Monday, July 18, 2011

The Taco Method

With such a dirty sounding name it's got to be good, right? Yeah, it is.

The taco method has kept me shooting 4x5. Not that it does anything above and beyond normal processing, but it allows me to process sheet film in my kitchen...without becoming drunk on rage-ohol.

Let me back up a bit. I was lucky enough to score my 4x5 camera off of craigslist on the cheap. But I lacked the infrastructure to support a sheet film workflow. I had a variety of tanks for roll film but was struggling with sheet film options. The purists will tell you that the only way to develop 4x5 is tray developing. It's great that you can either do a whole stack at once or individual sheets to n+1 if you're into the whole zone thing. The biggest requirement is a darkroom. Sad face. I have no darkroom or any significant space that can be totally blacked out. If I tried hard enough, I could probably get my bathroom dark enough, but I'm not huge on the idea developing on my hands and knees with a bunch of trays in my bathtub.

So I opted for a 4x5 daylight tank. The cheap one. Extra sad face. Yeah, it was the Yankee 4x5 Agitank. Notorious for being a shitbox and proven first hand. Where to construction, awkwardness of loading sheets, less-than-attached lid, ridiculous amount of chemistry to fill? No, lets go with horrific uneven development. Sheet after sheet showed the same streak down the left side.

Uneven development from the Yankee Agitank.
I worked through all the possibilities until the only possible cause was the developing tank. Thankfully, the internets confirmed my suspicions with similar horror stories from other Yankee film tank victims.

Since I didn't want to spend about $75 on an HP Combi-Plan tank, which is supposed to work fine, I was open to suggestion. Thankfully, I found this post on Flickr. I already had a 2-reel tank, so why not give it a try. Many many sheets later and I've yet to encounter a single problem.

 So the basic idea is to curl your 4x5 sheets, secure them with a hair band, fit them into a 4x5 tank and process just as though you were doing roll film on spirals.

The film is curled emulsion side in, so that it doesn't come into contact with anything. It's perfectly fine for the base material to touch the sides of the tank.

Found at Target, Walmart, etc.
To keep the film curled, I've had excellent results with the pictured hair bands. They're just stretchy enough to securely hold the film and the fabric coating allows the chemicals to come into contact with all of the film surface (apparently helps with removal of the anti-halation layer).

The bands come in at least two different thicknesses. I originally started with the thicker bands (with good results) but have now found the thinner bands to be much better to work with. They're not as tight on the film as the thicker bands, there is less surface in contact with the film and for the same price you get 50 instead of 24.

4x5 taco'ed - emulsion side in.
I only use the bands once and then discard. I doubt it would make much of a difference to reuse them, but I'm paranoid about chemical carryover from a previous batch. Although, who knows what chemicals leach out of the bands from the manufacturing process. What I know is using them once works fine and they're cheap enough that I don't feel bad about one-shotting them. (It has become fairly scripted that when I buy them, the cashier says, "oh, are these for you?" Which is a valid question since my hair is quite long and could be worn in a ponytail should I choose. But I don't. Like clockwork I fumble out some explanation that yes, they are for me but not for my hair. Puzzled looks ensue. Then I start babbling about film developing and chemicals and tacos and I can tell from the look on the cashier's face that I'm not the only one who wished this conversation had never started.)

No film was harmed in the making of this.
I can fit a maximum of four sheets in my 2-reel tank of choice. Pro-tip: Always put the center column in the tank when you're developing. A light-proof tank is not light-proof sans column. Besides, it helps keep everything in place during agitation.

Before trying this for real in my changing bag, I practiced a few times with my experimentin' sheets (I have yet to buy a film holder that hasn't coming with at least one random sheet) in daylight. Then I tried loading them in the dark. The first few attempts were not pretty, so I definitely recommend getting a feel for it.

The other thing to note is how much chemistry it takes to fill the tank. You need to figure out a volume that makes certain the film is covered. For my tank it takes 32 oz. I imagine most other tanks are similar.

I've now processed dozens of sheets of both black and white and E6 with the taco method without a single problem. A huge improvement over the 100% failure rate of the Yankee tank. There are other tanks out there for 4x5 that probably work fine. There's also this neat contraption that I've heard good things about and may try in the future, since I already have the proper size Patterson tank for it. And if I ever get a proper darkroom I might rock some tray developing, but for now taco does it for me.

Monday, July 4, 2011

DIY Color

Until this weekend, the idea of trying to process color film myself seemed like an impossible prospect. In my mind it required huge machines and technicians monitoring secret chemicals at precise temperatures and if any one of a thousand things went slightly awry then...Hindenburg!, or some other epic disaster, or a magenta color cast.

