Fomapan black and white film – my experience

I recently shot some Fomapan 200 in my Minolta Hi-Matic 7s and the results were… mixed, though mostly positive.

When I used my Minolta Hi-Matic 7s last time, I used some Ilford XP2 film with it – this is a black and white film which has the special ability to be developed using the colour (C41) process. You take pictures as normal, and get the film developed anywhere that does colour film, and the photos that come out are black and white. I understand that the form of black and white produced by Ilford XP2 is not strictly black and white – I would guess it is more like how a colour display shows a black and white image, but using RGB pixels. That said, I haven’t a clue if that’s right or not.

The results I’ve had from Ilford film have been great. And the results in general from the Hi-Matic 7s are also really satisfying. It is a nice – if somewhat bulky and heavy – camera to use. And the lens is very sharp. What’s more, the camera allows you to shoot in either aperture or shutter priority, or fully automatically, with the user only having to set the focus. Not bad for a fifty-five year old camera.

EDIT: As Shawn rightly points out in the comments below, of course the Hi-Matic 7s cannot do aperture or shutter priority – it is either automatic (with both settings on ‘A’), which is how I shot the majority of this film, or you must set both the aperture and the shutter, using the EV numbers in the light meter as a guide. I think I’ve even made this mistake before when discussing this camera! Shows what happens when I use it so infrequently. 

Having shot black and white using a film that wasn’t truly black and white, my inevitable next step was to shoot ‘proper’ black and white film. The results should be broadly the same, albeit the development process is slightly more expensive, or less commonly available on the high street.

Last summer, giddy with the afterglow of having received a nice set of shots back from the roll of Ilford I’d used, I visited Park Cameras and picked up some new film. To my delight, they had a cabinet full of various different 35mm films including Fomapan, a name I’d recently read about.

Fomapan is a Czech manufacturer of photographic supplies, and they have a reputation for being cheaper than your Ilfords, Fujis and so on. This film comes in at about half the price of the Ilford I’m used to, and about a third of the price of some other films.

I picked up a roll of tried-and-tested XP2 as well as a roll of Fomapan 200 Creative.  And then about nine months passed between me loading the Fomapan and me finishing the roll.

You can tell it was a while ago as I’m wearing shorts to load the film!

I guess one distraction was getting a new digital SLR in that time, and so my photographic attentions have been mostly spent on learning the ins and outs of my new Canon 250D. It’s also been lockdown for the majority of that time, and although I’ve had opportunities to go out with a camera in my hand, I feel somewhat guilty when my time tips over from being a walk-with-a-camera to a photowalk or more. That’s just my personal feeling when I’m behind the viewfinder though; I’ve found the sight of other photographers out and about during These Times reassuring and comforting when it is so clearly a solitary, distanced pastime.

Anyway. Five hundred words in which I say: I got my Fomapan shots back recently.

And how do they look?

Well – the black and white is very effective, and I think there is a subtle difference between the scans I get back from XP2 colour process B&W film and the true black and white of Fomapan 200. The Minolta appears to have behaved well, too, with focus just as sharp as I’ve been used to.

Shooting black and white in the Minolta just feels right to me.

It’s probably some silly placebo effect of shooting an old camera and wanting to shoot in B&W. But I’ve preferred the results I get back from B&W film than colour, and I really enjoy the exercise in shooting for tones, shadows and silhouettes that black and white kind of forces you to do. There’s also a sharpness or contrast to B&W film that I would probably find harder to achieve using colour film. I prefer the grain of black and white as it retains a sharpness that can be lost in colour, I think. (I’ve not written off colour film: my next-film-but-one is a roll of Fujicolor C200.)

As I looked through the scans from the Fomapan, though, I started to notice some repeated defects or marks on the images. The next shot suffers from the most of these – as well as being a bit too contrasty, but that’s just the shot itself.

The issues I noticed are: the dark and light ‘blobs’ along the left side of this image (though, actually, these are consistent with the perforations or sprocket holes in the film itself along the long edges of each frame), and the white line running top-to-bottom in this shot.

Ironically, the white line running left-to-right is a plane’s vapour trail and was what drew me in to taking this picture in the first place. It’s funny that there is a white mark of unknown origin which closely matches a vapour trail as rendered in B&W film.

