Once upon a time I shot a lot of slide film. I thought of myself as a purist rendering my art in vivid colours, free from the colour casts of the bodging high street printers. Then it became apparent that this was becoming a personal fetish – I looked at my slides once, put them back in the box and never showed them to anyone else. I was the Gollum of Agfachrome. So I switched to colour prints because I got results I could see and share easily. Plus, I don’t think there has ever been a time when I haven’t had either a camera loaded with black and white film or some mono film lurking in waiting. So I was pretty big in negatives.
Then film died, the world went digital, and I wanted to keep using all my previous images. It felt a bit like having your entire music collection on eight-track and your family movies on Betamax. So I had to find a way of turning negatives and slides into data. It would have been a lot easier if I had a full-frame digital SLR. I still had one of those dedicated slide-copier lenses – a metal tube with a slide holder and diffuser at the end and a sharpish lens buried inside. They worked fairly well on a 35mm film SLR but couldn’t zoom out to work with APS-C. I also had a flat-bed scanner with a range of film holders. The scanner did great service – the results weren’t great but at least I was getting something I could work with. For a while I had a great time rediscovering pictures that I had taken but never printed.
It was so encouraging that I bought a proper film scanner. This was limited to 35mm or smaller, so I developed a workflow that ran the slides, 35mm and half-frame negatives through the film scanner and the larger stuff through the flat-bed. Of the two, the film scanner is an easier process. I can put a strip of negatives in the holder and scan them one after the other, leaving me free to do something else. It’s slow work though.
I thought I might speed things up by photographing my old slides with a camera and close-up lens on a lightbox. I’ve got an old X-ray viewing lightbox that can sit on the floor. The big tripod can spread its legs far enough to straddle the lightbox and tea-bag it with a camera. Plop a small mirror on the top of the lightbox and fiddle about until the camera can see right back down its own lens, meaning that it’s perpendicular to the surface. Then it was a speedy business of blow dust off slide, chuck it on the lightbox, align and shoot. I got through about four boxes of slides in short order. Then I pulled the memory card and had a look at them on the computer. Total shite. Not even slightly sharp. I need a proper macro lens. So the next attempt was an enlarger lens fitted to a focusing macro bellows. This was far more fiddly. What I wanted was to arrange the bellows so that focusing moved the camera rather than the lens. This meant that the lens could be set at a fixed distance from the subject, so the magnification wouldn’t change when I focused. The problem was that the weight of the camera would make the focusing rack creep. So I either arrange the setup so that the camera is horizontal or I try mounting the enlarger lens on some fixed extension tubes. I’m still futzing about with this, but in the meantime I have gone back to using the dedicated scanner.
Contact sheets are another fly in my ointment. Back when I had a proper chemical darkroom and the earth was young, the first job in any printing session was to make contact prints from all the recent sets of negatives. I have ringbinders full. I used to sit with my contact sheets and list all the subjects and key words in a card index. I obviously used to have more free time than was good for me. Now I have a large number of negative files and no record of what’s in them. What I have tried doing is to lay the negs out on my lightbox and photograph them. This works reasonably well with a well-behaved film, but some of this stuff is like a bag of playful springs. I could put a sheet of glass over them to hold the strips flat for their portrait, but I don’t have enough hands to hold six strips flat at the same time. I wonder if I can find some strips of glass, 35mm wide, so that I can flatten the strips individually? I feel a bit of duct tape magic coming on. When I had a darkroom I used to have a dedicated contact print maker. It had a set of shallow slots that the edge of the film strip would tuck into. Just deep enough to hold the negs flat but leave the frame numbers visible. It went when I sold the darkroom kit, but I have this idea rattling in my head to recreate it with duct tape. And if it works, I could make one to hold medium format film. So what I need is a couple of pieces of window glass or translucent plastic….
But while Heath Robinson schemes away in the back of my head, I have been photographing the negative sets that are in filing sleeves. These at least can be laid flat on the lightbox and shot in a single take. And what fun I’m having! There’s loads of stuff that I could remember taking, but I’d lost track of. Lots of pictures I knew well, but I’d forgotten exactly which film they were on. This means I can make some better scans than my earlier attempts. There are some portraits of my parents that I had completely forgotten that I had mono versions of. I’ll get some of these scanned for my mum. The useful thing, as with proper paper contact sheets, is that I can work out what I’ve got and skip directly to the negative I want.
The trick now will be to not lose track of my pictures again. What I’m thinking is a version of my old card index. If I put a plain text file in the folder that contains the negative sheet and any developed images, I could describe the negs using a set of key words. Then it should be fairly simple to search across all of the folders. Yes, I could probably use something like Lightroom but I don’t have a copy. I do have a copy of Darktable though, so I might have a play with this to see how well it can do the filing without at the same time eating my remaining hard disk space.
The other thing I need to do is to buy a shed-load of negative filing sheets. When film photography looked like it was dying I started filing negatives as cut strips in paper wallets. These are far less practical than filing sheets for making contact prints, so I might start re-filing from the wallets into proper filing sheets that fit into a ringbinder. I could do this a few at a time and photograph them as I go. Time to go and look at the prices of filing sheets. That feels like a more practical option than trying to build my own film-strip holder. Not as stupid or unsuccessful though, so I’ll need a big roll of gaffer tape as well.