It’s 3:45 PM. The sound of steady rain falling outside the cafe is getting tiresome. It shouldn’t be raining today, or at least not right now. I was counting on it, for the sake of the lone roll of film sitting in my bag.
I check the weather app on my phone, which is now reporting a seventy percent chance of rain for the afternoon, a far cry from the “mostly cloudy” that was predicted just a few hours earlier. I switch over to the light meter app and point it outside. 1/60th of a second at f/2.8 at EI 100. The clouds looming overhead suggest that this reading will get worse. It’s not looking good.
I have a choice; either spend the afternoon braving the storm and attempt to shoot my film in bad light, or wait until the weather clears and try again then. I check the weather app again. Rain all throughout the week. Guess I’m going for it today.
I zip up my jacket, pull my hat low, and tuck into my hood for a little extra warmth. I load my last roll into my Nikonos V, a reassuring friend in unforgiving conditions. As I advance the lever, the rain drums harder against the cafe windows.
Worry starts to brew in my stomach for two reasons. The first is that these conditions are no place for photographers, especially casual ones. There’s barely any light outside, and the rain’s coming down so fast that I can’t imagine a situation in which I won’t be shooting through an obscured lens. But I can deal with that. It’s the second reason that really makes me question myself – my last roll of film happens to be Fomapan 100, a slow and unforgiving black-and-white film.
Earlier in the day I’d asked the Casual Photophile crew for some user experience and tips on shooting Fomapan. Before I enter the deluge, I decide to check the CP writer’s chat and see what my inquiry has brought. I find it hasn’t been received well, in some cases, and not at all in most. Charlie hates the film because it curls too much. Jeb says it’s cheap in Europe but doesn’t say anything else. Nobody else replied.
My earlier attempts to research the film yielded equally nebulous results. Fomapan 100’s technical sheet promises high resolution and small grain, as a 100 speed film should, but also makes strange claims to wide exposure latitude (despite the fact that the same data sheet proclaims Fomapan 100 to be capable of only one stop of over-exposure and two stops of under-exposure). Other sites heap praise on the film, but their best examples of the film are shot in medium format. Little to no information exists on the web about its performance as a 35mm emulsion, which is a completely different playing field.
This lack of good info gives me a job to do, but I also wonder why nobody else wanted to do it.
I turn the Nikonos’ ASA/ISO dial back to 100 and look out into the street. Water has almost swallowed up the sidewalk. Cars are trawling through the road like the boats on Disneyland’s classic Pirates of the Caribbean. Light’s fading quickly under ever-darkening storm clouds, and I can hear the distant crack of thunder some miles away.
Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me. Oh well. Let’s get this over with.
I step outside and am greeted by a roaring orchestra of water droplets in full crescendo. My hat does a good job of shielding my glasses from the rain, but doesn’t do anything for the Nikonos’ lens. It’s almost immediately soaked, so I’ll have to wipe it down before every single shot. I peek through the Nikonos’ viewfinder, which is now partially fogged, and remember I need to scale focus, and at a relatively wide aperture which requires precise distance estimation. This is going to be tedious on top of being difficult.
As I trudge through darkening, flooded streets, I remember exactly why I don’t like slow film. Slower films are inherently limiting and inflexible. And based on previous experiences, Fomapan 100 is more inflexible than most. Take its handling of overall contrast for example. Fomapan 100 tends toward higher contrast, but combine that with a narrow exposure latitude and that means highlights will be blown and shadows will be crushed. Even if exposure is nailed, you’ll have to work pretty hard to bring back sufficient shadow detail.
Fomapan 100 also suffers from its traditional upbringing as a cubically grained film. Whatever sharpness is promised by a 100 speed film is blunted by the presence of this chunkier form of grain, however small. Tabular grain films like Ilford Delta 100 and Kodak T-max 100 far surpass older-style films when it comes to sharpness and resolution, and these do a technically better job fulfilling the role of a slow film.
Fomapan 100 then leaves me wondering about its purpose as a film. It’s old school in its formulation, and its results belong to that older school. The grain is fine, but is present enough to lend a kind of softness to an image, something that isn’t quite present in the technologically more advanced tabular grain films. I think of old-school 35mm photographers like Willy Ronis, Robert Capa, and on a day like this, Brassaï, the king of 35mm night photography. Their images feature clever usage of available light, a softer, more interpretive overall sharpness, and an all-or-nothing approach to contrast.
In recognizing this, I’ve formed my gameplan for shooting Fomapan 100 in unforgiving light. Since the light is low, I’ll meter towards my highlights and use the crushed blacks to compositional advantage. Silhouettes in a rainy cityscape is a bit of a cliché, but an attractive one, and one I’m willing to give myself over to in conditions such as these.
I push forward through the rain, and feel the quiet clunk of the Nikonos V’s shutter as I observe a man crossing the street, backlit by the skyline.
Maybe I can use his silhouette, I think. Maybe this will work out after all.
