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How To Get The Most From Your 35mm Camera and Film

By: Brent Wood

First some history - The 35mm camera and film has come a very long way since the camera was invented. 35mm film was used from the newly developed motion picture market. Many camera inverters attempted to use 35mm motion picture film in a still camera; the first camera to use 35mm film was in 1908, invented by Leo Audobard and Barandt, however, the camera never made it to market. The first 35mm camera to be sold was in 1913, Jules Richrard’s Homeos invented this camera, his camera was sold between 1913 – 1920, however because of cost issues the camera was never popular.

The first widely available 35mm camera was called the American Tourist Multiple; this camera was sold in 1913 and sold for $175.00 dollars, about $4,000 dollars today. Miniaturizing a camera to 35mm size in 1913 was quite a feat considering the first permanent photograph was created in 1826. All of the early 35mm cameras used readily available 35mm motion picture film. Motion picture film was not created for still images; so, the quality of the first 35mm photographs was quite poor as compared to today’s images. For 35mm cameras and film to become popular then new films, designed for the small format camera, were required.

Leica is the company that created the first usable reliable and high quality 35mm camera. The Lieca 1 was introduced in 1925 and revolutionized the 35mm camera world. Film manufacturers could now make a profit creating film designed exclusively for the small 35mm still camera.

At first 35mm cameras and film were not adopted or accepted by the professional photographic market. Large sheet film was the camera for the professional world. Police and fire departments still used the hand held 4” x 5” Graphic camera until the mid 1960’s. Do some research on the 1964 Tokyo summer Olympics, in the historical images will be found images of 5” x 7” Graphic cameras being used in the stands, by the photojournalists, with very long lenses on the cameras; the Graphic camera with 40” lenses and longer was called the Big Bertha. After the 64 Olympics the 35mm camera was finally accepted for use in many areas of professional photography.

So, how do we achieve the highest level of quality from such a small camera negative? First, choose the sharpest lens for the job at hand; in my opinion the fixed focal length lenses are considerably sharper than any zoom lens. What do I mean by fixed focal length, a lens that only does one thing, like a 50mm lens. A 50mm lens is considered a normal lens for the 35mm format, a lens that does one thing, does not zoom and can be optically designed to higher standards than a lens that must do many things, like a lens that zooms from 28mm – 105mm. At gallery shows, I have been asked why my images are sharper than most of the other images, one of the reasons, I don’t use zooms. For most of my 35mm photography I carry three lenses, a 35mm, 50mm and 90mm. Over 90 percent of my photography is done with these simple lenses. Each of those lenses have been tested against the best zoom lenses, each test shows a higher level of sharpness and considerably less lens flare as compared to the zooms.

Next, use a tripod; yes I said to place your small camera on a tripod. If motion isn’t involved, as in sports, then place your camera on a tripod. I have made the photographic tests, regardless of the hand held shutter speeds used; the tripod images are always sharper. Look at it this way, the negative or full frame digital file must be enlarged 8 times to reach an 8” x 10” print; in comparison, a 4” x 5 inch negative only needs to be enlarged 2 times. It is the enlargement that destroys sharpness and detail in the finished photograph. Use a tripod; the enlargement factor of 8 means any camera movement or focus issues will be magnified 8 times, or in other words, the image will not be as sharp as it could be.

A rule of thumb for shutter speed use – use a shutter speed that is at least as fast as the lens is long. What this means is, if using a 50mm lens then use a shutter speed that is no slower than 1/60th of a second. If using a 200mm lens then use a shutter speed no slower than 1/250th of a second. Faster shutter speeds will be sharper; just do not use a slower shutter speed. With much practice slower shutter speeds do work, however practice is required and remember to use a tripod if possible.

For best sharpness, while hand holding the camera, learn how to stand and hold your camera. Shooting stance is taught to anyone wanting to be accurate when shooting a rifle, however shooting stance is seldom taught to photographers. To be most stable, spread your legs to about shoulder width, then slightly bend your knees, bending your knees would be done just prior to pressing the shutter release button. Use your left eye for horizontal images and your right eye for vertical images. When shooting horizontal, using your left eye will enable the camera to touch your forehead, your left cheek and your nose. This is three point stability, when using your right eye the camera will touch your forehead and nose, not your cheek, this means the camera is able to move from side to side, not stable. The same issues arise when shooting vertically, using your right eye will give you the same three point stability in vertical mode as using your left eye gives you when in horizontal mode. Using the correct eye is incredibly important.

Next, pay attention to your breathing and your heartbeat. Press the shutter release between your breaths and between your heartbeats. Last, if you have a neck strap, wrap the strap around your hand, this will pull the camera to your face, the camera can’t move, very stable.

