From the early stages of my interest in photography I’ve always loved offbeat techniques, unusual gear, and the results that they can produce.
Pinhole cameras are a great example of this. When I decided to start building pinholes I jumped into my research assuming that I’d be using print paper as the recording medium (aka negative). But most of the results I saw from paper negatives had that kind of amateur pinhole look. Everything looked kind of blurry, dark and really high contrast. I also found out people were making pinhole cameras that used film for negatives (I don’t know why film pinholes hadn’t occurred to me before) and, for whatever reason, the results I was seeing from the film pinholes looked much better, so the first pinhole I made was designed to use film. But the more I researched and the more results I saw the more I realized cool stuff could be done with paper negatives too. So… The next pinhole was designed to use paper and was hooked immediately.
Developing the process (get it!)
In addition to liking the way the results look, there are a handful of other things that make paper negatives very cool to me.
I’ve got a sort of makeshift darkroom set up. It’s basically my garage after dark. It’s not the most light free environment ever but it’s always worked okay for printing. That’s been fine for me because I do all my film work in a dark bag and film tanks. When I started getting the itch to do large format stuff I realized it would require new (and way more expensive) tanks. It also seemed like dealing with large format film would be harder in general. So my first paper pinhole was also large format… why not.
One of the things playing with that paper pinhole taught me was that developing paper negatives is very easy. I bought 3 plastic containers with lids that were big enough to hold a 4×5. I put the chemicals in them, wait for the sun to go down, plug in my safety light and develop. Since the camera shoots direct to paper, I’m not using an enlarger so I don’t even have to hang out in the garage. It can easily be done in the bathroom. Then when I’m finished I just put the lids on the containers and put them under the sink. Then I just dry, scan and invert the digital image in any editing software. So much easier than dealing with film…
I was happy with the process and pretty happy with the results but pinhole is definitely tricky, at least by my experience so far. Exposure has to be just right or you get that dark contrasty look and exposure times can be difficultly short or long. Also, my design had to be loaded in the dark so I was limited to one shot a day. Don’t get me wrong, I love my pinhole but… it’s not the easiest most convenient camera to shoot on a regular basis.
The final piece of the puzzle
Of course my general large format itch was always accompanied by a very specific itch for a large format camera (non-pinhole). Shooting with paper negatives in normal cameras was another technique I wasn’t aware of until stumbling across it while researching everything. Perfect! Now that I had a cheap easy system for processing large format I had an excuse to buy another toy. So I started watching ebay and craigslist for a decent deal and finally found something. I got an old Graflex Speed Graphic and a bunch of film holders for one hundred dollars. It’s a bit beat up but it’s perfect for me.
Summary of paper negative coolness
Fun -> Paper negatives are like a gateway drug for building pinholes, starting up a darkroom and shooting large format… that’s like the holy trinity of photo fun.
Cheap film -> A quick search at the time of writing shows the cheapest 4×5 film at $2.35 a shot (before tax and shipping). Compare that to $.25 a shot ($12.50 for 20 sheets of 8×10 paper) and well… I don’t even have to mention the cost savings of not buying large format film processing gear (see what I did there).
Cheap camera -> Building your own pinhole can be pretty much free and, if you ask me, a hundred bucks for a cool old large format camera is pretty good compared to what you can spend on a DSLR these days, even a cheap one.
Easy -> When you eliminate the film development and enlarger steps from your process… all you do is load, shoot and develop. All you need is a bathroom, some tupperware and a safety light.
Pretty -> The results can be awesome. Especially if you’re like me and embrace (love) imperfection.
Community -> There are a couple cool flickr groups for paper negatives. Lots of cool pics, photographers and forums for inspiration and research.
Positive Paper -> Ilford is making a new “direct positive” paper that is perfect for using as your “negative”. It records the image in your pinhole or camera as a positive! I’m still trying to wrap my head around this. If this works out you’ll be able to eliminate the scanning step from the process too. Shoot, develop and hang it on the wall. How cool is that.
Update: I did some film cost crunching and realized, 1) shooting 4×5 paper negatives is one of the cheapest options at around 20 cents a shot (second only to 35mm film, not bad for large format) and 2) the Harmon Direct Positive paper is only slightly more expensive than regular print paper. Now if I could only find some (it’s still kind of new so it’s pretty rare).
Filters -> I think, in general, filters are always recommended for analogue black and white work. Black and white film tends to see UV and blue light a bit harshly and paper negatives are even more contrasty than film. Filters can help soften that. I’ve been using a green/yellow on everything and I’ve been really happy with the results. Note: Due to the fact paper isn’t sensitive to red light… red filters do not work… I learned that the hard way. Duh!
It took me a while to put all this together. Some of that while was spent struggling to figure out stuff that I now know. If you think anything I know can help reduce your struggle just shoot me a comment and I’ll do the best I can or we’ll figure out how to figure it out together.