A thing of beauty is a joy for a fortnight

My mum gave me a carrier bag full of old negatives. These were an unknown collection of formats ranging from neat sets still in their Boot’s envelopes to individual bits of film. And the great thing is that they are all still usable. Scratches aside, I can get an image off all of them.

Imagine if my mum had given me the family collection of floppy disks, or Zip drives, or even VHS tapes. The quality would be undimmed (mostly) but could be beyond retrieval. Give it a few more years and both CDs and DVDs will have lost the means to read them. I work in IT and I’m old enough to remember people using 8″ floppy disks. That’s within my working lifetime. Some of the negatives my mum gave me predate me as a person. If you want another example, look at the BBC Domesday project from 1986. Perfectly preserved and, for most people, irretrievable.

As a result, the best long-term storage for text is still paper or film. Good paper can last a century and microfiche is good for around three. If you want to preserve pictures, then the best methods would be to store negatives or prints. How ironic. Amongst the family pictures were some prints. One was of my great-grandfather, in uniform and posing with great granny. A quick zap on a scanner and we found his regiment using the shape of his badge. We didn’t need the scanner, it was just more convenient to put the image up on the screen to do side-by-side comparisons.

So what’s the outcome? Print your pictures. Give copies away so there is more than one. File your negatives (rather than sandpaper them, as some of mine appear to be). Then your pictures stand a chance of being a source of joy and wonder to your descendants rather than marketing opportunities for TwitFace.

Unius fit multis*

* The opposite of e pluribus unum, as any fule kno.

Recently I have become a film tart. Not that I was ever truly monogamous, but I have had – still have- some serious long-term relationships. HP5 and me go way back. It’s never let me down. I have let it down many times, but I am a bad person.

With the rise of mistakenly-moribund film from its beckoning grave, there are suddenly a range of head-turning and slinky alternatives on parade. I have been tempted by the fruit of another. My previous taste for only one has become a curiosity for many. (Yes, still talking about film)

So why the new squeeze? Curiosity. That and the fact that changing just the film can change everything. Why faff about trying to get the Tri-X look or the Ektachrome look in digital, when you can just load a roll and get the real thing? So what types of film am I dallying with?


  • Ilford Pan F. A prize from the Sunny 16 cheap shots challenge. Not sure what to do with this yet.
  • Adox HR-50. Fancied the idea of a very contrasty film that has been pre-flashed to tame it. I might do something with this and the Pan F together.
  • Rollei Retro 80s. I’m going to run this through my IR-converted Agfa camera.
  • Silberra Ultima 160. Just fancied seeing what it was like.
  • Rollei Ortho 25. To try some rugged-effect male portraits.
  • Kodak Colorplus 200. 7 Day Shop had a deal on a pack of 10. This is destined for the underwater cameras.
  • Kosmo Foto 100 in 120 and 35mm. A staple favourite.
  • Fomapan 400 and 100. More of the above.
  • 5302 Release film from the FPP. A blue-sensitive copying film that rates around 1 ISO. May need a tripod.
  • Expired Fujicolour 200.
  • Foma Retropan 320 Soft. Female portraits and maybe a bit of old-looking buildings.
  • Kodak High Definition colour print. Expired.
  • Kodak Proimage 100. As above – to play with.
  • One roll of redscale hand-rolled. To play with.
  • Fay’s quality color print 100. Expired 1999. Actually made by 3M. To be used for something daft.
  • A small reel of lith film, around 8 ISO. Meant to be used for copying negatives to make slides. Worth a play. I might run this against the 5302.
  • Kentmere 400. Because I cannot be untrue.

It might be worth me getting a C41 developing kit. I’ve never done colour before, but I have the expired films to learn on.

Looking at the list though, I realise that once one falls off the straight and narrow, things get rapidly quite curly. To stick with the theme, these films were whispering ‘take me I’m yours’ when perhaps I should have stayed with black coffee in bed.

The colour print film is easy to explain: if I’m taking a film camera underwater then I might as well capture colour. Even though most British water is like swimming in gazpacho and I will be capturing shades of green.

Who knew it could snow underwater?

Now there’s an idea – different colours of the spectrum get absorbed at different rates by water. Red drops off rapidly, but blue penetrates furthest. I wonder what would happen if I shot an orthochromatic black and white film underwater? The low ISO would be a pain, but if I use flash I will be putting back the missing red light. So I could put a blue filter on the flash. This is all getting silly. The whole point of using flash underwater is to reveal the colours – grey things in a grey-green world go street carnival with a lick of strobe. So why try to make the colour separation even worse? Maybe because I’m curious – shooting flowers in UV light reveals how insects see them. I wonder if fish see things through an ortho filter* and what their world looks like? And then I realise that ortho film would ignore the red component of the flash anyway, so it could work… (And this is how daft adventures begin)

Back to Plan A – the colour print is for the fishes, the mono is for land. I can see that I have some fun and games ahead. Come on then film; some fantastic place awaits.

