Film Photography

Making film photography less expensive

As I’ve said before, film photography has never been less expensive. Great film cameras be had for pennies on the original dollar. Also, film and processing are less expensive, adjusted for inflation, than they were in the 1970s and 1980s.

Yet prices are on the rise. Many old cameras have become very popular, and their prices have soared. Kodak, Fujifilm, and Ilford have raised their prices a great deal in the last year or so. And the popular film labs now charge upwards of 20 bucks per roll for developing and scanning!

Fortunately, you can still manage the costs of cameras, film, and processing. You just have to manage your expectations, too. You can still find plenty of good cameras for under 50 bucks when you look beyond the popular choices. You might have to learn the limits of some lower-cost films that are new to you. You’re not going to get white-glove lab service where they remember all of your preferences. But you can have plenty of good fun, and get satisfying images.

Inexpensive cameras

Ah, for the halcyon days when for 50 bucks or less you could buy a hip Canon Canonet QL17 rangefinder, or a classic Pentax K1000 SLR, or an ultra-compact Olympus Stylus, or a smooth Yashica-D TLR.

Boy, are those days ever over. Fortunately, plenty of film-camera bargains remain. You just need to step off the beaten path.

Nikon N90s

Plastic-bodied auto-everything 35mm SLRs are currently the strongest bargain in film photography. They make great starter cameras. My favorites are Nikons, like the N65. Canon, Minolta, and Pentax made “plastic fantastic” SLRs, too. You can buy them for as little as $15 or $20, often with a zoom lens attached. It’s crazy, but even sturdy, well-featured semi-professional bodies like Nikon’s N90/N90s and Canon’s A2/A2e can often be had today for under $50!

If you must have a manual-focus SLR, plenty of cameras fly under that $50 price tag. I’m a big fan of Pentax and recommend the ME, ME Super, or Super Program. With Nikon, look to the Nikkormats, such as the FTn or the EL. With Canon, try the FTb, TLb, or T70. Or choose a solid Minolta SR-T, like the SR-T 101. Plenty of people sell these with a 50mm prime still attached, and I’ve yet to encounter one from any manufacturer that wasn’t very good.

If you simply must have the cachet of a big name like Voigtländer or Zeiss Ikon, look for models without onboard meters and focusing aids (such as rangefinders). Or look instead at Kodak’s Retina cameras, which in my opinion remain undervalued.

Pentax IQZoom 170SL

Point-and-shoot 35mm cameras are extra popular — and expensive — right now, especially those with fine lenses. Plenty of fairly priced cameras remain, however. Pentax’s IQZoom/Espio series has some gems. I’m a big fan of the 170SL. There was a whole series of Olympus Stylus cameras and some of them are still reasonably priced. Try the Zoom 140.

In medium format, you’re incredibly unlikely to find a TLR or rangefinder for chicken feed. Even vintage folding cameras now generally cost $100 or more. But you can have a great deal of fun with a box camera! Kodak and others made them by the bazillions and they go for very little. I’m a big fan of Kodak’s No. 2 Brownie, most of which are more than 100 years old. They do surprisingly good work. An Agfa Clack is another fine choice with more modern ergonomics. I’m stepping a little out of my depth here, but you can buy a brand new Holga for $40! You just have to be ready for the lo-fi look you’ll get.

My friends who love Soviet cameras say they’re the best bargains in film photography. They especially recommend the Fed 2 and the Zorki 4 as Leica clones. Or look for a Zenit 11 SLR, or a Lomo Lubitel 166 TLR. They all have their quirks, and the Soviets were not known for build quality, but well-functioning examples can still be had.

If you worry about getting a dud, check out my tips for inspecting vintage cameras before you buy: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Inexpensive film

There are some truly outstanding films today. Unfortunately, many of them now cost $9, $10, $11 or more per roll.

All is not lost: a number of 35mm films cost about $5, and some even less. The king of inexpensive color negative film is Fujicolor 200, which you can often find for under $4. Kodak ColorPlus is another fine choice — it has a classic Kodak look. You can sometimes snag Kodak Gold 200 or Ultramax 400 in 24 exposure rolls for under $5, as well. Unfortunately, I don’t know a color negative film in 120 that costs less than $5. You’ll sometimes find Kodak Ektar or Kodak Portra 400 for $7 to $8, however.

