Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Revisiting an Old Friend

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Recently I took the opportunity to visit an old friend that I haven't interacted with in some years, and the reunion went better than expected. It seems I'd learned a thing or two in the intervening years that helped us get along better than ever.

No, that friend isn't a long-time buddy or relative, but a particular type of photographic film.

"A film?" you're probably asking yourself. "How can a film be a friend? And what's the deal with the reunion?" I'm glad you asked.

Back in the mid-2000s, I was heavily involved in pinhole photography, more so than today, and had, up until that time, been using primarily photographic print paper as a form of in-camera film, so-called paper negatives. I had learned to work within the limitations of the medium to eke out as much as I could from its limited tonal range and high contrast emulsion.

The advantages of paper negatives over conventional black & white film are low cost, ease of handling and use (due to its lack of red sensitivity, it can be handled and processed under red darkroom lighting) and relative insensitivity to dust, scratches or other physical artifacts of the process. The disadvantages are its limited tonal range, difficulty in controlling image contrast, slow photographic speed and inability to make enlarged prints with any degree of sharpness. Paper negatives lend themselves for use in large format cameras, and as an image capture medium for scanning and digital post-production (new film scanners aren't being introduced into the market, but flatbed scanners, perfect for reflection scanning of media like photo paper, are still easy to find).

Then, at the suggestion of someone on the F295 pinhole photography discussion forum, I discovered APHS film. Arista Premium Halftone Supreme was an orthochromatic, high-contrast lithography film originally marketed by Freestyle Photo, intended for the graphic arts industry but discovered by many early pinhole pioneers to serve well as an in-camera film that, because of it transparent film base, served well for both contact prints and enlargements.

Some of the disadvantages of paper negatives were also inherent in APHS film, such as slow photographic speed, limited tonal range and difficulty in controlling contrast. But its few advantages, such as having a clear film base, lent itself for enlargement printing and contact printing using alternative processes, while its low cost made it a much more viable product for large format photography.

Oh, about that issue of low cost, there's one important caveat I should mention, which is that APHS film has been off the market for some years now. Yes, that's right, it's long gone and I haven't purchased a pack of that film in a long while. But, looking through my film storage cabinet in my darkroom recently, I found two packs of the film, and my mind went racing with thoughts of what I could do with them. I had suddenly rediscovered my long-lost friend.

The first thing I thought of was breaking out my two-inch-square format brass pinhole plate camera, that I had made back in my APHS days to take advantage of being able to both projection enlarge or scan with my 35mm slide scanner (a mounted slide being about two inches square in size). This was a little brass box with a light-tight lid on the side which, when removed, reveals a stack of brass plates and a rear pusher that keeps them tightly up against the film plane flange. In actual use out in the field, the camera is reloaded in a changing bag by swapping plates.

I cut a few squares of this old-stock APHS and tried them out in the old brass plate camera, with good results. As it turns out, I hadn't forgotten what I had learned when working with this film years ago.

In case you happen to find a pack of APHS film for yourself, here are a few tips I've learned over the years to help make your shooting experience a bit easier.

*First, the film base is thinner than conventional large format film, so it might not sit well inside an 8x10 cut film holder.

*It's also rather delicate when wet, so it scratches easily.

*There are no notches to indicate which is the emulsion side of the film, but under dim red lighting, the emulsion side appears lighter gray than the reverse side.

*It helps to preflash the film - give it a faint, even exposure of light in the darkroom, prior to loading it into your camera - to help tame its high contrast and get a bit more shadow detail out of the image without blowing the highlights - something I also do with paper negatives. Remember, this was originally purposed as a graphic arts film, hence intended to be high in contrast.

*It takes well to dilute development to control contrast, but too dilute can cause a mottled, uneven look to the image.

*Its emulsion is also sensitive to heat, so if you're processing sheets of APHS in a tray in a cool darkroom, leaving your fingers in the developer in constant contact with the film can leave dark smudges in the image where the local development preceeded at an accelerated rate.

*Most importantly, APHS easily produces small pinhole defects in the emulsion if you use an acidic stop bath (caused by the rapid pH change when going from the base developer to the acidic stop bath producing hydrogen gas bubbles in the emulsion), so it's best to use a water bath as a stop and slightly shorten the developer time, while remembering to periodically replenish the tray with fresh water.

So, with all of those limitations and caveats to working with it, is there any advantage at all with using APHS? As I indicated above, when it was available on the market it was very economical, and could produce very high resolution images, perfect for enlargement printing. If you happen to have a few packs of the stuff stored in your darkroom, as I do, then it's a no-brainer to want to start using it again. But with a limited supply, what happens when I run out?

Well, as it happens, Freestyle Photo has introduced the replacement for APHS, that being Arista Ortho Litho Film 2.0. I have yet to try this replacement film, but if cost is any indication it promises to offer a thrifty alternative to using conventional sheet film.

Let's compare the economics of various brands of film, with prices taken off Freestyle's website. Freestyle's own Arista house brand of conventional B&W film is priced at around 75-80 cents per 4x5 sheet, with Ilford's being almost a dollar and a half, and Kodak around two dollars per sheet. In contrast, the Arista Ortho Litho Film 2.0 is priced at 22 cents per sheet. Yes, I'd say it's priced remarkably cheaper than other B&W films, on par with the cost of the cheapest RC print paper.

It remains to be seen if this replacement for my old friend APHS film is a viable alternative, given that its data sheet indicates the new film is even higher in contrast than the older stuff, possibly presenting an even greater problem with producing continuous tone images with manageable contrast. I'll have to order a pack, and experiment with it. I'll keep you posted of the results.

Post-Script: I apologize for the small size of the lead-in image, it's all I could find online on short notice. I'll find a higher-res version archived on my hard drives at a later date and update the image, which was a still-life with newspaper and textured glass, captured in the two-inch brass pinhole plate camera onto APHS film some years ago. I rescanned the original negative and posted a larger sized lead-in image.

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~Joe

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