* Yes, they do. That’s why red is a good camouflage colour underwater, as the predatory fish can’t see it.

What’s my name?

If you haven’t done it yet, you will. Your camera, lovingly loaded with 100ISO colour print film, turns out to be 400ISO black and white when you finish the roll and open it. Or not loaded at all. Or you load and shoot the same roll of film twice.

Back before the last ice age, I worked as a chemist. Not the dispensing kind – I was the model for Beaker. I worked in a quality control lab within a manufacturing business, so we were processing multiple large batches of samples every day. One soon learned to label everything. My favourite tool was an ancient fat propelling pencil that took a wax insert that would write on glassware but was water soluble so it was easy to clean off.

The habit carried-over when I switched to working in IT. I did some big office moves and became a label fundamentalist.

Speaking of habits, my grandad used to say that a habit was a good servant but a bad master. He also used to iron his socks, so make of that what you will.

Labelling is a good habit though. But I can’t really write on my cameras and hope to wash it off afterwards. So I use tape.

Yes, my grandad used to buy socks in boxes…

I tried using the paper-based masking tape, but this stuff resists being written on and falls off when you are not looking. So I use electrical tape. My dad was an electrician, so I was brought up on fluff-covered rolls of gooey black PVC tape. That stuff is the opposite of useful for labelling. What I found in my local hardware shop is white electrical tape, which is perfect. The glue doesn’t smear and the tape releases cleanly without leaving a sticky patch. I can write on it with a marker or ballpoint.

So what I do is label every camera that is loaded with the film it contains. When a film is taken out of a camera, the label moves to the film container. If I’m developing it myself, the label then moves to the lid of the tank. If I remove a film part-shot, the label will show how many frames I’ve used.

I am delighted to say that I have not fupped a single duck since I started doing this. But, as I learned in IT, make something idiot-proof and the idiot gets upgraded. I may not mistake my films any more, but I have moved on to greater things and discovered many new and interesting ways to fail.

Go me!

Push me, pull you

Despite the dread, you really have to do little. (See what I did there?)

So, pushing film means underexposing it, or exposing it as though it had a higher ISO, which is the same thing. To compensate we give it more development.

When we pull film we overexpose it then give it less development to compensate.

Why would you bother? Well sometimes pushing the film is the only way to get the picture. The side effect of giving it more development is that the contrast can be increased. This means you can also push the film when you want to deliberately increase the contrast. Ted Vieira shoots 400ISO black and white film at 1600 and loves it.

Similarly, you might pull the film to reduce contrast.

But what does increase or decrease development mean? By how much? Let me consult the notebook of photographic lore.

Clever book

Pushing film
1 stop, increase development time 50%
2 stops, increase development time 80%

Pulling film
1 stop, decrease development time 30%
2 stops, decrease development time 50%

The book of all cleverness also gives a formula to calculate the development time to use if you are pulling film. Take the normal development time and halve it. Take the times increase in exposure (eg 2 stops is 4 times increase, so use the figure 4) and take the reciprocal of this number (so 4 becomes 1/4). Multiply this reciprocal number by the halved value of development time. Add this number to half the normal development time.

So, imagine I pulled the film 1 stop (2x increase in exposure). Normal development time is 10 mins. Half the dev time is 5 mins; multiply by 1/2 = 2.5 mins. Add this to half the dev time of 5 mins and the new development time is 7.5 minutes. The quick reference above says cut development by 30%, so it’s a fairly good match.

Or you could start with a degree in maths. Or you could look up your film and developer combination on the Massive Dev Chart. But it your special brand of madness is not there, try the suggestions above.

But why on earth would you pull film? Well the Zoners will tell you that it is to increase the number of tones captured on the film, so expanding a high-contrast scene to show more of the intermediate tones between black and white. The book of photographic cleverness says that you can match the amount you pull the film to the tonal range of the scene like this:

‘Nomal’ range 125:1 – normal exposure and development.
250:1 – overexpose 1/3 stop, cut development 10%
500:1 – overexpose 1/2 stop, cut development 20%
1000:1 – overexpose 1 stop, cut development 30%
up to 4000:1 – overexpose 2 stops, cut development 50%

Beware though, this leads to the Dark Zone.

What I have come round to is pushing the film so that I can use better cameras settings in poor light, then using Rodinal at 1:100 to do semi-stand development.

