Film: when ‘analogue’ becomes digital

A pinhole project in the making that prompts a question about digitising images made on film.

With a break over the festive season from the routine of work, I’ve had the chance to get stuck in to a photographic project or two (or three, or …).

Inspired by a photograph I saw some years ago in a book about pinhole photography and continuing from my last blog post, I made a body-cap pinhole to mount on a 35mm SLR, loaded the camera with a roll of Kentmere 400 film and took it for a walk through the woods. The pinhole was about 0.17mm diameter and mounted 50mm from the film plane, giving an aperture of about f/290. In the late afternoon winter light my exposure times for the 400ISO film ranged from about 20 seconds to over a minute.

My aim was to make images of the landscape as I passed through it, handholding the camera as steadily as I could in front of me with the shutter open on the ‘B’ setting, counting out the exposures in time with my footsteps. As with all things pinhole, this would be a serendipitous adventure into light, time and landscape.

With the first film exposed and developed (yes, I’ve been out again, repeating the exercise having learned lessons from the first) I had a choice to make. Would I scan the negatives, edit them and be done with viewing them on my computer screen, perhaps having prints made from the now digital files, or would I attempt to print them ‘old school’ in the darkroom? The negatives were all similar in being of limited tonal range with little discernible detail. It could be difficult to make anything of them either way.

I decided to do both! First, I scanned them then cleaned up dust marks and stretched the histogram in levels by setting black and white points. Images were obtained, albeit rather grainy and a bit harsh looking, that met my expectations and with which I was quite pleased.

Knowing that images were there to be seen, I picked a dozen or so frames, set up my darkroom and disappeared for a rather marathon printing session! My main challenge would be to get contrast into the prints from the very flat, mid-range negatives. Using split-grade printing I determined a base exposure with a grade 5 filter for the darks and grade 1 or 2 filters for the lights. The resulting prints were pleasing enough to be going on with, enough for me to see an ongoing project to develop as time allows.

What I found interesting was the comparison between scanned negatives, adjusted on-screen images from the scans, and darkroom prints made from the negatives. Here are three images all originating from the same frame:

unedited scan of the negative (inverted)
the negative edited with black and white points set in levels
unedited scan of a darkroom print made from the negative

There’s always a wee voice at the back of my mind when scanning negatives that questions why I didn’t just use a digital camera – after all, once scanned I’m working with a digital file! It takes longer to make a darkroom print but the soothing red glow of a safelight is so much kinder on the eyes than the glare of a backlit computer screen and the end product in this example is more in keeping with the gentler, mysterious image that I had in mind when I set out with the camera. The digital version seems harsher, more contrasty, perhaps better defined if that’s what the viewer wants or expects and is certainly more reproducible, but the darkroom print has the feel of something crafted and unique – and to my mind it looks so much better too!

I guess both routes to an image have their place and of course the final irony is that to share the darkroom print here, I have to scan it and upload a digital file!

Pinhole time travel

Pinhole photography has for me been most satisfying and most successful when the resulting image represents the passage of time in a manner that is not immediately visible to the eye: Shapes and textures formed by water flowing in a river, by vegetation blown in the wind, by clouds moving across an open sky. It is the motion in subjects such as these, recorded over necessarily long exposure times that produce the otherwise unseen images in which I find another world to contemplate.

To achieve the images I seek, the camera is usually mounted on a stationary support such as a tripod for the duration of the exposure. I have occasionally experimented with handheld pinhole photography with mixed results but rarely as interesting as I have seen from other pinholers. It’s a direction I’d like to take further at some time, just not now!

Some time ago while reading Eric Renner’s book Pinhole Photography, I was intrigued by examples of images created within a moving van (the van was the camera) over distances of some 100 or so kilometres, and of images made with a camera attached to the wheelhouse of a boat as it pulled away from the quayside. Dreamily abstract images that brought time and distance together in a new way. I have often wondered how I might use a pinhole camera similarly … and so last weekend it came to pass!

For my experiment I chose the camera I made for Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day back in 2014. Constructed from foamcore and with a sliding shutter it takes media 5″ x 3″. Using Velcro ties I mounted it upside down to the passenger-side sun visor of my car such that it did not obsruct my view of the road when driving and that I could open and close the shutter easily and without taking my gaze from the road ahead. There was sufficient friction in the shutter to hold it open unaided.

For paper negatives I cut a few sheets of Ilford MGIV RC Satin to size, packed a changing bag and separate boxes for unexposed and exposed paper and set off on a short road trip. The light was such that I reckoned on exposures around six minutes each and my route would take in undulating, twisty rural roads, two bridge crossings and motorway. After each exposure I found a place to stop and fumble in the changing bag to swap out exposed paper for unexposed.

Although these are my first attempts and I can see things I would try to improve on, I’m happy with the images: happy to have made them and happy to contemplate what they tell me about my time and its relationship with the time and space of my subject. My original intention was to post these with an explanation of what and where each is, even with some ‘proper’ dashcam images but after much thought I have removed it all, even titles to the images as I feel that such information is irrelevant and a distraction from what the images have to say.

Down by the riverside

Last weekend I made the best of good winter light and time to spare for clambering up and down the rather slippery bank of the River Avon.

My cameras were almost ancillary to the restful experience that comes from the concentrated effort to find viewpoints and to set up for an exposure yet it is they and the images that ensue that give purpose to the solitary expedition. Here are a couple of memories from my day:

Shoebox pincam, Ilford MGIV RC Satin paper negative contact printed onto MGIV RC Satin

Intrepid 5×4, Rodenstock Sironar-N 150mm lens, Harman Direct Positive Paper