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Thread: Should I home process?

  1. #1

    Should I home process?

    Hi all,

    Having shot large format for 3 years now I'm starting to feel inhibited by the cost and inconvinience of taking my film to a professional lab for processing E6 and monochrome negative.

    I have never processed 4x5 before (years ago I used to process 35mm monochrome), so I'm just taking a provisional look at the equipment out there.

    My questions are:

    1. If I decide to process at home will I risk significant quality loss over what the lab can offer me? or perhaps with the right equipment I can actually improve quality with the additional control home processing allows

    2. What is the 'right' equipment? is a rotary processor absolutley necessary to achieve the optimum quality and control (I do not process paper), or will a simple tank do?

    3. Can someone post a good recommendation for the equipment I need to start processing 4x5 E6 and monochrome negative. Cost should not be a factor, I'm looking for optimum control over the quality of my work.


  2. #2

    Join Date
    Sep 2003

    Should I home process?

    If cost isn't an issue get yourself an ATL processor plus tanks. If you use fresh chemicals and generally do a good job then you should get good results. If cost is an issue then no you don't really need a processor. B&W can be done in nothing but a few plastic trays. E-6 can be setup for a lot less then a full blown processor. In both case you'll have more work to do then the processor and have to take more care but it works.

  3. #3
    Louie Powell's Avatar
    Join Date
    Sep 2003
    Saratoga Springs, NY

    Should I home process?

    Home processing is not at all difficult, and it can be considerably more economical than commercial processing.

    First - monochrome. This is a no-brainer - the cost is always less to do the processing at home, and the quality will be at least as good as commercial processing. Actually, you will probably get better results doing the processing at home in monochrome since you can fine tune the processing parameters to your unique equipment and exposure variables.

    Now - E6. I have done a lot of E6 in 35mm at home - if you can do monochrome, you can do E6. Unlike monochrome, E6 requires absolute consistency - exactly the same temperature, for exactly the same time. The processing temperature is higher - typically 100 deg F, versus 68 deg F (about room temperature) with monochrome.

    There are mechanical concerns with how the processing is done. I process monochrome in trays using a 6-sheet slosher. Normally HC-110, dilution H, but I also have some DDX that I use if I have to do compensating development (one of the variables in working with monochrome). Since monochrome is done at a temperature that is essentially room temperature, temperature control is generally not a big deal. (Although my darkroom does get a bit chilly in January!) But note that tray processing requires that I have a darkroom.

    You will see a lot of web discussion of processing in tubes (either the single-sheet BTZS tubes, or Unicolor or Beseler print processing tubes). I tried doing 4x5 in a Unicolor tube one time - the separator that is supposed to keep sheets from overlapping didn't work as it was supposed to, so this turned me off on this method. Others have been very successful with tubes.

    The temperature control issue with E6 is a concern with 4x5 sheets. I think it would be difficult to achieve the required temperature consistency using the tray approach. It can be done with tubes.

    Finally, there are Jobo processors that look a bit like tubes, but that are semi automated. These work very well for both monochrome and E6, but the initial cost is high.

    Tube processing does not necessarily require a full darkroom - you could set up a temporary line in a kitchen or bathroom (althrough you would need total darkness to unload your holders and transfer the film to the tube system).

    Economics - the is no question that home processed monochrome will be less expensive than commercially processed. The issue is not quite so clear with E6. In addition to the added initial capital cost of the tube system (either BTZS, Unicolor/Beseler, or Jobo), there is the cost of the chemistry.

    Monochrome chemistry can be purchased as liquid concentrates that are diluted for one-shot use, and the concentrates have a very long shlf life. E6 chemicals come as liquid concentrates that are diluted to working strength solutions. These working strength solutions have a finite amount of reuse capability, and a very limited shelf life - typically, they don't last much more than 30 days from the time when the concentrates are diluted and the first batch of film goes through the chemicals. Furthermore, it is necessary to adjust development times for the second of third batches of film run through one set of chemicals. This latter point is a potential quality issue, but should not be a problem if you carefully calibrate your development times.

    So the real economic issue with E6 relates to the volume of film that you will be processing. If you shoot enough to be able to exhaust each batch of chemicals fairly quickly, then my experience is that it can be economically attractive. But if your shooting rate is sporadic, and you end up dumping partially-used chemicals that have become exhausted through aging, then the economic equation changes dramatically.

    Finally, there is the matter of convenience. With commercial processing, the turnaround time is determined by the operating hours of the lab, the volume that they have (not all labs have continuous E6 lines), and where the lab is located relative to your location. If you do the processing yourself, you aren't limited by those constraints. Several years ago, I undertook an architectureal assignment in which I shot in the morning, went home to process my film and have a sandwich, and after reviewing the results, went back to the site to rephotograph that afternoon. If I had been using a commercial lab, I would have had at least a week of delay waiting for processing.

  4. #4

    Should I home process?

    There's an article right here on the home page of this site about processing film in Unicolor print drums, with full instructions on how to do E6 properly with this setup. E6 at home is easy, and you can get results at least as good as a pro lab (without getting those nice grab marks on the corners of your film).

    E6 is never really cheap, but it is cheaper at home than at a lab. With a little patience you can get the Unicolor base and print drum for under US$30 (I got mine for US$25 in excellent condition, with no leaking seals). Processing sheet film in one of these is a dream.