The Enid
Even FP4 can be pushed, if it is all you have to hand. This was pushed two stops by the simple +80% development time method.

Very old film

I was given some very old roll film as part of my Emulsive secret santa, for which I am very grateful. It’s 620 size, so the youngest it could be is from 1995. The backing paper tells me that it’s a lot older than that.

film paper

The first roll ran through the camera OK but was very foggy and stained. This filled me with a misplaced confidence that the next roll would work just as well. It seemed to wind-on normally but when I took the exposed roll out of the camera there was a bulge on one side. It looked like a fat roll, not suprising for something this old in a camera with only the most basic attempts to keep the film plane flat. It seemed to load very quickly onto the reel, which I thought little of at the time.

It turns out that the tape holding the leading edge of the film to the backing paper had dried-up and let go. So instead of the film following the backing paper across the image plane pf the camera and around the take-up reel, it caught and started rolling-up behind the lens. At some point it must have caught again, leading to a doubled-over length of film being wound round the reel. It was pretty obvious after development that the film had been folded in half.

old film
Film, folded over and banded where bits of it didn’t touch the developer. Plus the dried-up tape.

I have one roll of 620 film left, a lovely old example of Verichrome Pan. This too could be as recent as 1995, but I doubt it. Knowing what happened with the previous roll I loaded the camera in a dark bag. As feared, the tape holding the leading edge had fallen off. That was easily replaced with a bit of masking tape and the camera seemed to load OK.

The fun started when I tried to load the film into a reel to develop it. The trailing edge of the film – the end that you feed into the reel – was folded over by around 5mm. As soon as I tried to fold it back the film cracked and this strip fell off. This film is definitely older than 1995.

I carried on trying to load the film into the reel but it had a vicious curl from being wound around a thin 620 spool for many years. No problem: wind all of the film off the backing paper and load it from the other end. The film had other ideas. Even when I got the front edge lined-up with the entry point of the tank spiral, it tried to curl into a tube (the ‘cupping’ type curl that films like Tri-X are prone to).

So I need to find a way to get this film to relax. What I have done for now is to curl it around the centre tube in my Paterson tank to see if it will de-tension a bit. If that doesn’t work I may have to resort to soaking it and trying to load it wet into a wet spiral.

I’ll keep you posted…

UPDATE – rolling the film around the central tube of a Paterson tank and leaving it alone for a day worked! The film relaxed enough to be wound onto the reel and developed. Of course, it was so old it was totally fogged. Or fup duck, as we like to say.

The Shambles
Here’s one I prepared earlier

The legend has landed

They say that the way to make the gods laugh is to tell them your plans. But sometimes something weird happens – you have a forlorn hope that will never be realised, and then it drops into your lap. It’s like John Cleese said “it’s not the despair, I can deal with that; it’s the hope”.

But truly, the legend has landed.

What am I on about? I got a Nikonos plus underwater strobe. Not just that, but a range of close-up attachments as well. Having only just said I wasn’t frightened of them any more. So the joke is on me to learn the true meaning of fear. Let’s call it apprehension. This is the justly famous underwater Nikon that was the only serious diving camera for decades. Even James Bond had one. I feel I should fall to my knees and chant “we’re not worthy“.

So what have I got? A Nikonos V with a Sea&Sea strobe, a couple of extension tubes and a supplementary close-up lens. The extension tubes come with the the matching prongs to mark the plane of focus and the field of view. The close-up lens has a couple of prongs but has holes to use four. So I will need to work out if the prongs I am using are meant to mark the frame width or the frame height.

It came from the deep…

For anyone wondering why my camera has prongs, you have to imaging the difficulties of shooting macro underwater. Digital made it so much easier because you can see on the camera screen what you are taking. Back in the bad old days the Nikonos was a viewfinder camera with a manually-focused lens. So you would buy and fit some form of close-up lens or attachment and they usually came with some form of frame to mark the field of view. Rather than look through the camera to frame the shot you would offer-up the frame to the subject and hope not to damage it or scare it away. (Can you see yet why digital won?)

So I need to figure this one out. The first step is to get the camera into a swimming pool (avoiding a public session and the likelihood of arrest) and take some macro shots of a marked surface so that I can check where the point of focus actually falls. And if the camera does leak, it’s better to have it do so in fresh water than salt.

I have printed and laminated an A4 sheet of paper with a focusing line to put the prongs on and a series of lines before and after. With any luck this will be nicely sharp where the focus prongs fall. I have also made the focus sheet double sided. This is because I don’t know if the lens should be set to infinity or the hyperfocal distance for the aperture I’m using. So one side says INF on the focusing mark, the other says HYP. [Update – jumped in the pool at the end of a scuba session and took some pics. No obvious bubbles from the camera and the flash worked. Now to finish the film and develop it.] [Update to update, it worked. The prongs mark the width of the frame.]

