Ilford HP5 Plus 400

NOTE: I'll begin this experience report with a brief disclaimer. It's been less than two years since I returned to shooting 35mm film after switching to digital photography over 20 years ago. Between web articles and advice from experienced 35mm film photographers, I've inundated myself with as much 35mm film education as possible for now. But, with my former experience long behind me and limited recent experience, this "review" comes from a novice film photographer's point of view.

My Gen-Z kids think shooting 35mm photographic film is stupid.

When my daughter was about eight years old, my mom came to visit and brought a disposable film camera, which she quickly filled with images of her grandkids. When my daughter asked to see the photos, my mom explained that she had to develop the roll and order prints. My daughter looked confused, so I explained that we couldn't see the photos immediately. We have to wait until the camera can't take any more pictures, then take it to the photo lab, where they will "develop" the film with chemicals and create prints. Sometimes, we can get the printed photos in a few hours, and sometimes we must wait a few days. She asked, "Do we still have to pay even if the pictures are bad?". Yes, I said. Her retort, "That's stupid!".

I'll admit this right now. I was wrong. Shooting 35mm film can be fun. Let's be clear: I think digital photography is superior to 35mm film photography—autofocus, higher resolution, better quality lenses, size, etc. Digital is unbeatable. However, like with cars, sometimes using older technology can be fun, connecting to the past and sharing cultural experiences.

Asahi Pentax SP II
Asahi Pentax SP II · Sunday 9 February 2020 · Pentax P3 · SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/2

Because all the cool kids are doing it, which I know is a silly reason to do anything, I have been rediscovering film photography. Maybe my desire to shoot film stems from my father's passing last year and working through my emotions and memories of his photography; perhaps some is the challenge of relearning an old skill. Also, I thought it could be fun. Shooting film with old 1970s and 1980s era film SLRs, an Asahi Optical Co. Spotmatic II, and a Pentax P3 means shooting with no light meter and manual focusing without any visual aids and being limited by the speed of the film, which further limits the range of shutter speeds and aperture combinations.

Thankful · Sunday 9 February 2020 · Pentax P3 · SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/2

The last time I shot a roll of film was in 1999, shortly after my first child was born. My first attempt at shooting film after all these years was mostly a failure. But I persisted and recently completed shooting a 35mm roll of Ilford HP5 Plus 400 in my Pentax P3 using a rubber band to hold the film door shut. The images below are from that roll.

I mailed two rolls of film to be processed at The Darkroom in San Clemente, California. The Darkroom develops colour print (C-41), slide (E-6) and Black & White in 35mm and other formats and provides prints and/or negative scans.

Matt and Joe · Sunday 9 February 2020 · Pentax P3 · SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/2

With every roll of film developed, The Darkroom scans the film and negatives in one of three scan sizes. The Darkroom states that Standard Scans are recommended for print sizes up to 5x7 inches, and Enhanced scans are recommended for print sizes up to 12x18 inches. Super Scans are 4492×6774 pixel JPEGs scanned from 35 mm film and are downloaded only. The Darkroom claims these are perfect for giant prints. I ordered no prints but opted for the Super Scans and access to the online gallery to download the scanned images. Developing and scanning my roll of Ilford HP5 Plus 400 costs me $20 before shipping and handling.

Sunday 9 February 2020 · Pentax P3 · SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/2

One of the downsides of shooting film is that unless one has the patience to record the settings for every shot in a notebook, the metadata about the photograph is not captured. It took me some time to recall when some of these were captured, but I am unsure about the time of day, shutter speed, aperture, etc. I used Exif Editor to add the camera and lens information.

My wife, the woman in the featured image, has this expression every time I point a camera in her direction, but she had a bemused expression when I mentioned I was shooting and developing film. She saw the invoice for the film, watched me delete the 14 horrible images, and walked away, shaking her head.

Sunday 9 February 2020 · Pentax P3 · SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/2

I am not convinced this was worth the effort and cost, but I had already purchased rolls of Velvia, Ektachrome 100 and ADOX Scala 160.

Bhavna is the office manager for a local mental health and counselling practice. We attended an office dinner party hosted at Bhavna's employer's home. The guests were gracious in allowing me to practice my photography on them. After the dinner party, Bhavna and I walked around downtown Lambertville, allowing me another opportunity to finish the roll. Some of the images were shot indoors, and some outdoors in the late afternoon and early evening. It could be a more cohesive set of images. The subject matter varied from portraiture to street to "je ne sais quoi".

If you want to see how to shoot Ilford HP5 Plus 400 properly, see Jim Grey's post on Shooting Ilford HP5 Plus.

Katie · Sunday 9 February 2020 · Pentax P3 · SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/2
Bridge Street, Lamberville, New Jersey · Sunday 9 February 2020 · Pentax P3 · SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/2
J B Kline New & Vintage, Bridge St, Lambertville, New Jersey · Sunday 9 February 2020 · Pentax P3 · SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/2
Kline's Court, Lamberville, New Jersey · Sunday 9 February 2020 · Pentax P3 · SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/2
ACME Screening Room. South Union St, Lamberville's Art House Cinema! · Sunday 9 February 2020 · Pentax P3 · SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/2
Del-Vue Cleaners, South Union St, Lambertville, New Jersey · Sunday 9 February 2020 · Pentax P3 · SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/2

Kodak Ektar 100

I can speculate as much as I want about why the photographic film is making a comeback. It's one part nostalgia and one part a desire for a more challenging and hands-on medium. Still, this morning after reading a post on Japan Camera Hunter, I found myself perusing film-centric websites such as the Analogue Wonderland, filtr, 595 and clicking around the vintage lens sections of eBay.

Last weekend I mailed off a roll of Kodak Professional Ektar 100 to Boutique Film Lab in New York City for processing and prints. It was a roll of film I shot a year ago with my college Pentax P3. Until that roll of film, I had not used film since 1999. That's when I switched to digital, which in modern times is more flexible, more capable and has better image quality in the sensors and lenses. Notice I didn't write image resolution; I wrote: "image quality".

The other day, I was walking around a Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition, and if there was one thing I was struck by in the 6×9 prints hanging on the walls, it was their resolution.Said no one, ever

Of course, my response would be, "Why would I restrict myself to ancient technology?". The next time I am ill, shall I consult the local doctor for treatment with leeches tonics? Why are these photographers scanning their film, post-processing the images in software, and then putting the results online and behaving as they've just created something magical? Why not just start with digital in the first place?

Kodak Professional Ektar 100 Color Negative Film | Pentax P3 | SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/2

The lab did its best with the role I provided, but I was unhappy with the results. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the back cover of the Pentax P3 had a faulty latch, which is apparent from the scans I received. I inspected my camera and discovered the back cover was never fully closed. The film had been exposed to light. This problem is unique to film cameras; however, I wasted film, development, scan, and shipping costs because I could not immediately see the results of my photographic efforts. With a digital camera, I would have discovered any problems immediately. I abandoned 35mm film photography in 1999 due to this lack of immediate feedback.

Now, some photographers will put on airs about film photography. They will speak and write as though the deprecated medium lacks some magical quality in modern digital photography. A few will admit it's a matter of preference, but many others create a false narrative about the film. They will write as though their opinions are a matter of fact as though the qualities they are discussing are inherent to the technology, not personal preference.

Kodak Professional Ektar 100 Color Negative Film | Pentax P3 | SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/2

They will argue that they like the look of the film while not acknowledging their personal bias. I sometimes like the look of some film stock. But I can buy dozens of excellent film simulation presets online that reproduce the look of photographic films from the last three decades. Heck, Fujifilm, the makers of much of the classic Velvia and Provia film that these film adherents use, makes a line of digital cameras with [film simulation presets](' s-film-simulation-modes) that can produce film-like images in-camera of the same films. The use of film is just one way to get that "look", whether that look is Kodak Professional Ektar 100, Fujifilm Velvia 50, Ilford HP5 Plus or something completely new.

Of course, the so-called look of the film print depends on the development process used, whether the film was pushed/pulled or under/overexposed at capture, or whether the print process involved dodging and burning. All of which can be accomplished with modern digital imaging software.

The aesthetic – and not the process – is the thing that is appreciated by the end observer of the image, and a considerable percentage of the time, the end observer should know and care little or nothing about how or even why that aesthetic was achieved, but instead what that aesthetic evokes in them.Hamish Gill

Some film photographers will claim that because they can only shoot 24 or 36 frames per roll, using film slows them down, forcing them to consider every shutter button click. I don't disagree that all photographers can benefit from taking time to think about their photography. But this discipline is not an essential feature of using film. It's a necessary behaviour born out of the limitation of the medium with applicability to specific genres of photography, e.g., street, landscape, and architecture. I would argue that some photographers lack discipline when shooting with a digital or analogue camera. This limitation is because of the photographer, not the technology.

Kodak Professional Ektar 100 Color Negative Film | Pentax P3 | SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/2

The film-biased folks will argue that their film camera doesn't need batteries but ignore that the most popular film photography cameras of their time either had built-in light meters or required a hand-held external light meter for proper exposure. Light meters use batteries. Later film cameras had auto-focusing and film winding mechanisms that required batteries.

To get around the need for a light meter, some photographers used the "Sunny 16" technique. This technique requires the photographer to set the exposure to the inverse of the film ISO (e.g. 1400 sec at ISO 400) when the lens aperture is set to f/16. Need to shoot ISO 400 film at f/11? Reduce the exposure time by half. Some photographers were good at mental math or had memorised the table of possible values. What if the best exposure was 1600 sec instead of 1400 sec?

When I was looking to set up my Asahi Optical Co. Pentax Spotmatic II film camera1, I discovered that the batteries for the light meter were difficult to source because the chemical used in the batteries was banned; they are environmentally unsafe.

The film photographers snobs will say, "There is some special about the Asahi SMC Takumar 50mm f/2 that is lacking in modern lenses ". Ok. Maybe. I'll use this adapter to attach that lens to my "modern" digital camera. I should get the same "special" results. Right?

When (or if) I shoot a roll of film, I will be doing it with a roll of Ilford HP5 Plus or Kodak Professional Ektar2 or Fujifilm Velvia 50 in my Asahi Optical Co. Pentax Spotmatic II. When I load the film, operate the knobs, press the shutter, wind the film, etc. I will spark fond memories of my adventures with my brothers, Mom and Dad. I will be doing it, not because the film has some magical property not present in digital photography, but because I get to time travel. Also, it's just fun to experiment with the technology.

We're not talking about morality here. We're just talking about the properties of photographs. No property automatically makes a photograph better. No property automatically disqualifies a photograph from being good. Being bigoted just closes us off to a greater range of possibility in our own work, and to a greater and more subtle range of possibility in the accomplishments of others.Image Virtues by Mike Johnston in The Online Photographer

Kodak Professional Ektar 100 Color Negative Film | Pentax P3 | SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/2

  1. My father died earlier this year. I inherited his unrepairable Asahi Optical Co. Pentax Spotmatic II, and I felt nostalgic for my dad, so I bought a used one on eBay. 
  2. Because Kodachrome is no longer available.