DSLR Scanning Sucks

DSLR Scanning Sucks

DSLR scanning sucks. There I said it! Since my journey back into film photography started in 2017 I’ve been using my digital camera to digitise my negatives. It works, it can produce arguably great results – on a level with the very best quality you can achieve from a high end commercial scanner. But it’s a terrible solution.

Why is it terrible? Because it requires a shed ton of expensive gear to be done remotely well. Yeah you can just about cobble something together with any semi-recent digital camera, a macro extension tube and a nifty fifty (because proper 1:1 macros are expensive), you can sort of use a tripod, you can find a cheap LED light panel that produces whiteish light and so on. But this creates a really awkward setup, once the initial euphoria of “it works!” passes, you’re left with this really cumbersome and unreliable system that probably produces uneven sharpness and is a nightmare to align each time you set it up again. Oh and you’re on your own when it comes to turning your digitised negatives into positives.

The solutions to improving this setup are all really expensive – once you’ve added up the costs of a high quality 1:1 macro lens (£300-1000 depending on system), a proper sturdy copy stand (£200 or more), a high CRI light box (£50-100) and something to hold the negatives themselves flat (£30-300) you’ve easily spent £1000 or more. That puts you well into the ball park price of the highest end prosumer scanners like the Epson v850, the Plustek OpticFilm 120, the Reflecta MF5000 and so on.

For my DSLR* scanning I’ve tried a variety of things, starting off with the bodged solution outlined above. Trying, failing and trying again, replacing and tweaking each of the many components that make it up. Each step has cost more money and I’m incredibly fed up of it. To give a recent example, I’ve been unhappy with using my old Durst negative carrier as it cuts off about 4mm of the frame in each direction and its a faff to align the film well in it, especially at the ends of the strip. I’ve all but given up on ever receiving my Pixl-Latr so I bought both of Lomograph’s DigitaLIZA masks. The 120 model is excellent and works really well, the 35mm one on the other hand isn’t fit for purpose. So I’m back to the suboptimal Durst carrier again. At least I was able to resell the DigitaLIZA so I only ended up about £10 out of pocket, but still it’s frustrating.

* I use a Fuji X-T2 which is obviously a mirrorless camera, but for the sake of simplicity and brevity I’ll refer to it as a DSLR in this article.

So is the solution simply to buy a flatbed or dedicated film scanner?

Dedicated scanners also suck. Yeah, I know. Most scanners currently on the market are at best anywhere from 5 to 10 year old models. Sure periodically manufactures bump the model numbers, but the fundamental hardware is basically the same. A telling sign of this is that we’re still stuck with slow USB 2 connections, now a twenty year old standard that should feel as anachronistic as parallel and SCSI ports. Scanning speed is glacial – generally the fastest you can find is around a minute per 35mm frame and more typically you’re talking about several minutes per frame, so the process of digitising an entire 36 exposure role is likely to take an hour at a minimum. They also nearly all lie about their actual resolution (DPI) so it becomes a guessing game of what resolution you need to scan at and then downsample from to achieve the optimal result.

“A telling sign of this is that we’re still stuck with slow USB 2 connections, now a twenty year old standard that should feel as anachronistic as parallel and SCSI ports.”

However scanners do get some important things right, or at least they try to. Automatic dust removal, software designed to handle the whole process of capture, inversion and colour balancing, consistent results and quick setup. Some scanners even automate the process to the extent they can do whole strips or even multiple strips without supervision.

I enjoy editing my photos almost as much as taking them, but I do not overly enjoy the digitisation process itself so anything that makes that simpler and more reliable is a huge win for me. So I’ve decided to buy a dedicated film scanner, in the knowledge that it’s rebadged old hardware, that it will be slow and that I’m likely to encounter a learning curve to get the quality of results that I demand. In an ideal world I’d have been able to buy a scanner capable of handling 120 and 35mm film, but the only two choices there I can find on the market that produce adequate scan resolutions are both over £1000 and seem if not discontinued, then extremely scarce on the ground. So I’ve decided to keep my DSLR scanning setup for medium format for now, but switch my 35mm scanning to using a PlusTek 8200i. I’ll explain my thought process a bit below.

Why I chose the 8200i

I’ve been researching film scanners on and off for awhile now and have found there is precious little information out there on this subject despite the prevalence of YouTube channels and blogs dedicated to film photography. The only website with comprehensive scanner reviews I’ve found is ScanDig, which itself feels like a time capsule from the early 00’s. Reading their reviews you’ll quickly spot a theme – most of the scanners aren’t that good, they all over state their resolution to varying degrees and that they’re all generally worse than the long discontinued Nikon models. What they don’t provide is any full resolution sample scans or offer any head-to-head comparisons with a reference image for you to make your own mind up. At least they provide a good list of different scanners you can then look up individually on Google.

I quickly decided I wasn’t happy with the quality from flatbed scanners and it sounded like they nearly all had issues with accurately focusing on the negatives which resulted in extremely low resolution being achieved with 35mm and only barely acceptable resolution from medium format. So next I turned to the dedicated film scanner market which thankfully is still limping along. The two main players here are currently Reflecta and PlusTek. Reflectas are also sold under a few different brands like Braun and Pacific Image.

“The Reflecta scanners seem to have a slight edge in terms of resolution, but are more expensive than equivalent PlusTek models.”

The Reflecta scanners seem to have a slight edge in terms of resolution, but are more expensive than equivalent PlusTek models. They also had very restrictive warranties until recently (up to 8000 scans) which makes me question the manufacturer’s expected longevity of their products given each photo will generally require at least 2 scans (preview and main), and potentially 3 with infrared dust removal. I also seemed to come across quite a few people complaining about technical problems with their Reflecta scanners, but that just have been happenstance.

In the world of 35mm scanners they fall broadly into two camps, automatic and manual feed. If you’re sitting there with a huge box of negatives that all need scanning and you don’t have unlimited time and patience on your hands then an automatic feed scanner is basically essential. You drop the negative into a carrier and it will work out where the frames are and scan each one for you. However for my needs where in the worst case I maybe have two or three films to scan at any one time, manual feed is fine. As you might expect manual feed scanners are cheaper. It also seems like one less thing to go wrong. PlusTek sell three manual feed 35mm scanners, the 8100, the 8200i SE and the 8200i AI. The 8100 is the cheapest and most basic model, it doesn’t do infrared dust removal – whether that’s important to you or not will depend on how much black and white you shoot (it only works on colour film). The 8200 models are identical except for the versions of the SilverFast 8 software they ship with.