    Regarding the piece that keeps the film from overlapping: I've found that a short piece of stiff plastic tubing, with a slit cut in the side so you can spread it open to mount it, works perfectly. I paid about a buck for enough tubing to get me about 100 of these separators. It takes about 1 minute with a saw to make a piece of the tubing into an effective film separator, and they last forever.

  5. #5

    Join Date
    Mar 2004
    San Francisco

    Should I home process?


    I'm having a hard time resolving these two comments:

    >> I'm starting to feel inhibited by the cost and inconvinience of taking my film to a professional lab...

    >>Cost should not be a factor, I'm looking for optimum control over the quality of my work.

    Which is more important, inconvenience or quality? Is or isn't cost important? Is the lab's work unacceptable?

    I also take my stuff to a lab, and have been thinking about these same issues, though only for b&w. For me the lab is a convenience, not an inconvenience (directly on my commute, good enough turnaround), and their work is better than what I could do at home (no dust! ever!). There are certain things that they won't do, that I can do at home (like develop 12x20 film), and sometimes the results are disappointing, but generally because of insufficient specification on my part. For me it still works out best to work with them, as I take no joy in darkroom work, and would rather pay them to do a better job.

    In the coming years, with the contraction of the film industry, I expect to reach the inconvenience tipping point, and start processing at home. For now there are other things I'd rather spend my time and energy on.

  6. #6

    Should I home process?

    I started 4x5 last year and do both B&W and E-6 in a Combi-Plan tank (about $88) with temp control no more than a large tub of water at 100F to bring everything to temp.

    The down-side of the Combi is that it requires 1L of solution (I use 2x Agfa "Process 44" 500mL kits) and can process up to 6 sheets at a time. With the chemicals stored in full glass bottles, I have run solution beyond 90 days with no noticable effects.

    Considering that the E-6 chemistry is not cheap, I usually stock concentrate and don't mix until I can make maximum use of the working set.

    There is no convenient photolab in my area but, considering the results I get with home processing, I don't think I'd use a lab anyway!

    As was said, B&W is a "no-brainer". The chemicals are cheap, have a LONG shelf life, and give you LOTS of control over the final product.

    There's also a "satisfaction factor" in home-grown negatives and trannies!

  7. #7

    Join Date
    Jan 2001

    Should I home process?

    Three questions to ask yourself: 1) Is there any problem with my present lab, 2) what is my own time worth to me, 3) would it be something that I would enjoy doing, or would it just be one more chore and decrease the amount of shooting that I would do?
    Wilhelm (Sarasota)

  8. #8
    Daniel Geiger

    Should I home process?

    Bill's statement is to the point. particularly 2.
    Also consider where the waste goes. It does pile up, and down-the-drain is not an acceptable solution, particularly with color chemicals.
    I did a bunch of 35 mm E6 with the Beseler kit. At the time I thought I had it under control, and as a grad-student saved a few bucks. But with 20-20 hindsight I should have left it to a larger lab. The smaller batch sizes of liquid are much more subject to minor changes, however well you try to control the parameters. Simply by virtue of having larger batches of chemicals, a decent larger lab will get more consistent results. There is more chemical "inertia" or buffer capacity in a larger batch.

    For B&W you can get much more control over the image, but unless you want to do some funky experimental color development, then the only thing that counts is consistency. I'd look at color home processing as a way to test your equipment/technique whether you are in the right ballpark, like a polaroid. But once you are in the right ballpark, have a quality lab develop all color work.

    my 2c Daniel

  9. #9
    Stephen Willard's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jun 2002
    Fort Collins, Colorado

    Should I home process?

    I started out using the JOBO CPP processor with the lift and timer. I also use the 3000 JOBO drums for processing my film. I do only C41 color negative film. I have benched mark my results against professional labs and found that my stuff was better. The 3000 drums provide the most uniform processing method for sheet film available. No other method is better. The color fidelity also appeared to be better. I believe this is because the JOBO system uses a fresh one-shot of chemistry for each batch.

    When I photograph a gray card out of focus with the entire gray card in the frame I will get a 1/6 stop variation over a 4x5 sheet. With commercial labs the average is around 1/2 to 1 stop variation.

  10. #10

    Join Date
    Sep 2003

    Should I home process?

    There is BIG MONEY to be saved doing E& and C41 yourself, as long as You choose a economical tank-type, i.e. a rotating type tank preferably (the square tanks uses MUCH more chemistry, and re-using chemistry is a bit dangerous with E6 as the first developer get VERY EASY contaminated) . I have done E6 4"x5" (as well as all the other formats I use incl. 35mm and 120) for about 20 years, using JOBO the last 15. Using 5 or 15 litres (3 gallon) E6 sets. The 5 litres 3-bath E6 set by Tetenal or JOBO does up to 200 sheets of 4"x5" making processing cost less than 5 norwegian = 35 cent US $$. However, to make the most of the chemistry, the JOBO or similar economical tank type ic necessary. The cost of the E6 chemistry ($$ 150 for one 5 litre set, Norwegian price) makes it a bit "dumb" to buy anything but the most enconomical tank (processor), as You earn in any difference rather rapidly - after that pure benifit. Tha BZT tubes is supposedly very efficient, but I have never used them - living in the lazy land of a JOBO ATL auto-processor .

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