You have lots of $5-and-under choices in black and white:

  • Foma’s Fomapan films, in ISO 100, 200, and 400. These are often rebranded: Kosmo Foto, Arista EDU, Holga. Available in 35mm and 120.
  • Kentmere films, in ISO 100 and 400. These are made by the same people who make Ilford films. 35mm only.
  • Ultrafine Xtreme, in ISO 100 and 400. These are the biggest black-and-white bargains I’ve ever found. 35mm and 120.

I’ve heard reports of iffy quality control in especially the Foma films, but I’ve not had any trouble with them. But in challenging lighting conditions these bargain films sometimes return blown-out highlights or blocked-up shadows where Kodak and Ilford films perform well.

But Kodak Tri-X and Ilford HP5 Plus and FP4 Plus only cost about $7 a roll. Sometimes you can find Kodak T-Max at this price. That’s just a couple extra bucks for those times you want that extra latitude.

I based all of these prices on what is listed today at B&H and the Film Photography Store. You can buy film online at lots of places; here are the places I recommend.

I know some of you are poised to comment: Buy film in bulk and load your own 35mm cartridges! After you buy a bulk loader, yes, this can cut the cost per roll. But bulk-loaded cartridges don’t have DX coding, which eliminates a lot of cameras. Also, cameras that wind automatically have been known to pull the film end right out of the cartridge. This is why I’ve shied away. But bulk loading might work for you, and can slash film costs.

Inexpensive processing

I really miss taking my film to the drug store or to Costco and getting serviceable developing and scans for as little as $6! But even when I was doing this, I knew these services were nearing their end. There just wasn’t enough business to sustain them.

Mail-in developing is where it’s at, and where it’s been at for at least a decade now. There’s been an explosion of small labs! But most of them are expensive. Many of the well-known labs have nudged their prices high.

All is not yet lost. Here are two less-expensive labs that I use.

Fulltone Photo: They charge $7 to process and scan 35mm color negative film, $7.50 for 120 color negative, $8 for 35mm b/w, and $8.50 for 120 b/w. If you spend $15 or more, they waive their $4.50 return shipping charge.

Dwayne’s Photo: This well-known lab charges $9 to process and scan 35mm or 120 color negative film, and $11 for 120 or 35mm black-and-white film. Shipping is $5 for the first roll and 50 cents for each additional roll.

Persistent Googling might turn up other inexpensive labs. If you know of any, let me know in the comments!

Developing your own film can dramatically cut costs. But first, you must buy a bunch of developing equipment and a film scanner. If you buy everything new, you’re laying out no less than $250. Each roll costs you time, especially in scanning, and there’s a learning curve to get consistently good results. But if you shoot a ton of film, after a long while you will break even and then start to save money this way.


There you have it: my best tips for saving money in film photography. If you have more of your own, share them in the comments!

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Film Photography

The mysteries of exposure and film exposure latitude

I thought it was a shame I hadn’t shot my Nikon F2AS in a long time, so I put some film through it recently. The meter led me to shutter speeds that seemed slow for the full-sun conditions, out of line with Sunny 16.

I shot four subjects twice, once using the F2’s meter and once using the my phone’s light meter app. The app consistently had me expose two additional stops!

I shot Ilford FP4 Plus through my 35-105mm f/3.5-4.5 Zoom Nikkor lens (which I like less and less the more I use it). I developed the film in Rodinal 1+50 and scanned the negatives on my Canon CanoScan 9000F Mark II using VueScan. I brought the scans into Photoshop where I unsharp masked them all, corrected perspective if that was necessary, and on one shot toned down the highlights, but otherwise left them alone.

There are so many possibilities in any scene, from how you expose it to how you develop it to what you do with the negative in printing or scanning and post-processing. These pairs show it well. The F2 metered shot is first in each pair. In this first pair, I like the second shot more for its better definition in the houses, and the more silvery reflection in the pond.

Reflected houses, overexposed
Reflected houses, underexposed

In this pair, I prefer the second shot again for its rich, smooth tone in the tennis court surface and the better definition in the houses.

