A Diary

The meandering adventures of a time-traveling photographer

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by Denise Ross 

Happy New Year!

January 3, 2016

What a packed six weeks of the sublime and the ridiculous. Three holidays, epic rain with all the work that entails, and jury duty with a four day trial. There wasn't much time for photography, but I did manage to squeeze a bit in. I haven't had time yet to organize it, but with luck it will roll off the presses in the next couple of weeks — hopefully accompanied by new work.

One major accomplishment (for me) is the addition of a "Photo Album" section. I really need something to organize my pics. It's too easy to lose the photography aspect of all this. For me, the research is first and foremost, but if there isn't at least a little photography at the end of the day, I'm not sure I'd understand the how and the why of the research (or have near as much fun!). The photo album will be a classic work-in-progress, with little other purpose than to help me see where I've been and where I might be going. So far, I've only worked on the 35mm gallery, and I plan on more gallery categories. As with the rest of all this, I am happy to share the journey with anyone who might be interested.

[Some tablets may require an app to show the Zenfolio slideshow perfectly. If you aren't crazy about apps (and I'm not) you might try instead "request desktop site."]

On the few sunny days we had, I managed to still do a bit of handheld 35mm photography. On the one gray, but not actually raining day, I capitulated to a tripod with 35mm so it didn't matter if a very slow emulsion was in my Pentax MX. 'AmBr-O' is so fine-grained and smooth, even a cropped tiny negative looks nice. As long as I had to use a tripod, I could have gone out with a larger camera, but I'm a bit fixated on 35mm at the moment. It's just too easy and fun to always have a camera in my purse!

Autochrome — episode 2

January 9, 2016

Good news and not so good news. Always first, the good news: reversal processing with potassium dichromate and sulfuric acid bleach works perfectly, but I'll save the details for episode 3. The not so good news is that after a ridiculous amount of screen adhesive testing, I found out Wednesday that the almost perfect material I had settled on has been discontinued. It's back to square one on that front, but at least some good info came from it. I hope. I haven't decided whether Rubik's Cube or Jenga is the better metaphor for autochrome color theory! Or, maybe it's that game where you are supposed to follow the ball as three overturned cups are whipped around on a table.

The puzzle and the trick with autochrome screens is that they have two jobs to perform. First, each of the colors must be an appropriate filter for either blue, green, or red color separation — probably best known to contemporary photographers as the "channels" in Photoshop. Then, after the negative is exposed and processed to be a positive image (reversal processing), the three colors must harmonize to form an acceptable color image. The fact that an autochrome has a distinctive color cast that's "not quite right" (in a gorgeous way!) is because of the deal with the devil between the two requirements.

The challenge doesn't end there. The "filters" (colored starch grains) must be balanced for the spectral sensitivity of the emulsion, and every emulsion is a bit different. Not each individual batch, of course, but carefully and consistently made 'AmBr-pan' and 'X2Ag-pan', for example, will have slightly different screening requirements.

It's important to note here that "consistent" does not require automation of any kind. I very much believe that automation is actually quite hazardous to becoming intuitively proficient at emulsion making. Without the feedback that can only come from hands-on and hands-in experience, we are reduced to "paint-by-number", or perhaps a better analogy — dumping a package of bread mix in a bread machine. But I digress, and risk the greatest of all blogging sins: too many words!

With a non-integrated tri-pack, i.e., three separate negatives rather than three or more emulsions coated on one piece of film, it is perfectly satisfactory to use a sheet of colorblind (a.k.a. "blue sensitive") film for the blue layer, a sheet of ortho for the green layer, and finally a sheet of panchromatic for the red layer. An even earlier version, the bi-pack, used only colorblind and ortho. Because of its limited palette, it was used primarily for portraits, where it did a surprisingly beautiful job. But, making an autochrome requires one piece of panchromatic film.

The three images on the left are 'AmBr-pan' negatives exposed through red, green, and blue (top to bottom) commercial tri-color separation filters.

Another digression: about panchromatic film. Panchromatic sensitization is a largely misunderstood topic. There isn't such a thing (at least as publicly-held knowledge) as a "panchromatic sensitizer." No single chemical sensitizes for the entire spectrum.

To make an orthochromatic emulsion, you start with a basic ("colorblind"/"blue-sensitive") non-sensitized emulsion. Sensitivity to UV and blue-violet to blue-green light is inherent to the silver halide (usually a combination of bromide and iodide). Adding a sensitizer for green-to-yellow light turns it into an ortho emulsion. Adding an additional sensitizer for orange-to-red light makes the ortho emulsion panchromatic. The precise sensitizers used influence the sensitivity range and spikes within that range. That is the reason there are so many commercial films and why they each include their own, unique technical data sheets with spectral sensitivity curves.

