The Knoxville Community Darkroom

View from outside the Knoxville Community Darkroom during their open house.

No matter your age, shooting old school film has a distinctly romantic, vintage appeal - at least until you start contemplating how you're going to turn those rolls of negatives into physical prints and share them. The good news is that if you live in the Knoxville metro area, there's a new option in town!

Starting in the late 80s, and stretching well into the early 2000s, one hour film labs were found in virtually every drugstore, alongside discount chains like Costco and Walmart. Several years ago, these labs began rapidly vanishing. As digital photography overtook film in the 2010s, demand for high volume, rapid processing predictably evaporated.

Happily, there remain a number of pro labs where you can mail in rolls of film. Two labs I personally recommend to readers are the Old School Photo Lab in New Hampshire, and The Darkroom in California. Both labs offer digital scans that you can download before your negatives (and any prints you've ordered) even make it back to your mailbox.

Avid film shooters must now choose between sending film out for processing to one of these professional labs, or learn how to process film at home. As detailed in previous blog articles, processing black and white (and even color) film at home is surprisingly easy and inexpensive with photographic supplies readily available online. Many of us who "soup" our own film end up digitally scanning it for editing and to share online. You don't even need a darkroom to develop film - just a light tight bathroom or inexpensive film changing bag will do the trick. That's one option.

What if you want to print those negatives directly yourself, without needing a computer to scan them? While it's possible to set up a home darkroom in even the tiniest of spaces (such as a closet or bathroom), it's not necessarily practical for everyone to do so. My own "darkroom" is in an attached storage shed that lacks AC and running water. It's workable in cooler weather, but entirely impractical during the hot summer months!

Fortunately, film aficionados in cities around the country have banded together to form non-profit, community darkrooms, where you can develop your film, print using conventional enlargers on silver gelatin paper, and enjoy interacting with fellow artists who appreciate the traditional (and not-so-traditional), "analog" methods of making photographs. These community darkrooms are a great way to keep traditional processes alive and relevant in the consciousness of today's photographers.

A few of the enlargers set up for use at the Knoxville Community Darkroom.

Last October, I took part in funding a Kickstarter initiative to launch the Knoxville Community Darkroom. They met their fundraising goal, and kicked things off with an open house in March. While I wasn't able to join at the time, about a month ago I signed up for an annual membership. For a flat, yearly fee, I have 24-hour access to all the equipment and space I need to print. The only items I have to supply are my negatives and any paper I need for printing. (Paper isn't cheap. I recommend starting with inexpensive 5x7 photo paper to avoid costly mistakes as you learn.) On top of the availability of space, chemistry and enlargers, I've enjoyed the added benefit of getting helpful pointers from a number of seasoned darkroom users.

Work is underway on the new KCD mobile darkroom. When finished, this trailer will also function as a giant camera obscura, allowing large images to be viewed and exposed directly on paper via a small opening on the opposite wall.

While I have had to do a lot of experimentation to get decent results printing (and I'm still not "there" yet), I'm gradually getting back up to speed on the basics. If you've been pining for the old darkroom days, or you're a younger person who is curious as to what this film thing is all about, I would strongly encourage you to visit their website. You can also check them out on Facebook and follow them on Instagram.

Community support for an initiative this ambitious is vital. So if you think you'd like to get involved and join in the film photography revival, now is the time to get behind this wonderful project!

 

What is a "Professional" Camera?

Manufacturers of digital cameras sell multiple product lines, each targeting a particular corner of the market. These can be divided into consumer, prosumer or professional categories. The most obvious initial difference lies in cost.

A point-and-shoot camera with its built-in lens can be significantly less expensive than a camera system that allows you to swap lenses and use accessories such as a removable flash unit. Most people (including many photographers) would argue that a professional system costing several thousands of dollars is unquestionably "better" than a  $300 camera. But what does "better" really mean?

A professional camera, at the most basic level, is a camera used by a photographer to earn a living. Major camera makers would have you believe that you need this year's camera model and painfully expensive, pro-grade lenses to produce quality work. So it might surprise you to learn that there are skilled photographers today using entry-level, "obsolete" cameras to create salable works of art.

Cultivating an eye for composition, paying attention to how light interacts with the subject, and skillful post-processing all matter more than the camera. For proof of that, see this article about a woman who creates fantastic images using an old point-and-shoot Canon! There are many stories about people using older gear to make amazing photos, including many who still shoot, or have returned to using, film cameras. See here and here, for proof.

