So I have a confession to make: I'm a really bad film shooter. Specifically, I'm horrible at getting film processed in a reasonable timeframe, since I stopped developing my own film after completing darkroom classes in 2009. I miss film. I miss the darkroom. I miss film canisters, test strips, and silver grain. Maybe those days are over.
I've shot film for fun ever since learning how to develop and print; not often, but often enough. I've always enjoyed the variance of color shifts by film, but haven't had access to a darkroom in years, so I've had to pay for processing. This is in addition to having an all-digital workflow for paid shoots. Knowing that big-box and drugstores don't bother to regularly calibrate their machines, often using expired chemicals to stretch their overhead, and set scanners to AUTO, for several years I let Penn Camera handle my film processing expecting quality and consistency. I'm not sure if Penn was guilty of the same injustice many consumer labs are guilty of, but the scan quality always lacked (I don't order physical prints). Given my dissatisfaction with Penn, I tried Dwayne's Photo (recently famous for being the last film lab in the World to process now-discontinued Kodachrome). They were an improvement, but colors still never seemed quite right, and contrast was still so high that shadows were still sometimes blown out. I think this was a problem with the scans more than the processing - in looking at my negatives from Dwayne's, I expect I could have them rescanned more carefully with much better results.
Something has always been missing... until now.
I've been searching for a highly reputable film lab for years now - not terribly hard, but I've been looking and reading other photographers' experiences.
Every person I found who had tried Richard Photo Lab was in LOVE with them... and now I'm writing my praises too! Their pricing is almost double what other labs charge, but there is a reason; the quality is unparalleled. After a bit of comparison, I chose to have my film scanned on their Fujifilm Frontier scanner, as I consistently found its color and tonality reproduction to be smoother. And with two fresh rolls out of my new (old) medium format camera, I had more than enough reason to send in the rolls of film I've let pile up waiting to ship to RPL (this is why I'm a bad film shooter).
Ilford Delta 400 (35mm)
Let's start with the oldest - I had a roll of Ilford Delta 400 I think Gwyn gave me back in film class in 2009 - I got around to shooting it in 2014's big March snowstorm (I usually don't shoot B&W films). Hiking along the Potomac, Jake and I kinda came across this trail by accident and decided to see where it led after reading the trailhead map. I'm not even sure what trail this was.
I apparently killed off the roll shooting these two photos at Dulles while waiting for the sun to set so I could photograph the Main Terminal lit up in pink for breast cancer awareness.
I should note that while I chose Fujifilm's Frontier scanner because of my preference of its color reproduction, black and white films are only scanned on the Noritsu. This isn't a bad thing; RPL's Noritsu scans are slightly higher resolution, and there is less demand, so turnaround time is faster (unless you are like me and your order encompassed both scanners).
Overall, my order of 3 Frontier rolls and 1 Noritsu roll took 12 days from arrival to scan delivery (I sound like I'm ordering sushi - seriously, you sushi places need to start making "Fuji Rolls" that look like film canisters - I'll love you forever and ever).
Kodak Portra 400 (35mm)
Same day, same story, different film. Portra 400 is my go-to film. I like its smooth, creamy highlights, and subtle green hues in the shadows. This roll was sitting in my camera for several months; an incomplete roll that I started in the Fall, and finished in the snow. Let's start with those snow pictures.
I often push Portra 400 +1 or +2 stops, but I have a hunch I had this roll set up to experiment with pulling the film a stop or two, and didn't realize it when I sent the roll in. The scans from this roll were incredibly color grainy, with loss of shadow detail, so I can only assume this was the scanner compensating for overexposed / underdeveloped negatives... poor negatives which I'm sure were my fault. I think the roll was to be pulled, but it sat on my desk for a year waiting to be sent in with no notes written on it - I think I was supposed to give development instructions to pull this roll, but didn't know when I sent it in. I'll know for sure when I have the physical negatives back to check out.
Either way, here are those photos.
In the case of this Portra 400 roll, I applied a lot of color noise removal - I have not applied ANY luminance noise removal to ANY of the film photos in this entire post. Given the amount of noise in this set of scans, the color noise now appears as luminance grain.
