Moving Toward an Open Source Image Editing Workflow

This article is reflective of a work in progress, and it's a journey I am really just beginning to undertake. If you have concerns about where Microsoft is heading, or just want to expand your knowledge of alternatives for editing your photos, please read on! (Get yourself a snack - this is kind of a long post.)

Some Background Information

Aside from my photographic pursuits, I've been a longtime computer geek. This includes dabbling in the various open source Linux operating systems over the past couple of decades. For those unfamiliar with Linux, you almost certainly have interacted with it at some level if you use the Internet (much of which runs on Linux servers), or if you have used any Android devices (which is derived from Linux).

The whole topic of Linux and open source software is huge - much bigger than I have time to detail here. For more background on the many flavors of Linux, as well as the philosophy behind it, you can start by searching Google. In a nutshell, open source software (or OSS, of which Linux is a part) is freely available to anyone to use or modify for any purpose. While there are legitimate commercial uses of OSS, the license under which it is released prevents any business from seizing control of it as their exclusive property.

The practical outworking of this philosophy is that a huge amount of software of varying quality and usefulness is freely available to anyone inclined to download it: from operating systems to games to office suites to web browsers, just about any program you might buy commercially has an OSS counterpart that is often as useful, or occasionally even better than commercial software.

While some of this free software isn't worth talking about, there are a number of mature and respected programs out there. For example, I use the free LibreOffice suite, which reads and writes a variety of file formats. For my purposes, I have no need of Microsoft Office. I can easily open and edit Word and Excel files, as well as files from other popular suites.

Why I'm Preparing to Leave Microsoft Behind

I've used almost every version of Windows since 3.1 (and at least two releases of MS-DOS before that). Microsoft has had their share of duds (Windows Me and Vista being two radiant examples of failure), but for the most part each new version has improved performance and added useful features. While I've taken exception to certain design changes, there are number of third party programs and published tweaks that have allowed users to restore the look or functionality they prefer. Most of these changes were cosmetic in nature. I strongly disliked the "Fisher-Price" interface that was the default in Windows XP, for example, but with a few clicks I could roll XP back to the more austere, "classic" look I prefer.

Windows 10 is something altogether different. It's a game changer. Yes, there are cosmetic details that I dislike, but those annoyances are easily addressed by third-party add-ons, such as the popular Classic Shell. The biggest changes in Windows 10, however, aren't cosmetic. For the first time, Microsoft has migrated to a new business model of Windows as a service. Windows has arguably become an ad-delivery platform and data-gathering tool masquerading as an operating system.

That might sound like an alarmist claim, but those "free" upgrades Microsoft pushed on their user base were not so much for your benefit as theirs. As with "free" social media accounts, the computer user is now the product. Beginning with Windows 10, rolling updates are now mandatory (at least for standalone and home users). You have no control over which updates are applied, whether security or feature updates. While Microsoft has tried to assuage their critics by letting you delay updates for a period of time, there is no option to refuse an update indefinitely. This new policy is a bigger deal than might be evident.

Practically speaking, forced updates mean that if you come to rely on a particular feature in the current iteration of Windows 10 for doing your work, there's no guarantee that Microsoft may not remove and replace it with a different feature in an update. Even more critically for many users, if an update breaks some important piece of software on your PC (as has happened innumerable times in the past), you have no way to roll back that update once it's applied. In short, you have lost control of your computer as a user.

The other major issue I have with Windows 10 is the fact that Microsoft reserves the right to gather telemetry data on what software your computer is running, what kinds of data you have on your drives, and a host of other details about how or when you use your PC. Under pressure, they have given back a small measure of control, so that you can select a minimal amount of phoning home (Basic), but there is no built-in option to completely disable the telemetry feature. There are third-party options which attempt to block this traffic, so if you're absolutely stuck with Windows 10 you may have some remedy against data slurping. However, it's possible that such tools may create new problems for you, so in the end you're only applying a band-aid. It's possible future, mandatory Windows 10 updates will target those band-aids for removal (without your approval or notification).

To be clear, I'm not saying that Windows 10 per se is a bad operating system. To the contrary, it's polished and powerful. I have installed and played around with it; I keep a copy installed as a virtual machine in VirtualBox. It is certainly fast, it has some potentially useful features, and Microsoft claims (as always) that it is their most secure version of Windows to date. My issue is how Microsoft is administering the other stuff mentioned above.

I own several computers, and for now they will remain on Windows 7 and Linux Mint. When I bought my new Acer Aspire laptop last year, it didn't take long for me to dump Windows 10, and "upgrade" to a Windows 7 / Linux Mint dual-boot installation. Microsoft's extended support for Windows 7 ends on January 14, 2020, which means users have nearly 3 years from now to decide about which way to go. This timetable is where this blog post comes into play. 

There are basically three choices for photographers who need a conventional computer to edit photos: Windows, Mac, or other. By far, the most popular other option is Linux, although there's also FreeBSD and other lesser known alternatives. For those who don't need a full-fledged computer, there are perfectly capable mobile apps like Snapseed. For seriously detailed editing, though, most people still use a desktop or laptop computer.

Once Windows 7 is finally taken off life support, it will only be a matter of time before Adobe ceases developing software for a dead OS. Furthermore, since Photoshop is now only available via an online subscription model, your computer must go online at least periodically to verify your Adobe subscription is active. On top of all that, now Adobe is in bed with Microsoft to "share" customer data, so there are compelling reasons to leave both companies behind.

Without ongoing security updates, you'd be taking a huge security risk merely by connecting your PC to the Internet. As for Apple, I won't go into that here, but suffice it to say I'm not a big fan. So that leaves me with one viable operating system choice as 2020 approaches: Linux.

Taking the Penguin Plunge

I am an avid fan of Linux. In particular, I am especially fond of Linux Mint. It's a polished, snappy and secure operating system that is a joy to use. There are a number of key advantages to Linux that distinguish it from the big, commercial software companies: It's highly customizable, tends to be more secure than Windows, you are in control of which updates get installed and when (if ever), you aren't subject to shady license agreements that are designed to limit your use of the software, and there are vast repositories of available software available at the click of a button.

So why doesn't everyone move to Linux? For starters, most people have never even heard of it. Unlike commercial companies that heavily promote their products, Linux is driven by the IT community, and doesn't enjoy a lot of advertising. Among those who have heard of Linux, it has a somewhat deserved reputation for being difficult to use. I say "somewhat" because Linux has evolved from very geeky beginnings to being just as easy to use as Windows or Mac. Is it tricky to install? No more so than Windows or Mac OS X, but the average user doesn't know how to install those operating systems, either. You can buy computers with Linux pre-installed, from multiple vendors, so difficulty of installation is really a moot point.

In 2017, we are well past the technical hurdles that made Linux too complicated for the average user 20 years ago. The main obstacle preventing widespread adoption today is the availability of specialized software to run on it. Popular Linux distributions like Ubuntu and Mint come with a boatload of useful programs for performing typical computer tasks. All the popular web browsers are available on Linux, as are games, and LibreOffice. There's even a version of Dropbox available for the Linux desktop, so you can easily share files just as you would in Windows. You can give Grandma a PC with Linux installed, and she can fire up Chrome to watch cat videos and see photos of her grandchildren on Friendface as easily as she would on any other computer.

There's even a useful program called WINE which allows you to run limited Windows programs under Linux, and a commercial version called Crossover is specifically designed to let you run Microsoft Office, Quicken and a number of commercial games under Linux.  For more specialized applications such as Adobe's photo editing software, you may be able to get older versions running somewhat, but you're still likely to run into glitches. Programs in the Adobe CC stable are just too complex and resource-hungry to get working reliably under WINE.

