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A walk with Ilford FP4 Plus 125

A walk with Ilford FP4 Plus 125

Skateboarder, Victoria Park Paignton 2021

This is the second roll of film I have put through my aging Pentax KM and I’m very much more pleased with these results than for the Kentmere 400 (also an Ilford product) that I tried first. Now, that could be down to inexperience, it was the first roll of film I had developed in over 40 years, or it could be to the way I was using the camera / lens. I certainly found the lens to be challanging, it was the Pentax 50mm f1.7 lens, which althrough equally aged does tend to get good reviews. The problem I found was in focusing it and the Kentmere images are definately off focus for this reason. For these shots, I went with the Minolta 35-70 F2.8-4 as I’d used this on my Lumix GX-80 with a lens adapter and achieved some really nice results. I felt than that I had a good chance on improving on the 50mm f1.7 and looking at the reults here, I think I did. For the next roll I shoot with the Pentax, I am going to shoot twelve on the Pentax 50mm, f1.7, twelve on the Minolta 35-70 and twelve on the Pentax 55mm f1.8 that came with the camera all those years ago. I’m keen to revisit the Pentax 55mm as I recall images from that lens being quite sharp. This approach will at least enable me to judge whether it is technique, or equipment.

All of the above images were processed in Bellini chemicals. For the developer I used Bellini Hydrofen @ 1:39 dilution for 6 minutes, for the fixer, Bellini FX100 ECO @ 1:4 for 3 minutes. The stop bath was just tap water. I digitised the negatives using a home made digitising rig consisting of a light box (flash lit), Lomography Digitalizer 35mm Scanning Mask, tripod and a Nikon D600 with Tamron 90mm f2.8 1:1 Macro lens.

Nailing the Film Experience

Nailing the Film Experience

Not being able to accurately digitise film makes it pretty difficult to work out if you actually took good pictures or not. Was the focus off, was the lighting good, was the subject matter sufficiently interesting to even bother! This is exactly the position I found myself in recently when I decided to experiment with B&W film and an old Pentax KM SLR that had been sitting in the cupboard for 40 years plus. Truth was, I was really keen to experience the whole emotional journey of taking the photos, developing them and finally, digitising them.

Now each part of that journey has challanges. For example, taking the photos is not quite as simple as pointing a modern digital camera at the scene and pressing the shutter. For those of you you that have experimented with the manual settings on your digital cameras you’ll know exactly what I mean. There’s a lot to think about with an SLR, especially if you have a fully manual lens attached. Firstly there’s managing the light. Old SLR’s such as the Pentax KM expose for the average light entering the lens. That means that providing the light is well managed the highlights aren’t blown and darks aren’t too dark. However, all too often the sky loses detail and the shadows can be a little too dark. Unlike digital though, it’s really difficult to pull any details out of areas that are too dark or too light. Getting the right exposure then becomes an art form and it’s the reason you used to see good photographers use external light meters in order to work out the best exposure for the scene they were photographing. The second problem is capturing an image worth the effort. With digital we are in “a throw away society” and any image not up to standard, whether through poor composition, poor exposure or poor subject matter, is tossed in the bin. Follow that same approach with film and I guarantee you that you’ll have only 5 or 6 decent images out of 36. You simply can’t leave anything to chance with film. Finally, there’s any number of things that can go wrong from poor focus through to incorrectly developing the entire batch. Trust me, you need nerves of steel to get something good with film.

Taking everything above into account, the images below are from my earliest experiments with film, in this case Ilford FP4 Plus 125.I chose FP4 because I liked the look of various images I had seen on Pinterest etc so it seemed a good start point. My very first roll had been Kentmere 400 but while I got some images from this roll, I wasn’t hugely impressed, either with my compositions or my focus. I chose to use the Pentax 50mm f1.7 for that roll and I had some difficulties with nailing focus. With the FP4 I chose to use the Minolta 35-70 f2.8-4 and the results from this lens are shown below. I think that here focus was a lot sharper plus the various images had some interest. Hopefully, you’ll agree.

The gear used to achieve these images was as follows:

  • Pentax KM SLR (circa 1980)
  • Minolta 35-70 f2.8-4
  • Ilford FP4 Plus 125 36 exposures
  • Bellini Hydrofen developer & Bellini FX100 ECO fixer
  • Home built flash-lit digitising rig using Nikon D600 and Tamron 90mm f2.8 1:1 Macro lens
Digitising Film | The final solution – almost!

