Film Soup
Photos & Projects

Experiments in Film Soup – By Holly Gilman

December 4, 2020

My husband has a very bad memory; he always says that he’ll remember things from his childhood only when told the stories. Memory is a funny thing, some memories are evoked through smell or taste, sometimes I find myself feeling nostalgic and I can’t quite put my finger on what has triggered it.

I don’t specifically remember making mud pies or potions in the garden as a child; I know I did as there are photos of me with my hands gloriously immersed in a wheelbarrow of wet, oozy mud. I also vaguely remember making potions in the playground, but there are no concrete memories there. I do remember, at about 8 years old, being fascinated with witchcraft and begging for a book of spells. As a teenager I took after my father and studied Chemistry at A-level, a subject I rather enjoyed and found relatively easy. As a parent of young children, I understand how important making mud pies and potions in the garden is; it’s all about experimentation and the child’s natural inner scientist, they are learning about the world. It’s all connected.

Recently I have found myself drawn to alternative photographic processes and experimenting with my photography. With a spare roll of cheap black and white film, I came across the idea of souping the film. Working on this concept over the past couple of months has brought back those feelings of witchcraft and it’s made me feel like I’m back creating potions in the garden. However, now I am drawing on my chemistry understanding and my photographic understanding to create and experiment.

With film souping the results are never guaranteed but my experiments begin with scientific ideas and hypothesis, then I test, and finally I learn from the results. I’m sharing here my first three tests, how I came to the ideas and what I’ve learnt.

Test 1

After researching the concept I noticed that most examples of film souping are in colour, this is because most people are drawn to the wacky colour shifts that can occur. Black and white film is much more rarely used. Looking through the recipes, and I use the term recipes lightly, I drew conclusions about which ingredients would have little or no effect on black and white, for example I feel Kool-Aid is likely to have more effect on colour than black and white.

For the first test I went for washing up liquid and boiling water with the hypothesis that heat and bubbles would affect the film. I had shot the roll of 35mm film through my Pentax ME Super, I placed it in a Tupperware base, covered in washing up liquid and poured boiling water over the whole thing. I then left this mixture to stand for 24 hours, poured away the liquid and gently rinsed and then left the canister of film to dry for 4 full weeks.

From my reading, if you don’t let it completely dry, it is an absolute nightmare to load into the developing tank. After the 4 weeks were up, I developed as normal.

Interestingly the heat mostly affected the first images on the roll with the overall effects of the souping becoming more subtle as we got to the end of the roll. Likely the images on the end of the roll were protected by those wrapped around them.

Kentmere 100 Film Soup

Kentmere 100 Film Soup

Kentmere 100 Film Soup

Kentmere 100 Film Soup

Kentmere 100 Film Soup

Kentmere 100 Film Soup

Kentmere 100 Film Soup

Kentmere 100 Film Soup

Test 2

I wanted to have a go at souping medium format film. I’ve got a few ideas for this so I picked one of those at random, which was to try an unexposed roll of film (i.e. not put through a camera first). With 120 film you need to load it into the developing tank in order to soup and this has two effects to consider; you will not need such a long drying time as you do not need to subsequently load it into the tank, it is already there and; the effects of your soup will be more evenly spread as the film is not tightly wound into a canister.

Knowing that the soup would be more even in coverage I wanted to choose something that by its very nature would be uneven. I settled for olive oil knowing that oil will not dissolve or dilute in water. Many people use salt in their soups, regardless of colour or black and white, this causes speckling on the negatives and I thought that would be a nice addition. Finally after a conversation with a friend I decided to partially expose the whole film to light and so, after loading it into the tank, I very briefly pulled it out in a dimly lit room.

Once exposed to light, I poured in some oil and salt, swirled and then poured in boiling water. I left to soup, with occasional agitation for 24 hours. I drained, rinsed and then left for another 24 hours to dry. I then developed as normal for the film stock (Ilford FP4+).