And that's the biggest issue for photographers who want to move to Linux. Of course, you can always install Windows in a virtual machine and try to run Photoshop and Lightroom from inside that sandboxed environment. But that's a clumsy workaround, and you're likely to find that your software doesn't run optimally inside a virtual environment with limited system resources (nor will Adobe support it if you do).

Photo Editing in Linux

So what are your options? As it turns out, there are many options available - many of them quite powerful and capable. That's the good news. The bad news is that none of them are an exact replacement for Adobe's flagship products. If Adobe would port their software to Linux, I would gladly pay a premium for it. I'm not looking for ways to be a cheapskate. My objective is to maintain control over my data and my privacy, which are worth more to me than "free" Windows 10.

Open source software is largely developed by individuals or small teams, with limited resources. For many developers, these programs are a labor of love done in their spare time while they hold down "real" jobs elsewhere. There's also the fact that OSS has traditionally been developed with a view towards performing a particular function rather than trying to be a Swiss army knife that does it all.

Perhaps the best known open source image editing program out there is Gimp. It's been around for many years, and has even been ported to Windows and Mac. A lot of photographers will sneer at the idea of using Gimp for serious work. but it's still a solid program that can do most things one would do in Photoshop. It lacks certain features that I really like in Photoshop, such as content-aware fill. On the positive side, it has some features that may work better than their equivalent in Photoshop. One area that I've consistently seen Gimp outshine the competition is where is comes to Auto Levels and Auto White Balance. In my experience, 9 times out of 10, the auto settings come closer to the right values than Photoshop or Lightroom deliver.

I'd be lying if I claimed that Gimp is a drop-in, feature-for-feature Photoshop replacement. It doesn't claim to be. But even though certain processes may require a bit more work on your part, you can nearly always achieve the same or similar results seen using Adobe products. Menus and keyboard shortcuts will initially be unfamiliar, but you can usually figure out the steps required to replicate a Photoshop tutorial without much difficulty. There are also plenty of books, online tutorials and videos to guide you in achieving pretty much any desired result.

A major shortcoming (not, I'm sure, in the view of its developers) of Gimp is that it doesn't natively handle RAW files. If you shoot only JPG, then you'll have nothing to worry about. Otherwise, you'll need a RAW editor as well as a photo editor such as Gimp. Fortunately, there are some powerful tools available. One popular program that's available for Windows, Mac and Linux is RawTherapee. I've only poked around the program a little bit, so I can't tell you much about it at this point. But it is worth looking into as an option.

Another program that will feel somewhat familiar to Lightroom users is Darktable. I've been working my way through features of the program, and have been impressed at its depth and functionality. Like Lightroom, Darktable is a non-destructive editor. Nothing you do inside the program will alter your original files, so you can experiment to your heart's content without fear of ruining an image via post-processing. Once you're happy with your edits, you can export the image as a new file (several formats, including JPG, are provided), and then bring that exported file into the image editor of your choice.

I'm still learning the ins and outs of Darktable, but I'm pretty sure this is the RAW editor I'll be using in the future. There are, of course, many other worthy programs you can use for processing your images under Linux. I was recently directed to this helpful website, which lists quite a few of them, including some I've never tried. There are a few commercial Linux image editing programs (not open source) that you may want to look into, as well. One of the best known of these is Aftershot Pro, sold by Corel. I've looked at the trial version, and it seems to have some nice features. The last time I checked, the list of supported camera models seemed rather short, but it will handle RAW files from quite a few different makes.

So this is where I'm headed, and plan to commit my photographic future within the next 2-3 years. For the time being, I'll continue to use PS & LR in parallel with Darktable and Gimp. If you're considering a move to Darktable, now would be a good time to configure Lightroom to use sidecar files. That way at least some of your past edits will be retained when you import those images into Darktable.

Feel free to add any comments or questions about open source image editing!

 

 

Update on my Instagram Dilemma

By way of follow-up, I've wrestled long and hard about what to do regarding my Instagram account. On the one hand, I didn't want to leave all my photos there to be sold off by IG to a third party (as their Terms of Service allows). But with nearly 500 followers built up over the course of nearly 3 years, I loathed the idea of cutting myself off from a community of wonderful, creative people.

Last night I announced my intentions to delete my account. By morning, however, I began to question that decision. In the end, I decided to do the thing I didn't really want to do: start using watermarks for new posts. I also spent several hours purging old content, from my original 1,200 photos down to a modest 265. Culling old work was actually a refreshing thing, and reminded me of how far I've come as a photographer.

Most of the photos I kept were people photos. Knowing that any legit commercial agency is going to require model releases, I feel safe leaving those alone. Future posts, regardless of content, will bear a watermark. I'm still working on a standard look for that purpose; it needs to be a nuisance to remove but not so obtrusive as to ruin the viewing experience. That's always a fine line.

For those interested, I've found a useful app that will add customizable watermarks in the form of text or images. It's called Add Watermark Free. There's also a paid version which I may eventually buy once I determine a standardized workflow.

Reconsidering my Online Presence in 2017

A belated Happy New Year to my readers!

I'm not one to make New Year's resolutions. We all know that most of the time these are short-lived efforts at long-term changes. So this post isn't about a resolution. It's about concerns that have been weighing on my mind lately with respect to my online presence, which happen to coincide with the start of a new calendar year.

A little more than a week ago, I once again deactivated my personal Facebook page. (I had already deleted my long-neglected photography business page on there weeks earlier.) I don't know when or if I will reactivate it. Frankly, the constant chatter and ongoing political rancor have worn me down, and I needed to de-clutter my brain.

I'm still quite active on Twitter. I have long used Tweetdeck (and now the excellent lookalike Tweetduck) to mute annoying keywords, and I was elated to learn that Twitter finally introduced a mute feature to their official app. Most of the time, I manage to limit my tweets to photo/ art-related discussions, and occasional lighthearted banter about coffee and other innocuous topics. In a nutshell, I've taken steps to ensure that Twitter remains my "happy place."

Lately, I have been taking a thoughtful look at my online footprint and asking myself whether I need to further reduce the breadth of my activity. I don't plan to disappear by any means, but maybe I've stretched myself too thin on too many platforms. I was alarmed by a recent tweet evaluating the terms of service (TOS) provided by the hugely popular Instagram. Few of us bother to read the fine print on these services when we subscribe. If you're an avid Instagram user, as I have been for several years, you may want to take a closer look at the terms to which you have already agreed.

A lawyer has rewritten these in terms in plain English, and you may be surprised at what Instagram claims as rights to your intellectual property. Basically, they say that they can do whatever they want with your photos without any compensation (beyond using their service), or express permission from you. They also reserve the right to make further changes to their TOS without providing any notification to users, so unless you periodically review the terms you have no idea what changes may have occurred.

I don't know how you feel about signing away the use of your intellectual property for free, but I have to admit I don't feel good about it. In fact, I'm rather disgruntled at them - and perhaps a bit annoyed with myself for not reading these terms before I uploaded 1,200 photos to their service. While I hate to give up some of the connections I have there, I'm not sure I want to keep giving my photos away to any third party Instagram chooses. They have essentially positioned themselves as a photo stock agency - the key difference from traditional stock agencies being that you agree to work for them for free.

Options to address this without deleting my account include placing big, ugly watermarks across each photo. I don't really care for that idea. Another, less obnoxious choice might be to reduce image resolution to ridiculously low values (say 640x480), potentially undermining any resale value on their end. Both approaches are simply variations on poisoning the well so they'd look elsewhere for suitable stock material to sell product.

I'm still undecided on what I'll do, although I am leaning strongly towards simply deleting my account. At a minimum, I do plan to keep my beloved Twitter account, this website and my Flickr Pro account that I've had since 2008. While Flickr traffic has waned in the past few years, it's still a vibrant community filled with excellent work and useful group discussions.

