Why In My Day…

Civil War Photographer

Civil War era photographers with “mobile darkroom”. (Note sexy poser atop the wagon!)

As a UI/UX designer (User Interface/Experience) for websites and software, I’m all about making design as intuitive and user-friendly as possible and I try not to forget from whence I came in my technology. This was evident yet again this week as I was getting more perturbed at the lack of a reliable Wi-Fi connection at my local Starbucks. As I sat browsing the global Internet on my iPad, I posted my disdain on my Facebook page where millions could read it from any country on this planet with a connection to the Internet. (Not that I have millions reading my Facebook page, just that millions could read it.) Before I could finish my post a buddy sent me a photo from his mobile phone to mine and I just had to respond by calling him as he sat in his car almost 1400 miles away. We chatted briefly about the inadequate resolution of mobile phone cameras and slow they are to upload video, and that I had a contract I could work remotely on my laptop from the recliner in my living room to a web server 145 miles away. Afterwards, I got to thinking about how amazing technology is nowadays and how spoiled I’d become. I even tap my foot impatiently in front of the microwave while waiting 90 seconds for fresh popcorn. (Spoiler Alert! Grandpa is gonna’ talk about the “old days” now.)

I’ve been a still/video photographer for over 30 years and the speed of technology progression I’ve seen in this industry alone is incredible. Sure, most of us know how fast computers have improved but computers haven’t been around as long as photography (1790s) and video (1950s). Just in the time since I began shooting we’ve moved from a film-based media to all digital and you’d be hard pressed to even find a lab in your neighborhood that will do film. In high school I learned the fine art of manual photography and dark room work. Yes children, back in my day we used magical potions to reveal the souls of people we captured in our magic boxes. And we walked to school through four feet of snow… both ways! Sure, it’s not like we were carrying around a tent, 20 gallons of caustic chemicals (some explosive) and 30-50 fragile, heavy glass plates circa Civil War photography era but compared to photography now, it’s almost barbaric to think of what we had to go through even two decades ago. What’s even more amazing is that some of you reading this have never known film or a world without HD television, DVDs, mobile phones and the Internet! You young’uns don’t know how good you got it!

Of course we’re already entering that phase where photographers who “do film” are considered eccentric and quirky. Yeah, there should always be somebody doing film to keep the traditions alive but seriously, the old ways totally sucked slugs, even using technology available up to now. Let’s compare then and now, shall we? Back in my early days of film cameras you had to accomplish the following just to show your work:

A. Buy film every time you wanted to shoot

  1. Remember film must be protected from heat!
  2. Store film in fridge or cooler

B. Load film in your camera in subdued light

C. Manually adjust all camera settings including:

  1. Film speed
  2. Shutter speed
  3. Aperture
  4. Focus

D. Take up to 36 images (hope they turn out) by:

  1. Pushing the shutter
  2. Manually advancing the film
  3. Rewinding film at the end of the roll

E. Unload film in subdued light

F. Reload film (in subdued light) if you want more images

G. Process all film by sending it to a lab or doing it yourself

H. Wait for photos (no 1-hour photo labs when I started)

I. Review photos

J. Throw out 65% of crappy photos (+/- 50%)

K. Enlarge, mount, frame or book your photos for display

  1. Enlargements usually done by a lab
  2. Safely store negatives in environmentally controlled conditions

L. Wash, Rinse, Repeat (literally if you did your own film!)

Of course the more you shot the better you got so you could improve the ratio of usable images but you still never knew for sure until you got the film back from the lab or you processed it yourself. And shooting black and white film then dropping it off at the local Kmart always took longer because it had to be sent out to a lab that did black and white processing. Now let’s compare with what you must do today:

A. Stick a memory card into your digital camera

B. Point the digital camera at your subject and push button

C. Look at the LCD screen and see if you got what you wanted

  1. If not, shoot again then repeat step C.
  2. If yes, shoot hundreds of images on one card

D. Download photos to computer (or straight to the Interwebz)

E. Delete the bad ones

F. Enjoy your new found fame

Roll of Kodak film

“Grandpa, please tell us about “film” again!

See, substantially easier with much fewer steps! Of course there’s a bit more to it than that but not much. And remember you can use the memory cards over and over. I estimate I’ve shot over 85,000 images in my career. (Notice I didn’t say “successfully” shot.) Although I shot a lot of expensive pro 35mm and 120/220 film, for our purposes I’ll just estimate the price at today’s average cost of $5 for a 36 exposure roll of Kodak Ektar 35mm color print film. 85,000 images equate to approximately 2,361 rolls of 36 exposure film at $5 a roll totaling $11,805. Now add to that the average cost of developing said film, we’ll say conservatively another $5 a roll, and that’s a whopping total of $23,610, tax not included! Then add the cost for any enlargements and you can see how much money we spent. Granted, going pro digital has more substantial up-front cost but it’s still a lot cheaper in the long run.