Professional photographers know how to work within limitations, and will even use those shortcomings to their creative advantage. Unconventional and beautiful portraits have been created using 50mm or shorter lenses that are not typically regarded as suitable for the purpose. In my own experience, some of my most compelling work has been made using inexpensive, "toy" film cameras. Cheap, plastic cameras like the humble Holga or the mysterious but marvelous Debonair may look like mere toys. In my hands, they are professional cameras.

Some cameras are admittedly less suited for specific uses than more technically advanced cameras. I love shooting with my Debonair, but I'm not going to grab it to shoot a soccer game. Its fixed shutter speed and wide lens wouldn't work well to capture action on the field. It's simply not the right tool for the job. Sometimes you really do need a long lens, increased low light sensitivity, super fast shutters and other features found on more expensive cameras.

Professional DSLRs generally feature more physical dials and buttons for adjusting exposure than cheaper consumer models that require diving into menus to access the same settings. This ease of making rapid changes is important to professionals who need to make many adjustments over the course of shooting a wedding, for example, adjusting to changing lighting and the desired effect for each photo. While they could make do with an entry-level DSLR in a pinch, it would be less convenient than using a "pro" camera. It's important to note here that image quality isn't at issue.

The end product, the photograph, is vastly more important than the tools used to create it. Print an 8x10 from a pro and consumer camera, place them side by side, and almost nobody will be able to tell which camera made which photo. Megapixels don't play as big a role as people suppose: an 8x10 print of a photo made from my old Nikon D40 (6 MP) will produce the same pleasing results as the same size print from a modern 24 MP camera. The advantages of having many more megapixels are normally not apparent until you print at sizes that most people never use.

Now that mirrorless cameras have been adopted by many photographers, I don't run into much criticism of my Fujifilm digital cameras. On occasion, however, I've had people turn up their noses because they don't think my gear looks as professional as a Nikon or Canon DSLR. (Sometimes the brand name "Fujifilm" leads people to mistakenly confuse them for a vintage film camera.) In short, it's not what many people visualize when they think about professional gear.

My first mirrorless digital camera still serves me well in professional use, despite not being marketed as pro gear.

I chose my current system for a variety of reasons, after months of careful research, and I know from regular practice exactly how these cameras will perform in my hands. I can achieve the same photographic results with my cameras that I would using a much bulkier camera.

Mirrorless cameras come with the normal ratio of benefits to drawbacks, just like every camera system ever made. If there were a universally agreed-upon perfect camera system, the other makes and models would quickly be out of business as photographers flocked en masse to buy into it. As much as photographers tend to be fanboys or fangirls of our chosen system, in the final analysis all cameras are just boxes with holes in them that gather light. It's up to the operator to make something memorable with them.

People sometimes ask me what kind of camera they should buy. The answer is that it really depends. It depends on how much money you have to spend, how much complexity you can adjust to using, what features are most critical to you, personal aesthetics, your physical tolerance for gear of varying weights, and the kinds of stuff you plan to photograph. I can tell you that my camera suits my style and feels like an extension of my arm and my eyes. Not everyone has the exact same needs.

In the end, every camera I own - from $20 thrift store buys to my latest Fujifilm X-T2 - is, or at least has the potential to be, a professional camera. If a client is looking to hire me, it's because they like the work I've done. The camera I bring to their special event is only a small part of the equation.

 

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.

 

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.

Tiny Holes, Big Fun: The Joys of Pinhole Photography

Thinking about buying a camera for someone special (maybe even yourself), on your Christmas list? There are some appealing digital options on the market today. But what if you don't want to spend a small fortune on a camera that will be obsolete in two years? Maybe you're looking for something that can rekindle that creative spark you felt the very first time you took a photograph. In that case, a pinhole camera might possibly be the perfect gift! Not only will you likely save yourself some cash, but you'll also be able to take beautiful, timeless photos for years to come, with a camera that's never obsolete. Pinhole cameras are a great way to learn about the fundamentals of photography.

Pinhole photo I shot at a nearby lake. While the examples in this blog post are all black & white, you can just as easily use color film in a pinhole camera.

In its simplest form, a pinhole camera is nothing more than a light-tight container featuring a tiny hole (or aperture) to let light in. Inside the camera is a light-sensitive material that captures the image projected opposite the aperture, much like a movie is projected on a screen inside a darkened theater.

People have used an incredible variety of materials - from oatmeal canisters to cigar boxes to soup cans - to construct a pinhole camera. Really, the only limit is one's imagination. I listened to a fascinating interview with a lady who made large pinhole images inside a modified van, directly onto photographic paper.

For those willing to spend a bit more for quality, you can buy hand-crafted, ornate wooden pinhole cameras; a popular maker of such cameras is Zero Image. I have no personal experience with their products, but I have seen great images taken with these cameras, and they have a reputation for quality. These are not cheap but they represent the upper end of the market today. (It's also possible, of course, to buy specially made pinhole lenses that will fit on a digital camera and produce a similar effect. Somehow that doesn't feel as authentic to me.)