Digitising Film | The final solution – almost!

Over the past week or two I’ve been experimenting with ways of capturing digital images directly from film negatives. I’ve been trying to do this as cheaply as possible by using as much of the gear as I have to hand to keep costs down. I’ve already created a couple of posts on this topic and you’ll find these in the March archives if you want to understand more about this journey. So as not to duplicate what I’ve already written, I’ll just tell you that the most successful method I’ve found to date is to use a digital camera and a scanning mask. Now in fairness, you can pretty much stop there as this method really does work and the total cost, given that I already have the camera and lens, was just £32 for the scanning mask (including delivery). This ultra cheap method simply requires a decent lens, close focusing or macro if you have one, the scanning mask, this holds the film flat, and a window for the light source, ideally north facing as you need flat light for this job. This remarkably simple setup captures negatives quickly and accurately although you will need to do some basic post-processing on the captured images e.g. inversion, cropping, basic adjustments to exposure, whites and blacks etc.

The process is simplicity itself, just set the camera on auto focus, although manual works equally well, choose a shutter speed of at least 1/60s and set ISO to 200 or lower. That’s it really. Hit the shutter and you have your digital image in camera. With regards the light, a flat grey day is ideal for this job and you need to make sure that there’s no trees or buildings in the frame else they’ll show on the digital image. A perfect day for this job is a rainy, grey day where there’s no direct sun. North facing windows are perfect but this window is west facing and works equally well.

North windows provide ideal flat light. This window is west facing but on a grey day, it works just as well.
Holding the negatives against a flat light allows you to photograph them with relative ease using a tripod

Another approach that works well is to use your camera and lens with a light box, flash head, trigger and tripod. I made a simple light box from an A4 cardboard documents box with a lid. I cut a rectangular hole in the side, into which I pushed the flash head, a rectangular hole in the center of the top slightly bigger than a 35mm negative i.e. 45mm x 34mm works well. With the flash head pushed inside the box, I had already lined this with some silver foil to bounce the light around, I placed a piece of white paper under the flash head curving up the opposite side,somewhat like an infinity wall as found in a studio. I then popped a diffuser on the flash head. With that all done I set the flash power to 1/64 and, as the flash head is adjustable, I set the ISO to 100 and zoom to 14mm to help spread the light. On test, this setup was perfect for backlighting the negative.

My current digital setup. The flash head can just be seen protruding into the light box.

Moving on to the camera, I found that autofocus was problematic so I set the camera to manual focus. The next problem is that without any useful light on the negative surface, focusing was hit and miss despite focus peaking being available. An easy fix is to have a suitable light available to iilluminate the film surface but as I didn’t have one handy, I simply changed the shutter speed from 1/125s (set for the flash) to something really slow like 2s (this is good at night) or Auto if during the day. This lights up the scene allowing accurate focus to be set (using focus peaking) right on the plane of the film. You should also ensure that the mask is dead centre of your lens. Once set, I simply changed the shutter speed back to 1/125s and activated the shutter. The satisfying flash tells you the job’s done. Slide to the next frame and repeat. Here are some examples of images captured using this setup but please bear in mind that the resolution of these images is very poor because of the lens I was using. The best physical size I could create with this technique was 1080 x 760 and of course, dispaying on the web doesn’t help with quality as these are only 72dpi. However if you read on you’ll see I have some good ideas as to how to hugely improve focus, resolution and size and therefore capture the (almost) perfect digitised image.

Low resolution images. Enhancements to my setup will enable me to capture 6000 x 4000 images.

Before discussing “where to next” I just want to say something about converting the digitised images into positive images. I know many out there will be using Photoshop, Capture One or another pricey editor but I have been using On1 PhotoRaw a lot recently. Firstly, It’s a very capable editor and the more I use it the more I like it. It also operates now as a plugin to AffinityPhoto, my other favourite “heavy lifting” photo editor. In fact the two combined are a killer combination matching I would say, Photoshop and Lightroom, albeit Photoshop does have more add-ins and macros. That being said, why on earth would I want to shell out indefinately on a subscription when I bought a perpetual licence of AffinityPhoto and On1 2021 for just £70. On1 also has some really good features, not least image management, presets (and the ability to easily create your own presets) and of course it’s a 1st class editor. If there’s something I can’t do in On1, I simply pop over to Affinity calling On1 as a plugin if I need to in order to finess the final result. For the above images, given that this is purely a test, I created and saved a preset which inverts the negative, crops and levels it, applies a tone curve and then balances the whites, blacks, shadows and highlights. In a second I have my positive image practically finished and all I then need to do to finess it is to push up or pull down exposure or add some contrast and fine tweak the sliders. Getting to the finished image from the film strip takes a few minutes at most.

