Unsolicited editorials on cameras, lenses, film, developer, and black and white photography in general.

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Location: New Orleans, Louisiana, United States

Sunday, January 07, 2007

At a Crossroads with Black and White Film

When chromogenic (C-41 process) black and white films were released some years back, I thought that my fretting over which film to use was over. These films were fast (ISO 400) and extremely fine grained. They had very smooth, rich grays. They had excellent latitude. They scanned beautifully and allowed me to use digital ICEtm (software that removes dust and small scratches). And I could get them processed at a thousand different places in town in just 1-2 hours. Why use anything else? The only real drawback of these films is that, like color negative films, they are not as stable as silver halide films. But what the hell, my work is not going to be carried on to the 22nd century. And once I’ve bitten the dust, my wife will put all of my negatives out by the curbside.

Things have changed in just a few years. Digital has overwhelmed the photographic community right down to the occasional snap shooter. Less film is being processed at the corner drugstore, so their C-41 chemicals might be a week old. The technicians now have machines that are better at eliminating dirt and scratches, so they treat the film like crap. Even the worst abuse won't show up on 3x5 snapshots. No problem, I’ll take the film to a camera store and get it processed there. That worked for a few years, but with the preponderance of digital, some labs closed (including a very nice one about 8 blocks from my house). Hurricane Katrina flooded the rest. Now those lab owners had to decide whether they wanted to reinvest in 20th century machinery when digital was the sine qua non of photography today. Today, getting a roll of Ilford XP2 processed at a reputable lab in New Orleans takes 5-7 days. Or I can drive out to the suburbs. I don’t have that much patience.

So I decided at the end of 2005 that I would go back to developing my own B&W negatives. I bought a bunch of reels, about 5 tanks, and then set out to find a really good developer/film combination that would scan well and print well on an inkjet printer. I found two that I liked. PMK Pyro and Ilford FP4+ are a great combination in the 125 ISO domain. Panthermic 777 and TRI-X are a great combination in the 400 ISO domain. I could have left well enough alone at that, but there is a bit of alchemist in me. Being restricted to just two films is too confining. I love PMK Pyro, but it works poorly on films that don’t stain well. I have about 700 rolls of black and white film in the house that don’t work well with PMK Pyro or 777. I decided to snoop around at some other staining/tanning developers.

I bought some Prescysoltm a few years ago and never used it. It makes some pretty impressive claims, such as “unsurpassed in its ability to provide superb negatives with extremely fine grain, remarkably high sharpness, smoothly gradated tones and delicate and translucent highlights” [from Photographers’ Formulary, Inc.]. I had some TRI-X in a point-and-shoot, so I went out and shot a fast roll.

The procedure is similar to PMK Pyro but without most of the fussiness. Not only do you not have to invert the tank every 15 seconds, you actually leave the tank sitting motionless for 3 minutes at a time. You also don’t have to dump the used developer back into the tank after fixing. Everything seems to require about the same developing time (10.5 minutes at 75F) so different films can be developed together. I do prefer to inverting the tank 3 times instead of 40. And Prescysol uses the same quick-fixing archival alkaline fixer that rinses out in just minutes and doesn’t require hypo clearing agent.

The instructions caution you to use filtered water. I now know why. The negatives were the dirtiest I have ever had. Perhaps this developer makes the film attractive to junk in the water. I’ll filter the rinse water next time. After an hour of spotting the negative in Photoshop CS2, I have to say that I like this developer. I can’t say that Prescysol is “unsurpassed in its ability to provide superb negatives with extremely fine grain, remarkably high sharpness, smoothly gradated tones and delicate and translucent highlights”, but the negatives looked pretty good, and the results were pleasant. The subjects were my two favorite therapy dogs at work, the lighting was vintage state office building fluorescent, and the lens was a 40mm Summarit wide open. Grain is well controlled, sharpness is good considering the lens was wide open, and the grays are sort of “smoothly gradated”.

I’m sort of excited by this developer, and have about 20 different kinds of film to try with it. If it works well with many of them, I may have found a panacea. I especially hope that it works well with APX 100 and APX 400. I have 600 rolls of them.

Prescysol is available at Photographers' Formulary Inc. and, in the UK, at Monochrome Photography.com. My impression is that it originated in England and was later picked up here in the states. I would be interested in hearing from others who may have used this developer.