If someone was of a mind to get into large format photomicrography, I’d say go for it. I knew, and still do know, next to nothing about photography. I can do it. Sure, I’ve got a leg up in that I have some gear that does most of the work but even still, a cardboard box will do in the end. Just let it be an adventure.
What to Buy and Where
f you’re going to be getting a number of items shop around. If you buy several things, try and get them from the same source, in the end you might spend a dollar more here or there but you may well end up saving on shipping. If you’re looking for accessories, buy used. A used 4×5 film holder is always cheaper used than new, often less than $10.00 including shipping. For consumables like film, be willing to buy more than you need. A box of 50 sheets of 4×5 works out to $0.70 a sheet while a box of 25 usually ends up at over a dollar a sheet.
4×5 film: Get the cheap stuff. Don’t worry about buying the high speed stuff either, 100 ISO is fine. Amazon works but check out specialist suppliers like Freestyle Photo and B&H.
Paper: Foma. Get the stuff from wherever but buy Foma. Foma is a Czech company that makes all manner of photographic materials. They also happen to be widely available and one of the few companies that still makes a paper slow enough for contact printing on one of those old contact printers.
Chemistry: Pick a developer and know that you will form an unhealthy loyalty to that developer. I picked D76 and love it, I feel like it’s simple enough I will take a shot at making it myself. Can I use it on paper? Yes. Color film? Yes. Expired film? Yes. It’s what works for me. Whatever developer you pick will work for you, don’t stress about it. Same goes for the fixer. All developers develop, all fixers fix. Pick up a bottle or a pack from Amazon or one of the retailers mentioned above. Then check and see if it isn’t available cheaper on Photographers Formulary.
Changing bag: Buy new. Used ones might leak light and depending on what they’re made of might be devitrifying on the inside. Just buy a new one and use it till you die. It’s going to last forever.
Daylight Tube/Tank: Buy used. My recommendation is the Color By Beseler #8912. It’s great it can do 4 sheets of 4×5, 2 5×7, or an 8×10 and only drinks an ounce and a half of chemistry a shot. If you think you won’t get the bug, and will only do one at a time get an Ilford Cibachrome daylight print tank, smaller is better but get the one that will handle the biggest size you think you’ll need.
What to Read
Anything by Steve Anchell. The Film Developing Cookbook and The Darkroom Cookbook are excellent. You may be surprised that even if you buy used neither of these books are really available for less than $20.00 and that is not at all overpriced. They’re that good. They aren’t something you’ll want to sit down and read cover to cover but they are something you’ll want to refer to again and again.
Black and White Photography by Henry Horeinstein. But you want to shoot in color? Get Horeinstein’s book. Just do it. Light is light and while color is a bit different Black and White Photography is the sort of firm soil I wish I had started out with.
Apart from that there’s tons of stuff out there on the web but it tends to be… well, there’s plenty of great stuff out there. There’s also plenty of absolute trash. Folks who will actively oppose the efforts of anyone who doesn’t pursue photography with the same goals and intents as they do love the internet. I wonder how much of that attitude is the dependent of those people who fought tooth and nail in the early days of photography to give it the imprimatur of art and how much is just the effect of the internet on otherwise lovely folks. Never mind, the less said about insufferable people the better.
Try the people on Flickr, really most folks are nice and the people who chose to associate with the Film Photography Podcast in particular are wonderful. Try the community of people at Lomography as well. There’s something in the attitude of both groups that is so positive and infectious!
I hope someone out there who never thought they could try large format photomicrography, or who was despairing at only having a low resolution eyepiece camera see’s just what is possible. If you have the gear you can do it. If you have the desire and a shoebox you can do it. Dress up your science fair project, enrage your photography teacher, make a unique gift, or an intriguing photo for the mantle. Film photography is now truly a part of my microscopy and a part of my life. As long as film in being made, I’ll be shooting it.
Next time, freehand sectioning! -K