Film Photography Boot Camp

My one major photography goal for this fall was to learn to develop my own film.  Check!  I spent all Sunday participating in a film photography boot camp.  I’m proud to say - for the first time - that I developed all of the photos posted here myself at the bootcamp. 

For fantastic tutorials on developing black and white film, see The Art of Black and White Film Processing by From Me To You, Developing B&W Film at Home by The Photon Fantastic and I Still Shoot Film.  For a recounting of a newbie’s awkward first attempt, read on…  

Shooting.  After a mercifully brief lecture on the basics of aperture and shutter speed, I was let loose on the neighborhood for 45 minutes with a roll of Kodak Tri-X 400 and my Nikon FM2.  Taking 36 shots under such restrictions was a challenge, but I focused on seeing the streets of my relatively affluent neighborhood in a different light, looking beyond the flower beds and coffee shops.  

After the free-range shooting time, the class spent the next 4.5 hours learning to develop its own film and create its own prints.  

Spooling the Film:  The first step of developing your own film is to remove the exposed film from its canister and wind it onto a spool.  This must be done in total darkness - any light will further expose the film and thereby ruin the photo.  Either a pitch-black darkroom or a light-tight bag must be used for this part of the process.  We used the darkroom.    

The darkroom is dark.   If you’re like me - a bit claustrophobic and afraid of the dark - it’s not the most pleasant experience.  I did not consider this matter until I was locked in the small room with the class, my heart thumping and my hands shaking.  I struggled for what felt like an eternity to pop the top off my film canister with a bottle opener.  All around me I heard the “pop” of classmates’ successes, which only increased my anxiety.  Eventually, I had to call out to the instructor for assistance.

 Once he got the top off for me, I fumbled for another eternity in the pitch blackness to get my film spooled, at some point realizing I was trying to do it backwards.  Finally, I got my film on the spool and my spool into the developing tank, which thereafter served as a mini portable darkroom for the film.  Let there be light. 

Developing the film.  With our spooled film securely tucked in little developing tanks about the size of a martini shaker, we moved to a work area outside of the darkroom.  A large sink held beakers and bottles of chemicals with ticking clock timers perched on top.  I poured in developer, shake-shake-shaked very slowly, aka agitated.  I poured in fixer, agitated.  I poured in stop, agitated.  Water, rinse, some other chemical, and water.  Like magic I pulled my negatives out, now impervious to light and holding the outlines of my photos, and hung them to dry.

Contact Sheet.  The next step is to make a contact sheet of the negatives to get a better idea of how they look.  This brought us back in the darkroom, but this time with an illuminating red safety light.  I stationed myself in front of an enlarger, which looked like a big microscope.  I cut my negatives into strips of five frames and stuffed them into plastic film holders.   I laid my rows of negatives on a piece of photo paper and turned the enlarger light on for a few seconds.  The light imprinted the negatives onto the photo paper, which was then ready for the series of chemical baths lining the opposite wall.  Developer - poof, there’s my picture like magic!  Stop bath for 20 seconds.  Fixer for 2 minutes.  Water.  A quick trip to the light outside allowed me to get a good look and decide which frame to enlarge into a print.  

Making a print.  This is the coolest part of the process.  Back to the enlarger, I isolated the frame I wanted to print in a metal plate that I stuck in the machine.  Down below I arranged my photo paper.  Before I could create the print, I needed to make a test strip to determine how much light I needed from the enlarger to create the correct exposure.  I covered up all but a strip of the photo paper and hit the light for three seconds.  Then I uncovered another strip of the photo paper and hit the light for another three seconds - and so on until I’d gone down the length of the paper.  

Once I put this paper through the chemical baths, I saw the gradient of light to dark, depending on how long the strip of paper was exposed to the light.  I picked the strip that looked the best and used the same amount of timed light for the entire print, exposing a new sheet of photo paper to 12 seconds of light from the enlarger.  At last, I ran it through the series of photo baths, rinsed it, squeegeed it, hung it up to dry - et voila!  An 8x10 print.  

This whole process can be a bit much to take in at once, but it’s manageable when you break it down step-by-step and have an instructor to guide you.  The ways to play around with your print seem endless, but the class today was quite rushed to finish up. 

In the future I can use this darkroom and all its chemicals for $25 for a full day.  All I have to bring is my film and photo paper.  I definitely want to use it again, once I amass enough rolls of exposed black and white film to get more than my money’s worth.

Any other first-time stories, tips or questions?  I’d love to hear them!

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