First Impressions

The 8200i is a compact little unit and takes up considerably less space than any of the various DSLR scanning setups I’ve tried. It comes with a two film holders, one for mounted slides and one for a 6 exposure long negative strip (shorter strips can be used). I was a little apprehensive about the scanning software it comes with, SilverFast SE 8 Plus, as it has a reputation of having a steep learning curve. However it turned out it’s fairly easy to use – but I’ve been using professional level photographic software for over twenty years now so I’m not your average user.

The default scan setting uses 3600 dpi which produces roughly 19 megapixel images. This is definitely the sweet spot for useful detail from any film that’s ISO 100 or over unless you just want more defined grain. Scan times on my computer (3.6GHz i7 9700K, 32GB RAM) are around 55 seconds at 3600 dpi. A preview scan takes around 25 seconds. That time roughly doubles if you turn on the infrared dust spot removal as it has to do a second pass.

The 8200’s top resolution is 7200 dpi. At this resolution you’re not actually gaining that much more information, just inflating the size your file. Scanning at this resolution took 2:45 minutes on my machine. If you downsample this massive scan though you can extract slightly more detail than you get from the 3600 dpi scan so for certain special images it may be worth the hassle. It might also be useful if you need to do a lot of fine repair work on your negative before down sampling.

ResolutionNormal ScanScan + iSRD (infrared repair)
3600 dpi55 seconds1 minute, 40 seconds
7200 dpi2 mins, 45 seconds5 minutes, 50 seconds
Typical scanning times with and without infrared dust and scratch repair on a high spec desktop PC.

SilverFast has lots of modules you can add to your work flow for sharpening, grain and noise removal, auto-contrast and so on. I’m not using any of them – I want my scans to be relatively neutral because I will be post-processing them in Lightroom and Photoshop. I’m not really convinced any of them hold a candle to what you can achieve in Adobe’s apps either. Take the infrared dust and scratch removal feature – it does a fairly decent job of spotting the blemishes on your film, but the actual corrections it applies are ham fisted compared to what you can achieve in a few minutes with the dust and scratches filter in Photoshop (applied locally) and the clone stamp or healing brush. It’s fine for dust specs, but if you have scratches or damage to the emulsion it will do more harm than good.

What SilverFast does do a very good job at is converting colour negatives into positives. It has an extensive range of presets for all the common films from Kodak and Fuji, including many long discontinued ones from other brands. It is however missing anything that’s come out in the last few years like CineStill or Lomography films and surprisingly also Kodak’s ColorPlus. However you can easily switch profiles without needing to rescan to see how the colours change, so it’s just a case of choosing something that looks pleasing.

For black and white films the profiles tend to mess with the contrast and sometimes introduce a slight warming or cooling effect. I just look for which ever is neutral enough – I don’t want to bake a load of contract into my scans. Unless you scan your black and white images in colour mode you’re unfortunately limiting yourself to 8 bit output (that is only 256 shades of grey) which feels a bit unforgivable in a piece of software as mature and expensive as SilverFast.

When it comes to fine tuning your scans the first port of call should ideally be Photoshop (or a similar tool). You can fix any obvious blemishes and then a little colour noise reduction will leave your image looking pretty nice if still a little soft at the pixel level. Applying a moderate level unsharp mask (say around 100% with a radius of 0.9 and threshold of 2) and your image should begin to look pretty crisp, but not over sharpened. It’s at this stage that I import the photo into Lightroom for any colour correction or further sharpening. You could skip the Photoshop step and go directly to Lightroom, but I find Photoshop faster for dust spotting.

So how does the 8200i compare to my DSLR setup?

So far I’ve found the 8200i compares favourably to the best scans I’ve managed to make with my DSLR and macro lens. In terms of raw detail, when the macro lens is perfectly focused the results look as good as the 7200 dpi scans downsampled to around 24 megapixels (the native output of my DSLR). But where the scanner excels is that it’s always properly focused, something that is not easy to achieve with a manual focus macro lens like the one I use. So that means the regular 3600 dpi scans look as a good as or better than my typical results with the DSLR. I’ve found this especially true for slide film. I thought slide film just wasn’t that sharp – turns out I was wrong, I just could never focus on it properly!

Here’s a shot on new Kodak Ektachrome

Top right, DSLR capture. Note the mushy green foliage with very little fine detail. This is already a weak spot of my Fuji X-T2’s X-Trans sensor, but even non-green areas are this lacking in detail and I tried refocusing on the slide several times.

Bottom right, 8200i scan. The fine detail of the leaves in the distant trees here really surprised me – I just didn’t think ISO 100 slide film could resolve that much detail!

100% crop from DSLR scan
100% crop from 8200i scan

SilverFast also does a hands down better job at creating pleasing and balanced colours from colour negatives than I’ve ever been able to achieve myself. I’ve always found correcting for the orange mask kills my reds leaving them looking more orange and washed out than they should be. Films which I thought looked a bit washed out because of my low temperature home processing are suddenly bursting with vibrant colours, it’s a total revelation!

DSLR scan with colour correction in Lightroom
PlusTek 8200i scan with colour correction in SilverFast

So in terms of raw image quality and colours I’m honestly thrilled, it’s a marked improvement over what I had. I have discovered some downsides though. The first is that SilverFast can only output 8 bit per channel tiff files*, that somewhat limits your headroom for pushing and pulling highlights and shadows. It’s especially egregious for greyscale files where you are dealing with only one 8 bit channel. To get true 16 bit output you have to spend a fortune on Silverfast Ai Studio which is an expensive upgrade for such a basic feature.

So in terms of raw image quality and colours I’m honestly thrilled, it’s a marked improvement over what I had.”

* it can also output to its own proprietary HDR raw files which do offer 16 bits per channel but which of course require an expensive dedicated piece of software from Silverfast to work with 🙄.

I decided to try rival scanner software VueScan to get 16 bit greyscale output and it works fine, however it seems to produce a little bit of banding that I don’t see with Silverfast, although it only effects the extreme edge of the scan so I can crop it off easily enough and only lose around 20 pixels. I don’t find VueScan’s colour output especially good however, I’m sure with enough patience and trial and error you can make it good, but in this regard Silverfast is hands down better as it works out of the box.

