Feeling Negative. Taken with a Sony A200 DSLR and Sony DT 35mm f/1.8 SAM lens.
Digital-Film Hybrid Photography
This article is aimed at the new and curious. You may be a child of the digital age, or you may simply be struck with nostalgia. You’ve just seen that beautiful old film camera in that charity or thrift shop. Maybe you found it in your parent’s box room, or couldn’t resist it at a car boot sale. You love it’s retro look and feel – it’s so heavy, so real. You wonder if they still sell film for it. Does it still work? Can you get film developed any more? Even if that’s possible, maybe you enjoy digital photography, for it’s ability to share your images on Flickr, Tumblr, Deviant Art, or Facebook?
Now go to the Flickr social networking and image sharing website. Search for groups (now called communities) that cater for film or analog photography. You will find thousands of film photographers sharing thousands of images captured initially on film. Far from dead, it’s booming. Why is this? Can’t they afford digital cameras? Why are they still using film cameras?
First thing that I’m going to state that this is not a discussion on the tired and exhausted old Film V Digital debate. Digital won the mainstream. The newer generations of digital cameras are awesome. This discussion is about the new hybrid of the two formats – using film photography to create digital images. Images captured in silver emulsions that are later shared in the digital world.
Why bother at all with film? I can think of ten reasons:
- Price. I couldn’t afford a real 35mm SLR in it’s day. But I could afford to collect them now. I’ve previously posted on the subject of cheap film cameras. A camera can have a manitou. I enjoy bringing it back to life.
- Old film cameras can be awesome to use. The build, the look (increasingly copied in the “retro” styling of some new higher end digital cameras), the feel. I still get a kick out of forwarding the film. Many of them feel and look nicer than black plastic DSLR cameras.
- I enjoy opening a new film. I enjoy exploring the properties of different films.
- Patience in an age of instant gratification. Honest, it’s not rhetoric. There really is something about having to wait for your images. You have to use up the film then process it. Each image will have a cost. You may well find yourself thinking a little more before squeezing that shutter release. You can’t shoot off at a high frame rate – then sit down and delete away, all of those images that don’t look the best on that LCD. Each capture has more value.
- The analogue image. It’s real. Even when digitalised (scanned). You can still see the tones and grains of HP5. Believe me, a digital camera with it’s sensitivity (ISO) turned up, does not produce grain. It produces digital noise, and it’s not pretty. Just look through the images in the film/analog communities on Flickr. Elsewhere, all of these fake digital filters to recreate a vintage film look. You can create the real thing, dust, hairs, and all should you wish. Use an expired film to get those retro over the top colours. It’s real analog. A rebellion against digital perfection.
- Satisfaction and challenge. A lot of novice D-SLR users think that they’ve made an effort if they switch their camera exposure program to aperture priority. Believe me, if you recondition a film camera, use it in the field, perhaps setting fully manual exposure and focus controls yourself – maybe even without a light meter, then chemically process your film yourself, successfully scan it, then you feel rather more satisfaction if your final image is what you want. Instant gratification devalues effort and reward.
- Negatives. A digital file is stored as binary data, in a licensed format such as .jpeg. It is far from future proof – remember the VHS? Remember MS DOS? I love how we can store so many digital images – on hard drives, flash, memory sticks, or on Internet Clouds. However, it’s nice and more future proof to also own something analogue and material. A carefully stored film offers this. A hard master copy of your image. Years after .jpeg fades into obscurity, a film will still be there for either traditional printing or digital photographing/scanning. It’s real, not noughts and ones in the Digisphere.
- I’ve got to say it. Using a film camera is presently cool. So cool, that it’s spawned a new industry of Toy cameras from China. When everyone else on the street is packing a black plastic Canikon D-SLR camera, your film camera will stand out. People want to talk about it. People feel more relaxed to pose, after all – it’s not as though you are instantly going to upload a dodgy image to the Internet (are you?). On the street, a small zone focus 35mm compact camera is invisible. Anyway, the subjects are busy keeping away from that dude on the corner with the massive D-SLR, and Canikon photography back pack. Subtlety is not that. Ugh.
- Medium format film. You want a medium format digital camera, be prepared to splash out circa £45,000 for a new Hasselblad. Even those sensors don’t match the capture area of a 6cm x 6cm 120 film exposure. Medium format film is big, greedy, beautiful. Some professional studios still use, or have re-employed it for a reason. Many digital photographers, that are not interested in 35mm film, are tempted by a big fat Mamiya. Medium format film photography is just awesome.