Obviously a slight color shift and the downfall of the dirigible aren't really comparable, but they both invoke the same sense of fear. I may still be terrified of hydrogen filled airships, but not color chemistry.

My kitchen has had to put up with a lot of terrible ideas. Quite a few were cooking related. But it had so far excelled in being my home for B&W developing and, with its ample counter space, a home for Kallitype printing. Now its an E6 survivor. I would give my kitchen a trophy if I felt it were capable of appreciating said trophy.

As I was working up the courage to try E6, I browsed through a number of forums where people were sharing their experiences with it. Mostly the threads were started by others who just like me were teetering on the edge of is this good idea or the worst idea ever. The answers were generally 50/50 "yeah, it's a good idea" and "no, this is the worst idea ever". Helpful.

The deciding factor was economics. The kit I was looking at was about $35 and according to the instructions, the capacity was about 8 rolls of 120 or 32 sheets of 4x5. The last time I had E6 processed it was costing $8/roll of 120 and $3/sheet of 4x5, plus shipping. If I could get passable results the savings would be more than worth the time investment (besides, I'm always happy to be working in my kitchen/chem lab).

So I ordered the 1qt. Arista Rapid E6 kit from Freestyle. Mixing the chemicals couldn't be easier since they all come in liquid concentrates. One bottle for the 1st Developer, two bottles for the color developer, and three for the blix. Just add water. Hot water. The good folks at Arista were nice enough to give you the approximate water temp you need so that when you mix in room temperature chemicals you end up with working temperature solutions. 

Keeping those temperatures is key. I have no problem with timing and agitation thanks to copious B&W work, but I've never had to maintain a consistent temp that was so far from ambient and so critical to the process. With black and white, I measure the temp of the developer and make timing adjustments and that's the end of it. But for E6 to work, the chemicals in this kit (most critically the 1st Developer) needed to be held at 105F. So I looked for options. The first is a rotary processor, who's awesomeness is countered by price tag. Same with dedicated darkroom temperature controls. Next was an aquarium heater but I lost interest because after literally minutes of looking, I didn't find one that could automatically maintain any temperature over 100F. (It did spark the idea though of building my own programmable heater. Thermocouple, heater, pump, control unit...easy)

Anyway, I took the cheap route of using things I already had available:

1. Coleman 16qt. Cooler - Just enough room for the three liter-sized bottles of solutions.

2. Kitchen Sink - Capable of holding water and a source of warm water.

Not pictured is my teakettle. I'm not much of a tea drinker anymore but having a source of really hot water was invaluable. Adding a splash of near boiling water to the sink or cooler worked wonders in maintaining a proper hot water bath.

Further points of interest:

3. Gas station mega-sized fountain drinks. While 44 oz of soda may seem gluttonous, the vessel of carbonated diabetes is a lot easier to dump chemicals into than the tiny opening in their storage bottles. Also, graduated cylinders of varying sizes are necessity for any process.

4. Film dryer. And by film dryer, I mean clothes hanger with some clips swaying about in the breeze of the A/C in my horribly dusty apartment.

The three process solutions stayed nearly right on temp during the process thanks to the cooler and the glass bottles they were in. I did use a pre-rinse, which was a liter of tap water in my graduate, held at process temp in the sink until I was ready to use it. With velvia the pre-rinse was VERY purple when I dumped it. The 1st Developer is rather boring looking, the color developer is somewhere between Welch's Grape Juice and Purple Kool-Aid, and the blix looks (and stains things) like iodine. Agitation was 15 seconds followed by 5 inversions every 30 seconds. That's it. Terribly anticlimactic.
Ponce Inlet Lighthouse - Velvia 50
When I opened the tank I was still expecting doom and gloom. I knew the temp had drifted by a tiny bit. I knew I missed an agitation. I knew I was off a few seconds with my pours and dumps. And it didn't matter. The results were great. It was an amazing feeling of accomplishment, like no one on earth had ever been able to do this before, despite the fact it was so insanely easy.

I may be looking at my finished films trough a pride-filled haze but I like them better than the last batch I had professionally developed. Fuji films have always gone slightly magenta on me but if anything, these positives have a warmer feel to them. I'll take warm over magenta any day.

Drive Gears - Velvia 50
Fresnel - Velvia 50
Dan is not amused. - Velvia 100F

Long story short, color processing was easy. I was worried over nothing. The results were fantastic. If you can do black and white, you can do color. Just remember to bring your thermometer.

