An approach to 35mm photography that delivers what I want from it …

One film/developer combination or many?

I’m very much a one film/one developer photographer, more or less. I say ‘more or less’ because I realise that there isn’t one optimal combination of film/developer/ technique that will adequately cover all the bases, and since my photography spans a wide range of subject matter, I use more than one film/developer combination. It’s more accurate to say that I am a one film/developer photographer for a particular set of circumstances.

There is this constant tension between reaping the benefits of getting to know one film/dev combination in detail and thereby mastering it, and choosing a combination specifically for a set of circumstances. The first is to choose a compromise inherent in the limitations of one film/developer combination. The second is to choose a more apt. perhaps, off-the-shelf combination but to know less about it and thereby not fully master it. Time is always limiting. Decisions need to be made …

I consider myself to be a ‘zone worker’ to the limited extent afforded by 35mm photography.

The most obvious problem for 35mm photographers is that roll film does not enable each frame to be developed for its own time. The roll as a whole is developed in a tank and the development time for the roll applies to each of its frames.

Most film photographers use several cameras, several lenses, various films, a variety of developers and their dilutions and a range of papers. The resulting permutations multiply up with the number of options. Suppose we are conservative in our estimates: say we have only three cameras, two lenses per camera, we use just two films at only two develolper dilutions and we use just two types of paper. This would give us 48 permutations, if I remember my maths correctly. The need for 48 personal film speed tests balks . Most of us film photographers have many more than three cameras and at least two lenses for each and we probably use 3 to 5 types of film etc etc. The point is that we cannot master (at the minimum) 48 processes. Too much work – we would never get out of the darkroom-lab to take pictures!

So how best to minimise film/dev combinations whilst retaining some specificity according to circumstance? Here’s how I am dealing with it.

I distinguish between the equipment and materials used for project work and that which is used for a walk-about photography. The two do not divide neatly, but I find the distinction helpful. I do plenty of the walk-about variety and I don’t pretend that I will consistently produce good prints. I just have fun, and if a good print comes along once in a while, that’s well to the good.

Projects are jobs where a particular object or quality of light drives a photographic impulse, when the tonality of a shadow or highlight is everything. In this situation, calibration is important if we are to register the percept on a print as intended. The way light plays on still water as clouds process across the sky; the light through church-ancient windows spilling onto a pew; a dusty old abandoned barn; blue light in an ice crevasse; the light streaming onto a kitchen table – these are some of my recent pictures in this vein.

For the walk-about variety, there will be less time for the picture. I will not be using a tripod and if I use a meter, it will be the meter in the camera, not a spotmeter. I will not spend an hour setting up the picture and then wait for the light to illuminate the subject in a special way. I do not expect to produce many pictures that could be framed on a wall; it’s enough to simply record a scene.- a hatted man jumping over a puddle reflected in that puddle; a woman and man kissing outside the Hotel de Ville, a reflection in a shop window … and so on. It’s about the moment. You understand.

This distinction between projects and walk-about drives a number of decisions: which camera gear? which film? which developer? which developing technique? which printing approach? Confining myself to 35mm photography, I have arrived at the following specifications:

  1. Project work requires a tripod and a spotmeter and zone placement. The film/developer must enable fine grain and the developing technique must allow for contrast compression or expansion. Tonal gradation is also important (challenging for 35mm!) as is sharpness. Film speed is less important. Some project work requires a different approach. For example salt printing requires a high density negative. Bromoil requires a low contrast negative. To each expression, a process.
  2. Walk-about requires light gear. No tripod or spotmeter. I distinguish between two types of walk-about: strolling about and street photography. The former should produce clean pictures with little grain. The film needs to have great latitude and it helps if the developer at least maintains film speed. The latter (street) needs to have character and good grain. The film needs to be push-able with high sharpness. It helps if the developer increases film speed.

The following chart summarises how I have dealt with these specifications:

35mm photography process chart

To briefly explain:

Project work requires some zone work, in spite of the fact that we are talking about 35mm photography. I call this quasi-zone work due to the limitations of roll film development. My approach is as follows:

  • I carry two camera bodies and collect low contrast images on one and high contrast images on another. I assess the contrast range using a spot meter. I develop a low contrast roll differently to a high contrast one. 1 Helpful in this regard is if you roll you own film, as this reduces film wastage. If I am tackling a particular scene with a tripod, I find that rolls of 16 or 20 frames more helpful than rolls of 36. It’s easier to collect contrast-similar images onto one roll that way.
  • I also use a developer that can account for the variation in contrast ranges across a roll. Two bath development, such as ‘Barry Thornton’s Two Bath’ or his two-bath Dixactol, or a dilute semi-stand development using 510-Pyro (1:200) or a compensating use of ID11 (1:3) or Rodinal (1:75) helps to even out the variation of contrast across a roll.

Employing this strategy still gives the possibility of developing for ‘n-‘ and ‘n+’ contrast ranges separately, as these developing techniques allow for n- and n+ development.

For walk-about strolling photography I carry one camera (Nikon F3). I use Ilford XP2 rated at 100 or 200 developed in Kodak HC110 at 1+49 dilution. I find developing XP2 in C41 chemicals quite expensive since the C41 chemistry does not have a long shelf life, unlike HC110. XP2 gives me very clean looking images with little or no grain in the highlights.

For walk-about street photography I carry two cameras (Nikon FM3A and FM2n). I love the character of Tri-X, a classic for this genre. For normal day conditions I use D23R to develop the film rated at box speed. It is speed-maintaining and gives me good contrast and sharpness when developed for sufficient time to give good density. When dim conditions prevail, I push Tri-X to 1600 and develop in Microphen. Tri-X pushes better than HP5. Microphen gives me a two-thirds increase in speed, I think, and wonderful characterful looks. One camera is for D23R development, the other for Microphen.

I have considered speed-enhancing FX37 and XTOL for street picture development, but availability issues have denied me these options. Eventually I might make my own FX37.

And that sums up my approach to 35mm photography. Not quite a one film/one developer approach but you didn’t expect me to keep to one combination did you?

  1. To command perfect control you would need to carry more than two camera bodies, (say 5 bodies to cover n-2, n-1, n, n+1, n+2 situations). This would make the approach totally impractical. But carrying two camera bodies/backs is not such a burden.

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