'AmBr-pan' is 'AmBr-O' that has been dip bath-sensitized in pinacyanol chloride. See here for more info. On the left above is a positive of an'AmBr-pan' negative exposed without a filter. Above right is a positive of 'AmBr-pan' exposed with a Y8 (medium yellow) filter.

Left: A digital camera file of the color chart converted to black and white in Photoshop. Except for the decreased sensitivity to blue, the converted file is very similar to 'AmBr-pan' exposed without a filter. It's also boring! The extra snap from adding a filter to panchromatic film is the reason it is so often exposed with a medium yellow or yellow-green filter (although many modern commercial panchromatic emulsions are formulated to reduce the need for a yellow filter).

Now, try to keep your eye on the cup with the ball. I know I'm having trouble. It's a puzzle. It's complex. This is where I've learned to take a breath and remember I don't have to understand it all today. Trial and error (lots of error!), data collection, and literature searches are all part of the fun of science and art. I don't want to buy a paint-by-number kit. (Well, sometimes I'm tempted!)

Left: Screened ortho film, exposed and processed as a standard negative, and a crop of the same negative. This test was primarily to see if the marine spar varnish I bought would work. It does. No matter the new screen adhesive I find, it will be part of the kit. More on that in episode 3.

If the screen had no influence on exposure, then the negative would look exactly like ortho film exposed without a filter (below left). If the screen were only yellow, it would have exposed like below right. Since it is somewhere in between, something in between is going on. The varnish may be exerting an influence. It has a faintly warm color, and I'm sure it supplies UV "protection." Questions for the next round of tests.

The blotches on the screened negative are from air bubbles trapped by the adhesive sheet. They are almost invisible in real life, but really pop in the scan. They make losing this material a bit less painful!

The Square Frame Challenge — Rolleiflex TLR

January 14, 2016

I've had my Rolleiflex for 30 years. I bought it from a retired Chicago newspaper photographer and he'd had the camera for at least 20 years. I used it off and on for several years and then let it sit. I pulled it out of storage and had it serviced when I started making emulsions and I keep film in it, but I rarely reach for it. It's a wonderful camera — classic and classy, and just fun to have out and about. Unfortunately, all that doesn't change the fact that a square format doesn't seem to "speak" to me. Even 4x5 and 8x10 are a bit too square. Little I see seems to fit comfortably in a square.

This past weekend the rain broke for a day and I decided it was high time to use up the film in the Rollei. The plan was to go for a hike up into an old growth forest above Cape Perpetua and photograph alder stands before the spring leaf-out. I had 'AmBr-O' in the camera and it's perfect for dark, gloomy days or places. Its inherently higher contrast and fine grain add the snap so often needed in low contrast situations.

What I hadn't counted on was a perfect day to be on the beach! The high tide and surf were producing a tremendous show at Cape Perpetua. The sun was warm and the wind was almost non-existent. Perfect. (And we deserved it. The weather this winter has been abominable.) I wished I hadn't changed my mind about taking the Baby Graphic and 'X2Ag' with me. Sheet film would have given me more exposure and development options, and the 'AmBr' family of emulsions isn't the best choice for high contrast situations. If I had exposed enough for good detail in the shadows and wet rocks, the surf would have been totally blown out. I decided to expose for the water and let the shadows fall away. At ISO 6 (up from winter's default ISO 3 because it's the ocean) and f/8, most exposures were 1/5 sec. A plus for 'AmBr' is that it's able to preserve the delicacy of high values.

The negatives are thin. They would not be easy to traditionally enlarge, but film scanners catch everything there is to catch (bless 'em!). Catching the timing of the waves was the real challenge. I made four exposures at three different spots and picked the best from each lot. In all of the exposures, I used a telephoto attachment. It's responsible for the vignetting and softening in the corners.

Below: Same tide pool, moments apart. I don't know which of these I like better. Neither is worth much, but I think perhaps each is stronger with the other. It doesn't actually matter in the least. It was a magnificent day to be at the beach with a camera.

Autochrome — episode 3

January 23, 2016

Well, that turned out to be easier than I expected! I think I've got a new screen adhesive material I love. Time will tell the final tale, of course — it still has to hold up to processing — but it takes the starch grains evenly and has enough "open time" (time that the adhesive stays sticky) to get the colored starch on and flattened in, followed by the lamp black.

A few quick thoughts and factoids about autochromes:

Autochromes were made with colored potato starch. It could actually be that potato starch is the best starch. It takes dye well and is basically transparent. About a third of the grains are just the right size to act as individual filters for individual grains of silver gelatin emulsion, assuming a normal range of emulsion grain sizes. Potato starch is readily available and inexpensive, and for some reason, it isn't particularly messy to work with.

