Almost all 35 mm cameras since the early 1930s, and some from even
earlier, use a standardized cassette. It started out as Leica-compatible, and once Kodak had put their weight
behind it, there was little alternative. A few very old cameras use
unique cassettes, but the only half-way common cameras from the 1950s
onwards that don't use standard cassettes are Robots and the Agfa Rapid system. In other
words, I can take my 1936 Leica IIIa and put a brand-new roll of film
This is an enormous advantage over digital, where the sensor is
built into the camera. Not only do you have a fresh, clean sensor for
each exposure: you can also put the latest and best sensor into cameras
that are years or decades old. And you can choose different sensors –
different films – according to the effects you want.
There are considerably fewer film manufacturers than there were even 20
years ago, but even so, there are still plenty of 35 mm films on the
market, from manufacturers in the UK, continental Europe, the USA,
Japan, Russia, China, and possibly other places. Broadly they fall into
three categories. Black and white negative is of course the classic, and
it's the main subject of this column. Then there's colour negative, the
classic "snapshot" film for the last few decades, and finally there's colour slide, though this
has been so heavily supplanted by digital that its very survival is in
Ford's Theatre, Washington.
The box on the right above the stage is where President Lincoln was
shot. Frances used a tripod-mounted Nikkormat, which would cost you less
than a modest meal for two nowadays, with a Sigma 14mm f/3.5 lens. Film
was Ilford XP2 chromogenic (see below), trade processed. The print is
on Ilford Multigrade.
Black and white (B+W) film can again be divided into two categories,
traditional and chromogenic. With traditional films, the actual image is
formed of silver. Serious enthusiasts process their B+W film at home
(it's surprisingly easy and cheap), but there are still plenty of labs
that offer either developing-only or developing and printing: Ilford, in
particular, offers such a service.
With chromogenic B+W films, the image is formed of dye clouds, but
one big advantage of chromogenics is that they go through the same
standardized chemicals as colour negative, the C41 process. Any mini-lab
can do this for you, just as they can also process colour. Another big
advantage of chromogenics is that they scan very well indeed. If you
want to scan and print your own black and white, Ilford's XP2 Super and
Kodak's BW400CN are probably unbeatable.
As for colour processing, you can do C41 at home, but unless you live
a long way from the nearest lab (as I do), it is generally easier to
buy it in. Slide processing, E6, is now so rare that unless you live in a
big city you will either have to use mail order or do it yourself.
Yosemite. This is a "lith" print, made from a
perfectly normal negative (shot with a 400/5 Telyt lens on a
Visoflex-fitted Leica) but then printed via a curious technique that
uses almost-exhausted ultra-high-contrast developer: this explains both
the tonality and the image colour. You can obtain similar but not
identical results via digital manipulation. For many people, "similar
but not identical" is why they stick with film and indeed with the wet
darkroom in general. That, and the fact that it's a relief from the
endless tyranny of the keyboard, the mouse and the monitor.
Each film (and each printing paper) has its own "look", and which one
will suit you is as much a matter of alchemy as of science: a film that
suits one person will not always suit another. The only thing you really
need to know, at least to begin with, is film speed. Speeds for
mainstream B+W films nowadays run from 50 to 3200, though some can be
"pushed" to higher speeds, even to 12,500, and there are specialist
films with speeds as low as EI 20. Slower films are finer grained and
sharper; faster ones, grainier and less sharp. Unlike digital, of
course, you can't change speed "on the fly"
Being stuck with a single ISO speed may seem quite limiting, compared
with just dialling in your chosen ISO speed on a digital camera. In a
sense, it is. But look at it another way, and it's simpler: one less
variable to change. Put the film in the camera, and stick with one film
speed until you've finished the roll.
Loading - Stage 1: Make sure the camera is empty. If the rewind crank turns freely, and does not halt when you operate the wind-on, it is. Stage 2: Open the back. If you can't see any other form of latch, remember that on many cameras (including this one) this is done by pulling up firmly on the rewind crank. Stage 3: Still with the crank pulled up, put in the film. If it's down, the film won't go in. Stage 4: Pull the leader across and engage it with the slot on the take up spool. With the back open, operate the wind on to make sure that the film is engaged. Close the back; tension the rewind crank (see Stage 1); wind on. The rewind crank should rotate as the film is wound on. If it doesn't, the film may have slipped off the take-up spool.
The thing is, all the controls on traditional film cameras are
simple, mechanical knobs, buttons and levers: you can see and feel what
they do. On most film cameras, there are very few controls anyway.
There's a wind-on knob on older cameras, or wind-on lever on newer
ones, and a rewind knob or crank to rewind the film into the cassette.
