Sunday, February 20, 2011

On 35mm C41 film processing (in India)

Dear readers,

Gear : I use a borrowed Vivitar 3000S with a 50mm f/1.7 lens. No flash. I usually use ISO 400 films, mostly Kodak Max, sometimes Fuji. My choice of sensitive films is governed by my inclination towards low light photography.

The last few times, I was utterly disappointed by the prints that I was handed over by the local studios. They had quite a few problems.
  1. The films were sliced carelessly into strips of 4s. In some cases the previous strip had about 20% of the next film's exposed width. A damage like this is irreparable.
  2. The print had substantial image missing. The printed area was about 80% of the actual image.
  3. The prints had horizontal lines across them as if the brushes of the paper feed roller had scratched them. When I complained, the studio said that there were lines on the negative itself. I seriously started doubting my gear.
  4. The colours were outright unnatural. There was way too much saturation.
I had asked Rahul Mehta to get the last cartridge printed from Delhi. Some of the images were amazing. This boosted my confidence, put my faith back in analog and proved that the negatives were fine.

I decided to ditch that workflow altogether.

Firstly, I had no chemicals nor an access to a dark room to develop film. I asked a local studio to develop the cartridge and give me the entire reel uncut. Then I got hold of a flatbed film scanner in my department and started scanning. (Doing that right now). Simultaneously I am preparing print-ready pdfs post colour-correction and framing. (Simultaneously writing this journal entry, too, since the scanner takes a lot of time to scan films at 2400ppi).

This has exposed many things that would otherwise go unnoticed had I not dived hands-on into the process.
  1. The film scanners take the entire 35mm exposed area into account. This in itself is a leaps and bounds improvement over the DX windowed prints I had received earlier.
  2. Each exposure requires some attention to get a print-ready file. Some require a basic curve adjustment while others require meticulous control over shadows, midtones and highlights separately. Some even require selective retouch that can be analogous to selective under and overexposing of halide sheets. The cookie cutter approach of labs is not satisfactory at all.
  3. The lens is not as sharp as a Nikkor or Canon 50mm f/1.8D. But we must also take into account that this lens is damn cheap - the body+lens cost the original owner INR 3.5k while The Nikkor lens itself is INR 6.3k. A marginally better lens 50mm f/1.4D is INR 16.7k. The Canons are even more expensive.
  4. When objects are far away and light is low, ISO 400 films show significant grain - so much so that at times it is difficult to even identify the object / person. Coupled with a less sharp lens, this is a big problem.
  5. 1 EV underexposure can be corrected in post processing at the cost of dynamic range. But a 1 EV overexposure is impossible to fix. The brackets in artificial light (specifically, sodium and mercury floodlights) situations can be +0.5, 0.0, -1 EV.
  6. Sometimes accidental motion gives unexpected 'unnatural results'. I managed to get two of them in this cartridge.
  7. There is a 'feel' factor associated with film images that is nearly impossible to get in digital. The jitters, grain, dust and speckles all add to that. In my opinion, in arts, character must take precedence over accuracy. It took me 4-5 hours to get the entire reel done (and simultaneously write this), but it's worth it.

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