I have a few friends who are just starting film photography. They want to learn how to develop their own film and how to print or scan it. There must be many others thinking the same questions my friends are thinking. So, I thought I would write about the process of choosing film and developer. On the next post I’m going to cover scanning with a flatbed scanner.
What is the look I’m after for?
The difficulty in film photography is that you can’t snap your photos and then alter them as you like. If you are a Photoshop Lightroom user, maybe this analogy will help: you are stuck with one preset for the whole roll. You can alter the photos after you have scanned them or when you are wet printing, but there is much less you can do about film photos than digital ones. Therefore the idea is to find a film and processing scheme that will give good results without much tweaking.
The first thing is to know what kind of look are you after. I my self tend to search Flickr to see how certain film looks like. I simply type ”Tri-X" or "Delta 3200" to the search field and search for photos that match the setting I am going to shoot in. The problem is, quite many of the film shots on Flickr are digitally altered. Another problem is that the same film may look very different on different formats. Shots taken on 35mm cameras look grainier and harsher than photos taken on medium or large format cameras.
When you find photos you like, take a note if there are tags of the developer used. Different developers have big impact on how the exposed film is going to turn out. Also colored filters change how BW film acts, so look for information about possible filter used as well.
What film should I buy?
I would recommend any ISO 400 film to begin with. 400 is a do-all sensitivity that will let you shoot in many indoor and outdoor conditions.
There are plenty of ISO 400 films. Kodak Tri-X, Ilford HP5+, Rollei Retro 400S are grainier, giving a classic film look. They are also quite tolerant to exposure errors. I personally like Kodak T-Max 400 which is a very versatile film with more modern look. On the downside, T-Max is more particular about how it’s exposed and developed.
Big plus with some ISO 400 films is that they can be shot at ISO 800 or 1600, meaning you deliberately underexpose the film to get shorter shutter speed at low light. Then you’ll compensate the underexposure by giving the film longer development time. This is called pushing. Just remember: you have to shoot the whole roll at same ISO to get properly exposed shots.
Which ever film you choose, try to stick with it for a while. Be constant with your developing habits and try to find proper look with the developer you are using. You can alter agitation, developing time and many other variables to get different tonality. Shooting one roll of this and other of that won’t teach you much.
What chemicals do I need to process my film?
You’ll need film developer and fixer. Other chemicals are not essential. Developer forms the image on an exposed film and fixer makes the film resistant to light. I won’t go into detail how to process your film.
What developer should I buy?
Many people who start film photography shoot quite low volumes of film, so a developer that has a long shelf life may be the best option. Kodak HC-110 and especially Agfa Rodinal are known to have very long life expectancy. I personally use Kodak D-76, which is sold in powder form. When the powder is mixed, Kodak recommends the developer to be used in 6 months. I have used 12 months old developer with good results.
I find “one shot” developers easier to use. One shot developer is diluted with water and then used only once before it’s disposed. It’s easier to get constant results with one shot developer, as you are not going to use same diluted developer over and over again, calculating how much the developer is weakened after x rolls of film.
By the way: Be mindful when disposing film processing chemicals!
The next level?
So you already have found your basic ISO 400 film? Or maybe you have this one specific photo shoot in mind and you special film for the purpose?
For landscape, studio or outdoor portraits you may find many films with very personal looks at ISO range 50-200. Agfa Scala, Kodak T-Max 100 and Ilford Pan F+ all give different looks.
Shooting film handheld at night? While there are less and less very light sensitive films available, there still is Ilford 3200.
For tripod work with extremely long exposures, use a film with low reciprocity failure, for example Kodak T-Max or Fuji Acros.
There are also infrared sensitized films that give quite unique effects when shot with IR filter.
I want to emphasize: try not to get blown away. I’m positive three different BW films is all most of the photographers are ever going to need. Mastering even one is better than having shot all of them.