I continued to look at the scans I’d received and, as I had not yet collected the negatives from the lab, I wasn’t sure what might be causing the defects. I could identify one or both of the above described issues on about ten frames in the film, with the ‘sprocket blobs’ coming and going, and sometimes only appearing for a few sprockets’ worth; and the white line was noticeable across a number of shots running in a consistent enough line and angle that you can sort of follow its path along multiple frames.

I asked the lab if they could take a look at the negatives and maybe re-scan if it might be scanner-related. I also wasn’t sure at this point if maybe the Minolta had sustained some damage and was letting in light leaks. I couldn’t work out the physical defect in the camera that would lead to these consistent-yet-inconsistent marks, but that was my biggest fear: a faulty Minolta.

The response I got was helpful and semi reassuring, but semi disappointing: the defects ultimately appear to be in the emulsion of the film itself. The lab tech didn’t think the camera was faulty (phew), but they noted that they’d seen issues with Fomapan films in the past, and they usually recommend Kodak, Fuji and Ilford for this reason.

So I quickly realised that Fomapan, as a cheap film, is unfortunately bound to have some defects from time to time. I have done some digging online, and although I’ve only so far found one other Fomapan film that exhibits almost exactly this defect, I have seen a number of other people querying defects they had discovered when developing their own Fomapan films.

This was initially a setback: what drives me away from film photography and towards digital is consistency and sharpness and clarity and reliability. But whenever I get bogged down in that comparison, I know I’m fooling myself: part of the appeal of film is a little unpredictability.

Sure, professional photographers need to rely on decent, expensive equipment, and pro-grade film that yields predictable results for paying clients. But I’m a hobbyist using decades-old cameras of unknown origin, willfully using film I know to be cheap. I shouldn’t be surprised by small defects or unexpected results – indeed, I should welcome them to a degree.

And so now I think I understand the problem – as well as the fact that I probably just got unlucky and I could probably shoot another ten rolls of Fomapan that come out perfectly! And I can look at the rest of the roll and enjoy the shots for what they are: unique moments of light and shadow captured in the moment on a unique medium using a finicky tool. And I love it.

Once I picked up the negatives I could see for myself the state of the film and the emulsion myself, and it’s clear that all is not well with this roll of Fomapan 200. It’s not hard to spot, on this first inverted scan of one set of frames, and then the true colour photo of the same section below, that there’s almost been a spillage or melting of the emulsion. 

It’s plain to see something isn’t right, though I’m not experienced enough to say if this has happened in the Fomapan factory, or later in storage, or even in the development process. And even if this is a fault with the product itself, I’m willing to bet it is a very uncommon one, and it hasn’t put me off trying Fomapan again in the future.

(And just in case it helps anyone else Googling this, I *think* the batch number for this Fomapan film is 012315-2, with an expiry date in 2021, though not sure what month.)

Either way, it is what is. As long as my Minolta Hi-Matic 7s is still functioning as well as I’m used to, then I’m happy to continue using it, and I’ve got some XP2 in there already, and the aforementioned roll of Fujicolor to go next – hopefully in time for when the Spring colours return.

Anyway, here’s a few more favourites from this roll of Fomapan. There were plenty of doozies to keep me happy, despite any defects. The rest of the roll is up at /photography.

 

Back shooting with the Minolta Hi-Matic 7s

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It’s been about eighteen months since I last used my Minolta Hi-Matic 7s.

The last roll of film I shot with it was mostly in Cyprus. I had learned about Ilford’s XP2 film, which is black and white, but is developed using the colour ‘C41’ process, meaning it is cheaper and easier to get developed than ‘full’ black and white film.

The images I got back from Cyprus – mostly in bright, December sunshine – came out so satisfyingly that I knew I would use XP2 again. 

Fast forward to the middle of 2020, the world is somehow different, and yet my photographic bug hasn’t gone away – in some ways it has stepped up with more time to devote to photography across a smaller range of locations and subjects, and the time spent looking at other people’s photographs and editing techniques has led to me having as strong an urge as ever.

I picked up a new roll of Ilford XP2 from Snappy Snaps and popped it into the Minolta one Friday a few weeks ago, and started shooting with it. It’s a rangefinder camera, and as such is a little heftier than some other film cameras. It has a fixed lens, and you look through a viewfinder which is separate to the lens itself – unlike with an SLR camera which uses a prism to allow you to see through the lens you are shooting with.

