film photography

Test Your Goddamn Film.

Test Your Goddamn Film

Until early 2018,

I never took properly testing my film or developer too seriously. I picked a developer, cycled in between basically anything I could find and shoot, mostly just to shoot whatever I could find, and just stuck with whatever recipe the massive dev chart suggested, and hoped for the best. Honestly, it worked -- most of the time. That being said, over time, I’ve begun to desire more consistent results, to build a codified aesthetic, or voice if you will. I had a long period shooting Delta 100, in Kodak Xtol 1:1, but even then I’d go off and get distracted shooting Fomapan 100 for a week, or some bizarro expired neopan, without really digging into testing best practices for that core of Delta 100. While I may not have finally settled into a consistent aesthetic -- I’m still settling on my daily shooter/singular film stock -- I have learned or at least gained an appreciation for good testing and consistency. I think thorough testing is a necessity to the craft of black and white analogue photography, and to a lesser extent -- color photography.

Traditional Silver Black and White Negative film, and its developers, is the only film which requires extensive testing. There’s only one true “correct” developer for color negative still film, which is C-41 or whatever the company making it is calling it. Any color negative development, outside of that is cross-processing. Once you learn what an individual emulsion does, and how it reacts to light, and what it does when pushed or pulled or whatever other idiot processing decisions you want to subject it to it’s not going to deviate from that -- but even then, with rare exception, almost all C-41 film behaves the same way. As of writing this, there are over 100 different developers listed on the Massive Dev Chart. Given some (most) of them may not be in wide use. But even then, let’s say there are 10 “standard developers” (Rodinal, HC-110 or Ilfotec HC, D-76 or ID-11, DD-X, Xtol, Sprint, the Pyro Family, Ilfosol S, and Diafine), that’s still 9 more developers that are standard process than color film has. And each one of them has different dilutions which do different things, and act differently based on the relative temperature one develops at.

For my primary case study, I’d like to use Rodinal, because it’s such a universal developer. Let’s go over some standard assumptions -- Rodinal has three standard dilutions, 1:25, 1:50 -- the “standard” , 1:100 -- which sometimes is performed as a semi-stand development, and sometimes as a full stand for at least one hour. Rodinal does *not* play nicely at higher temperatures than the given 20ºC/68ºF, and tends to create heavy, heavy grain, as it is an Acutance developer, and most of its developing action comes from making grain larger rather than cutting away at the grain -- ie a solvent developer -- I’ll get to that soon. On top of that, because rodinal works at high dilutions, 1:50, 1:100, and those dilutions can take so much time, you can get compensation. Compensation is a bizarre phenomena which seems to allow one to get a more even rendition, along with sharper edges on their image subjects, but within certain limits, and only with certain developers. On top of that rodinal can be used to push, but because of the way the developer works, it’s typically not used as a push developer. Or at the very least, from my personal experience, one should not use additional time to push the film itself, to “gain” a stop, so much as they should use it to increase the negative thickness or the amount of contrast on the negatives. (NB: most of my info is pulled from Massive Dev, or Unblinking Eye -- they have a page specifically on Rodinal).

I don’t know if you’ve been keeping tally of all the variables and considerations in that last block of text, but that’s a lot of variables, with a lot of finicky and personal/preferential answers -- That’s three separate dilution choices, temperature volatility, speed volatility (ie how much grain the developer creates given the speed of the film, then also how much nominal speed the film loses in the developer), what kind of contrast you need, how much extra time you should be developing to compensate for a particularly dark or light scene. And those are just the developer variables, that’s not even taking into account how you rated the film you’re developing, or the water quality/mineral content of the water that you’re using for your dilutions.

