These are a few frames from the mountain of film negatives I shot over the years before the advent of digital imaging.
I worked for a short time at The Daily Times in Ottawa, Illinois, in 1988, with a very talented young photographer named Harold Krewer. We often challenged each other to feature photo shoot-offs, and it raised us both up in quality, and it was very fun.
I worked in Student Publications at the University of Oklahoma in 1983, 1984, and early 1985, where I met some very talented artists and photographers, notable R. E. Stinson and Scott AndersEn, with whom I am friends to this day.
We shared darkroom facilities at Copeland Hall in the School of Journalism. Because many student journalists shared the darkroom, it was frequently full. There were two small, light-tight rooms for film processing, and around a corner through a black curtain was the room with five enlargers in it. Only one of the enlargers, which you can see in the image above, had a color head on it, so if you wanted to use it, you waited in line or showed up in the middle of the night.
I talked about these days before (link), but I chose this entry to include my entire black-and-white portfolio from college.
Chemicals were often contaminated, since young photographers often didn’t understand the difference between developer and fixer, or why you can’t “back contaminate,” so I brought my own chemicals.
I frequently found myself mentoring pretty college girls, hoping to kindle some romance, and took a few out, though none of those efforts lasted.
I found I preferred working for the Sooner Yearbook rather than the OU Daily, thinking I was making higher-quality, longer-lasting work. I preferred Microdol-X film developer, with the idea that I was making sharper, finer-grained images.
I was the swing-shift photographer at The Shawnee News-Star from November 1985 through April 1988. I was partnered with a talented former Vietnam Air Force member Ed Blochowiak. Between us we made some great images and won some awards. Ed spent his entire career at the News-Star, and, sadly, died just two months after retiring in October 2016.
I had been at The Ada Evening News (now, The Ada News) just six weeks when I photographed the Ada Cougars winning their 15th state championship in December 1988 at Oklahoma State University’s Lewis Field.
Most of the action and trophy photos were published in the sports section that Sunday. I was looking through a box of black-and-white negatives from that month and decided to write my column about scanning film, and scan many of these images, which have not been published since that time.
My ambitious young photographer friend Mac Crosby came by the office earlier this week, at my invitation, so I could lend her a Minolta X-700 and a couple of lenses, as well as a couple of antique 620 cameras. Readers might recall that Mac wrote a neat piece about my wife Abby and me for class last March (link).
In recent months, Mac has been curating film photography into her body of work as an aspiring photojournalist, and that has included disposable cameras, 35mm film cameras, medium format cameras, and even toy cameras. Photography with toy cameras is sometimes called lomography.
One thing I showed her while she was here at the office is some of the thousands of 4×5-inch black-and-white negatives we have in our files at The Ada News.
4×5 negatives are about 15 times larger than 35mm film frames, so they potentially contain a tremendous amount of detail. In fact, 4×5 negatives are large enough that they can be printed as contact prints, in which the film is laid directly on the printing paper and exposed to light, skipping the step of putting the film in an enlarger.
If 35mm film is common and medium format film is exotic, 4×5 film is the Wild West of photography.
I’ve never owned a 4×5 camera. I do have a photographer friend, Robert in Tulsa, who has a Burke and James 4×5 field camera. A field camera differs from a view camera in that it uses a viewfinder instead of a focusing hood or cloth. If you have ever seen the movie Flags of Our Fathers, the character of Joe Rosenthal uses a 4×5 field camera to photograph the raising of the second U.S. flag on Iwo Jima.
As Mac and I talked about film photography, she said she’d like to see what I could do with film, and I pointed out that in the very office in which she sat were literally hundreds of thousands of film frames I made during my career, from when I started at The Ada News in October 1988 until about the middle of 2005, when I had enough digital cameras to get the job done, and when the film scanner of 1998 vintage finally died.
I also told Mac that if she gets a chance to use a darkroom in her travels or education, I’d be glad to tag along and throw in my expertise. I’d also extend that invitation to anyone who wants to learn about how a darkroom works. It’s pretty amazing that I can’t remember what I had for dinner last night, but I can tell you exactly how to process a roll of film.