What do you think? Is Instagram a good platform for sharing your work, despite the overly generous terms they lay claim upon for themselves? Is getting more "likes" of your photos worth the potential cost?

Instax Monochrome: A Brief Review

Last month Fujifilm introduced a long-anticipated product for fans of Instax Mini cameras: a monochrome instant film. At the time of this writing, they have not yet released an Instax Wide version of the product, which many instant shooters (including myself) would love to have as a more grown-up option.

Packs of Instax Mini Monochrome currently retail at $14.95 on Amazon for a single 10-pack, notably more expensive than its color predecessor. However, you can take advantage of some bundle offers that will reduce the cost a bit. I recently purchased a bundle of 3 10-packs for $40. If the new film follows the pattern of the Instax Mini color film, it's probable prices will drop as demand drives sales. Early adopters of any new technology tend to pay a steeper price for the privilege.

I've shot a couple packs so far of this film using my Neo Classic 90 camera. My initial impressions are generally good, with a few caveats regarding performance and the purity of this monochrome offering.

The first thing you should know is that, like the color film, Instax Monochrome is an ISO 800 speed film. That means it is best suited for conditions with less than direct, mid-day sunlight. If your camera model allows it, I'd suggest setting your exposure to "Dark" in moderate-to-bright lighting conditions. (Sometimes even using your flash from 5-6' indoors will inexplicably blow out your subject; oddly enough. my Neo Classic 90 seems to use the perfect amount of flash in the macro setting.)

Another thing you should know about Instax Monochrome is that it doesn't seem to be a true black and white emulsion. Whatever recipe Fujifilm has cooked up to produce this film, there's a noticeable color tint in the photos. It's not terrible, but it's there. I'd characterize it as subtle cyan. If you like to scan your Instax Mini photos like I do, you could work around it by scanning as, or converting to, grayscale before saving.

If you're looking for a "true" black and white image to hand to friends, this may be of concern. For whatever reason, Fujifilm has not produced an instant film that resembles their much-loved, FP3000b peel-apart pack film which they discontinued a few years ago. Nor is it as contrasty as the FP3000b. For good or bad, Instax Monochrome is an entirely different animal.

All photos in this review, except where noted otherwise. are "straight out of camera," meaning that I've not manipulated the images beyond scanning and resizing for this article. All photos were scanned at 2400 dpi, in color mode, using a CanoScan 9000F Mark II flatbed scanner.

Miniature donkeys, as they appear in the original Instax Monochrome print.

Miniature donkeys, converted to grayscale mode using GIMP. It's only when you see the image devoid of its default color that the cyan tint becomes obvious.

Tomatoes on our window sill. Shot in macro mode using the built-in flash.

Tired pups. Shot in near darkness with the built-in flash turned on.

Fort Dickerson Park, Knoxville. This shot was taken in late morning, with the exposure set to Dark.

View from the site of the old Baptist Hospital in Knoxville. This was shot close to noon. Even with the exposure set to Dark, the scene was just too bright for a decent shot with that ISO 800 film.

I was curious to see how Instax Monochrome would respond to the use of a filter. As there are no threads on the lens for a filter, I had to improvise by holding a filter against the lens. In this case, I used a 67mm Sunpak YA2 orange-yellow filter - more than large enough to cover the lens and (hopefully the little AE light receptor holes adjacent to it). The only difference I could tell was that highlights were slightly brighter in the filtered version; blacks seemed unaffected.

Will I buy more Instax Monochrome film in the future? Most likely so, even though it seems to me that the film falls a bit short of its promise. It is, like its color Instax film sibling, capable of delivering beautiful images as well as frustrating you with its somewhat unpredictable response to light. If you have an Instax Mini camera, it's definitely worth trying a pack to see if it works for your style of photography.

 

 

Home Processing Black & White Film: Getting Down To Business

In the first installment of this two part article, we discussed the materials you need to acquire in preparation for processing your black and white film. Now it's time to get down to the nitty-gritty of how to use it all.

Disclaimer: Photo processing chemistry can be toxic. Be careful handling liquids and developer in its powder form. Please read the instructions for each chemical product carefully, and take appropriate precautions for handling. It's also not a bad idea to wear some disposable latex gloves when you're working with developer and fixer to protect your skin. Handled responsibly, typical photo chemistry shouldn't expose you to any serious health risks, but use reasonable caution.

Pictured above is my changing bag with the items you'll be placing inside of it. Top to bottom, these include: film reel, 35mm film cassette, can opener, scissors, clip, center post, developing tank and screw-on lid. On the left in this image are the elastic arm holes. This end will face your body. You'll stick the film and supplies inside through the opposite end, which is then securely closed with a zipper and velcro fasteners to ensure no light enters. It's helpful to place the items strategically inside the same way each time before you begin so you can find and use items easily.

Getting Your Film Into the Developer Tank

The first order of business is getting your film ready to process. Loading the film on the reel is probably the trickiest part for newbies. It's not that the task itself is super difficult, but doing it blindly in a changing bag can be tricky. Here are some pointers to get you started:

  • Always make sure your reels are completely dry before attempting to load film on them. If they are slightly damp, it can make a challenging task nearly impossible. In the same vein, when it comes time to work inside the bag, you may want to turn on a fan to keep yourself cool while you work; this can help reduce sweaty hands that can cause similar snags.
  • If the film does jam while loading it on the reel, don't try to force it. Stop, open up the reel, carefully remove the stuck film, and try it again. Sometimes you may have to do this more than once with a particular roll. Make sure there are no rough edges on the end of the film strip you're trying to insert. Carefully trim the end so that it's smooth and slightly rounded, with no open sprocket holes.
  • Shorter lengths of film are usually easier to load as there's less length to potentially jam. If you're using 35mm film, stick with 24 exposure rolls at the beginning. (120 film rolls come in standard lengths so any roll should load like any other.) Also, you may find that old, expired film is trickier to load on the reel, so start with film that's somewhat fresh.

No, this isn't a really old photo. It's one I shot about 5 years ago, and it came from the first roll of film I processed at home. I got the "film sweats" while trying to load it on the reel and mangled it - badly. It's important to relax and take your time inside the changing bag.

  • Sacrifice a roll of your least valuable film to practice loading in the light. This will give you a chance to see how the film loads when your hands aren't stuffed inside a bag. Start by keeping your eyes open, then see if you can keep them closed through the whole process. If you can master that, moving to the bag will be a cinch. If you don't want to sacrifice a roll for practice, at the very least use a roll with everyday snapshots or still lifes that can be easily recreated. Irreplaceable vacation photos are not a good idea for your first attempt.

For the exact steps on how to load either 35mm or 120 film on a reel, I refer the reader to one of the many online demos available via YouTube. This is easier seen than explained, and you'll want to find a video featuring the general type of reel you own. It's a good idea to use your changing bag in an area with subdued light (turn off overhead lights and any nearby lamps), to prevent strong light from straying in through a weak seam.

Along with scissors and a can opener (for 35mm film only), you'll need to place your film, developing tank, screw-on lid, center post and clip inside the changing bag so you can place the newly loaded reel safely inside the tank. If your tank has a plastic red cap, you don't need to put that in the bag  - it's used to hold your chemistry in place during agitation, not to block light. Once screwed tightly shut, you can remove the tank from the changing bag.

You are now ready to begin developing your film.

Processing Your Film

Now that your film is securely in the developing tank, you can begin the process of developing. I perform the following steps in my kitchen sink. As mentioned in the first part of this post, there are three chemicals (plus water) we'll be using to complete the process: developer (D-76), Ilford Rapid Fixer and Photo-Flo.