It’s a satisfyingly manual camera to use, and yet it can be used fully automatically (apart from focussing). That is – it can be, if it has a fresh battery installed. The battery powers a simple light meter which is visible inside the viewfinder, and gives a reading which can be used to set specific apertures or shutter speeds as you wish – or it just reveals if a fully-automatic shot is likely to be under- or over-exposed.

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The lightmeter inside the Minolta’s viewfinder

It’s on the right hand side – see how the black needle on the yellow bar moves from about 10 to about 14? These are ‘EV’ readings and correspond to settings on the lens which are shown when adjusting aperture and shutter speed manually. 

I’ve seen differing opinions on this: some say that this camera can only ‘do’ shutter priority; others say only aperture priority. One source states that it only works when setting both – i.e. fully manual.

The camera’s manual implies that all three are possible: page 18 says you can set any combination of shutter speed and aperture; page 19 talks about setting the shutter speed first, then using the light meter to set aperture; it goes on to say that alternatively you can set the aperture first, using the light meter to set a corresponding shutter speed.

The system is simple: compose your shot, check the meter for lighting, then rotate the barrel for either shutter or aperture so that the EV number shown on the lens is the same, and your picture should be properly exposed. Or just set both barrels to ‘A’ for automatic, and check the light meter and focus. If the above needle is in the red zones at the top or bottom of the range, the picture is likely to be under- or over-exposed. This is particularly important when shooting fully automatically.

I digress. This all relies on the light meter functioning correctly, and for that the camera needs a working battery. To my surprise, I found that the one in mine was dead. The needle on the lightmeter had just stopped responding to light.

This was odd, as I was sure it had been functioning eighteen months ago – it must have been for me to obtain usable images, right? But of course little, old batteries don’t live long when you go years between uses.

I noticed that the dial where you set the film’s speed in ASA/ISO also has an ‘off’ setting. Presumably if I’d set this, the battery would be disengaged? The manual doesn’t confirm,  but does suggest that if the camera is not being used for more than a month that the battery should be removed. This is probably more to do with avoiding battery leaks than anything else. Either way, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find the battery was dead.

Being from 1966, the Minolta takes slightly strange batteries… Batteries that have since been banned from production. But fortunately there is a close equivalent which is fairly readily available. When my replacement battery arrived, I popped out the old one.

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And indeed it was an old one… In fact, knowing these batteries were banned from production in the EU in 2000 already made it a certain age, but, on closer inspection – Made in W. Germany – mine had to be, what, pre-1991…? Something like that, anyway. Weird. 

So maybe it was in the camera that whole time, mostly switched to the ‘off’ position and not draining charge, and it worked for the last film I shot? Or I just got very lucky and the light meter wasn’t working at all, and the shots just somehow worked. No idea. Thank goodness it hadn’t leaked.

Anyway – once the battery was swapped out, the light meter was responsive again. I wanted to get back into the swing of things nice and quickly, and I shot the roll of 36 exposures over the course of a week or so.

For this film, I wanted to check if the camera was functioning as expected – the first few frames were shot without the new battery, and either guestimating the settings, or using my dSLR as a sample or simply as a light meter. 

I noted down the settings I used for each frame (and the location/subject, to help me identify each one later on). 

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It turns out I seem to have accidentally invented the Photomemo notebook!

As I’ve written previously, the Minolta Hi-Matic 7s is a bit bulky to carry around, but it also fits nicely in my hands. It feels nice to use – perhaps familiar? And the focussing system is nice and intuitive – and ensures tack-sharp images.

To focus an image, point the yellow diamond at the centre of the viewfinder at the edge of what you’re trying to focus on, and then turn the lens until the two translucent images align:

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The Minolta’s rangefinder focussing system

When the ‘two’ images are aligned, that confirms your image is in focus.

And with that, one can head out with the Minolta and snap away. I loaded the XP2 while sat on a bench in Regent’s Park, and within a few days I had filled the film. And it produced some really lovely results!

The whole film can be viewed here, but below are a few highlights.

I’ve already picked up a new roll of XP2 – as well as a roll of Fomapan 200 having seen a few others using this stuff. That wil be my first pure B&W film, so I’m excited to try it out.

