What is light, anyway?

I expect that better writers and philosophers than me have explored what it is that photography teaches us about perception. Certainly it is teaching me that light is not perception. First of all, with black and white film, I had to reconcile the difference between what I was seeing with my eyes when taking pictures, and what actually came out in the negatives. It’s hard to recognise how much levels of light really vary in the real world when just looking at things – eyes, after all, are very well suited to looking at things in all levels of light where there is any at all, and also many different levels of illumination in the same scene.

For instance, I am currently indoors in a not terribly well lit bar, but I can easily see everything around me. If I concentrate, I can tell that I have a lower depth of field here than I would in daytime, and that my eyes have to adjust slightly to see things at different distances. But I have to concentrate to notice that. There is probably 1/1000th of the light in here now than there would be outside in full daytime, but that doesn’t matter to me in practice, except if I am taking photographs, when it suddenly matters a great deal.

There is also the issue of colour. Most of the light here is very yellowish, but I adjust for that pretty well – I instinctively know that the menu by the candle is white, not yellow, and that the plant on the other side has green leaves. When there is more light and the difference is more subtle I barely notice the ambient colours. On the other hand, here are two versions of the same shot taken on Elite Chrome 100 in downtown LA recently.

Note that this is slide film, so there aren’t any of the odd issues regarding colour correction that you get with colour negatives. But the uncorrected picture looks very blue. I googled to see whether this was a known issue with the film (several others from LA at the same time have the same) and saw some people saying “yes, shadows are blue with Elite Chrome” but then also others saying “but shadows are blue in natural light – they’re lit by ambient light from the blue sky, not from the sun”. From my memory, the second picture is closer to what I remember, but look at how the white balance correction in the second picture also removes a lot of the blue from the sky, which really have should stayed. And, you know, it was pretty monochrome in the shadows. Perhaps it did look like that and I’m misremembering?

What helps me get past this sort of rumination is remembering that the point of taking photographs is to produce a good picture. Maybe the camera and film will capture colours and light in a way that won’t correspond to what I remember seeing, but that’s okay – what matters is knowing how they will capture the scene given the settings I choose, what sort of results I want, and matching the two together.

More film experiments – C41 colour in B&W chemicals

Yesterday I developed some cheap ISO200 Agfa colour film from Poundland – unsurprisingly, £1 a roll – in B&W chemicals. I’d heard that this was possible, but reported results varied from “it’s fine but negatives are really dark” to “it’s all grainy and horrible and negatives are really dark”, and detailed instructions were a bit limited.

The summary of my report is that (a) it looks fine, the results are actually surprisingly sharp (b) negatives are really dark due to the orange layer on the film which does… something… but you can compensate for this when scanning (c) it turns the developer orange as well so best not to re-use it.

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Experiments with stand development

I have occasionally heard about “stand development”, which appeared to be, instead of using a concentrated solution of film developer for a short period of time (agitating frequently), using a diluted solution of a film developer and letting it sit there for a long period of time. Well, I have absolutely no problem with letting chemicals sit on a shelf rather than having to pay attention to them. Really, I am extremely relaxed on that point. So I decided to try this process. I have a lot of Ilfotec LC29; I made up c. 500ml of a solution at 1 parts developer to 100 parts water (1+100) and immersed a roll of 120 Fomapan 400 film in it for an hour. Initially I gave it 30 seconds of agitation, and, after half an hour, another 30 seconds. After the hour was up, the usual stop bath and fixer for four minutes.

The results seem quite reasonable. Shots in bright light have not come out that brilliantly, but that is a problem generally with Fomapan 400 in my experience (also, perhaps, how I expose it). In mixed light, they have come out well. The grain isn’t any more than I’d expect from normal development. And: it used 5ml of developer, and also gave me the time to cook dinner while it was going. I think I may do this again – mixing up more concentrated solutions is faster and allows for re-use of the mix, but I rarely want to develop that many rolls in a short time. I’m not sure how useful it would be for pushing.

Blurry Trip – the fix

I decided that there was no point not trying to fix my Trip 35 with the focussing problem, but knowing that I don’t have the best record when it comes to disassembling cameras, I also decided to use the least invasive method possible. Here, for the record, is what I did.


