I recently wrote an article for 35mmc reacting to my inability to obtain one of my favorite films, Foma’s Retropan 320 Soft in 35mm format .In it, I touched briefly on why I shoot film and how Retropan has helped me understand that inclination more clearly. It has inspired me to consider this issue in greater depth and maybe get nearer to the core of why shooting film is valuable and why Retropan 320 is such a compelling option. This piece is a companion to that and can be considered as a counterpart or extension of the former.
Photography alters how we see. The world gets filtered through your tools and creates something more than what was there in the moment. This changes how you see what’s in front of you, and how you perceive what could be. We all choose our preferred medium based on the way we prefer to see.
For me, film is how I want to see the world. When it comes to film I don’t mind eccentricities. Odd contrast, high grain, imperfect gray tones, I like when the medium imposes itself and becomes part of the subject. This is all information I’ve learned about myself in the last four years, largely with the help of one film, Fomapan’s Retropan 320 Soft.
I shot film in high school in the 1990s but lost touch with photography in general until the early 2010s. A friend gave me his hand-me-down DSLR and I took a renewed interest. It was fun enough but oddly unfulfilling. Around 2014 I shot film again. This was what I was looking for, choices rendered as a unique artifact. Materiality, substance, film photography makes me feel like I exist.
In 2015 Fomapan introduced Retro 320 Soft in 35mm and large format. I did not get my hands on any until spring 2017. That was the year I invested fully in film. I began developing my own black and white negatives. I invested in medium format and I began trying different films, different developers, attempting to find my own way of seeing.
Compared with the more common go-to’s out there, (TRI-X, HP5, TMAX, Delta etc.), Retropan is a temperamental film. It has large milky grain. It behaves erratically in high contrast situations giving strange artifacts and gradations to areas of bright light. Its dynamic range might be frustrating to people who rely on the flexibility of most modern films. That’s the disclaimer version of what it does.
It also gives a smooth almost theatrical patina to reality. Light sources glow, objects are haloed in the emulsion’s texture. When developed in Fomapan’s recommended Retro Soft developer the negatives give the impression of a romanticized world, haunted and detached from time. I have also had good results with XTOL 1:1 solution.
Retropan is grainier and harder to manage the smaller the format. I have shot it in 35mm and 120 and for my purposes 35mm does what I want. Something about the larger negative gives the film greater latitude and encourages the emulsion into smoother reactions to light and less obtrusive grain.
As of this writing the 35mm variety is nearly impossible to find and it gives me a genuine pain. In fact, I just overpaid to stock up from an eBay seller in case it turns out to be gone permanently.
After nearly four years of serious use film (and Retropan 320 in particular) has become a central part of how I experience the world. Any time I go somewhere new or want to re-evaluate somewhere familiar I will always have a film camera with me and chances are, whatever else I’m shooting, I’ll have at least one roll of Retropan 320 Soft within grabbing distance.