Here's a typical scenario of times and sequence you'll use when developing your film using the guidelines I suggest:

  1. Developer (9:30)
  2. Water rinse/ stop (3:00)
  3. Fixer (5:00)
  4. Final rinse (3:00)
  5. Photo-Flo (0:30)

The only step that will normally vary in length is the developer, which is dependent on the specific film and developer. Generally speaking, you can find the developing time listed for D-76 (and other popular developers) inside the cardboard packaging for your film. The manufacturer will list a suggested time for the film, although these are only recommended guidelines. While times for various temperatures are often listed, I recommend sticking with the standard 68°F (20°C) for consistency's sake. You can experiment later, but keep it simple to start.

You'll also note that the manufacturer provides guidelines for agitation during the developing process. Agitating should be done fairly slowly and deliberately, by inverting the tank (flipping it upside down and back = 1 inversion). Avoid vigorous shaking. Typically you'll agitate the tank every 30-60 seconds, for about 5-10 seconds at a time. I normally do 5 inversions in 10 seconds once every minute. This will probably earn me some flack from purists who claim otherwise, but I've never seen any difference in results based on specific agitation intervals.

The important thing is that you do agitate periodically and gently. (You may have heard of a popular technique called stand developing, but I'm skipping that here for the sake of simplicity.) Here are some pointers:

  • After pouring the developer into the tank, applying the cap, and doing your initial agitation, be sure to gently rap the bottom of the tank against a sink or counter to get rid of any air bubbles that might stick to the side of the film. There's no need to repeat this step after the first agitation since the film surface should now be thoroughly wet inside the tank.
  • Make sure you follow the developing tank instructions for the appropriate volume of chemistry. If you have a tank like mine, those values are imprinted on the bottom for easy reference. Using more chemistry than required won't hurt, but too little may result in uneven processing along one edge of the film. Processing 2 reels of 35mm, or 1 reel of 120 film, requires more chemistry than a single roll of 35mm to cover adequately.
  • Use your smartphone to help you develop film. There are a number of film developing apps that feature timers and even a database of films and suggested developer times. I mainly use the Massive Dev Chart, which is available for both Android and iOS devices. It currently runs for $8.99, and it's money well spent. Virtually any kind of film you can buy will have presets listed in the MDC, and these can be modified as needed for your own workflow. When you modify an entry, it is automatically saved as a custom entry, and can be easily exported to a file whenever you move to a new mobile device.
  • If you want a free, simple timer for Android, you can also try Darkroom Timer (by Chicken of the Web), on the Google Play store. It's no longer supported by the developer but it still works fine. I use it now primarily for color film processing, as you have greater flexibility to make custom presets. (One little quirk about Darkroom Timer on newer devices is there's no obvious way to add a new entry. No problem. Press and hold an existing preset, choose duplicate, then edit and rename the duplicate.) Unfortunately, I've never been able to export custom entries successfully so moving to a new smartphone means recreating them.
  • I suggest using 1:1 developing, which does mean that your developing times will be about 50% longer than using stock solution For example, 6:45 in stock solution might translate to 9:30 for 1:1 processing. The Massive Dev Chart normally shows the suggested times for 1:1 and other common dilutions. It's not complicated at all and requires no advanced math skills. If your tank says to use 475ml of solution for one roll of 35mm film, just round that up to the nearest easy number (500ml), then divide that by two. In this case, you'd pour in 250ml of stock D-76 solution and add 250ml of water. Be sure to do this in a graduated cylinder, not the developing tank. 
  • Using 1:1 processing will double the return on your investment without appreciably extending the overall time it takes to develop a roll. Diluting your developer will not adversely impact image quality in the slightest; some people even claim it increases apparent sharpness.

Check to ensure that your developer is at 68°F before you start. If it's higher or lower, you can stick the cylinder in the fridge for a few minutes or immerse it in hot water until it's right where you want it to be. Then start the timer and pour the developer into the top of the tank in one smooth motion. Apply the cap, and begin agitating according to the manufacturer's guidelines or whatever your preferred app suggests.

Once you're done with the developer, you can dispose of the contents and begin your stop bath, or what I like to call "rinsing it out with tap water."* Since you've not applied fixer yet, you'll need to keep the screw-on lid attached. I don't worry about the precise temperature of the rinse water, but try to keep it in the ballpark of 68F based on feel. Let the tank fill, dump it out, and repeat at least a few times right away to remove developer residue. Then you can let the water flow through until you're done. I've seen various suggestions on how long a rinse/ stop bath should be, but I settled on 3 minutes as a reasonable period of time years ago.

After the rinse is complete, pour out the water and gently shake it upside down to get out most of the remaining water. Don't shake too hard or bang it against the sink, or you could dislodge the little clip that holds the film reel down on the center spool inside. (You don't want the reel to float freely inside or your film may not get evenly exposed to the chemistry.) Once you're satisfied it's mostly empty, it's time to apply your fixer. As with the developer, measure the volume needed in a graduated cylinder. When you're ready, pour the fixer into the developing tank. I do a few gentle inversions at the beginning, although it's not really necessary. Then let it sit undisturbed for 5 minutes.

When the time is up, use your funnel to pour the fixer into a 1-liter bottle for the next use. Remember: Don't just dump your fixer after a single use. You should be able to get at least 12-15 uses out of a single batch - likely more than that. If the film is ever milky looking after fixing it, re-do this step with fresh fixer.

At this point the film is insensitive to light ("fixed"), so the lid can come off for the remaining steps. After fixing your film, you'll want to do a final rinse to get rid of the chemical residue. Again, I do this for an arbitrary 3 minutes. If you feel better with a longer rinse, it certainly won't hurt anything. After unscrewing the top, just let tap water fill the tank and spill over the edge. I gently plunge the reel by slowly raising and lowering the center post as the water flows over it, occasionally emptying and refilling the tank to ensure a steady supply of clean water.

The final step is applying Photo-Flo. Fill the tank up almost to the top with fresh tap water. Then, using your eyedropper, squeeze in 2-3 drops of Photo-Flo solution. Resist the temptation to go overboard; more is not better. Then slowly plunge the reel a few times into the tank until you see suds start to appear on the surface. Wait about 30 seconds and then remove the reel from the tank and the center post. You're nearly done!

At this point, I like to shake the reel over the sink with a snap of the wrist a few times before opening it up to remove the film. This is where the magic happens: you'll lift your film gently from the reel and unroll it. If everything went well, you should see negative images unfurling before you! Gently shake any excess moisture from the film strip, being sure not to touch it against anything, and you're ready to hang it up to dry using your weighted clips. I hang mine in my home office area with the ceiling fan turned on low nearby; just be mindful about not stirring up dust while it's drying. Dust sticking to negatives is no fun.

Some people like to use a dedicated film squeegee to wipe the water off prior to hanging the filmstrip, but many photographers have found that anything but the lightest touch tends to produce scratches along the emulsion. It seems some film types are more susceptible than others. Either way, I'd recommend against it.

You'll want to wait at least 45-60 minutes before you take your film down. Don't be alarmed if your film twists and bends in weird ways as it dries; that's perfectly normal. It should be flat (or mostly so) when it finishes drying. An hour is usually enough time, although there's no harm in leaving it overnight or longer. (If you're processing older, expired film, leaving it overnight will help reduce any excess curliness). You're now ready to scan and enjoy your first roll of film!

*Some photographers shy away from using tap water in the developing process, especially if they live in an area with deposits or other water problems. If you encounter any unexplained issues using tap water, it's worth trying some distilled water as an alternative.

 

Home Processing Black & White Film: Gathering Supplies

Introduction

My friend, Chryseis, developing a roll of film in our kitchen.

I am occasionally asked how one goes about processing black & white film at home. After answering the question multiple times, I decided it might be helpful to put together some simplified instructions for getting started. I should emphasize that my methodology is not infallible, nor is it the only way one can achieve the desired results. It's just how I do things and what I find has worked well for me.

