Photographic Frustration

This article is a response to my constant frustration with the unavailability of photography supplies for certain artistically minded people. My photographic ability is a far cry from a professional's skill, but I nevertheless take great pride in my work. Though I would very much like to step into medium format or high resolution digital photography, I am currently confined to my totally manual 1978 Konica TC SLR. Being a 35mm photographer, I am specifically interested in tools of the trade for this size negative. One would think that because this format is by far the world's most popular film size, the full range of supplies would be available to anyone living in the civilized world. But this is not so.

The problem is not that no supplies are available, but that the wrong supplies are available. Let's start with printing. Despite what one might assume from the name, a typical single-frame negative on 35mm film is exactly 36mm by 24mm, a perfect 3:2 ratio. Of the standard print sizes available in most photo labs, only the 4x6 print preserves this ratio. Both 5x7s and 3.5x5 print sizes require cropping of the negative to fit on the paper. This means that everything you saw in the viewfinder of your camera when you took the picture doesn't make it to the print. A computer or (if you go to a real high-class photo lab) technician at the developing lab gets to decide what part to cut off.

If you take the next step and enlarge the photo to a 8x10 print, the situation is even worse. If you keep aware of what negative you are enlarging from, and the aspect ratio of that negative, you are losing a full 16 square inches of your photo. That's one-sixth of the picture you actually took. And unless you go to a small lab and make a special request, you don't get to choose whether it's cut off the bottom, top, or some combination of the two. There is a reason for the popularity of 8x10 prints, which I will discuss later, but the fact of the matter is that if you are enlarging from a 35mm negative, you should ask for 8x12 inch prints...though they are sadly not available at most photo labs.

The fact that a 8x12 print of a 35mm negatives preserves the original aspect ratio, and therefore displays the entire content of the photographer's vision, makes them the dominating choice for serious amateurs and professionals alike. Finding frames for these prints is often so difficult, however, that some shutterbugs still opt for 8x10 enlargements despite the loss of a significant part of the image. The reason for the preponderance of 8x10 frames is easily explained. Professionally done portraits are usually shot with large format cameras that do in fact have a 4:5 ratio. But a huge majority of photographers shoot 35mm, and do (or at least should want to) develop 8x12. So why do you have to embark on a holy grail quest to find a prefabricated frame with these proportions? Why don't professional frame shops even list this size on their standard price listings? Why would people intentionally cut away one-sixth of their image when it doesn't save them any money?

My answer to all these questions is that the general public is largely ignorant of the developing process and would be somewhat upset if they knew what was being done without their knowledge or consent. It's not the case that people just naturally prefer the 8x10 format, it was made popular for one type of photography and the companies that make frames and other supplies save money by not offering a variety. The public is stuck in a Faustian pact that it doesn't even know it made. The typical person enlarging a snapshot as a keepsake may not notice the missing area, and if it is noticed, she or he may simply accept it as part of the process. The result is that the enlargements of the common people's snapshots suffer, and the whole set of serious photographers suffers with them. This mistake does not stop with prints and frames: portfolios, photo albums, matting, scanners, carrying cases all suffer from the same misproportions. Can you imagine how difficult it is to continue developing at the correct size when you can't buy a nice looking portfolio in which to carry the prints?

The situation is intensely more sever if you step up to the larger size. Most labs offer 11x14 inch prints (and these frames are everywhere), but I have never seen or heard of any negative film coming in that proportion. For photography enthusiasts, 12x18 inch prints are the next choice; however most people have never seen a photo printed at this size outside a museum. In fact, the situation is quite impossible if you would like to enlarge to that size, not a single ingredient of the process from beginning to end is available at most stores. Only professional labs and suppliers bother carry such an endangered species of paper. And yet any reasonable person would naturally extrapolate to that size if she or he were simply aware of the dimensions of a 35mm negative.

So why don't the people know, why isn't this common knowledge? I don't know the answer, I don't even have a theory. I just know that I am suffering from this situation, and a great many other people must be as well. It is senseless and stupid and I'd like to see the situation rectified, for everyone's benefit, not just my own. The seemingly Herculean task of shifting to a world of properly proportioned prints is exacerbated by the fact that the companies which stand to lose the most in the change are the ones that finance the media involving photography. I am not proposing any conspiracy theory, but it seems odd to me that I have never seen an article about this situation in my years of reading a few different photography magazines. If you have an explanation or solution to the conundrum presented in this article, please don't hesitate to contact me.

This little thing marks the end of the page.