 

New Photography page on my website

I’ve updated this website a little bit, and added (reinstated, actually) a ‘portfolio’ element to display some photographs.

I’ve stuck to albums/sets as these are the most sensible way of displaying them, and I’ve added a simple but neat little lightbox plugin to make it a bit nicer to look at. (This looks pretty good on desktop, but on a mobile device the lightbox isn’t so well-suited. I will need to see if I can get it to play nicer on mobile, or simply put up with it because mobile devices aren’t the best for browsing photographic galleries outside of purpose built apps like Instagram, anyway.)

This is what it looks like at the moment: a selection of recent-ish galleries, including the very recent latest set of photographs taken just last week on my Minolta Hi-Matic 7s, which I love using, and on Ilford XP2, which I also love using. (It’s a black and white film, but it is developed using the colour C41 process, which makes things a bit easier and more economical for developing. It’s got great contrast, seems pretty versatile and, paired with the Minolta’s sharp 45mm f1.8 lens, produces really great-looking black and white images.)

I’ve added a few others – mostly trips away – partly because I gravitate towards these at the moment, in times of lockdown. In fact, four of the currently featured albums have also been made into photobooks, so they immediately seem like obvious choices for presenting here.

This is also, hopefully, an alternative (whether in place of, or alongside) to Flickr. I use Flickr still, and I browse Flickr daily. I follow loads of folks on there, and still vastly prefer it to Instagram in terms of delving into someone’s archive, or finding photographs of particular things, place, or taken on particular equipment.

I’ve been posting to Flickr in fits and starts – mostly because I have let my subscription lapse, and I am now limited to 1,000 uploads. I took the difficult decision to remove the vast majority of photographs I’ve had on Flickr, starting in 2005, as I am now more interested in posting new, fewer shots, than having vast archives online which are less relevant or representative of me now.

It was a difficult decision to do that, and I tried to preserve images or albums which have become sort of ‘classics’ of Flickr, by virtue of being discovered by enough people, or featured somewhere. But mostly I stripped away what was largely a sort of should-be-private photographic archive which felt anachronistic in 2020. What’s left is a collection of fewer images, but still quite a representative selection going back a decade or so. And I am keen to continue adding to it, including the new Minolta film, which is already online here via my new photography page.

I have some wider thoughts on Flickr, but I wanted to get this update up, and it made sense to talk a little bit about Flickr here now.

I hope the new galleries look okay at your end – feel free to offer me some advice if they could be improved. And I’ll continue to add to them in the near future.

Minolta Hi-Matic 7s – Ilford XP2 Super 400

Shooting film with the Minolta Hi-Matic 7s

A few years ago, when hunting high and low for a specific camera, I picked up a Minolta Hi-Matic 7s.

Here it is:

It wasn’t the Ansco Autoset I was looking for – that’s a long story for another day, but this is in fact a slightly later evolution of that camera, and much more user friendly.

It’s a lovely 35mm film camera produced in Japan in 1966, with a few really nice features. It’s not the most attractive camera, though it isn’t unattractive, and it’s a touch on the heavy/boxy side. But as someone who has shot several films with a Zenit E, this is a wee bit lighter.

While clearing out my storage locker recently I came across the little Minolta, all tucked away in its hard-wearing leather case. Strange, I thought, as I got rid of most of my film cameras a few years ago. But I couldn’t resist taking it out for a spin last weekend. It already had film in, with 3-4 shots taken, so I took it along for a day-trip to St Albans.

One thing that’s great on this camera is the battery-powered light metering which actually enables it to be run fully automatic – save for focusing. I ran fully automatic for all these shots. Luckily, the focus system is quite nice, too. Rather than the split-circle style found in some cameras, this one uses a small smudgy area in the middle of the viewfinder, through which one sees two images. Align the two overlaid bits of the image (ideally on an edge, or some other contrasting feature), and that is what will be in focus.

It turned out really well – a mixture of shots indoors and out, from the glaring sunshine of that sunny bank holiday we had, to the dark crevices of a thousand-year-old cathedral. Another neat feature is how quiet the shutter is. I’m more used to the hefty CLUNK of an SLR, and this is more of a quick click.

The below were taken on bog-standard Pound shop Kodak 200 film (most likely approximately six years old, too). I’ll be picking up some new film for the Minolta, as I really enjoyed using it.