  • Very small jeweller’s screwdriver, flat head
  • One roll of film – in this case, some old HP5+ 400 that I had
  • A tape measure
  • Small tripod and cable release (you may not need either as long as you can keep the camera in the same place reliably)
  • A newspaper or other detailed object, to focus on

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Blurry Trip – maybe it is the focus after all

I did take a test roll with the Trip to test the focussing, and it looks like I may have been wrong about the speed and camera shake. This is good in that it means I am not a useless trembling photographer, but bad in that it means that there is probably something wrong with the camera.

I took pictures of a walkway outside my flat using the four different zones, being quite careful to hold it properly. The four settings seem in practice to correspond to:

  1. Fairly close things in focus (this should be 1m)
  2. Things further away in focus (this should be 1.5m)
  3. Everything out of focus (should be 3m – this is the recommended zone for the Trip, I expect it has the most useful depth of field)
  4. Everything even more out of focus (should be infinity). Zones 3 and 4 are actually worse for distant objects than zone 2.

This is not what the distance says, and was confirmed in other pictures, which means it looks like it needs adjustment in some way. I am quite confident in my ability to take cameras apart, but I am not very confident in my ability to put them back together again. Trips are so cheap, though, that it barely seems worth it to send it off to somebody to get it fixed – the cost would be about the same as a fully refurbished one from, say, Trip Man. Plus I really need to spend less on cameras.

Adjusting the focus seems to involve opening the front and top, jamming the shutter open and then turning the lens to focus on an object at a known distance, using a piece of tape or ground glass on the film rail. Or I’ve seen people referring to using other cameras as collimators, though that looks more confusing to me. I suppose I might as well try to do this myself, given that the alternative is a camera that looks nice but doesn’t work. Everything else about it seems to be fine.

A Blurry Trip

I’ve been looking at the results of a couple of test rolls that I put through the Olympus Trip 35. The exposures are all fine, but they are annoyingly inconsistent – some are very blurry, and some are quite nice and sharp. At first I thought that perhaps the focussing was stuck on a particular zone, but that doesn’t work because I have pretty sharp photos at a few different ranges.

Not too bad

Now these aren’t great at all

I am thinking that it may be camera shake. Blur does tend to correspond to pictures where I remember not taking much care. The Trip has a relatively simple program auto-exposure system that mostly alters the aperture for low light, but which also switches the exposure from 1/200 to 1/40 when it feels like it. I found a graph which indicates that it goes down to 1/40 at EV13, which in theory with 400 film should be relatively dark, but, you know, this is London. 1/40 is fine for digital cameras with image stabilisation but without that, you have to be quite careful. I rarely go below 1/125 with other cameras, and am sure to keep myself still when I do.

Of course, it might be something else. I should try another roll, being more careful to keep myself as still as possible, which is always good practice anyway. Some people can keep handheld cameras rock steady for up to half a second, and if you’re that good it means that with image stabilisation you could take huge long exposures with a digital.

I hope that I can make my peace with the Trip, because apart from this issue it’s really a lovely camera to use on the street – really comfortable and natural. Not too big, not too small, everything in the right place. Perhaps it’s too comfortable, and I’m half forgetting it’s there, as opposed to using something like a TLR which constantly reminds you that it is a camera and you should be paying attention to it.

Things I wish I had known about black and white developing

These are of course just In My Experience, but I like to think they’re at least close to correct.

  • You can re-use developer. It may say on the bottle “always mix fresh each time” but this is for absolute best results. You can keep the mixed developer in a sealed bottle (I use squeezy ones that you can push the air out of after filling) and use it for several rolls – it doesn’t get “used up” as such.

  • You can’t re-use developer indefinitely, though. After a while, even in sealed bottles with only a tiny amount of air in, it goes off and you get horrible grainy negatives. Even if you’re just snapping aimlessly with a Holga, this is not what you want. Seeing as how you can only develop your negatives once and then you’re stuck, and developer is not all that expensive, with my Ilfosol 3 and LC29 I think a week or maybe two is enough before throwing it away and mixing some fresh stuff.