Having atained some success then with my “Heath Robinson” method of negative film digitising, my next project is to improve on this setup by engineering a more rugged, reliable and accurate light box. Now, I had considered buying a Skier Light box and 35mm mask, about £160 including shipping from Taiwan, but I’m finding that the flash method I am using is working OK albeit that I need to better control negative position and focus. For example, I need to be able to position the scanning mask much more accurately over the cutout so that every image is the same and is always in perfect focus. I also need to be able to capture a bigger image. At the moment I’m using the Fuji x-t1 with an 18-55 f2.8-4. This is capturing an image considerably smaller than what I ideally need due to the fact that this lens is not close focusing or a macro lens. With these points in mind I have purchased the Nikon 105mm f2.8 AF-S D which I intend to use with my Nikon D600 full frame camera. This will give me a full size 1:1 image reducing the need to edit every frame, especially if I engineer the positioning of the negative accurately. The 1:1 ratio will also produce a digital image with maximum detail and resolution. It’s not a cheap solution, £195 on Ebay, but it the best solution for my needs. To improve the light box, I’ve just purchased a wooden box from Amazon, this cost £14, to which I will fix an indexed runner that the Lomography Digitaliser will move against. This will ensure much more accurate positioning of the scanning mask and negative over the cutout in the box lid. While I recognise that the scanning mask is a weak link, and indeed, I have found a much better solution which costs £90, I’m going to stick with my solution for a while to try it out. If I need to upgrade, I know where to go.

That’s about it for now folks. Take care.

A day out with Ilford FP Plus 125

A day out with Ilford FP Plus 125

DSCF3497

A recent shoot using Kentmere 400 resulted in decidedly indifferent results so yesterday morning I decided to shoot and process some Ilford FP Plus 125 B&W film that I have in the fridge using the same camera as for the Kentmere but with a different lens. The basic idea was to shoot the full 36 frames and develop and process the film later in the day. For this particular project I chose to again use my 40 year old Pentax KM which you may know is a fully manual SLR, sturdy but with absolutely no bells and whistles. I also decided to use the Minolta 35-70 f2.8-3.8 short zoom as I had used this on my Lumix GX80 (with an adapter) to great effect so I knew the lens was capable of giving excellent results. In the last shoot I had opted for the 50mm f1.7 and for some reason I had trouble nailing focus as the Pentax is pretty beat up and the mirror / fresnel screen are dirty and spotted and as such, fucusing was hit and miss. Because of this, pretty much all of the Kentmere frames suffered from focusing issues and being a reasonably experienced photographer I know the problem couldn’t all be down to me. This then was an opportunity to come at this from another angle, using the same camera but with a different lens and a different philosophy with regards shooting film. Hopefully the results will bear out that expectation!

With regards to location, I live on the coast so there are always opportunities to capture something interesting, whether on the beaches, piers and promenades or in the little harbours that dot the coast. Then of course we have the urban areas around the waterside which because of their rundown look make hugely interesting places to shoot in. Now, if you have read any of my blogs you’ll know that I am a first and foremost a documentary (candid) photographer rather than a landscape, sports or wildlife photographer. I do take the odd landscape and sports shot of course, but urban photographers rarely have access to the type of long lenses better associated with sports and wildlife. My concept of shooting is to use whatever camera I can lay my hands on with something like a 12mm f2, 12-60mm f3.5 or a 23mm f1.4. I don’t even own a long zoom, well, other than than the 80-200mm Pentax I bought for £5 on Ebay a few years back. This distinct lack of the “right technology” makes shooting wildlife and sports practically impossible, especially when compared to photographers sporting pin sharp cameras such as Sony, Canon and Nikon together with £1000+ long zooms. You pays your money ant takes your choice as they say.