It also could be that the Lumiere brothers used potato starch because it was especially available to them, along with a potato expert. They were lucky enough to be friends with a prominent potato dextrin manufacturer named Francisque Demure. It was Demure who developed the procedure to the exact right size starch granules. Potato starch comes naturally in three general sizes, ranging from 5 to 50 or so microns. It's the smaller end of the middle range that works best for autochrome emulsions — 11 to 15 microns.
Not too big. Not too small.

The potato starch I dyed shows the range of granule sizes. The separation process is not something I'd love to tackle, so I'm hoping that tapioca starch will work as well. It naturally comes in an average of 16 microns. I tried rice, which is an even better fit for size, but it doesn't dye at all. After the dye dries, it floats off in a really annoying colored dust. Dyeing tapioca is my next play date. I've got my fingers crossed that if the Brothers Lumiere had been friends with a tapioca dealer, autochromes might just as well have been made with tapioca starch!

A piece of autochrome screen looks exactly like gray suede. The different colors are indistinguishable to the naked eye. The crop of the screen in the upper left is 0.3 x 0.5 inches.

For my first experiments, I mixed in yellow, blue, and magenta, in addition to orange, green, and purple (the traditional autochrome screen colors.) For one thing, I wanted to see what all the colors look like. Also, just because Auguste and Louis used three colors doesn't mean I have to. I don't know if orange, green, and purple will work best with my emulsion, and I don't know if the Lumineres made their choices based on the financial realities of commercial production — something that doesn't influence my artistic choices in the least.

One last step in screen making is vital, regardless the type of starch, or choice of colors — filling the interstitial spaces between the starch granules with lampblack. Without it, white light gets through the spaces and basically obliterates the color. The piece of screening shown in "episode 2" has identically colored and spaced starch, but it doesn't have the lampblack step. The colors are desaturated to the point of near invisibility.

Much work. Much fun! To be continued...

35mm — the nuts and the bolts (or is it soup?)

February 6, 2016

High time to get this written down. The summer months are soon upon us and after a rainy and windy housebound winter I suspect it will be very hard to sit inside typing! I feel myself pulling away from computers and the internet anyway. I wonder how many other people feel that way. It could be that forums and social media (fun and satisfying though they often are) have seen their heyday.

Speaking of social media: If you're on Facebook, and haven't already seen the fun goings-on at Eastman Museum, you really should check it out. Photography workshop instructors Mark Osterman and Nick Brandreth have been renovating some emulsion-related lab bench-scale gizmos. I believe they have made work a 35mm film perforator, a slitter to cut wide strips of emulsion down to film width, and a coating machine. Very cool! But, if you are familiar with my philosophy, you know where I'm going next (with apologies for being predictable :-).

Machinery is NOT necessary to emulsion making. In fact, it's a complicator. I'll make an analogy to cooking. Say you want to shred a few carrots. You could take out a food processor and put it together and shred the carrots. Then, you have to take apart the food processor and clean all the parts. When you do this, you notice how much carrot was wasted. Or, you pull a small hand grater out of the drawer, grate the carrots, scrape the clingy carrot bits into the bowl and then rinse the grater. You're done before you could have even started using the food processor. If you didn't know about hand graters, you'd probably make fewer carrot cakes. You might even think carrot cake could only be made by professionals with a commercial kitchen full of expensive, specialized equipment. You'd probably eat fewer carrot cakes (not necessarily a bad thing, so I'd better exit this analogy!)

All this is obvious, of course. The trouble happens when people believe that machinery is necessary. This plays straight into the mythology that film and paper come from factories — and only factories. I hope I see the day when this myth dies. I know I'm trying, but it will take other people dropping the obvious into conversations whenever possible. While you are cheering the very real coolness of Eastman Museum, please mention "real people" handmade work, and if you could link to The Light Farm, I would greatly appreciate it. But enough of that.

35mm film has a row of holes (perforations) along both edges of the film. These sprocket holes are sized and spaced to fit the film sprockets inside the camera. It's the sprocket wheel that moves the film along. The perforations are necessary to advance the film. None of us are going to own a film perforator, so what's to be done? Use commercial 35mm film in the same way as 120 film uses backing paper. It can be used over and over again. I've been running a lot of handmade 35mm through my cameras since last summer and I'm still using the same pieces of commercial film. See some here. All of this is incredibly economical. I get 25 rolls of 12-14 exposures from one batch of 'X2Ag' emulsion.

I started by using expired BW film I had in the refrigerator: TRI-X and TMax 100. Fortunately, I futzed around with so many poor designs as I was figuring things out that I used up the old film I had. "Fortunate" because I found a better type, in a film I'd probably never buy otherwise. I bought the cheapest film I could find: Kodak UltraMax 400, 36 exposures. The base is thin and one roll is the perfect length for two rolls of handmade film. Rather than trying to reuse the original metal canisters, I've had excellent results with Kalt 35mm cassettes for bulk film. B&H Photo Video has them.

