I am increasingly interested in mucked-up films: film that’s been doctored prior to shooting – fogged or partially exposed (like Psych Blues or Revolog); x-pro or cross-processed film, designed to be processed in the wrong chemicals (slide film in negative film chemicals or vice versa); or Redscale, film that has been spooled reverse ways so that you shoot on the “wrong” side.
I’ve never gotten my hands on any of the old Kodak Aerochrome infrared film, and missed out on the small batch Lomography turquoise (still kicking myself for that one) but I have shot a few rolls Lomo’s Purple film V1, version two is currently available. All of these films throw a unique colored cast on your images.
If you are inclined to develop and soup your own film, as my friend Ruby does, the options for doctoring your film are limited only by your imagination and kitchen/cleaning cupboards.
What’s the appeal? There’s no way to know in advance exactly how your images are going to look, and when you can reliably get your desired photograph, that element of chance adds a bit of excitement to shooting. With Redscale or Xpro, I do have a general idea of the color cast I’ll end up with (orangey red with redscale and toxic green with x-pro). Each lends itself to different subject matter than I usually shoot, so popping in a roll of one or the other will encourage me to look at and for things differently. This in and of itself is a great exercise, and has become a useful tool in my slump-busting arsenal. There’s something more to it for me, though.
When the right color cast or effect combines with the right image, it’s elevating. As my friend, Kirstin commented recently, the image feels more like a memory than a photo.
Photographer beware, however. These films are not without their risks. If you only carry one camera and take your time finishing off a roll of film, as I do, you might forget you’ve got some weird film loaded when you aim to make a touching portrait. I’ve certainly done it. More than once.
You might happen upon a scene of incomparable beauty and have no dearer wish than to accurately freeze it just as it is . . . and realize, oy! your camera is loaded with monster film that will twist the divine palette up and spit out something either unintelligible or tawdry.
Today, for a change, I’m sharing a mix of hits and misses. Everyone’s eyes and tastes are different, but if you’ve been curious about some of these films and wanted to know the good, bad and ugly before jumping in, this one’s for you.
Another lesson I’ve learned is that if my objective is a clear narrative message, one that the viewer can absorb, I can only mess with reality in one dimension, at most, and rarely, two. Any more than that, and I’m headed for an unintelligible photograph.
Maybe I can do a double exposure with a color shift, but not a many multiple-exposure. If I try to bend reality any more the image stops making sense. Reflections are confusing to decipher in a straight photograph, if I add an altered palette, the resulting image doesn’t give the viewer enough “real” visual data for it to make sense to them. My rule of thumb is, if I can’t understand a photo I made in a glance, that’s far too much work to ask of a viewer. It took me quite a while to understand what idea I had had when composing this mess.
For each time that the color shift is exquisite – perfectly suited to my subject or has intensified the emotion in a frame – there are probably a few losers on that roll offsetting the wins. Images where the color was just plain wrong or ugly. But while I’d never choose these films for a once in a lifetime family event, now and again, for whatever comes my way, they are a calculated risk I’ve come to embrace.
Many of these films have wider ISO ranges than usual say 50 – 200, or 100 – 400 vs. the typical 100, 200, 400 box speed you’ll see on standard slide or negative film. You can shoot them anywhere in that range, but overexposing these films and/or shooting them at the slower (lower ISO number) end of their range is almost always my preference. The kind of light that you’re not supposed to go shooting in – brilliant, high contrast, with brightest brights and pitch black darks is great for these films. If the light is low and dim, it doesn’t matter whether my meter says I’ve got a solid exposure, I’m probably not going to be happy with the resulting image if I press my shutter.
Sometimes I’ll still take the shot anyway knowing full well that it’s a Hail Mary. It usually fails as expected, but then again, it’s just one frame in a roll of 36 that I can usually coax to 38. And sometimes you do get lucky.
Have you experimented with altered films? If so, please share your favorite film or method with us in the comments. If you’ve been keen to try, I hope I’ve given you a little nudge.
Keep your eyes wide open,