I see a lot of photos in my role here at the site. I understand most of them. I can read the light and intuit some of the work that went into making them. But I recently stumbled upon a collection of intriguing images on Instagram, and I wasn’t entirely sure what I was looking at.
Shot by Elzi Boba, a self-described experimental film photographer, the photos show a combination of multiple exposures, intense color shifts, and what can only be described as organic overlays. I suspected the film had been treated to influence the final image in unpredictable ways, but I wasn’t sure how or with what the film had been treated. After a conversation with the photographer who made them, I learned that “film soup” is a thing.
I asked Elzi to have a chat so that I could learn more, and subsequently pass that information on to our readers. Here is that conversation, along with plenty of sample shots of images made by souping film.
Hello Elzi. Please tell us a bit about yourself, your path as a photographer, and how you first discovered film.
Hello James! Thank you for having me. I am from Bulgaria and currently study pharmacology in King’s College London. I have a collection of expired films and small plants, and I have an urge to experiment in science and photography. It all started in 2015 with me being interested in this mysterious camera that my sister had. She never removed it from the box and explained this by saying that the camera was broken. Well I knew that something was wrong, so I decided to roam the internet for answers. That’s how I discovered my first medium format film camera, the Holga HCN.
Previously while looking at photo albums and color shifted film strips of my family, I also found a Kodak s100, and started to shoot 35mm too. But my experimentations didn’t start till 2016, when I discovered Lomography and some other articles on double exposure, red scale and, of course, film soup.
What is film souping? When did you first start, and why?
Film soup is an experimental technique where you submerge the unexposed roll of film in different liquids. Because film is sensitive to environmental changes, it will react in different ways that result in unexpected effects on the picture.
I love making film soup for the crazy or subtle color shifts, complementing the photograph, and just for a great amount of fun that I’m having. I started to soup in 2016, after stumbling onto an article about film souping and some photos on Instagram. At that time my goal was to find a film technique that will keep me interested. I was enjoying color film but needed bigger push, even more color, especially in Autumn to illustrate changing leaves in a more magical and absurd way. Or just to shoot in gloomy days, to be inspired again, as I do during the spring bloom and summer haze.
Tell us a bit about your process. How do you shoot the film, how do you prepare it for souping? Do you dry the film afterwards? Should people soup before or after shooting?
I would start by shooting the roll, because adding liquid beforehand – orange juice or whiskey or cough syrup, for example – could potentially damage the camera (maybe for plastic cameras it would be ok, but I don’t risk it now). There would be no difference between soaking before or after shooting, as far as the end product is concerned. Either way it is important to dry your film roll before either shooting or developing (one to two weeks in indirect sunlight will do).
I don’t do any rituals before film soup, but I believe you could wish so that the liquid that you soaked in didn’t completely eat the chemicals on the film strip. That could happen in a concentrated detergent, so dilute the liquid of your choice. It partially happened to me once, and resulted in super purple and blue shots and damaged film. But you can’t get good results without experimenting – the beauty of trial and error!
How long do you soup the film? Does the effect vary depending on times? Do you wash the film after souping?
So, you’ve already chosen the liquid to soup (tea, milk, or something else in the kitchen that seems interesting), you’ve shot the roll of film and gotten all hyped up for the experiment. Start boiling the water, to dilute or make some tea for your nerves (don’t forget about snacks for yourself). Find a jar with a lid, or something that you don’t use that often (we don’t want to get poisoned with chemicals eventually).
Mix the liquid with some water and decide on the time for film soup. There is no rule on how long to soup the roll of film. The effects would vary depending on the time, as it would take longer to react with some chemicals (rain water versus detergent – very different chemically). But I would start by looking at pH table and find how damaging the liquid might be (everything less or more then pH 7 might potentially damage the roll). Warm water will make the process of film soup faster, so that’s another point to know.