The second major downside is that it turns out scanners can ‘see’ damage to the surface of a negative that my DSLR could not. I’ve never mistreated my negatives, I keep them all in glassine sleeves and I don’t squeegee them when drying. However I still seem to have scratched a lot of them, I can only assume during my previous digitisations pulling them through the negative carrier. I’ve not come across anything that was especially hard to fix in Photoshop, but if you’re going to be dealing with less well treated films then this is something to keep in mind. As I mentioned above the automatic dust and scratch removal is limited and it’s particularly poor at correcting scratches turning them into coloured gashes that clearly disrupt the grain pattern and any other fine detail they pass through.

So I should buy a film scanner?

If you’re totally happy with whatever setup you have at the moment and that doesn’t already involve a film scanner, then obviously no. However if you’re at all unhappy with the faff, the colours, the sharpness or whatever and you primarily want to scan 35mm then yeah, you really should invest in a dedicated scanner because the results are that much better. I wish there was an equally good and affordable solution for medium format. Maybe an Epson v850 is a good enough as a stop gap, but I hope either PlusTek or Reflecta will step up here and refresh their offerings for the new generation of film shooters.

Upgrading the Durst C35

Upgrading the Durst C35

The C35 was an entry level colour 35mm enlarger made by Italian firm Durst in the early 1980s. It had a sister model called the C65 (yes 65) that was designed for up to 6×6 negatives. The only difference between the two models was the supplied mixing box, negative carrier and lens, they otherwise shared all the same components. From my searching it seems like the C65 is rather rare, especially compared to the C35 which can be easily found on eBay or at specialist photography stores that carry secondhand kit, usually for around £50 or less.

Upgrading to an LED light source

The main weakness of the C35 (and C65) is the light source. They were originally designed to be used with a 55W reflector bulb. When paired with the mixing box diffusor this was decidedly dim compared to an enlarger using a condensing lens. Luckily the lamp fitting takes a standard E27 Edison screw mains voltage bulb, so we can bring things into the 21st century by fitting a much brighter LED bulb.

I recommend the Philips Corepro LED bulbs, you’ll want a cool white version because photographic paper reacts primarily to blue light. Don’t cheap out on the bulb as you want something that will emit an even and wide spectrum of light.

Philips LED bulb in my Durst C35
Philips Corepro LED bulb with diffuser removed.

To level up the light bulb even more for our purposes I recommend (carefully) removing the opal diffuser from the bulb itself. This means more of the light will go directly into the mixing box instead of bouncing around in the lamp housing. On the Corepro bulbs this is simply held in place with adhesive and can be pried loose with a flat head screw driver without too much difficulty. Obviously don’t do this while it’s plugged in or turned on and don’t touch the exposed LEDs or you risk electric shock! Once installed in the enlarger the bulb will be safely behind a glass heat shield.

Note that I’ve only tried black and white multigrade printing with an LED bulb, I can’t guarantee you’ll get great colour results using one; but then if you’re serious about colour printing the C35 isn’t a good option anyway given the lack of a proper cyan filter or voltage regulator.

Upgrading the Lens

The C35 comes with a fairly basic, plasticky 50mm f2.8 lens Durst brands as a Neotaron. Mine was full of fungus and refused all attempts at disassembly so I was unable to clean it. The C35’s lens board will take any Leica M39 screw mount lens so you have plenty of upgrade options.

Durst also made a very nice premium 50mm f2.8 lens with the Neonon name. This is an excellent quality lens that generally sells for a lot less than other popular enlarging lenses from the big brands. If you’re looking for a 50mm lens for your C35 this is what I’d recommend.

Note that due to the maximum column height of the C35 you won’t be able to make much more than a 9.5×12″ print with a 50mm lens. If you want to print bigger you either need to find a wide angle 40mm lens or rotate the column on the enlarger so it projects on to the floor. Sadly you can’t rotate the enlarger head to project on to a wall.

If you have a C65 or an upgraded C35 that can handle 6×6 negatives, you’ll also need a 75 or 80mm lens. Durst made a fairly dark 75mm f4.5 lens, but I’d recommend looking for something a little brighter. I have an inexpensive Meopta 80mm f4 that came bundled with my old Gnome enlarger. Unfortunately it’s too big to use the C35’s swing in red filter, but that’s not the end of the world.

Upgrading the C35 to handle 6×6 negatives

The incredibly rare Durst MEKIT 65 6×6 upgrade kit for the C35

As I mentioned at the start of the post, the only differences between the C35 and C65 are the negative carrier, mixing box and lens. So it stands to reason you can simply upgrade by swapping these components. Indeed Durst sold a kit called the MEKIT 65 for just this purpose. Unfortunately despite how common the C35 itself is, these kits are exceptionally rare*. So this part of the guide will probably only be helpful to a small number of people, but given the absence of any real information about it online I thought I’d try and fill the void.

* Another source of these components (other than the kit) might be a broken C65 – as long as you have at least the negative carrier and intact mixing box you should be in business.

I was extremely lucky and did manage to find a MEKIT 65 the other week by chance, albeit missing the 75mm f4.5 lens. As mentioned above I already own a Meopta 80mm lens so this wasn’t an issue.

However it wasn’t until after ordering I noticed a problem when examining pictures of the kit – on my C35 the magenta and yellow filters are integral to the mixing box, but the MEKIT 65 seems designed for a version of the C35 where this is instead fixed to the lamp housing. Oh dear!

So it turns out there are two versions of the C35, my one that is presumably a late model, whose main differentiating feature seems to be illuminated scales on the mixing box and the original which didn’t have this. The illuminated scale model for some reason moved the yellow and magenta filters to the mixing box itself, where as on the older model this was on the lamp housing.

From the manual, MESIXKIT 65 vs MEKIT 65

Checking the manual that came with my C35 it still talks about the enlarger being upgradable but makes no mention of the MEKIT 65 and instead mentions MESIXKIT 65. Searching for MESIXKIT 65 turned up nothing of use.

After further inspecting both my mixing box and pictures of the MEKIT 65 one, I became convinced it would be possible to retrofit the colour filters to it as the overall design of the box itself was largely unchanged. Today I put that to the test as the upgrade kit was delivered!

The MEKIT 65‘s 6×6 mixing box on the left with my ‘new style’ 35mm box on the right (the apparent size difference is due to the added height of the colour filters on the back).

