Since first blogging about x-ray film two years ago, I’ve gained a little more experience (~300 sheets more!) with this film and would like to pass a few things on to you fine ladies and gents. In no specific order, here they are:
- EVERY Large Format Photographer Needs X-ray Film in His/Her Fridge
Let’s face it folks, panchromatic films are getting pricier by the day, especially in the 4x5 and up sizes. X-Ray films, at their most premium, are still half the price of high end Kodak and Ilford B&W emulsions. At their cheapest, x-ray films run nearly $0.40 / sheet, which is cheaper than photographic paper! This means a film that can be loaded and developed under a safe light, AND is worlds faster than orthochromatic silver gelatin papers. Got light leaks? Test ‘em out with this stuff! Sorry 16x20 and 20x24 shooters, no help for you guys here, but there is always 14x36” x-ray film.
- The Double-Sided Emulsion of X-Ray Film is Tricky
X-Ray film can be a little finicky to deal with, and can not, by any means, be handled the way you would any other film. Handle it without gloves, there will be fingerprints, man-handle it during processing, and there will be scratches. Fail to prewash it, and there will be uneven absorption into the dual-emulsion. With a gentle hand, a few pairs of nitrile gloves, and hangers and tanks for processing (see video below), x-ray film becomes a manageable, consistent film. Word to the wise, if you plan on tray processing this film, you will waste film, time, and what little patience you entered the darkroom with.
- Orhthochromatic Means Red Things Go Dark, Very Dark
A film that can only see blue and green spectra of light doesn’t get along very well with light reflecting off of red objects. Red leaves go dark grey, red bricks go darker, and red shirts and skin blemishes become quite prominent and dark. Without conscious effort to work around this spectral shortcoming, even the kind of light you’re shooting in can become your own worst enemy. Top things to avoid with x-ray film: red backgrounds, red shades of lipstick, and hot lights!
This is Not a Low Contrast Film
X-ray film, when processed in standard developers, builds contrast very quickly. A quick glance at any x-ray shooters’ developing times will show you that even very dilute solutions have a time of < 10 min. Even in my highly dilute Pyrocat staining developers, I’m developing for ~6 min., give or take, depending how it looks under the red safelight (develop by inspection). Taming contrast with green x-ray film can be accomplished with some yellow/pale yellow filtration during exposure. In otherwise “flat” light, x-ray film at “N” (normal processing) will provide you contrast equal to N+1 development with conventional films. In contrasty light, prepare for some even more contrasty (still scans well) negatives.
Lately, I’ve been experimenting with ultra-low contrast dilutions of catechol-baed pyro developers, namely Pyrocat HD and Obsidian Aqua. Instead of normal dilutions of 1:1:100 for Pyrocat HD and 1:500 for OA, lower contrast solutions of 1:1:150 and 1:1000 have been working out much better. Unlike Pyrocat HD, Obsidian Aqua doesn’t have a restrainer, so one has to be very careful in watching x-ray film develop (that contrast builds quickly!).
- Shoot it Quickly, Shoot it Often
Going hand-in-hand with how touchy x-ray film is, from my shooting experience, x-ray film doesn’t have as long a shelf life as modern, protected emulsions. While x-ray film doesn’t mind being frozen for storage, it keeps for only ~1 year in controlled 68 degrees Fahrenheit environment. In warm temperatures, the emulsion can deteriorate even faster, so don’t even think about leaving loaded film holders in a warm car/trunk. Fortunately, it’s low cost and high availability allow it to be a film you can have fun with! Not ready to commit that $10 sheet of B&W? Bracket off a 5-stop range on x-ray and see what happens!
Below is a quick sampling of some recent work shot on x-ray film. A mix of portraiture and nature work provided to highlight the nature of x-ray film. All images shot with an 8x10” camera and Fuji HR-T green sensitive x-ray film, rated @ 200 ASA, developed in Pyrocat HD 1:1:100.
If you’re interested in trying x-ray film and looking to source some, my recommendation is trying a pack from the Film Photography Project Store. They ship quickly, worldwide, and every transaction there helps the FPP continue its bi-monthly podcasts and affiliated content. And if you ever have any questions about working with x-ray film, feel free to ask in the comments, or use the contact form to send me an email.
Until next time, keep on shooting, and if you’re working with large format, might as well save a buck and shoot some x-ray film!
Large format photography, while simplistic in nature, has quite a lot of moving parts. At first pass, it doesn’t look like there’s a lot to it. A bellows camera, which is essentially a dark box, a lens, a tripod, a sheet of film in a holder, and you’re set, right? Yes, that’s all that’s necessary for a large format photographer to work. But what about all the small things that can aid a large format shooter along the way? Today, I’m going to be talking about all those handy accessories, that I’ve affectionately named the “Fluff”.
