One Pop Does All

By ralph

Once upon a time taking a picture meant just one thing – making a black and white negative. If you were ready and something momentous happened, you were highly likely to get the image or even several images, rapid fire. Then life got complicated. By let’s say, 40 years ago, you had to make a choice between color transparencies (slides), color negatives or good old B&W. You could no longer keep your life simple by ignoring the various color processes – in too many situations it was expected or required.

Trying to shoot all three on a given subject is obviously slow and cumbersome although it could work with scenics or still life shots. In fact when I did such subjects, for which I usually used a 4x5 camera, it seemed fairly easy to shuffle between the various materials just by grabbing holders loaded with different film types. For some 120 roll film cameras there is an expensive equivalent – extra film backs holding the various film types. In 35mm, whole interchangeable camera bodies seems to be the only way to do this (and it can get expensive).

Anyway, when the subject is moving or animated, like anything from action to portraits, shooting three times is out of the question. That leads to the long standing quest to find a way to cover all three basic image types with one snap of the shutter.

Even though color slides are routinely and successfully converted into B&W in the publishing field, as well as by darkroom workers everywhere, the conversion to color negative (called internegatives) is usually quite poor. There’s just no way to expand the short range of tones of the slide back to the longer tonal range of a color negative. So the obvious candidate for “One pop does all” pretty much falls to color negatives.

At first color negatives were too poor in quality to be taken seriously. Later on (say the 60’s) the quality improved but they were the slowest act in town. Finally, in the last 15 or so years, the speed caught up and surpassed all other materials with a great big whoosh. Surely, I thought, the golden age of the color negative is finally upon us. Here is one material that has all the information needed to be converted to the other kinds of images. For starters color negatives certainly make spectacularly fine, sharp and colorful prints.

Oddly enough there really has been no technical problem with converting color negatives to the other image renditions at any time in the last 40 years. Materials and processes have existed to do a high class job all through this period. The problem is now, and always has been, the cost of converting each image. The materials themselves cost the same as everyday films. Trouble is it’s like making color prints from negatives. The piece of paper might cost 35 cents but the value of time spent “testing” could be worth a fortune – and when a lab does it you get charged plenty.

Many times over the of years I found that I needed a “chrome” (slide) but only had a color negative. Since I had a darkroom I could reduce the cost of making the conversion by exposing the film at home and sending it to a lab just for processing. It would always take a few tests but an excellent “chrome” usually resulted. The material used in the last 10-15 years has been called Vericolor Print Film Type 4111 (which, unfortunately may be discontinued) --- or if you’re converting a negative to a 35mm slide it’s Type So-279 (Kodak). The first time I tried doing this was in the 1960s; the material was equivalent then though it probably had a different name. I had shot a power plant near Salt Lake City at night in such dim light that it wouldn’t stir the needle of a light meter. So I cooked the color negative for over 10 minutes just to get something on it. Obviously I couldn’t even begin to figure how to shoot color transparencies – both for exposure and color balance. The negative just barely had enough density, but I printed quite good positive “chromes” from it and they went on to
be
come good selling stock photos.

A few years later I wanted to shoot pix of a woman shopping in a supermarket. I figured I had to use the bright, ubiquitous, fluorescent lighting because I could neither overwhelm it with other lights, nor could I supplement it because its color was such an unknown. Again, color negative came to the rescue. Only one pop was needed per shot which was later printed to positives, giving me the chance to correct the questionable light to perfect color balance.

Later on I took shots at the Philadelphia Flower Show. Being advised that the lighting was pure chaos I shot everything on 120 vericolor negatives. Again, with enough testing, I was able to produce clean, perfect transparencies. Then there was a commercial job I did purely on color negative film, of activities in a retirement community. Only later did I realize the images had potential for publication, so once again I “printed” them to sharp and colorful chromes.

But color negative falls flat in some applications, such as making B&W prints. You might think this would be a cinch but it isn’t. If you use the “proper” paper like Panalure (you need a panchromatic paper to properly render all the tones of the various colors) you have to work in the dark. That means you can spend an hour getting prints that are too dark or too light because you missed the right moment to pull them out of the developer. Also, panalure prints just don’t seem quite sharp. A much easier way is to use a multigrade type paper at fairly high contrast with a fairly heavy exposure. Sharpness and contrast can be excellent but occasionally the erroneous rendition of color can be annoying (people’s eyes often look funny). There was a spectacularly missed opportunity in recent years when many west coast labs were offering respooled movie film negative stocks at low prices bundled with their own processing which included printing the negatives to slides, all at a low price. What a crossover bonanza it could have been but the slides were always lousy and the prints just fair. That led users to conclude that the films were either poor or unsuitable. In fact, the films were excellent, even ahead of their time for speed and grain, but the lab work was sloppy in the extreme. Imagine – all the slides got the same exposure – a short cut that the worst lab wouldn’t dare try for the cheapest paper prints. What’s worse, the single exposure seemed to favor underexposed negatives – it probably let the machines run faster.

The negative-positive landscape gets altered a lot when you get into digital photography. The “native” output of a digital camera is positive, like a slide, and slides are also the best starting point for scanning film to digital. Most scanners are better set up for slides than for negatives yielding greater accuracy and control. The positive images also print directly to excellent paper prints. This somewhat obviates the need for a negative at all. In darkroom work negatives easily make superior prints, both in cost and accuracy. But when fed into a scanner the uncertainties of color profiles can lead to weird, hard-to-correct color. Despite the huge potential of all that color information and long tonal scale this uncertainty of results still seems to stand in the way of “the golden age of color negative”. There may be hope for a major change. Scanner makers are now acknowledging their long-standing neglect of color negative profiling. Some of the newest scanner software has hugely expanded this area and promises high quality negative color. There may be hope after all.

The digital color images can be easily printed to sharp and snappy B&W by using desaturate (not grayscale). It is a more dependable process than making B&W from Color negs in the darkroom.

Oh yes, just to round out the picture, it is possible for labs to generate high quality color negatives from your digital files ( should you want to try them in the darkroom after all) just as they can generate new slides from files, but neither process is
cheap
. This does round out three-way convertibility in the digital domain. All of this suggests that in the digital realm slides are the best “one pop”

Obviously color negative images have the greatest potential to be the universal “one pop does all” but practical problems like the cost of conversion processes has dimmed the promise. Still I’ve used them as back up or insurance whenever possible and they’ve saved the day (or job) for me countless times.

I haven’t mentioned format size when discussing exposing negatives to print film or vice- versa. For complicated reasons related to the laws of optics, there is always some loss of sharpness when going from 35mm to 35mm (although doing it by contact printing could be much better). I’ve generally enlarged 35mm to 4x5in and suffered almost no loss of quality. This may not be available to most people but many photographers have 2 ¼” capability, so enlarging to that size would be almost as good. If you can’t figure out how to handle the rollfilm under an enlarger, try buying a box of 4x5 film, and exposing individual sheets of it in (cheap) 4x5 film holders. Just keep the image size to 2 ¼” and scissor the film down to the right size when dry.

Finally, let me say Hats Off to the digital folks for coming up with the neat term grayscale while us film guys have been spluttering along with clumsy old Black and White for a century and a half. I think it’s about time for a change.