Film photography - My journey back to the beginning.

Voigtländer Vitoret. Ilford HP5 Plus 400. Developing chemicals from Ilford. Developing tools from Paterson.

Voigtländer Vitoret. Ilford HP5 Plus 400. Developing chemicals from Ilford. Developing tools from Paterson.

A new revolution

It was the early 2000’s and a 21 year old me had just bought his first flat in Edinburgh. A tiny one bedroom shoe box in Fountainbridge, a part of the city that at that time was seeing out its last remaining years as an industrial area. Walking to work everyday I would pass by wastelands left behind by the departing brewing industry that would seemingly be transformed in a matter of weeks into shiny new glass and steel office blocks. At that time New Labour were in, the financial crisis hadn’t yet happened and times were good, lending and spending were high. All across the city change was happening as the old facade was stripped away in favour of the sleek and the new. In that change was the opportunity for great images and so I cobbled together some money and badgered my then girlfriend to go in with me on the rest to buy a digital camera and a laptop. Digital photography was beginning its ascendance and I wanted in. I had waited long enough for photography to be within my reach and finally here was my chance.

The Camera

That first digital camera was a 3.3 megapixel HP 720. A camera manufactured by that absolute titan of the camera world…erm Hewlett Packard? Despite the unlikely manufacturer, HP I believe were working in conjunction with Pentax at the time on their digital cameras so the image quality of the 720 wasn’t half bad. I couldn’t afford the extra flash memory for it so as I remember it could only manage around 20-30 shots before I had to hook it up to the computer and download the images. The screen was tiny, the battery life terrible and worse still the battery cover would loosen itself all on its own meaning the batteries would lose contact switching the damn thing off, usually just as I was about to take a shot. Regardless of all of that, I loved it.

You see, despite never taking hold as a full blown passion until much later on, photography has always held special interest for me. Back in the 80’s my step dad would set up a slide projector in the living room and we would sit looking at family pics on a tiny portable silver screen. Proper family times sitting round together laughing at what we looked like and remembering all the places we had been. When I was about 10 my older brother took up photography and looking back now that was probably a pivotal point in my interest surrounding photography. He bought himself a Minolta SLR and I still remember holding that camera up to my eye, to me the World looked better when viewed through that viewfinder. I was more than a little jealous of that camera and his ability to understand and use it. He joined the local camera club and I tagged along with him a few times to the dark room. It was in that experience that two diverging paths emerged. Path one was paved with a new found love and respect for photography. Watching him develop film and then make prints of his photos was something completely new and awe inspiring. I was enthralled and impressed and while at that time I had no idea of just how much significance those moments would have on me, I can see now that those feelings and memories never left. Path two however was one paved with utter contempt for the complexity of the process. Standing in that dank and dingy room watching him measure chemicals and temperatures and faff around for hours on end just to produce one single print seemed to my youthful mind frankly ridiculous and too difficult for me to learn. Photography was amazing but I wasn’t going to be learning all that stuff. I continued to take pictures but the act of sending the films off for development prevented me from taking it too seriously. For whatever reason I was too nervous at that young an age to take the risk of putting myself out there. I knew there had to be a better way and I was just going to have to wait for it to come around. Serious photography - would have to wait!

Fast forward a decade to a delivery arriving at the door of my Edinburgh flat. In that box was a white Apple MacBook and most importantly of all - my brand spanking new digital camera. That wait was finally over.

Leamington Lift Bridge, Fountainbridge 8th June 2003 - HP 720 1/200th . f/4.5 . ISO100

Leamington Lift Bridge, Fountainbridge 8th June 2003 - HP 720 1/200th . f/4.5 . ISO100