That being said: most film, or at least any film made by a decently large manufacturer, or of “professional quality,” typically comes with its own datasheet, which should either be right on the film’s own box, or available from the manufacturer, online. Kodak is really great about this, as is Ilford, given the number of different films they manufacture. I even have a data sheet from the now defunct AGFA, for the batch of APX100 I shot (which actually confirms their loose recommendation of 17 minutes, in Rodinal 1:50.) These sheets typically give best practice for the film, and the best possible starting point. That being said, they’re not long on examples, just pure data on “how much contrast do you want vs. how thick your negative will be (gamma), and this is what the light response curve is.” Which is great, but not really a good substitute for figuring out what you actually need out of a film, which, unless you can perfectly read all those charts, and intuitively know what the film will look like, you still have to go and shoot film yourself to find out what the compensation is like, the amount of grain is in a given developer, or even how a developer will render the film given the scene. And this isn’t even taking into account all the variables that go along with developing, aside from time. All of this is a good starting point, but at the end of the day, you should still conduct your own tests.

Testing your film is important. Thorough testing allows one to get exactly the look, feel, and density one requires out of their film, without having to worry too much, or spend an excess amount of time correcting or photoshopping, once a desired benchmark is set. Once you sets your benchmark, you end up saving much more time in the long run despite the initial timesink of having to do all the research and testing in the first place. To make this personally relevant, this process of testing, in detail, is why I won’t review a film, unless I can shoot at least 20 rolls of it (if not more), because without that thoroughness, or exposure to multiple developers, conditions, etc, I feel it paints a relatively incomplete picture of what a given film is capable of. Admittedly, I was inspired to do or start testing thoroughly or sticking with a single film (per usage) at a time by Johnny Patience’s Article on the death of the zone system, which is also definitely worth a read.

Anyway, to sum all of this up: If you want the best most consistent results, test your goddamn film.

If you’ve enjoyed this content, buy a zine in the shop, so I can continue to produce it, and host it here on the website. -- Thanks!

What I learned shooting... #4: Agfapan APX100 (35mm)

A thorough review and overview of one of the last batch of Agfapan APX100 in 35mm. Tested primarily with the Minolta XD-11, and Rokkor MC-PG 50mm 1.4 lens, and to a lesser extent the Minoltina AL-s. Primary Developers used were Kodak Xtol, and Rodinal.

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What I Learned Shooting... #3: Minolta XD-11 -- A Tribute

I’m gonna switch topics from film to cameras and lenses here for the next couple weeks while I wrap up my 2 100ft rolls of Agfapan APX 100. (I’m at #17/36 as of posting this)

I have pretty much all the gear I could want or reasonably need. I have a full shooting set of lenses (and a few extras) in Minolta SR (the actual name of the mount, not MC/MD -- so help me god if I hear one more person call it that...), and in Pentax 6x7 for medium format.

Over the last five years I’ve shot a Minolta XD-series (XD, 11, and 7) camera with near slavish devotion. I’ll test out a new camera now and again --mainly an SRT 102 (seriously underrated), and the Minoltina Al-s (also critically underrated).

I may switch to a compact rangefinder (say a CLE with Rokkor 40/2) now that I tote a Pentax 6x7 around for most of my “serious” work, and use 35mm as a bts/quick journal camera, but I’ll never get rid of my workhorse(s). Also if I end up doing more portraiture or editorial work, and it wasn’t on Medium Format, I’d happily shoot it on my XD.

Let me put a few things out there right now:

  1. I love these cameras so much, when I had all four break on me, I nearly got their serial numbers tattooed onto my ribs (I didn’t -- a friend pointed out that that was kinda Holocaust-ey, and maybe I should avoid that -- thanks Jake.)

  2. I’ve always been a “Minolta guy,” my first camera, at age 15 was an XG-M, the repair guys at my local repair shop Walter’s Camera Repair -- http://www.walterscamerarepairs.com/ -- Call me “the minolta guy.” (not a paid endorsement, seriously, if you’re in LA and need honest repairs done at a fair price and pretty quickly, they can probably help you out.)

  3. Either by gross overfamiliarity or closemindedness, I really don’t like most of the other 35mm camera brands’ SLR’s from the pre-autofocus era. I hate the Canon AE-1, I think it’s a bad camera with a backwards meter, honestly Canon SLR’s on the whole before AF are just straight garbage. Most of the Nikons are nice but badly designed, clunky, or flat out backwards -- good lenses though. I guess Pentax is okay (for 35mm -- Medium Format is a whole different story). I don’t know shit about Olympus -- people who shoot them seem to really like them.

  4. I think most reviews of this camera kinda miss the point of it. Or at least haven’t run  give or take 400 rolls through the the thing. It’s always “Leica this, Minolta that.”

  5. My complaints on reliability are a little bullshit. I probably ran +/- 75 rolls through the damn thing this year. I don’t think most people run that much through their cameras or tend to flat out abuse or over-carry their equipment the way I tend to. I’ll probably keep stricter track next year.

After nearly a page of disclosures and complaints here we go:

Here’s why I love this camera:

  1. It feels really nice in the hand. -- It’s a relatively compact design, but all metal, and it’s weighted really evenly with the 50 1.4 MC, which is the lens I use most as of writing this. I realize this is probably a dumb thing to vaunt as it’s best feature, but it makes it much more enjoyable to use regularly.

  2. It has a quasi-mechanical vertical shutter. While it lacks a really fast sync speed -- like a Contax g2 or a leaf shutter camera -- it can do 1/100th of a second, mechanically. I can shoot any lens I regularly use with it, safely, and mechanically if I have a battery failure. Also 1/100th of a second is fast enough for *most* uses. I know HSS is a hot commodity, but 1/100th is usably fast for me. Also, for an SLR, assuming you get a good copy of the camera, it’s really quiet.

  3. It has three modes in order of usefulness, Manual, Aperture Priority, and Shutter Priority. It’s not easy to accidentally switch between the modes, and they’re all pretty reliable --- the camera actually has a hidden program mode which double-checks your exposure and fixes it -- steplessly.

  4. The meter is good down to EV 1 -- Which basically has you covered in most situations you’ll ever run into, unless you’re a hardcore night photographer, or shoot mostly backlit.

  5. Kind of a no-brainer, which is why it’s #5 on my list, but Rokkor lenses.

Complaints:

  1. It’s a hard camera to fix. My normal shop can do a bunch of fixes on it, but they can’t fix everything -- apparently the circuit board is kinda janky, or not an easy one to fix because of how early-primitive it is in its technology.

  2. It’s not nearly as reliable as a standard mechanical camera. I put way too many rolls through my camera, but I still probably have to send it out once a year for maintenance.

  3. People have started to get in on the camera, and the price of them keeps climbing. Also the number of Black Minolta XD’s keeps shrinking. And if you’ve seen the black finish, you know how great it is. The silver is fine, but the black finish is just better.

What’ve I learned shooting it?

A lot.

I’ve had one (of four) basically since I showed up in Los Angeles five years ago.

Basically, with the XD-11, I’ve used it to shoot everything: friends, the city, my drive across America, my first fashion editorial --- which I’m pretty sure never got released --- and every project I’ve done in 35mm. If you look at my instagram or any 35mm feature or story on here, it was most likely shot on the XD11.

It also showed me what I like and dislike in a camera, and it’s now what I bench my expectations around.

Anyway -- Thanks for reading! If you’ve enjoyed this -- please consider buying a zine in the shop. It helps me keep the lights on here.

Feature #3: Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve (Color)

For my third feature here, I’m giving a permanent (bigger) home to my color film (C-41 and cross-processed slide film) photos of the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve, and running a sale on the BNW zine until Monday (11/5) at noon.

Get your copy @ Frozenwaste.land/shop .

Additionally, I thought I’d do a quick writeup on what and why I chose to do the zine, and why I decided to do it as a series of black and white photos rather than color.

The Writeup:

When I first got to the Poppy Reserve, I actually had Slide Film loaded into my camera. I had assumed (incorrectly) that the poppies would cover everything, and be in full bloom (they didn’t, and were, on a nearby hill outside the reserve.) However, once I stopped and looked at the hills, there was something utterly fascinating about the way the hills rolled and bent, how the paths around the preserve cut through the desert grass, and the manner in which the mid-morning light gave the whole place a dull but certain sheen.

All of this, in my mind, would show better and more clearly in black and white. So, as soon as I finished my roll of Rollei CR-200, I popped the first of six rolls of Fomapan Creative 200 120 film into my Pentax 6x7. Fomapan 200 (or Arista Edu Ultra 200) is a T-Grain film, and typically exposes best around 160 iso, and while my go-to developer is or was usually Kodak Xtol, I decided to expose around 100 to 125, just to capture the luminance of the desert landscape. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you which lens I used for what after the fact, but I do know I likely used the 105 and 55 (58mm and 24-28mm equivalents respectively).

Ultimately, despite producing a limited pool of photos, I thought that the geometry and tonality I captured was worth sharing with the public in a real way. By creating a short zine (rather than a 50 page megazine), it allowed me to get familiar with designing and laying out a photobook or printed project of my own, and actually commit to printing and selling it for a relatively small amount of overhead, when compared to some of the larger projects that I had priced out previously.

Your Phone is All the Point-and-Shoot You Need.

Shooting or taking pictures daily, or very frequently, is an essential habit for photographers of all stripes. Many of us who shoot film carry a dedicated film camera on us all the time, in addition to the camera that every living person carries: their cellphone. I believe that your phone camera is an equally useful, or better, point-and-shoot than any other stand-alone point-and-shoot camera (a compact film or digital program camera) for most uses, and that buying a true point-and-shoot is pointless.

Most point and shoot cameras were aimed at the average person who wanted to shoot photos wherever without having to worry too much, and take their camera with them easily. Likewise the premium point and shoots were supposed to enable pro photographers on the go to shoot a nice camera anywhere without having to lug their normal gear. The iPhone destroyed the camera market, and digital point and shoot sales aimed at the average person have largely been completely cannibalized by cellphone camera market.

On the premium end of the spectrum we have the Contaxes, Fuji’s, and Olympus Mju’s on the film side, and the Rx1 and assorted fixed lens Leicas/Panasonics. I could definitely understand if you didn’t want to take your studio camera, you’d take a lighter smaller camera with you for day-to-day shooting. Most film shooters, take their “premium” point-and-shoots with them in addition to some other interchangeable lens camera. Unless you’re lugging a medium format camera, or something else equivalently heavy, it all seems a bit redundant.

Realistically, how many of us regularly shoot or share for print? Even if one did print regularly how often would you really want to print a 35mm negative bigger than 11x14, (about 12 megapixels)? I know that 99% of what I shoot day-to-day on 35mm, goes to a 5.5-6” screen, max. I can’t imagine being far from the norm here. If one absolutely needs grain or a particular film look, you can fix that in 30 seconds or less, in VSCO.

The main argument, that I would accept is that: you know what focal length you want, the point and shoot camera provides a look and feel, that’s satisfactory to you, and it’s part of your artistic goals or statement, or you find that shooting a dedicated camera gives better results than taking your time with a phone, more power to you. But for those of you that use that camera in addition to a Leica or a Contax g2, or basically any 35mm SLR, why? It seems like pure collectorism, especially with the insane (and still rising) prices, and the diminishing or flat out non-existent ability to repair these cameras.

My phone is one of my favorite cameras. It does exactly what I need it to, which is take pictures that I don’t have to think too much about, or offhand as a reminder to go back and shoot something, or when I can’t be bothered to take a regular camera with me, which I’d argue is the whole point of a premium point and shoot, it’s supposed to be simple and quick for social use, which is exactly what modern technology has provided with in-phone cameras, and software.