Tennis net, overexposed
Tennis net, underexposed

In this pair, I like the first shot better for its slightly better shadow detail. The first photo is the one where I toned the highlights down slightly in Photoshop. The path was a little washed out in the original scan.

Path, overexposed
Path, underexposed

In this pair, I like the first shot better for its slightly better shadow detail and its better definition in the sky.

Lowe's, overexposed
Lowe's, underexposed

What do you see in these photos? In each pair, which do you like better?

I think to some extent what we’re seeing here is the good exposure latitude of FP4 Plus — these are all technically decent photographs. Also, what we all like in a photograph is subjective.

After I finished this roll I checked my F2’s meter under a bunch of lighting conditions and couldn’t reproduce the odd meter readings I was getting. Soon I’ll mount a lens I know and like better, probably my 35mm f/2.8, and shoot this F2 again to validate the meter’s functioning.

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Film Photography

Lessons learned so far in home film development

I’m finally achieving consistent results when I develop black-and-white film at home. This is in large part thanks to several of you. Thank you for commenting encouragement and valuable tips every time I share my results here.

I put off developing my own film for years for a whole bunch of reasons. One of them was that I wasn’t looking forward to the learning process. Some people intuitively understand physical things: mechanical, manual, chemical. I’ve never been one of them. I always struggle to learn. It takes me an enormous amount of time to build the habits and muscle memory for it to be automatic. I don’t enjoy the process.

I’ve developed about 20 rolls of film over the last ten months or so and finally have it down. I can do it without much thinking. This is exactly where I want to be.

I thought I’d share my process. Maybe you have further tips that will help me make it more efficient and effective.

I do everything in our master bedroom and its attached bathroom. I spread my dark bag out on the bed and put the tank, reel, and film inside. For 35mm film I also include a bottle opener and a scissors. I use Paterson Super System 4 developing tanks (graciously gifted to me after the original owner stopped using them). I have a 290ml tank for 35mm and a 500ml tank for medium format. For 35mm, I use the bottle opener to pry the end off the film canister. Then I use the scissors to cut the leader off the film and cut the end of the film off the spool. For medium format I just peel off the tape at the end of the film off the spool. I load the film onto the developing reel, put the reel in the tank, and snap the inner lid into place.

I take the tank out of the bag and into the bathroom where my big plastic tub of developing gear and chemicals awaits.

I’m still sold on one-shot developers with long shelf lives. I don’t want to hassle with replenishment or worry about developer going bad. I started with Rodinal (R09, actually; it’s the same thing) and soon added a Kodak HC-110 clone, LegacyPro L110. Both are equally easy to use. The Rodinal gives me sharper results at the cost of more noticeable grain. L110 gives me smoother but softer results. (HC-110/L110 is reusable, by the way; I just treat it as a one-shot developer.) Later I added Adox HR-DEV specifically to develop a roll of Adox HR-50 film.

Right now, I prefer Rodinal. I dilute it 1+50. Rodinal gives great apparent sharpness. I scan on a flatbed Canon CanoScan 9000F Mark II. Typical of flatbed scans I always need to sharpen them with unsharp mask in Photoshop. I can always sharpen my Rodinal scans to my satisfaction, but sometimes not my L110 scans.

Conventional wisdom is that Rodinal isn’t a good choice for films ISO 400 or faster. Yet I’ve gotten acceptable-to-me results on T-grained Kodak T-Max 400.

I use L110 for fast traditionally grained films like Kodak Tri-X. I also reach for it on any film when Rodinal 1+50 leads to a development time of under five minutes. I’ve had poor luck with development times shorter than five minutes — there’s just no room for timing error. L110 diluted 1+63 leads to long enough development times on all of the films I use.

L110 1+63 leads me to use the 500ml tank for 35mm, however. The quantity of L110 1+63 in my 290ml tank is is insufficient, risking developer exhaustion before developing completes.

If I wanted to stick with Rodinal in this case I could try a 1+100 dilution in stand or semi-stand development. But so far I haven’t wanted to wait the 30 to 60 minutes that takes.

