One year ago my sister gifted me her Minolta SRT101b, a fully manual 35mm film SLR (single lens reflex) camera from the 1970s, which our parents had bought for her when she started art college 30 years ago. Up until then I had never considered shooting film. I just perceived it as cumbersome in comparison to the luxuries we’re all spoiled with in the digital era, and figured that if I ever wanted the film “look” I could simply download some presets to apply to my Nikon raw files, or buy a Fujifilm mirrorless camera and use its native film simulations. However, I decided to look up some videos to get an idea of the process and the kind of results to expect with the film stocks currently available. Being quite a nostalgic person I quickly became romanticised by the idea of shooting with old gear, with an old medium, the old school way (albeit without the processing, which I don’t have the space or time for). Furthermore, the thought of my late father egging me on from above to have a go of the camera he bought all those years ago was undoubtedly a deal-maker.
I had to immediately send the Minolta was away for a repair and service (it hadn’t been used for a couple of decades at least), and so in the meantime I began digesting as many hints and tips as possible from the photographer’s bible (YouTube, obviously). Meanwhile, my mother got in touch saying she wanted to treat me to some film to get me started, and so I chose Ilford HP5 (black and white) and Kodak Portra 160 (colour negative). When the camera returned a few weeks later I was already armed with information on how to actually operate the camera, and also with a starting point for how to meter the film, so it was time to get started.
Film Stocks and Results
I have shot 5 different film stocks during the last year: Kodak Portra 160 (6 rolls), Kodak Ektar 100 (2 rolls), Fuji Provia 100F (1 roll) Kodak Colour Plus 200 (1 roll), Kodak Gold 200 (1 roll) and Ilford HP5+ 400 (2 rolls). Below are some results and a brief account of what I have learned in the last year. Please bear in mind that these are my personal experiences with film, and are not intended to be instructional (I’m not there yet).
(i) Kodak Portra 160
As you can probably tell from the number of rolls shot, Kodak Portra 160 has quickly become my favourite film (so far). I adore its muted colour palette, dynamic range and soft contrast, and overall old school look. Regarding colours, the biggest surprise was how beautifully the film renders cyan tones in skies (I normally don’t like cyan skies in my digital images – instead preferring magenta hues within the blues). I definitely prefer Portra overexposed by 0.67-1.67 stops, as this tends to better expose the shadows while making little to no difference to the highlights. The first two thirds of a stop is achieved by routinely rating the film at ISO100 instead of the box speed of 160, and if I decide to further expose I’ll just add a stop above the light meter reading.
Naturally, my biggest fear is now whether Portra will continue being manufactured in the future. The future of film is always an uncertain one, and 2021 saw the discontinuation of Portra’s main competitor, Fuji Pro 400H, and I’m just praying that Portra doesn’t go the same way. It’s a beautiful film that I believe will be my go-to (along with the 400 speed version) for years to come.
(ii) Kodak Ektar 100
Ektar 100 is a much more saturated and slightly more contrasty film than Portra, and has been referred to as the slide film for those who don’t want the hassle of shooting slide film. I’d heard about this before shooting it, but what really surprised me was the fineness of the grain and the sharpness. You basically can’t see the grain unless you zoom in by a pointless amount, and the level of detail it resolves is shockingly impressive. It really is a beautiful film if you have the right subject matter. It’s definitely not as versatile as Portra because (a) the colour saturation can be a bit much (subjective, of course) for some applications, (b) it’s definitely not best suited to portraiture, for which Portra is specifically designed and excels at, and (c) while dynamic range is good (colour negative films all have good latitude), it’s no match for Portra. Nevertheless, I will most certainly continue to use it for specific applications, such as sunsets, landscapes and flowers, and it’ll most certainly get a run-out during autumn this year.
(iii) Ilford HP5+ 400
I’m sorry to say I wasn’t very fond of this film. Even at box speed, the grain was a bit excessive for every day black and white photography for my taste, and it seemed woefully low on contrast. Of course, film can be shot at faster speeds and push processed to enhance contrast, but this will also exacerbate the grain that I’m trying to tame. In hindsight, I think Kodak T-Max or Ilford Delta may be better options for the look I’m after as they are finer-grained and effortlessly contrasty. I may save my remaining rolls of HP5 for when I want to do some really grungy photos, and for this purpose I’ll probably push it to ISO 3200 or 6400.
(iv) Fuji Provia 100F
My first roll of Provia was a learning experience to say the least. After spending hour upon hour on Instagram and Flickr mesmerised by this stunning colour reversal film, I had dreamt of using it and getting the look I had been drooling over. Like all slide films, it has far less dynamic range than colour negative and black and white film, and is therefore much more difficult to meter, and you have to choose your compositions/conditions wisely in order not to stretch the contrast range too far and risk clipping the shadows or highlights.
I exposed about 70% of the shots correctly by using a spot meter app on my phone and ensuring the highlights (the brightest areas in which I wanted to retain detail) were exposed no more than 2 stops above middle grey (zone 7 on the zonal metering scale). However, I don’t think the conditions in which I shot it brought the best out of the film – the light just didn’t flatter it. Better results were achieved during a portrait shoot I did at Aberavon Beach where the bright sun was ever so slightly diffused by thin, high altitude cloud. In these conditions the film really shone, and despite being a saturated film it rendered skin tones absolutely beautifully (for which it is renowned). It is also a very sharp, very fine grained film, and the thought of how much detail it could resolve on a medium format system is a very exciting prospect. One problem – it’s expensive! At just under £20 per roll and a further £25 to have it processed and scanned, this is not a film I’ll be able to shoot routinely, and will need special planning.
While I have also shot rolls of Kodak Colour Plus and Kodak Gold I haven’t yet sent these rolls off for processing, but I’m eager to see the results as these are both significantly cheaper than Kodak’s professional colour negatives. Having inexpensive but quality options is probably a wise thing for me to investigate, given that I’m not exactly a rich man and from day one have been doing photography on a tight budget with a lot of help from my nearest and dearest (thank you!!).
Film in the Future
I’m now hopelessly hooked on film, and it’s made me think about how to carry it forward into 2022. I’m obviously still very much a fledgling who is still finding his feet, and so there may not be much in the way of big leaps. I have, however, dedicated several upcoming projects to film, which I hope will take me on a journey of nostalgia as I document remainders of the past, and attempt to re-create echoes of my memories of childhood which will hopefully resonate strongly with those looking at my galleries.
I also have my heart set on an upgrade to a medium format film camera, partly for the increased resolution but also for the look. Originally I had hoped for a 6×7 format, but cameras such as the Pentax 67 and Mamiya RZ67 and their lens systems are way too pricey for my budget. My mind has now rested on a 6×6 Mamiya twin lens reflex (TLR) (maybe a C220), which can be picked up with a lens for about £400. Mamiya TLRs are unique in that they are interchangeable lens cameras (most TLRs are fixed lens), which will give future options for different focal lengths. This likely isn’t a realistic purchase for 2022 as there are other items for my digital system that I have to prioritize. Besides, a further year developing my skills on 35mm will do no harm whatsoever, especially on the Minolta which I’ve absolutely adored since day one. Look out for the imminent expansion of my film gallery and projects pages on my website.
Thanks for reading,
David C. Ellinsworth Ph.D.