A friend of mine recently asked me to look over an older film camera of his. He told me he had grown up making pictures with it. I I told him I would be happy to look it over, and to drop it by my office. I wasn’t surprised when the that camera showed up the next day was a Canon AE-1 Program, one of the most popular cameras ever made.
Before I go on, let me say that I’m not usually a “they don’t build them like they used to” guy, since technology has swept us away with all kinds of advancement, from the smartphone to the self-diagnosing car engine, but on this occasion, well… they just don’t build them like they used to.
The Canon AE-1 Program came from an era of rapid advancement in camera design, and includes some very advanced technology in it, but it also inherited the build quality, fit, and finish of the handmade and hand-assembled era of camera development.
The AE-1 Program followed the AE-1, which was probably the most popular camera ever sold in the film era. The “Program” was a piece of tech that allowed the camera to pick both the shutter speed and the aperture, and was the first of that feature to be introduced.
In-hand, this camera has a big-camera feel. In contrast to almost any digital camera today, it is heavy. The corners and grips of the camera are fairly conventional, and the controls are laid out nicely. I can pick up a camera like this and immediately start using it.
I cleaned it up with a soft toothbrush and some canned air. It had a fair amount of back-of-the-closet dust on it. This particular one seemed to run just fine. The shutter and aperture cycled like they should. Focus on the 50mm f/1.8 lens, a fine piece of glass that every Canon owner had during that era, was smooth and accurate. The only thing I could find wrong with it was the light seals – the foam rubber in the slots on the film door – was dry and cracked, which could cause light leaks, especially in bright sunlight.
If my friend is willing to buy film then have it processed and scanned or printed, his Canon AE-1 Program is ready for the job.
In my last post, I talked about buying a nice used mirrorless camera and some adaptors so I could experiment with older lenses. It got me thinking about some of the very first images, and very first experiments, I tried.
Ignorance is bliss, and some of my most successful early photographic experiments wouldn’t have happened if an expert had told me why they wouldn’t work. One, for example, is one I tried with a garage-sale Exa camera of 1962 vintage. I was drawn to it by it’s beautifully-made all-metal Exacta removable / interchangeable lens. It was the only lens I had for it, but it occured to me as I watched how the focus mechanism moved the lens farther from the film to focus closer that if I could move it ever farther from the film, I could focus even closer.
In the world of photographic equipment, this is done with a device called an extension tube, which mounts between the camera and the lens. I didn’t have one, and I was 15, so the only money I had was a few bucks from mowing a few lawns, and my allowance. So I decided to put the cardboard core from a used-up toilet paper roll between the camera and the lens. It worked!
Most lenses aren’t designed to focus close, and neither was the 1960s-era Exacta. The images I got have a dream-like softness about them, and are loaded with vignetting, which is darkening of the edges of the frame. The vignetting was so dominant that my mother called the images “vignettes.”
Experimenting with the creative aspects of photography goes so far beyond camera and lens reviews and specifications. Sometimes I can get better, more interesting, more compelling images with a broken camera, a toy camera, or an ancient camera.
Sometimes when I remember events in my life from when I was younger, I wonder why I didn’t take as many photos as I imagine I should have. I am, after all, a professional photographer, and I should have been the one to document that ski trip in 1990, that nighttime glow-in-the-dark Frisbee game, that beautiful 105mm lens I sold.
So why didn’t I take all those pictures back in the film era?
- It wasn’t like that back then. Digital photography, particularly smartphone photograph, has created the misperception that we all need a thousand photos of our lives every day, and if you aren’t photographing every meal and every sunset, you are a flip-phone neo-Luddite.
- Shooting lots of frames equalled expensive processing, or in my case, laborious darkroom work. It’s easy to forget that one of digital photography’s most revolutionary aspects is its affordability. You can shoot 10 or 100 or a 1000 images, with very little added cost. Have you priced a roll of film and the price to get it developed lately? It was expensive in 1990, too.
