Photography is magic. I don’t mean snapping some photos with your digital camera and hooking it up to your computer while you surf the web. I suppose there is some magic there too, but it’s certainly more muted. What I mean is putting some light sensitive celluloid in a camera and taking a photo, developing that film, then taking the negative, passing light through it, and making a print. This process is, undeniably, magic. There are secret formulas, rituals which must be performed exactly, and if all goes well, things appearing where there was nothing before.
If you haven’t ever gone from idea to print with all the steps along the way, you should. In particular, you really ought to do this if you’re a digital photographer and have never touched film. Digital photography is a wonderful thing, but photography is magic and you really should experience that.
In the next few posts, I’m going to give a recipe for making some really nice medium format contact prints for less than $150. The cost is largely dependent on how much of the stuff you have laying around, and how resourceful you are but my guess includes the price of the camera.
Here are a few photos of some I recently printed, and here’s a scan of one. They’re small — printed on 5×7″ sheets of fiber-based photo paper (as opposed to the plastic-covered kind). I like to leave them unmounted. The fiber paper has a tendency to curl when left unmounted so the overall impression they give is intensely material — the opposite of digital photos viewed online.
So, what I’m offering is a recipe. Like making a marinara sauce, there are many other ways of doing this. Like my marinara sauce, though, it’s pretty good.
Here’s what you’ll need. I’ll adjust this list if I run across more things.
1. A medium format camera. This is the most expensive item, of course, but it’s probably not as expensive as you think. If you’re shooting to stay under the $150 mark for the project, you can get a Holga 120N from Amazon for $30. You’ll be making contact prints, so the quality of the lens is almost irrelevant. If you want to spend a bit more, you can get a genuine TLR-style camera from ebay (or craigslist) for $60 — Seagull branded ones are common and cheap. That’s what I do all of my medium format photog with these days, and they work just fine.
2. A roll of 120 film. Use HP5+ and be done with it. Buy an extra roll to practice loading the film tank.
3. A light meter. You probably have an SLR (digital or otherwise) if you’re reading this far, so use that. Set the ISO to 400 (that’s what your film is rated).
4. A dark room with running water. Bathrooms work perfectly. If you have a window, wait until it gets dark and hang up a blanket over it.
5. A film tank.
6. Something to measure liquid. I use a graduated cylinder, but that’s because I have one. I used a measuring cup for years.
7. Four plastic trays capable of holding 20oz of liquid and at least 8×10″. Disposable ones work just fine.
8. Developer. You can use it for both film and paper. Trust me.
10. A thermometer. A meat one will work just fine (that’s what I use).
11. A timer. A watch will work, but a timer app on your smartphone is better.
12. A red party-bulb and a lamp to put it in.
13. Some sheets of 5×7″ photo paper. I highly suggest getting fiber based (as opposed to resin coated). I tend to buy these in packs of 100 because its vastly cheaper, but smaller quantities are fine for checking things out.
14. A simple glass frame like this. You’ll use this as a makeshift easel for printing. You just need the glass and back — you can toss the clips.
I posted links to places online to illustrate what you’re looking for and an approximate price. When you’re ready to buy the photo stuff, make sure to check if there is anyone locally that still sells wet darkroom materials. If you can find a store that does, they probably need your business more than amazon does.
Next time, making a negative.