Friday, July 6, 2012

Want to go analog and shoot only on film from now on?

Pentax K1000 - Power to the people 

This is what you need to know. It’s going to be a long read, so you better have time.

Congratulations on choosing to shoot film. This can be the single cleverest cost-effective decision you will make in recent times regarding your photography. I want to assure you are stepping into a better dimension where your lifestyle as a photographer isn’t going to become a costly proposition. In this present article I will try to give you a fair idea on the scope of film photography and the resources you need to continue your quest for quality. 

Comparison – Film and Digital

To begin with, I have to tell you, a cheap point and shoot film camera can beat the most high end DSLRs like Nikon D4 or Canon 5D Mark II, III etc in not just one aspect but many. Film cameras are extremely cheap and available widely on and off line (power to the people), the accuracy, color depth, dynamic range are all top notch. Whereas high end DSLRs these days are using CMOS sensors, which are horrible at making images. They make low quality pictures than CCD sensors. CMOS sensors are very cheap and the explanation of DSLR manufacturing companies usually give for using these supposedly advanced (low quality) CMOS sensors is ‘they are better in low light photography’. My question is - are you making cameras only for low light photography?????. 

At zoom levels the colors from CMOS sensor images look like they are washed and bleached (ya ya go ahead and see for yourself).  In their process of cutting corners these DSLR manufactures are also cutting the quality of photography. They are using synthetic glass (plastic) in lenses and using cheap inexpensive CMOS sensors. Do you know where CMOS sensors are used? In low-end security/CC TV cameras. Yes, that’s why your photos suck and not because of your skill. The most high-end Canon or Nikon or Sony or Pentax or Olympus or Fujifilm cannot beat the quality of those big 8X10 or 6X4 full format cameras from the 20s and 30s.  As the technology of cameras is increasing, the quality of photographic output is sliding down. The big question is, why?????

Currently, the Nikon D4 actually costs INR 5,24,000 which is equal to the price of a brand new car in India, whereas a brand new Kodak point and shoot film camera (no frills) is available for less than $10 (INR 499). Additionally the Kodak has a fixed wide angle lens. How good is that? Comparatively for a DSLR you have to additionally buy a wide angle lens separately, which is extremely expensive. All wide angle lenses for DSLRs are expensive (irrespective of brand). 

An acquaintance of mine from my photo club uses a Tamron 10-24 and it costs somewhere around INR 25,000 to 29,000. That’s a typical average monthly salary of a qualified IT professional at this side of the world. And how are the image details from the lens? Blurry, colorless, no depth, no detail and mostly like a bad water color painting. Where the hell are we heading?

Film Cameras

This probably is my single most favorite subject to date haha. Don’t fret if I am going on and on. I personally have  4 film cameras with me a Pentax K1000, Minolta XG-M, Chinon CP-7m multi program and a Yashica point and shoot (I suspect it’s a fake, but not sure. Irrespective of that it takes great pictures). The Pentax I took it away from a family friend who also happens to be a professional photographer (with a studio and all) as he was not using it. The Minolta XG-M, I bought from a vendor at a local market for a great price, the Chinon was gifted to me last year June or July by an ex-colleague out of goodwill along with two great Sears lenses (3 lenses on the whole along with the Auto Chinon lens on the camera), the Yashica point shoot was bought by my father from a neighborhood photo studio for around may be $20 or 25.                                                     

Due to the advent of digital cameras, film has certainly taken back seat and currently is almost a purist hobby. There is nothing to worry though. Go to YouTube and flickr and type ‘film photography’, you will find a million resources, groups and there you will find tons and tons of people who are still shooting film and proudly so. A lot them have actually transitioned from digital to film, ditching their digital gear and actually living the film lifestyle. Right from buying a film camera and loading the film into it there are also thousands of tutorials on how you can process your film on YouTube. Isn’t that great?


 There are plenty of film cameras both offline and online. Your local classifieds can be a good source too. If you are living far away from proper urban civilization, you can start enquiring from your friends and relatives or photo studios in your area, most studios have a bunch of equipment lying around that isn’t being used. Its always better to buy stuff where you an physically inspect before buying. Additionally these studios also have accessories like flashes, lights, tripods and other sundry which can also be had at great prices.  

