If you are struggling to load your MOD 54, read this

At this very moment you have your hands deep in a dark bag trying to load your 4x5 negatives. You've called a nearby family member to Google 'load a mod 54' for you because you've forgotten the details of what it looks like and things aren't going well. 

Don't panic. It is going to be alright.

  1. First things first - locate the ridges at the top of the MOD 54. The ridges on the negatives must be on the same side on the top left (note that this is different from the location of the ridges when placing them in a film holder, which is top right in that case).
  2. Get your first sheet of film in your hands. Bend it along its length and place it to the very bottom of the stack before releasing the bend. Check with your fingertips that the film isn't held up in one of the upper notches.
  3. Your breathing should be easier now and your heart rate lower. We are going to make it.
  4. The easiest notch to locate is the upper one, so here is the secret tip - load the second sheet into the upper notch. "That's crazy!" you say - but keep your trousers and/or pants on. From here you can carefully move the film down to the middle notch one side at a time. You know you've done a good job when you feel the sides of  two sheets of film are parallel.
  5. The third sheet of film goes into the easy upper notch and can be left there. Again, check the sides of the sheets are parallel. If they are not, work backwards until you find the offending sheet/notch combination.
  6. Repeat these steps for the three sheets on the other side of the Mod 54.

Hopefully you got this done before the combination of stress and time made your arms perspire streams of frustration in the dark bag.

 

My film was X-rayed and I used it anyway

Online wisdom says, while airport security x-rays do minimal damage to film in hand luggage, checked bags get a larger dose of radiation that can be fatal for the film. Is this true?

On a return trip from the UK, my hand luggage was deemed it was too heavy by the staff. I repacked in haste. I realized I'd made a  mistake as our plane left the ground - I had put the film in the checked bag.

I was using HP5 which is a 400 speed black and white film. They were developed at home the usual way (read about my developing method here). The images are slightly lower contrast than usual, which might have made it more difficult to print in the traditional film days. But by scanning film we can easily salvage the negatives with software. They look as good as any other roll. 

 

Sowerby Bridge canal, Halifax. Hasselblad 500cm, Ilford HP5.

Sowerby Bridge canal, Halifax. Hasselblad 500cm, Ilford HP5.

Using negatives as a final image

When scanning black and white negatives, the moment when the negative image is inverted into a positive is captivating. No matter how much I study the negatives, they always seem blurry and difficult to interpret. The positives suddenly seem sharp and the scene presents itself clearly.

But sometimes a negative stands out on its own. It seems ethereal, or occasionally more real than when converted to positive. Some subjects work better than others - a human face often looks demonic in negative form as the eyes turn black with white pupils. But natural scenes and architecture seems to have their own charm as negatives.

As most photographs are subjected to some sort of post-production (whether in the darkroom or Lightroom), it seems that a conscious decision to not invert the negative is also a creative possibility.

The risks of film photography

Film is beautiful. It is also a lot of work involving many steps from loading to scanning. Things don't go wrong often, but there are some risks to be aware of. Here is a trouble shooting guide to working with film:

Loading film in the camera

Ilford HP5 which separated from the backing paper in a Hasselblad 12 magazine.

Ilford HP5 which separated from the backing paper in a Hasselblad 12 magazine.

  • 35mm film not engaged with sprockets. You think you've shot a roll, but the film hasn't caught on the feeding mechanism. You've wasted time with the pictures you think you've made, but the film is still useable and needs reloading correctly.

  • 120 film separating from the backing paper. More resistance than usual is felt when winding because the backing is sliding past the film which is stuck in place.

  • Dust. Especially with sheet film for large format photography, dust around the film holders and in the camera body needs to be addressed with blowers or soft brushes.

Shooting film

  • Exposure. Some film stocks are more forgiving than others when it comes to exposure. HP5 black and white provides some significant margins of error, where as slide colour film requires you to be spot on. Are you using a light meter or the sunny-16 rule? Slow and methodical, or run and gun? This will dictate the film types you should be using. Scanning film and digital manipulation provides another level of safety when exposure is slightly off.

  • Accidental double exposures. Some cameras, like large format or the stereo-realist, do not have mechanisms connecting the winding system with shutter cocking. This needs to be double checked as part of the image-taking routine. This is less of a problem for the majority of cameras out there which only allow the shutter to fire if the film is advanced.

  • Overlapping frames. This is often a 120 film problem because the film is wound by rotating the receiving spool, rather than by gripping sprockets like with 35mm film. If this is an ongoing occurrence, the issue might be worn gears meaning the camera or magazine needs maintenance. Or it could be a one-off caused by winding or the film dragging for some reason. It can happen on 35mm rolls, too. I think this might be linked to winding too much film on a re-usable cartridge.