- I actually was taking a lot of pictures. If I shot 20 frames at a friend’s birthday party, his wife might have shot three frames with her point-and-shoot.
I often feel this way about the slim number of electives I took in high school. I see kids today active in sports, farm and ranch, yearbook, web development, cheer, and more, and wonder why I wasn’t. But, it wasn’t like that back then. My school allowed one non-academic elective, and for me, it was yearbook.
I want to marry these thoughts with a trend I have been observing recently…
There is a huge hipster/millenial move right now toward shooting film. I certainly find any efforts to amp our creativity to new levels very laudable. I don’t, however, think shooting film is the way I want to go, and here’s why…
- If you are scanning your film to create a digital product, you are shooting digitally. The only way to shoot completely analog is to develop your film and print your film using an enlarger. Doing otherwise creates an unnecessary and wasteful step in creating a digital image.
- Photographers are feeling out-competed by a crowded market, and want to step aside and be thought of as geniuses or magicians again. I feel this, too. Rank amateurs are learning to photograph the Milky Way by watching YouTube tutorials, taking that away from professionals.
- When digital arrived on the scene in the late 1990s, it was the solution to all the problems we faced with film. With film, grain was obvious at even modest ISO settings, film stuck us with one ISO setting for each roll or film, film faced the possibility of accidental exposure ruining film or paper, film required a time-consuming process that created pollutants, film only allowed a limited ability to review images in the field (Polaroids) and and film had a higher-than-digital cost per frame.
- Some photographers claim they like the “look” of film. But photographers almost always make some kind of “look” edit in software to their scanned film files, usually in a way they could do better with an original digital file.
It’s absolutely true that I made many great images on photographic film during the first half of my career, but it is equally true that I heard many great songs on AM radio when I was growing up, but I haven’t tuned to an AM radio station to listen to music in 20 years.
I feel convinced that this hipster movement is just a fad. I’m certainly glad that someone out there is having fun with film, I am aware that there are reasons to keep film alive, and I am in possession of a number of great film cameras in good working order. But there are very few new film cameras being made, film is getting harder to obtain and more expensive, and when was the last time you used an enlarger to make prints in a real darkroom?
If you feel like you are struggling creatively, maybe you don’t need either film or a new digital camera. Maybe you need to find a narrative. You need to take your imaging from technical recording to storytelling. You need to push the limits of fundamentals like light and composition. Nothing between your hands will inspire you as much as anything in your heart.
Note: I wrote this here first, but used it as my June 1, 2019 column.
Portions of this entry are from my Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018 column in The Ada News.
I started at The Ada Evening News (The Ada News since 2012) October 24, 1988, 30 years ago today. In that time, a lot has changed, mostly for the good. A few notes…
- In the 1980s and most of the 1990s, all my newspaper photography was on film, most of it black-and-white…
- Most of those images were printed using a system invented in the 1950s, the Kodak Ektamatic processor, which used activator and stabilizer with papers that had developer incorporated into their emulsions, like Ektamatic SC, which…
- …was a single-weight, fiber-based photographic paper offering very fast turnaround at the expense of quality and longevity. Although there are literally thousands of Ektamatic prints in within my reach as I write this, none are worth saving. Additionally, because the prints had only been stabilized, not washed and dried, they smelled like vinegar.
When I first came to The Ada Evening News, we had no capability to reproduce four-color images on our own, and had to send images to an Oklahoma City first to have color separations made, so having a color photo in the paper was relegated to holidays and special events. In 1991, we inherited a primitive color separator (its software was stored on a microcassette), and could then have a color picture on Sunday.
- A lot of more of my shooting in the film era involved flash photography for the simple reason that we couldn’t change ISO settings like we can today. I would shoot two or three assignments on one roll of film, usually T-Max 400.
- The digital era began for me in 1998, when my newspaper bought a 35mm film scanner (a Nikon LS-2000) and a computer (an Apple PowerMac G3,) which had a floppy drive, and a Zip® disk drive, but only a CD-ROM, so I was unable to archive scanned images from that era. The editor during that period was too cheap to buy Zip disks for archiving, which was very seriously short-sighted,
though we still have the negatives on file.