Photography 2.0

Digital photography was the revolution I had been waiting for. Now, I could go out, shoot images and then head home and instantly process those images in private in Photoshop and I was done. No film, no dark room, no third party, no fucking about. From click to final image in a few minutes. It was incredible. Over the next 16 years various digital cameras followed but that feeling of just how great it was to shoot and edit in the space of a few minutes never went away. That singular focus however, was about to change. One night in early 2017 while stumbling around the landscape photography videos on YouTube I came across a series of films by Ben Horne. For those unaware of his work Ben is a landscape photographer and film maker based in the South West United States. Watching those films of Ben scouting the canyons and washes of Zion National Park I had complete respect for him, not simply because his images were incredible but because he chose to shoot them on 8x10 large format film. Here was somebody shooting incredible images of one of the most insanely beautiful parts of the World and he was doing it on film. In that moment a little fire began to smoulder away in me. I found myself seeking out more photographers shooting film, following their instagram accounts, watching documentaries on the pioneers of street and landscape photography who all used it as their medium. I always knew it was different but I suddenly became hyper aware of just how special it was. Those film images were richer, deeper and had a quality that digital has still never fully been able to replicate. They had a soul! That story, concocted by my childhood mind that it was too difficult meant I had been avoiding film because of its complexities and so had been unable to see all of the elements that made it special. That little fire would - this year - become a raging inferno that I could no longer ignore. I love digital photography and everything it has offered me but here was this sudden and overwhelming need to learn how to shoot and develop film. I had the feeling that if I was to grow as a photographer I needed to go back to the beginning and relearn my craft from the place it itself began.

That left only one option - I had to stop fighting that 30 year old assumption that I couldn’t do it and learn how to process the film myself.

And so it began…again!

A year or so ago I had picked up a little Voigtländer 35mm film camera at a car boot sale. It was only £2 and looked to be in good condition so I grabbed it. I had no serious intention at that time of actually using it, I just thought it would look good on my desk. Suddenly though the thought that I could buy a roll of film, load it into that camera and actually shoot some images became a very real proposal. I knew there was technically nothing stopping me from doing that. I had the camera and a basic understanding of how to use it. The major stumbling block was going to be processing the film. I knew right away that I didn’t want to send it off for processing. The Voigtländer looked ok, the lens looked a little cloudy on one side and was dirty and I had no idea if the light seals were still good but if I’m honest the decision not to send off the film was again far more self conscious in origin - I had no idea if I was any good at shooting film. After all, while I had over the years learned the principles of exposure I had had nearly 20 years experience of seeing the image I had just shot on the back of the camera as I took it. If it wasn’t good I changed settings and took another shot - zero guess work. The Voigtländer however, is totally manual, no light meter, blind focusing and a very limited shutter. All of the decisions have to be made by me before I shoot so there was no knowing what that first roll of film would look like until I got the negatives back. No, I was definitely not sending that first roll off to a third party. That left only one option - I had to stop fighting that 30 year old assumption that I couldn’t do it and learn how to process the film myself. I was suddenly immersed in a sea of online tutorials and YouTube videos teaching me the ropes of how to process film at home. I studied and made lists of everything I would need and how to use it and eventually bit the bullet and put in the order for my kit. Here I was - on the road back to where this journey began 30 years ago.

Tuesday 18th June 2019 - Processing Day.