As you gain experience, you will no doubt want to tailor the process to best match your own workflow. I am confident in stating that while my approach may not be the end-all, be-all of film processing, if you follow these basic steps you should get usable results. If you find a better way to do things, please feel free to add to the conversation in the comments section.

This two-part blog article provides an overview of the materials and the process of developing black & white film. There are some excellent online articles and YouTube videos that can help you flesh out specific steps, but what I found lacking when I started back into processing film was a general guide that spelled out explicitly what I needed to get started. I had last developed film way back in high school, and had forgotten most of what I knew.

After lots of Googling, asking around and pulling from multiple sources I was able to piece that information together into a useful workflow. I hope these articles will save you some time and answer your questions so that you feel confident getting started. I have covered some of these issues, such as scanning negatives, in prior posts.

Let me begin by dispelling a myth: You do not need a darkroom in order to process film. (If you want to make traditional paper prints with an enlarger, you will need a light proof work area which might be a formal darkroom or a bathroom with tape sealing any light leaks. But that's another topic altogether and beyond the scope of this article.) You can easily process film in your kitchen with minimal gear, and then scan it digitally with your computer. If you're been interested in working with film, rest assured that you don't need a dedicated room or expensive equipment.

Why process your own instead of just sending it out to a lab? Some people enjoy DIY projects, and processing your own film can be enormously satisfying. In my case, the major factors that pushed me into it were cost and convenience. I was driving nearly 30 minutes to get to the nearest pro lab that can handle black & white film. On top of the drive was the waiting (up to a week), and the cost. By "souping" my own film at home, I can shoot a roll and have it developed and hanging to dry in about 30 minutes.

Acquiring Supplies

A snap of some of my supplies on the kitchen counter.

In order to get started, you will have to spend some money on basic supplies. Initially, expect to spend around $150-200 buying all the "hardware" and chemistry needed to get started. Most of this cost represents a one time investment, since chemicals are the only ongoing expense (apart from the film itself, of course). Depending on what chemistry you buy, and how you use it, you can process individual rolls of film for literally pennies apiece, and certainly well under a dollar at the "expensive" end.

Let's start with the reusable supplies you'll need to process your film. These can all be sourced through various online retailers, and some of them you're likely to already own, although you may want to reserve some items strictly for developing as you don't want to contaminate kitchen supplies with potentially toxic chemistry. I bought most of my supplies from Freestyle Photographic Supplies. Here's what you'll need at the start:

  • Film changing bag
  • Daylight developing tank
  • Film reels
  • Can opener
  • Scissors
  • Measuring cylinders
  • Eyedropper
  • Funnel
  • Thermometer
  • Jugs (various sizes) for storing chemistry
  • Weighted film clips


Freestyle carries a few changing bags. You can also find film changing bags on eBay, sold by a variety of vendors in different sizes. Prices currently vary from about $13-$30. I would advise against buying the very smallest bags since you want to allow plenty of room for loading your film. Changing bags let you work in the light while your hands and film stay in the dark. This is the only step in the developing process when absolute darkness is required while handling your undeveloped film. I'll explain this in further detail in the second installment.

A daylight developing tank, as the name suggests, is a device that lets you pour chemistry or water in and out under normal lighting, while keeping stray light from reaching the contents. There are various designs and price points, but I recommend a simple plastic model (with plastic reels) that let you process 2 - 35mm rolls (or 1 - 1 20 roll) at a time. The film will spend the rest of the process in this tank before you hang it to dry at the end. Your tank may come with a reel or two, but it's not a bad idea to order a couple of extra reels when you buy your tank. Some people swear by metal tanks and reels, although I've been happy with my plastic kit.

A handheld can opener (like the kind you use to puncture cans of juice) is useful for removing the ends of 35mm film cassettes in the changing bag. Scissors let you trim the ends of the film for easier loading onto the reels. If you only want to process medium format (120) film, you won't need either of these items since there's no cassette to pop open or rough edges to trim.

You'll need at least 2 measuring cylinders for measuring quantities of chemistry. I would also suggest buying a small cylinder for measuring certain developers (like Rodinal) or other chemistry that you need to measure precisely in smaller quantities. You will want to buy an eyedropper and funnel that you reserve for photographic use. Both are inexpensive but very important items you'll regret skimping on (really).

You can get by with a cheap, basic thermometer for black & white photography. However, if you're considering delving into color or slide film processing in the future, I'd suggest buying a $10-20 digital thermometer at the outset for fast, accurate readings. There's no sense in shopping twice for the same item, like I did before I knew better. Digital thermometers are readily available online or in the kitchen section of your local Walmart. Black & white film is very forgiving when it comes to temperature variations (I developed a number rolls at the start without even using one), but other film types require tight temperature control for good results. If you want consistent results with your black and white film, get a thermometer.

You'll need some jugs for storing the chemicals you need to mix. How many and what sizes you'll need depends somewhat on the specific chemicals you choose, but I would suggest the following as a minimum to get started: one gallon (quantity 1), half gallon (2), 5 liter (1) and one liter (1). Some people improvise by reusing household containers, but I would suggest buying photographic "Datatainer" jugs. They have the advantage of being opaque, have white space for writing out the contents with a Sharpie, and you won't contend with the uncertainty of wondering whether residue from whatever was stored in them previously might contaminate your chemistry. These jugs are not very expensive and pretty much last forever.

Finally, I recommend buying some weighted film clips for drying your film once you're done processing it. If you're handy, you can probably rig up a system of your own. You can even use clothespins in a pinch. Personally, I find clips made for the purpose are easiest to work with. I have two sets, since I frequently process 2 rolls at a time.

The Chemistry

I've experimented with a variety of developers - commercial and homemade - but I recommend that if you're just starting out, stick to the tried and true chemicals, and master that before you delve into more exotic concoctions. You'll save on shipping if you order both the items above and your chemistry below at the same time from Freestyle. When it comes time to restock your chemistry, I'd recommend ordering from the Film Photography Project store. They are a non-profit organization, with competitive pricing. Their offerings are more limited, but they charge actual shipping cost - plus, your purchases support their charitable work equipping schools and other organizations with free film cameras.

For basic home developing, I suggest buying the following:

  • Kodak D-76
  • Ilford Rapid Fixer
  • Kodak Photo-Flo 200


Kodak D-76 comes in a packet in powder form. You simply mix it thoroughly with warm water, and this solution becomes your stock solution. I generally use D-76 in a 1:1 ratio for reasons of economy. That simply means you mix equal parts water and stock solution when you are preparing to develop your film. The higher the ratio of water to stock solution, the longer the processing time will be. Some people reuse their developer, pouring it back into the storage jug after each use, but I've never done that since the small cost of developer doesn't merit potential failure of subsequent rolls to me. A packet of D-76 costs around $7-8, and will process many rolls if you use it 1:1. You can use D-76 with practically all varieties of black & white film (including films from Ilford, Fujifilm and others.)

D-76 mixes with a gallon of water (smaller packets for 1-liter quantities are also available), which makes storing the solution in 2 half-gallon bottles convenient. It's a good practice to divide larger quantities of film chemistry into smaller, airtight bottles so that it keeps longer. The more air present inside the container, the more quickly the chemistry is likely to go bad. There are specialty bottles available with an accordion design to minimize air pockets, but I've never personally used them. Fortunately, D-76 gives you some warning and doesn't fail suddenly (as will Kodak X-Tol, another popular developer).

Stored at room temperature in opaque Datatainer jugs, I find that D-76 will last at least a couple of months - sometimes as long as 6 months or more. When it starts to change from clear to yellowish, it has begun going bad and it's time to mix up a fresh batch. (You'll probably still get OK results if it's only a little bit yellow, but you may not want to take the risk if it's an important roll.)