It was around this time that my newspaper got its first imagesetter, a device that printed the page-sized negatives of newspaper content, replacing the downstairs process camera and fundamentally advancing our layout, design and publishing methods.
- In 2000, I asked for and received a Minolta medium format film scanner, which I used as often as I could, but which gave poor color scans.
- My first digital camera was the Nikon D1H, purchased by my newspaper in August 2001. Despite its 2.66 megapixel sensors, the D1H was a great addition to my toolbox, and despite having film cameras and scanners in my bag, digital became increasingly prevalent in my work. My last photographic negatives were made in 2005.
- By the middle of the 2000s, the scanners we had slid into obsolescence due to their SCSI interfaces, which stopped being supported my modern operating systems. Although I could scan with USB-based flatbed scanners, I was never able to get a true high-resolution film scan again.
- Since 2007 I have been teaching photography at the Pontotoc Technology Center, and I hope being a news photographer has made me a better teacher, and that teaching has made me a better news photographer.
- We sold our press in 2012 or so, and began printing our product at our sister paper, The Norman Transcript, and delivering it by mail. With the departure of our press crew and our carriers, our building became mostly vacant. Portions of it were so poorly cared for that they are probably beyond rehabilitation, and will remain closed off and used as storage.
- One of the best developments in these three decades has been my relationship with the community. While it’s true that bosses and coworkers have been unkind to me on occasion over the years, the public is overwhelmingly glad to see me, impressed with my work, and regards me as the face of The Ada News.
- According to a count by a few long-lasting co-workers and me, in my time at our newspaper, there have been eight publishers and 14 managing editors.
I recently posted that Kodak Alaris was reintroducing a black-and-white film to their lineup, T-Max P3200, which I regard as a likely mistake. Substantiating this is a recent announcement by Fujifilm that they are ending manufacture of all black-and-white film in October.
For the entire first half of my career, I shot film, and though digital was fairly primitive when it came along, I embraced it, and have exactly no desire to go back to film. Fuji apparently agrees with me, though for a very different reason: profitability. It’s clear that companies can’t make money selling 20 rolls of film to 20 moody millennials who think film is “edgy” or “hip,” so the film game is over.
If I had my way (and/or a Kickstarter plan), I might be inclined to find a way to integrate digital photography into the millions of wonderful old film cameras we all own and relish, but I have no urge to shoot film with them. It’s pretty apparent that no one else does, either, because no one ever asks me to teach them anything about the darkroom or film, and I almost never see anyone shooting film in the field.
But hey, if you think there is money to be made in making and selling black-and-white film, get some investors and make Fuji an offer for their Acros brand, or start your own. What’s that? Only a fool would try to make a living selling film in 2018? Ah.
Kodak Alaris, the film and paper division of the bankrupt Great Yellow Father, Kodak, announced recently the reintroduction of Kodak P3200 35mm film. I consider this an odd move – and probably a mistake – because this film, first introduced in the 1980s, was a solution to the problem that existing films weren’t adequate for very low light situations.
In 1985, I was working for the Associated Press and, by November, a newspaper, and with the inherent need to cover sports in very low light – football, basketball, volleyball – found myself trying to figure out all the schemes my fellow news shooters and I were using to get existing films to act with more sensitivity to low light. We shot Kodak’s Tri-X, a great film in the 1960s and 1970s, but long in the tooth by the 1980s. We used all sorts of tricks and schemes to get more sensitivity out of Tri-X, from snake oil products like Crone-C developer additive, to relatively obscure chemistry like Accu-Fine and Diafine, to time and temperature experiments with possibly my favorite black-and-white developer, HC-110. None of it got Tri-X above about ISO 2000.
Technology needed to step in, and Kodak needed to bring it.
Enter Kodak T-Max P3200, a very high speed film that could be “push processed” into the ISO stratosphere, which I did all the time. I used Kodak’s T-Max developer and regularly exposed this film at ISO 6400. It was a game-changer. For more than a decade, I relied on this film for imaging, especially sports, in all manner of low-light, almost-no-light venues.
