35mm Film Photography Question (enlargement)

We all know the limitations of digital cameras. Once you purchase your camera, the number of megapixels determine (mostly) how large of a legible print you can make. However, I realized I know nothing about how big one can print from film.

Simply put, how large of a print can be made using 35mm film? How large is feasible in a normally equipped darkroom? Does the type of film make any difference?

I am only an amateur photog, and it’s been a few years since I’ve been in a darkroom. That being said, here’s what my experience in the matter tells me.
You can blow up the photo as large as you can find paper to print it to. The process works by passing light through the negative and onto the paper, so depending on how far away the paper is from the light source, the larger the image will be. Think of a film projector–projected onto a wall two feet away = small picture, onto a screen 100 yards away = huge picture. Now, depending on the clarity in your negative, the larger you get the more noticible certain flaws might be, but there won’t be any degradation inherent to the image.

Clarity in the negative itself can depend on a number of factors, including the type of film used, the available lighting, how well it was focused, and the type of lens on the camera. Macro lenses are made especially to take very tight, close-up photos and I’d imagine you could blow up a picture taken with a macro much larger than one taken with a standard lens without any noticible effects.

In a normally equipped darkroom, I’d guess you couldn’t print larger than poster-board sized or so without special equipment or creative positioning. This is, however, only a guess. The darkroom I worked in was pretty basic, and the largest I could get there was 12 x 16.

Maybe a pro will come along and be able to expand on this for you, I’m curious now too!

With a normal 35mm enlarger, you can get up to 24"x36" or so. Where you’re going to buy and develop paper that big might be a problem – it’s expensive, and has to lay flat in the developer. It can be done, though, especially with automated processing machines (I do mine in trays by hand). The biggest I’d want to do by hand is 11x14, but I know people that do 20x25.

How big you can go before it gets too grainy depends on the film and your personal preference. The higher the speed of the film, the grainier it is; 11x14 prints from ISO100 film look about the same as 8x10s from ISO400, all other things being equal. Also, the type of film makes a difference – Kodak TMax is much finer-grained (and was designed to be so) than the older Plus-X and Tri-X emulsions.

11x14 prints from 35mm TMax 100 are very nice; 20x25 are acceptable. 11x14 is probably the biggest you can go with the older films without the grain being really visible.

Color film generally has less grain than B&W of the same speed, and the 20x25 color prints I’ve seen are very nice.

Perfectly exposed film has less grain than over- or underexposed; you can get a good print from a color negative that’s 2 stops underexposed, but it’ll have to be small.

Depending on the subject, it might look okay big and grainy (especially old black and white news photos; look at a poster of a WWII sailor-kissing-random-girl scene, and the grain is obvious but doesn’t detract), but most people prefer it less grainy.

One method of doing this is called giclee printing. This is expensive equipment and is used by professional printmakers and art studios to make poster-sized prints.

Photographic paper is available, from pro outlets, in rolls up to 50" wide & 30m long. To expose it you would probably need to project the image onto the wall or floor. To process it you can use a long narrow trough like those used by gardeners. The technique is then to continually roll and unroll the paper in and out of the chemicals.

For a regular darkroom, 24"x36" is pretty easy and you can go bigger if you have the space.

Paper is quite costly and anything bigger really requires two people… well, okay, if you’re short like me without a wide wingspan, it’s easier with two people. Alone, bigger paper was a paint in the butt to fiddle around with.

You have to be sure your enlarger and lens can do it though. Otherwise you start getting noticeable distortion around the edges of the frame where the light starts dropping off a bit. I used an enlarger mounted on a wall with the paper on the floor. It was tough to focus though because being petite and had the enlarger up really high.

The faster the film, the bigger the grain. ISO 400, ISO 1000 etc. will give you big, lumpy grain. ISO 100 and slower will produce a finer grain.

From there it depends on what you’re shooting and stylistic preference. I’ve seen prints that were greatly enhanced by the gritty quality of the heavy duty graininess – a deliberate choice and the artist was using high contrast filters to make it even more noticeable.

I happen to work as a darkroom technician specializing in large, multi-panel prints. My biggest straight from 35, in one piece, was 72"x120" or so and it looked good. Grainy, but sharp grain is nice, “analog” sort of. And then there is the “internegative” thing, when you make 8"x10" neg of your 35 and go for 300x400 feet picture or bigger and they still look good if the density and colour are right. You just look at them from a greater distance and there is no grain. Movie industry uses them a lot for so called backdrops. Like the backdrop behind Leno’s desk, but bigger.
Doing colour at home sucks, trust me. B&W maybe. The best is to buy 35 film adapter to your flatbed scanner and scan them! You have it 3 ways: analog, digital for print and digital for web. Mine scans at 3200dpi, so I can go for 16"x20" print no problem. And I can keep my old Nikon, too.

Keep in mind you typically don’t view an enormous print from arm’s length. So what if a billboard looks grainy when you’re up close as it isn’t made to viewed like that.

Remember also that most movies you see are projected from 35mm film. Of course you’re usually sitting pretty far from the screen.