shooting microfilm in a Leica IIIc

Black and white photography is about contrast with me. Sure I like nice grays in an image but certainly not too much. I need whites and blacks. Recently I lucked into a stash of perforated 35mm Fomamures microfilm and set to shooting it in a Leica IIIc. Let me tell you the story and show you the shots.

One morning I was browsing Facebook during morning coffee and I don’t even recall what group I was in, but all of a sudden I was reading a post on the sale of some boxes of black and white microfilm. Fact is, I wasn’t even reading that close because the seller had included a few images shot on that film and they were just what I like.

Art is simple

To me, ‘that thing called Art’ has an ever varying mix of seven aspects: Shape, Form, Texture, Line, Color, Space and Value. And some of those are more relevant in black and white than others. Where every photographer places any of those aspects in their work is entirely their business, of course.

The way my mind works Shape, Form, Line and Texture are prominent in black and white photography. While in my color work Color, Space, Shape and Value are key. That’s not to say that a good picture can be made by rigorously combining these aspects and discarding the others, but some are just more important than others. (this last sentence has a bit of an Animal Farm ring to it)

Microfilm in a camera

Microfilm has very high contrast. It’s normally used to photograph printed media like newspapers etcetera that need archiving. Those printed media were usually archived in black and white where possible. The microfilm images could be viewed on a special projector and the entire archive of newspapers was taking less space. The high contrast was needed to insure legibility when viewing the archived pages.

Finding microfilm that is perforated for 35mm use is getting progressively harder, the film isn’t made anymore (as far as I know?) and supplies have run low.

The seller of ‘my’ film (well I still had to buy it) was located in Romania and did not have much information on the film. Origin was a company called ‘Fomamures’ (with that Romanian thingy on the bottom of the ‘s’ at the end) and they were 30 meter (100 foot) rolls. He had close to a dozen boxes and had only shot a part of one to demonstrate the quality of the film. It looked terrific to me, and I have experience shooting expired film so the fact that this was dated 2007 was no problem to me, also judging by the quality of the results.

We had a nice online conversation on Romania and Bucharest (I’ve been there 3 decades ago, I’m an old bloke) and I decided I’d eat ramen noodles for a week or so to get myself 5 boxes of that film. Since I get about 18 rolls of 36 exposures from 30 meters with some careful rolling and cutting, that would amount to 90 rolls of film, which in turn is 3,240 images, haha! I guess I’m set for quite a while!

Of course I had to shoot an image straight away after loading the camera, even though there really was too little light and I might have improved on it using a tripod or anything, but you know what it is like, the excitement… 😉 I’m out of focus, but grinning and it was the first image on this film I ever shot so I thought I’d share it here anyway!

What’s what on this Fomamures film?

But, first things first. The box that the film comes in, is simple cardboard and has a label that also is a seal on the box.

Inside is a black plastic bag, inside which is another black bag. The roll of film itself is in there, it has a core and easily drops into the bulk loader. The starting end is taped with paper tape.

Cutt the tape, cut the bit of film that the tape still sticks to also off, and guide the begin of the film through the bulk loader’s light trap. Then close the bulk loader up and you’re good to go. Let’s load some film!

Observations on the first foot of film that I cut off to get past the tape remainder and residue: the film base is very thin. It has a purplish glow to it and does not seem to have an anti-halation layer nor does it have a thick emulsion layer. In fact, the front of the film is alost the same color as the back. The one film stock that comes to mind is a film that was used in traffic cameras, also a special film for non-commercial use. I think this is called FPP or FFP film on the internet.

I loaded a FILCA cassette for the Leica screwmount cameras with the film, and sealed it up. Since the film base itself is so thin, the inner and outer shells of the cassette still have some play when the cassette is closed. I made an effort getting the film in the camera right away, closing the camera with the bottom key of course also opens the cassette and the Leica IIIc is ready to go.

Chose a wartime Summitar 50mm 2.0 to shoot with this film, I considered a more modern lens but expected it to be pretty sharplooking with the higher contrast so opted for an older lens.

The film was rated at ASA 50 and metered with my beloved Gossen Lunasix-3 in incident metering for the shadows.