It was straight forward to remove both the metal plate from the 6×6 mixing box and the colour mixer from the 35mm mixing box. They both attach in the same manner at the top of the box with two little hooks that clip into the plastic, but they are screwed into slightly different locations at the bottom.

Mixing boxes with the backs removed, MEKIT 65 on the left again.

Interestingly there are indents where the screws should go on the 6×6 version of the box, presumably that isn’t a coincidence! I removed the black card baffles and swapped the metal filter holder over from the 35mm mixing box. It fit perfectly so that was a good sign (the 35mm box still has a 6×6 aperture where it meets the lamp housing).

Next up I tried to fit the colour filter plate and thankfully it simply slotted into place. The metal plate from the 6×6 mixing box would not fit the 35mm box however – although that’s not a concern here, it does mean you might have difficulty if you were trying to fit a MESIXKIT 65 to an older style C35 for some reason.

The 6×6 mixing box with colour filters attached but not yet screwed in.

Now it was just a case of screwing the colour filter plate into the 6×6 mixing box. First I removed the diffuser from the bottom of the box to make sure I wouldn’t be damaging anything with the screws (and to give it a clean). There was just an empty void where the screws were going so I had nothing to worry about. The plastic is fairly soft and it wasn’t hard to drive the screws from the 35mm mixing box into it without risking cracks.

Checking the area the screws would be tapped into.

After getting the screws in, I blew out any remaining dust with a blower, gave both sides of the diffuser box a gentle clean and then screwed that back in place.

The assembled MEKIT mixing box with colour filters.

The final step then was to simply affix the mixing box with colour filters back to the enlarger. This is super easy as there are four fixed bolts on the back of the colour filter plate that correspond with holes on the lamp housing, then it’s just a case of tightening 4 plastic nuts to lock it into position.

So that’s how you fully upgrade your Durst C35 to handle both 35mm and 6×6 negatives, at least if you end up with a mismatched enlarger and upgrade kit! Knowing now that there are multiple versions of the C35, if I were buying one today I’d look for the older model as it would be easier to upgrade and the illuminated scales are really not worth the extra hassle.

Climbing Pen-y-ghent with Two Rolleis

Back in May my partner convinced me to go climb Pen-y-ghent with him, one of the Yorkshire Three Peaks. At 694m, or 2,277 feet, it’s not the tallest mountain but it’s still a fair challenge, and the total hike which took us from Horton in Ribblesdale to Ribblehead was on the order of 12-13 miles. I took two film cameras to document the trip, my Rollei 35 SE loaded with Fuji Neopan Acros 100 and my Rolleicord Vb loaded with a roll of Provia 100F. I had the 16 exposure kit in my Rolleicord as I wanted to maximise the number of shots I had. I didn’t break out the Rolleicord until after climbing to the top of the mountain so all the shots in colour are from the decent.

The path was pretty gentle to begin with and we joined a fairly steady flow of walkers, setting off at about 10 in the morning.

The path got gradually more rocky and uneven as we neared the foot of the mountain.

The path gradually gave way to a stony steps. As the route is so well walked these stone paths are essential to prevent the terrain from getting eroded into gullies.

Looking up towards one of the peaks with the scree slopes beneath. There are a few points where some mild scrambling and rock climbing are required to reach the summit from this side, but it’s all pretty tame really.

Getting near the top the views are already looking pretty spectacular with clear views for a good few miles before the haze sets in. Being a national park, there are no pylons or big roads to mar the landscape.

Looking back at the long way down the mountain side.

On reaching the summit we waited our turn to get a selfie by the OS trig post. I forgot to get a shot on film so this is from my iPhone, looking back at the path we’ve just climbed up. Now with the hard bit done it was time to breakout the Rolleicord and get some colour shots.

The previously clear blue skies started to get a few clouds as we began our decent on the opposite side of the mountain. The path on this side is largely made of big stone steps.

You can just make out the white line of the path we’ll be walking, snaking off into the distance. You can even just make out the Ribblehead Viaduct over the cloud shadow on the mid-righthand edge.

Looking back over my shoulder I could see the peak of Pen-y-ghent slowly receding.

Getting a little more cloudy still.

Rollei Vb w/ Xenar 75mm f3.5, 16 exposure kit. Shot on Fuji Provia 100.

Every structure was encrusted with a mix of moss and lichens, as seen here on this old gate post.

I used a yellow filter on the Rollei 35 which helped brighten the path and some of the moorland reeds and grasses.

Towards the end of the hike, the footpath took us through a farm yard. Look at the date above the door of this farmhouse – that building has stood there since 1681!

With the exception of the ever present winding drystone walls, the land is pretty bare. This ruined barn sits in rather splendid isolation.

We encountered a lot fewer walkers on the far side, you can just start to make out some of the cool limestone pavements the area is known for in the distance in this shot.

I’d love to come back here when I can spend a bit more time to explore and photograph the limestone pavement.

The background haze gradually increased as the afternoon wore on.

Ribblehead Viaduct

The last stretch of the walk ran along the road to Ribblehead and as it wasn’t very visually interesting, this part of the hike really felt like it dragged out. When the amazing Ribblehead Viaduct finally came into view though it was all worth it. Unfortunately to get a good shot of the viaduct would have required a fair bit more hiking down into the valley it crosses – something neither of us had the energy to do at that point. So instead after having some refreshments at the fairly mediocre Station Inn pub, I quickly ran up the road to get this view from behind the viaduct before we had to dash off to catch the train home. The trains only stop every 2 hours at Ribblehead so we were keen not to miss it.

Project: Hopes & Dreams

I should preface this by saying I’m really not that interested in football, and find myself somewhat bemused by the wave of fervent excitement (and almost always dashed hopes) that wash over the nation every 4 years with the World Cup. But this year was a little different, for once our team actually did fairly well, and I found myself fascinated by the St. Georges flags that were suddenly popping up everywhere. The idea for a project sparked into my mind. So here I give you, Hopes & Dreams. A mini project documenting how England’s brief blaze of glory at the 2018 World Cup expressed itself in the windows, on the cars and down the streets of my corner of West Yorkshire. All shot on my newly acquired Pentax MX on a mix of Fuji Neopan Acros 100 & ADOX Silvermax 100.

Football did indeed, for a little while, come home.