Old school film users will say that you should always use a stop bath following the developer. Stop bath is used to immediately halt the developing process. While I do use stop bath in my darkroom for making prints, I've always just used cool tap water to rinse my film following developer, and never have noticed any problems arising as a result. If you want to do it "correctly," feel free to look into a stop bath that meets your needs. I really don't think it's necessary, especially when you're using a 1:1 developer solution which necessitates longer developing times. A few extra seconds with developer on the emulsion as it rinses isn't likely to have any noticeable impact.

The next chemical you'll need is a fixer. I have always used Ilford Rapid Fixer. It comes in a 1 liter bottle that you mix with 4 liters of water for a total of 5 liters solution. A given quantity of fixer can be used many times before it is exhausted. I keep my current active batch in a 1-liter bottle and store the unused remainder in the 5-liter bottle I used to mix it. You'll know your fixer is exhausted if the film looks milky after fixing is completed, but you can always re-fix for longer or with fresh chemistry.

Your film will not be ruined if the fixer is exhausted and you have to do it again or add more time. Conservatively, you should get at least a dozen uses out of the same quantity of fixer. So don't dump it out after each use - it has a LOT of staying power. I've never actually seen Ilford Rapid Fixer go bad, but I'm sure if it sits long enough in a partly empty container it will eventually fail. I've used fixer that was probably a year old with no ill effects.

The last chemical here is Photo-Flo. It's a soap-like agent that prevents spots from forming on your negatives when drying. The trick is to use only 2-3 drops of it in your developing tank at the end of the process. Don't pour it - use an eyedropper. Use too much, and you may end up with more spotting than you would have otherwise! I'm still using the same bottle I bought 4 or 5 years ago; one 16 ounce bottle will last you literally years. Some people swear by using a tiny amount of dish soap as a cheap alternative, but this stuff is so economical to begin with I don't see any reason to scrimp and improvise.

Our next installment will take a look at the actual steps involved in making those photos magically appear on a strip of exposed film. Until then, go get these supplies and you'll be ready to start!

 



 

 

 

Review of a Classic: The Chinon Bellami

Here the barn door lens cover is closed, protecting the lens and making for a very pocketable photo experience. The camera will easily fit within the span of a typical adult's hand as seen here (and I don't have very large hands).

The Chinon Bellami is a very compact 35mm camera with a novel lens cover that opens a bit like the doors of a cuckoo clock. When closed, the body feels almost aerodynamic, and easily slides into a coat pocket. Despite its diminutive size, the Bellami has a solid, quality feel that suggests it was made to satisfy people who want to capture something perhaps superior to your average snapshot. A flash attachment is available, although mine came without one so I've not had occasion to try flash exposure. Experience with the similarly designed Olympus XA flash attachment suggests this type of flash will yield somewhat harsh results due to its proximity to the lens.

Operation is simple but elegant: The Bellami uses a zone focus system, so you need to guesstimate the approximate distance to your subject since you can't see through the lens to determine focus visually. Distances are clearly marked in feet and meters on the focus ring, but absolute precision isn't necessary. In fact, the manual recommends that under sunny outdoor conditions, you can use the "safety" setting of 10 ft / 3 meters (marked in green) and just leave it there for all your shots regardless of distance. The focus ring can be set from 3.5 feet to infinity. The Bellami has a fixed focal length of 35mm - great for all purpose photography, and a maximum aperture of f/2.8. Exposure settings are selected automatically by the camera.

The Chinon Bellami with its lens cover open. Using the film advance lever to open it also turns on the camera so it's immediately ready to use.

As this camera was released in 1980, you don't have to deal with the now obsolete mercury battery that was common in older cameras. Instead, the Bellami uses 2 alkaline or silver oxide button type batteries that are easily replaced. It predates the advent of DX film canister encoding, you'll need to set the film's ISO speed using a small dial located atop the viewfinder. The camera is programmed to accept film in the range of ISO (or ASA) 25-400.

I was given my copy by a friend about two years ago. To be honest, my first roll yielded disappointing results. The images were badly overexposed, although I was able to massage a few to near acceptability with curves in Photoshop. I figured the shutter had probably gotten sticky with age, and set it aside to live out its days as a shelf queen.

Recently, I've launched a personal quest to reduce my excess camera gear, and I've started taking a hard look at non-functioning cameras. Aside from a select few sentimental or collectible models, I've decided that I don't have room for unused or broken cameras on my shelves. As I've mentioned in past posts, I am not primarily a collector but a photographer; I enjoy actually using the gear I own. When I came across this forgotten camera, I decided it might deserve another chance. After spending some time cocking and firing the shutter multiple times in hopes of working out any stickiness, I popped in a roll of black & white film and took it for a spin yesterday afternoon.

I was more than pleasantly surprised with the results. Whatever was plaguing the camera's exposures before seems to have corrected itself. Needless to say, this camera has now established itself as a keeper! If you can find a known working copy of the camera at a reasonable price, I wouldn't hesitate to pick one up.

The sample images below were from the same roll of Arista.edu Ultra 100 film. Processed in Xtol 1:1 for 9:30 at 68F, with minor edits and sharpening in Photoshop.

These friendly goats at the Museum of Appalachia were curious about the visitors. Mostly I think they were hoping for a handout.

One of the many buildings at the museum. While it's worth paying the fee to go inside at least once, there are a number of interesting things that can be seen for free on the way to the main building. Be sure to stop by if you're in the area for a look at authentic Appalachian culture.

The Grist Mill at Norris Dam State Park. I've probably taken a million photos of this place, but not with this camera.

Closeup of the water wheel at the Grist Mill. The mill itself is authentic, although it was relocated here some years ago as a park feature. I really like how this shot came out.

The Threshing Barn - another authentic piece of Appalachian history - as viewed from the Grist Mill. This area of the park is popular for engagement and wedding photography, although I learned some time back that they've had to crack down on rogue photographers trashing the place, writing wedding graffiti on the barn, etc. I was told you now need a permit for professional photography here.

Pier at Norris Lake. Not much activity, and the water has been lowered markedly for winter. Tennessee has very few natural lakes; most are dammed up rivers.

Winch on the pier.

Shoot Like It's 1995!

My Canon EOS Elan IIe, pictured here with a Tamron SP f/3.5-5.6, 24-135mm zoom lens. The lens cost considerably more than I paid for the camera, but has proven to be a solid performer.

Camera reviews typically cover hot, new digital toys (like the newly leaked, 50.6 MP Canon 5Ds). Big name review sites and independent bloggers alike scramble to cover the latest photographic innovation. As in all areas of life, however, not everything worthwhile is necessarily cutting edge. You've almost certainly seen an Ansel Adams print. By the standards of 2015 technology, his camera gear was primitive and crude, yet he produced breathtaking photography; his prints sell very well to this day, and his books remain useful resources for students of photography.

This post is a brief overview* of a 20 year old camera still worth buying. It's decades newer than anything Ansel used, and modern enough to boast the ease-of-use people expect today. I own a number of vintage cameras, many of which require manual configuration. The Canon EOS Elan IIe works like a modern digital camera. The main difference is you have to load a roll of 35mm film, but there's no cocking or winding as with vintage cameras; it features a motorized advance and automatic rewind. Once the film is loaded, you can set the camera to full Auto mode or you can use one of the other program modes - the same ones available on the latest DSLRs.

The Canon EOS Elan II and IIe are basically the same camera, so either one is an excellent choice. (I previously shot with an Elan II, a gift from the kind folks at the Film Photography Project. Unfortunately, it developed a persistent, sticky shutter problem.) The only difference is that the IIe adds a novel feature that lets you program the camera to focus using your eye movement. I'm not sure how well this feature works as I've not bothered to set it up yet. I bought mine from KEH, a widely respected reseller of camera gear, for around $35. You may be able to find one even cheaper from thrift shops or a reputable eBay seller. Adding a basic kit lens, if needed, will likely set you back a bit more.

