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Mono Magic: Photography, Breaking Bad style

Snap up a bargain with film cameras and a bit of DIY

By Nigel Whitfield, 22 Mar 2015

Feature Digital cameras are cheap and convenient. But some people feel they also lack soul, or encourage us all to often to experience life through an LCD screen, firing off hundreds of shots we'll probably never look at, rather than absorbing our surroundings.

Film, on the other hand, according to some, can lend itself to a more considered approach. Knowing you only have 36 exposures at a time can impose discipline. It's not just trendy techno-luddism either, and is an absorbing way to practice the art and craft of photography, especially with the holidays coming up.

Pocket Kodak

This ancient Pocket Kodak can still take surprisingly decent photos, and uses standard 120 roll film, widely available.

It's possible to pick up some great cameras at bargain prices these days, assuming you don't have an old film camera sitting in the back of a cupboard.

There are apps that can help you with developing your own films, and even some that will give you control of your SLR from a mobile phone or tablet.

So, we thought we'd take a look at the world of film, and share some of our tips and experiences.

Camera! Action!

Many of us probably have an old film camera lying around somewhere. For me, it started with a Nikon FG20 that I received as an 18th birthday present. But even if you don't have one, picking up a good camera can be surprisingly cheap. My main camera now is a Nikon F90x, which is a very capable camera that cost me just £60, leaving plenty left over for decent lenses.

If you’re shopping for second-hand Nikon in particular, it's worth a look at Ken Rockwell's site where you'll find plenty of info about which lenses perform best, and the relative strengths of different camera models. The site does have some Canon info, but not in quite as much depth.

One thing to bear in mind is that, of course, a film SLR is full frame, and lenses aren't necessarily always compatible if you switch to digital later. Some Nikon DSLRs, for example, lack the motor to focus older lenses, or won't meter them them correctly (though newer models like the D610, 750 or 810 will work with just about any Nikon lens).

Triggertrap

Add the cable and TriggerTrap app to a film SLR, and you can do timelapse, remote control and all sorts of other tricks

Film SLRs may not have all the bells and whistles of some of the newest digital models, but you can often pair them with modern accessories. For example, Nikon models from the F90 onwards have the same 10 pin connector as some of the company's first DSLRs.

So, they're compatible with a release cable like the one from Triggertrap. That means, as well as the built-in timer, you can do time lapses, scheduled photos of sunsets, and lots of other neat tricks, even controlling the shutter via Wi-Fi from another device.

If you have an even older camera, a light meter might be a handy addition; neither my 1930s Pocket Kodak nor my Ilford Sportsman has a meter, but there are plenty of apps that will do the trick. For example, the photos of the garden here were taken with the Pocket Kodak using the Light Meter Tools app. Set the film speed and the shutter speed you want to use, and it'll work out the correct aperture for you. Compared with just estimating, it's a great improvement.

Running costs

If you just pop into Boots, you could be forgiven for thinking that film photography is an expensive hobby, at £7 for a roll of Ilford HP5 black and white film. Fortunately, there's still a good range of film around; you just need to know where to track it down.

Film selection

There's still a surprisingly good range of film available, especially for black and white

For example, Czech film maker Foma makes a decent ISO200 film called Fomapan 200, that can be bought for around £3.10 a reel at Silverprint in London. Agfa's latest incarnation of APX100 can be found for around £3.75 and produces excellent results; buy in bulk from Amazon and you can get the cost down to £2.51.

It's worth shopping around; different vendors seem to have very different prices on film; you'll find it worth comparing AG Photographic, Calumet Photographic, Firstcall Photographic and Silverprint, depending on what you're looking for.

If you're feeling adventurous, there are films designed for aerial photography, or films with more infra-red sensitivity, and a range of speeds from as low as 20 up to 3200. Forget the likes of Instagram, the joy of film is that each one has its own characteristics. For a retro-feel, choose a retro film, rather than a filter.

Oddly, there's probably more choice of black and white film these days than colour. For instance, Kodak no longer makes any slide (transparency) film, while Fuji has cut back its range. Thankfully, you can still buy the magnificent Fuji Velvia slide film, though at around £11 a roll it's not cheap.

For cheap colour prints and playing around, it's worth checking out Poundland, who often have rolls of colour negative film for £1. The last time I bought some, it was 24 exposures of Agfa Vista. Agfa's CT Precisa slide film is OK, but not a patch on Velvia, in my view. Lest you think film remains on a downward spiral, a Kickstarter project last year successfully raised enough money to restart production of Ferrania slide film, and the first rolls are expected in June.

Kodak film selection

Once King of the Hill, Kodak slide film is no more, alas

One of the downsides of film for many is the lack of instant gratification – and the cost of processing the film. If you're shooting colour slides, there are fewer and fewer places that will process the film for you, and rising prices from Royal Mail make posting film off to be developed more costly than it used to be.

But it's still possible to get black and white processing done at a reasonable price. Ilford Lab's downloadable order form includes standard postage both ways, and processing on its own will cost £6.50. Ag Photolab, based in Birmingham, also includes freepost to send your films, and charges £3.99 for processing, plus return postage from £2.88, depending on the size of the order. Both will scan to CD, and makes prints as well.

Personal process

However, it's actually surprisingly easy to process black and white film yourself at home. A developing tank, a couple of jugs and some chemicals will get you started. Pick up cheap syringes or measuring cylinders on eBay for measuring quantities.

