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  • Tom Mills

Thoughts on shooting with old film

Several months ago, I had the crazy idea to start shooting film again. I will readily admit that at the time, it was less about shooting film, more about caving to the photography enthusiast's nemesis, GAS. In this case, it was specifically about acquiring a "legacy", 35mm film Leica rangefinder because they only appreciate in value and will absolutely make me a better photographer, right? I know there are troves of articles, musings, and blog posts about GAS and I fully acquiesce to succumbing to it but that's the topic for another day. In the meantime... hi, I'm Tom and I have Gear Acquisition Syndrome, now on to the rest of the story.

After much introspection and many painstaking hours of research and searching for deals online, I ended up purchasing a beautiful Leica M7 from District Camera. Sure, as many Leica enthusiasts have argued, it's not as "pure" as the M6 because of it's electronic shutter, but the price was too good to pass up; about $500 cheaper than the best deal I could find on a decent M6 and I admit that I'm a fan of auto-exposure. Shooting film already slows me down and I felt like playing around with the shutter speed dial and aperture to meter correctly was just too much additional work, especially for a guy who has been shooting exclusively digital for the last decade where I never had to worry about aperture rings, focusing rings, or even shutter speeds with auto-ISO. Yes, a bit of a diva and oh, did I mention that it is beautiful?

Leica M7 on the table... what a beauty!

I had a two week return period to determine if I really wanted to keep the camera so I immediately loaded a very expired roll of Ilford Delta 100 left over from my stash of film I purchased around 2006 to test it out. I had the film developed by District Camera and to my delight, there were images on the negatives, test complete!

I scanned the negatives several times at different resolutions ranging from 1600-3200 dpi but wasn't very impressed with the results. Some of the images seemed very grainy for what is advertised as an "exceptionally fine grain" 100 ISO film but I attributed it to film age and bad scanning technique.

Under the Rotunda, University of Virginia, Expired Ilford Delta 100

Suffice to say, I wasn't very happy. My immediate thought was that I had spent a lot of money on a film camera to create mediocre images; I could have easily done the same thing with a much cheaper camera like a Nikon FE2. The results also didn't bolster my theory that film images would be optically superior to digital; I had much better images coming out of my Leica M Monochrom. So far, not a good story even though some images did turn out decent after scanning:

Kings of Freedom display, University of Virginia, Expired Ilford Delta 100

Despite my overall feeling of regret, I decided to keep the camera, after all, it's a Leica. I was determined to shoot through the remaining rolls of Ilford Delta 100 from my 2006 stash, hoping for the best. Even then, I couldn't help but feel like an expensive camera combined with what I considered to be an expensive and LONG process to get film developed commercially wasn't the wisest decision. My return to analog photography was doomed... until I started developing film on my own.

I've since shot at least three more rolls of film through the M7; the last two rolls of my 2006 stash as well as a new roll of Kodak Tri-X 400, effectively taking more pictures on film than I have with my digital cameras in the last month. I'm happier with the quality of the scans, but most of all, I'm happier with the whole photography process; purposefully taking more time to compose the image knowing I have a finite number of frames I can shoot and being aware of the amount of time it takes to get to the final result.

Zigzag Fence, Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, new roll of Kodak Tri-X400

I've since expanded my home developing beyond black and white, trying my first cut at C-41 processing with a roll of chromogenic black and white film taken out of my dad's old Nikkormat FTN, loaded into the camera around 2012. Surely the scans would come out better, the film was at least 6-7 years "newer" and sat in the same climate controlled area as the older 2006 vintage film but boy was I wrong. Sure, it was my first C-41 process run, but I did my best to stick to temperatures and times and the pictures came out looking much "older" than the older black and white film.

Capitol building, circa 2012-13, Kodak BW400CN

Just to prove the point even more, I found an old exposed roll of Ilford Delta 100 that I took out of a Voigtlander Bessa R3A in 2006, the film was 6 years older and I thought the images came out much better than the BW400CN images:

Capitol building, circa 2006, Ilford Delta 100 developed 14 years later

Bottom line, I've found out through experience that black and white film does seem to last longer than color, or C-41 process film. As further proof to this supposition, I've since processed a new roll of 120 color negative film (since I have C-41 chemistry now) and found the scans to be amazing with unexpired film.

Torgersen Hall, Virginia Tech, Kodak Portra 400

I'll now worry less about storing my black and white film in the refrigerator, but the C-41 stuff definitely gets handled more delicately... and yes, in case you didn't pick up on it, I did say 120 film. Did I say I suffer from GAS?

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