Redscale Part 1: Experimenting with color film, backwards

Pines at Denver Botanic Gardens
Pine trees near the Bonsai Pavilion and Japanese Garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Kodak Gold 400. (Daniel J. Schneider)

February 2015 is Redscale month for and #believeinfilm adherents on Twitter. I didn’t even know what redscale was until about Jan. 15.

So, what is it? It’s basically backwards color negative film. The film base, the plastic or acetate that the emulsion is “painted” onto to create photographic film, is a little different depending on the manufacturer, but it’s all basically a shade of red. It might appear brownish, or even pinkish, but it’s all pretty reddish.

In addition to that, the various layers of the emulsion in color negative film, each sensitive to different wavelengths of light (colors), are ordered carefully to capture all the spectra of visible light necessary to replicate the colors we see when we trigger the shutter. Some wavelengths pass through one layer but affect the layer below it, or the layer below that; others stop completely at a certain layer. As I understand it, the layer most sensitive to reds is typically on the bottom of the stack.

Redscale City and County Building
Obligatory sunset-behind-the-Denver-City-and-County-Building shot. Strong contrast and reddened sky are impressive. Walgreens ASA 400. (Daniel J. Schneider)

So between the red film base and the reversed order of the emulsion layers, when light hits the film the wrong way around, things tend to look a bit … off. Reds can be incredibly red, greens especially green, whites more pink, blues washed out or even shifted toward indigo, and so on. Exposure time can affect the degree to which these shifts happen in varying degrees — a little over-exposed and whites and lighter color stay pretty white, pretty bright. Underexpose a stop or two and watch everything except the brightest highlights turn red or orange, and shadows deepen incredibly.

How do you get backwards film, you ask? Well, it’s another case of respooling. This one is easier than respooling 120 onto a 620 spool, but still requires total darkness. Oh — and an extra film cartridge.

I started with a couple helpful links from other #believeinfilmers, including a link to a great video on how to roll your own redscale film at home. You can even roll 35mm film onto a 120 or 620 spool with some spare backing paper (you’ll get “sprockets” — and you can use the same method, without reversing the film, to do “sprockets” with the colors the right way ’round).

Sheraton Denver at Sunset
A darker shot of the Sheraton in Denver in the dwindling sunset. Note the blued shadows and overblown red sign on the building. Walgreens ASA400. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Exposure is a consideration, too. Because the film base is intercepting the light before it gets to the emulsion, it blocks some — meaning you need to add some light to get the same exposure — from 2 to 4 stops, in most cases. Hat tip to @filmdevelop for linking this annotated redscale exposure montage on Flickr.

So on to my story: Knowing I would need some latitude to add a few stops of exposure, I dug through my film drawer looking for some faster color negative films. All I could come up with ASA 400, but I chose a variety including a Walgreens-branded roll of 400 (whose only identifying marks read “C34 400N,” but whose edge markings, frame numbering and DX codes look like Fujifilm stock to me), and roll of Kodak Gold 400.

Conservatory wall detail
A detail of the interlaced concrete structure of the conservatory at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Benefactor Claude Boettcher was the son of Colorado’s Charles Boettcher, who founded what would become the Ideal Cement Company. Walgreens ASA400. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I shot the whole first two rolls at ASA50 — that’s three stops overexposed — to compensate for the film base. My results were contrasty, dreamy — a bit otherworldly, really. I plan to shoot the next roll or two at 100, or even try a few shots at 200.

Shadows seem to do some interesting things on redscale — see the Sheraton Hotel photo above and the waterfall on rocks shot below. The Sheraton was shot in pretty low light and the building would’ve been almost totally dark if the film were the right way ’round. The rocks on either side of the small waterfall, similarly, were almost black and in shadow. The lower light gave me grainy bluish hues, and the darker rocks in moderate light gave me more reds and nothing near as dark as I expected. The truly dark shadows in the latter frame were exceptionally green in backwards mode.

I used the automatic exposure mode on the EE-Matic for every shot on these two rolls — even after 50 years or so, it all still works. Well, all but the frame counter, anyway (and maybe I can fix that?).

Denver Botanic Gardens waterfall and rocks
A small waterfall over artificial rocks outside the conservatory at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Walgreens ASA400. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The suggested theme for the first week of #BIFscale15 was green. As you can see, I definitely sought some out. Of course, it is my favorite color…

Other suggestions included looking for snow — which is still white, obviously, but brilliant and just ever-so-slightly off with its reddish and greenish tints — and, of course, reds. I looked for a few of them, too.