- Because it’s still here! Enjoy film photography while it’s still cheap and affordable. Scare your future grandchildren with your lovingly stored negatives. Seriously, they will be in total awe.
That’s some of the reasons that we bother to use film cameras for photography and for online image sharing. Ok, where do you want to take this? Can you still buy film?
Yes! Even in my local small backwater East Anglian market town, I can buy 135 (35 mm) photographic film from at least four different local outlets (even Poundland). I can buy a lot more online. As for 120 roll film, I can’t buy it here, but travel to medium sized town or small city, then yes – any real photography shop will sell it. Online I can buy it in many forms. Other formats of film? That can be tricky – but 35mm and 120 no problem yet. If I go onto the website of a certain famous online auction company (starting with E), and look in the Cameras & Photography/Film Photography/Film category, I presently see a total of 4212 items listed. It aint dead yet.
After using, how are you going to process your films?
- Take them or post them to a commercial photo lab. Yes they still exist. You’d be surprised, even locally you may have C-41 photo labs waiting for your film. I need to explain something to you. There are three types of photographic film. First. The reversal colour film. That is manufactured to produce E-6 processed positive transparency film for slides. Second type: C-41 processed colour and some C-41 b/w negative film for prints. This is the default for colour negative film. Third, so-called true black and white negative films – the bulk of b/w negative film. Many surviving local commercial Photo labs can only process C-41. So ask. Tell them what the film is. Not all staff are well trained. Postal specialists are a good option, but in order to reduce postal costs, it’s often best to wait until you have several films to send. Search online for their websites, or check the classifieds in Photography magazines (such as b&w or professional photography magazines).
- Develop film yourself at home. You do not need a full darkroom in order to develop film. All that you need is a film changing bag, so that you can load your film into a developing tank without any light reaching it. I’ve heard of some people light proofing a closet, or even using a bin bag under bed sheets. However, a good quality film changing bag is a good option. The easiest film to home process is b/w negative (not C-41), because it’s optimum developing temperature is a manageable 20 C with a fair degree of tolerance. You’ll need a film developing tank, measuring jugs, film changing bag, and chemicals: at least a b/w developer, and a fixer, maybe also a stop bath and wetting agent. Process is: developer, stop (can be replaced by a good rinse), fixer, a thorough rinse, and perhaps a wetting agent, then hanging and drying. It really is easy, once you have a technique. Should you wish to process colour negative film using C-41, it can be done at home, and economically (if you process enough film) but it’s optimum temperature is 38 C, with less tolerance. It usually includes C-41 developer, bleacher, rinse, fixer, a thorough rinse, finally stabiliser (stab). Better to start with home developing true b/w with an easier to manage optimum time and temperature.
- A common choice for many film photographers, is to home process true b/w but commercially process C-41. It’s up to you.
Huge 6 x 9 negatives exposed earlier that day in an 80 year old box camera. Captured as above image.
What to do with your developed films, and how to share them (online)?
Option 1. The whole hog. You love analogue. You like to go analogue all the way – no photons to electrons. Maybe you are a photographic print artist that wants to exhibit? You want to traditionally print on photographic papers, making contact sheets and using an enlarger in a darkroom – processing the photographic prints in trays of chemicals . That is so cool, that is where the real old magic of making images appear on paper is. However, I can’t help you any further, as it’s not a course that have taken, nor am I likely to take in the near future.
- I like to share digitally. A true analogue print can only be appreciated by the human eye at first hand in the real world. Some might do this with galleries, clubs, and exhibitions.
- Space and family. You are going to need a real darkroom with running water (temperature controlled), space for processing trays, and an enlarger at minimum. I know that some people manage to do this in a bathroom. However, you are going to need to gain consent of other household members.
- Expense. My resources are limited.
Option 2. If you are having your films commercially processed, most photo labs offer to sell you a CD with their digital scans of your film. You see, most photo labs do NOT traditionally print. Their machines simply digitally scan the negatives following process, and these digital images are then printed. So those photographs that you get in the wallet from your photo lab are …. digital prints, not traditional prints on photographic paper. Still, if you want, you can also buy the used scans on a CD. One problem – they tend to be low resolution. You might be able to do better yourself.
Some independent photo labs might (if you inquire), skip scanning and printing all together – and for a lower price just develop your films for you, to scan for yourself at home. That way, you take control over their quality and save money. Other better photo labs will offer to scan your films at a better quality and resolution – for a higher price. Equally, a few specialist labs may even offer to traditionally print your photos on photographic paper in the darkroom. Just don’t expect to find this service on the High Street, or cheap.