With one final wind of the Voigtländer’s lever and click of the shutter the first film roll ended. 36 exposures done. The first time in nearly 20 years I had exposed film to light. That was it. There was nothing else to do now but develop it. Shit. No more excuses huh? C’mon, no more dilly dallying man. Let’s do this. Shit! I was excited but also super nervous. Why was I so nervous? I wound the film back and took out the cassette. There it was. Suddenly I had the realisation of what I had got myself into. This wasn’t a memory card. I didn’t just plug this into my computer and get to work. I had to go and take the film out of this cassette and load it on to a reel. I then had to load that reel into a tank and I had to do all of that in the pitch black? Coupling that nervousness with the niggling thought that there may just be junk on that film suddenly brought all those feelings of how ridiculous this whole process was flooding back. I became overwhelmed by the thought that I might find out that digital photography and the ease of modern computer post processing was a mask I was hiding behind. That I wasn’t actually very good at photography at all. That upon exposing that film I would actually be exposing myself - as a fraud. With film there is no second chance. There is no hiding. If you suck or you fuck up it’s right there for all to see. What if that roll of film contained 36 out of focus and badly exposed pictures? What then for my photography? I grabbed the film, cassette end remover, scissors, film tank and a black fabric backdrop and headed for the bathroom. I knolled out all the pieces on the table so I could get to them easily in the dark, I hung the backdrop over the door and stood there in the pitch black silence. Feeling around on the table I located the film cassette and the end remover and with a swift tug released the film. I trimmed the leader and began trying to load the film onto the reel. It wasn’t working. I couldn’t do it. Panic set in. I should have practiced more in the light. I should have gotten accustomed to doing this over and over before pushing forward in the dark. I gave myself a stern talking to and pushed on. Eventually I felt the film bite in the jaws and started to wind. Soon enough I had reached the end. I loaded the film into the tank, sealed the lid and headed out into the light. The first hurdle was jumped. On to the second. I mixed up the chemicals into the beakers and began the process. 9 minutes of developer agitating for 10 seconds every minute. Pour out and add stop. Agitate for 30 seconds and pour out. Pour in the fixer and agitate for 10 seconds every minute for 5 minutes. Pour out and wash the film. Done. This was it. Time to remove the lid and see if it was all worth it. As I removed the reel all I could see was black film. Fear that I had over exposed all the film or not done something right while developing began to flood over me. Shit. As I pulled the first edge of the film free I could make out the faint silhouette of North Berwick High Street. Then I saw the silhouette of my son. Gradually, as I rolled out more film I saw more and more images. Holy shit, I had done it. I had actually gone and done it. A huge surge of adrenaline intermixed with pure relief began to come over me and I burst out laughing. Here was a roll of 36 negatives shot on a £2 camera from the 60’s and developed by a complete novice in his kitchen. How was this possible? Once the film had dried I took it over to my desk and viewed the negatives through a loupe. I could tell a few were underexposed, some were over and some of them were out of focus but the majority looked ok. I set up a light table and using my D850 took some shots of the negatives. I took out the card, loaded it into the computer and began the job of converting that first negative. There it was. A picture I had shot the day before of an alleyway in Edinburgh. It wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. It was a little overexposed in parts and the Voigtländer’s lens is dirty, it does indeed have clarity issues on one side and there were several light leaks but there it was. The first picture I had ever shot and developed on film in my life and it was ok. The overwhelming sense of pride at having conquered a hurdle which had been in front of me for 30 years was incredible. I can see there is a long way to go before I fully understand all of the complexities of shooting and developing images on film, like anything it takes time to perfect but I’ve taken the first tentative steps and it feels incredible. The missing puzzle piece has found its way back to the jigsaw.

The first roll. Ilford HP5 Plus 400 shot on a Voigtländer Vitoret.

The first roll. Ilford HP5 Plus 400 shot on a Voigtländer Vitoret.

Now, I get that it might sound like I was being a little over dramatic during that whole process, certainly to any of you reading who shoot film regularly but for a long time I’ve had a feeling that this was something I had to do. I think if I hadn’t been born in the age of film I probably would have been able to ignore it but having been introduced to the processes of both shooting and developing it I almost felt like it was a rite of passage, like I was missing a part of the process of being a photographer by not doing it myself. It niggled at me and I continued to make excuses for years not to do it. Why? Possibly because I was afraid, or insecure, I don’t know. but digital made it easy for me. It’s been deliberately made easy so anyone can do it, that’s how camera manufacturers make money. Anyone can buy a camera, set it to auto and capture a pretty decent image. Modern cameras are astounding. I know it takes more skill and a keen eye to create great images but a great deal of the challenge has been removed simply by being able to view your images as you shoot them. Film doesn’t allow you that luxury. You are forced to do the work before hitting the shutter because there are no second chances and so you automatically slow down, think and work out the shot before hand. You have limited exposures and they are expensive so you have to take the time to work out if the shot is even worth it to begin with. By its very limited nature, film makes you a more discerning photographer. By taking on this challenge I instantly felt better about myself and my abilities. I had indeed grown. There is no going back now. I have no plans to give up digital but I can already tell that I will continue to shoot film alongside it from now on. In fact, as I’m writing this I am just about to hit the buy now button on a Nikon F301 35mm to sit alongside my digital D850…I still won’t be sending my film off to be processed either, not because of insecurity anymore but out of love of the process.

As always, likes, comments and shares are always welcome and if you have any questions you would like me to answer feel free to pop ‘em in the comments section below. Thanks for taking the time to read this!


Martin Covey