Lets put all this together – you have composed, right – if shooting horizontal, bring the camera to your left eye, wrap the strap around your hand so the camera is pressed tightly to your face, spread your legs to shoulder width, place your finger on the shutter release, slightly bend your knees, take a breath, let it out and slowly press the shutter button between your heart beats. Photographing this way will always produce the sharpest hand held images possible. Practice your photographic shooting stance.

Next we need to talk about exposure, film, developers and processing. The above statements are meant to produce the sharpest negative possible regardless of exposure, film and processing.

Exposure – an instructor named Harry Swanker taught me how to expose and process 35mm film in 1974 at Brooks Institute of Photography; OK, yes, I have some years on me. When entering Harry’s lecture room all students noticed large 30” x 40” black and white photographs on the walls. No student paid much attention until his first lecture, in that lecture Harry stated all photographs on the wall were created with a Nikon Ftn camera, with fixed focal length lenses, using Kodak Tri-X 35mm film and processed in D-76 at the 1:1 dilution. No student believed a 30 x 40 print was possible while shooting with 35mm, especially using a fast 400 ASA film. Harry instructed us to turn the large prints over; on the back was the negative that created the image, a 35mm negative. Harry did not use any “secrets”, no special films; any fancy developers, nothing but good consistent technique. He taught us how to stand, how to hold the camera and how to properly expose and process.

For the best quality, proper in-camera exposure and film processing is required. What is proper exposure – proper exposure, according to Harry, is one that produces the required shadow detail in the finished print? More exposure, called overexposure will create bright white highlights, higher grain and less sharpness. Less exposure, called underexposure will create dark to black shadows. I will talk about how to achieve proper exposure in a different article.

What is proper development – Proper development is one that produces the proper highlight detail in the finished print. More development will create too much contrast, bright highlights and empty shadows. More development will also show larger more apparent grain and less sharpness. So, creating the best sharpness in a negative is useless if we destroy the negative by poor inconsistent processing.

Before talking about development I would like to discuss what film grain is. Most photographers, if asked, will tell you film grain is the silver particles that build up the finished image, not exactly. The silver particles are much smaller than the human eye can perceive, the grain we see in the finished print is the shadow of multiple grains that have “clumped” together to form a larger “grain”. The dark line of the visible grain is actually the space between different grain clumps, not the actual silver particles. When processing film, single silver particles will clump together forming much larger “grains”. Several things are required to create the finest grained image, with less grain clumping, from the film that was chosen.

Film – first my apology for using ASA to talk about how sensitive film is to light, I am just too old and have been using ASA to describe film too long to describe film by its current term, ISO. ISO and ASA both describe how sensitive a given film is to light. The numbering systems for ASA and ISO are identical. ASA stands for American Standards Association; ISO stands for International Standards Organization. Just two different organizations that determine how sensitive to light film is.

Films of today come in three different broad-brush categories, slow, 25 ASA – 50 ASA, medium 100 ASA – 200 ASA and Fast 400 ASA and above. The slowest continuous tone film of today is 25 ASA; the fastest is 3200 ASA, quite a range.

Attributes of slow speed films – very fine grain and higher inherent contrast as compared to a fast film. Very smooth tones in the image. Slow films need shorter processing times as compared to fast films. Slower shutter speeds are required and almost dictate the use of a tripod. Most sports photography will require a faster film for faster shutter speeds.

Attributes of medium speed films – moderate grain and moderate contrast; a film designed for average lighting conditions and used most often. Faster shutter speeds can be achieved and the use of a tripod, under most lighting conditions, is an option of the photographer.

Attributes of fast speed films – Larger grain, the least contrast of all the films; a film designed where fast shutter speeds are more important than fine grain. Fast film is used for sports, moving wildlife and low light photography. Under most lighting conditions a tripod is optional.

Now, lets talk about processing and fine grain. First, fine grain developers are a myth. We, as photographers, are always looking for that secret developer with all of those magical properties. Ignore the manufacturers developer statements; those statements are there to sell you the latest “magic” developer. Each developer, as each film, do produce their own look that said, no developer is magic and no developer will make you a better photographer just because you use it. You can’t purchase quality!

Quality in a finished image is created by the skill and knowledge of the photographer, not in magic soup. So, lets talk about developers for a moment.

Developers come is three broad-brush categories, the problem is the manufacturers don’t normally tell you what category their developer is in.

First – it is impossible to change the physical size of any silver particle in any film through film development; the size of film grain just can’t be changed and is set by the manufacturer. I will discuss the fine grain myth below.

Average developers, Kodak D-76 and Ilford ID-11 are considered average or normal developers. Average developers leave the film grain as it is; the developers do not create finer grain and do not make the grain sharper. An average developer does keep the grain clumping down so the visible grain is less visible. An average developer creates good quality from the film and does not exaggerate any one characteristic of the film. Kodak D-76 is the world’s best selling developer and has been for decades. Ilford ID-11, once mixed, is exactly the same as D-76.

