Starting with 35mm film
July 11, 2011

On the recent theme of black and white photography, I have begun to reminisce about my exposure (pun realized) to 35mm film development. The story takes me back to my first SLR camera, the Pentax ZX-60. This camera was fancy, because it featured time and date printing, auto-focus/exposure/rewind, a pop-up flash, one dual-purpose dial and a smc Pentax-FA 28-90mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens, all for an affordable cost. The camera was a new starting point, a much more advanced setup from the comfortable rectangular point-and-shoot. Originally, I would go through a roll of film in a month, saving the shots for something special, but with the Pentax, the black plastic canister was off for development by the week's end. It would be important to note that these pictures still needed to be somewhat unique and important. Regardless of whether it was a twenty-four or thirty-six frame roll, film and print development was incrementally expensive, making "every shot count," literally. All the while, I was simply translating color Kodak film into pictures or snapshots for the sole purpose of documentation in a photo album. Although this starting point did not teach me the many technical aspects to the trait, I was able to focus on composition, at least an uncreative form of it.

I then continued my learning with a class on black and white photography, through film, of course, and picked up new procedures and techniques required to process film and prints in a darkroom. It started with prying open the metal film canister without bending it, which was difficult on the first few attempts, and then rolling twenty-four or thirty-six frames onto it, or really any amount that would not jam the reel (I think my record was close to forty-two frames). Next, after photographing according to the project guidelines, film development was necessary: prying the canister open again, rolling the film in complete darkness onto a steel reel, chemical processing and lastly, drying. Most times for me the film was chemically burnt due to contact between two sections of rolled film on the reel. The frames that were successfully created made it to the darkroom to generate a contact sheet and subsequently prints, all of which required more chemical processing and drying. Lastly, the best images were mounted on a foam or cardboard backing via wax paper and heated dry press. The entire process could be completed in a few hours, if lucky, but as with everything else in life, the quality was proportionally related with time and dedication. There were many fun memories, like walking into complete darkness and forgetting something and having to pack all the unraveled film into any available light-tight container, or removing the white photo paper from the darkroom after using developer but without immersing it first in the stop bath and subsequently watching the sunlight overdevelop the print. Although the process was undoubtedly long-winded in comparison to current day digital processing, it helped to reinforce the maturity required in film photography; due to the burden of development and constraint of the technology, photographers needed to devote more time to composition and content.

The nature of black and white photography, as discussed in an earlier post, presented me with a realization. Black and white removed color from the equation, and in turn, detached it from complete realism thereby opening two doors. In order to regain realism, if that was in fact the end goal, something more had to be added to the colorless images to return it to its former state. This could be anything really, maybe a focus on detail or contrast, or maybe a careful selection of man-made or natural scenes. Similarly, with the removal of true realism appeared a new endless possibility of creativity. Colors, now shades of gray, could be attributed to any object singularly based on relative exposure. Either way, film represented grander themes that its superficial loss of color would suggest.

For these reasons I am tempted to tell inquisitive new photographers that the real starting point in photography is in film. This opinion is hardly a fact though, as film is out-dated, expensive and time consuming; in contrast, digital photography is intuitive, accessible and quick. Beyond the logistics, however, film and black and white photography can help in learning fundamentals. By limiting the options and abilities of the camera through using film, beginners can focus on the salient points such as exposure, composition and content. Similarly, with the lack of photoshop or other digital editing program, rudimentary darkroom editing helps avoid dependance on post-processing of photographs to achieve the original goal. Reality in the modern day offers more possibilities and leads the new photographer to the other end of the spectrum. Digital files are immediate and unlimited, and so selectiveness is capturing images is longer required or expected. With the new technologies, sharpness and exposure are guaranteed and set the median bar of excellence to solely include the pair. For those who seek more than just cookie-cutter images, I believe a specialization of some sort is necessary: macro close-ups of flowers, natural landscapes, portraits of humans or animals, photo-journalism, etc. Once the focus has been narrowed, fundamentals are no longer abstract and instead can be learned and applied to achieve a goal. Undoubtedly, two difficult goals inherent to photography, composition and creativity, are already included on the to-do list and should be the main consumer of time spent in photography.