It’s 3:45 PM. Intense winter light shines directly into my eyes, prompting me to sneeze. I’ve had an uncommonly sensitive case of photic sneezing reflex (otherwise known as sun sneezing) since I was a child, and I’ve only recently tried combating it by wearing hats outside. But during the winter, the sun’s low angle sneaks the light right under the bill of my cap, forcing a sneeze every few minutes.
While wiping my nose with a pocket Kleenex tissue, I check the film counter on my Nikon F3, which tells me I’ve shot eighteen frames so far. Except I haven’t. Those eighteen frames were shot on an incredibly rainy day the previous week. I put up as valiant an effort as I could considering the dark, wet conditions, and decided to throw in the towel when the sky finally turned black. I rewound the film in my drenched Nikonos, and saved half the roll for better conditions. I finally have them today. The sun is out, the sky is bright, and it’s looking like a good time to finish that roll of Fomapan 100.
A high-contrast, low-latitude film like Fomapan 100 gives itself quite easily to sun-drenched environs. The film’s proclivity for crushing blacks won’t be much of an issue, and the lack of highlight latitude might give scenes a starker look, similar perhaps to Eastman Double X, a film I enjoyed shooting for that very look. The traditional cubic grain structure might also lend the older Art Deco buildings of Downtown LA a pleasant old-school newspaper archive look. Whatever the case, I feel more optimistic this time around.
Though I’m usually not a fan of slow films, they do come with certain creative advantages. Slow films enable the use of wider apertures as well as slower shutter speeds, which means shallower depth-of-field and motion blur. When used on the canvas of slow film, out-of-focus areas become that much more milky, and motion blur feels cleaner and clearer when spread across finer points of grain. It’s here that I feel Fomapan 100 shines. Fomapan 100’s grain is chunky enough to set images apart from digital offerings, but small enough to offer a finer paintbrush with which to paint that grain.
Knowing this, I focus my F3’s lens at a “no walking” sign and select a moderate aperture to slightly blur out the traffic of the 101 freeway, which will give compositional emphasis ever so slightly to the sign. A few minutes later I point my camera down from the freeway overpass and select a slower shutter speed, hoping the film can paint the lines of motion blur from a passing car. The abundance of light this afternoon makes these creative decisions much easier, which makes the images come a lot more more easily.
I finally arrive in the heart of Downtown LA, at Pershing Square, and decide to take a quick breather on a strange-looking bench. I look up and notice the monolith that bears the name “Pershing Square,” along with a few random triangles, squares, and spheres. This iteration of Pershing Square was designed in 1992, and it shows. It looks like a living version of the Saved by the Bell title card. The square is slated to be redesigned in the next few years, so I figure it would be worth it to document this piece of work for myself.
This particular school of design is all about shape and form, and I figure Fomapan 100 is perfect for this. It’s soft enough to divorce these figures from reality, and contrasty enough to separate each shape in the frame. I switch my lens to the Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 for tighter framing, compose the shot, press the shutter button, and let out a good sneeze.
It’s 11 PM. A couple weeks have passed by since my outing with that roll of Fomapan 100, and I’ve sat with the scans on my computer for one of those weeks. Countless drafts of the prospective review sit in the trashcan on my computer. Two mugs of coffee have done their duty and are now trying to fuel a final draft. Yet nothing’s coming. This film is proving to be harder to pin down by the minute.
On one hand, I got the results I wanted. Forming a solid game plan tailored to Fomapan 100’s strengths and weaknesses netted me a flurry of good images, and a couple that I’m even proud of. It took some mental gymnastics to shoot this film in lower light, but the results actually turned out well. It’s impressive on its own merits, especially considering that Fomapan 100 is one of the cheapest commercially available black-and-white films on the market. Stateside the film sits right under five dollars per thirty-six exposures of 35mm, while European buyers can enjoy it for less than four euro.
But on the other hand, Fomapan 100’s results for general photography leave me wanting. Every time I tried a casual snapshot, the film bit back with way too much contrast, not to mention that it featured a strange milky flatness in the midtones that makes skin look mannequin-esque. (Note: this quirk improves greatly in Fomapan 100’s 120 format – but that’s a review for another day). Unlike other slow black-and-white films like Fuji Acros, Ilford Delta 100, and Kodak T-max 100, Fomapan 100 can’t be used for every situation. In fact, I’d say that it’s one of the most inflexible films on the market.
So is it good or bad? I’d say it’s good, cautiously. Fomapan 100 is a good looking film when shot to its strengths, but it’s about as old-school as a black-and-white film can get. While its comically large grain and stunted technical capabilities deliver images tinged with nostalgia, they’re also annoying enough to make the film an anachronism. It takes patience to take advantage of these weaknesses. You have to be up to the challenge, but this challenge might be too weird and specific for most shooters.
Yet after all that, I still find myself loading up another roll into my camera and turning the ASA/ISO dial to back to 100. I check the weather app on my phone. There’s a fifty percent chance of rain in the morning, and a fifty percent chance of sun in the afternoon. Whichever it is, I’ll be up for it. I like a good challenge.