Film Hacking - the Microfilm Files




Introduction: Film Hacking - the Microfilm Files

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  Professionals wouldn't trust slightly outdated microfilm with their precious,  precious information.  So there is little demand for outdated microfilm which leads low, low prices.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  Outdated....yes, but this type of film deteriorated very little over time.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). 

Step 2: Choose Your Microfilm

Microfilm is a very mature technology and there were many types of microfilm to choose from depending on customer need. Only some of these can be used for pictorial photography. Bottom line, make sure your microfilm is silver halide when cruising eBay. Many sellers will have no clue as to what kind of film they have, so make sure you look at the label closely. Below is a short list of microfilms:

1. Silver Halide Film, Silver Gelatin Film or just plain "Silver" film. This is modified black and white film and the one you want for pictorial photography. You can develop this by yourself with familiar black and white processing chemicals and equipment.

2. Vesicular Film. This is a film that is written on by laser and developed with a dry thermal processor. It can be handled in the light. It is useless for anything other than its intended purpose.

3. Diazo Film. This type of film is exposed with UV light and then developed with ammonia vapors. This too is useless for the pictorial photographer.

Microfilms come in some standard formats. Most commonly:

1. 35mm unperforated. Good for 35mm cameras.

2. 16mm unperforated. Good for sub mini cameras.

3. 105mm unperforated. Good for slitting to medium format or cutting to large format cameras.

It is worth noting here that at least the 16mm and 35mm films normally come in "daylight loading reels." These are reels that have a central core and flanges that cover the edges of the film. The concept was that you loaded the film in daylight (hence the name) and sacrifice the 1 or 2 feet of film that were lightstruck. The side flanges protected the rest of the film.

Also worth noting that some microfilm spools are loaded the wrong way. That is the emulsion is pointing at you towards the outside rather than pointing towards the center like most all other film. Why? It is probably designed for a camera that takes film that way. Anyway, always check before doing anything with the film. It will save hours of frustration.

Step 3: Choose Your Camera

Your microfilm format will dictate what kind of camera to use.  Below, I'll make some recommendations on cameras of which  I have had experience.  Not an all inclusive list, you are only limited by your imagination.

35mm Microfilm:  This format is 35mm wide and can easily be loaded into standard 35mm cartridges with a bulk loader.

1.  828 Cameras (e.g. Kodak Pony 828).  These cameras use an obsolete format that uses 35mm film with a backing paper much like 120 film.  Since the microfilm is unperforated, it is ideal for this format.  You will have to supply the 828 reel and the backing paper if you want to use this option.

2.  Mechanical 35mm SLR (e.g. Canon AE-1).  These "old school" cameras need the perforations in the film to transport the film through the camera.  Usually, you can modify the camera to take unperforated film by wrapping the sprocketed drive reel with a grippy rubber, electrical tape or even Sugru (tm) to turn the drive reel into a friction drive reel.  Unfortunately, I have found that this leaves non-standard spacing on your negatives.  Not a show stopper, but it gets tedious when trying to scan the negatives. 
Threepinner from Flickr has a nice illustration of this modification here.

3.  Modern 35mm SLR (e.g. EOS 10s).  These types of cameras normally use an IR diode to count perforations and position the film.  Obviously, a film with no perforations will confuse the camera and not operate correctly.  An exception to this technique was used by the Canon EOS 10s (or the EOS 10qd).  There may be others out there?  Normally, a modern SLR is advertised as safe for IR film will not use the IR diode and might be a good candidate for unperforated film.

4.  Medium Format Cameras (e.g. Holga).  Medium format cameras normally can take smaller format films.  You have probably seen "sprocket" photos on-line.  These are taken with medium format cameras or cameras that are specifically designed to let the image spill into the sprocket area of the film (the Sprocket Rocket).  With microfilm, you can have sprocketless, sprocket photos!

5.  Pinhole Cameras.  These cameras can be hand made or professionally produced.  They generally don't need sprocket holes to operate.  As an added bonus, the usually low contrast pinhole images can be punched up with the high contrast nature of microfilm.

