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Film is Most Definitely Not Dead - Interview With Matt Wells

"Everyone should try shooting with film cameras, it's fun and could make you a more disciplined photographer" - says Matt Wells, owner of Ag Photographic, who was interviewed by John Duder.

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Matt Wells

 Matt Wells among the shelves in the stockroom – From useful small accessories to enlargers, he’s keen to stock the things that people need.

 

Matt Wells launched Ag Photographic from an office above a Skoda dealer in Birmingham in 2009 and moved to premises in Aston a few years later. As the name suggests, the business is based on old-fashioned film and darkroom supplies, from world market leader Ilford down to some quite niche emulsions from Eastern Europe. I was one of the very few walk-in customers crossing the Skoda forecourt, as Matt has always sold most of his goods through the internet. A few years back, he took over Peter Gaffney’s highly-respected processing business (Peter still carries out E-6 processing for Matt).

 

Matt WellsMatt in front of one of the printing machines at Ag Photographic. He’s constantly searching for top-quality equipment that can add value to the business, as many types of processing equipment are no longer in production.

There’s still fire in the digital versus film debate, so it seemed sensible to get a view from someone who makes his living from selling precisely those products that you used to get from the dealer (or even the chemist) on every high street.

 

A lot of people keep saying film is dead. What do you reckon, Matt?

We’re seeing year-on-year increases in retail sales, and so is Ilford in manufacturing. Kodak has reintroduced T-Max P3200 high-speed film, and are about to reintroduce Ektachrome slide film, so I’d say film is alive and kicking. However, many people are using a hybrid workflow, getting the advantages of film, the nice gradation and so on, and then scanning the negatives to allow the control that digital allows, and quick and easy printing.

JD3A personal love of mine is Kodak T-Max P3200. When Kodak reintroduced it earlier this year, I received two emails from Ag Photographic – a routine marketing circular about the reintroduction, and a personal message from Matt, who knows how much I love it.

 

How did you personally first get interested in photography?

I started with small format movie making, 8mm and 16mm, but I never learnt anything until I picked up a Pentax K1000 SLR. They’re wonderful cameras, though they don’t have depth of field preview. And it sort of went from there… It’s like learning to play the piano before you try a cathedral organ! A basic SLR teaches you the relationship between shutter and aperture, while an auto-everything camera clouds things.

That leads me on to one of the big threats to film photography, which is the hardware. Nobody’s making film cameras. We see a lot of camera faults in our processing lab, and there are no parts available. Someone needs to start making new cameras, and not just plastic-bodied – something simple, like a K1000. There are people out there who could do it tomorrow – there was a Vivitar-branded one, but you can’t get them any more. It needs to happen before there’s too much of a drain of engineering skills. When stuff has been out of production for a while, skills, detailed knowledge, sources of parts and materials can all disappear.

 

JD4We shall not see their like again… Exakta VX1000 (East German, Sixties), Contax RTS (Japan, with West German lenses and ergonomics by Porsche), Cosmic Symbol (USSR, Seventies/Eighties/Nineties) and Leica M6 (West Germany, Eighties). The Exakta and Symbol don’t even need batteries. The Symbol takes its name form the way that the aperture control shows film speeds as well as f stops, and the top of the lens shows weather symbols (shutter speeds are visible on the underside of the lens). Effectively, this applies the ‘Sunny f/16’ rule. The distance scale has feet, metres and symbols.

 

What makes film special for you as a photographer?

I just like the look of it. There’s just something about it – you’re forming the image chemically, not electronically. Anything digital has a uniformity to it, while film is made up of random grains of silver halide. You need a lot of knowledge and good equipment to get close to the film look – and you have to really know how to use it!

The more digital advances, the more different and interesting film gets for people.

Travelling with a camera – we all heaved a sigh of relief when we went digital, because X-rays at airports were supposed to damage film. Is that a reason not to take film abroad?

I always X-ray film. I visited Hawaii, and worked out that my film had been X-rayed 7 times. I’ve even put Delta 3200 through. What you must never do is put your film in checked baggage instead of hand baggage, because they use high-dosage machines for that. Also, don’t leave your bag lying around – if they use portable equipment to X-ray a suspicious bag, that will knacker it. The portable ones are very powerful.

JD5Delta 3200 – an intrinsically higher quality than T-Max – but finer grain, and it seems to be slower.

At Inverness airport, someone in front of me asked for a hand inspection, and they were very pleased to do it.

 

How much would it cost to get started processing your own black and white pictures - and would you need a darkroom?

You don’t need a darkroom to process film for scanning. We sell a complete kit for £179, including a basic scanner, a changing bag and a film, and an essentials kit, excluding the film, the changing bag and scanner for £68. All you need is a camera with the complete kit: if you already have a flatbed scanner that can handle negatives, the essentials kit means you only need to add a film and somewhere dark to load it into the tank. The kits include instructions I wrote, and I’m not aware that we’ve had any queries from people who aren’t certain what to do. 

C-41 colour chemistry is very flexible and robust, and films like Ilford XP-2 are designed to be developed with it, while giving black-and-white images. However, E-6 slide film is tricky by comparison – it is thoroughly exacting and demanding in processing. We’re very lucky that Peter Gaffney has continued to process E-6 for us – he is a complete expert in the area!

 

My darkroom – crowded, because just about everything is duplicated, or multiply backed up. That’s not because I’m careful: if I see interesting stuff going cheap, it’s hard to resist. Some of my bigger Paterson tanks were under a tenner, because a dealer was getting rid of non-moving stock.

 

Do you have to do it yourself, or are there ways to get film processed economically?

No - we offer a processing deal on our lab website and can process only, process and scan, or process, scan and print, or any combination. It’s just under a tenner to process and scan a C-41 film – we return the negatives, and scans on a disc. If your computer doesn’t take discs, you’d need a £8 USB drive from eBay.

 

Are there any special environmental considerations with film photography?

The only real problem is the silver in processing solutions, which is a heavy metal. We recycle all our processing solutions and have electrolytic recovery equipment. These days, there aren’t any other chemicals involved that are a threat to the environment – and modern film makes very effective use of silver, so the quantity isn’t likely to be significant for most home processors, though, strictly, you should take the used solutions to the tip or a specialist disposal firm.

 

JD7Chemicals, chemicals. Different developers give varied qualities to the results – Rodinal (an Agfa formulation, over 100 years old, and is now available under several names) gives rapid processing times, sharp and bright negatives with plenty of well-defined grain, while Ilford DD-X gives a superlative tonal range and finer grain. Diafine is an American two-bath developer, very rarely available in the UK. The packaging now lists post-1980 films, but is otherwise identical to the mid-Seventies box!

Do you have any suggestions for photographers who haven’t used their film cameras for years?

Try it! It’s fun, and it may help you with the discipline of shooting digital.

 

And for anyone who has never used film, what would you say they might gain by trying old-school photography?

You can’t delete anything, and that makes you think a bit more (as the cost does!) And the look is different – I don’t see a lot of digital output that looks very nice before it’s been edited. And you have this tangible camera original which you can revisit. With digital, you need to be very disciplined to archive your raw files, while film sort of archives itself. The other thing is that with digital, damage tends to be 100%, whereas, with film, it’s usually partial.

 

JD8Even a basic camera like this will take respectable images in good light, and it is likely to be well under £20 from a charity shop or junk dealer. Check that it operates by winding it on and releasing the shutter at various speeds – and be careful to check whether the previous owner has left a film in it. Who knows what they might have shot 35 years ago? Neither light meter nor rangefinder work, but it takes decent pictures!

It’s such a grounding. Even if you go on to shoot 100% digital, it’s such a grounding – which is probably why so many of the academic courses include some film photography at the start. And it is a really cheap way to get a taste of photography – a secondhand camera can cost less than a tenner from a charity shop, and film and D&P won’t be much more.

You can find Matt’s company online here: AG Photographic and here's a link to the lab site at AG Photolab.

 

JD9Processing and dispatch area in full swing.

About Author: John Duder 

John Duder celebrated fifty years since developing his first film last Christmas - on Christmas Day 1967, the only present that mattered was a developing tank and chemicals, so that he was able to develop a negative film in the morning, and process a film for black-and-white slides in the afternoon. He doesn’t remember Christmas dinner - but he was only 14 at the time.