    So, the rule I follow is: mix new developer if (a) you can’t remember when you mixed the old stuff or it’s a week or more, or (b) you’re developing a really important roll.

  • Fixer and stop will last for ages, pretty much indefinitely. Some people don’t use stop at all, just water or citric acid or vinegar or something else acidic. I’ve not tried this.

  • A final wash with a few drops of washing-up liquid stops drying marks. (I believe Americans call this “dish soap”.) I’ve messed about with wetting agents in different concentrations, but I always get drying marks with the Ilford one, at least. A few drops of washing-up liquid in about 500ml of water, four agitations, leave for a bit, then pour out and shake off, leaves me with no drying marks. However, it is important not to wipe this off between your fingers when trying to remove excess bubbles… do this very gently, if at all.

  • The process is quite forgiving of times and temperatures. The fact that times are all in multiples of 30s should indicate that these are not measurements that are absolutely precise to the second. Similarly, if the temperature is slightly off, I wouldn’t worry too much. It’s not worth watching every tick of the timer so as not to leave it for a moment too long, or using hot and cold water baths to get the developer to precisely 20C. Just don’t make vast mistakes. Which leads to:

  • The whole thing is generally very easy. It’s surprisingly hard to really mess it up. The only times when I have ruined negatives have been when I:

    1. Completely got the times wrong, say four minutes instead of six;
    2. Used horrible old developer;
    3. Bent the film horribly when loading it onto the reel (and this doesn’t completely ruin it, just adds some odd lines to a few pictures).

    You are much more likely to mess up taking the pictures in the first place, underexposing, opening the back by mistake, leaving the lens cap on etc etc.

  • Lastly, it can be fun but not always. Sometimes I enjoy the process of developing film. I set the timers, pour out the liquids and listen to Radio 41 while I am standing around in the bathroom shaking things occasionally. At other times I just can’t be bothered and let half a dozen undeveloped films build up in the sealed bag in the fridge. Initially, the whole magic of taking a piece of magic plastic and making pictures appear on it entranced me, but after over a hundred rolls the novelty sometimes fades. So it is best not to assume that you will always have the energy, even if, overall, you enjoy it, which I do.

  1. Of course this depends what is on. Gardener’s Question Time makes this less fun. 

Pictures from the Easter city – Lubitel 2, Rollei Retro 80S

I got a roll of 120 Rollei Retro 80S a while ago and decided, on Friday, that it was sunny enough to try it out – so I loaded it into my Lubitel 2, went out to where the City meets the East End, and wandered about in the Easter Bank Holiday emptiness.

The above were scanned at 2400 DPI, which provides images that are about 27 megapixels, and even then there’s very little grain visible. I don’t think there’s a lot of point in scanning at much higher resolution given the lens, but that’s quite impressive performance. (For the record, the roll was pre-soaked for a bit, then developed in fresh Ilfotec LC29 at 1+19 dilution for 5 minutes, then fixed for 3 in Ilford Rapid Fixer.) This is the first of the Rollei Retro series of films that I’ve tried but it’s a good start. It isn’t vastly expensive, either, and even comes in a nice canister rather than a crushable card box.

I also decided to try using the Sunny 16 rule with it, setting the shutter speed to 1/60 and then altering the aperture, which worked… reasonably, I suppose. I always seem to err on the side of underexposing at the moment which is the wrong way to err. Thank god for curve editing. I’ll get it eventually.

Recording photo details with an Olympus VN-510

I have problems with film cameras. For a start, I don’t know when I’ve taken each picture, and I have to guess in order to set the date properly after I scan them, which works sometimes if there is a short gap between taking and scanning and my memory holds up, but often one or other of these isn’t the case.

I also don’t know where I’ve taken them, which isn’t as much of a problem, since you can see things in pictures and work it out that way. But just some random church or gas meter or generic shopping street or bridge, how am I meant to tell? And I often don’t remember.

