Shooting Film for the First Time

Despite the fact that my first camera was a digital Nikon D5100, I’ve always harbored a nostalgic longing for Shooting Film photography’s simpler times. Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell, two landscape photographers who, in my opinion, defined the medium of Shooting Film photography, took the vast majority of history’s outstanding photos.

In my opinion, utilizing a digital camera at such a young age robbed me of the opportunity to have a deeper understanding of photography’s rich history. When it wasn’t the first thing that came to mind while I was out in the field, it did pop into my head periodically.

And so, the last three months of shooting conventional black and white photography in a dark room were a real treat for me. In addition to Tri-X ASA 400 monochromatic film, I used the Nikon F100 because it works with all of my contemporary lenses (including vibration reduction and autofocus).

shooting film

Choosing Subjects Carefully for Shooting Film

Only a few hundred photos can be taken on a single roll of 35mm film. With digital photography, I’ve developed the practice of shooting a large number of test shots before settling on composition and setting that works best for me. The film, on the other hand, is a different story.

When using the F100, I discovered that I spent a lot more time working on each shot than I usually would. Even if I’d spent more than a minute composing a shot, I’d refuse to take it if anything else came up. A roll of film costs about fifteen cents, but you only get a few pictures out of it. My supplies were also limited, as I only had 10 rolls and wanted them to last for three months (which is how long I had access to a darkroom).

So, I had to be very selective about the subjects I chose, as well. Invaluable in the sense that it enhanced my compositions, but time-consuming as well. The film takes a lot longer to shoot than digital, and that was the most noticeable difference for me.

Lack of Instant Feedback

My preconceived notion of film photography’s greatest challenge was confirmed before I purchased the F100. As a landscape photographer, I use the LCD screen of my digital camera almost as much as the viewfinder. To make sure my focus, composition, and other camera settings are correct, I use the Image Review option a lot. With a film camera, none of this is feasible.

shoot film

The process wasn’t as onerous as I had anticipated, even if I did check the back of my F100 every now and again in an unsuccessful attempt to evaluate a photo. There were a few moments when I wished I had gone back and re-examined my photographs, but not many. I attribute this to the extra care I had to take with each film shot; rather than checking my framing on an LCD screen, I used the viewfinder.

The absence of immediate response would have made it difficult to start shooting footage, however. I know that. My knowledge of shutter speeds and aperture settings would have been nonexistent if I hadn’t been shooting digital for several years. In comparison to learning everything about photography with a film camera, the digital camera has been a breeze. It would have taken much longer if I had started with a film camera because of the steep learning curve.

Seeing in Black and White

The fact that the Tri-X film is in black and white initially alarmed me. Despite my preference for monochromatic images, the vast majority of my personal shots are in full color. The tones and contrast are important to me when converting to black and white, thus I do not leave them in the default settings.

You have far less control over the conversion of a color world to black and white with Tri-X than you do with conventional film processing methods like black and white conversion. Despite the fact that filters could be used for this, I didn’t bother because I was only going to be shooting a film for a few months at a time. For this reason, using the F100 became a practice in perceiving things as light levels rather than as distinct colors and shades.

Many of my black-and-and-white film photographs were taken in the dead of winter in downtown Chicago where there weren’t many vibrant colors, to begin with. Even still, there were occasions when I was surprised by how different a photo looked from what I had seen in my viewfinder, such as when a yellow taxi lost some of its lusters or nighttime settings looked grayer. I’m sure my monochrome vision will improve with practice, so these concerns may just apply to those just starting out with film.

The Darkroom Process

Before shooting the film, I had no idea what a darkroom was, and I’m confident that some of our readers – if not all – have the same experience. Darkrooms don’t work at all like the complicated, enigmatic concept I had in mind; they’re actually rather straightforward and clever.

 

camera using film
To begin, you’ll need to process your footage. To begin, a canister of the film (which has already been shot) is opened in the dark, and reels of different sizes of the film are wound around it. A light-tight container holds the reels while water (and other chemicals) are put into the container.