Exploring the Northern Quarter

It’s been ages since I last posted here but a camera has rarely been out of my hand during that time! I’ve sold the GR1s that started my film journey at the beginning of the year and supplemented my Rollei 35 LED with a fancier 35 SE model. I’ve also just shot my first paid wedding job, sold some prints and even some stock images on Alamy. It’s great to have my photography at least paying a little of its upkeep.

Today I want to share some images I took recently in Manchester’s wonderful Northern Quarter; a trendy, bohemian enclave that’s in the early stages of gentrification – so it’s still a nice mix of the rundown and the new and all the interesting people haven’t been priced out yet. It also has an excellent street art scene with a nice mix of posters, sticker art and painted pieces including some big murals.

All of these images were shot on Ilford Delta 400, a film I love using in medium format that is also fantastic in 35mm. I developed them in Ilford’s DD-X in my Jobo rotary processor.

The Rollei 35 is a fantastic camera for street photography because it’s so small and discrete. Set the aperture to f8 (or smaller if the light will allow) and use the hyperfocal markings to get all the depth of field you need for a typical street scene unfolding before you without worrying about precise focus. Unlike the 35 LED which only has markings for f8 and f16, the SE has everything from f2.8 to f22 marked on the lens barrel. It’s great not having to guess where the f11 and f5.6 marks are, even if their tight spacing makes it all feel a little imprecise.

There’s lots of poster art to find including some large cut out pieces. I’m a fan of this type of street art as it doesn’t ruin the lovely old brickwork beneath that gives the area a lot of its charm.

You can find lots of nice little independent shops, bars and cafés in the area – go use them and enjoy them while they last. (The UK has a horrendous record of allowing its towns and cities to become overrun with chain stores which rapidly purge the life and culture from an area).

If you squint hard enough you can almost see all the potted shrubs and happy chatting couples traversing this space that no doubt the architect’s gleaming renderings presented. Of course the reality is a dead quasi-public space no one uses.

Manchester’s old buildings are quickly succumbing to redevelopment and unfortunately that often means demolition. New life being breathed into deprived areas is great and much needed, but it’s hard not to worry what will replace characterful old buildings that in other European cities would be protected and treasured.

I’ll leave you with this final image of a strange figure painted on a wall that reminds me of Spirited Away’s “No Face” character.

As usual if you enjoy my photography and writing please consider purchasing a print from the store here or on Etsy. If you see something not on sale you’d like let me know and I’d be happy to make a print for you.

120 Film Quick Takes

120 Film Quick Takes

Since getting into film photography I’ve been keen to try as many different film stocks as I can get my hands on. Despite the resurgent popularity of film you never quite know how long any of these are going to be around, so it’s nice to use them while they’re still being freshly produced.

Black & White Films

Ilford PanF+ (ISO 50)

This is the slowest film I’ve shot with to date, rated at just ISO 50. Obviously this is one for bright outdoor shooting or tripod based long exposures. The benefit of such a slow film is the fineness of the grain and the ability to shoot wide apertures without requiring ND filters or very high shutter speeds.

In terms of grain, I’m a bit disappointed with this film. It’s not as clean as the faster Delta 100, Acros 100 or even Rollei Retro 80S. It’s the least grainy of Ilford’s classic emulsions, but if you’re only choosing it for clean and crisp images then you can find better, faster options. On the plus side I’ve found it handles contrasty situations very nicely with good shadow and highlight detail. This film is super quick to develop, requiring a 1:14 dilution of Ilfosol 3 and even then only taking 4 and a half minutes. I’ve read that PanF doesn’t have good keeping qualities once exposed so it’s best to develop as soon as possible after shooting.

Ilford FP4+ (ISO 125)

I really like this film, although it’s a traditional emulsion, grain is well controlled and fine, albeit still fairly noticeable in clear blue skies. Being a fairly slow film its best for use in bright conditions where it produces lovely tones. I’ve developed it in both Ilford DD-X and Ilfosol 3, which both produce similar results. In the later it’s very quick to develop requiring only a few minutes, which is good if you’re impatient like me! FP4+ tends to be very affordable and is available from £4 a roll.

Ilford HP5+ (ISO 400)

This was the first film I shot this year and I found it a bit too grainy for my liking in 35mm. Things are slightly better with the bigger negative sizes of 120 film but it’s still a bit grainier than I’d like, especially compared to Delta 400, even when that’s pushed a stop. HP5 is generally regarded as a fairly forgiving film when it comes to exposure latitude but I’ve not tried pushing or pulling it yet to confirm that. I think I generally prefer T grained films like Acros and Delta, but if you’re more a grain fan then this is probably what you want. I’ve only developed it in Ilford’s DD-X which may not be an ideal match. HP5 is usually around £5 to 6 a roll.

Ilford Delta 100

Delta 100 produces very clean, sharp images with good dynamic range and is practically grainless in appearance. It doesn’t block up shadows as much as Acros, with a broader mid-range. Handily like most Ilford films, you can buy this as individual rolls so it’s cheaper to experiment with. The film develops very well in Ilford’s Ilfosol 3. Delta 100 usually commands a price in the £5 to £6 range.

Ilford Delta 400

Delta 400 is one of my most used films. It’s great at box speed with fine grain and even pushed a stop 800 barely looks any different. It has a fairly flat contrast curve which is ideal for digitising, where you can tweak contrast as you see fit in post.

I’ve developed it in both Ilford DD-X and Ilfosol 3. DD-X is probably its natural match, especially for push processing. Results with Ilfosol 3 diluted to 1+14 have been a bit mixed so far, I’ve developed one roll pushed to 800 which came our great and another at box speed which was unacceptably grainy. I shall try 1+9 and see if that improves things or go back to DD-X. Amazon sell this film at £4.99 in which is about the best price you’ll find it for.

Fuji Neopan Acros 100

This film is stunning and my favourite for black and white photography. The digitised results could be from a modern digital sensor they’re so clean. If you’ve seen this film described as ‘grainless’ and not believed it, well believe it! Ok if you look very hard or try and push shadows or lightlights too much you’ll uncover a bit, but in a well exposed shot it’s amazingly clean.

Another benefit of Acros for those wanting to do long exposures is that it doesn’t suffer from the usual reciprocity failure that many films do. In terms of rendering, Acros tends to block up shadow areas but has huge range in the highlights, this produces some really beautiful results but needs careful exposure. I’ve had good results developing in the rotary processor with both Ilfosol 3 and DD-X. Unfortunately unlike with Ilford’s films, you can only buy this in 5 packs which makes it a little expensive here in the UK at nearly £6 a roll.