Agfa Rondinax 35U

Agfa Rondinax 35U developing tank

Many people I've spoken to don't realise that, if you're just developing negatives or slides, you don't need a darkroom. The only part of the process that you have to do in absolute darkness is loading the film into the developing tank. While a changing bag is the usual method, fiddling under the duvet works just as well. If you can track down a daylight tank like the Agfa Rondinax, then you can avoid even that.

Working out the right combination of time, temperature and developer concentration is easy too, thanks to apps like MassiveDev Chart. Just pick your film and developer, set the size of your tank in the preferences, and it'll work out how much you need to mix up, and how long to develop for. There's even a built in timer that will tell you when to agitate the tank.

Rodinal is a very old developer, and very cheap - this £8.99 pack will develop around 80 films

Rodinal is cheap developer

If even that sounds like hard work, try 'Stand developing' which is more or less what the name suggests. Take any black and white film, and a weak solution of Rodinal – a developer that's been around for over 100 years, also known as R09.

Add the developer to your tank, leave it for an hour, and then use stop and fixer as usual. Fixer, typically based around sodium (or ammonium) thiosulphate can also be made up easily from chemicals available from any decent chemist's shop.

You may not get the best results from all films, but you will get results. In my own 300ml tank, I use a 1:50 developer solution for this, so just 6ml of chemicals will develop a film in an hour.

You can buy 500ml of Rodinal for £8.99, which works out at a little over 10p per film. Stop bath and fixer cost extra, but both can be re-used, unlike developer. AG Photographic has a pack of all the chemicals you'll need to get started for just £27.98.

If you're feeling really skint, you can make your own 'Caffenol' developer using soda crystals and instant coffee. In short, processing your own black and white really is incredibly cheap, and rewarding. If you want to give it try, you could do worse than check out Ilford's basic instructions.

Colour processing is a bit fiddlier – you need to maintain a constant temperature – but it's still possible to do at home. I've processed both C41 (negative) and E6 (slide) films successfully. A one-litre pack of Tetenal E6 chemicals costs around £36 and will develop a dozen films, while for negatives, the same size pack costs around £18

Share it

One of the reasons why we take photos, of course, is to share them. Processing at home leaves you with a load of negatives – or transparencies if you used slide film.

There aren't many specialist film scanners still made. Apart from the eye-wateringly expensive models from Hasselblad, for the less well-heeled, Plustek is about the only manufacturer still doing them, but there are some basic cheap units that are little more than a light and a CCD to digitise the film.

Hasselblad Flextight X1 and X5 scanners.png

A different class: Hasselblad Flextight X1 and X5 scanners

Or you can hunt around eBay for an old scanner; that's how I picked up my Canon FS-4000. If you have a PC with a SCSI port, you may be able to grab a bargain scanner that few others can make use of.

Since most of us share photos online, scanning is all you need to do to bridge the analogue-digital divide. You can share photos online via Flickr, Facebook, 500px or your other favourite site. If you have a flatbed scanner already, it's worth checking to see if it has a film adaptor – you may already have all you need.

Colour me bad

If you do want prints from a few select images, again you can order those online from a variety of places if you want colour.

You can of course send a black and white image to a colour print service, but if you want the real thing, Ilford Labs will do prints up to 50x50 inches on black and white photographic paper, from either negatives or high resolution scans. I've had a few of these done myself, and the results can be excellent.

This kitten was developed using a mixture of Nescafé and soda crystals (not the actual kitten)

This kitten was developed using a mixture of Nescafé and soda crystals (not the actual kitten)

You can, of course, learn how to make your own prints from negatives. These days, it's not unusual to see enlargers going for ridiculously low prices on eBay, but you'll need to set up a proper darkroom to do it, or find one nearby. Paterson still make enlargers and a range of chemicals, so if you fancy a one-stop-shop it's worth checking out.

You'll need the enlarger, a timer, safelights, trays and so on. If you want to make things as painless as possible, an exposure meter is handy, and those too can be tracked down online. Without one, you can simply make test exposures – again the Ilford site has a handy tutorial.

Harman, owner of Ilford, has a site called Local Darkroom to help you track one down. Many community darkrooms also offer courses, too.

Frankly though, unless you're creating prints regularly, scanning your negatives is probably the best solution for most people.

This pack of chemicals contains everything you need to get started, for under £30

This pack of chemicals contains everything you need to get started, for under £30

Shoot!

All too often, people think of analogue photography these days in terms of cross-processing, cheap plastic cameras where a light leak is sold as part of it's charm, and hunting down expired film to see what effects it produces.

Sure, you can do that. But you can also take great photos, using some fantastic films, and develop them yourself. To be honest, one reason I started doing this was because I simply couldn't afford a digital camera that would work with the lenses I had for my old FG-20.

Once I realised how simple it was to process film at home, I decided to do that too.

Royal Mail price rises inspired me to learn colour processing. And thanks to some of the useful apps available, I can do most of what I'd do with a digital camera.

I can't fire off hundreds of shots in an afternoon, and I have to wait for the results. But the end result is all my own.

Tate Britain Salt and Silver exhibition

Tate Britain Salt and Silver exhibition om show until 7th June 2015

So, why don't you dig out that old camera from the back of the cupboard? Pick up a few rolls of black and white film, a developing tank and some chemicals. That's all you need to get started, and it will set you back under £50.

But if that all sounds too much like hard work you might prefer instead to see how early photography, erm, mmmm, developed at Tate Britain where it has recently opened a new exhibition called Salt and Silver. ®

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