Moving on, my aim as stated above, was to shoot the full 36 frames in one day so that I could process the film later that evening. The light was excellent, although I started at the wrong time of day really, 1pm is not ideal due to the harsh, high sun but it did create some vibrant colours eg blue skies and lots of lovely primary colours. In fact the scenes were so lovely I felt a little dissapointed that I wasn’t working with colour film but as this is an experiment in light management and focus control primarily, I can revisit and shoot colour another time, the coast isn’t going away anytime soon! The areas I visited were also surprisingly busy, a reason perhaps why there has been a slight uptick in the number of Covid-19 cases in the area recently. People were for the most part being sensible but not everyone seemed to have got the government memo about avoiding meeting in groups, even in open spaces. That being said, the vast majority were singles, couples or families enjoying some rare sunshine.

Grabbing a coffee, I can’t function without coffee, my first port of call for this particular area is Paignton Harbour, a quaint little tidal harbour just along from the very prominant pier. It’s always frequented by interesting older people, people out walking or running and the odd fisherman so therefore a rich source of interesting folk. Normally with film I don’t just snap away as each frame is precious but with 36 frames to eat through for this particular project, I wasn’t as picky as normal. All in all I ended up with about 20 frames or so from this location. Walking towards the pier and more importantly, the Geopark, I snapped a few passers by, particularly any lone individuals who foolishly choose to lean against the sea wall and stare into space. A lone person deep in thought can sometimes make an interesting photo. The Geopark is becoming a favourite place of mine because it attracts a very diverse range of people to the little round tables dotted about. There’s a cracking little coffee shop here that also sells chips and burgers so it’s a popular stopping off point for people out on a walk. Being a park there are also lots of kids but I have a rule about taking photos of kids where they can be identified so if I feel compelled to take a shot I always ask parents first. A long shot of a child on a trike or scooter from behind is one thing but I think it’s wise to be wary nowadays bcause many families are fractured and chidren are precious. I actually find this inability to capture children at play a real sadness as I am a huge fan of Shirley Baker who took some amazing B&W photos of children playing in the streets of Manchester etc in the 60’s. These are some of my favourite photographs so it’s sad how times have changed in this respect. Anyay, the Geopark afforded some opportunity, alongside the amazing cranes in the background to fire off another dozen shots.

Fortunately, a friend of mine happened by just as I was running out of ideas and mentioned that he’d just walked through the park and seen some lads scateboarding there so I decided to move on and see if i could capture one or two images of these lads in action. By this point I only had about 6 – 8 frames left so this would be a great opportunity to finish off the roll. I came across the lads who were hugely obliging and while I didn’t capture the sort of dramatic action shots I had hoped for, I certainly got one or two interesting pictures. At least I know where to go back to in the future.

Having already written an informative piece on processing Kentmere 400 in Bellini chemicals – visit here – I do not intend to duplicate this post. The only difference between the processing of the Ilford FP 125 and the Kentmere 400 was the development time. I reduced this from 6mins to 5mins 10s as recommended in the data sheet provided by Nik & Trick where I had bought my Bellini chemicals. Everything else being exactly the same. I have to say, loading the reel with the 36 frame film was a lot easier second time around thanks in part to practicing in the light with some wasted film and taking things a lot slower. The key is to start the film correctly in the reel (snip off the film corners to load it more easily) and take your time to spool on. This time I was able to wind on the whole 36 frames with relative ease so my comment in the earlier post about the reels only being good for 24 frames is nonesense!! Another thing I did this time was to leave the film on the spool until it was fully wound into the reel, only cutting it off the spool once fully loaded. This stopped the film from springing out everywhere in the bag which I know caused some damage to the Kentmere. I’ve got another box of Kentmere 400 so I will have another go with this film stock over the next few weeks so as to do a real comparison with the Ilford FP4 125.

A note on digitising my images

More images will follow once I get my new (to me) Nikon Micron 105 f2.8 AF D  macro lens later this week. All of the images I am posting, if digitised by camera, will have been done through the Fuji x-t1 with 18-55 f2.8-4 lens so I’m struggling to convert my film to high quality full size digital images. The images above, although looking good on screen, are still of poor quality given that the source is well exposed FP4 film. The new Nikon setup should overcome this issue as i’ll be using the new lens on a Nikon D600 full frame camera. The Nikon 105mm is a highly rated 1:1 macro lens which means that my digitised images will be larger and of much higher quality. Watch this space.