Film Photography Remembered - Linda Cooke

What was photography like before digital cameras?

With film photography, unlike a digital sensor, the light sensitive emulsion coating the film itself had a fixed sensitivity. Film was sold with a stated ISO (ASA) rating. The photographer set their camera in accordance with that. In other words, once the film was in the camera, you didn’t change ISO, only aperture and shutter speed. A separate light meter determined how much light was available.

Kodachrome Professional Film

However, films could be ‘pushed’ or ‘pulled’, in other words you could set your camera as if the film was faster or slower than rated. Whoever developed the film needed to know you had done that. When I became more serious about photography, I was taking a lot of natural history shots, where it was important to get realistic colour, so I rated my Kodachrome 64 at 80 ASA instead of 64, slightly under-exposing and giving ideal results.

Photographic Film Cannisters

I was in my mid teens when I saved up for my first SLR camera. I could just afford a Zenith B (Zenit) with an f2 prime lens, considered a fast lens. My Zenith kit was stolen on a camping holiday. By this time I had added a 200mm prime telephoto, so I could call it a “kit”. The replacement, a Zenith E, had an inbuilt light meter. Wow!

Zenith Camera and 35mm Film

Cameras continued to develop, with autofocus and auto flash synchronisation amongst other electronic delights, and I switched to a Praktica BC1. This was the camera which accompanied my first steps in wedding photography. I needed a backup camera and that role was filled with an MZ6 (still Praktica), really light in weight because of new construction materials.

When I could afford a higher specification camera, I held two cameras in the camera shop (yes, camera shops were quite common then), a Canon and a Pentax. There was little to choose with price and functionality, so I chose the Pentax Z1 on the basis of its ease of handling in my small-ish hands. I still have that camera and I still love it.

All of these were 35mm film cameras.

If the idea of film photography intrigues you, check out this paperback book by Chris Gatcum. Photographers are embracing retro, vintage, old skool photographic techniques to put the soul back into their photography.

Mastering Film Photography

So, how was it different from digital photography today? The darkroom is the most obvious difference. The earliest film, when exposed, produced a negative. The emulsion on photographic paper also produced a negative, so when the developed film negative was placed in an enlarger to produce an image on the paper, the resulting image was a positive. A red or orange safelight was used because the emulsion on the photographic paper was only really sensitive to blue or green. The process is basically the same for colour negative film, except for the light.

Nikon Camera and Kodak Slides

I mostly used a third type of film, colour reversal film, which produced transparencies which could be projected onto a screen or printed on reversal paper. The slides were sharp and clear. Fewer steps in the process meant less dust marks and less fuzzy focus. Colour reversal film only needed a darkroom if prints were to be made. Otherwise, It was placed into a developing tank inside a completely dark changing bag. Developing chemicals were then poured into the tank and temperature was crucial. Magazines and stock agencies usually required the actual slide but it was possible to duplicate them so that you had a backup, although the dupe was never as good as the original.

So back to the present. For a long time we’ve delighted in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop or other software. But now photographers are beginning to use film again. Why? That’s for another article.

Canon Camera and Cannisters of Film