As oil was used the negatives remained greasy and after 24 hours drying (after development) I needed to wipe them down enough to get them into a film wallet. The results were a surprise and not quite what I had expected but this is how we learn!

Ilford FP4 Film Soup

Ilford FP4 Film Soup

Ilford FP4 Film Soup

Ilford FP4 Film Soup

Ilford FP4 Film Soup

Ilford FP4 Film Soup

Test 3

I wanted to have another go with medium format but this time with images. I decided to shoot a roll of film down on the beach near my house and when trying to decide what to soup in, I settled on the idea of using the sea water from the location.

I loaded the exposed film into the tank and poured in the sea water. I didn’t heat this mixture but did agitate occasionally over a 24 hour period. I then poured the soup away, which was a very alarming, vivid, green colour! I opted to leave this to dry for a week as I wanted any salt from the sea water to really crystallise on the negative.

I developed as per instructions for Fomapan 200, the film stock used, and out came a set of washed out negatives. Very low contrast but at least there were images. When I poured out the green liquid I was convinced I’d washed away the exposures!

The souping effect on this film is very subtle. I don’t know if the washed out nature of the images is a result of the soup or the film stock, I haven’t used Fomapan before. There is also an unusual, almost light leak at the edges of many of the images which I can’t quite place. I would usually point to the camera and say there was a malfunction but it’s not happened on this camera before so is it the soup? Finally the salt in the sea has speckled the images but the effect is far more delicate than I had anticipated. Perhaps the salt grains would seem larger on a 35mm negative?

I rather like the soft, washed out, meditative feeling from these images.

Foma 200 Film Soup

Foma 200 Film Soup

Foma 200 Film Soup

Foma 200 Film Soup

Foma 200 Film Soup

Foma 200 Film Soup

Conclusion

Don’t soup film if you fear the unknown. This is trial and error in all its beauty.

If you are interested in seeing some more of my experiments you can find my work on my learning log, or on Instagram.

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19 Comments

  • Reply
    Donald
    December 4, 2020 at 4:44 pm

    Really interesting read – very much enjoyed that. Many years ago, I tried washing exposed slide film in diluted domestic bleach which partially removed some of the dye layers with very interesting results. It’s amazing to see how much creative abuse film can take 🙂

    • Reply
      Holly Gilman
      December 4, 2020 at 6:52 pm

      I would be really interested to see your results!

      • Reply
        Donald
        December 6, 2020 at 10:29 am

        Lost to time, Holly, I’m afraid. But it was loads of fun!

  • Reply
    Kevin Ortner
    December 4, 2020 at 5:54 pm

    Really cool idea that I would never have thought to do. I guess it helps having cheap/free film to experiment with (considering I, myself, am cheap–maybe I need some soup…).

    I’m wondering how much salt you added in the second one? I doubt it was much, but I recall reading that high concentrations of salt in water can actually act as a fixer. Either way, those images might actually print very well for some abstract art.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply
      Holly Gilman
      December 4, 2020 at 6:57 pm

      You are absolutely right. I’ve since learned that salt water acts as a fix which is why the third experiment, in which I souped in sea water, I was effectively souping in fix before developing. I believe that is why it is such a subtle effect. With regards to no.2 this was all done quite randomly – no measurements were taken other than knowing that the tank takes 500ml of liquid so I poured in some oil, poured in some salt, swirled and then topped up with boiling water.

      I’m going to do some research and experiments on souping in fix and stop bath before and during the developping process to see what we get… I just need to find some time!

  • Reply
    Kevin Ortner
    December 4, 2020 at 7:24 pm

    One thought you can try in a similar manner is to wrap your film around or place the film out of the canister near a banana. There is a long lived radioactive isotope of potassium that undergoes beta decay. These beta-particles (electrons and positrons) will be stopped in the film possibly leaving trails. Might not go through more than a layer of film which is why wrapping might be better. You might need to leave it for a few days(?).

    The way in which we use film is amazing (bizarre?).

