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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Film Buying Guide

Tunnel Vision
© 2011 Simon Hucko

Last week I talked about buying a film camera. This week I'm going to talk a bit about the different types of film that are available and how to choose what to shoot. If you're just looking for my recommendations, skip down to the bottom.

Digital camera sensors are designed to respond to light in a flat, uniform way. No matter what ISO you choose, most RAW images look pretty much the same, give or take some noise - linear light response, low contrast, flat colors. This gives you a pretty uniform starting point for post processing, and lets you create the look you want after the fact (punch up the color, convert to black and white, add contrast, desaturate a bit, etc.). You don't really have to think about the final look of a shot when you take it (although you should at least have some idea of where it's going to set the best lighting and exposure), and you can create multiple versions of an image after the fact with different looks.

With film, on the other hand, what film you choose to load into your camera (and how you choose to shoot and develop it) has a big impact on how the final image will look, so you have to give it some thought ahead of time. The biggest difference from shooting digital is that you can't change your ISO on the fly, so you have to choose an ISO and stick to it for the whole roll. Much like with digital shooting, higher ISO films will have a more pronounced grain than "slower" films, and tend to be higher contrast and show less detail. If you plan on shooting handheld in a range of conditions (sunny to indoor), 400 speed is probably a safe bet. If you don't have to worry about low light there are a lot of nice films from 100-200 ISO. If you're shooting a concert at a dimly lit bar, you might have to push your film to 1600 or higher to get usable shots.

Once you have an idea of what conditions you'll be shooting in, your next big decision is color or black and white. There are two types of color film, color negative (also called color print film, C-41 process) and slide film (also called color positive, reversal, transparency, and E6 process). As the names suggest, color negative films give you a negative image that is suitable for traditional optical printing, whereas slide films give you a positive image that can be projected or viewed on a lightbox.

C-41 is the most common type of film, and film and processing is readily available at drug stores and places like Target, Costco, WalMart, etc. Color negative is probably the easiest way to shoot film, since you can drop off a roll for developing and often times get the lab to scan it for you (generally low quality unless you use a professional lab, but good enough for Flickr). If you have a scanner, most labs will do development only if you ask (although you may get some strange looks and questions this way). This is generally much more cost effective and lets you control how your images are scanned (better color and quality), but means more work on your end before you can share your photos. Color negative film also tends to be the most forgiving with exposure, and you can typically miss by a stop or two in either direction and still get a good image. In that sense, color negative film is similar to shooting RAW in digital - you have more dynamic range and wiggle room with your final images. Unlike digital, underexposure of color negative film tends to block up the shadows and gives a purplish color cast to the image, so it's generally better to err on the side of overexposure unless you're looking for that effect.

E6 (slide film) is more specialized and is just about impossible to find in a store. Most slide films range from 50-100 ISO, so they're not practical for indoor or low light shooting without a flash. The dynamic range of slide film is also much smaller than color negative, and because it's a positive process you have to be careful not to blow your highlights (much like with digital), or you lose the information. In this respect, slide films are kind of like the JPEG of the film world. E6 films tend to be very sharp with vivid colors, and are best viewed in person through projection or on a lightbox with a loupe.

You can also process slide film in C-41 chemistry (commonly known as "cross-processing" or "x-pro"), which gives you a negative image on the film. This tends to give higher saturation and color casts, especially when treated as color negative film during scanning or printing. Color negative film comes on an orange backing whereas slide film has a clear base, so scanning on the "color negative" setting adjusts for the orange and will give your cross-processed image a green cast. This is what you'll typically see when looking at cross-processed images, and is what your hipster camera app tries to simulate. You can also scan them as a color positive and invert using Photoshop, which gives a more normal looking image with only slight changes in color and saturation.

Finally, black and white film. There are a lot of different black and white films available, ranging from ISO 25 to ISO 3200. Different black and white films have different grain and tonal range characteristics, generally following the "higher ISO films have larger grain, less fine detail and more contrast" rule. Unlike shooting color, where every film is run through the same chemicals for the same time and temperature, black and white film developing times vary based on what film it is and what developer you're using. This means that if you send your black and white film into a lab, they're going to have to manually process it, which gets very expensive very quickly. Processing black and white at home is easy and pretty inexpensive, so if you're planning on shooting film I highly recommend developing your own black and white a few times just for the experience. (And who knows, you might even like it! I'll write more about home developing in the future.) Whatever you do, *do not* let someone run your black and white film through a C-41 machine, you'll end up getting back blank negatives due to a bleaching step in the process. Skip the drugstore on this one, or you'll be sorry.