6.  126 film Cameras.  Before there was 110 "Pocket Instamatic" there was the regular Instamatic that took 126 film from our friends at Kodak.  Soon everyone was making 126 film.  Oddly enough, 126 film is the exact same width as 35mm film, but with only one perforation per frame (and only on one side).  Unperforated microfilm can easily be reloaded into the old cartridges with the old backing paper.  It is easier to get the 126  cartridge apart than the 110 film cartridge.  The real challenge here is getting the singular perforation per frame.  I've had some limited success with doing the single perforation with a comb binder  machine, but it still is problematic. The work around:  Grind down the sensor arm in your camera so it will always "feel" the perforation.  You may have to put a dummy photo with the lens cap on or hand over the lens to avoid overlapping frames.

16mm Microfilm 16mm microfilm is ideal for submini format cameras because the film is so sharp and grain free.

1.  16mm Cameras:  In the 1950's through the 1980's, 16mm format was thriving interest.  Many crappy 16mm cameras were produced, but also many high quality 16mm cameras were produced.  Best of all, the simple cartridges of these were easy to reload.  Unperforated microfilm is ideal to reload as the original film was unperforated 16mm.  Examples of this type of camera is the venerable Minolta 16 series cameras and the USSR's equivalent, the Kiev 30 series of cameras.  Check out the "Sub Club" for a comprehensive list of 16mm cameras.

2. 110 Cameras:  These cameras were the Kodak answer to the thriving 16mm camera market.  Being easy to load and use, they were immensely popular (check your parent's closet, there are probably 1 or 2 in there).  Again, they run the range of crappy to highly sophisticated.  The 110 cartridges can be taken apart and reloaded with microfilm, however some cameras require the perforation built into 110 film to cock the shutter.  A quick test to see if unperforated microfilm will work in your 110 camera:  Ensure no film is in the camera,  Open the film door of the camera,  Advance the film advance lever, press the shutter release.  If the camera fires, unperforated film reloads are just fine.

3.  8mm and Smaller:  Like the 35mm film, 16mm can be slit down easily enough to feed smaller format cameras.  However, it will not work in 8mm cine cameras as the perforations are required to drive and position the film.

105mm film:  This film was the standard size for microfiche.

1.  Medium Format Cameras:  From high end SLRs and TLRs to the lowly Dianas and Holgas.  The 105mm can be slit down from 105mm to approximately 60mm with 45mm left over.  If you are not too picky about film widths, these sizes will do just fine for 120/220 film and the leftovers can be used for all your 127 film cameras.  The actual widths are 61mm for 120 and 47mm for 127, but slightly smaller works just fine and does not sacrifice image area.

2.  Large format cameras.  105mm film can easily be cut down using a guillotine paper cutter (in the dark) into 4x5 sheets, 3.25x4.25 sheets or  2.25x3.25 sheets to feed the sheet film holders of a variety of press and technical large format cameras. 

3.  Odd formats cameras.  Have you ever wanted to use a Kodak 3A, but can't find 122 film (Kodak stopped making it in 1971)?  How about some weird film format for that camera you won on eBay after drinking a little too much?  Well, with a little ingenuity, you can slit the 105mm film down to nearly any roll film width.

Step 4: Shoot Your Film

OK, you have the microfilm and you have the camera.  Time to bring them together.  Your microfilm must be packaged in a way that your camera can easily digest.  In other words, you need to put the microfilm into the camera's native format.

1.  35mm film.  The fastest and easiest way to load 35mm film into those familiar metal cans is to use your bulk loading equipment.  I won't wast too much time here as other instructables have covered the subject in detail.  Since microfilm is a little different, I'll add a few points to consider.

     a.  The 100 foot variety usually comes in daylight loading reels as mentioned before.  Some bulk loaders will not accept the added girth of the flanges.  My Telesar loaders only take 35mm film on a core (with no flanges).  However, my Alden-74 bulk loaders take the reels with flanges just fine.  Even if the film does not fit, you can simply transfer the film onto an empty core compatible with your loader.  This is time consuming and frustrating as you have to do it in the dark.

     b.  The film may be on the reel backwards from normal film (emulsion towards the core).  Check before you start loading cartridges or you may end up with film that you shoot through the base.