You have any particular camera model in mind? Good. If not you can go to Camerapedia or Camerawiki which have a lot of information regarding film cameras and camera companies. The site also has useful articles related to lenses and photography in general which will be very useful to you as you begin your journey in film photography. You can also compare models and choose the one that best fits your budget and style of photography.
So now you have your camera. What is next?

Film Processing

Firstly, when you are doing film photography you have to know that you are in the minority. So it is extremely important to be resourceful and self sufficient. You cannot always depend on the corner photo shop for processing and scanning your film. Even if you do there is no guarantee of the quality. So what you need is a processing set up, scanning apparatus and archival equipment.   

Processing at home is probably the easiest way to get great images and also save tons of money. How? The chemicals used for processing negatives are very cheap. All you need are – a developer, a stop bath, a fixer, photo flow (to finally wash off all the chemicals) and a thermometer. Last time I checked there were also videos showing the development of film with everyday items like coffee and lemons. Yes surprising indeed. You can view thousands of videos related to the topic here.  

Dark Room

Usually with the kind of money hobby photographers usually have, it’s not easy to build a full fledged dark room. But there are a lot of alternatives to a full fledged dark room. There are thousands of people worldwide who use their bathrooms, kitchens etc. as dark rooms. Also, it is not at all hard to build your own portable dark room from collapsible plastic or fabric walls. It is especially useful if you are living in a rented place. All you need in this dark room is a sink with a tap (or lots of water with draining facility), a table and enough space to put all your chemicals safely. Remember to bring a red bulb too. If you can’t find one, wrap a heat resistant red polymer/fabric/sheet on a normal bulb.

Scanning Your Negatives

This is a fairly simple job. There are a lot of scanners in the market today that will perfectly scan your rolls without any loss in quality whatsoever. You can choose to scan at your own pace and at a resolution suited to you, but remember, higher resolution means bigger storage space. So save the scans as high resolution tiffs and also low resolution JPEGs or as per your requirement. The most popular scanners in the market today are Epson Perfection range, 500, 600 and 700 models, Nikon cool scan, which is a dedicated film scanner and there are also many others. Hasselblad also makes drum scanners called Flextight, but they are extremely expensive. Both the flat bed scanners and dedicated film scanners use CCDs and it is important to check the bit depth. The higher it is the better. Generally it is somewhere between 12 and 16. Make sure yours is not less than 12 bits. 

If you are really interested in very high quality photographic output and have a little bit more money, you can buy a used Drum Scanner for a few hundred dollars from ebay. Drum Scanners capture images through Photo Multiplier Tubes (PMTs) rather than CCD arrays that are employed in consumer grade flatbed scanners. Also the output quality of drum scan is far better than that from a flatbed scanner.  

Bottom line is read the reviews before buying. Also buy film holders separately if they aren’t included with your scanner. 

Archival Of Scanned Negatives/Storage

Store the data on DVDs rather than CDS or hard drives. The lifespan of CDs tends to be just 5 years after which they become unresponsive and hard drives usually crash or become victim to viruses and other technical problems. DVDs have a life span of 30-100 years, so if you store them well you can show your masterpieces to your grand children too. Another way of storing is Google Drive where you can store your pictures online without any hassle and they will be there as long as Google is there, which seems almost forever. 

  • Remember most wide angles during the film era came in 28mm only, which is wide enough for a full frame film camera. Additionally there is no crop factor or other blah so what you see is what you shoot.  
  • If you are worried about wasting film during your learning to shoot film, you can use a very inexpensive digital point and shoot camera (or even your cell phone) to test shoot images first to gauge the look and feel and only then shoot. This will give you a fair idea on what will end up on your film frame.
  • Scan your negatives right after processing. That way you won’t have a huge stack of negatives to process on the weekend. And the stress from scanning will be gone if it is only 2 or 3 rolls. I happened to read on somewhere about a guy who had 3,00,000 rolls and he wanted to scan them and asking people how to do it. Some commented that it will take a minimum of 1-3 years to scan all of them and that too if he treated it as a full-time job working 8 hours a day and taking only the Sunday off. Moral of the story: Scan negatives right after processing. Shoot pictures only after scanning previous negatives.  

All prepped up? That’s very good. I hope this article was useful to you. Cheers and good luck. 




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