What I noticed as soon as I looked at the scans was how much some of these frames feature bright, nearly-blown-up highlights on things. Was that because the 65-degree day in Denver was melting the 8 inches of snow at breakneck speed and everything was covered in water? Or just because bright highlights become two stops more ethereal in redscale? Either way, I am very pleased with the effect in a number of these photographs, especially the one at the top and the image of Dale Chihuly’s “Colorado” in the Ellipse Garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens (down a bit).

I also loved that in some shots, a plain sky desaturated enough to look a bit like the flat, lifeless skies of claymation Christmas movies from the 1960s.

Denver Botanic Gardens Conservatory door
Detail of the entrance doors at the Denver Botanic Gardens’ Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory, the largest single-structure tropical conservatory in the U.S. Walgreens ASA400. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I did most of my first two rolls at the Denver Botanic Garden, where Kate and I decided to wander around on Monday instead of spending another minute off our feet. The subject matter, of course, couldn’t be better.

The Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory is a Denver Landmark and notable for several other reasons (you’ll find them in the photo captions). The wide variety of gardens provide lots of opportunity for different kinds of shots. Of course the Conservatory provided the most reds and greens since it’s, you know, February.

I finished up with some frames made on 16th Street Mall, which influenced how I got the film processed (another experiment!).

Chenille Plant, Acalypha hispida
The fronds of the chenille plant, Acalypha hispida, in the Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Walgreens ASA400. (Daniel J. Schneider)

In the interest of getting scans quickly so I could share some of my results while it still is February (and I’m burning through the redscale I rolled a lot faster than I expected), I dropped my film off at Walgreens for processing and scanning. I felt it was appropriate since the one roll was their film (expired in 1998), but they wouldn’t have even known since it was respooled into an old Tri-X cartridge.

Regardless, it was a mistake — $12 to develop and scan (at exceptionally low resolution) 23 frames? Ridiculous. I did learn something potentially interesting, though — that starting soon, Walgreens will no longer be processing film in-store. I was also told that no one manufactured photographic film anymore, though, so maybe the woman I spoke with was clueless about their developing plans, too.

Redscale Colorado Capitol
Obligatory Colorado State Capitol shot, note reds in dormant trees and grass. Walgreens ASA400 film. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I took all of these pictures with a new-ish (to the site, not me or the world at large) camera — the Konica EE-Matic Deluxe rangefinder. I mentioned it briefly in my post about the Konica Auto S2, but this is the first time I’ve actually used the camera that’s been sitting on my shelf for three or four years.

Expect a part two before the end of February exploring the next two rolls of redscale film I’ll be shooting, and a later review of the EE-Matic after I get some film through it that I can actually see chromatic aberration on. Meanwhile, check out the rest of my first two rolls of redscale below:

Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory entrance
The Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory’s entrance in a wider perspective. The conservatory was built in 1964, designed by Denver’s Hornbein & White, modern architects who appear to have taken some inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright. Walgreens ASA400. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Sun through the leaves
The sun shines through the interlocking leaves of several trees inside the Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Walgreens ASA400. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Boettcher Conservatory flower detail
A detail of a very red flower inside the Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Walgreens ASA400. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Smaller red flower at Denver Botanic Gardens
A detail of a smaller red flower inside the Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Walgreens ASA400. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Handmade stone path and Ting
A hand-lain path of edge-up river stones leads to a Ting, or Chinese pavilion, full of green copper bells in June’s PlantAsia at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Kodak Gold 400. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Conservatory in snow
The full glory of the Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory behind a field of snow in the sun, at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Kodak Gold 400. (Daniel J. Schneider)
The Barracuda, sculpture by Wolfgang Pogzeba
The Barracuda, a steel sculpture by Wolfgang Pogzeba, hangs above a pool of dark water with a constant sheet of water falling down a dark red wall behind it, at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Kodak Gold 400. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Colorado, by Dale Chihuly
“Colorado,” a sculpture by Dale Chihuly, inspired by the region’s colorful sunsets, graces the Ellipse Garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens. The sculpture was commissioned after the incredible success of the 2014 Chihuly installation that spread throughout the Gardens in fall and winter. Kodak Gold 400. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Fountains against the red wall
Fountains jet up from a long pond and add their shadows to those of the trees against a long, red wall at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Kodak Gold 400. (Daniel J. Schneider)
16th Street Mall shrub
A small pine shrub in a tall, square pot outside of Republic Plaza on Denver’s 16th Street Mall. Kodak Gold 400. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Before I leave you, learn a bit more about the things I found inspiring this weekend: