I recently took the plunge and did something I have been thinking about for a while now. I Bought myself a second-hand film body. In fact I bought two, one a canon 1D and the other a Leica M6. Both great cameras, one, the canon was pretty cheap, the Leica on the other hand was expensive considering it is over 20 years old. This reflects the esteem Leica is held in the photography world and there is no doubt that camera is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship. It is a solid piece of kit and will probably outlast me.
Swooning over the Leica is another post altogether as today I wanted to reflect on the processing of the negatives and how this compares to the digital workflow. This Easter weekend I finally got around to playing with my new photographic chemistry set in the bathroom. I processed 6 rolls in total. Out of those 6 I had 3 that came out with no problems (due to processing). I had two rolls that were unevenly developed due to problems with loading the spiral reel and one that came out with 6 blank exposure. The latter could be problems with exposure though and nothing to do with the processing. So this got me thinking about the relative ease of the digital workflow. From the time of capture the photographer can see what the end result will look like. Digital gives instant feedback and if the file doesn’t look right then I can adjust my settings and shoot it again.
Once the file is on the card its relatively easy to ensure its safe processing and storage. Compare that to film, even if I have captured the shot the way I want it still has to survive the journey from canister to developing tank in complete darkness, which must be maintained until the developer is poured down the drain. one tiny spot of light and the entire roll is compromised. And as I experienced if you load the spiral roll incorrectly you might get half the roll blank.
The second challenging area of the analogue developing processing I have found is the hanging/drying bit. The Ilford PDF on developing your own film says this:
“Leave it to dry in a still, dust-free atmosphere”
Like where exactly?
Does such a place exist in the average house? I used the bathroom but still I felt like I was holding a dust magnet and hair and dust came rushing to me unbidden once I started to work with the negatives. From the time the film came out of the developing tank to the scanner I might as well been charged with static electricity. Thank God for Photoshop and the clone tool!
All that aside though, there is definitely something about film that makes it special, sacred almost. For one thing there is the pleasure of touching the photographs immediately, they seem more real than their digital successors. There is also the excitement of waiting to see the results.
I feel too that it brings me closer to the feeling that the early photographers must have felt at the wonder of the process itself. I know I am seeing the results of interaction between light and silver particles in an emulsion, I know the emulsion was exposed to the light for a brief period in time, I understand all this but it doesn’t explain the miracle of it all.
The immense satisfaction derived from the developing process cannot be equaled by sitting in front of a monitor either. Its like playing with a chemistry set, lots of chemicals and water , a real mess!
Then there is the look of the film itself, these photographs look completely different to digital files. I have processed this a little in Photoshop, to remove the dust and scratches and repair a little of the damage done due to a mistake in processing. The grain is from the film, not Photoshop. The dream like quality is also from the film. So is the timeless quality of the image. I don’t know if it’s from the actual film (Fuji Neopan 400) or the processing or the capture. It’s truly a happy accident. The end result is one that I would like to try and emulate digitally. Film:Fuji Neopan 400. Camera: Leica M6. Developer: Ilford Ilfosol 3 1+9 for 6 1/2 Mins @ 20 C agitated for 10 seconds every minute.