Where to buy? Freestyle Photo is my new favorite place for all things film. Sometimes Adorama or B&H have better prices (and shipping from them is much faster since I live on the east coast), but Freestyle definitely has the best selection. I advocate buying fresh film from a retail distributor whenever possible, since it lets retailers and manufacturers know that people are still interested in shooting film. If you really can't afford it or plan on shooting a *huge* amount of film, then buying on eBay is a good way to go. Plenty of professional photographers have freezers full of film that they're looking to get rid of. Look for "cold stored" in the listing - even if the film is expired, if it has been stored in a fridge or freezer it should be ok to use.

I keep saying "freezer" - film is happiest being stored frozen, just make sure you take it out and let it thaw a day or so before loading. Putting it in the fridge is better than nothing, so if you have an old dorm fridge lying around you can divide it between film and beer. I generally zip mine into a plastic bag just to keep it separate from the food, but that's not really necessary. If you have to store it at room temp, find the coolest place possible (preferably in a drawer or cupboard out of the sun). Heat will break down the emulsion on a film, and lead to faded colors, more grain and possibly other signs of damage. C-41 film is especially susceptible to bad storage, so take extra care if you buy expired color film online.

So there ya go, a pretty basic overview of film. There's a lot more to talk about (especially with black and white), so I'll write up more in the future. To close, though, I'm going to give a few recommendations of what film to shoot. I haven't shot with all of these, so some of them are based on what I've seen on Flickr, but they're on my list for the future. (Click on the links to pull up a Flickr search for images tagged with the film name.)

E6: Don't bother, just shoot digital. For serious. (If you can argue with me about why you should shoot E6, you're probably beyond my skill level with this stuff anyway.) If you want to try cross processing, find the cheapest stuff on eBay (probably expired) and use that. No sense paying for good film that you're just going to intentionally mess up.

C-41: I like Kodak Gold (100, 200, 400, it's all good), and that's probably the only "consumer" film that I'd recommend. The new Kodak Portra 400 is supposed to be a fantastic emulsion, and has a huge exposure latitude. Once I burn through the Gold in my freezer, that's probably what I'll switch to for color.

Black and White: It's hard to go wrong with Kodak Tri-X, a classic 400 speed film and a great one to start with when developing your own (very forgiving). Lately I've become enamored with the look of Fuji Neopan 100 Acros, and have a few rolls waiting their turn in the freezer.

I don't have a whole lot of experience with different film stocks, so if you have one that you like please share in the comments. As always, questions or comments are appreciated :)


[title of blog] on flickr

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Film Camera Buying Guide

Mamiya C220 TLR
© 2009 Simon Hucko

I keep talking about film here on the blog, and some of you might be interested in taking the plunge but aren't quite sure where to start. I thought I would throw together a few tips and tricks about buying into and starting to shoot film, from the perspective of someone who got started on photography with digital.

If you've never shot a roll of film, I highly recommend getting a 35mm SLR with a built-in meter. This will be the most familiar to you coming from a DSLR. If you're a Nikon shooter, you're in luck - Nikon hasn't changed its lens mount in 65 years or whatever, so you can share lenses between your digital and film body. For an experience almost identical to your DSLR without the image review window, check out something like the F80 (this will even take those G lenses as long as they're full frame). If you want more of a manual camera, the FE or F3 are both great options. It's hard to go wrong with any of the manual bodies, though, and since the F mount hasn't changed you can share lenses with your digital body just fine, as long as they are AI, AI'd, AI-S, AF, AF-D or AF-S and have an aperture ring. For you Canon users, I think any EOS body will work with EF mount glass (including the Rebel line). Canon changed their mount not too long ago, so the older manual Canon bodies won't work with modern lenses. There are two other SLR's I can recommend - the Canon A-1 (FD mount) and the Pentax K-1000 (K mount). Neither one is compatible with modern lenses, but they're both well built manual cameras and are the recommended "first SLR" that I see a lot on the film forums. Since the lenses aren't compatible with modern cameras, they tend to be less expensive, so if you don't already have a large lens collection that might be a good way to get the most bang for your buck.

