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.