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.


  1. Dude, this has the wheels inside my brain turning. Anyway, just wanted to comment. I'm an automotive journalist now--recently got my J-degree and a job with a bigshot company. Saying that because you're a great writer and you should be doing something with that skill, even if on the side. Ever looked into it?

  2. ha! what a great post! i am looking into DIY color myself, and this post might be the last kick i needed.
    only one thing - between work and my new parenthood, i am lucky to shoot a roll a month. will the chemicals stay fresh for that long after mixing?
    great blog and fine photography