Instructables

Film Hacking - The Microfilm Files

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Microfilm has always been the domain of Spies, War Fighters, and Reference Librarians.  Now you can co-opt the special properties of microfilm for your own personal photographic vision, but not after some work on your part.

In this Instructable, we will use microfilm for the "off label" purpose of  general pictorial photography.  So grab your microfilm reader and try to follow along!

UPDATE:  It seems that Freestyle Camera now carries Agfa Copex Rapid in convenient 35mm size complete with sprocket holes [where's the fun in that].

 


 
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Step 1: Why Microfilm?

Microfilm is not designed for pictorial photography.  It is made to optically reproduce printed media for storage and retrieval. That said, some commercial films have leaked into the market advertised as, "High Definition."  Films like Gigabit (sounds high tech), Bluefire Police (sounds official), Technical Pan (sounds technical), and  Adox CMS 20 (sounds weird) have long been available to photographers.  However, you pay a premium for the film and (often bundled) developer. Here we will use plain vanilla, reference librarian grade microfilm to get similar results.

Why and why not use microfilm?


Microfilm Pros:

1.  Its fine grain, ultra-fine grain, super-ultra-fine grain depending on which hyperbolic advertising you believe.  Grain is the "noise" of the film world.  Meaningless data that gets incorporated into the image.  As you can imagine, film that is designed to record information, grain is a bad thing.  So microfilm is about the finest grain films you will encounter this side of some esoteric holography film.  Many films embrace grain and do it well (e.g. Tri-X Pan), but microfilm is not one of them.  If you are into blowing up your film to mural size, microfilm is for you.

2.  Its cheap.  Professionals wouldn't trust slightly outdated microfilm with their precious,  precious information.  So there is little demand for outdated microfilm which leads low, low prices.  I recently bought 3000 feet of 35mm microfilm for about $40...delivered.  Put into more familiar terms, that is about $0.07 per 36 exposure roll.  Outdated....yes, but this type of film deteriorated very little over time.

3.  Longevity.  Microfilm is designed to last for a guaranteed 500 years.  Well, any properly processed black and white film will probably do the same,  but is not guaranteed.  Since most corporations won't last 500 years, its a good bet for microfilm manufactures.  Think of that next time you are looking for a 500 year old disc drive to retrieve your digital photos!

Microfilm's (many) Cons:

1.  It is slow.  Most modern microfilms can be successfully rated at 25 ISO.  No problem when microfilming, but for general photography, it will lead to slow shutter speeds and large apertures.  Not too much of a problem if you own a tripod and like bokeh.  It should be noted that some pictorial films are this slow as well.  On the plus side, slow films last much better over time, so microfilm is usually just fine decades "out of date."   You can also get microfilm duplication film designed to make working copies of your microfilm.  Since these are exposed in the lab, they are very slow.  I'm talking ISO 1!  About as fast as photographic paper.  Although limited, you can still use this type in camera on a nice sunny day with a fast lens. 

2.  It is contrasty.  When you only have to resolve black print on white paper, high contrast is beneficial.  Luckily there are ways to tame the contrast, however the contrast will always be "compressed" compared to most purpose built black and white films. Some people actually like the either all black and all white world of high contrast photography....for those, microfilm is a definite plus.

3.  It is unperforated.  Microfilm is (usually) designed to use all the film area of the film with no allowance for sprockets.  However, most cameras these days need sprocket holes to position the film correctly.  Luckily, some cameras can take unperforated film just fine.

4.  It has a clear base.  This increases the contrast of the film, but also makes it great for 35mm slides, if you are into that sort of thing.

5.  It has minimal antihalation properties.  Antihalation prevents light from bouncing off the rear of the film or the base plate and reentering the film to make additional exposure.  Pictorial films have this in spades, but microfilm has just enough to get by.  This can lead to some "light piping" and  weird halos in your exposures.  

6.  Its black and white only.  Color microfilms do exist, but they are rare and expensive.  If you are buying microfilm, it is probably black and white microfilm.