I must also note that I have not applied any color edits to any of the film scans on any section of this post. The only edits I have applied are basic contrast adjustments to bring tonalities to absolute white and absolute black (as you would in a darkroom). The thing that makes RPL's scans so great (when you haven't left out key development instructions like I did on this roll... oops!) is not a thing... it's a WHO! Every single roll of scanned film is done by hand, individually, by a person. There are no presets. There are is no "automatic" setting. You get a real, live, film professional with years of experience who inspects your images and scans, and changes the scan settings to bring out the best of your film, as well as match any stylistic preferences you have given.
Richard Photo Lab offers what are known as Color PACs, or Personal Account Consultations, which allows their customers to help put a color profile together for film technicians to match stylistically. The interesting part about a Color PAC is that it isn't a saved color profile with settings plugged into the scanner; it is a tangible set of notes and photographic examples for techs to review and make individual decisions in order to match new rolls to a given Color PAC. If you don't have a Color PAC with RPL, you can opt to use another photographer's which is existing on file.
For more information on Color PACs and how Richard Photo Lab processes behind the scenes, Johnny Patience has a great article on his blog after he interviewed Richard and his crew. I did not use a Color PAC for my photos, particularly since this is my first time trying Richard Photo Lab out. I wanted to see what the lab is capable of without any influence - I'm blown away, particularly by the 120 Portra 400 later in this post.
Here is a snap of the Darling Starling I shot during the same storm. You'll notice that I posted my digital photos of the Starling and this hike along the Potomac in this earlier blog post. This photo required a large amount of adjustment for the whites and blacks, as it was the flattest photo I got back, with almost no shadow detail. A fair recovery, nonetheless.
And here is the reason I think I had this 400 ISO roll was set for 200 or even 100 ISO: the very first shot on the roll was shot in broad daylight, using my 90mm tilt-shift lens wide open. I like to shoot primes as wide open as applicable, even in daylight, so I probably chose to drop my effective ISO to shoot wide open in daylight... then forgot I'd done it.
Still pretty though.
Mamiya Super 23 Press Camera
I suppose now I should introduce my newest camera acquisition.
A few years ago, when I wrote my Lubitel 2 to EOS conversion post, I gave my high school geometry teacher a shoutout for the math skills I learned in his class which helped with that project. He followed my photography before that, but since then he's followed me even closer. Recently he and I met up to reunite and catch up from the last decade (iPhone 5 selfie).
At the same time, he told me about his Father who had passed away. His Dad had a good collection of high end photo equipment, and rather than see it collect dust, his family wanted to see it given to a good home where it would surely get some love.
So that's how I came to have my first professional (albeit 47 years old) medium format camera. I still have my Holga, which is also medium format... but it truly is a toy in comparison. Toys are fun though!
Here it is; a very used but very good condition Mamiya Super 23 Press camera, with Mamiya-Sekor 100mm f/2.8 Seikosha-S and Mamiya-Sekor 250mm f/5 Seikosha-S lenses (apparently the two rarest, most desirable lenses for this short-lived camera system thanks to their Seiko produced leaf shutters), 6x9 and 6x7 film backs, ground glass view back, and a few other small accessories. Here's a digital photo of the film camera.
And here I am shooting it for the first time (thanks to David Tsui for the photo; another digital photo).
You'll notice that it's a very odd rangefinder. The shutter button is a left-hand trigger on a detachable pistol grip. As with many medium format cameras, film is exposed via a leaf shutter built into the lens. The shutter may be triggered on the lens itself, or the pistol grip's remote wire can be screwed into the lens to activate the trigger. Film backs and ground glass backs may be hot-swapped by pulling or reinstalling the dark slide. There are two coldshoes, and flash sync is built into the lens with two modes for different types of flashes (not front vs rear curtain as often confused). Tilt and shift adjustments are built into the camera body; the film back is actually on a bellows with four lockable posts. Macro rings were sold as an accessory, but you can cheat a little and fully extend the bellows to get a shorter minimum focal distance without macro rings (and without rangefinding - you'll have to focus using ground glass to do this). There is no meter; you must use an external meter - I used a free app on my iPhone, amazingly with spot-on accuracy!
Framing is achieved by composition aids in the viewfinder, illuminated by sunlight shone in a diffuser panel and directed through a set of mirrors. A switch offers composition lines for 100mm, 150mm, and 250mm, although a 60mm wide-angle lens is also available. Rangefinding focus is found in a small, double image circle in the viewfinder center.
Before I shot with the camera, I gave every component a good cleaning, removing the years of dirt and grime that had collected from living in a box. Using the ground glass back and a film loupe (yup, they are for more than checking out negatives!), I calibrated the rangefinder for both the 100mm and 250mm lenses I have - luckily the problem was a rangefinding misalignment in the camera body, meaning I only had to fix it on the body for all lenses to calibrate, rather than adjust the rangefinder bar individually on each lens. If I hadn't done this calibration, every photo below would have been out of focus (but would have registered in focus in the viewfinder).
While calibrating the rangefinder, I also noticed that the lenses are somewhat unusual in that they do not allow focus past infinity - this is most common on pre-autofocus lenses, but makes me uncomfortable in the event that a lens comes out of calibration, and no longer has that extra leeway to focus at infinity even if the dial says you're past it. The advantage to this is that you don't have to worry about going past infinity if your lenses are properly calibrated, as these thankfully are (you just twist the dial until it stops at infinity, and don't even have to pay attention to focus in the viewfinder... assuming you want focus at infinity).
The Mamiya Press mount line of cameras only lasted 11 years, being discontinued in 1971, left in the dust by the 645 system introduced in 1975, which is still one of the most popular medium format systems in production to this very day.
An interesting camera to say the least.
Kodak Portra 400 (120)
This is what Portra SHOULD look like! Never before have I had my film come back so crisp and vibrant. Beautiful tones, outstanding range, and very little grain! Thank you Richard Photo Lab!
I shot my first two rolls on the Mamiya Super 23 with Portra 400 at box speed, with beautiful results! Unfortunately I missed Autumn's color peak in the Shenandoah Valley this year due to my travel to St. Louis, but I still went with friends on a frigid weekend; there was snow on the mountaintops. With the way the wind blows and sun shines, one side of the mountain valley still had color, and the other was barren; all the leaves had been removed by Mother Nature.
120 roll film in a 6x9 format only gets you 8 exposures per roll. I shot two rolls of Portra 400 atop the mountain; my last two frames as the sun had just dipped below the horizon.
As soon as I finished these two test rolls (shot a few days after calibration regardless of subject matter to ensure my calibration was accurate in actual practice), I sent them to Hollywood to get them in RPL's queue.
I want to shoot a portrait session on this camera! Specifically lifestyle portraits; maybe even in the snow. I have a roll of Fuji Pro 400H loaded in my 6x9 back, but haven't gotten to shoot it yet - this will be an experiment regardless, since I've never shot 400H. I do know from seeing others' photos that it's another film I have found the tones interesting, with its daylight balanced blue-greens. I'm unsure how it will look for portraits, but that's the fun of it.
Digital: Shenandoah Valley
The rest of the photos in this post are digital, shot on a Canon EOS 1D X.
I think it's only fitting that I show the digital photos shot alongside the medium format film. The final three were shot by Jake (no watermark), but all were edited by me before I had the film scans back. If I had waited for the scans to come back first, I could have edited the photos to match the scans.
Overall I seem to edit slightly more vibrant than film, but tend to have similar tonality. I also tend to stretch the dynamic range a bit. This isn't really news; I like to try and mix the tonality of film with the added benefits of digital when I process my digital photos.
I couldn't be happier with finding Richard Photo Lab and the results they have gotten me with the new Mamiya. I've already started a roll of Fuji Pro 400H, and can't wait to finish it and a few others before sending them in for the next film haul.
One last thing; I have to leave you anticipating SOMETHING. So you know my converted Lubitel lens on Canon EOS? Literally the same day as receiving my digital scans from RPL, I was given a lead on something that will... give my digital photos even more character... stay tuned folks!...