Monday, July 14, 2014

Film again?

http://www.fjamesconley.com
Prints drying on a line.
Renovating my house a mere eight years ago, outfitting a darkroom was of primary importance. In my early teens, my dad had built me a darkroom. It lacked running water, but it had everything else, including his GraLab timer, an enlarger, and various pieces of equipment.

Not long after, I started working first for the college newspaper and then doing staff work at a daily. At those jobs I had access to elaborate darkrooms, and the home darkroom was no longer used.

Along came graduate school and the rest of life depriving me of commercial facilities and I was stuck using bathrooms and kitchen sinks to develop film and prints. It was always workable, but always difficult. Inconveniencing myself and other people so I could have access to water was an impediment which interfered with the creative process.

So the chance to have a full working darkroom in the basement was a dream decades in the making. It was a dream which I realized to B&H's pleasure. A proper sink that can accommodate 16 x 20 trays, multiple safelights, a drawer for boxes of paper, an elaborate enlarger timer, a full-frame easel, full-frame negative carriers....the UPS deliveries were frequent. While I waited for some of them, there was plumbing and wiring and light-proofing to do.

At the end of it, I had a space as comfortable as any I had worked in before. I used the darkroom frequently and started to  fill volumes of binders with negatives. My fingernails started to yellow and the taste of fixer was ever present.

And then, somewhere along the way, digital crept in.

The quality of digital had long been unacceptable. I always toyed with it, even going back to the Apple QuickTake 100. The expense was too high and the quality too low to make me question film, but the convenience, speed, and flexibility were impossible to ignore.

The Canon 10D changed everything. It wasn't cheap, but the price was low enough to justify, it accepted my investment in lenses, and it gave me the flexibility to have a decent grade of digital imaging. After that, the pace of digital improvement took off and every year brought a seeming doubling in quality. Then along came mirrorless cameras which combined digital with the joys of rangefinder size and silence, making it difficult to find a reason to pick up a film camera.

At some point, some five years ago, the darkroom fell into disuse. Increasingly higher prices for film, chemistry, and paper combined with the simultaneous increase in digital quality and a drop in prices for digital bodies brought digital into reach and put film out of reach.

And so for years I have been digital only. It hasn't ever been fully satisfying. Digital images have always needed a lot of postprocessing, and the dynamic range continues to be insufficient. The pros of time-saving and storage, however, outweighed the cons and I started to forget about analog.

Fast-forward to cleaning up my office last week and the discovery of three rolls of undeveloped black and white film. Paired with a lazy desire to do something other than cleaning, the mysteries lurking on the film consumed my attention.
http://www.fjamesconley.com
Random black and white negative film.
A visit to the dusty darkroom revealed bottles of Kodak and Ilford chemistry in questionable condition. But since the film was old and probably useless anyway . . . .

An hour later I had three strips of wet negatives hanging to dry, and the long-forgotten excitement of peeking at those images nearly knocked me over. It's an experience which isn't articulable—you've either gone through it or you haven't. There's nothing like it, and it's addictive.
http://www.fjamesconley.com
Agfa negatives hung up to dry.
My boxes of paper hadn't held up over the years, and I was sure they were fogged. (I later confirmed that they were, but did a few prints anyway just to remember what it's like to see images appear from nothing.) This revelation snapped me back to the reality of why I had drifted from film in the first place: it's difficult and expensive to share the images. And that was THEN. Checking the prices of photographic paper available now brought up websites that also sell gold nuggets. My filmy reverie was broken.

Let's be honest: there's nothing "green" about film. It's all chemicals and lakes of water.
Film is just so attractive as a medium, though, that I can't give up yet. There must be reasonable ways to digitize negatives.

I've had experience using negative scanners, but they were always too slow and the quality has been disappointing. I process my own film, and I don't really like the idea of sending my film out for scanning. Moreover, most "commercial" scanning services aren't much better than the consumer scanners can do. So I decided to try with a DSLR instead. So far, I've only been able to experiment with an 18-55 Canon lens that has macro. It's a crap kit lens from God knows where, but it's the only macro I have. I put the negative in a full-frame enlarger carrier to hold it flat, put that on a light table, and then put a soup can (with both ends cut off) on top of that. I put an adapter ring on the front of the Canon lens so that I could balance the camera on a soup can. The goal was to keep everything aligned as much as possible, and that part actually worked out pretty well—edge to edge, corner to corner, the negative was in focus.
http://www.fjamesconley.com
First try at DSLR "negative scanning." Inverted in LightRoom and cropped, but no other digital processing.
The present problem is that I can't get close enough to fill the frame with the negative, so I'm losing a lot of quality by cropping. Moreover, my hacked set up on top of using five year old negatives developed in old chemistry isn't going to give me a very accurate indication of what's possible.  I intend to get some fresh film and developer, and maybe an extension tube and see what I can get.

Despite all the difficulties, film has attributes and creative potentials that I can't find in digital. This is a project that's just beginning.