The first piece of fluff I encourage any large format photographer to invest in is a good handheld light meter. No large format film camera I can think of has a light meter built into it, so having an external means of gauging exposure is necessary. For photographers that plan on working out in the field, a basic handheld meter with incident metering is a good budget option; there are even incident meters available for your smartphone or mobile device. For those planning on adding flash to their images, having a meter capable of corded or wireless flash triggering is needed. These meters are typically a little more expensive than the non-flash syncing units, but nothing outrageous. The final type of meter that’s very popular with large format shooters is the spot meter. These meters allow exact measurements of reflected light in the scene and helps in calculating an exact exposure with wide dynamic range (see Zone System photography). Seeing as the latter two categories most applied to my needs, I went with the Sekonic L-778 spot meter (with flash sync capability). Price range $$ - $$$
The second piece of fluff I highly recommend is a loupe. For those of you out of the loupe, (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) a loupe is a small magnifier that allows for focusing very minute details on the ground glass of a view camera. Being able to see on the ground glass while focusing is dependent on a couple of factors: size of the ground glass, covering power of the lens, widest aperture of the lens, and amount of light hitting the ground glass. One device that can makeup for the shortcomings of several of these variables is a solid viewing loupe. The smaller your ground glass, the more magnification and thus better optics you will need. For 4x5, I recommend anywhere between 6x - 10x. 5x7 and up don’t need much more than a 6x to get good up-close focus checking. I personally use a Schneider 4x loupe for 8x10, but there are certainly are more budget options available. Price range $$ - $$$.
As I just touched on, being able to see and compose well on the ground glass is a big deal. Pretty much any tool that makes this process easier is one worth getting, especially if you plan on shooting a lot of large format. Therefore, my third recommended piece of large format fluff is a focusing cloth or dark cloth. This does exactly what you think it would do; it darkens the area around the ground glass to allow for accurate focusing. As with most photographic tools, these can be as simple or as complicated as your wallet will allow. Personally, I’m in love with my BlackJacket Hybrid Focusing Cloth, but an old t-shirt does a fine job too. Price range $-$$.
Dust is a pain that all photographers know, but large format shooters know all too well. Any means to minimize/remove dust from a large format photographer’s workflow is the best thing ever, period. Therefore, the fourth, and most inexpensive piece of large format fluff in this list, is the recloseable anti-static bag. Starting in at around $0.60 each, these pink (sometimes metallic) plastic wonders shield film holders from the elements, and don’t build a static charge along the way. Why is anti-static so important? If you manage to charge the darkslide of your film holder, once that darkslide is removed prior to exposure, the shower of dust that hits your film is akin to a Head and Shoulders commercial. Still gives me shudders just thinking about it. Pick some of these up, like yesterday. Price Range $.
The final piece of large format “fluff” that I can recommend to large format shooters is modern glass. With digital photographers are pursuing a softer, more film “look” and film shooters are seeking the oldest and fastest glass available, there’s never been a better time to buy up modern glass. What do I mean by modern? I mean anything that: was made in the ‘80’s through today, has 3 or more optical coatings, and is produced to maximize sharpness across the entire field of view. Great examples of these lenses include: Schneider Super Angulon, Super Symmar, Calumet Caltar, Rodenstock Sironar, Nikkor-W, Fujinon-W, and more. These lenses that not too long ago ran for thousands of dollars can now be had for a fraction of the price. These lenses are stunning wide open to all the way stopped down, and are sharp as tack. Fair warning, they are addictive for the price, and may add weight to your kit. Price Range $$ - $$$$.
As I stated at the beginning, none of this gear is essential to making an image with large format. Photographers have been getting by with these cameras since the mid 1800’s, and they certainly didn’t have this technology then! At the end of the day, the “fluff” makes life a little easier, the large format experience slightly more enjoyable, and come on, it just plain looks cool. Until next time, happy shooting and sorry for the case of G.A.S. ;)
Well folks, just under three days to go and the New55 Project is looking very strong. At the time of writing, they’re < $20,000 away from their $400,000 starting goal. The past forty days of viewing this project have been a roller-coaster ride to say the least. Lots of ups and downs, positive and negative opinions throughout the photographic community. Being part of a podcast whose favorite catchphrase is "Super-Positive", there was only one way I could be towards New55 and it looks as though the rest of the community has followed-through.
What are your thoughts on New55 film’s progress? Have you become a backer yet?