer of synthetic sponge. In the darkroom, a sheet of letter-sized sensitive paper is placed face up on the surface with the sponge. The glass is then closed over the paper and kept pressed against the paper sheet and the sponge, the sheet then exposed to the light of the enlarger for a few seconds. The exposed sheet is then removed from the proofer and developed normally in the three developing-stop-fixing basins, washed, dried and then stapled to the archival quality celluloid sleeve that contains the corresponding negatives. You now have a first draft of your entire roll of film from which you can use to choose negatives to print.
Once you’ve achieved a history of successful film development, you will possess shelves of priceless sleeved negatives attached to booked contact sheets that will impressively and conspicuously line the shelves of you darkroom library. On these negatives and contact sheets reside those physical traces you’ve stenciled from the real over the course of your life. Think of the contents of your contact sheets to be alive in some metaphysical sense, as Barthes argued convincingly in his seminal work. Consider this a major part of your photographic legacy, and be sure to leave instructions on their preservation and use once you are gone. No detail should be spared for fear of having a clueless heir throw these mystical traces of life in the trash unaware of their priceless value.
Making the Contact Sheet-Figuring Out What to Print
Your contact sheets serve a practical purpose. You create contact sheets so you can figure out the appropriate negatives to print fully. You do this by examining the sheet with a “loupe”, a magnifying glass cup you place against the contact sheet to view the small positives. The proofs should also give you an initial indication of the contrast grade of paper you should be using. Exposure cards exist in five or six shades which help determine the appropriate contrast grade paper to use for a given negative. You have to interpolate data relating to the finish (matt, semi-matt, glossy) to the brand (with all the types of weight, black rendering and appearance that each manufacturer had in the catalog) and to the gradation. Again, if you must, consult Stroebel et al.
Once you’ve gotten over the disappointment of your numerous exposure and framing errors, you pick a decent negative and insert it into the enlarger tray that fits into the enlarger head. You then raise/lower the head so that it projects the image onto your paper easel in the size and margins desired. Put in a strip of paper into the easel for a test exposure strip, focus the enlarger onto the easel and make a test strip.
Once your test exposure has been established, actual printing begins . Focus your enlarger lens onto the easel for a properly sharp print (minus the printing paper obviously) set your enlarger lens aperture to a middling aperture where the len’s native optical quality will be at its best and depth of field will be sufficient to compensate for any curl or lack of flatness as the paper sits in the easel (I usually opt for f5.6 or f8 if there’s a slight curl to the paper as it sits in the easel) and determine how long you’re going to expose the print based on the results of the test exposures. Turn off the enlarger and place your photo paper in the easel. If your photo sheet is large (16×20 inches and more), taking it from the box is a solemn, existentially weighted affair, given its size and intrinsic value as sensitive material you’re going to use to keep alive the trace born of the light that physically impregnated your film. With adequate humility you will place this on the paper easel, a metal plane with four kinds of rulers which, overlapping the sheet of sensitive paper, protect it from light by creating the margins, establishing the cut and theoretically keeping the paper flat.
Of course, it’s never that easy. Left to itself, your sheet will take on a concave or convex shape according to whim and this will nullify your painstaking attempts to focus properly; likewise, rarely will the exposure be uniform across the sheet. It will often be necessary to dodge and burn some parts of the light for proper exposure. Hands are used to cover the parts dodged/burned. Some use sticks and cardboard cut outs in various shapes.
Once pulled from the easel the exposed sheet is gently placed face down under the surface of the developer, gently shaken with tong and turned several times. There, in the reddish semi-darkness you will witness the developing image . This moment is charged with emotion. Wait until it looks as if the print is properly exposed and remove it from the developer tray. But before turning on the light and being able to contemplate the work, the sheet has to be immersed in two other baths: stopping and fixing. This is but a matter of a few minutes. Once the print has been taken from the fixer and started washing you can turn on your lights. Wash the print in a slowly flowing water tray for 30 minutes or so and you’re done.
The Fateful Moment
Turning on the light usually brings disappointment. The print never looks like it did when it was illuminated by the darkroom safety lights. Never. Here is the first real judgment of all your hard work. The results are rarely satisfactory. A decent print, in fact, is usually obtained only after innumerable attempts, during which you will curse life. Persevere and you will eventually get it. My Master Printing Mentor – a pretty famous guy – said it took him about 10 years to figure it all out.
Meanwhile dust lurks everywhere, doing its best ruin your efforts. No matter how you cleaned the negative before placing it into the enlarger carrier, white specks of dust will invariably appear on you museum grade print, as will scratches contained on the film created during its development. The only remedy for this consists in a spotting operation on the print itself after the print is dry . Spotting is a pain in the ass. The real difficulty is diluting the black spotting liquid to match the gradation of gray on which to intervene, not to mention the different types of paper with different shades of black. The bottom line is this: avoid spotting whenever possible. Do so by being 1) fastidious about developing your negatives as gently as possible without excessive handling; 2) dry your negatives with Photoflo and don’t allow them to hang once dried; 3) use a static brush on any negative you enlarge; and 4) always use clean hands when touching negatives to place in the enlarger carrier. In the end, it doesn’t matter, really. Unlike what digital partisans will argue, entropy is real.
Someone, Somewhere, is Happy to Give This to You Free of Charge
All of this has a payoff. It used to be that front to back film photography cost a lot of money: the Leica with “bokeh king” Summicron (and possible Leica Meter) with matching leather case, bulk film loaders and cassettes, various 100 ft rolls of bulk film stored in a dedicated freezer, expensive enlargers with purpose built optics, darkromm exposure meters, analog timers for perfect development, trays, squeegies, film development cannisters and reels, bags of unmixed developer and fixer, ascetic acid stop bath, Photoflo, opaque glass jugs to store mixed chemicals, adjustable easels, rotary print dryers, water filtration systems, Univac electronic anti-static machines with exotic camel hair brush, etc. Literally thousands of dollars in 1970’s era currency.
Now, believe it or not, all of it can be done, from start to finish, for little to no outlay of funds. Everything you need above – with the exception of the Leica – is at this moment being given away for free by hundreds of beaten down former film photographers, clueless executors of estates of dead photographers (“Here Jimmy, take this box of photography junk, maybe you can figure out how to use it”), defunct photographic trade schools forcibly closed by the government for student loan fraud, unfunded film departments of MFA Photographic Arts programs at State U., and chastised 20 somethings who, in a quest for authenticity, have naively bought all of it brand new from Adorama, used it once and now store it in their basement. Just consult your local bankruptcy listings, Craigslist or Facebook Analog Photography groups for specifics. The 60 year old Leica that hasn’t been serviced since 1973, that’s going to cost you. Big Time.