You can't tell from the photo, but I placed my tripod right next to the hood. You always need to get closer than you think you do with the Holga WPC.

I think film is the most fun option for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the delayed gratification involved in getting the film developed later on, and finally seeing what you made. Fortunately, you don't need a boutique camera to have fun. I own the Holga WPC 120. It's an all-plastic camera that shoots panoramic, very wide angle pictures on 120 (aka "medium format") film. Film is relatively cheap - a 5-pack roll of Fujifilm Acros 100* will set you back about $25 online. Unless you develop the film yourself, you'll probably need to take it to a pro lab or mail it off for processing. I recommend The Darkroom - they do great work at very reasonable prices (plus they'll make a digital scan of your photos available for download right away).

You'll also need a standard camera tripod and a shutter release cable** to keep the camera steady when shooting. Since pinhole exposures are typically measured in seconds and minutes, hand-holding the camera is not an option. Each roll of 120 film will produce 6 exposures using the Holga WPC 120. To adjust exposure time, you simply hold down the plunger on the shutter release cable for a predetermined length of time. To play it safe, I often "bracket" my shots - that is, I take a couple of identical shots at different exposure times to ensure that I get at least one usable image. That might seem like a waste of film, but I'd rather sacrifice a bit of film than discover later on that the one shot I took was way off the mark.

There are various charts and websites (Mr Pinhole is a popular resource), that will help you calculate a ballpark estimate for exposure time, but you can also experiment with different exposures on your own. I find with the Holga WPC 120, using ISO 100 film, daytime exposures run anywhere from 3 to about 10 seconds, depending on lighting conditions. (There's a guide affixed to the back of the camera but I find the suggested times generally too long.) 

The Oak Ridge United Methodist church has a Christmas tree sales event every year. (I used a different kind of film for this shot that tends to have extreme contrast, so it's not as nicely toned as the photos taken with Fuji Acros 100 film.)

So what do you get for your trouble? You get unique, dreamy looking images that have the same level of sharpness from front to back, due to the extremely small aperture of a pinhole. You get to have fun experimenting, never knowing for sure how your photo will look until later. If you learn to process your own film (you don't need a dedicated darkroom), you'll enjoy the satisfaction of making a photo from scratch using time-honored methods. And, at least with the Holga WPC 120 camera, you get impossibly wide angle photos that would normally require an ultra-wide lens to achieve on conventional cameras.

Instead of spending money on more megapixels this year for you or your loved one, consider delving into the exciting, lensless world of pinhole photography!


*Aside from the excellent quality of this film, it's especially well-suited for the longer exposures required by most pinhole photos. There's a phenomenon familiar to film shooters known as reciprocity failure that results in film needing more exposure time than standard calculations would indicate. How much more depends on the specific film being used. Fuji Acros 100 needs no adjustments for exposures of up to 2 minutes, so for typical pinhole use it's normally not an issue.

**I was disappointed to find that the shutter on my Holga WPC 120 camera didn't open fully with the standard shutter release cable I had on hand. It turns out that the camera required a cable release with a longer "throw" (the part that sticks out into the shutter release when you press the plunger). I had to search around a bit, but ended up buying a Gepe Pro Release that has an extra long throw. Regardless of brand, ask the seller if the throw is at least 5/8" to ensure compatibility with this model camera.

Fun with an Old School TLR Camera

"A TL-whaa?" you ask.

My Yashica 635, introduced in 1958. It's a typical TLR in most respects, although the 635 is unusual in that it was made to shoot either 120 or 35 mm film.

TLR is short for Twin Lens Reflex. These cool-looking cameras were marketed for decades, in various designs, and reached the pinnacle of their popularity in the 1960s. You can often find vintage TLRs on the used market at affordable prices - eBay, Craigslist or the odd yard sale. They typically run around $50-200, depending on the model and condition. If you're lucky, you may find one for a few bucks since the general public assumes film is no longer "a thing." Popular makes include Rollei, Yashica and Mamiya.

So how does a TLR work? Unlike an SLR, where you view and shoot through a single lens, the TLR uses one lens for viewing and another for taking the actual shot. This separation of lens functions has a variety of practical implications, one of which is that very close objects may require adjusting the camera position due to a phenomenon known as parallax. For shooting at normal distances (6+ feet, or so), this is not a problem. Due to the simplicity of their design and robust construction, these cameras also tend to hold up well over the years. Most use a single, fixed focal-length lens although there were some standard accessory filters and close-up lenses made.