My rule is simple – everything super acidic or basic (house hold chemicals, lime juice, some teas and alcohol), I dilute and soup from two to four hours. I soup undiluted ingredients for less than two hours. But you can soup longer, for now I’m increasing the time of soaking to find the appropriate effect. I would say with appropriate dilution you can leave it for a day or two. Also, important to agitate the soup from time to time, the liquid will affect the whole film roll.
And finally, to stop the chemical reaction, submerge your film roll in cold water for ten to twenty minutes. I don’t think it matters for how long, but I use this step to wash out all the left-over chemicals, so my film won’t ruin other rolls in the lab. Just a precaution. Leave the rolls to dry for one to two weeks or longer if necessary.
Are there any special considerations to be made when developing souped film?
I normally tell the lab that my rolls are soaked, and they seem to be fine with it. However, it will be important to inform the lab or just ask them if they will develop in case you are soaking in heavy chemicals or think that something would be disruptive to the lab’s machines or to other film rolls that are being developed (that’s where the thorough rinsing comes in handy).
Sometimes people in the lab don’t understand and think that you did this by mistake and not intentionally for the artistic purposes. You could always develop at home and be free from judgmental eyes and stares.
Can you share with us some of your favorite recipes?
I don’t have very complicated recipes, always using household materials and a phone timer (well Siri helps sometimes too). My go-to recipe, the one that I did the first time is all kinds of teas. Don’t believe me but every tea will be performing differently on film, starting from light berry and fruity teas to heavy green and black teas. And I think there might be a difference between teas around the world. Plus, it is always nice to make tea for yourself as well as for the roll you’ve shot. But don’t drink and soup in the same cup.
The recipe of my fist ever film soup –
- Shoot a film roll (leave a film leader to check the damaging effects of the chemicals)
- Make the tea as you normally would (hot water and loose-leaf tea or packets)
- Mix tea and film roll in a jar with a lid. Start the timer for thirty minutes to two days (with tea, could be longer). And agitate for every one minute after every ten mins. Or mix vigorously whenever you what to.
- Drain the soup and wash the roll with cold water. Leave it for ten to twenty minutes. Don’t forget to mix. If the liquid is still concentrated. Repeat the water bath process once more (with tea, one time is usually enough)
- Dry the roll by leaving it out of direct sunlight for one to two weeks or longer. It is fine to forget about the roll for a while; nothing bad should happen to it.
My favorite recipe –
- Boil water, add one to two caps (not cups) of detergent
- 1:2 ratio of detergent and water. Mix more or less to get crazier or more subtle effects
- Add tea or silica gel for variation in effects
- Soak for one to two hours (more concentrated liquid – less time; less concentrated – more time)
- Wash in cold water for ten to twenty minutes. Dry.
That is everything I know about film soup. I’m still experimenting and won’t stop till I find more experimental recipes. For me it took somewhat from 2016 and now to find information on the web, cool recipes, and courage to soup. Now there are more places that discuss this process and loads of cool and experimental film photographers around Instagram and YouTube.
Thank you for having me here today, James. If this interview still left the readers unsure, I’m always glad to explain everything starting from the basics of film photography to experimental techniques on my Instagram. I hope to chat with others about their experience with film soup techniques and see more growth in the community in the near future. For now, I wish luck and joy to everyone who’ll try and succeed in film soup.
I love that I’m still discovering new and interesting things in photography, even after running this site for more than five years. I don’t know if I’ll ever personally try souping film, but I do know that I’ll be following Elzi’s Instagram feed.
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From an experimental point of view, I can imagine that this is a fun part of photography. As with much in the world of Art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Personally, and apart from the first image of the flowers in the pot and which I find wonderful in its pastel hues, I’m not seeing anything other than a waste of good film. The issue for me is can the final outcome be repeated, or is everything left to chance? This is mechanical art and one which I don’t see the photographer having any vision as to the outcome. But as they say, there are many ways to skin a cat, and if this floats your boat, why not?