7.  Odd tonality.  Even though most microfilm is panchromatic (sensitive to all colors of light), it renders colors as grays in a fashion unlike regular black and white film.  Not to say the tonality is unpleasant, just different.  For most exposures, you will not notice, but with skin tones you might see some differences. Duplicating microfilm can be totally orthochromatic (sensitive to blue/green) to only blue sensitive.  Since it does not "see" reds, they are recorded as black.  On the plus side, you can work with them using a safelight.  On the down side, your photos will look like they were taken in the 1930's (white skies, black lips). 
JamesMcGR1 year ago
wow, these are amazing photos! when you slice the 105mm down you mentioned a block type set up. I am guessing it's done in the dark, correct? Would you happen to have a photo of what that cutter do-dad looks like? And any pointers on searching for expired filmstock of this stuff? Thanks!
Hi, just a question, where did you manage to buy it, I can't find it anywhere, at least not cheap??

thanks,
emihackr97
ImageMaker2 years ago
You can make usable 828 backing paper by (carefully) slitting a 35 mm wide strip from the 6x4.5 cm number track of 120 backing (readily available). You'll get a strip long enough for 16 exposures plus paper leaders, and most 828 spools will accommodate this much film and paper (you may have to trim the head or tail of the paper a few inches, but you only need about half as much head to load the 828 camera anyway). Most microfilm stocks are thinner than 120, so you might avoid trimming the ends of the paper.

I've done this with unused 120 film to create 828 in conventional emulsions -- works great, once you work out a way to accurately cut the roll (and no, it doesn't fog much film at the cut line; rarely does the fogging penetrate to the 828 exposure frame). It also works for other types of perforated or unperforated 35 mm film (though with standard 35 mm still or cine film you'll get slight intrusion of the sprocket holes into the top of the image -- frame accordingly).

BTW, there's an easy, cheap low-contrast developer that works with most microfilms to produce pictorial contrast images: Caffenol LC+C (it also boosts film speed by up to twice the original value -- I've gotten EI 80 from "high speed" microfilm stocks, still with good tonality).

http://silent1.home.netcom.com/Photography/Dilutions%20and%20Times.html
Nano_Burger (author)  ImageMaker2 years ago
IM, I tried that technique, but I cut off the wrong end and the numbers were all screwy! I'll have to try again and pay attention this time.

Some microfilm is thinner and some thicker. The thin stuff is usually for master copies that go into deep storage. Being thinner takes up less room and lowers storage costs. The thick stuff is for distribution copies to stand up to the rigors of being handled by the unwashed masses.

I need to get serious and make a more higher prescision film slitter. The steel reels I use are not very forgiving of the millimeter variations that creep into my rig. The plastic ratchet type are much more forgiving, but the max I can do is 2 at a time. My big 5 reel tank is usually more efficient.

I've used Caffenol LC+C only once. I didn't count on the increase in speed and ended blocking up the highlights. I'll have to give it a second chance.
pschelfhout2 years ago
I used to work for a microfilm publisher, unfortunately they went out of business a while ago. I have used quite a lot of microfilm in my time but I had to switch to adox CMS 20 when my stock ran out. Orthochomatic worked best for me and with a warmer developing temperature and constant agitation I could reach an extra 2 stops in contrast.
noahh2 years ago
Very cool! I love photographic experiments, I'm going to start checking eBay for microfilm.
tholopotami2 years ago
Since I have developed quite a few BW rolls myself (a lot of years ago), I really enjoyed your high contrast photos. You cannot obtain the same result and the same feeling with a digital camera.

A question: Standard films have a resolution of about 50-150 lines per mm. Do you know what the corresponding figure is for the films you are using (e.g from a data sheet)? I suppose it must be higher.
Nano_Burger (author)  tholopotami2 years ago
The highest claim I could find was for Imagelink by Kodak at 160 l/mm.

Of course the 160 l/mm is for properly processed microfilm. By decreasing the contrast to get continuous tone negatives, you are also decreasing the resolution of the film. Still very sharp...easily within the capabilities of my lenses.
VadimS2 years ago
From what I could find, silver microfilm is usually good to about 200 lines per mm. So should be good for large prints (I love making panoramic pics). 35mm SLR cameras can be had cheap on eBay, so I'll grab one, I usually use digital as it's easier, but film fascinates me, managed to develop some film using coffe some years ago, but never repeated it.