     c.  All the bulk loaders I'm familiar with come with counters that give you an idea of how much film is left in the loader.  These will not work with your unperforated microfilm because they all work by engaging the sprocket holes.  The film will slide over the sprocket without moving the counter.  This will leave scratches on the emulsion of your film, but luckily they will not be in the image area of the camera.  If you devote one loader to unperforated film, you can simply take out the part that engages the sprockets for smoother operation without the scratches.

     d. Since the bulk loader counter will not work as intended, you will have to judge the amount of film by the number of turn I give the bulk loader.  I've found that with my Alden loader, 25 turns will give me 36 exposures with a good leader however your mileage may vary.

     e. Once your cartridges are loaded, you will have to cut the leader to look something like professional film.  Just remember that the long leader goes on the same side as the long part of the reel. 

     f.  Finally, you will need a way for the film to attach to the takeup reel in your camera.  Usually it will grab onto a perforations.  I've found that just a small piece of tape works just fine.  When you rewind the film, the tape will get sucked into the can, so you have to remember to peel that off when you are loading your developing reels.

     g.  OK.  Now that your film is in the can, you should be able to run it through your camera with little problem.  Be sure to set the ISO to 25 to get the correct exposure.

2.   16mm film.  This film will fit into any 16mm camera or 110 camera.

     a. 16mm Film Cartridge cameras.  These are among the easiest to reload.  The simple plastic cartridge is very intuitive and comes apart easily.  No backing paper worries either.  The only danger is loading the film in backwards.  Microfilm emulsion is very thin, and some reels are loaded backward, so going by the curl of the film is chancy if you don't know the film intimately.  An easy way to tell which side is which is to sacrifice an inch or so of film (memorizing its orientation with the reel) and bring it into white light.  Add a little water to both sides.  The emulsion side will change color and hue while the base side will simply shed the water.  As usual, the Sub Club has great info on "Rolling Your Own."

     b  110 Film Cameras.  110 film cartridges are harder to disassemble and reassemble with 16mm film, but it is not all that difficult once you have the hang of it.  The cartridge has backing paper for the film which protects it from accidental exposure and any "mistakes" made while cutting the thing open in the first place.  As always, it is important to have the emulsion side of the film facing the lens.  The concept is is to roll the film and backing paper together and insert into the supply chamber.  Then insert the take up reel and reassemble the cartridge.  This is the same technique you will use to reload 126 film cartridges with 35mm film...just bigger.  So your Instamatics (both regular and pocket) are ready for microfilm....almost!  Many of these cameras have no controls to adjust, so you will have to put a filter over the light sensor to fool the camera into believing there is less light available and increase the exposure.  Some high end 110 cameras have fully adjustable camera controls, so you can use your sunny 16 skills to adjust the exposure.   

3.  105mm film.

     a. Splitsville.  If you plan to use the 105mm film in roll film cameras, you will have to slit it down to size unless you plan to build a 105mm format camera yourself.  Faced with this requirement, I built a crude, yet effective slitter that consists of a trough lined with felt and an insert that has a blade positioned to slit the film.  The good thing about this design is that you can trade out the insert to slit various film widths. Once you have the film slit to the correct width, you will have to find roll spindles and backing paper for your film. 

     b.  The chopper.  For large format film, the 105mm film can simply be chopped into the correct format using a large guillotine type paper cutter.  For orthochromatic or blue sensitive duplication film, you can do this under safelight.  However with panchromatic film, you will have to go in the dark.  For that it is best to use heavy tape as a stop for the film so you can feel it in the dark.  With practice, you can cut a hundred sheets a session.  Make sure to keep the orientation of the sheets correct so you know what side has the emulsion to face up when loading your sheet holders.  Remember, there are no notch codes unless you put them on yourself!

Step 5: Develop Your Film

This is where the magic happens!  As you recall from step #1, microfilm is designed to be very high in contrast.  Using a regular black and white film developer will give you nearly black and white photos (no grays).  However, there are ways of controlling that crazily high contrast.  Here are a few ranked from easiest to less easy!