Stranger at the Knoxville Museum of Art last September. Natural light, shot on my Elan II using the remarkable Svema Color 125 film.

There are several features worth nothing about the Elan II/ IIe. It accepts auto-focus EF lenses, which also work with modern Canon DSLRs. If you happen to be a digital Canon (APS-C) shooter, this means you can share some lenses between systems. (Not all camera accessories will work between generations of cameras; when in doubt, check your product manual.) It has a pop-up flash, so you may find that other accessories are unnecessary for everyday use. You can even buy inexpensive infrared remote controls that let you trigger the shutter wirelessly - handy for including yourself in group photos and other tripod work. 

Both the Elan II and IIe are full-featured SLRs that allow you to control the focus point in your photo. Here I shot wide open, focusing on the front tire to deliberately throw the handlebars out of focus.

Another useful feature of the Elan II/ IIe is that it allows for manually selecting film speed. This is not always the case with other cameras from the same era. It's helpful because you can tell the camera to treat film as faster (or slower) than it's actually rated. A prime example of this would be "pushing" certain films, such as Kodak Tri-X 400 or Portra 400, to ISO 800 or even 1600 - either for creative effect or to compensate for low light conditions.  Being able to manually select your ISO is essential for some "boutique" or bulk-rolled films that may not have the standard DX encoding** on the film cassette. Of course, you can also let the camera select the ISO automatically.

In short, this is a modern camera in every way that really matters for making photographs. If you have thought about exploring film photography, but don't want to struggle with figuring out the manual controls on vintage gear, this would be an excellent way to ease into the world of film with minimal fuss. And if you're a bit shy, the Elan II/ IIe is unlikely to draw attention as its design will easily pass for just another digital camera on the street (as long as nobody asks to see the image on the back after you take their photo).

*For an in-depth, photographer's review, complete with technical specifications, see this online review from 1996.  

** DX encoding was developed in the 1980s as a way of automating film speed selection. One of the first cameras to offer this feature, the Konica TC-X, also happened to be my first SLR that I purchased new back in 1987. 

Assign Yourself a Photo Project

Participants in the Knoxville Zombie Walk (2010).

If you're a shutterbug like me, sometimes you need to get out and take some photographs of something... anything! It can be fun to just walk around a familiar area - solo or with friends - shooting whatever catches your eye. 

Spend enough time photographing random sights in any given location, though, and you'll inevitably wind up with multiple photos of the same buildings, signs and landscapes. In my case, I have hundreds or even thousands of photos from downtown Knoxville. It's a scenic city, and there are lots of interesting things to see. But eventually it starts to feel old, even as the photographic "itch" remains. Not everyone can simply hop on a plane or drive cross country to seek out exciting, new vistas. So what can you do if traveling to new places isn't feasible when your inner artist wants to roam? You could ignore the impulse to create, and waste an afternoon looking at funny photos of cats on Facebook - but there are better options!

The answer to your conundrum might be a photo assignment. That's right: You can give yourself an assignment to do something deliberate and specific with your photography. Your assignment might be something you complete in a single afternoon, or it could be a long-term project spanning a year or more. The best thing about an assignment is that it forces you to look at things through a particular set of constraints - and constraints can make all the difference for sparking creativity.

Downtown Knoxville. I shot this on a plastic toy "Debonair" camera while on a self-directed assignment. My theme? "Up" - basically pointing the camera at anything above me.

Some examples of assignments that people have completed include photographing objects that are a particular color or shape. Your subject might be a theme involving the use of reflections (as in glass windows or puddles of water), or texture (light raking rough surfaces in the early morning or late afternoon). If you're the outgoing type, some photographers make a project of photographing strangers - either as candid street photography or directly asking people to stop and take their portrait. Lousy weather? How about some macro photography on the kitchen table? Ask your friends if they'd be willing to model for you, and practice lighting techniques with a lamp and a $1 white foam board. These are just a few ideas, but you may be able to think of many more on your own that suit your interests and personality. If you're looking for more ideas, take a look here or here.

If you can't think of a specific project idea that appeals to you, a related idea is to seek out festivals and events in your area via Google. Most communities have some version of an events calendar online. In east Tennessee, the best time of year for festivals is typically summer and fall. Grab a favorite camera with a single lens (more lenses will just slow you down), and head out to photograph the festivities. Your local farmers' market is packed with people, produce and other goods. If there's a "Zombie Walk" or comic book convention in your area, you'll have no trouble getting spontaneous photos as participants are usually eager to show off their costumes.

I work these events as if I were on a paid job assignment, and people sometimes assume I am. Whatever assignment you decide upon, tackle your project as though you're a staff photographer for a newspaper. Just because you're not working for pay doesn't mean your assignment is any less important. Look at every detail as something that others might not see apart from your efforts to document it. Things you normally take for granted as boring fixtures that "everyone" has seen aren't boring to someone on the other side of the globe or across the country. You might be surprised at how the world around you looks from the fresh outlook that an assignment provides.

The Top Dial on Your Camera

With Christmas behind us, some of you may have purchased or received the gift of a new DSLR. Maybe you already own one, but you've been nervous about using it in anything but full "Auto" mode. If that sounds like you, this blog post might be helpful to you. The following is a brief discussion of what some of the settings on your camera's main dial do.

Camera features differ by brand and model, but all DSLRs offer these core functions. I'm going to assume that you probably have a Canon or Nikon. (I use a Fujifilm mirrorless camera, but its controls are laid out a bit differently, so I won't cover that here.) For specifics about your make and model, consult your user manual; if you lost it, you can probably download an electronic copy online. Also, try searching Youtube  - there's some great amateur instruction available there for nearly any camera ever made.

In the section below, the Nikon symbol for each setting is listed first; where Canon differs, I've noted that in parentheses. Don't worry too much about what it's called - the functions are standard from camera to camera even if they use different terminology.

Main dial on a Nikon D60 DSLR. Other Nikon models may differ slightly, but the main functions described below will be the same from camera to camera. (Photo courtesy Tonya Millsaps.)

The main dial on a Canon EOS Elan IIe 35mm SLR (mid 90s film camera). While modern Canon DSLRs will have some added settings, the main ones we're concerned about don't change.

The Settings

Auto Mode (represented on Canon as the small green rectangle). This is the mode for total newbies, and anyone else who wants to give the camera near total control over the photography experience. If you're still scared of your camera, there's nothing wrong with letting it make all the decisions for you. Today's digital cameras are basically sophisticated little computers with lenses attached, and you're almost guaranteed to get a properly exposed photo this way. As you take more photos, you'll probably start wondering if there's a way to exert more creative control over your photos.

P - Program Mode. It's a common joke in the photography world that the "P" stands for "Professional." The main difference between Auto and Program is that Program Mode gives you a tiny bit more control over your camera settings, while still leaving most decisions to the camera. When I first started using a DSLR, I got annoyed when my flash would pop up if I didn't think the scene required it. Then I learned that if I switched from Auto to Program, the flash wouldn't pop up automatically (even if all kinds of dire warnings about low light appeared on the display). If you plan to take a photo in low light with a tripod, for example, but want the camera to handle all of the exposure settings, use Program Mode. It's like training wheels for the other settings. It's also a good mode to select if you're pressed for time and just want to make sure you get the shot with minimal fuss. Sometimes you just need a snapshot.