I also use L110 is with expired film. I love Kodak Verichrome Pan, which hasn’t been made since the 90s. It’s a hardy film, but it’s still subject to base fog after so many years expired. L110 cuts right through and gives me great images.

The L110 isn’t in its original bottle, by the way, because I read somewhere that air is this developer’s enemy and it is best to divide the developer into smaller, very full bottles so air touches a smaller quantity of it as you use it. But Mike Eckman of mike eckman dot com uses HC-110 exclusively and tells me this actually isn’t necessary; HC-110 and its clones are hardy. So I won’t do it again.

The HR-DEV gave me stunning results on Adox HR-50 film — Adox intended this film and developer to work together. I have one more roll of HR-DEV to shoot, but I’ll still have a lot of this developer left. I’ll probably experiment with this developer on other films to see how it behaves and use this bottle up.

Whenever I break out the developing chemicals I light a scented candle. My wife is super sensitive to odors and many chemical odors interfere with her breathing. The candle helps.

I mix the developer first and start developing. Between agitation periods, I mix the stop bath, fixer, and wetting agent. I use Kodak Indicator Stop Bath, Kodak Kodafix fixer, and Kodak Photo-Flo wetting agent. At first I used a graduated cylinder to measure these chemicals, but later I bought some 10ml syringes, which are easier to use. I use distilled water to dilute my chemicals.

I reuse my fixer about five times before discarding it. So most of the time I’m not actually mixing fixer, but rather pouring it out of a storage bottle. I’ve gotten advice that I can use my fixer far more than five times. But fixer does eventually exhaust, and I don’t want to learn when the hard way. Fixer isn’t all that expensive, really. It’s just needlessly wasteful to use it only once.

In the photo above, you can see my fixer (far left) is yellowing a little, probably thanks to residual stop bath in the tank after having developed four other rolls. After I pour out the stop bath I usually rinse the tank with a swig of tap water to prevent that. It looks like I must have forgotten somewhere along the way.

I use the Massive Dev Chart Timer app on my iPhone to manage the developing process. It cost eight bucks, but the app is worth it. It keeps all the recipes from the Massive Dev Chart and lets me adjust developing time for temperature. The app then leads me through the entire developing sequence with timers that tell me when to agitate and when to pour out a chemical.

When it’s time to agitate the film I use the agitator rod, usually five spins one direction and then five the other, repeating until it’s time to stop agitating. I follow the Massive Dev App’s agitation scheme, which for every recipe I’ve used is continuous for the first minute and then ten seconds every minute thereafter. I tried inversions early on but gave them up. It’s challenging to get the lid on the tank, especially under time pressure. Also, I never figured out how to invert gently enough and thus burned a lot of film. The agitator rod works perfectly for me.

I use the Ilford method to wash my film. Here, I don’t mind putting the lid on the tank because timing isn’t important and the Ilford method saves time and water. I fill the tank from the tap, put on the lid, invert five times, and discard the water. Then I repeat with ten inversions, and then with 20 inversions. I rotate the tank a quarter turn with each inversion to make sure the water distributes over the film evenly. Then I put in the diluted Photo-Flo, let it sit for 30 seconds, and discard.

Then I open the tank and take out the film. I squeegee the film using the Johnny Martyr method. Some people worry about the squeegee scratching the film, but that hasn’t happened to me. When I skip this step I get water spots, despite my use of Photo-Flo. Then I hang the film to dry off the shower curtain rod, using a plastic hanger and a binder clip at each end of the film. Miraculously, I get very little dust on my negatives.

I enjoy trying new-to-me films, but what I’m discovering is that every film has some developers that bring out its best look, and the developers I use might not be among them. Right now I really want predictably good results when I develop and scan at home.

So I will figure out a few films that look good in Rodinal or L110, and stick with them. I want one good film at each of ISO 100/125 and ISO 400. I’d also like an inexpensive film for testing cameras.

I just bought a bunch of Ilford FP4 Plus in hopes it can be my good ISO 125 film; it wowed me when I shot it for the first time recently. I’ve already developed a lot of Kodak T-Max 400 and it’s pretty good in these developers, but I might try a couple other ISO 400 films to see if I can do better.

