Back in the Bellows, Too!

Over the past year or so I have reacquired some large format film equipment. But I don’t know why!

I am not at all disenchanted with digital tools, especially since I have been able to wrestle the inkjet print into submission on my terms and have pinned photogravure to the mat, at last.

Part of it had to do, at least this is what I told myself, with my experiments with 19th Century chemical print processes. I felt I needed to be able to make some negatives for some of those experiments.

Part of it too, was the siren call of all that dirt cheap large format equipment for sale on eBay that they couldn’t seem to even give away.

So I bought a couple of monorails, old Calumets, and a couple or three lenses and set up a small darkroom, for film processing only.  That was very satisfying because I set it up to use equipment and processes I had invented myself. Open-ended tube processing in trays and my pride and joy, SLIMTs!! (Selective Latent Image Manipulation Techniques). This allowed me to feel less like the inventor of the buggy whip, since I would be using them again, even if no one else was. (They are actually still in use around the world, or so people tell me, from time to time.)

Then last spring an older couple was in the gallery and the conversation turned to equipment and process. When talking about photogravure I mentioned how hard it was to find decently priced large darkroom trays needed for preparing paper for photogravure. It turned out he had some and a bunch of other equipment that he ended up offering to give to me. Probably the fastest I ever said “yes” in my life!

So in addition to what I had already acquired, I became the happy recipient of 8×10, 5×7 and more (and better) 4×5 equipment, in addition to the trays and some other nice and timely tools. I am now better equipped with film cameras than I was way back when and I no longer have to stare wistfully at my Epson V700 scanner (the only smart purchase I made when starting the switch to digital), wondering why I have it. I have it to scan all the new negatives I am making for reasons still unknown to me.

But, I STILL don’t know exactly why I have this hardware or what I am going to do with it.

I have been using it. The 8×10 for some portraits of local colorful residents. The 4×5 and 5×7 for some images of the unusual buildings here in Bisbee, but nothing that I could unequivocally state is better done with film. Having camera movements again certainly makes the building photographs easier, but many of those problems can be resolved with a shift lens on the digital camera, and I seldom photograph buildings anyway.

So, I am adding film back into the mix without really knowing why. I can’t wait to find out!

An addendum: 8×10 B&W sheet film from Kodak is $8, per. Ilford film is half that. X-Ray film, depending on which variety you use is $1 per sheet or less, and works extremely well as a continuous tone film, if you use a SLIMT (see above). And if you dial back the latent image bleaching, it behaves quite similarly to what I used to call Zone System Expansion Film, Kodak’s Professional Copy Film Type 4125; a film I very much lamented losing.

11 thoughts on “Back in the Bellows, Too!”

  1. Back in the saddle!! Great to hear your re-engaging with film. I’ve learned so much from your old monographs… thanks again for keeping them available over the years.

  2. “I am adding film back into the mix without really knowing why. I can’t wait to find out!”

    While it may just be something on the order of comfort food, it’s also possible that film isn’t finished with you yet. Perhaps it still has more to teach you. Certainly an interesting intersection of events that led you back to traditional large format photography. I’m not a believer in destiny, but do think we subliminally gravitate to the things that allow our best talents to be revealed.

    1. I like the “comfort food” concept. It does feel good to use film again even if there is no substantial benefit; yet. I do have a history though of acquiring things before I know why. Have done it often enough now that I don’t fret it any more and just go with the flow. I have become a firm believer in the benefits of digital and analog tools working together to produce something not possible with either alone. I am convinced we are going to see a lot more of that and maybe that is what film is going to do for me.

  3. For me film is an inexpensive way to have tilt shift lenses and allow me to, for now, avoid a lot of expensive, quickly depreciating computer equipment. But, I like contact prints for alt process. I also like bellows LF cameras as just plain cool objects themselves. A LF camera is a simple enough device they can be made and modified and repaired at home, particularly if you work in ways that don’t require shutters. Since you are just getting back into this, you might not have heard of all the good work people are doing with Xray films—they have a very different look being blue (wet plate like) or orthochromatic (not pan) sensitive films. LF also is a lot easier to work with if you make your own picture taking emulsions (something on my someday list).

    1. Mark,
      I’m using X-ray film exclusively for my 8×10 and as a replacement for Kodak’s Type 4125 in all three formats. The one I am using is a Kodak film that is orthochromatic and coated on only one side so it behaves itself very well and is really just as easy to use as any moderately high contrast film. Just a little contraction with a SLIMT and it gets right in line.

  4. Glad you have found them useful. I need to update them and correct the typos that have crept into them over the years. Lazy about it, I admit.
    With all the hype over recent renewed interest in film (still trying to judge whether it is real or mostly wishful thinking), I have been wondering if I should consider giving Zone System workshops again. So much new/modified/simplified information it seems a shame to let it all just disappear into the ether and allow the sea of misinformation to remain unchallenged.

  5. I scan all negatives (800 dpi) and treat this step as my contact print. This lets me view photos on many devices at anytime (lunch time at work) so i can tag those i would like to print. Since i am relativtely new to film photography, Maybe i should be making these decisions with contact sheet and loupe, i am not sure.

    1. Mark, since my return to film I am no longer making contact sheets. But that is because I know I will be scanning them and not making conventional silver-gelatin prints. I will either make digital prints, or photogravures via a positive or alternative technique prints via a digital negative.
      I always scan at maximum hardware resolution and a print size one size larger than I expect ever to make. That way I will never have a scan that has to be redone because of size or resolution.
      What size film and which scanner are you using?

      1. David,
        I am scanning 35mm in regular and panoramic sizes as well as 6×6. My scanner is the V700 using the epson software and simple plastic guides that came with it. The panoramic negs are a bit of work because i must select the first image and then copy and paste that same box to each image since there is no preset for panoramic. I find that 800 dpi takes a while to do 36 images. I can’t imagine maxing out the settings!

        1. Mark. I have the V700, too. It is great for large and medium format negatives but falls down badly with 35 mm. The only serious work I did in 35mm was during the summer of 1980. Those negatives were all severely damaged by dated developer and so sat in my files for 30+ years before I could do anything with them. Photoshop saved them, but I had to buy a dedicated 35mm scanner to get decent scans out of them. I bought a Plustek scanner, scanned all the negatives I need to, then sold the scanner on eBay. I think the two months of use I got out of it cost me $50. Well worth it. The Plustek scans were a full order of magnitude better than the V700.
          To save time scanning, edit your negatives first, then scan only the worthwhile ones.
          Also, if no one has mentioned this to you yet, turn off all the bells and whistles for the scanner software and make only unaltered scans at the highest resolution possible. Think of the scanner as a clumsy digital camera, which is exactly what it is. Turning off the bells and whistles gives you sort of a RAW file, similar to what you would get if you shot only RAW images with your digital camera. Any and all tweaking that the scanner software could do to your image can be done better in Photoshop AND is reversible/modifiable if done in Photoshop.
          As for panoramic 35mm negatives, I am stumped! Would have to come up with a workaround for those. Maybe scan each half separately and stitch them together in Photoshop.
          The 6×6 negatives should do just fine in the V700.

          1. Thanks for the tips, David. I don’t trust my negative previewing skills yet, so i scan them all. There’s always a picture i think may be salvagable, but my photoshop skills are better than my printing skills at the moment. I will try scanning with all presets off.

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