Yesterday I was out playing with an antique camera and two sleeves of New55 film. Man, I can’t wait to do more with this stuff!
As much as my main artistic workflow depends on digital photography, I have to say that film holds a special place in my heart and that goes double for large format film. There is just something about the contemplative nature and pace of working with a view camera that cannot be replicated by a digital photograph. Don’t get me wrong- most of my artwork I simply could not do with analog. My process has evolved so much around digital photography. But for some subjects, film is the right medium to express what I see in my head. The downside is that film is expensive (especially so in large format) and can be unforgiving of screw-ups. Having a way to preview the composition and exposure is critical. So when the New55 guys announced a Kickstarter to revive Polaroid’s Type 55 film- an instant 4×5 film that gives a positive and a negative- I signed up. Bob Cowley and the crew have been refreshingly upfront about the project’s risks and chances of success and recently they released an experimental batch of material for sale. I bought two boxes and this weekend headed to Odiorne Point state park in New Hampshire. BTW, if you have not been there, Odiorne is a real gem and offers photographic opportunities that rival anything on the coasts of Maine or California.
On to the film. I only brought two sleeves of New55 because I am saving the rest for another project, but I wanted to see how the film performed. I set up a Busch Pressman camera fitted with a 135 mm lens on a tripod. I like the Busch Pressman because it has a rotating back and more lens movements than a Graflex; the downside is it uses an odd-sized lens board that can be hard to find. It also weighs a ton! Seriously, if you complain to me about the weight of your DSLR I’m going to make you carry this thing! I metered with a spot meter app on my Iphone, which may have been a mistake. Below are the two first prints:
Overall the film worked well although my metering was off, especially on the second shot. Those of you who are digital native are likely looking at these and thinking “Man, the highlights are blown. There’s no way to recover that!” and if this were digital you would be right. But take a look at the negative scans. I fixed the negatives in 50% Ilford Rapid fix. They come out with purple-blue tint, which isn’t a big deal in monochrome but if you don’t like it, a run through Hypo will clear the color. I put the negatives on a light table, took several images with my Nikon D800e and a macro lens, then stitched them in Photoshop, converted to greyscale, inverted and added a curves layer to adjust to taste.
Much better results, eh? The thing about negative film is that when you overexpose it, the negative becomes denser. All of the image information is still there and can be recovered digitally, so long as the negative is not SO dense that light cannot penetrate it. This was a good reminder for me- when using film err on the side of overexposure rather than under.
If I shot this again, I’d use a red filter to bring out the sky and maybe a polarizer as well. The beta batch of New55 has some interesting artifacts, especially around the edges but I like the overall results. Once I get my next project done I’ll talk more about why I’m choosing film as a medium.
Lucas James is a fine art photographer based in Manchester, NH.