Fomapan 100 Classic

Foma is an interesting company producing traditional emulsion films at their plant in the Czech Republic. Fomapan 100 Classic actually reminds me of Ilford’s FP4+ quite a bit in the way it renders, although perhaps with slightly less sharp results overall. Still it’s a rather attractive film and given its low price in Europe, hard to ignore if you’re on a tight budget. It can be found for less than £4 a roll which is an increasing rarity with 120 film.

One thing to watch out for if home developing, is that it’s very flimsy and easy to mark when loading onto a spiral. It’s the first film I’ve handled that when unwound from the take-up spool was very loose – most want to tightly wind up again.

Fomapan 200 Creative

Despite the fairly low speed of ISO 200, this film is rather grainy and characterful making it good for fairly brightly lit scenes you want to give a bit of a gritty edge. That said if you don’t nail the exposure or want to darken a sky in post, things can get very messy. Like Foma’s 100 Classic, it’s a rather flimsy film which can make handling a bit more tricky when home processing. Unlike its cheaper slower sibling, 200 Creative tends to be in the mid £4 to £5 range.

Rollei Retro 80S

Rollei branded films are interesting primarily for their near-infrared sensitivity. In fact they do make purely IR film too, but I’ve not tried it yet. The benefit of having some IR sensitivity means in theory you can cut through haze on hot days which should be a boon for landscape photographers. Unfortunately it’s been a fairly poor summer here in Yorkshire, so I’ve not been able to test this aspect yet. Like the Foma films I’ve tried, Retro 80S is rather thin and while I had no trouble loading it onto my Jobo’s spiral, it’s remained very curly after drying which makes handling a little more fiddly.

In terms of image quality this is a remarkably good film. It’s as clean and grainless looking as Acros or Delta 100 with only a slight hit in speed. I’ve found it really doesn’t like underexposure, quickly losing all detail in dark shadow areas. One image, where I had to shoot what I thought was just 1 stop under to get a hand-holdable shutter speed, barely even registered on the negative!

Overall though I’m amazed at the quality, if you want a cheaper alternative to Acros or Delta 100 it’s a very good option. A roll of 80S will generally set you back around £4.50. The only real downside is that at just ISO 80 you will need brighter light or longer exposures than with comparable ISO 100 films. I’ve found 80S develops very well in Ilford’s Ilfosol 3.

Colour Negative Films

Fuji Pro NS 160

This was the first film I ran through my Bronica and I quickly decided I didn’t like it. I’ve found getting nice colours out of it when digitising to be a real chore, especially compared to every other colour negative film I’ve shot. It’s also expensive (quite a bit more so than Kodak Portra 160) working out at around £6 a roll, so it’s really hard to recommend. On the plus side the grain is fairly fine. It really doesn’t like underexposure and I’ve seen some odd effects at the edges of a few frames that I suspect might be light leaks which I’ve not seen with other films shot in the same camera. So I’m not sure if it’s an artefact from development, me miss-handling it or something else going on. Overall a thumbs down.

Fuji Pro 400H

Unlike NS 160, 400H is actually pretty nice. It digitises well and I’ve not seen any strange ‘light leaks’ or other issues. Overall performance is much the same as Kodak Portra 400. I’ve shot it at box speed and at ISO 200 and had nice results each time. This film handles greens very well so it’s particularly suited to landscape photography. It develops well in Tetenal ColorTec C-41. Available only in packs of 5, the cost per roll is around £6.

Kodak Ektar 100

Kodak advertises this as the finest grained colour negative film and it certainly produces very clean results. Colours tend to be punchy and saturated in bright light, but they can take on blue or purple casts if it’s gloomy or a little underexposed. I’ve found shadow areas in otherwise well exposed sunny scenes can turn very bluish which can require some post-processing to correct. This is certainly a film where you want to carefully expose for the shadows.

I’ve had good results developing Ektar with the two bath Tetenal ColorTec C-41 kit. Amazon has recently had fantastic prices for Kodak 120 films, with five packs selling for £25 or less, that makes this film an absolute bargain at around £5 a roll. More typically it will fetch somewhere between £5.50 and £6 a roll.

Kodak Portra 400

As the name suggests, Kodak wants you to think of this as a portrait film. To date I’ve yet to shoot a single portrait with it, but the colours lend themselves well to landscape and street photography too. Grain is fine and not overly apparent. I’ve shot several rolls of this over exposed by a stop at ISO 200, which has a nice effect on the colours. I’ve seen reports you can overexpose this film by up to 6 stops and still get very useable results. Of course like most film it’s less a fan of being underexposed, but then at ISO 400 you already have good latitude and Kodak produces an ISO 800 version if you need further flexibility. I’ve found this film can be a little bit grainy in the sky, at least developed with Tetenal’s C-41 kit. Pricing is around £5.50 to £6 a roll.

What next?

There are still quite a few films I’d like to try which I’ve not yet had the opportunity to. In particular these are on my list:

  • Kodak Portra 160
    I want to see if this is a good alternative to Ektar with a little more exposure headroom.
  • Kodak TMax (100, 400)
    I want to see how this compares to the Ilford’s Delta films.
  • Fuji Velvia
    This film is legendary so I’m keen to try it sometime.
  • Fuji Neopan 400 CN
    There’s only two Fuji B&W films so I might as well try them both, this is a C-41 process one.
  • Rollei Digibase CN 200
    This is an interesting film in that it doesn’t have a colour mask so it should be easier to digitise. After being floored by how good Retro 80S is I’m keen to try more Rollei films.
  • Ilford Delta 3200
    I’m interested to see what the quality is like from such a fast film, probably one I’ll save for the depths of winter when there isn’t much light!
  • Ilford XP2 400
    I’ve heard good things about this but I’ve been avoiding using my expensive colour chemistry on B&W films so far as this is another C-41 process one.
  • CineStills 800
    I’m really keen to try this film as I’ve seen some lovely images taken with it. It can be a bit expensive and hard to find in the UK unfortunately.

If you’re wondering why I’ve not listed Kodak’s Tri-X, it’s because I have shot it in 35mm format and didn’t like it much. I’m not a fan of grainy films generally, especially where equal speed cleaner films exist, and my experience with HP5+ has taught me that moving up a format size doesn’t really change the overall characteristic that much.