Of course some cameras have motor drives and motorized rewinds built
in. There's a focusing ring on the lens, though of course some cameras
are autofocus. There's a shutter speed dial, and there's an aperture
ring on the lens (though some cameras offer full exposure automation).
Apart from that, there's a back latch, so you can get in to change
films, and a rewind clutch so you can disengage the wind-on and rewind
the film. If there's a meter, there's a means of setting the film
speed, and even then, some cameras can read a “DX” code on the film
cassette automatically. A few late SLRs offer multi-mode metering (but
of course many cameras have no meter at all). There may be such
refinements as a self-timer (delayed action); a depth of field preview;
and for SLRs a mirror lock. Oh: and a button for changing the lens.
That's about it.
Think about it. I have just summarized the controls of the camera in
a single (admittedly long) paragraph. How thick was the instruction book for the last
digital camera you bought?Yes, there are variations in control layout, but they don't take long to suss.
Nikkormat (1970s) and Leica M4-P (1980s).
There are also some controls you can't see in this picture, such as a
rewind clutch button on the bottom of the Nikkormat, and a shutter speed
ring around the lens mount; a locking latch on the base of the Leica; a
lens mount lock beside the lens on the Leica; and a rewind clutch,
again on the front of the Leica. Another lever on the front of the Leica
overrides the viewfinder frame that is automatically selected by the
lens. The Nikkormat is unusual for setting the shutter speed on a ring
concentric with the lens mount, and the Leica is unusual for having a
Of course, unless you buy an autofocus, auto-exposure camera with DX
coding, you are going to have to learn a bit about shutter speed and
aperture. Even then, the news is good. Exposure with negative film just
isn't very critical, as long as there's plenty of it. Overexposing by
2x is trivial: many people do it habitually because they like the
tonality better. Overexposing by 4x will rarely matter much. In fact,
if you are printing with a traditional enlarger, you'll probably be
able to get an image from a film that was overexposed by 8x or even
16x. With a scanner, severe over-exposure may result in a negative that
is so dense that the scanner can't see through it, but except with
cheap scanners or over-developed black and white films, it will need to
be pretty severe.
Drummer, Times Square. New York is a
reasonably safe place to wander around at night, but equally, there are
times when you don't want to be carrying your most valuable cameras with
you. For this shot, Frances used an old Nikkormat and a 15/2.8 Sigma
fish-eye lens. Film was Kodak TMZ P3200 rated at EI 12,500. We've since
switched to Ilford Delta 3200. The picture is of course hand held; the
print is on Ilford Multigrade IV.
It may seem odd that one can be so casual about exposure, but when
you think about it, single-use film cameras have a single (slow)
shutter speed and a single (small) aperture, yet they manage to give us
acceptable pictures under a wide range of weather conditions. They can
do this only because they rely on the inherent latitude of film. Yes,
over-exposure slightly reduces sharpness, and with traditional black
and white film, it gives slightly bigger grain – though with colour
films and chromogenic B+W (see above), it makes the “grain” (the dye
structure) smoother and tighter. If you want absolute optimum technical
quality, you need to take more care with exposure. When you're
starting out, though, it just isn't very critical.
In fact, this is a good point about photography in general. If you
notice the technical quality (good or bad) before you notice the
content or composition, there's probably something wrong with the
content or composition. On the one hand, 35 mm film allows staggering
quality if it is used with the utmost care, equivalent to 20 megapixels
or more, but on the other hand, you can afford to be pretty sloppy and
still get excellent pictures. Many film users don't even bother to use
a meter. They memorize a few simple lighting conditions and
guesstimate. You can learn to do this with astonishing accuracy with
far less practice than you might imagine, but I'll come back to
exposure soon in another column.
Kitchen, Mision de la Purisima Concepcion, Lompoc, California.
Quite honestly I've forgotten what camera or lens we used for this,
because it was one of our standard test subjects for wide-angle lenses
when we lived in California. I'd guess this is a 21 mm on a Leica but it might be a
17 mm on a Nikon F. The film was (I think) Ilford XP2, printed on Ilford Multigrade
IV. It just seemed to cry out for sepia toning.
As with exposure, so with focus. Of course there's autofocus, but
apart from that there's reflex focusing; rangefinder focusing; and
scale focusing. All involve manually twisting a ring on the lens,
except in a few cameras where there are separate focusing dials or
knobs: these are normally encountered only in cameras that are of more
interest to collectors than users.
Screens for manual focusing in an
SLR are normally easier and more precise than trying to use the
screen in a DSLR for manual focusing, and there are usually focusing
aids in the centre of the screen: areas that break up the image until
it is in focus. Most film SLRs use glass pentaprisms, which are brighter
and clearer than the mirror-prisms used in all but the most expensive
DSLRs. They're all easy to use, and with the exception of a few "cult" cameras, they're all ridiculously cheap.