A (Av) - Aperture Mode. When I'm not doing studio work, this is my most frequently used camera mode. Selecting Aperture Mode lets you pick a desired aperture, while letting the camera adjust your other exposure settings automatically. The aperture is also known as the f-stop. I use this when I want to control depth of field (how much of the image is in focus, from front to back). You know those beautiful portraits where the bride is in sharp focus but the background is softly blurred? That's shallow depth of field. To get that look, you can set the aperture to its widest setting (which is the smallest aperture for a particular lens, such as f/2.8 or f/3.5), and focus on the subject. Conversely, if you want to make sure a scene is all or mostly in focus - as in a landscape photo - you can pick a smaller aperture (a bigger number f-stop, such as f/11 or f/16). The camera will then adjust the shutter speed and possibly the ISO* (depending on your settings), to match your chosen aperture.

S (Tv) - Shutter Priority Mode. Most photographers I know tend not to use this setting as much as they do others. But it does have some useful applications. Let's suppose you're taking photos indoors or another low-light situation where using flash is not allowed. If the shutter speed chosen by the camera is relatively slow (say, 1/30 second), it can be difficult to get a sharp photo; the longer the focal length of your lens, the harder it is to hold steady at slower speeds. By selecting Shutter Priority, you can tell the camera that you want to use a minimum of 1/60 or 1/125 shutter speed. Your odds of getting an acceptably sharp photo are greatly increased. You can also use this approach in situations where you have fast moving subjects (like an active child or approaching bicyclist), to ensure that you freeze the motion. Likewise, you can use a slower shutter speed if you want to add some creative blur.

M - Manual Mode. This setting is pretty much what it sounds like: full, manual control over your camera's exposure settings. I know - it sounds scary. And I stayed away from using Manual Mode for years because I really didn't understand how the various camera settings worked together to create photographs. But Manual Mode is incredibly useful, and sometimes essential, for certain situations. When shooting with  off-camera flashes or monolights, you generally need to use Manual Mode to tell the camera how to expose for the sudden burst of light. (There are smart wireless triggers that let you get around this limitation, but that's a whole other blog post.) When shooting in Manual, you usually need to use a light meter, or when it comes to digital, you can experiment until the results look right. My suggestion is to start with other modes, and afterward, take a look at the EXIF information in your photos on your computer. This will tell you what exposure settings were used by the camera. Over time, you'll start recognizing approximate exposure settings for common situations.

Scenes - Scene modes (various). Many DSLRs have little icons on the dial to represent different scenes you're likely to encounter. These commonly depict things like a profile of a person (portrait), flowers (macro shooting), stars with people (night time portraits - movie stars are optional), and running or swimming (for sports action). If you're just spreading your wings and want to move beyond Auto, these scene modes aren't a bad place to start. They are basically presets for common situations that may suit your needs nicely. Selecting a portrait scene, for example, will automatically set the aperture to a pleasing, large aperture for shallow depth of field.

Don't be afraid to try some of the above modes on your camera dial. If you find you're overwhelmed or frustrated by them, you can easily switch back to Auto until you're feeling more adventurous!

 

*ISO is a measure of light sensitivity; the lower the number, the more light is needed to expose a photo, but the better the overall image quality. Raising the ISO to shoot in less light also means that some digital "noise" will begin to appear in your photos. All DSLRs let you set the ISO manually, or you can leave it set to Auto ISO so that the camera picks it for you. You can generally specify ranges (say, ISO 200 - 800) that you want the camera to stay within. The specifics of setting ISO will depend on your camera, so please consult your manual.

 

 

 

Shooting Expired Film

In the not-so-distant past, people were conservative about taking photos. It cost money to buy and then process film, and almost nobody took random photos of their everyday meals. As a result, when Mom took the camera out for some Christmas photos, there was often a partially exposed roll of film inside it, containing forgotten photos of birthdays or graduations from months before. Chances are that you've occasionally run across some old, forgotten film in a drawer or a box of a relative's personal effects. So what do you do with that old film - exposed or not - when you happen across it?

Film is a perishable item, with expiration dates typically a year or two out from when you purchase it. But did you know that expiration dates for film don't work like expiration dates for a jug of milk? You probably don't want to drink that milk beyond a few days from the "Sell by" date. A whiff of expired milk quickly tells you this isn't something you want to put in your mouth! Not so with film.

Photo taken on a roll of Kodak T-Max that had expired 14 years earlier. To my knowledge, it hadn't been kept in cold storage, yet the photos came out just fine with normal exposure.

When it comes to film, how quickly it goes "bad" depends on the conditions in which it's been stored and the type of film it is. Sometimes it's luck of the draw, but often the results are surprisingly good. If the film has been subject to high temperatures in long-term storage, the results are likely to be very grainy with significant color shifts toward red, but you'll most likely still get pictures.

Professional and serious amateur photographers alike often store their unused film refrigerated, or even frozen, in order to maintain freshness and extend its useful life. But even film stored at normal room temperature can give excellent results far beyond the expiration date.

In general, black & white films keep the longest under normal conditions. You can find many examples on Flickr of photos shot on black & white film that are 30, 40 - even 50 years past expiration - often with little or no visible degradation in quality. Color film, on the other hand, will typically start to degrade within a few years of expiration date, but you can sometimes get usable photos from even very old color film.

This was shot on an old roll of Kodacolor II film found with a camera my grandfather had owned. It expired in 1977. I was unsure if the film had been exposed, so I only exposed half the roll (it turned out to be all unexposed), when I took this photo in 2011. While it clearly suffered from the passage of time, I was able to make some usable photos 34 years after the film expired! This is a photo of the construction site for our new church building. (The swirly, concentric rings - aka "Newton's Rings" - are artifacts of scanning, not a flaw in the negative itself.)

Some kinds of film tend to store poorly and generally don't keep as well. Very high speed (ISO 1600 and up) and specialty infrared films tend to degrade faster due to radiation - something even cold storage can't prevent. Also, older integral films (Polaroid) rely on pods of chemistry that burst as the picture goes through the camera's processing mechanism. You can often find expired film for these cameras on places like eBay, but be aware that success with these films is becoming increasingly unlikely as the chemistry pods dry up due to age. Personally, I would avoid expired instant film and buy fresh, instead.

Recommendations

Photo taken on my plastic toy Debonair camera: Slide film expired by 11 years, cross-processed. Cross-processing creates its own unique color shifts above and beyond what an expired film otherwise exhibits.

I sometimes get asked by people if they can still get old, exposed rolls of film developed. Unless the film has been stored in excessive heat or otherwise badly abused, you can usually recover images from those old rolls. If it's black & white, it's a near certainty the images will be decent! It's hard to put a price on old family photos, so I'd always suggest you give it a try. There are labs that specialize in rescuing old film, and some don't charge anything if the photos don't come out, so your risk is limited to postage. I have no experience with them, but here's an example of one such lab. If you want to try a local lab, be sure to take it to a pro shop; 1-hour lab chain stores aren't equipped to handle expired film.

What if you run across unexposed (unused) old film in a kitchen drawer of storage closet and want to try using it to take new photos? There's a lot of discussion about exposing old film in various online forums, so it's probably a good idea to Google your specific film. Generally, if it's black & white, I'd recommend just shooting it at the rated "box speed" (ISO 100, etc). In the case of color film, you may want to try shooting it at half the box speed; if it's ISO 100 speed film, for example, set your camera to ISO 50. If you want to read a discussion about compensating for old film, you can start here. If you don't want to mess with these adjustments, just stick it in your camera and shoot at the rated speed - it's not an exact science! In either case, be sure to let your lab know what you are doing so they can adjust their processing accordingly.

I wouldn't suggest using long expired film for any critical purpose. But there's no reason not to use it for novelty and creative effect. What do you really have to lose for trying? There are actually many people who routinely shoot expired film on purpose, and sometimes the results are quite beautiful. In the case of exposed film found among the belongings of family members, if there's a chance it contains irreplaceable memories, I'd send it in today and possibly revisit a moment that hasn't been seen by anyone since someone pressed that shutter button!