Fine grain developers – the myth. As stated, there is no way to actually change the size of the silver particles that make up the image. Fine grain developers are Kodak’s Microdol – X and Ilford’s Perceptol; there are many others. What a fine grain developer does is erode, or etch the edge of the silver particles away; as the edges are being “erased” the edge of the silver isn’t as viable. The downside to this etching is considerable loss of sharpness commonly called “mushy grain”. In my opinion, the worst decision is to use a slow fine-grained film that is capable of incredible sharpness and process this slow film in a fine grain developer. Slow films of today do not need to be finer grained, what the film needs is higher sharpness. Diluting fine-grained developers from 1:1 – 1:3 is one-way to achieve honest fine grain and better sharpness. D-76 used straight will etch the edges of the grain some; D-76 is most often diluted 1:1.

High acutance developers – high acutance developers are the exact opposite of fine grain developers. High acutance developers enhance the edge of the silver so the image, when enlarged, shows a higher-level sharpness. The downside is larger visible grain. Actuance developers sharpen the grain, kind of like using the unsharp mask in Adobe Photoshop. High acutance developers are primarily used with slow to medium film. Agfa Rodinal, now made by other companies, is one of the most popular high acutance developers ever made. Adox Rodinal, Rollei Compard  and Tetenal Paranol S are all similar developers to Agfa Rodinal. Rodinal can also be hand made by mixing the raw chemicals together. See the book, The Darkroom Cookbook for formulas. Any pyro-based developer is considered to be a high acutance developer. I personally only use high acutance developers to develop slow and medium films, 25 – 100 ASA. My two favorite slow films are Rollei RPX 25 and Ilford Pan-F; both of these films have finer grain than any of the T-Max or Delta films. Both films enlarge beautifully.

The actual processing of the film – this is vital for high quality images. Consistency of what you do in the darkroom will have a very large impact on the final quality of your negatives. Consistency in the darkroom is first, last and always, do everything the same each and every time, your work will thank you for it.

First, keep all processing chemicals at exactly the same temperature, including the wash water. The recommended developing temperature is 68 degrees Fahrenheit, colder and the chemicals will become so slow development will be difficult, hotter and the film will swell causing more grain clumping which results in larger visible grain.

Taking film from 68-degree development and placing the film in an 80 degree wash will really shock the film causing grain clumping. The books out there state to keep the chemicals and wash to within 5 degrees of each other, my opinion is better overall quality and less clumping will result if all chemicals and wash water are at exactly the same temperature. I have standardized at 72 degrees for everything, 12 months a year. In the winter I must heat my water and chemicals, easy, I use a water bath to keep everything at the same temperature; the hot summer water is an issue. I standardized on 72 because the incoming cold water is at 80 degrees in the summer; I have no way to cool incoming wash water. So, I develop at 72 degrees, stop bath at 74 degrees, fix at 76 degrees and wash at 80 degrees. Yes developing in this way is a pain, but the end result is worth it.

Do not heat dry your film or more grain clumping and dust will result. I hang my wet film is my darkroom to dry at room temperature. I do not use a fan to speed drying as a fan will pick up dust and stick to the film.


For the sharpest negatives, use the slowest film possible, learn how to stand and hold your camera or use a tripod with a cable release.

For the finest grain, choose the slowest speed film the prevailing light and movement dictates. Always use a tripod with very slow film, shutter speed is now irrelevant, a 1 second exposure is no big deal with a tripod in use.

Test your film, more on that in a different article, so you know how to properly expose your film to obtain your desired shadow detail. Test your processing so you know how to process the highlights so they are highly detailed, not paper base white. A proper negative should not require extensive burning and dodging. If your shadows are always too dark and require dodging then lower your ASA so more light reaches the film. If your highlights are always too light then reduce your processing time so your highlights on the negative are thinner and print fully detailed without the need to burn them down.

For slow to medium speed films use a high acutance developer, for fast films use a developer like D-76. For better sharpness I would suggest diluting D-76 with water at the ratio 1:1 or one part water with one part developer.

Process your film for the shortest time possible to achieve the desired highlight density. Keep all chemicals, including the wash water at exactly the same temperature. Air-dry your film in a dust free environment.

Your print quality will greatly improve if you follow the above recommendations. It will take time for your quality to improve, practice everything, do everything the same, and use the same developer, the same film, don’t bounce around and buy what is on sale. Once you master your products and camera the quality of your images will scream off the page, everyone will notice the difference.

Brent Wood
Brent Wood started his photographic career in 1978 as the chief photographer and studio manager for O'Connor Photography located in Santa Barbara California. In 1982 he changed his focus from studio portraiture to industrial photography. From 1982 to 1993 he was the Photo Department manager for General Dynamics Air Systems Division located in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.