Finally, I can’t tell what I set the aperture and exposure to, and that is perhaps most important, because without it, it is hard to learn from my mistakes. I am slowly learning how these things work but if, when I am later looking at the scans, I think “this one is a bit overexposed” or “I like how the depth of field worked there”, it makes the learning process so much simpler if I can say “ah yes that was at f55 with a 1/33 exposure”. Also, if I try some sort of trick, I need to remember what trick I’ve tried between trickery and trick results. All this will get much worse when I start using filters, too.

I do try to write details down in my pocket pad (a Rhodia No. 12, incidentally – pen varies) but I end up not doing so because it’s a pain.

  1. Fumble in pocket or bag for pad and pen. Realise that I am looking in the wrong pocket or bag. Look in other pockets and bags until pad and pen are found.
  2. (optional) Swear at pen because cap has come off it. Locate cap. Get ink on hands.
  3. Realise that I will have to put camera down or away somehow, as I will need two hands. Wonder where lens cap is.
  4. Awkwardly scribble a few illegible words and numbers in pad.
  5. Fumble to cap pen and put pad and pen away in pocket or bag – usually in a different and more “logical”/”convenient” place.
  6. Take camera out again and wonder where lens cap has gone.

I like pens and paper but they aren’t great everywhere. I could theoretically take notes directly into the database that I use to store details of each film roll on my iPhone, but the process for that would similar to the above with added “unlock phone” and “wait for app to launch” elements.

Then I saw a post by somebody on the Filmwasters forum where they mentioned using a voice recorder, and thought “that’s an excellent idea, why don’t I try that?” I considered using the voice memo app on my phone, but realised that that would be almost as annoying as typing on it, so I looked for a cheap voice recorder that I could easily talk into and operate easily with one hand.

The above, the Olympus VN-510, is the cheapest one that Argos have in stock, at £30. It takes 2xAAA batteries, and has a recording memory of over 53 hours – I suspect that will be enough. It’s about the size of one of those remote controls you use to advance Powerpoint slides, and very light, and extremely quick and simple to use. It doesn’t have voice activation (the latter despite what Argos claim) or sync with a computer – I considered getting a more expensive one which did do the latter, but realised that I wasn’t going to use this to make audio recordings that I wanted to keep, and if for some reason I ever did I could just plug it into the mic socket on my machine, set it playing and record directly, as I’ve done with Minidiscs in the past. I could get ten rolls of film for the extra price of the syncing ones.

There’s a little slider on the left side to lock and unlock it, and once it’s unlocked, all you do to take a note is press REC, talk into the top, press REC again to pause it, and when you’re done press STOP, and it’s saved as a new file. Importantly, it timestamps the recordings, so no looking at a watch required. (No GPS though. That would be unlikely for £30.) You can then move between the individual files, listen to them – at slow, normal or fast speed – and delete them when you’re done. I’m not sure how many individual files it will store, but given that there are only two digits on the file number indicator, I’d guess 99. As with the 53 hour recording time, I doubt I’ll ever need anywhere close to that.

I haven’t used it extensively, but taking a walk around the area with a camera this evening, I found it very convenient for not only taking notes of where I was and what I was thinking when taking shots, but also for just taking notes of random things that were happening (odd statements made by drunk man at cashpoint, processions of young drunk people in Guinness hats and so on). You can’t easily stop in the street and write this stuff down.

So now I have another “inbox” in the GTD sense, to fill up with crap that I have to transcribe and turn into actions and so on. Great. But it does fill a gap that I had, and hopefully it will accelerate the learning process and pay for itself from less wasted film and better results.

Olympus XA1 samples

I have three examples from the Olympus XA(n) series – an XA, an XA1 and an XA2. The XA1 is pretty much ignored by “serious photographers” apparently – it doesn’t have the nice electronic shutter (being completely battery-free) and has absolutely no focussing controls at all, just automatic exposure.

There is something about this that makes it an excellent street photo camera. Here are some pictures from a recent roll that I took, using Fomapan 100 (I’m now very fond of Fomapan film but that’s a separate issue). Yes, it has fixed focus, but at just the distance that you would actually want to focus when taking snapshots on the street. These Olympus people weren’t stupid. Plus, do note that you can get an XA1 for about a fiver on eBay.