Once you decide on a camera, you have to figure out where to buy it. Very few 35mm film cameras are still being manufactured new, so you're going to have to dive into the used market. Buying used gear can be a bit tricky, as it's much more of a free-for-all than new in the box equipment from a store. There are three sources I can recommend: KEH, eBay, and Craigslist. Each has their own pros and cons. is the closest to a retail experience that you're going to get with used gear. They have a pretty big selection, and their prices are fixed (no bidding or haggling). All of their gear is inspected and graded before being listed, and from what I've heard they tend to be pretty generous with their grading (ie something listed as "bargain" can actually be in pretty good shape with just a few dings). KEH is definitely the "safe" option, as they know what they're doing and will offer customer support and a return policy that you don't get elsewhere. You do pay a bit of a premium for that, but their prices are pretty fair. You certainly can get stuff for less on eBay or Craigslist, but it's a bit more risky. I always check KEH to get an upper-limit idea of how much to pay for something, even if I'm planning on buying it elsewhere. Think of it as the "blue book" value for used camera equipment.

eBay is probably where most film equipment gets bought and sold. There can be some great deals to be had, but there are also a lot of overinflated prices and bad quality thrown into the mix. "Buy it now" prices are usually a good bit higher than what winning bids go for on the same items, so unless you're all about convenience I would pass on that. Look for good seller ratings and listings with photos of the actual item for sale. Check the description for comments like "film tested, no light leaks, shutter speeds are good," and other wording that shows that the seller has some knowledge of the camera and what condition it's in. "Recently CLA'd" is great, it means that the camera was recently serviced and should be in good operating condition. (CLA stands for Clean, Lubricate and Adjust, and typically involves replacing light seals, making sure that the shutter is accurate, and cleaning any gunk on the camera, especially any optical surfaces.) Watch out for "I don't know anything about cameras" or the wording "as is" - it's not a no go, but usually a bit of a red flag that the seller either hasn't tested the equipment or is trying to hide some defect. Sometimes these turn out to be the best deals, because other buyers get scared off, but there's also a good chance that you're going to purchase an overpriced paperweight. It all depends on how much of a gambler you are. Don't get sucked into bidding wars - set a top price you'd be willing to pay for an item given what it is and what condition it's in, and then walk away. If you're persistent, you will eventually get what you want at a reasonable price. If you're hasty or emotional, you're likely to wind up overpaying for something.

Finally, depending on where you live, Craigslist can be a great source of deals. Craigslist is sort of like fishing - you just have to cast a line out there and see what turns up. It's not the place to go if you're looking for something specific. I recommend adding the photo/video listings to your RSS feed so that you can keep an eye on what's out there. There are typically three types of seller on Craigslist. One is the old photographer who is finally switching to digital or is retiring and wants to sell their film gear. You probably won't get any great deals from them, but they'll know a lot about the condition of their equipment and will likely have a lot of good quality stuff available for sale, including darkroom setups. The next type is the "I bought this camera for a film class a year ago" listing, where the person took a black and white photography class and was required to buy a SLR for it. From what I've seen, they're usually a bit over-optimistic when setting a price ("but I just paid X dollars for it a year ago!"), and the equipment tends to be lower quality (more modern plastic bodies with kit zooms.) You might be able to talk them down on price, but know that this camera probably won't give you that lifetime of use that a metal, more professional SLR will. Third, you have the people who inherited a box of camera stuff and have no idea how much it's worth. Prices from them can be all over the place, but these are usually where the best deals can be had. Listings are usually vague ("I have a box of camera stuff"), so definitely set up a time to look at what they have and talk pricing. It's more effort, but you might be able to get your setup for a steal.

