Monday, November 25, 2019

Developing High-Contrast Films with POTA

old TechPan, POTA, Nikkormat EL
October 2019
Over the course of the past 20 years, I have been trying to become a better photographer.  When I started on this journey, my mentor, William Brudon (1921-2009) was instrumental in extolling the virtues of various films that he used.  One of the films that he absolutely loved was Kodak's Technical Pan film.  Not only was Bill a photographer, but he was also a well-known natural history and medical illustrator as well as a painter of some wonderful landscapes.   For him, Technical Pan was one of those wonder films that could be used for high-contrast black and white reproduction, as well as superb pictorial work and copy work that required a great tonal scale.  As a result, I too, realized what a wonderful film TechPan was for landscapes photography.  TechPan's drawback was that it was (a) a very slow film of ISO 25, and (b) it required the special Kodak Technidol developer to achieve that wonderful tonal scale.  Its advantage is that the film is virtually grainless, making 35mm negatives capable of producing very large prints.  It was also available in 120 and 4x5 sheet film.   As my supply of TechPan and Technidol developer diminished, I figured that it was the end of working with that film.

However, in the past 8 years, I acquired a supply of TechPan, both in 35mm and a small amount of 120.  I had ordered some TD-3 from Photographer's Formulary, and realized that it had a short shelf life, even if unopened.  Stand processing in 1/100 Rodinal just didn't do it for me, and I am not a fan of really thin negatives.   I had seen POTA listed as a developer to be used with high contrast films, but didn't know much about it.  POTA? What the hell is that?

my home-rolled TechPan

Earlier this year, I read up on POTA, and it seemed like a good candidate for developing TechPan as well as other high-contrast films.  I had to put that research away for a bit, as we moved from Ann Arbor, MI to just outside Asheville NC  in late July.    In the past 2 months, I have been developing several high-contrast films with POTA, and am realizing just how good a developer it is.

First of all, what is POTA? According to The Film Developing Cookbook (Anchell & Troop, 1998, Focal Press, 165 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0-240-80277-0), POTA  was developed by Martin Levy and the formula published in 1967.  The acronym POTA stands for Photo-Optics Technical Area at the Ft. Monmouth military installation where Levy was employed.  A weird thing to name a developer after a place, but oh, well.  The purpose of POTA was to use high-resolution document films such as Kodak Technical Pan, Agfa Ortho, and Macophot ORT25 as normal photographic films.  The why is quite obvious.  When properly processed, these ultra fine-grained films can rival large format results using 35mm film.

One thing to keep in mind is that these document films have a limited contrast range, and highlights may be blown out, so they tend to work better in low-contrast situations.  Some negatives with one film, Eastman 2378 bears this out. Developers such as Technidol and TD-3 can provide an increased contrast range (up to 12 stops, according to Anchell and Troop), but generally, document films will have impaired highlight rendition in typical daylight scenes.

So, what to do?  Anchell and Troop recommend the following developers with document films: XTOL 1:5, POTA, Kodak Technidol-LC, and Photographer's Formulary TD-3.   Technidol is no longer manufactured, and TD-3 is also a special developer that has to be ordered. XTOL 1:5 produces thin negatives (at least in my experience).  POTA, however, consists of only 2 compounds, and is easy to make yourself.  Anchell & Troop state that "POTA-type developers produce exceptionally even density growth over their useful range but have an abrupt shoulder after 8 zones. No further highlight detail is available above that point." 
expired TechPan, POTA, Oct. 2019

My original objective was to use POTA to test a bunch of bulk-loaded TechPan that I acquired  some time ago.  I had planned on hand-rolling it and selling the film after I tested it.  It turns out that someone had opened the bulk loader to see what was inside, and that was enough to fog the film through the overlapping sprocket holes, as well as the edges of the frame.  Plus, the film expiration date was 1990, so there is some small amount of base fog.  I can still use it, but no way that I could sell it like that.  Using POTA gave me the urge to test it with other document, high-contrast and ortho films to see how they would fare as traditional pictorial films. I seem to have an inexhaustible supply of Kodak's Kodalith, as well as some other oddball films that the Film Photography Project has made available.
TechPan, shot in 2008, developed in POTA, 2019. Mamiya 645

The formula for POTA does remind me of D-23 in the sense that it is a 2-compound developer.
The components to make 1 liter of POTA:

  • Sodium Sulfite Anhydrous - 30 g
  • Phenidone 1.5g
  • Dissolve the dry chemicals in 750 ml water at 35°C, then add water to make 1 liter.  Not all of the Phenidone will dissolve, but don't worry about it.

Use the POTA developer as soon as the temperature cools to 24°C.  The developer oxidizes quickly after mixing, and typically it's recommend that you use it within an hour.   I recommend that you read Anchell and Troop's book for more information on the chemistry of POTA, and how to modify the formula for longevity and less fogging.