Of the two sets of close-up gadgets, the supplementary lens looks easiest to use. As it fits over the front of the lens I can fit or remove it underwater. So if I was photographing seaslugs and a whale shark cruised by, I could pop off the close-up lens and take a fishy portrait. The extension tubes would get in a lot closer, but I’m committed to macro during the dive.

Still, shooting off the remaining film will be fun and a chance to get to know the camera. The standard 35mm lens works in air as well as underwater and it’s no big chore to zone focus the lens. If it was ever necessary I still have a little rangefinder gadget to help me find the actual range.


The shutter sound is very muted – this is a very quiet camera. Not surprising when you feel how thick and heavy the thing is. It’s good for at least 50m, which would be a pressure of around 75psi. Doesn’t sound a lot – don’t lorry tyres run at a higher pressure than this? I remember taking diving a cheap but fashionable watch that said it was waterproof to 200m. And then seeing it gently implode at 20m. This thing is genuinely built like a tank. And 50m is the limit of how deep I could dive on air. Plus it’s dark down there.

The lens on it is Nikon’s 35mm f2.5. From the look of it it’s not the unwanted E series lens but a repackaging of their old rangefinder lens. Makes sense, as it was available at the time and a rangefinder lens can fit much closer to the film – this camera doesn’t have an SLR mirror needing clearance.

It’s all very well having prongs for underwater macro, but on the surface this is a scale-focusing camera. How on earth do you focus it accurately? One way is to zone focus – the lens has a really neat set of depth of field markers that change with the aperture. The other way is to use a rangefinder card like the one in the picture above (You can either calculate one or just measure the distances from an object and mark-up a piece of card).

Having said that and for all my smug cleverness, I measured the distances in feet and set the lens focus using the metres scale. Duh! Still, the ones set to hyperfocal distance worked.

The mighty Nikonos at Wheldrake Woods
Works pretty well on land too

The lens has another neat trick, in that you can mount it on the camera upside-down. This makes it easier to read the settings when you tip the camera backwards to look at the aperture or focus. It does mean that the image on the film is upside down, but it’s no bother to rotate it in the scanner or turn the paper round under the enlarger.*

So I’m pretty happy with it. My dreams have not yet turned to dust, or as they say: ” a thing of beauty is a joy for a fortnight”. The next thing to do will be to load this baby with some colour negative film and take it diving. That might be a while though – we’re at the cold end of the year and probably won’t get into open water again until the Spring. In the meantime I have a tough little camera with a pretty good lens that won’t be hurt by a spot of rain. A bit of a top duck.

* Yes, I know, but it’s funny.

Going Balda

Meet the Balda. It’s a cracking little snapper with a history.

The Baldax was made in Germany through the 1930s. You would imagine it pretty much stayed there. So how come it ended up in the hands of a Japanese soldier in the far east in the 1940s? It came into the possession of my ex father in law (father in outlaw?) who was building bridges for the army at the time in places like Borneo. His telling of it, and I’m afraid I’m hazy on the details, is that it was in a pile of stuff that had been removed from captured prisoners. I do know that he had a strong moral sense and principles and would not have done anything nefarious to obtain the camera. The problem is that I didn’t listen well enough at the time and he’s no longer here to ask.

So he used it on periods of leave in places like Thailand. Then it probably went into a box in the loft for the next forty years, when he gave it to me.

What we have here is a little folding camera around 75 years old that takes 6×4.5 images on 120 roll film. It’s basic zone focusing with a tiny little viewfinder. The body has spots of rust. It works like a charm.



It’s absolutely typical of how cameras worked at the time. The front snaps open when you press a button on the body. The shutter has to be cocked before it can be fired. You have to remember to wind on the film. There are two windows to view the frame numbers through. You wind to the first one, take a picture and then wind to the second window. This would have been because film at the time did not have dedicated frame numbers for 6×4.5 so it worked from the 6×6 ones. This results in the negatives being slightly paired rather than evenly spaced, much like half-frame on 35mm. But the miracle is that this thing has a working shutter and light-tight bellows. I should be so good at that age.


The lens is a modest triplet and focused by moving the front element. Within its limitations it can be pin sharp. The odd thing is that the distance scale is marked in feet. It makes me wonder if he didn’t buy the camera in England and take it with him, and the story was no more than a story.

It even works in the dark

The little pull-out leg on the lens cover means the camera can be stood on its own feet to take long exposure shots.


As seen in the Matrix

While it might not get much use, I would never sell it. Nor would I destroy it. This thing has history.