Friday, April 1, 2011


Peugot 908 driven by France's second fastest man.
There's only one reason why anyone should go to Sebring, FL and that's the 3.7 miles of road racing paradise southeast of what I guess is supposed to be downtown. If you're not into racing, then there is zero reason to go there since "middle-of-nowhere" is a gross understatement. Actually, Sebring has a 24-hour diner, making for a second strike against my middle of nowhere. This year I made the trek south down Highway 27 to join another 150,000+ spectators in what was the best 12-hour period in recent memory.

I've been a fan of racing for as long as I can remember. I can probably attribute that to my dad, but at some point I deviated from his preference of perpetual left turns. NASCAR isn't my bag. I need right-hand turns and cars a bit more exotic than a Chevy Lumina.

Peugot 908 - Finished 3rd overall.
Sebring provides this. For 12 hours each spring, a variety of cars pound around the track from morning into the night. This year there were more than 50 cars at the start from five different classes of various capabilities.

Audi R15 being driven by Allan McNish
At the top of the food chain are the prototype cars. They're purpose built for speed, handling and endurance...and they're absolutely gorgeous. The Peugot 908's handily beat out the Audi R15's in what was the last of the R15's appearances. (Being replaced by the closed cockpit R18's this year for LeMans) There's nothing like having one of them sailing towards you at 170mph, brake to about 60mph in a couple of seconds, round the corner and then be out of sight down the track a few seconds after that. Unbelievably graceful for something so obscenely powerful.

And that's one of the marvels of Sebring...the intimacy with the racing action. I spent a large portion of my 12 hours there walking the footpath that closely follows most of the track. And in most areas you're less than 40 feet or so from the cars with only some Armco and a waist-high chain link fence in between. Of course, there's a lot more protection at the areas of the track that call for it, and unfortunately that's where the best photo opportunities are. And you only get there with the proper credentials.

The problem I faced was having to remind myself I was there as a spectator. I was there to enjoy the race, not cover it. It's hard to make that separation at times. I will admit that I hauled my digital camera along. For as much as I love my Hasselblad, and 4x5 and the rest, they are all but useless for shooting race cars being driven in anger. (I supposed they would be fine if said race car was not moving, and in a studio...) The weapon of choice was the Nikon D200 I picked up very used over the winter. The lens that spent the majority of the day on my camera was my manual focus Nikon 135mm f3.5. It seems like an odd choice but the optics are superb, the MF is great for prefocusing on pan shots, and the focal length was a perfect fit for the distance from the track. I had my 70-300 shitbox along, but it can't compete with the quality of the 135mm and without photo creds or scaffolding, there was no point that I could exploit the longer focal length.
These fans seem most comfortable near the left-handers.

And I'm not kidding when I say scaffolding. Apparently it's fine if you want to turn your campsite into a construction zone. A couch on top of three stories of scaffolding is a great way to watch the race, I suppose. And for the regular spectators like me, no one at the gate is going to stop you when you walk in with your camera gear and step ladder.
Ferrari 458 Italia

While the LMP cars are eyecandy, they're seriously lacking in the audio department. The
turbos diesel engines are, well...too quiet. They're like angry pickup trucks. Thankfully, the GT class picks up the slack. These actually look like their production counterparts but absolutely scream around the track. And each has it's own personality. The Ferrari's were all about high-strung Italian engineering and were not thrilled about slowing down. They sounded like they were standing on the rev limiter through out the entire lap and put up quite the protest under downshift. The opposite end of the spectrum was the Corvette. Deep, boomy, American. Also approaching the pain threshold on the dB scale.

Ford GT - Not particularly competitive but pleasant to listen to.
 My personal favorite, from a sound standpoint was the Ford GT. Deep, thrashy and constantly screaming "get the hell out of my way", which was actually unnecessary given their lackluster pace.

The worst was the Jaguar. I cringed every time I saw it headed for the corner I was standing at because I kept thinking, lap after lap, this it. This is the lap the damn thing is finally going to explode and kill me.

Jaguar XKR - Glowing brake rotors and exhaust. Near the point of detonation.
BMW M3 GT - Thought you would appreciate this, Wade.
I love the environment of endurance road racing. You spend some time at one turn. Watch the action, take some pictures. Maybe chill on one of the viewing mounds for a while. Take a nap. Drink a beer. Walk to the next turn. Hang out some more. Walk around the paddock for a while and watch the crews scramble to put their busted cars back together. It's especially interesting at dusk when the the brake rotors glow with the car's former speed and the flames being spit out the exhaust become visible. The whole experience actually manages to make central Florida a worthwhile destination.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Zero Catastrophe Rate

I think I'm coming to terms with selenium. Last night my toning results weren't quite what I expected but they roughly matched my last outcome. I can live with consistency. Especially when that consistency excludes disaster.