You’re free to re-light the room at this point. Developing the film takes around an hour because you have to add developer, fixer, and other chemicals to the container at regular intervals. It’s not worth the time to go into detail, as this is a lengthy procedure. Of course, there are more advanced devices for developing film, but this is the one I used.
After the film has been removed from its reel and dried, the real work in the darkroom may begin.

An enlarger uses a negative film to project an inverted image of the photograph onto light-sensitive paper. The film is then exposed to light in a dark room. The final print will be darker if the projection is left on for a longer period of time. It’s too soon to tell if the paper has been exposed or not, but for the time being, they are both white. Although the paper is light-sensitive, it only responds to a limited range of wavelengths.)… This means, fortunately, that a dim, amber-colored light bulb can be used when printing without damaging the paper.)

There are three separate chemical baths that must be used once your paper has been exposed: the developer, a stop-bath, and the fixer. You can really see the snapshot appear before your very eyes as the developer creates the image. After that, you place the paper in a stop bath to put an end to the oxidation. Finally, put the paper in the fixer to be sure it’s no longer photosensitive.

These steps can be summed up in seven simple ones for those of you following along at home:

  1. Take a picture with a camera and a roll of film.
  2. Place the film in a light-tight container in a pitch-black room. Remove the film from its canister.
  3. Now that the lights are back on, you may go about your business as usual.
  4. Add the developer and fixer to the container of chemicals.
  5. Dry the film when it has been unloaded.
  6. Set up an enlarger, and only use amber-colored lighting in the space.
  7. Project your image onto light-sensitive paper by placing it under the enlarger’s lens. To fix the paper, run it through the fixer, a stop bath, and the developer. The final print can be removed by running water over it. It’s now all set to go on exhibit.

Please accept my apologies if any of this sounds familiar. There are many ways to make the darkroom process more involved, but I hope some of my digital-only readers now have a better understanding of the darkroom process. It was certainly thrilling for me, and I actually like this more hands-on approach to shooting, despite the fact that it took so much time.

Accepting Imperfection

The most important thing I took away from film photography was to stop trying to make every shot seem flawless. With digital, this is a problem I have all the time; no image is ever “good enough,” and there are always improvements I can make to any photograph. In spite of the numerous digital alterations I can make, there is never a genuinely “completed” state; a month later, I will look back at the picture and find dozens of additional changes to make. Unfortunately.

The film is an enlarged version of the same experience. There was always a new sheet of paper and fifteen minutes of processing required for a minor adjustment in the darkroom. If my horizons were off or my framing was off, there was only so much I could do to rectify it. Even if I had limitless access to time and paper, my darkroom skills would still fall far short of the post-processing capabilities of a computer.

My prints were excellent in the end, so that was a wonderful thing. As my portfolio grew, I became less concerned with technical perfection and more focused on aspects such as lighting, composition, and timing of exposures and exposure changes. Knowing that the photos wouldn’t be “perfect,” I didn’t aim for an impossibly high degree of accuracy. The more I learned about film’s limits (as well as the overall darkroom process), the more comfortable I became with exhibiting photographs that weren’t exactly what I’d planned to show. For digital photography, the same approach can be equally beneficial; repairing the practically imperceptible faults in your photographs is rarely worth spending hours on (although I find me doing so all the time).

 

Conclusion

Despite the fact that I have no plans to go back to film photography, my experience with it has taught me a lot. Visualization abilities improved the most since I had to “see” the world through the eyes of my final print, which made it easier to identify the types of scenes that would make good images.

Not to mention, learning about darkroom procedures was an absolute pleasure for me. Ansel Adams revolutionized exposure and the darkroom process, and now that I’m using some of his techniques myself, it’s easier for me to grasp the impact he had on photography. As opposed to digital photography, the film allowed me to see every step of a photograph’s creation, which opened my eyes to the complexity of photography’s creative process from an entirely new angle. To those who have previously worked with film and developed darkroom prints, I’m sure you’ll agree – and to those who haven’t, I highly recommend it.

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