    • Reply
      Holly Gilman
      December 4, 2020 at 7:45 pm

      This is amazing! What an incredible route I’m going to end up going down!

  • Reply
    CP93
    December 4, 2020 at 7:57 pm

    Curious what would happen if you first souped the medium format, and then exposed and developed it.

    • Reply
      Holly Gilman
      December 4, 2020 at 8:00 pm

      Many people do do this, usually seen in 35mm but I don’t want to risk my cameras as it can damage them.

  • Reply
    Louis Sousa
    December 4, 2020 at 11:35 pm

    Hi Holly, google my friend Ruby Berry for some wild souping. Louis.

    • Reply
      Holly Gilman
      December 5, 2020 at 8:37 pm

      Wow, thanks for the recommendation, her work is insane!

  • Reply
    Christopher James
    December 5, 2020 at 12:41 am

    Thanks Holly! I’ve been really curious about souping film but you are quite right – nearly all the info out there is on colour film and I only home-develop black and white. I would have just tried but was feeling like it might all be alot of effort for nothing – you’ve give me some lovely examples to inspire me. Thank you!

    • Reply
      Holly Gilman
      December 5, 2020 at 8:37 pm

      I have a few more BW ideas on my list, it’s just finding the time to try them!

  • Reply
    Huss
    December 5, 2020 at 8:17 pm

    And of course, there’s this:

    https://www.lomography.com/magazine/284773-pee-film-soak-by-brigette-bloom

    • Reply
      Holly Gilman
      December 5, 2020 at 8:41 pm

      Well it’s inspired, I’ll give her that. I don’t think I would have ever come to that conclusion for film soup ideas but each to their own!

  • Reply
    David Hill
    December 5, 2020 at 10:37 pm

    This is taking presoak to a whole new level. What a gas. I wonder .. if loading the wet film is troublesome, why don’t you load the reel BEFORE souping? Ok, you might destroy an expensive reel with some weird gunk. Fine. It’s time, methinks, to invest in stainless reels and tanks. You can load those wet, no problems. And clean them in a steam-blast after, if you must.
    Keep us posted. This is fun.

    • Reply
      Holly Gilman
      December 6, 2020 at 8:59 am

      With the 120 film I did load first. With the 35mm I think part of the charm is in the unevenness of the effects from how tightly wound it is inside the cannister. But I agree, to speed up you could load into the tank before souping!

  • Reply
    Bruno Chalifour
    December 9, 2020 at 8:59 pm

    It is amusing but in the end what did you/we learn? Anything really relevant? Which again asks about the relevance and the future of this website now that is also (and probably mainly) financed by ads. Hamish what do you think? I have on my page an ad from my own insurance company… do I think this article is a useful way for them to use my money (because in the end it is also my money they are spending).

    “my experiments begin with scientific ideas and hypothesis” Really?:

    “For the first test I went for washing up liquid and boiling water with the hypothesis that heat and bubbles would affect the film.”

    “With 120 film you need to load it into the developing tank in order to soup and this has two effects to consider”
    Why is 120 film different from 35 mm both can be processed in the same ways, the tools have just to be the appropriate ones, isn’t it?

    “I loaded the exposed film into the tank and poured in the sea water. I didn’t heat this mixture but did agitate occasionally over a 24 hour period. I then poured the soup away, which was a very alarming, vivid, green colour! ”
    Real science would have informed you 1- that salt was once tried to fix film (which probably explains the washed-out result) , 2-that the green liquid is just part the anti-halo and sort of wetting agent coating of the film.

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      December 9, 2020 at 9:13 pm

      I think that if you don’t like the ads, you can subscribe to have them removed – here is the link
      I’m not sure what that has to do with Holly’s article though…? At least apart from the fact Holly is actually a paid member of the team, meaning that the ads pay her role.

      As for the rest, the definition of hypothesis from google is as follows: “a supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation”

      So I would suggest yes “really”.

      Holly is relatively new to film photography Bruno. I am sure your input is appreciated, but please stick to the constructive input, and leave the condescension at the door

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