(The Ultimate Alternative Process, Part II)

If you want to try film, and you don't already have a usable camera somewhere, the obvious choice is 35mm. It's easiest to process or have processed, and easiest to scan. Most very early cameras – before the mid-1930s, say – are now worth more to collectors than to photographers, but there are countless others made since then. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that if you ask around among your friends, you will probably be given at least one 35 mm camera, and you will have the chance to buy many more at low prices.I'll deal with other formats later in the series.

Market, Lijiang. The 35mm camera revolutionized street photography with its small size, light weight and unobtrusiveness. The lens was a 35/1.4 Summilux, but I'm not sure which camera I was using. I think it was a 1960s Leica M2, but it might have been a 21st century Leica MP or an M4-P from about 1980. The film was Ilford HP5 Plus, developed in Ilford DD-X and printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

Low camera prices are in fact a major risk. There are so many cameras around, and they are often so pretty, that it is tempting to buy just about everything you encounter and can afford. Then you start feeling guilty about not using them... Unless you deliberately decide to collect cameras, you'll probably do better to turn down as many as possible, unless they're actually at risk of being thrown out, in which case it is hard to deny them cupboard space. 

Zeiss Ikon Contaflex, 1960s. This was a staggeringly expensive camera in its day, and sports a built-in meter, interchangeable backs and a rather curious system of interchangeable front lens components. I was given it because no-one else wanted it: "Here, you're interested in cameras." Despite its distinguished lineage, and despite the fact that it still takes excellent pictures if you can handle its quirks, it is worth next to nothing.

The origins of 35mm are perhaps surprising, but obvious once they are explained. George Eastman introduced his first Kodak roll film in 1888. It was 2¾ inches wide. Less than a year later, Thomas Edison bought long rolls; slit them in half; added perforations; and made moving pictures. There are 25.4 millimetres to the inch, so 2¾ inches is 69.85 mm: near enough 70 mm. Halve that, and you get 35 mm. Even before World War 1, there were still-picture cameras using movie film, but it was not until the introduction of the Leica in 1925 that the 35mm format really started to take off. By the start of World War Two, there were countless 35 mm cameras available, at all levels of the market. After the war, there were even more. 

London Eye. Frances used a 21st century Voigtländer camera for this, with a new 50/2.5 Leica Summarit.  You will often find that "funny old film cameras", especially small ones, are often tolerated even when big SLRs are frowned upon. For some reason (which they were unable to explain even in a half-hour telephone call), the London Eye bans SLRs.

Leica Model A. Until the beginning of the 1930s, Leicas had fixed lenses and no rangefinder. These early models are now expensive collectors' items but still remain very usable and indeed are surprisingly widely used: not bad for a camera that's well over 80 years old. They are especially favoured by "ultra-purists" who believe that cameras should be (a) stripped to the basics and (b) tiny.

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 into it.

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 doubt.

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 removable base-plate.  

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. 

Black Nikkormat. The Nikkormat was Nikon's "second string" SLR, and quite frankly better than many manufacturers' "flagship" cameras. It shared the same lens mount as the more famous Nikon F series. The foam rubber light seals can crumble with old age, but they are easily replaceable by the user.

Zorki-4K. Rangefinder cameras are inextricably associated with Leicas but there are plenty of others such as this 1960s Zorki 4K from what was then the Soviet Union. Zorkis are rough and ready; quality control was iffy when they were new; they may or may not have been "repaired" badly; but surprisingly many survive in working order, often at very low prices.

Rangefinder focusing is achieved via a split image. In the middle of the viewfinder, there is a small, secondary image. Superimpose it on the main image, or line it up with (for example) the vertical edge of a building, and you are in focus. This is even easier than it sounds: when the two images are aligned, there is a quite magical increase in contrast.

Scale focusing is exactly what it says. You guess (or measure) the distance, and set it on the focusing scale. Again, it is far easier to learn to do this than you might think.

This is one of the reasons why 35mm cameras became so successful: they have an inherently greater depth of field than cameras with larger formats, so it is easy to guess focusing distances with enough accuracy except with fast lenses (f/2 or faster) at full aperture when shooting at close distances (2 metres/6 feet or less). 

Convertible. There's a long story associated with this car. We'd arranged to hire a car, "spouse free as second driver." My wife uses her maiden name, Frances Schultz. The hire company said, "No, you have to have the same surname." I replied, "I am not interested in your tribal customs. Fetch your supervisor." Things were soon sorted but they gave us this as a free upgrade by way of apology.

This is nothing to do with the fact that it was shot with my favourite scale-focus 35mm camera, a half-frame Olympus Pen W (a wonderful notebook camera) on Ilford Delta 3200, but I hope you might find it useful as an example of how a little judicious shouting can ease matters. Print on Ilford Multigrade IV .

A very useful feature of most manual focus cameras and lenses is a depth of field scale. These enable you to judge the distances between which things will be acceptably sharp, thoough "acceptably" is something of a weasel word. The bigger the enlargement, the less the depth of field: we have all had the experience of a picture that looks sharp at 4x6 inch/10x15 cm but which cannot stand enlargement. Only experience can tell you how reliable the depth of field scales are on your camera(s) and lens(es): many photographers find they are happier with the next aperture in. e.g. using the f/8 scale at f/11 or the f/4 scale at f/5.6.

Depth of Field Scale. Depth of field (DoF) is a lot easier to understand with manual focus lenses than with autofocus, because DoF scales are engraved on the lens or (as in this case, on a twin-lens reflex) on the camera body.

You can see in the example above that at f/11, everything should be adequately sharp from just under 15 feet (it's an American camera) to infinity: call it 4 metres to infinity. At f/5.6, it's 18 feet to 50 feet (5-15 metres). The "3" to the right of the infinity sign on the knob is how far out you'd need to wind the lens to focus as close as 3 feet. DoF scales are only a guide – there will be a future column on depth of field – but they also allow two very useful techniques: pre-focusing and zone focusing.

Pre-focusing is exactly what it says. You focus on a given spot – a crack in the pavement, say – and you shoot when someone reaches that pre-focused spot. This is particularly useful in street photography and sports photography.

Zone focusing is similar, but relies on depth of field. Instead of a single distance, you set a zone of acceptable sharpness: 10 to 20 feet, 3-6 metres, for example. As shown in the picture above, the size of the zone (the DoF) varies with aperture. Then you shoot pictures only inside that zone of sharpness. In fact it's slightly more versatile than this. With a minimum of practice, you learn how to nudge the focusing ring one way or the other, to move the zone closer or further away. This is where a focusing lever or spur, or even just a nub on the focusing ring, is especially useful: you learn to set the focus by touch as you are raising the camera to your eye.

Kodak Moment (look at the sign on the shop). I was in the middle of resetting exposure as I emerged from the Metro, but I hadn't yet had time to change focus. The exposure is probably no worse than what auto-exposure would have delivered, given the bright sky, and autofocus  would probably have focused on the sky (disaster) or on the Metro sign (not a lot worse than my manual zone focus, and probably slower).

No camera is idiot prooof. There's an old saying that you should show people only your successful shots, and mostly, it is very sound advice. People judge you by the pictures they see, not by the pictures you take. On the other hand, we all screw up sometimes (and so do automatic cameras), and the shot above is a useful reminder of this: I'd been taking pictures for maybe 40 years at that point. But to quote my "gaffer", the late Colin Glanfield, in the 1970s when I was an assistant, "The day you stop learning, you're dead." Read the next column, on film choice, to see if you're dead or not.

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Pictures and text copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2016