Seeing Squares

I guess the trouble with medium format is that once you start down the route of ‘bigger is better’ you start itching for the next format size up from what you have. My Fuji GS645 and Bronica ETRSi are both 6×4.5 cameras and for awhile I’ve been thinking it would be really nice to have a camera that could do 6×6 square format. The big benefit of this is that it allows any kind of crop you’d like (if any) without losing too much image area. Since my preferred way of shooting is with a waist level finder on the Bronica, square format also takes away the ‘landscape only’ limitation that comes from having a non-rotating film back. In portrait orientation, even ignoring the very awkward ergonomics, the image is upside down without a prism to correct it. I can cope with the horizontally flipped image in the waist level finder, but putting it upside down is a step too far!

My first though was to find another range finder camera to get a slightly lighter setup, but after a couple of failed attempts at acquiring a working Mamiya 6 I shelved this idea and decided to go with a Bronica SQ-Ai as they are both reasonably priced and very reliable in my experience. With some eBay luck I was able to purchase an immaculate copy from the early 90s that looked barely used for £299, which is a steal frankly. It may not have the desirability factor of a Hasselblad (or the price tag), but in terms of image quality, usability and durability it’s got nothing to be ashamed of.

So far I’m really loving the square format. I feel like 12 exposures per 120 roll is a good compromise between image size and film economy. The 80mm f2.8 PS is a really lovely lens (about 40mm f1.5 equivalent) and definitely seems sharper than the 75mm f2.8 on the ETRSi, especially when shot wide open). In terms of handling the SQ-Ai, while a couple of hundred grams heavier and definitely a bit bulkier, feels much nicer to use even without a grip. I always found the on-body shutter button on the ETRS bodies a bit indecisive, seemingly needing varying amounts of pressure to fire from one shot to the next. The SQ-Ai by contrast is consistently firm and feels very deliberate. I think this along with the added heft makes it easier to get sharp results at slower shutter speeds more consistently. The SQ-Ai also has a vastly improved mirror lockup mechanism that resets after a shot is taken unless you set it not to. This is unlike the ETRSi where if you forgot to flip a switch the mirror would flip up as you wound on to the next frame.

Anyway enough of my waffling, here’s a few photos taken so far:

This was shot wide open at f2.8, the grass right into the corners is tack sharp where in the plane of focus. This is such a improvement over the 75mm f2.8 on the ETRS and honestly not a common characteristic on many modern lenses which are geared only towards centre sharpness until stopped down.

 Finally, I’m working on doing a round up of all the various film types I’ve shot with my thoughts on their rendering, easy of digitising etc. so keep an eye out for that. If you enjoy my writing and images please help support me and the site by purchasing a print from my store here or on Etsy.

Falling in love with medium format

Falling in love with medium format

If you’ve read my previous blog post, you’ll know that at the beginning of this year I started shooting film again on a Ricoh GR1s, a tiny 35mm compact camera from the late 90s. Well, from there things have snowballed somewhat!

Getting a medium format camera

By the end of January I decided I’d really like to try medium format to see what all the fuss was about (especially with Fuji’s new GFX system launching to much fanfare). So I paid a visit to West Yorkshire Cameras in Leeds, a specialist camera shop handling only film cameras. The helpful salesperson showed me several different systems and after seeing how they worked and handled I settled on a Bronica ETRS with AE prism finder, speed grip and 75mm f2.8 lens.

The Bronica is a fairly big, late 1970s-early 80s era, modular camera that shoots in the 645 format. With the AE prism and speed grip it handles like an oversized SLR with the option of fully manual or aperture priority shooting.

I’ve never shot with a modular camera before and it’s really rather interesting. The core is a roughly 4 inch cube that houses the focusing screen, electronics and mirror. Everything else – the film back, viewfinder, lens and any other accessories you might want, all bolt onto it. This means you can configure the camera just how you want it and based on what you’re shooting. The speed grip and AE finder mean you can just treat it like any 35mm SLR, hand holding shots and rapidly firing frames with the camera metering for you. Attach a waist level finder, put the camera on a tripod and grab a light meter and you’ve got a more traditional studio or landscape setup.

Taking advantage of the modularity of the system, I’ve since gone on to upgrade the camera body to the slightly newer ETRSi model (I found I needed mirror lockup to avoid mirror slap blurring photos on my lightweight tripod), bought a waist level finder to see what that would be like and acquired a 150mm f3.5 portrait lens and 50mm f2.8 wide angle.

A different type of film

Medium format cameras all shoot on the same type of film, known as ‘120’*. Unlike 35mm film which starts and ends inside the same canister, 120 film is backed by paper and winds from one spool onto another as you shoot. Once fully exposed, you tape up the end of the roll and the paper backing keeps the film light tight until it can be developed. It takes a bit of getting used to and does make loading a bit more tricky than 35mm, but you soon get the hang of it.

The height of the negative is around 6cm, but the frame width (and therefore the number of shots you get on a roll) is down to the camera. 645 is the smallest format and the most economical to shoot with, producing 15 to 16 images on a roll that measure around 55x42mm each – dramatically bigger than 35mm/full frame and even making most medium format digital cameras (like the GFX) blush with envy. Other common formats are 6×6, 6×7 and 6×9. Typically as the format size goes up so does the camera body and lens size and of course you get fewer and fewer frames per roll.

(* You used to be able to get ‘220’ film as well, which was basically twice the length of 120, letting you double your number of exposures per roll, but sadly no one makes this anymore.)

120 film is available at specialist camera stores and easily found on-line through major resellers like Amazon. Fuji, Kodak, Ilford and a few other brands produce quite a wide range of negative, colour reversal (slide) and black and white films. So far I’ve shot with Fuji Pro 160 NS, Fuji Provia, Ilford Delta 400, Ilford FP4+ and I’ve got some rolls of Kodak Portra 400 sat in the fridge waiting to be used.

That medium format look

Describing what’s known as the ‘medium format look’ is rather difficult. You often hear people talking about things that are hard to quantify, but in the end the images rather end up speaking for themselves. A lot of the benefit is clearly derived from having such a large negative – the grain size in a particular film stock is going to be constant regardless of format, so the larger the area your image fills the more detail you’re able to record before that grain size becomes the limiting factor.