View from the kitchen window, you gotta start somewhere when testing a film
Progressing to the living room, a lockdown view

When the microfilm shooting day is done

So I shot the whole roll I had loaded. The shutter locked up on frame 31. Maybe I missed a few turns on the bulk loader, or the thinner film made me come up a few frames short, but it was okay.

I decided to unload the FILCA cassette in the darkroom and that was an excellent decision, I must say. Turns out that the spool in the old Paterson tank (single tank, original sixties model I kept for sentimental reasons I reckon) was a bit iffy about taking the film as it was supposed to. Probably because to the thin base material.

Now I’m known to also load film by simply sliding it in the spool instead of rocking one spool side back and forth to load it, but this film and spool wouldn’t let me. Again, the thin material and I also did not cut slanted sides to the starting end of the film. Usually I don’t have to, you see… So as a result those sharp corners managed to catch on just about every unevenness inside the spool I suppose. Sigh.

In the end I decided to contain the unloaded roll in the old Paterson tank and exit the darkroom (my black-out bathroom really) to get a System 4 tank, the modern black one with the rubber lid and the rid stripe, to load the film into. And add another film since that is a two-film tank. Oh well, the other film needed processing anyway, it was so old I could not even remember what film was in that cassette.

However, this experience taught me multiple things about the film at once which in itself is a good thing of course. First, always cut the corners on the leading end when loading this film, and also make sure you have a super clean spool. Even on the modern film spool the loading wasn’t easy, the thin film isn’t caught 100% by the small metal ball inside the modern spool that normally grips the film to help it move forward in the spool’s grooves. When I got further on the film it needed additional grip from my fingers to stay put when rocking the spool half. That leads me to the second observation: this film easily takes up fingerprints and scratches, due to the thin base and emulsion. Some of those scratches might have come from the FILCA. I may have to rethink using those cassettes…

Developing Fomamures microfilm

I decided I would of course resort to the developing I always use whenever I have an unidentified film in the tank, or something very old, or something brand new. In this case I had all three and an additional reason was that the seller Alex had told me he’d also used Rodinal 1:100 stand development to get is excellent images. A no-brainer really!

So my first minute of ‘agitation’ really looks more like a samba contest when I’m developing. I’ve found that no matter what I do when developing 35mm perforated film, I always get bromide drag through the sprocket holes and my remedy is to shake the crap out of it the first 60 seconds, so developer slushes through these sprocket holes from all sides into all directions. There, problem solved. Plus, it boosts contrast and that was the whole reason I got this film so hey, tell me I’m wrong…

After that, just let it sit for 59 minutes, it’s called stand development for a reason!

One minute rinse in cold water. Fixing for six minutes (again, shake it like a madman the first minute and every next minute another 10 seconds)

Rinse, drop of dish washer detergent, and hang to dry from the cleverly upgraded coat hanger in the shower cabin.

Done!

Leica IIIc with a vintage W.Komura 35mm 3.5 ltm lens and Voigtlander Minifinder
with a red filter on the W.Komura 35mm lens to boost the clouds and darken the blue skies. This was the only one of five that came out good, I miscalculated the filter factor but on this one I also forgot to change the aperture. Now I know where to be with this film!

Final thoughts

This is an excellent film for what I want to achieve with it. I expected it to be kind of fussy but it turns out that I’m really pretty okay with the narrow latitude and the absence of an extensive greyscale. I use an incident meter and when I rate it at ASA 50, meter for the shadows and shoot it at bright weather it’s pretty straightforward, and also pretty awesome!

Not too grainy either, but requires some care in handling. I’m used to manhandling my films but this is more like a little girl to handle. I’m thinking that loading it in 24 frames length will likely improve the loading when developing. 36 is just too long to let the spool do the loading and sliding the film in myself leaves fingerprints.

Also noteworthy is that I had some emulsion wear in the first images but that might either be the emulsion being expired or the final rinse with tap water which has high calcium concentration in my area. Next roll I’ll do the final rinse with demineralised water to see if I can get rid of those spots. They weren’t abundant and I’m used to cloning them out anyway, many expired films show spots like that.

Four boxes are in the freezer and one is in the bulk loader now.

If you want to have a go at it yourself, Just drop me a line in the comments and I can get you in touch with the Romanian seller if you like!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.