Film confessions

I have an embarrassing confession to make – I can’t use metal reels to roll film.  I’ve tried until my fingers were sweaty and my frustration level reached an all-time high, but I just can’t do it.  I can limp by with the medium format metal reels because they have more room, but 35 mm is simply impossible.

I’m assuming the film purist are shaking their heads in condemnation about now, and the film free are shaking their heads in confusion.  Let me explain a bit:

Black and white film is basically silver particles scattered all over a long strip of plastic.  In order for the silver particles to show the light-sensitive images you put on it, you have to run it through a series of chemical baths designed to develop and stabilize the image.  Naturally, the chemicals have to actually touch the plastic and the silver to work.

Because 35mm film is pretty darn long and we don’t use 5 feet skinny tanks to develop, you have to roll the film on a reel designed to hold the film apart from itself and allow the chemicals to get to all parts of the film.  If by chance the film touches – plastic to plastic – it keeps all the chemicals out and you lose the images.  Since you’re rolling this stuff in complete darkness, you cannot be certain you did everything right until you finish.  And by then it’s too late to fix mistakes.

It’s not fun.  It’s a nightmare for me.

I have a love/hate relationship with medium format film.  I love the size of the film and the detail you can achieve, but getting it developed is a challenge.  You see, medium format is about 2 inches wide – and like all film, it tries to crinkle and fold.  Especially on the ends.  It curls lengthways and at the ends.  As you can imagine, it has to lie flat to develop properly.  Ugh. 

One of my favorite cameras to use is a Kodak Brownie – it’s so old it has two basic settings: one for sun and one for shade.  It’s designed to hold at waist level and shoots these wonderful square images on – you guessed it – medium format film. 

This image was taken with the brownie.  It’s a night shot, with an exposure of about 10 minutes.  Since the brownie isn’t designed to take long exposures I had to improvise – taping the thing to the tripod head and taping down the shutter button to hold the shutter open.  I had to guess at the exposure times as well – I got lucky with about half the roll and had usable images that, while perhaps a tad boring, showed that the brownie is capable of much more than I thought. 

I’ve had to shelve the brownie because I no longer have access to a darkroom.  Sure, I could develop the film at home with a light safe film bag, but medium format film scanners run about $2K or so.  I don’t love the camera that much.

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