Then in 2001, my newspaper bought my first digital camera, a Nikon D1H. From almost exactly that day, my use of P3200 stopped. Color film lingered a while longer, but by the end of 2004, I was done with film.
My wife Abby likes to tell me that her photography was reinvented by digital, and she could finally express herself without the hassle of film – processing, printing, archiving, and especially paying for film and prints.
I, too, was very happy when I could leave film behind and shoot my low-light stuff digitally. Digital solved every problem with film: toxic silver-based chemicals, grainy images, time-consuming printing and/or scanning, and, possibly most significantly, a very limited number of frames.
Sure, a good print or scan from a P3200 negative is good, but the same shot with a modern DSLR is amazing by comparison.
Also, think about what almost always happens to a film frame in the latter day: it gets scanned to make it digital, and from there makes its way to a print, a publication, or a web site. It does not get printed onto photographic paper using an enlarger, which, in the end, is the only true path to analog photography. Adding film to a digital workflow is like recording your phonograph albums to 8-track tape then ripping those tapes to MP3.
I can almost get interested in a super-low-ISO, super-fine-grained film for fine art, but on the grainy end? Did we not just spend a trillion dollars to get rid of grain and noise?
Also, if you thought dust on your digital sensor was a problem in the early 2000s, you are in for an unpleasant surprise: the cleanest negatives from the cleanest darkrooms have a ton of dust on them, and every speck shows up when you scan.
So what might Kodak be hoping with this move? To light a fire under a previously unknown revenue stream? To be the next big retro thing? To pander to the 1% of millennials who both regard film as edgy and retro and are actually willing to use it? Kodak certainly showed us how to navigate a corporate juggernaut right into the ground, and this idea seems like more of that same thinking.
Five years ago, one of my best friends, Jamie, received an unusual gift, a Pentax Auto 110 SLR (Single Lens Reflex) film camera, and brought it to me to size it up.
To say that this camera is “rare” is a double-edged sword: from my perspective, this camera is rare enough that Jamie’s is the only one I have ever seen. However, with Buy It Now prices on eBay hovering between $40 and $150, it’s obvious that quite a few were manufactured. My guess about this combination is that many cameras were sold and few were actually used to make pictures.
Photographers who remember the 1970s recall that the 110 film cartridge was one of Kodak’s efforts to reinvent film. Supposedly responding to a perception that roll film was difficult to load and manage, Kodak brought out the 110 cartridge in 1972.
Almost all of the cameras made for 110 were slim point-and-shoot cameras with fixed focus and exposure, relying on negative film’s latitude for exposure control. Many of them used flash cubes, which would fill a room with blinding light.
110 film frames are officially half the size of 35mm frames, so with the state of film in the 1970s, it was difficult to get decently detailed images with such a small film area, which is why 110 remained an amateur format.
The Pentax was an effort to cash in on the ubiquity of the 110 format, but came along just as the format was dying. The Pentax was nicely made and nicely accessorized. I got this list of lenses for the Auto 110 from Camera-wiki.org…
Pentax Auto 110 lenses
- Pentax-110 18mm F2.8 Wide-angle lens, 6 elements in 6 groups, filter Ø30.5mm
- Pentax-110 24mm F2.8 Standard lens of 6 elements in 5 groups, filter Ø25.5mm
- Pentax-110 50mm F2.8 Telephoto lens of 5 elements in 5 groups, filter Ø37.5mm
- Pentax-110 70mm F2.8 Telephoto lens of 6 elements in5 groups, filter Ø49mm
- Pentax-110 20mm—40 mm F2.8 Zoom lens of 8 separate elements, filter Ø49mm
The camera is so miniature that it feels like a toy in my longish hands. The viewfinder is large and clear, with a split-image focus aid in the center. The lens mounts in the same direction as most SLRs (lefty loosey righty tighty), and focuses in the same direction as my Nikon lenses. Focus is smooth, but the focus throw is a little long. Exposure is set entirely by the camera (Program mode), with ISO being set by the film cassette. That’s a shame, since the driving force of a great camera is allowing the photographer to run the show. The Auto 110 has no manual exposure mode, and doesn’t even have exposure compensation.