I have plenty of Phenidone and many pounds of Sodium Suflite, so POTA seems to me to be a good alternative to TD-3 and XTOL.  I weigh out the dry ingredients for each 1 liter batch and put them in a ziplock bag so that I can mix them when I need them.  If you have to order the chemicals, ArtCraft Chemicals Inc. has them, as well as many other raw photo chemicals.  50 g of Phenidone is $12, and 1 lb of Sodium Sulfite is $6.50.  That's enough to make 33 liters of developer, which would develop up to 132 rolls of film, for a cost per roll of less than 15 cents.  That's pretty damn cheap!  Of course, you can use POTA for normal contrast films, but your results may not be optimal.

Anchell and Troop also provide another formula for a low-contrast developer called TDLC-103:

  • Metol - 1g
  • Sodium sulfite - 5g
  • Sodium Bicarbonate (baking soda) - 10g
  • dissolve to make 1 liter

This doesn't have the problems with Phenidone that POTA has, and I am going to give it a try soon. Anchell and Troop stated that TDLC-103 is more likely to give good results with document films, and as an extreme low contrast developer for normal contrast films. I think development times are 10-15 minutes with minimal agitation - 10 seconds every 3 minutes to suppress highlight development.  I am assuming that the development temp is 20° C.

My latest adventure with POTA was developing some long outdated Kodalith Otho Type 3 6556 film.  I shot the film in my Nikon F100, rated it at ISO 12, and developed in POTA for 11 minutes.  To say I was blown away with my results is an understatement.  I did not expect the rich tonal scale that I saw on the negatives.  I have never seen such good results with Kodalith before.   I am going to shoot some more later this with some different subject matter and see how it goes.

Kodalith Ortho, Nikon F100, POTA, Nov. 2019

POTA Development TIMES (all at 24°C)
Kodak Technical Pan - 12 minutes
Eastman 5363 - 12 minutes
Kodak 2378 - 11 minutes
Kodalith Ortho Type 3  – 11 minutes

Eastman 5363, POTA, Nikon FA, October 2019

Kodak 2378, POTA, Canon AE-1P, October, 2019

Kodalith Ortho, POTA, Nikon F100, November 2019

Kodalith Ortho, POTA, Nikon F100, November 2019

Kodalith Ortho, POTA, Nikon F100, November 2019

Friday, November 22, 2019

Film... lots of film!

some slow speed films
Last week I received a package in the mail containing some new (to me) films that I ordered. Three of them were Rollei-branded films, Ortho 25 Plus, RPX 25, Retro 80 S; Catlabs X Film 80, and Bergger Pancro 400.  I have previously reported on the Bergger film.  On top of that, I have an order of the Ilford Ortho Plus 80 coming to me.  All of these are b&w films, and I am totally amazed at the number of film stocks now on sale.  Even accounting for the re-branding of films by Kosmo, etc., it's obvious that we have more b&w film stocks available now than I can remember in the past 20 years.  The Darkroom has put up a handy guide to films that should be useful to the typical person shooting film.  The chart there shows 46 films, and those are all ones that The Darkroom can process.  It's obviously missing the Kodak Vision films (ECN-2 process), the odd emulsions that require special developers, and many of the b&w films that the Film Photography Project has brought to market.  So, when anyone asks "Can you still buy film?"  You can tell that person that there are over 50 different films available now.

We don't have the plethora of  positive color films that existed 20 years ago, and that can easily be explained by the fact that pro shooters accounted for the majority of E-6 and Kodachrome sales that were quickly taken over by the digital onslaught.  For the publishing industry, digital was a real boon, as the workflow no longer involved the darkroom as being the intermediate step.  For the art photographer, it was a more personal choice.  However, the mere fact that Kodak released Ektachrome once again last year is a good sign that a major gap was being filled. 

As far as C-41 films, there are enough choices out there to make most people happy.  While I shoot color film, it still represents a minority of my film usage.  I do use digital for a majority of my color work -- and my Nikon Df is one hell of a camera.   My first choice is b&w film, for a lot of reasons.  I like the moods that I can get with different films, I like being able to experiment with using low-ISO films and odd emulsions, and I like the way b&w film shows the world that I photograph.  In addition, film grain - the lack of, as well as the presence of, can really add another dimension to an image.  I think back to some early shots that I did with Kodak's high speed recording film - it had grain like nothing else, and I wish that I had used it in the right situations to make that grainy stuff work as an asset to the image.  On the other end of the grain scale, Ilford Pan-F and Kodak Tmax 100 are really excellent films.   To me, the allure of so many different films is that a film stock becomes part of my creative process. 

One other thing to note, is that I am working on a zine devoted to monochrome shooting.  I'll say more about it as I get closer to a final product, but I hope to have it ready by January 2020.  The first issue will focus on low-ISO films. 

As these November days move into December days, I am very happy that I moved to western North Carolina.  We have far more sunny days than cloudy ones this time of year, and those low sun angles represent more opportunities for shooting b&w film!