The huge negative is a real plus when it comes to digitisation. While I’ve struggled to extract more than 14-16 megapixels from my 35mm negatives, I can easily get 30-50 megapixels from a 645 frame by stitching multiple shots.*

* I use the digital camera plus macro lens approach rather than a scanner.

The images once digitised just look incredible, producing a resolution that’s competitive with modern digital sensors, while giving all the wonderful characteristics and colours you’d expect from film.

Anyway that’s enough words, lets look at some photos! All of these have been digitised with either my X-T1 or X-Pro 2 using the 60mm f2.4 macro, in some cases stitched from multiple shots to extract the most detail. Everything has been processed to taste in Lightroom – negatives are much like digital RAWs and require some processing to be turned into a pleasing image. The black and white shots were developed at home using Ilford DD-X and the colour shots processed by Ag Photo Lab in Birmingham.

Bronica ETRS w/ Fuji Provia 100F.
Bronica ETRS 75mm f2.8 w/ Fujifilm Pro 160 NS
Bronica ETRS 75mm f2.8 w/ Fujifilm Pro 160 NS
Bronica ETRS 75mm f2.8 w/ Fujifilm Pro 160 NS
Bronica ETRS 75mm f2.8 w/ Ilford Delta 400 Pro
Bronica ETRS 75mm 2.8 w/ Ilford Delta 400. Developed in Ilford DD-X.
Bronica ETRS 75mm 2.8 w/ Ilford FP4 Plus
Bronica ETRS 75mm 2.8 w/ Ilford FP4 Plus
Bronica ETRS 75mm 2.8 w/ Ilford FP4 Plus. Developed in Ilford DD-X.
Bronica ETRS 75mm 2.8 w/ Ilford FP4 Plus

Final thoughts

I absolutely love the results I’m getting with the Bronica and I’m continuing to find the whole process of analogue photography really rewarding, especially now I’m developing a lot of my own films – something I’ll no doubt write more about in the future.

If you’re thinking about shooting film and know your fundamentals, I’d really recommend looking into medium format. I think it’s going to be a long time, if ever, that digital medium format becomes something most hobbyists (and even many pros) can really afford to use. So why not give it a go while the cameras are cheap and still easily available and film isn’t too hard to find or expensive to process?

First Roll

First Roll

I’ve been mooting the idea of trying analogue photography again for awhile, inspired in part by seeing the work of the After Alice Project, a local group dedicated to documenting Calderdale and its inhabitants exclusively on film. So when my Dad offered me his old Ricoh GR1s this Christmas, I decided to buy some film and take the plunge.

I’ve shot film before of course, being in my 30s now I grew up in a world where film photography was the norm. When I was a kid back in the 1980s, I was taking snaps on holidays and school trips with a fixed lens 35mm automatic. I had a bit of a hiatus from photography in my teens, before getting back into it when I went to university. I bought a Kodak Advantix APS camera and enjoyed using it for a year or so before moving on into the then new world of digital photography.

The Ricoh GR1s

Back to the Ricoh GR1s. If that name sounds a bit familiar to you, it’s probably because of the Ricoh GR digital series which it helped inspire. As with the GR digital, it’s a compact autofocus camera built around an f2.8 prime lens. What makes this camera desirable to me is that it lets you shoot in aperture priority, offering a good degree of creative control over your photography. You get ‘modern’ niceties like light metering and autofocus so it’s still simple to pick up and use. It’s also extremely small and light, weighing in at just over 200g with film and battery loaded.

The small size of the camera does mean many of the controls and buttons are a bit fiddly to operate, and the viewfinder is positively tiny. Still it seems that with a bit of patience and luck you can still get some really nice results from it. The optics are excellent and your resolution is only really limited by the film stock you load.

One thing that tripped me up a little bit was that I picked an ISO 400 speed film. I thought that would give me more leeway in terms of poor light, but what I didn’t realise at the time, was that the GR1s has a maximum shutter speed of just 1/500th of a second! Worse yet, for anything below f11 it can only manage a meagre 1/250th. So forget using f2.8 if the sun is out – I found myself having to stop down to f16 on several occasions. Next time I’ll make sure to use a lower ISO film like a 125 or a 100, so I have a bit more flexibility.

The Film

In terms of film, as you’ll see, I’ve opted for black and white. I went with Ilford’s HP5 Plus, which as mentioned above is an ISO 400 film. I had the film processed by Ilford, but digitised the negatives myself using my X-T1* mounted on a tripod over a light box. This worked really well and yielded roughly 10 megapixel shots using the 60mm macro with its 0.5x maximum magnification. Having RAW versions of the negatives and all the control of Lightroom at your disposal is fantastic.

* I could have had a bit more resolution if I’d captured the images with my X-Pro 2 (about 15 megapixels), but since Fuji still only supports tethering with the X-T1 & 2, it was simply easier to use that, as I wanted to be able to check the images on a big screen immediately. Also with the grain size of this film, I don’t really see much of a meaningful difference between 10 and 15 megapixel digitisations.

The Images

So in no particular order here’s a selection of my favourite photos from my first roll. These have all been processed to taste in Lightroom from the captured negatives. All the shots are taken in and around Mytholmroyd in West Yorkshire.

Tangled Post
One of the few shots I managed to take at f2.8 because it was generally too bright! The image centre is decently sharp and the bokeh isn’t too bad for a wide angle.
Clog Factory
The UK’s largest clog factory (the traditional Yorkshire kind rather than those worn in the Netherlands).
I liked the light and handwritten signs here.
A little bit of surviving industry in this nice old mill building.
The Rochdale canal near Hebden Bridge on a frosty morning.
Old Victorian terrace by the River Calder, soon to be demolished as part of the Environment Agency’s attempts to improve flood resilience. Part of the building was destroyed by the river in the severe Boxing Day flood of 2015.
Mill courtyard
War memorial in Mytholmroyd
Canal reflections.
Country Lane.

Final thoughts

I’m really pleased with the overall resolution and sharpness of the images produced by the Ricoh and HP5. There’s certainly a fair bit of the grain visible in the skies, especially when you start to pull down the exposure, but overall there’s a really nice, slightly intangible quality about film photos that I rather enjoy. It’s definitely something I think I’ll explore further.

As usual if you’d like to support the site, please consider buying a print from my online store here or on Etsy.

Update: 6 Feb 2017, added a photo of the Ricoh GR1s and improved the layout of the portrait orientation photos.

Update: 26 May 2020, minor changes to accommodate new blog theme.