Looking through the waist-level viewfinder of a typical TLR.

TLRs typically use a waist-level viewfinder, meaning you look down from above to compose and focus. Some models include a magnifying glass that flips out for more precise focusing (I use mine regularly). Because the scene is projected directly up from a mirror in the body, the image is flipped left-to-right, which can be a little disorienting at first. The viewing screen is surprisingly bright. In fact, there's a whole group on Flickr dedicated to using digital cameras to shoot through these viewfinders. Of course there's no reason you can't still use these cameras as intended to take photos on film - which, as you might suspect, is exactly how I use mine.

Most TLRs use 120 film, which is readily available online in a variety of types. Some models took 620 film, which is the exact same film on a thinner spool. 620 film is no longer made, but you can order re-spooled film for a small premium cost, or buy used or newly-manufactured spools online and do it yourself. You can buy color, slide or black & white film for that authentic old look. Loading film in your TLR is even easier than popping the back off your smartphone to install a micro-SD card. You can usually find videos on YouTube demonstrating the use of a particular vintage camera so there's plenty of community support readily available out there if you find yourself unsure of what to do.

Self-portrait illustrating how to shoot with a TLR. An obvious benefit for people who enjoy doing street photography is that people aren't accustomed to seeing a camera held this way, so you can photograph strangers discreetly. Bystanders will assume that you're simply preoccupied with that antique in your hands.

So why would you want to shoot with one of these vintage cameras? For starters, they shoot square photos that yield the beautiful, authentic look of film. The lenses are generally quite sharp, so your photos look at least as good as anything you shoot for Instagram. The negatives are several times larger than 35mm film, which means you can enlarge your photos to a high degree - really, we're talking massive enlargement potential. Another feature I enjoy is the "swirly" bokeh (out of focus area) effect I sometimes get shooting at larger apertures on my Yashica.

They're also great conversation starters, as many people have never seen a camera like this in the wild, and older people appreciate the nostalgia. It's unusual for me to not have at least one person ask about my TLR when I use it in public!

Photo shot this weekend on my Yashica 635, using Ilford Delta Pro 100 film. Home developed and scanned.

If you're not already a film shooter, but are looking for a cheap way to dip your toes into the water, keep your eyes open for a good deal on used TLRs the next time you stop at a yard sale or flea market. You might score a great buy on a beautiful and "obsolete" camera. Just don't tell the vendor that you can buy film for it.

Why I Put Film Back into My Camera Bag

One of my oldest cameras: A Zeiss Ikon Nettar 515/2, circa 1938. It still works well, and uses readily available 120 film.

One of my oldest cameras: A Zeiss Ikon Nettar 515/2, circa 1938. It still works well, and uses readily available 120 film.

"I guess you've just never made the jump into the digital world, huh?"

It wasn't so much a question as a condescending remark about my use of film in the digital era.  My inquisitor was a fellow customer at a local camera shop that carries a range of used film photography gear alongside the latest DSLRs and accessories.  The guy obviously considered me a dinosaur.

The truth is that I was an early adopter of digital photography.  It was a logical extension of my interest in high-tech gadgetry and digital media.  My first digital camera was a second-hand Kodak DC40, made in 1995.  It looked more like rubberized binoculars than anything resembling today's digital wonders.  The tiny LCD screen was strictly for displaying text. There was no removable memory card, and even on the "high quality" setting, images were about 1/3 of a megapixel.  Still, I happily shot thousands of photos with that simple camera.  A couple years later, I moved up to a used Kodak DC200 with a FULL megapixel of resolution!

Since that time, I've owned a series of progressively more sophisticated digital cameras.  For less than $500 today, you can buy a refurbished, entry level DSLR with a decent 18-55mm zoom lens capable of delivering sharp, high resolution images that would have made a professional photographer from 25 years ago jealous.  Under normal lighting conditions, even a total novice can set the camera on full Auto mode, press the button, and end up with a razor-sharp, properly exposed (if not necessarily interesting) image that they can share online with friends and family almost instantly.  What's not to love?

There's absolutely no reason not to use and enjoy these cameras.  There are the film purists who consider digital the devil, won't let a digital scanner anywhere near their negatives and who swear that if film ever goes away they'll shelve their cameras and never take another photo. Personally, I think those people are silly.  Even the great Ansel Adams, who invented the Zone System and perfected the art of dodging and burning in the darkroom, advocated modern developments like the Polaroid camera because it provided instant feedback.  He also envisioned a future where images were produced digitally, and it's not a stretch to say he'd probably be a leading Photoshop guru if he'd been born a few decades later.