  • 35mm film not engaged with sprockets mid-roll. I don't know how this happens, but the film can stop winding mid-roll. The only way to mitigate the problem is to watch the rewind handle as you advance the film. If it isn't turning, you can either investigate in the safety of a dark bag, or cut your losses, re-wind and develop the exposed portion of the roll.

 
Overlapping 35mm frames. Pictures of downtown Houston from the tunnels. Rollei 35s, Ilford HP5.

Overlapping 35mm frames. Pictures of downtown Houston from the tunnels. Rollei 35s, Ilford HP5.

 

Unloading the camera

  • Ripping the end of the roll. With 35mm, you'll feel resistance on the advance lever at the end of a roll. But if that resistance is ignored for some reason there is the possibility the film will be ripped and the sprocket holes mangled.

  • Opening the camera or film magazine. Re-wind the film before opening the camera, not the other way around. You only make that mistake once. That said, only some portions of the film will be exposed to light and many of the early frames will be salvageable.

Developing film

  • Volume of chemicals. Be sure the correct amount of chemical is used. Better too much than too little, or there will be a band of under-developed image on the film.

  • Scratches. After the film is developed and washed, it is often run through fingers to get rid of excess water. This can scratch the film. One way to mitigate is to ensure your fingers are soaked for a while first to soften the skin.

Scanning the negatives

  • Dust. Dust is the enemy in many stages of the photographic process, and having the negatives on a light table or scanner is a critical one. Blowers used often are the best way to get rid of dust.

  • Curled negatives. Negatives need to be flat when they are scanned, or in focus areas will be cast out of focus at this stage. Using good quality film stock is a good start. Curled film can be held flat by a holder or frame (I use a plastic frame I made especially for the task), or you can try leaving film under some heavy books for a few hours.

Hybrid film processing (no darkroom needed)

Most people don't try film photography because they fear film processing lab costs or think they need a full-on darkroom to get the job done. I shoot black and white film which is easily developed at home for very little cost and without a dark room, but it takes a little time (the money-time compromise). I scan the images so they can be manipulated digitally and printed. I'll describe the entire process here.

NOTE: If you are in Houston and looking for overnight developing and scanning of your black and white film, you might be interested in my developing service.

Film

I use purchased 120 rolls for medium format and sheet film for 4x5. I use bulk film for 35mm and load it into reusable canisters using a Lloyd daylight loader. Getting film from its box to the loader requires a dark-bag.

developing the Negatives

 
Ilford chemicals to develop film
 

This can be done in a kitchen or bathroom using a dark-bag. The only time darkness is required is getting the film from the roll/film holder into a light-tight developing tank. This even works for 4x5 sheets using the 'mod54' insert.

Four liquids are used in specific dilutions: developer, stop-bath, fixer and a rinsing agent. They are mixed in  plastic measuring jugs and brought down or up to temperature in a water bath (kitchen sink) using a thermometer. The stop-bath and fixer can be reused to save on cost and waste. 

Developing times and temperatures are determined based on the developer and film combinations used. See the massive development chart for suggestions. I use my smartphone as a developing timer.

After rinsing, film needs to be hanged to dry (i use wooden clothes pegs) and they are cut to length with a film cutter to fit into dedicated plastic binder sleeves

Scanning

 
Using a 6D Mark ii and a lightbox to scan 35mm film
 

Darkroom printing requires a lot of extra equipment and a dark room. As much as I'd like to do this for fun someday, I currently use a hybrid method of shooting and developing film, but then scanning it and processing on a computer. A dedicated scanner can be used, but as I already have a digital camera, tripod and a macro lens, I simply place my film on a light box and take digital pictures of each frame. To make this process easier, I use the Canon's tethering software to use live view and remote shooting through my laptop. The images are high resolution RAW captures, and the resolution can be increased by stitching multiple images of different parts of the same negative.

Digital manipulation

Negative images can be inverted to positives using Lightroom or Photoshop (but not Adobe Camera Raw, the Photoshop Elements Organizer or Canon Digital Photo Professional, annoyingly).

A note on inverting photographs: I used to use Photoshop Elements for this task, but that means opening each image separately, inverting to a positive image, and saving the file (fortunately, saving can be done as a batch process). I have since started using Lightroom, and created a preset to invert a set of images automatically. This saves so much time it might be worth getting Lightroom for this reason alone.

With this hybrid approach, many digital techniques are now available: HDR, panoramas, spot/dust removal,dodging and burning, smoothing and sharpening, colour mapping, the list goes on.

The digital scans are effectively a backup of the physical negatives, which are stored in a folder and can be re-scanned with future technology at any time.

An image doesn't exist until it is printed, and I can easily send my scans to a print service or create a photo book.

In conclusion

There's a lot to think about when using film and developing at home, but it is not all that difficult and the process itself is part of the attraction of film photography.