1.  Choose a soft working developer.  Not all developers strive for normal contrast.  Some will give a soft, low contrast image.  When combined with the naturally high contrast microfilm, you can achieve nearly normal contrast images.  Perhaps the best known was made by Kodak specifically to develop its Technical Pan emulsion.  That particular developer was known as Technidol and works fine with other brands of microfilm.  Other companies have developed low contrast developers as well...often with "LC" in the name such as Perceptol LC.  Photographers formulary has TD3, a Technidol substitute, Spur has their own developer as well.  Into granola and wheat grass milk?  You can make your own low contrast developer from instant coffee and washing soda!  Just Google "Caffenol LC!"

2.  Use dilute developer.  Nearly any developer can be diluted down with water and produce a low contrast image.  When you dilute the developer down, you have to extend the developing time. I normally follow a linear pattern when adding time...when you halve the concentration, you double the time.  This is just to get you in the ballpark.  You will have to do some testing to find the correct times.  This is a fine technique, however you may end up with the heartbreak of "Bromide Drag."  This occurs when development products slowly ooze down the negative...inhibiting chemical reactions along the way.  This will cause strange blobs on the final negative.  You can eliminate this with agitation, but agitation increases contrast.  The key is to find a happy medium between agitating enough to prevent drag but not enough to get unacceptably high contrast.  Again, testing is key.

3.  Use a divided developer.  Divided developers are strange beasts that usually consist of two solutions.  The first is the developer and the second, the activator (or accelerator).  You first soak the film in the developer.  Very little if any development takes place because it is missing the second part.  Your film emulsion soaks up the developer.  Next, you plunge the film into the second part.  Development starts in earnest when the developer in the film emulsion meets the activator, however it burns out quickly in the highlights (dark part of the negative) but keeps going in the shadows (lighter part of the negative).  This gives a low contrast image on regular film, but normal contrast with microfilm.  Microfilm has a very thin emulsion layer, so several iterations may be required to get to the correct density. 

4.  Use a water bath technique.  This is really a subset of the divided developer.  You have two solutions again, but this time the first is the regular developer and the second is a water bath.  The technique is similar, plunge the film into the developer (this time the development begins immediately) allow the developer to soak in and then transfer to the water bath.  Again, the developer burns out in the highlights and continues to work in the shadows. You will have to play "mad bartender" until you have the density you desire.

5. The 1 + 2 punch.  If you really need to lower the contrast, you can do combinations.  For example, you can use a soft developer and dilute it down or the water bath technique.  With this arsenal, you can deal with the any contrasty film stock.

Once you have chosen a low contrast developing technique/developer, the rest of your workflow follows the same pattern as any other black and white film.  You know the drill:

a.  Develop

b.  Stop bath (optional really...I gave up on that long ago and just use water)

c.  Fixer (not optional)

d.  Wash

e.  Distilled water + rinse aid (photoflo) [to avoid hard water marks]

Step 6: Scan And/or Print Your Film

Once you have "continuous tone" negatives, there is really no trick to scanning or printing them.  However, here are just a few notes that might help out.

1.  Use low contrast paper if your negatives are still a little too contrasty.  Lower the number of the paper, the lower the contrast.  You can also alter the contrast with variable contrast (VC) papers by using colored filters between the lens and the paper.

2.  Negative carriers.  Fairly common for normal gauges of film, however if you slit some odd formats such as 122, you will have to make your own.  You can easily construct a negative carrier out of black foam core or even black cardboard.  Negative carriers work for light enlargers and flat bed scanners as well.

3.  The clear base of the microfilm may confuse a scanner somewhat.  To get the best scans, I usually set the scanner to the slide film mode.  Slides have clear bases as well, so the scanner will be expecting this.  You will have to invert the image in post processing software if you use this setting. 

Step 7: Some Images

Here are some images taken under various conditions just so you can get the feel of the "look" of microfilm used for pictorial photography.  It may take some effort to use, but microfilm is a nice addition to your arsenal of black and white photographic films.

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    9 Discussions


    6 years ago on Step 7

    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??



    7 years ago on Introduction

    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).


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    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.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    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.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Very cool! I love photographic experiments, I'm going to start checking eBay for microfilm.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    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.


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    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.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    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.