Tired of photos that look like sand paper?

Fellow 35mm shooter — If you’re suffering from sudden grain allergy, I have a home-remedy for you! Medium and large format photography has inspired me greatly lately, but because I’m a very stubborn person, I couldn’t be bothered to actually shoot medium format. Instead I started to figure out ways to borrow certain visual nuances from it, while persistently sticking with 35mm.

Even though I am a huge fan of grain in 35mm, sometimes I really long for smoother aesthetics. Certain kind of conditions especially demand smoother look and I don’t always feel like shooting Kodak Tri-x anyways.

For example, I don’t enjoy shooting Tri-x on a bright summer day. Bright conditions on the other hand are the best for large apertures and buttery smooth images. It could be just me, but blurry backgrounds look beautiful on bright conditions and I really don’t know why. Quite possibly, because it really isn’t the norm; on bright conditions you’re “supposed” to favour small apertures and that’s what you’d typically see that. Large apertures on sunny conditions on the other hand will have a certain element of surprise.

One other obsession I have, is the fixation of avoiding grain and bokeh together in the same image. If I’m going for a blurry background, I want a smooth look. I love the idea of photo that would look like whipped cream. Fine grain and very selective focusing on large apertures are the basic building blocks for that. 


What you will need:

  • Good basic understanding of black and white film photography
  • Some level of understanding of pushing and pulling film
  • 35mm film camera, obviosly
  • Slow, high quality film with very fine grain (Ilford Pan F+ 50 or Adox Silvermax 100, for example)
  • Fast normal lens (50mm f2 will do just fine)
  • Fast shutter speeds (at least 1/500)
  • Basically any other developer than Rodinal
  • Loads of sunlight

Optional: 

  • Pull the film one stop. If shooting Pan F+ 50, rate it at ISO 25 and develop accordingly.
  • Colour or neutral density filter(s)
  • Crop the photos to 1:1 squares

Use the slowest and finest film possible

Slow films are typically very fine grain and for the smoothest possible look, you’d ideally want to go with the least amount of grain, because that is aesthetically one of the key differences between the quintessential 35mm and medium format look. Whatever you do, don’t for the love of GOD choose Fomapan films for this purpose. Something like Kodak T-max 100 or Ilford Delta 100 will work great as well. If you’re shooting a faster film, let’s say Kodak T-max 400, you can slow it down with filters or just by shooting backlit subjects and metering from the shadow tones. Slow ISO is also the key that’ll enable you to shoot wide open even at the most brightest of conditions.

I’d also consider pulling the film one stop, because that’ll naturally enable you to shoot at one stop larger apertures and reduces graininess slightly. It’ll also smoothen the contrast quite nicely, that you’ll bound to encounter on sunny days. What ever you do, don’t push the film. In-camera contrast control is very important for the whipped cream look. You don’t want a literal black and white photo, that’ll consist of only blacks and only whites (the Xerox look). What you’re looking for instead is a delicious assortment of all the possible tones of middle tones and only a hint of pure blacks. 

A basic 50mm f2 lens will do just fine

For this purpose, you’ll need a so called normal lens. 50mm focal length or so. Wide angles are not adviced, because it’ll be harder to create that sweet sweet cotton candy bokeh. I have, how ever, used a 35mm f2.8. It wasn’t the best option, but can pull it off. You’ll need the fast aperture for creating the look and for actually making a sufficient exposure possible with the slow film.

You’ve probably used to shoot at f11 or f16 on sunny days, but when you switch to ISO 25, you’ll be amazed just how much light it’ll need for a good exposure. You probably aren’t used to shooting at 1/1000 and f2 on a sunny day and you’d be amazed just how nice it will look. It won’d look like medium format of course, but there certainly are similar nuances in the image quality.

In addition to staying away from Fomapan, avoid Rodinal

For developing, I’d recommend basically any fine grain chemicals. I haven’t tried this in Rodinal, but I can’t see it working very well. I use Kodak D-76, which also isn’t THE finest developer, but it works. You could possible reduce graininess by gentle agitation technique. I usually agitate pretty roughly with no probs.  


References and example photos

An actual medium format shot for reference. Shot on Ilford Pan F+ at ISO 50.
35mm shot on Kodak T-max 100. 50mm f1.5 lens.
Kodak T-max 100. 35mm f2.8 lens.
Ilford Pan F+ shot at ISO 25. 50mm f1.5 lens.
35mm film shot on Ilford Pan F+, rated at ISO 25. Red filter used. 35mm f2 lens.
Ilford Pan F+ at box speed. 50mm f1.5 lens. Orange filter used.
Ilford Pan F+ at box speed. 50mm f1.5 lens. Orange filter used.
Kodak T-max 100. 50mm f1.8 lens. Cropped to square to mimic a 6×6 look.