When I get around to trying inexpensive films, I’ll try Ultrafine and Kentmere. I’ve tried Foma in its ISO 100 and 200 guises and haven’t been thrilled, though I’ve gotten advice that Fomapan 200 delivers best results shot at EI 125 or 160.

That’s it! If you have wisdom to share that might help me refine my technique or get better results, let me know in the comments!

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Film Photography

Ferrania P30 Alpha in Rodinal

I’m starting to develop 35mm black-and-white film now. It was my goal all along — I started with 120 because it let me shoot a roll fast so I could get to the developing. I shoot way more 35mm than 120 normally.

Last week I shared a roll of Arista EDU 200 I shot, developed, and scanned. I thought surely it and my whole box of to-shoot film was damaged by a space heater I kept too close by. But a commenter said “hey, maybe your Rodinal has gone weak.” I did open a new bottle of Rodinal to process some Eastman Double-X 5222 and, spoiler alert, it turned out perfect. So it was the Rodinal. Maybe I didn’t get the cap on right last time, and for the little bit left in the bottle the air scotched it.

I didn’t get that comment before I used that potentially compromised bottle of Rodinal to process this P30. Several photos turned out reasonably well. They might have looked better in fresh Rodinal. But they show P30’s signature characteristics: nearly undetectable grain, rich blacks, strong contrast, and a reasonable tonal range.

Barber Shop
Garage
All locked up
Monon Coffee Co.
The Bungalow
Mpozi mural

I shot this roll in my Pentax Spotmatic F with the 55mm f/1.8 SMC Takumar lens attached. I developed it in Rodinal 1+50 at 21° C for 12 minutes, 40 seconds. Ferrania advises 20° C for 14 minutes, but the ambient temperature led to 21° developer and I had to adjust development time. I used the Massive Dev Chart’s converter. The first two shots are from downtown Carmel, and the next four are from Broad Ripple.

Some photos didn’t fare as well. Anything with significant amounts of sky in it suffered. I shot all of these around Broad Ripple.

Monon bridge
The Bungalow
Bridge to Fresh Thyme

Interestingly, the film closest to the outside of the roll fared the worst. This is one of the first photos I made on this roll. It still shows P30’s signature rich blacks, despite being so mottled overall.

Meijer

One last photo, just because I like it. That’s my wedding ring on the ring holder thing we keep near the kitchen sink. It’s Belleek pottery; we bought it at the Belleek factory in Northern Ireland when we visited a few years ago.

Ring holder

I have one last roll of P30 Alpha, which I just retrieved from my freezer. I’ll shoot it soon and I expect far better results from it, developed with fresh Rodinal 1+50.

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Film Photography

Developing 35mm black-and-white film and why you should keep your film in a cool place

I’ve built enough skill developing black-and-white film that I finally made the move from 120 to 35mm. I started with 120 because I could shoot the eight or 12 frames quickly and get to the developing tank. While I was learning I didn’t want to spend the time to shoot 24 or 36 exposures of 35mm film only to bugger up the developing.

I loaded a roll of Arista EDU 200 into my Nikon F2AS, mounted my 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor lens, and took it around with me for a couple days while I was on vacation last week. The film went onto the developing reel with great ease. I used my 290 ml tank instead of the 500 ml tank I had been using for 120 film. I calculated my ratios of developer, fixer, etc., and mixed them all up. I don’t think I’ll ever think of developing as anything other than tedious, but it went without a hitch. But the negatives were mighty thin, and when I scanned them most of them looked like this.

Hobnob Corner, Nashville

I’ve seen results like this only with very expired film with an unknown storage history, such as this roll of Tri-X. I wondered at first if my chemicals were to blame. I used fresh fixer. My Rodinal is less than a year old and has always been capped tightly, so it should be fine.

I used 6 ml Rodinal and 294 ml water for a 1+49 dilution. That’s 300 ml in a 290 ml tank but I chose to do it for easier calculating of the ratio. I developed for the 1+50 time as per the Massive Dev Chart, but that slight difference shouldn’t have mattered. I even researched online whether I’d used too little Rodinal and it exhausted before the film was fully developed. I found plenty of people using an amount of Rodinal similar to mine and getting fine results.

Then it hit me. The space heater.