I know we owe a lot to Pentax, particularly for the K1000 and its role in teaching a generation of broke college students how to run an all-manual film camera, but the Auto 110, despite its innovation, came at the wrong time in history and with the wrong feature set. Still, it’s neat for Jamie to have it in her collection.
For many years of the later film era, Japanese camera maker Olympus specialized in building very compact 35mm film cameras. Hardware like the original OM-1, for example, was thought to be the smallest you could practically manufacture an SLR camera.
Also from this company were the point-and-shoot class of cameras, which, without the need of a pentaprism for the viewfinder, could be made smaller still. One such camera I coveted was the excellent Olympus XA.
I had one for years, and in spite of my fanciful imaginations about the kinds of pictures I would make with it, I actually shot very few images with the XA.
The XA uses a two-window rangefinder focus system, creating the faint yellow image in the center of the finder: double-image is out of focus, and making the images come together is in focus.
Exposure is controlled using aperture priority, meaning you pick the aperture, and the camera selects the shutter speed based on how much light it sensed and the film’s ISO rating.
In hand, the XA is not particularly easy to use. The focus lever, just below the lens, is tiny and hard to reach with the camera to the eye. The aperture selector is out of sight unless you point the camera toward you. The ISO dial requires a fingernail to operate.
The clamshell design is a good form factor. When it is closed, the camera is smooth and well-protected from pocket stuff like keys.
All this is put together to achieve true pocketability . The XA is so small, in fact, it had a wrist lanyard instead of a strap. It’s likely the XA is the smallest you can make a camera that will hold a roll of 35mm film.
I like to imagine that if I had a digital conversion kit, I would use this camera, but the truth is that I have an Olympus point and shoot that I almost never use. So the XA remains an amusing but unutilized item in my collection.
Fellow photographer Robert and I were musing on the phone yesterday about the demise of “digital film,” a product that tried to gain traction in the late 1990s when the future of photography was still hazy. The idea of digital film was to manufacture a cassette that could be inserted into existing film camera so they could make digital photos.
It turned out that one company, Silicon Film, got as far as a prototype before camera makers managed to get the price of purpose-built digital cameras into the affordable range.
Why would anyone have gone this route instead of just buying a Nikon D1? Well, we all had tons of great 35mm film equipment sitting around, for which we paid a lot, and which was still working fine. What if, instead of shelving all those Nikon F100s and F5s and Canon ESO-1s, and shelling out $5000 for a D1 or 1D, we could insert a cassette with a digital sensor in place of a film cassette?
It turned out the idea was mostly vaporware, and while most people believe this was due to technical hurdles, I believe it was at least as much the fault of marketing and profitability obstacles: why sell accessories at small margins when we could be selling new cameras at huge markups?
Finally, with excellent, affordable digital cameras in abundance all around us, why would even be of interest in 2018? Answer: for the same reason lomography has it’s niche, to allow us to expand artistically. There are millions of idle film cameras sitting on shelves from our own home here in Oklahoma to the towering apartments of Hong Kong that could be put to use in some worthwhile endeavor.
As an artist, I find this idea very compelling. As Robert and I talked, one question he asked was, “So are we talking about shooting with old glass?” Yes, I think so. Old lenses, though often not as sharp (since they were designed and built by hand in a bygone era) can create images with a unique and engaging character. Oklahoman photographer Doug Hoke does this all the time when he shoots 40-year-old lenses on his mirrorless cameras. Filters in smartphone applications like Instagram mimic the look of film and old lenses.
I love this idea, and not just for 35mm. My wife and I have more than a dozen old cameras sitting around of various formats, including a beautiful, working 100-year-old Kodak No. 2A Folding Cartridge Premo 116 format conventional film camera making a 4.5 x 2.5 inch image, and a couple of Polaroids that make 4 x 5 inch images. If there were a way to make digital pictures with any or all of these machines, I would happily do so, and in doing, hopefully open up another artistic avenue for my work.