This is the story of one of the infinite possible experiments a film photographer can undertake.
Sometimes I feel like I have to throw every trick in the book at a familiar subject to come up with something new. Between parental responsibilities and COVID lockdowns keeping me at home or at close relatives’ houses, I’ve spent a lot of my time in the last year and a half returning to the same places, trying to find a new perspective through new cameras or film stocks, if I can’t muster any other kind of creative approach. Sure, I may have photographed the same stack of rocks a dozen times before, but have I photographed it with a 87-year-old camera on redscale film that I developed at home using a process I’d never tried before? I haven’t, and for that matter, it’s such a bizarre combination that I’m sure nobody else has either.
Each step of this experiment has a story behind it. The camera is the Rolleiflex Old Standard I reviewed recently; I didn’t include these images in the article because I hadn’t processed them yet, even though they predated other rolls I had put through the camera.
Then there’s the film. When I was visiting my family in Seattle over the holidays, I stopped by the Shot on Film Store, where the camera selection is always so dazzling that I’m paralyzed with indecision. I conclude that I already own enough cameras (what?), and I shop for film instead. They had a three-pack of Lomography Redscale in 120, which I bought because it was reasonably priced and I’d been itching to try it.
Redscale film is basically just color negative film that’s been wound so that light hits the film by passing through the non-emulsion side first, resulting in a range of intense red and orange tones in the image. You could do this yourself by winding your own film backwards in a dark bag [something similar was explored in this YouTube video that we produced], or you could buy Lomography XR 50-200. The XR stands for extended range, meaning that you can shoot at different ISOs for different effects. Metering at a lower ISO results in a more subtle red tone, and at a higher ISO a more intense one.
A few months later we visited my husband’s family in Ithaca, New York. While we’re there we usually take a few walks around Sapsucker Woods, Cornell’s wild bird refuge. It was late winter, the trees were bare, and there was some crusty snow on the ground. I thought the intense warmth of redscale film would make an interesting combination with the cold, stark landscape. I shot through most of the roll at Sapsucker Woods, and finished it a few months later while camping with friends at Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks.
And then I put it in a drawer, which is what I do with film that I don’t necessarily want to pay $15 to process, because the last step of the process, and the biggest one for me, was the developing.
I imagine every film photographer has those orphan rolls of film we don’t quite know what to do with. There’s a little drawer in my desk where I stash the fat rolls that are probably covered in light leaks, the rolls I let sit in the camera for so long that I don’t know if the latent images are still there, the rolls I loaded into the camera all wrong and clumsily extracted in what might or might not have been a dark space so I could shoot them in another camera. It’s a drawer of sunk costs in film and time, awaiting my decision about how much more I want to sink.
Meanwhile, in another cabinet of things I’m not quite sure what to do with, I had stored the ECN-2 kit I bought last summer. ECN-2 is the process used to develop motion picture film. It can also be used to process C-41 and slide films in a process called “cross processing,” producing warm, saturated colors.
I got my kit from Eric, aka conspiracy.of.cartographers on Instagram and co-host of the All Through a Lens podcast (highly recommended), who processes his own color film in homebrew ECN-2 with fantastic results and packages small-batch kits so other photographers can do so as well. The kits include powder developer, bleach, and optional fixer (you can use your usual black and white fixer) along with instructions and a list of ingredients. These ECN-2 chemicals were the destination I had in mind for the rolls that were in film drawer purgatory, but I was petrified of actually using them. I had never processed color film at home before, for two reasons: 1. keeping chemicals at a precise and somewhat odd temperature (not room temperature but not hot) was intimidating, and 2. I was afraid the chemicals would explode or make me pass out. (My idea of how chemistry works was mainly shaped by Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker.)
Finally, I decided just to mix everything up and get started. Although I’m sure it would make things easier, I didn’t need a sous vide to get everything to the right temperature. I heated water in a pot I use for oddball non-cooking projects and warmed my bottles in it until a thermometer in the developer bottle said 106 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point I immediately poured the developer into the tank. I took the rest of the chemicals out of the water, since maintaining exact temperature for bleach and fixer isn’t as critical. Developer and bleach are each three minutes, so with washes in between, it’s about the same amount of time as it takes for me to develop a roll of black and white film. I had started with the redscale roll because I had practically forgotten what was on it, so if I lost the pictures I wouldn’t remember what I was missing, and if the colors got weird, well, it’s redscale. They’re supposed to be weird.
And indeed they’re weird! In that good way.
I shot most of these at ISO 100, and they’re certainly red. There are a couple of images with background highlights that show some aqua tones, and a longer exposure of a forest that I deliberately overexposed (because who knows what reciprocity is with this film) shows more color in the trees. But as someone who habitually overexposes, I was surprised by how red all these images were. Combined with the antique Tessar lens on the Rolleiflex and the snowy landscape, the film and process rendered surreal images, simultaneously fiery and frozen, the way the surface of Mars looks like it would be hot but is actually much colder than Earth.
After that first roll, I developed a roll of Ektar I used in my box Brownie last summer with the intent of processing it in ECN-2, and a fat roll of Lomography 800 I didn’t want to pay to develop because I was afraid it would be peppered with light leaks. The chemicals can develop a dozen rolls and have a shelf life of about a month once mixed, so for the sake of economy it’s best to mix them up and use them when you have a few rolls in the queue. The results have been interesting. There is the occasional bizarre color shift – green leaves in a field of buttercups turning periwinkle blue, for example – but for the most part colors are truer than I expected. (I’m also very new to scanning color, so that might account for some wonkiness.) I wouldn’t necessarily use this process for portraits, but for the most part, if I’m not taking heirloom photos of my kids, I can let go of accuracy and let the combination of film, chemicals, and old lenses do serendipitous and fascinating things. My mild success also gives me the courage to try regular C-41 developing next. It was strange to begin with ECN-2, but it was easier for me to start out color developing with a process where I was already anticipating and even hoping for unpredictable results.
I have to admit this is something of a departure for me. I have tried out a lot of things in film photography – toy cameras, pinhole, double exposures, odd and expired films – but generally I lean on the familiarity of shooting regular old Portra 400 and Tri-X in my favorite cameras. I like knowing mostly what to expect, with the small pleasure of delayed gratification and the perennial surprise of finding out what something looks like photographed. But sometimes it’s fun to try something new – or several new things at once – and one of my favorite things about photography is the nearly infinite number of things out there to try. If you have an oddball roll of film in the refrigerator, a camera that hasn’t seen the light of day in a while, or something else you’ve been meaning to give a whirl, maybe now is the time to do it.
Want to try this yourself?
Buy redscale film here!
Check out more on alternative photography processes here!
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Aha!!! I used a film called Rotwild a few years ago and found the results gave a post apocalypse type look to things I loved.