Nonetheless, it's also true that shooting film is a unique experience in several ways:

  • Film photography is tactile.  When you handle a roll or pack of film (or sheets of film for the hardcore), there's a real, physical connection.  This is especially true if you process your own film.  The medium you are handling will become the actual photos you make; it's not just a temporary storage device filled with 0s and 1s.  You can't accidentally "delete" a negative, and negatives don't experience read/ write failures (although there are plenty of other ways you can mess them up through carelessness - ask me about the time I used fixer before developer).
  • Film photography delays gratification and heightens anticipation. With the exception of instant films, shooting film in general doesn't allow for "chimping" (looking over each shot on the LCD screen right after you take it).  Sometimes that results in disappointment later on; just as often, hopefully more so, delayed gratification results in joyful surprise when the photograph exceeds your expectations.
  • Film photography is like getting a new sensor every time you load a roll of film. Pick one of the many film types still on the market today, and you get to decide whether it's color, black & white, fast and bursting with moody, beautiful grain or slow and incredibly fine-grained.  You can "upgrade" a 50 year old camera by using the latest Kodak Portra film.  A high quality lens from 50 years ago is still a high quality lens today, so your pictures will look as sharp or bokeh-licious as any modern DSLR.
  • Film photography gives you a look that people spend a lot of money trying to achieve with plugins in Photoshop or Lightroom.  There's nothing wrong with using plugins and creative editing to produce the photo you envision, but it's often easier and cheaper to get that grainy film look by using actual film.
  • Film photography connects you to a simpler past and traditional ways of creating an art form.  A painter could use magic markers on poster board, but I suspect there are compelling reasons to use quality brushes and paint and canvas (you'll have to ask a painter about that).  There's something very satisfying about picking up and shooting photos with vintage gear that may well be decades or even a century older than you are!  Of course, if you want things a little more automated, some great film cameras were made in the 1990s and early 2000s that are as easy to use as any digital camera but still provide the film experience.
  • On a related point, as long as film remains available (and it seems likely it will be produced in some form for the foreseeable future), film photography resists obsolescence. Sure, some kinds of film aren't made anymore.  But most any 35mm or medium format camera will be just as usable 25 years from now.  (And many older cameras can be easily modified to take different film formats.)  I love my current digital camera system, but it's highly unlikely I'll be using the current body beyond 5 years from the date I bought it. By way of contrast, I enjoy taking my 50 year old Yashica 635 TLR out for occasional photo walks - I've taken some good pictures with it.
  • Film provides long-term archival capability.  While colors may fade over many years, if film is stored carefully the material will last a very long time.  Probably much longer than you or I will last.  Digital has the potential to last indefinitely, but only if  the storage medium is continuously refreshed. One early digital camera stored pictures on a 3.5" floppy disk. While you can still buy an external USB floppy drive, they are far from standard equipment and haven't been used by manufacturers in desktop machines for years.  Optical drives are likewise on their way out as external hard drives and "the cloud" grow in popularity. Digital archival is not fail-proof.
  • Film photography has a coolness and macho factor. Most film shooters, if they're honest, will admit it's fun to shoot something that the majority of people don't realize is still viable. You get to show off awesome vintage gear (and maybe some manual photography skills) that doesn't look like what every other photographer is using.  And I get to educate the general public: "Yes, they still make film for that."
  • Film photography is just plain fun.  There are a number of plastic "toy" cameras available - old and new - that create unusual photos resembling Instagram or Hipstamatic pictures, but on film.  Film advocates sometimes criticize the toy trend because it can promote the false impression that film inherently produces cruddy photos (which is absolutely not the case), but the toys are fun to play with.  Most of these cameras have few, if any, real controls which encourages spontaneous and random shots that may feature soft focus, light leaks, heavy vignetting and other appealing imperfections.

There are probably dozens more reasons why a photographer might choose to use film in this day and age.  All of the bullets above have been pointed out by others at one time or another, but considered together they build a good case for the continued use of film both for professionals and the hobbyist.

Of course digital photography has many advantages of its own, and is admittedly more efficient than film.  When I'm shooting a social event, or a situation where low-light performance is critical, digital is usually the logical choice.  Even the fastest films in production fall short of the crazy low-light capabilities of newer digital gear.  For individual portraits or landscape work, I often choose to use film for a particular look.  At least in my own experience, the use of film favors a mindful, slower paced process that furthers artistic vision.

So which is "better"?  I don't think there's one answer to that question.  The answer is whichever medium best suits your style and needs at the moment.  Happily, film and even older photographic techniques are enjoying a modest resurgence in popularity today. There's no better time to blend old and new technologies to create the kinds of photographs you like to make!