Scratching an itch

When you‘ve got an itch – you’ve gotta scratch it!

Sometimes an idea pops into the head and the only way to get it out again is to stop what you are doing and attend to it. It happened to me last Sunday, and by 7pm, just as I was about to settle down with a book for the evening, the itch became unbearable. So, I grabbed my Bronica ETRS, the 220 film back that I’d purchased in error and a roll of expired 35mm B&W film and headed into the garden. By 7.30pm I was mixing chemicals and by 8pm the still-wet negatives were hanging in my bathroom to dry.

So, what got me so motivated? And surely that’s a typo – 220 back and 35mm film?

The idea of putting 35mm film through a medium format film camera is hardly new or innovative but it’s been niggling away at the back of my mind for a while now and I’ve been itching to try it for myself. I’ve seen a handful of images online and even watched a couple of YouTube videos on the subject so I did have some thoughts on how to approach it. So long as it is loaded carefully into a medium format film back, it is possible to shoot images that extend across the sprocket holes of the 35mm film to cover the whole surface of the film and with my ETRS back you get 45x33mm negatives, including the sprocket holes. If I was to do the same with my SQ-A then the negatives would be around 60x33mm although I’ve yet to try this. I say careful incidentally because you need to ensure the film runs centrally down the film plate as you wind on if you want to be reasonably certain of your compositions.

Spoiler alert: this experiment with the ETRS worked and I’ve already loaded the ETRS 220 back with a roll of 35mm colour negative film for a more “serious” session – when the sun decides to reappear.

I chose the 220 film back as it was designed for longer rolls of medium format film which allowed for 30 shots on the ETRS so I would not be advancing the film back past the number of shots the 35mm film would provide.  There is however a lot of wasted film at the start of the roll due to the way the Bronica winds on the 120 film at the start of a roll, the back is designed for roll film and needs to pull sufficient backing paper through to reveal the film buried inside the roll. I did however manage 21 exposures on this 36 exposure test roll (remember this is a 6×4.5 back and not 6×6 so if using a 6×6 format camera the number of images obtained will be less although they will be wider). I could try sticking a length of old backing paper to the start of the 35mm film I guess to minimise this wastage but that is an idea for another day.

Out of date Ilford HP5+ 35mm film in a Bronica ETRS 220 film back

As the image above shows the idea worked and the subject is lined-up correctly and not sloping due to wonky film loading. So what did I learn?

Vertical = horizontal and horizontal = vertical!

As the picture of the loaded film back shows, first and foremost: vertical = horizontal and horizontal = vertical! The film in a Bronica ETRS back runs top to bottom unlike a 35mm SLR where it runs left to right. Which means the 35mm film inside the 220 back is running down the middle rather than width-ways. It takes some getting used to, and I may cut a mask for the viewfinder to remind me, but basically when holding the camera normally the film is covering a vertical strip down the middle of the viewfinder. Tip the camera on its side (as you would normally to shoot a portrait or vertically orientated image) and the strip now runs horizontally across the middle of the frame.

That aside, and I have a lot of spoilt images because I hadn’t noted that quirk earlier, everything else went well. I used a pair of adaptors on the 35mm cassette which enabled me to insert the film in the same way I would have inserted a 120 roll. In a traditional film camera the 35mm film is loaded with the glossy side towards you but as the emulsion is on the other side of the plastic strip you need to reverse this when loading 35mm film into a roll film back (see above); basically the emulsion (non-glossy) side needs to be foremost in the holder so it is exposed to the lens when the film back is attached to the camera and the slide removed.

This quick and impulsive test was in most respects successful. Yes, every frame is orientated in the opposite direction to that in which I shot it and so many do not make compositional sense but this was not about creating masterpieces but about seeing if I could make it work – and I did. The first few frames were horribly under-exposed as the light meter I was using was still set to 800 ISO from an earlier session and I had also chosen to underexpose by a couple of stops, partly to give a darker frame to the main subject but mainly to achieve a shutter speed at which I could handhold the camera.

There were a couple of images however where, by dint of the 40mm lens I was using, the subject was centrally placed and therefore the composition does still work. Sadly, they were also amongst the first few underexposed frames but I have salvaged one of Grandson Harry which gives an idea of the kind of image I was hoping to capture.

Like many of these techniques, this one is unlikely to become my go-to method of shooting and needs to be used sparingly if it is not to become cliched and, dare I say, a little boring. The occasional 35mm cassette for a bit of fun is all I expect to be exposing in this manner. That said, I have ordered a 220 film back for my 6×6 Bronica SQ-A so I can try out the larger format. I’m hoping to shoot some panoramic images of the rooftops opposite for a sub-project within my main 366 project. There is also a roll of 35mm colour negative film in the ETRS 220 back .

So, as has been said countless times before – watch this space!

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