Colour Film Printing and Documentary Photography

This semester I have been doing my own 120mm colour film printing at university, using Documentary Photography as the medium to present it.  My last session of photo printing was with black and white 35mm film, so this was quite different.

I started by deciding on a theme for the series.  Over the weeks my ideas evolved, but it was always my intention to complete a project with my four teenagers.  Documentary photography needs to tell a story, but it doesn’t have to be like photojournalism. So finally I settled on taking portraits of them holding and looking at, or gazing past objects that used to be important to them when they were younger, but which are less important to them now.  I didn’t want them to look directly at the camera, I wanted them to look thoughtful.  I was trying to show a connection between their childhood and the fact that in the next couple of years they will all have left home to go to university.  I was trying to highlight the ‘transition’ from one state to the other.



I used my Bronica SQA medium format camera to complete this.  The Bronica uses 120mm film which is approximately 4x larger than 35mm film, so the information and detail is much greater.  This camera was popular in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  It is completely mechanical and it’s necessary to use an external light meter to obtain the exposure, the camera doesn’t have one built into it.  It’s also useful to use a tripod, as it’s quite heavy and cumbersome.  The viewfinder is at waist level, so you need to look down into it.  The image in the viewfinder is the opposite way round from left to right, so you need to move the camera in the opposite direction to the way you would imagine – very confusing.  I also used a mechanical cable release, to avoid causing any kind of camera shake whilst depressing the shutter.  I used colour (C41) film – Fujicolor 160 ISO.  There’s no possibility here of peeking at the results on the back of the camera, so I also used Fujicolor’s instant film, which is similar to Polaroid film to test my exposures.  The Bronica has interchangeable carriers for the back of the camera, so it’s possible to use two or more films in the same shoot.  That’s possibly its only effort to compete with a digital camera!


This was all quite time consuming, but I got better and faster as I progressed.  I ended up shooting 9 normal films (each with 12 images) and several Polaroid films (each with 10 images) to obtain the images I needed for my university module – photography is a very expensive pursuit!

My work at university needs to be conceptual, but it also needs to be understood by viewers.  The images will be in a university exhibition in June, so this is how I’m going to display them.  I decided to take inspiration from an extract from the Bible – in fact from the Corinthians:

“When I was a child I spoke as a child I understood as a child I thought as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things.” I Cor. xiii. 11.

I probably won’t use the whole quote as a title, just an extract – ‘When I was a Child…’  By way of explanation, the subtext will state:

‘My teenagers contemplating the prospect of moving on in life from childhood and adolescence to leaving home and maturity. Looking at objects that used to be meaningful to them when they were young, but have much less meaning now. This is the beginning of many transitions for them – the passage of time’.


The photos have been printed on 12×16″ photographic paper with a slight lustre.  The images are 10×10″, so they will be displayed looking like Polaroids, with a large border at the bottom, and small borders on the other 3 sides.  I have decided not to mount them for this exhibition, I think they will look good just hanging from bulldog clips attached to the top, in a horizontal row of 5.


Colour printing took up most of my time!  I enjoyed it, but it was hugely frustrating.  I will never look at a colour print in the same way again!  I became mesmerised looking for colour casts in everything I produced.  An image would have too much cyan in it, so I would alter it and then it would have too much red… this went on and on for the whole semester!  I can’t begin to imagine how much money I spent on photographic paper.  At university we use the ‘subtractive’ system of colour printing, which only uses cyan, magenta and yellow filters to manipulate the colours, rather than the ‘additive’ system which uses red, green and blue filters (RGB).

Some major differences between black and white and colour printing include the fact that you can’t use a safe red light, all paper exposure has to be done in complete darkness.  I found that some of my other senses became stronger whilst doing this.  I often thought I could feel I was wearing my glasses, when I wasn’t!  In black and white you only use magenta filters, in colour printing you use at least yellow and magenta, and sometimes cyan also.

There is less control with colour printing, because you’re not using wet chemicals which you can manipulate.  In colour printing, the photographic paper is fed through a machine.  The paper still goes through various chemicals, but I had no control over that, the image appeared at the other end developed and even dry.  So the only control comes with eliminating the endless colour casts!  The process is somewhat scientific/mathematical, some calculations need to be made along the way.


I think I became quite sickly spending so much time in the dark… but after a break I think I will go back in there and have another go…  but this time on my own terms and in my own time.  I found the pressure to produce the prints in this slow methodical way quite intense.  Highlights included sharing my darkroom with Pat – we laughed a lot.

After all that came the essay… 3000 words on a Photobook of my choice.  I chose ‘I’ve Lived in East London for 86 1/2 Years’ by Joseph Markovitch, photos by Martin Usborne.  But more about that another day.

For now, I’ve finished my 2nd year at university!  Tomorrow I’m going to stay with my son in Oxford for a few days before he starts his finals.  At home I have my twins doing A levels and my youngest son doing GCSE’s… roll on June 20th when we can all chill out!



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