Tenaya lake CloudsCredit: John SextonCredit: John Sexton

Have Fun and Be Creative Using a Time-Tested Medium

                Although digital photography has become extremely popular in the past decade, there is still a large community that supports black and white film photography.  Should you decide to enter this exciting world of creativity and nostalgia, this is what you can expect.  This article is not meant to be a how-to, but simply serve as an idea of what you may be getting into.

Despite what many people believe, there are advantages to using film over more technologically advanced media:

  • Film can be inexpensive.  With a few minutes time, a roll of black and white 35mm film can be processed for under $2 a roll.  Photographic supply companies exist that sell heavily discounted off-brand rolls of film.  Although the price difference can be more than 50%, these economically priced rolls often have quality that rivals the big-names in the industry.
  • Film is not “old fashioned.”  It has been demonstrated that the effective resolution of a 35mm slide can approach 80 megapixels!  Tell that to anyone who gloats to you about the benefits of their new digital SLR!  Also, film is a stable media, meaning that it is slow to degrade.  Most people have lost digital images due to computer crashes, but photographic film and prints from the 1800s can still be found in pristine condition.
  • Black and white images are not necessarily uninteresting or “old.”  The 50 shades of gray you can achieve in a black and white photographic print can rival color in beauty, depth, and quality.  There is something magical about a well-printed black and white image.  Black and white photographic paper produces a depth and quality that even the most expensive inkjet printers cannot rival.

The convenience of a digital camera cannot be overlooked, but if your photographic needs are not urgent and you would like to experiment with history, black and white photography may be for you.  You don't need to dive in all at once, however.  With a minimal investment, you can test whether black and white film photography is for you.

Equipment Needed to Start

                The best thing about finding film photography supplies is that there is a huge market for used equipment.  Check eBay, garage sales, estate sales, Goodwill, Craigslist, or even ask family members or friends.  Entire darkroom setups can be had on Craigslist for a fraction of the in-store cost.  Also, many people have a camera and lens sitting in the attic  or closet with no intention ever to take it out again.  Show the camera some action!

Camera Equipment:

  • Camera.  Preferably, you’ll want one of the SLR, or Single Lens Reflex, type.  This camera allows you to see the picture through the viewfinder exactly as the camera will see it.  It also will allow you to choose your own shutter speed and lens aperture.  If you are unfamiliar with these terms, check out your local library for a good black and white photography book. 
  • Lens.  Most cameras will come with a lens attached, but if not, you’ll have to find your own.  To start, stick with a 50mm lens.  They are plentiful, inexpensive, and probably best suited to what you want to photograph.
  • Film.  You can search far and wide even in a large city and still have trouble finding black and white film.  Do yourself a favor and order it online.  You'll save money by buying online as well.

Once you have become familiar with the basic operations of your camera, shoot a roll or two!  Find your creative side and experiment.  Already finished your roll of film?  You’ll want to develop the negatives.

"Wet Darkroom" Equipment:

  • Developing Tank and Reel.   This is a light-proof tank that can hold 1 or more rolls of film for processing.  There is a small opening through which to add and remove chemicals.  The reel holds the film evenly so the sides of the film don’t stick together.  Because the film cannot be exposed to light, you’ll have to put the film onto the reel and into the tank in a completely light-proof room.
  • Photographic Chemicals.  You can order the powder mixes for these chemicals online.  At the least, you’ll need a developer and a fixer.  Optional, but recommended, are a stop bath, hypo clearing solution, and wetting agent.  The instructions for processing film are different for each brand, so check on the inside of the box (you did save the box, right?).
  • Thermometer.  Having the chemicals at the right temperature is key.  You’ll need to adjust your development times if the temperature is off.


A Good Stopping Point

The normal progression of film photography work would involve printing your negatives using an enlarger and photographic paper.  You don’t have to commit to doing this step, however.  Hopefully you have not invested a great deal of money and effort up until this point, and you can see if black and white film photography is for you.

At this point you’ll be able to review your negatives and choose which ones you like.  You can get your negatives printed, scanned, or you can simply archive them yourself.  If you want to print them yourself, you’ll need a new cadre of darkroom equipment, including an enlarger.  These can be found used, but you might be better served finding a community darkroom that offers time to individual photographers.  If you enroll in a class, you’ll also have access to the school’s darkroom.

Again, this guide is meant to serve as an overview of what one might expect when entering the world of black and white film photography.  You surely can teach yourself, but you might be better served enrolling in a community college course or adult education class.  You’ll get access to the school’s darkroom, photographic chemicals and processing equipment, and staff expertise.  You’ll still most likely need your own camera and film, however!