Sunday, November 03, 2019

The Ricoh XR-M SLR

 By the mid-1980s, camera manufacturers were moving towards more plastic in the bodies of 35mm SLR cameras. Point and shoots had already achieved this, as the ABS plastic was found to be excellent for camera bodies.  The consumer-level SLRs such as the Canon T50 and T70, Nikon N2000, and Pentax P30 featured plastic bodies with internal metal chassis, or in some cases, more ABS plastic.  Ricoh introduced its XR-M SLR in 1987, and this manual-focus auto-wind camera features design elements that remind me of both the Canon T70 and a  Minolta Maxxum 7000.

The Ricoh XR-M has a bunch of features that place this camera as being quite advanced and I am surprised that it didn't get more attention.

Fairly good control layout!  Looks much like a 1990s SLR

There is an optical frame counter - no IR for you.

clean design

Features and Specifications
  • Top-deck LCD display panel
  • Program modes - P, A, M, S
  • ISO setting via DX or manually entered from 12-6400
  • Auto film loading, film auto-advance and rewind
  • film loaded window
  • Viewfinder with the following functions visible:
  • AE lock indicator
  • Subtractive film counter
  • Exposure Compensation
  • Over/under exposure indicator
  • Shutter speed
  • Program mode (PASM)
  • Shutter speed
  • Flash ready
  • Aperture
  • Auto backlight indicator
  • Spot metering indicator
  • Averaged metering indicator
  • Fill Flash indicator 

Obviously presaging cameras such as a Nikon N50, based upon the above specs!

  • Viewfinder - 91% coverage, the XR-M has an angled split image focus spot and microprism focus collar, as well as a matte screen to aid in focus.  In use, I found the split image focus spot to be very easy to see and use.
  • Depth of Field Preview button!
  • Self-timer with variable time settings
  • Programmed flash photography with Ricoh Speedlights
  • TV mode - for photographing TV screen, set at 1/30 sec.
  • Center-weighted metering and spot metering modes
  • Interval timer- set to fire shutter 1 sec to 1 hour for time-lapse
  • Single frame shooting to continuous, as well as multiple exposures
  • AE lock!
  • Exposure Compensation +/- 4 stops in 1/3 stop increments
  • Bulb setting
  • Left hand-shutter release can be programmed
  • Power- Requires 4 AA cells
  • Shutter - vertical focal plane shutter 30 sec - 1/2000 sec, plus B- 1 sec to 1 hour
  • Lens mount - Ricoh system R-K mount.  You can use other K-mount lenses with this camera, but I do not think all will work in Program mode.
  • Tripod socket
  • Weight with 50mm lens and 4 AA cells is 1 lb 11 oz.
Have yet to test out the flash and the zoom lens.

Available accessories:
  • Super Data Back 4
  • Data back 3
  • Interchangeable viewfinder screens
  • Speedlight PX
  • XR Speedlight 300P, as well as other speedlights

Overall, a staggering amount of options and control for a 1987 off-brand SLR.

This camera came to me with the control button cover missing. That's just a small piece of plastic that covers the 4 orange control button on the left top of the camera.  You really do need the the manual to get the most out of this camera. However, once you figure out the system, it's pretty easy to use in most of its operation.

I found that the right-hand grip (which contains the 4 AA cells, much like a Minolta Maxxum 7000) makes the camera very easy to hold, with my index finger falling directly over the shutter button.  There is no screw-in cable release, but a small remote socket on the rear of the body, which looks a lot like that of a Canon rebel's simple remote socket.

The interval timer is pretty cool. I set it to shoot a frame every two seconds and had fun standing in front of the camera and letting it fire away. It went through a 24 exposure roll of Kentmere 400 in less than a minute.

I took the camera out to the River Arts District of Asheville on a nice day in late October and shot a couple of rolls of film.  The auto-advance of the film combined with shooting it in P mode, made it act like a P&S SLR - much like a Canon AE-1P, but with auto-wind. I really like the way in feels in the hand, and it was easy to shoot with.

I'm not sure why this camera hasn't gotten more love.  Maybe it was just a bit ahead of its time, and maybe if it had autofocus, it might have been a bigger deal. In any event, I found it very easy to shoot with, though perhaps at the time it came out, not having dials and traditional SLR-style controls was considered to be too gimmicky.  The controls certainly would have been right there with 1990s cameras, though.

I say that the camera reminds me a lot of the Canon T-70, and it really does have a similar look and feel to that camera, right down to the gray plastic body.  However, the Ricoh XR-M has far more modes and control options than the Canon T-70. Perhaps if the camera had a Pentax logo on it, it may have fared better.  It certainly seems better made than a lot of the Pentax plastic-bodied SLRs from that era.

This camera came with the 35-70 zoom as well as the 50mm f/2 Rikenon lens (which I used), as well as the Ricoh XR 300P speedlight (which I did not use).  The overall package is one that would be quite usable by any photographer.

Now some sample photos, of course! These are all on Tmax 100.