Canon EOS 3 and Analogue Wonderbox items
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Analogue Wonderland Wonderbox Subscription – A 5 Frame Review – by Billy Sanford

April 1, 2021

One might wonder why a resident of Birmingham Alabama in the United States would sign up for a film subscription service run out of the United Kingdom. It’s a fair question. After all, while my own city has very limited options for purchasing film over the counter, certainly there are plenty of online options for ordering films. For what it is worth, I also try to support those retailers. In the end, it comes down to that idea of backing those people and ideas that you want to see be successful. In the case of the Wonderbox subscription from Analogue Wonderland, it also addressed a particular weakness in my own photographic experiences – being open to experiment with emulsions that I would otherwise likely not try.

I first learned of Paul and Mary McKay’s small independent shop from Paul’s appearances on the Sunny 16 Podcast. I then learned more from the Analogue Wonderland YouTube channel. And from following their social media accounts, signing up for the email updates and reading film reviews on their website. They all feature very useful information about various emulsions and community insights as well. To the degree that you can get a sense of someone virtually, Paul certainly comes across as a tireless and enthusiastic ambassador of film photography.

While that would be enough to encourage my support, it is the smaller things that really push the subscriber experience over the top. The stickers and fun items included with every order along with discounts for other goods and services. The engagement with the community and the personal service. Paul emailed me after my first order with Analogue Wonderland, even before I was a subscriber, just to ask how the experience was and for any feedback I might have.

Finally, beyond those things that speak to my personal experience, it really is the focus on the community that makes the investment in the subscription seem most useful long-term. While you would expect Analogue Wonderland to offer films from Kodak and Ilford, they’ve also offered products from other small businesses in the community such as Solarcan, J. Lane and Washi.

The first subscription even included cyanotype papers from Little Vintage Photography. This idea of promoting and distributing products from other small businesses in the community certainly made me want to contribute to those efforts. When the Black Lives Matter movement came to the forefront last summer, Analogue Wonderland hosted a panel of Black film photographers to share their experiences in the community. By following them, I have been introduced to a host of other talented artists and techniques I otherwise might not have been.

From that panel, Ribsy in particular has a YouTube channel I really enjoy and has recently started the New Classic Film podcast featuring a very diverse group of guests. And lastly, with the recent launch of the UK Film Photography Community Fund, there are efforts to build a long-term sustainable future for this thing that we all enjoy.

Some photos

Of course, a review of the service wouldn’t be complete without some of the results from the films I would not have otherwise tried.

Just for a bit of context about my film photography to understand why this matters to me. When left to my own devices, a part of me has been embracing the one camera (Canon AE-1), one lens (the kit 50mm 1.8) and one film (Ilford HP5+) approach in an effort to get as proficient as possible with that combination.

But then other times curiosity gets the better of me and I want to try adding color or wonder what other qualities a different black and white emulsion might offer. During those times, the Analogue Wonderland Wonderbox has provided ample opportunities for experimentation. Since those times find me outside of the comfort zone I am building with my AE-1, I often use my Canon EOS 3 and various lenses from my digital kit for additional experimentation.

Following are five images taken using films I received through the Wonderbox. While I have recently started doing my own C-41 color processing, I am not yet very proficient in scanning and color correcting those scans. As a result, the color photos below were developed and scanned by a lab.

Alabama Theatre sign

Alabama Theatre sign

The Alabama Theatre in downtown Birmingham dates to 1927. These days the north and west sides of the building feature large signs to draw in visitors. The venue is a popular subject for local photographers and seemed like a good subject for the special qualities that Cinestill 800T has to offer.

Water Can

Water Can

It was a very bright day, good conditions for a 200 speed film Such as Foma 200. I had recently been trying to do some still life shots inside with artificial lighting, so thought I’d take it outside and do a few macro shots.

Downtown Birmingham

Downtown Birmingham

This historic center of downtown Birmingham is one of my favorite places to go walk around and taking photos. A lot of the elements – warehouses, signs painted on the sides of buildings, cobblestone alleys – may seem like cliches. And maybe they are. But the area is changing and I want to capture as much of it as I can before it all disappears. This was shot with with Bergger Pancro 400

Fall foliage

Fall foliage

Alabama does not feature the same colorful foliage as some other areas of the country. As often as not the leaves fall off of the trees before they change colors. The previous week I’d shot two rolls of color trying to catch what little there was, then suddenly a lot more color showed up. I only had the roll of Dubble Bubble at that point, but loaded it up and walked through the wooded area behind my house.

Rivets and shadows

Rivets and shadows

Rivets on a train trestle is a subject that would draw me in anyway. But as I walked along the riverside, the sun reached a point where it started to light the side of the trestle that I was on and it cast these long uniform shadows of the rivets. This was shot with with Ilford XP2

I enjoyed the experience of trying all of these films. If I’m being honest and had to choose just one to shoot again, it would likely be the Pancro 400 just because of the similarities to HP5 which is my most used emulsion.

But just as the one camera, one lens, one film approach is making me get the most out of one combination; the experiments with the Wonderbox films is making me get out of that comfort zone and adapt to different ways of seeing. If that sounds like an experience that you would like to incorporate into your own photography, I highly recommend the Wonderbox subscription to help facilitate that approach.

Thank you for taking the time to read about my experience. You can find me on Flickr, Instagram and Twitter as @bsanfordjr

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