As you can imagine I routinely get people from all over the world asking questions about getting started in black and white film photography. My answer is always more or less the same. A good place to start is to get any older 35mm camera from the 90’s (e.g., Nikon F100, N75, Canon EOS, etc.) and a box of Kodak Tri-X 400 you are well on your way to creating some beautiful black and white photographs.
Even if you are a master at digital photography, exploring and learning black and white film photography will open up new doors that you never imagined. Based on my experience, I believe that modern digital photographers improve their ability to tell stories via their photos when they work with film.
Developing your own film at home with Diafine is extremely easy and very forgiving. You can review my article and videos on how to develop your film at home. If you are a little more adventurous, then rate your Tri-X at half the box speed at EI 2oo and develop it in D76 at 20C/68F for 9 minutes in your hand tank. Now you have the ultimate master, a film-based negative. You can print it in the darkroom or you can scan it and create a vast array of digital-based products.
If you have lenses for one manufacturer then that is your best path because while there may be subtle differences between manufacturers, they will all take great photographs. I have shot both Canon and Nikon over the years and either choice is just fine. I have no affiliation with KEH.com, the world's largest used camera dealer, but highly recommend them for buying used camera gear on a budget for a couple of reasons. First, they are very conservative on how they rate their gear and you get a 6-month warranty to boot! You can pick up a perfect condition 35mm film camera for less than $100 which is an absolute bargain.
Also, one nice advantage of photographing with a 35mm film SLR is you get full frame photos. No cropping of 1.5 for typical Nikon’s and 1.6 on Canon’s. You will typically have to spend over $1,000 or more to get a full frame digital SLR camera and in comparison you can get a full frame film SLR for less than $100. You decide which is best for you. Pick up a scanner to convert your negatives to a digital file and you have a high-end full frame system.
I recently went to the St. Louis Planetarium and to Forest Park. I took these two photos using the Nikon F100 and Tri-X 400. I used XTOL 1+1 as I typically do for all my 35mm film because I want the sharpest and finest grain as possible in the event I want to make an enlargement. However, there are times when I want the enlarged grain for artistic purposes and I would typically use D76 stock for this scenario and push Tri-X a couple or even three stops to find the look I am going for.
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On a side note, I am routinely asked about maximum print size from 35mm negatives. My answer is as follows. I have made many 16×20 prints in the darkroom from 35mm negatives and if you follow the general guidance of slightly underexposing and using a fine grain developer such as XTOL you should get similar results. If you want to scan your negatives and produce a digital print then you have no practical limitations. If you want the best results today from your own scanner then I would recommend the Epson V750/V800 Pro scanner and special film holder from betterscanning.com for optimum scans. Using the V750/V800 and the film holders from betterscanning.com I print 16×20 prints on my Epson 3880 with terrific results. If you want larger prints from your 35mm negatives then I highly recommend the drum scanning services at West Coast Imaging (WCI). You can literally make 50+” prints from their high-resolution tango drum scans. The only limitations you have is your imagination.
I would make two comments about the scanning and prints. First, if you want to keep your costs to a minimum then a current model Canon or Epson scanner in the $150 dollar range will produce really nice scans and you could easily make 8×10 prints all day long with this combination. If you want to make a huge enlargement from one of those home run images then WCI is the best option and of course, the expense is much greater.
If you are just starting out or just want to play around with film then an inexpensive 35mm body from Nikon or Canon with a standard lens is a great place to start. I recommend starting out with Tri-X because of its generous latitude for exposure errors and contrast. It is also very easy to develop with wonderful shadow detail. A current model flatbed scanner will give you good results and allow you to play around with the medium and let your creative side take over. If you want to expand on your black and white film efforts then an entire world of medium and large format systems awaits you. My personal bias is for people to create prints in the darkroom. It is a fun and very rewarding process to explore and learn. Most people that I teach and coach that pursue the darkroom path never look back and enjoy a lifetime of fun.
I selected to show you these two photos because of the contrast and tonal gradation that is possible with 35mm film. The St. Louis Planetarium photo is a good example of this because you see the soft subtle tonal gradation of tones and shadows on the floor in the foreground and you also see the films ability to give you awesome contrast across the scene. I also included an example of a landscape style photo from Forest Park that illustrates the ability of the 35mm camera and film combination to produce sharp photos.
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