The question arises here, if you use a street or postal commercial photo lab that returns a wallet of prints with your developed negative films, why not just slip these prints into a bog standard flat bed scanner, and generate your digital files that way? You can. However, the quality (if quality is important) will not be as good as obtained by scanning the negative ‘master copy’ on the film. Still, it is how many people share images online from their film cameras. I don’t, because of a) the quality issue, and b) I rarely use a commercial lab anymore.
Option 3. Digitally photograph your exposures. This is admirably the most cheapskate route. Not had any success at it myself. You need to make some kind of light box, a digital camera, and preferably have a macro lens or lens extension tubes. If you get it right, you can not only save money and gain street cred, but you can produce those cool digital captures of film images, with the borders of the negative displaying the film legends. You simply macro photograph (with carefully focusing) the film. Special built zoom tubes for copying film are manufactured, although they tend to be pricey, and are usually designed for full frame DSLRs only. You then use software to reverse the negative image.
Option 4. Also often cheap. Buy a Chinese 35mm film scanner from Amazon/Ebay that uses a small CCD sensor to digitalise your images. Be aware, quality is limited, and that they can’t scan medium format. Still, they suit the purpose of some. I’ve recently seen these for sale in the local Aldi superstore!
Option 5, Use a Flatbed digital scanner (such as the Epson Perfection V500 or Canon Canoscan 5600f), that is affordable, but is designed to scan photographic film as well as flatbed documents. These scanners are essentially flat bed document and print scanners for home or small office use – but have a LED lamp built into the scanner lid, that directs light down through a film, held flat in a plastic mask. They are not perfect, as slightly bending film can take the film out of focus. Some users rectify this by using third part adjustable masks, or by using plates of special non-reflective anti-newton glass in order to present the film flatly between.
Personally, I use an Epson Perfection V500 scanner. It can scan both 35mm and 120 film, and can remove dust from C-41 images using the Digital Ice technology. The V500 is a bit out of date, it was mass produced, and is subsequently available and fairly cheap (around £160 new). I don’t bother with anti-newton glasses or specialist adjustable film masks. I simply use the default supplied Epson masks. Good enough for my purposes. If you buy a used model – make sure that the film masks are included, as they often part company with the scanner, if it has been used as a pure flat bed for documents. Additionally give consideration to medium format. Will you need to scan 120 film at some time? Does the scanner cater for that?
Option 6. Buy a middle to high end flat bed scanner (£350 – £2,000) capable of film scanning, or an even more expensive dedicated film scanner. A drum scanner (outrageous money). Lots of money when you could have simply used traditional optic printing to produce that quality. However, they will produce the best quality digital images from your valued films. Only for professionals and wealthy enthusiasts.
In all cases, following digitalisation, you can use software to manipulate the images prior to sharing. Personally, I go with Option 4 (Epson Perfection V500 scanner), and then use open source software (Gimp 2.8) to clean up, maybe optimise a little, before online sharing. However, if you are one of these bizarre people that like spending lots of money on a restrictively licensed Adobe product such as Photoshop or Lightroom, then you can use that software.
There are lots of die-hards that will sneer at the digital manipulation of an image captured initially on film. Don’t worry about them, or just confess in any online share that you’ve done it. Let’s get real though. These are digital images, taken from analogue film. You cannot share analogue captures online or through your computer or phone. When you scan a negative, invariably the scanner will interpret it as it wants – and perform some manipulation in creating a binary image file. The same with those printed photographs from the photo lab. Unless carried out by a specialist, they will have most likely passed through digitalisation en route to the print. Their process scanners will have automatically manipulated them – adding sharpness, back light, and colour correction.
An important point. The most expensive photograph ever sold (Rhein II by Andreas Gursky – auctioned for £2.7 million), is a film-digital hybrid. Taken by a large format film camera, then scanned and digitally edited.
I hope that I’ve simplified the options for other novices that follow in my path. You have many options. You can stick to full digital. Why not? Digital is great for instant clean results. You can use a film camera – get the film processed commercially. That is equally cool. Keeps labs in service and in business. Or you can develop film yourself – you might discover some satisfaction that the instant age deprives you of. Heck, you could go for the full job – darkroom and traditional printing. Is it all worth it? The choice is yours.
Run Like a Dog. This photo captured on budget (Poundland) 35mm film in a Pentax ME Super raised 350 favorites and several thousand views on the Flickr website.