Piano, Coleman, FL - Kallitype
Just a note - the images here are scans of the untoned kallitypes, which look closer to the actual selenium toned prints than the scans of those prints do. Yeah, doesn't make a lot sense to me either.

For the time being I've settled at diluting Ilford's Rapid Selenium Toner to 1+200 and letting it rest for about 10-20 minutes. By letting it sit for a while, it seems to dissipate a bit of the ammonia stench that not only burns the nostrils but wreaks havoc on prints. I honestly doubt there's any real effect at this low dilution but it makes me feel better. This is my voodoo science, doubt it at your own risk.

The Other Piano, Coleman, FL - Kallitype
The changes produced by the toning are very subtle. Contrast is given a slight bump at the expensive of highlight detail.

The color shift is also very subtle. Originally the prints were much more reddish brown. The selenium rolls them ever so slightly back toward neutral, although they stay very warm.

The biggest challenge has been determining how much toning to give them. The prints in the toning bath look much different than the dry prints the next morning, which look slightly different from the dry prints several days later.

Chair, Coleman, FL - Kallitype
All together, I've been thrilled with the outcome of this round of printing. I'd love to ride this wave of success but I'm down to only a couple of sheets of paper left and trying to find someone with a stock of Arches Platine would be a wasted effort. Rumor is that the next run will be in March. 

Skylight, Coleman, FL - Kallitype

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Back at it.

I can't believe it's been almost two months since I've done any printing. The silver stains on the counter are still there from the mass of pre-christmas present production. (I don't suspect I'll be removing them anytime soon, either.) It was nice that those in the family receiving Kallitypes for presents enjoyed them, despite not having a clue of what I was talking about with sensitizer this and gold chloride that. I'm okay with that since they understood they were handmade and recognized the amount of time that went in to making them.

Maybe it's the time commitment that deters all non-hackers from alt printing. I spent six hours last night making 10 prints with only 6.5 of those being acceptable. And that was just digital neg through falling asleep with prints floating around in my kitchen sink. Doesn't count all the time spent taking the images, developing, scanning and processing. And they still have to be toned. It's like running multiple endurance races and finding that sometimes the trophies smell like bad cheese.

Ricketts Glen State Park, PA - Untoned Kallitype
The other problem is that all the prints I made last night were tiny and more experiment than anything. They aren't destined to be display pieces. In a moment of anti-brilliance, I bought an awkward size paper and can only get one 8x10 per sheet while leaving behind plenty of scraps. I decided to put them to good use by using up my remaining dribbles of sensitizer and being a proving ground for images that may or may not make a decent Kallitype print.

One image, which I thought might be impossible to print, was impossible to print. Because I tried to cram too much under World's Shoddiest UV Box, another became a blurry mess. (Possibly a reason to build World's Shoddiest UV Box a big brother, or more likely to cannibalize the current one to build an even more dangerous contraption.)

O'Connell Bridge, Dublin - Untoned Kallitype
The bridge picture caused the remaining 1.5 botched prints. Well, the first was entirely my fault, seeing as my digital negative wasn't so much negative. I wish I hadn't thrown it away as it did make an interesting reversed line image. I looked to see if I could retrieve it from the trash this morning but the combination of having not been fixed and being a repository for used coffee grounds has made it a smelly disappointment. The second attempt, now with a proper negative, looked fine until I scanned it. That's when I noticed that my piece of shit inkjet (which I love very much) had decided to do all sorts of banding on the negative. Not sure why, after printing many successful digital negs, it started acting up now. The heaviest band can be seen on the left of the image and the lighter bands are noticeable in the clouds.

Farquhar Park, York, PA - Untoned Kallitype
There were at least a few minor achievements out of this printing extravaganza. I've managed to boost the sharpness quite a bit in the prints. Over-sharpening with unsharp mask in photoshop helps significantly. The increased grain, while very visible on a computer screen, doesn't print through at all. The second is something I should have been doing all along. It was one of those forehead slapping moments of "oh my god, what an idiot I've been". Flip the image horizontally in PS so it can actually be printed "emulsion" down. It's amazing how much more crisp the image is without being diffused by the thickness of the base. I want to go back and reprint everything I've done so far after I finish banging my head on the desk. But I won't. Takes too damn long.

I'm very happy with the rest of the prints and will post them with a tone of despair after I've destroyed them while refining my selenium toning process. That is, after all, the most likely outcome.