The fridge in our garage died last summer. I kept my shoot-soon film in the fridge and the rest in the freezer. The kitchen fridge was mighty full, but I did find room in the freezer for my already frozen film. The shoot-soon film went into a plastic box and then onto the floor under my desk. Until a few years ago I always stored my film at room temperature, sometimes for years at a time. I wasn’t worried about my film.

But it’s cold at my desk in the winter. I got out my space heater in January and turned it on every time I sat at my desk until the weather warmed up the first of March. I didn’t notice it at the time, but that heater was less than two feet from my film.

I probably cooked the whole box of film. Here’s what’s in the box. In 120, three rolls of T-Max 100, a roll of Pan-F Plus 50, two rolls of Tri-X expired since 1981, and (most upsettingly) a roll of Verichrome Pan expired since 1983. In 35mm, one roll each of T-Max P3200, T-Max 400, Double-X 5222, Arista Premium 100, Lomography Red Scale, Lomography Purple, and Adox HR-50. There were also two rolls of 35mm Kodak Gold 400 and two Fujifilm single-use cameras in there, all very expired.

I feel 90% sure I’ve found the root cause. But I’ll test this theory anyway with some fresh film. I found a roll of Kosmo Foto Mono and my last roll of Ferrania P30 Alpha in the freezer, both 35mm. I’ll shoot and develop them soon and then we’ll know for sure.

But back to this roll of film. While none of the images looked as good as Arista EDU 200 normally does, many of them looked okay enough to share. Here’s my favorite shot on the roll, of a little statue in a shop window in Nashville, Indiana.

Blow your horn

I shot more than half the roll around Nashville and, later in the day, in Bloomington. But most of those images looked terrible. I finished the roll in Zionsville later that week on a lovely sunny day. Many of those images turned out okay.

Window
Sale

The Zionsville skies all looked post-apocalyptic, though.

House
Houseq

The film’s qualities look pretty good on this tight shot of an old Chevy that parks every day in front of a particular Zionsville house. It’s not a look I strive for, but it’s interesting.

Citation
Citation

Overall I’m disappointed that this roll turned out this way. I was so looking forward to excellent results.

Chairs

I also shot and developed a roll of Ferrania P30 that was in the ill-fated box. It turned out somewhat better. I’ll share those images soon.

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Film Photography

Greater success developing black-and-white film at home

I’ve had my most successful go yet at developing black-and-white film at home.

I had trouble getting the Kodak T-Max 100 onto the reel, though. I tried six times before it took. The first five times it took up okay but at about two-thirds spooled it crumpled and jumped off the track. The stuff feels thicker than the Acros and Kosmo Foto films I’ve developed previously, films that went onto the reel like they were born to be there. The T-Max felt almost as thick as the expired Verichrome Pan I could never manage to get on the reel. It, too, kept crumpling and jumping the track.

I vocally compared the film to the male offspring of a female dog and tried again. It crumpled and jumped the track again, but in frustration I forced the film flat and back onto the track, which crumpled it further but let me keep on. From there I ratcheted the reel very slowly, and finally all of the film was wound on.

Naturally, those crumples showed up as dark curved lines on the developed negatives, which translated to light curved lines on the scans. With Photoshop’s healing tool I was able to fix them well enough.

I used Rodinal at its 1+50 dilution and used the spinner to agitate the film. Because the weather is cooler now my bathroom, and therefore all of my solutions, were a perfect 20° C so I didn’t have to adjust developing time for temperature. I also made sure the reel was pushed to the bottom of the core, and therefore the tank.

To my eye the negatives are a little thin. I fiddled with exposure and contrast in Photoshop to counteract it. I also misfocused a couple shots. I’m usually spot on with my Yashica-12, but not this time. Finally, and I’m not sure why, my scanner simply would not bring in the entire frame of the frog statuettes. The ScanGear software detects the frame’s edges for you, and when it gets it wrong you have no recourse. I muttered under my breath, cropped the scan square, and moved on.

Here are ten of the 12 photos in order from first to last. The other two turned out so well that I’ll share them as Single Frame posts next week.

On our lane
Parked cars
Second Presbyterian
Door
Heavy door
Bench
Arches
Headless
Froggie
The Ruins

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