If you get the chance to handle a camera before buying, do a few quick checks to make sure everything works well. Open the back of the camera (typically done by pulling up on the rewind lever) and look at the light seals (foam, felt or string around where the back and the body meet). Run a finger over them - they should have a little give and not flake off all over the place. If they do, you're going to need new light seals (not difficult, but a messy job that will cost you some time and materials). Fire the shutter a few times at different speeds. Of course you can't time them exactly, but 1/125th should be noticeably faster than 1/30th, and you know what 1 second should sound like. Check the meter - point it at something light, then something dark, and make sure it changes. You can reality check it with Sunny 16 if you're outside or near a window. If the battery is dead, check the battery compartment for corrosion (flaky white crystals). If it's there, there's a chance the wiring is fried and the meter won't work even with a fresh battery. Make sure all the mechanicals work smoothly, on both the camera and any lenses. Check the optics for mold - dirt and grime will clean off no problem, but mold can ruin a lens. Little scratches in the coating are ok, but big dings could cause flare. "Pretty" doesn't really matter - as long as the camera is light tight and the mechanics function well a little brassing, scuffing or dents won't hurt anything.

Most SLRs come with a 50mm prime attached, usually in the f/1.4-f/2 range. I recommend sticking with just that lens for a bit as you learn more about the camera and about shooting film in general. If you feel the need to diversify you can add two more inexpensive primes, a 24/28/35mm on the wide end and an 85/105 on the tele end, typically around f/2.8. That triplet of primes (maybe 4, I understand wanting a 24 and a 35 on the wide end) should cover you for just about everything you'll want to shoot. I highly recommend staying away from older zoom lenses, as they tend to be of lower quality (it took a while for the engineering and coating to get to where it is today). It also defeats the purpose of shooting film, IMO - I shoot film to slow down and put more thought and effort into my photos. If I want speed and convenience I'll grab my DSLR.

So there ya have it. I'll write a bit about choosing film in the future. Any questions or comments are always appreciated :)


[title of blog] on flickr

Monday, February 14, 2011

Nikon F3 Giveaway

This post stands as my entry for a Nikon F3 giveaway over at Rob Boyer's blog RB|Design. I'm new to Rob's blog, but it seems to be a great resource for Aperture users, and he talks a good bit about film and photography in general, so it was an easy add to my RSS reader.

If you're at all interested in shooting film, I highly recommend entering this contest. It will only take a few minutes, and the prize (a F3 body, possibly with lens) will set you up for shooting 35mm film for the rest of your life, if you so choose. Nikon pro bodies are built like a tank, and the F3 has a reputation for being solid and reliable. It has manual film advance and rewind, which is a large part of the tactile fun when shooting film, and has a built in center-weighted meter for shooting in manual or aperture-priority mode. If you have a Nikon DSLR, you can share lenses between the two bodies (as long as they have an aperture ring on them), meaning you won't have to add the expense and weight of another set of glass. That's the main reason that I'm entering this giveaway - I had a N2000 that let me do the same thing, but that died on me over Christmas.

I'm not usually a Ken Rockwell fan, but he has a good overview of the F3 at his site. Just make sure to take his opinions with a grain of salt, especially if you go digging around to other articles. This one is pretty straightforward without any of the usual KR BS, because it's mostly tech specs.

If you enter and don't win, there are still plenty of easy ways to get into 35mm. I'll have a post up later this week about buying film equipment.

Good luck!


[title of blog] on flickr

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

It's ok to take bad photos

Frosty Taughannock
© 2011 Simon Hucko

Well, it's been a little over 3 weeks since my last post, and in that time I've taken maybe 10 frames. Not starting the year off well here. I think it's time to man up and start working on my laundromat project, because it's far too cold to do much of anything outside at the moment. I do plan on getting out for some more winter stuff, but when it's 15 degrees (F) and gray like it is here today it's hard to get motivated...

This week's tip is partially a reminder to myself as well as some advice for anyone else going through the winter blahs right now: It's ok to take bad photos. Not every frame you take is going to be a work of Art. Just the act of picking up a camera and making yourself point it at something and press the shutter can begin to rekindle the creative process, and you may end up with something you like by the end of it. And if you don't, no big loss, just format your card and try again next time. This is where having a project can help - you already did your creative thinking and just have to execute on a theme. It doesn't have to be a large project, either. Something like the classic "lock yourself in a room and take 50 different photos" exercise is perfect for a cold winter day when you're looking for things to shoot.

So that's it, just a quick tip this week. Trying to get back in the saddle with photography and blogging. What do you do when you're in a bit of a funk? Would love to hear about it in the comments.


[title of blog] on flickr