Now let’s go one step further and see what’s involved in processing your own black and white 35mm film (Color is more expensive and intensive). In this example, I’m working mostly from memory for Kodak Plus-X Professional using Kodak D-76 developer (and all Kodak chemicals) at about 70°F. For the unknowing it’s a rather lengthy and messy process:

A. First, find a completely dark room (hence the name “darkroom”) or a light-proof changing bag

B. Lay out your clean, dry processing equipment where you can find it all in the dark by touch

C. Using a bottle opener, pop open the film canister in complete darkness

Remember these?

Remember these?

D. In complete darkness, carefully remove the film from the spool then:

  1. Trim the film leader with scissors
  2. Feed it onto your processing tank reel
  3. Do not allow the film to kink or bind
  4. Do not handle film with wet or damp hands
  5. Try to touch the film only by the edges
  6. Swear at any misfeeds and try again!

E. Place the reel on its spindle, and then into the daylight processing tank

  1. If you’re using cut/sheet film the process is not as easy
  2. Close the light-tight lid on the tank and be sure it is closed completely!

F. Turn on the lights and measure out the following chemicals in 3 separate, clean measuring cups. Use fresh chemicals to prevent contamination and ruined film:

  1. Developer
  2. Stop Bath
  3. Fixer
  4. Hypo (optional water sheeting agent)

G. Review the development times for your brand and speed of film

H. Insure that the chemicals are all within the proper operating temperatures. (This is very important! The warmer the chemicals the faster the development, the faster the development the more pronounced film grain. Some professional films can be ruined when processed too warm.)

I. Set your timer for the first chemical bath

J. CAREFULLY pour the developer into the processing tank

  1. Immediately start the timer
  2. Firmly tap the tank on the counter twice to release any air bubbles on the film
  3. Let the tank sit for the remainder of the first 30 seconds.
  4. After the first 30 seconds, agitate for 5 seconds at 30 second intervals
  5. Agitation should consist of 2 – 5 cycles, depending on the contrast needs
  6. Do not over agitate or the film exposure will suffer!
  7. Place the tank back on the counter so your hands don’t warm the chemicals and alter the development time
  8. Repeat the inversion agitation as directed, about 3 inversions every cycle for the required time (7- 8 minutes depending temperature and agitation)

K. Drain the chemicals from the tank and dispose

L. Fill the tank with water twice to rinse all developer from the film (not always required)

  1. Do this quickly as the developer is still working! Too long means the film will be too dark.
  2. Set your timer for the next step

M. Carefully pour the Stop Bath into the tank and don’t spill it because:

  1. It stains
  2. It stinks
  3. It is an weak acid but can still burn sensitive skin and eyes

N. Immediately start the timer and repeat the agitation steps from step J.

  1. Watch the time carefully as it only take about 60 seconds to work
  2. Carefully drain the tank as before, remembering steps M, 1-3.

O. Flush the tank thoroughly with water for about 90 seconds to remove the Stop Bath

  1. Drain the tank
  2. Set the timer for your next step

P. Carefully pour the Fixer into the tank and immediately start the timer

  1. Following the agitation steps from step J.
  2. Carefully drain the tank

Q. Wash the film in fresh, temperature controlled water for 30-45 minutes

  1. Use “Hypo” clearing agent to speed wash time and prevent streaks or
  2. Hang the film with a clip in dust-free environment so it cannot touch any surface and carefully squeegee the water away
  3. Allow film to dry completely before handling!
  4. Use compressed air and/or camel hair brush to remove dust

R. Cut and sleeve the film making sure it is clean and dust free

  1. Film MUST be stored in a environmentally controlled manner or it will deteriorate
  2. Ultraviolet light (sunlight) and high temperatures and humidity can ruin film in a matter of days (as can having the basement flood!)
  3. Store negatives hanging or flat in binders in acid-free sleeves or envelopes
Film negatives

“Analog” image storage.

This is just the “basic” development procedures for black and white film. There’s more consideration involved depending on film type, sensitivity, and whether it is color negative or color slide (reversal) film. The process for printing your negatives is just as intensive and also uses several chemical baths and washes, exposure equipment and a host of paper types and sizes. And like some film processing steps, enlargements must be carried out in a dark room under a special “safe light” to protect your paper.

To say that the “old way” of doing film is worth the effort is not really valid anymore, especially in the business of photography. Yes, it’s a skill that shouldn’t be allowed to fade but it’s just not practical any longer. The time and expense in shooting film is just too great, especially now that so much work is shown digitally and many clients use digital workflows. Arguably digital photography is just as good as film though some would differ in that opinion. A lot of quality has to do with knowing how to use the best equipment. I’m also a forensic photography examiner from my past career as an investigator and when I place a quality digital print next to a quality film print I cannot see the difference – and neither can most other people!

Next up… Video improvements through the years!

{ 0 comments… add one }

Leave a Comment