A way of saving money developed, so to speak, into a lifelong obsession. He’s now trying to turn it into a source of income through tuition and writing - or, at least, into less of a negative cash flow.

John still has and uses a darkroom, and specialises in black-and-white images, portraits, and nudes. He’s been a member of ePHOTOzine since 2003 and joined the Critique Team a few years ago.

When he was younger and had children under ten, he was frustrated by two weeks of grey weather on a holiday in Porlock. He has since rethought his approach to holiday photographs.

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Comments


19 Nov 2018 6:36PM
Whilst I have no issue with the statement that 'film is not dead' it is a gross over-statement that it is 'alive and kicking' - 'alive and in very intensive care' would be far more accurate. Nor for that matter does film make one a better photographer which is truly insulting to all those extremely capable and incredibly talented young photographers who have never known anything other than digital.

The whole value of the article has been undermined by phrases such as "you need to be very disciplined to archive your raw files, while film sort of archives itself" which is utter nonsense - I have over 5000 landscapes / seascapes taken in various locations worldwide, I can search Lightroom and find any image within seconds - those 5000 would equal around somewhere between 150-250 rolls of film - if they had self-archived, how long would it take them to find a single frame ?

Film can be fun for those who have the time, facilities and desire to use it, for the other 99.99% of the photo making population digital is the answer - convenience, accessibility and timeliness are today's mantra.

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dudler Plus
16 954 1521 England
19 Nov 2018 9:11PM
Neither Matt nor I would want anyone to use film who did not want to - it is for those who want to play, or want to try a different and sometimes taxing discipline.

A broader knowledge of things is often beneficial to any craft. Most drivers will never have to face a high-speed slide, and certainly won't do so reggularly, but most who have tried driving on a skidpan feel it has improved their driving overall. (And it is equally valid to say that trying digital is likely to benefit your film work.)

The nature of difgital is that it is hidden on a hard drive: with film, you have to make decisions about what to do with something physical, and throwing it away is a deliberate action. Almost any attempt to keep them together creates a filing system of sorts. While you've chosen a disciplined approach with Lightroom, many people haven't, and find they don't have original files (we see that quite a lot in the Critique Gallery).

In the end, film is something that is still there, and the market is expanding, in most areas. It will never again be the way that most people work, or that more than a tiny number use exclusively. But as part of a 'mixed economy' it can give pleasure and creative satisfaction - I particularly enjoy the way that it feel like a high wire act. You have to be confident of yoru own abilitiy, as you can't keep chimping to check that it's working. I don't want to use film all - or even most of - the time, but I still love it...
mistere Plus
6 4 3 England
20 Nov 2018 12:50PM
I remember using film cameras, many years ago. Mostly for holidays and dive trips.
Having to wait for the prints to be developed was normal then. I went with great anticipation to
collect them and was usually quite pleased if any of the prints were even half decent.
It was all we had at the time and i'm very grateful that we had it. Pictures of my kids when they were
babies and later as they grew up. Family holidays that, even now, they still talk about.
Those pictures and those memories are priceless. I still have them and will never get rid of them.

Much like E-readers VS real books. It's much nicer to hold and look at prints than it is to look at monitors.
Vintage cars, vintage clothing, antique furniture, Rock'n'Roll. All with loyal and dedicated followers and champions.
All arguably better or worse than todays versions. We all have our own preferences.
It's good that film is still available for those who can use and enjoy it. We owe it a lot and It's legacy will outlast all of us.
dudler Plus
16 954 1521 England
21 Nov 2018 9:44AM
I've heard about a younger person who went to see 'Bohemian Rhapsody' - and emerged to demand of her parents - 'Why didn't you TELL me about this awesome group?'
winger 10 2 United States
21 Nov 2018 11:52AM
Sorry, I shot and processed film for twenty five years and you couldn't drag me back. I don't miss the all nighters in the dark, sweating a one degree temp drop in the lab, the slow printing process, chapped hands from chemicals, the constant costs, etc..... I love digital....
dudler Plus
16 954 1521 England
21 Nov 2018 1:03PM
It's definitely not for everyone, Ernest. But for those who have never done it, it's an experience, like doing a track day in a supercar before going back to driving your Prius. Well - for soem of them, anyway!

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