If you're not planning to reuse the metal canisters, a bottle opener will get a ring off so that you can remove the spool. If you do want to reuse the canisters, you'll be better off with the tool that's meant for the job (film cassette opener). Be gentle and careful so that you don't bend the ring. It has to be in good shape to reuse the canister. You can do this in the light. Metal or plastic, be careful with the felt strips on the canisters. If they pick up dust, you'll end up with scratches along the entire length of film.

Step by Step

Remove commercial film from its canister and spool and cut off the leader on one end and any roughness on the other (spool) end. Make the cuts at clean right angles to the long edges of the film. Cut the roll exactly in half.

Stretch one of the pieces out flat with the emulsion (dull) side down. Secure each end with a clamp. Take a seven-inch long piece of ¾-inch wide tape and make a 3-inch tab along the bottom end of the right side of the roll of film by sticking ½-inch of the tape to the film and then doubling it back on itself to stick to the other side. This is the new film leader.


Flip the roll over so that the emulsion side is up and the leader is on the left. The orientation is important.

To remove the spool from a reusable film canister, unscrew the plastic ring on the knob end and pull out the spool.

Tape the spool to the end of the roll (opposite the leader) so that the knob end is down (on the same edge as the leader).

The roll is ready to be loaded or rolled loosely until needed.

Coat your film with a 5-inch puddle pusher. There's information here and more information, including the 'X2Ag' recipe, in the Light Farm book.

The 35mm rolls are cut with the same general method as 120 roll film, but of course there are a lot more of them! The cutting guides are strips of glass. I had my favorite glass guys cut and smooth them. They are 36 inches long by an ⅛-inch thick, and 22-23 mm wide. I handle them carefully, but the ⅛-inch glass is pretty sturdy. I haven't broken one yet, and I'm an infamous klutz.

Line up the glass strips on the sheet of film (newsprint here for the purposes of illustration) on a cutting surface elevated a bit so that you can clamp the top and bottom of the first strip. That's the only one that needs to be clamped. Then, use a sharp X-acto type blade and cut smoothly down the length of the most right-hand strip of glass. You'll have removed the selvedge from the first roll of film. Remove the first glass strip and set it aside. Cut down the length of the second strip of glass and the first roll is done. Keep cutting and removing glass strips until you come to the last. That cut will remove the selvedge of the last roll you can cut from the sheet. The strips of film will spring into loose rolls when you cut them free. Carefully store them in a lightproof paper safe, or similar. If you store them with a cut edge down, the emulsion won't get scratched.

The roll of backing film is about 30 inches long. You can load it with strips of emulsion that length, or shorter. The same piece of master backing film can be used for any length of emulsion. It's the beauty of the system. It's very accommodating to the length of film you are able to successfully coat, or you wish to load in your camera. Sometimes a few exposures is all you need for a day.


Align the strip of emulsion so that it fits between the sprocket holes and is right up tight to the spool, but not caught in the tape holding the spool to the backing film. Start winding tightly, keeping the emulsion between the sprocket holes. When you come to the end of the emulsion, secure it with a small piece of tape. Don't cover any sprocket holes.

Keeping one hand firmly on the rolled spool so that it doesn't unwind, turn the assembly over and place another small piece of tape on the backing film, opposite where you secured the emulsion. (The clothes pin in the above illustration is just there to stand in for my "firm hand" while I paused to take the picture.)

Continue to roll the film until you get to the beginning of the leader. Hold the canister so that the felted opening is on the right. Carefully slide the roll of film into the canister so that the knob is on the bottom. Replace the retaining ring until you are ready to load the film into your camera.


Needless to say, the whole operation until now has been in safelight conditions — amber or red for colorblind film; red for ortho.


(Again, safelight conditions — the one difference from commercial film — unless you are willing to sacrifice a couple of frames of emulsion.)

Start your tape leader just as you would the original film leader. Advance the film until the piece of tape matching the emulsion-securing tape is almost past the exposure window of the camera. Close the back. Make one advance to be sure the uptake is working and then start photo'ing. Do not first advance the film until you get to #1 on the counter dial. Shoot until the film stops. Because you loaded the emulsion right up to the end of the spool, you know that the last exposure you made is a good one.


This I did not know. Before I started on my little film adventure, I'd only owned a Pentax MX. I used to love that little camera. (Still do!) But, since it was the only 35mm I'd ever loaded, I didn't give it much thought that there is only a floating pressure plate on the inside of the door. I was getting very sporatic luck with keeping the film pressed onto the sprockets. Every other roll or so the sprocket holes would disengage from the sprockets and then the film would no longer advance.

The solution (after an embarrassing number of fails) turned out to be simple. I have attached a roll of plasticized paper to the back between the pressure plate and the hinge. For the MX, getting the size just right is important. I used a backing sheet that comes in each package of Pictoric OHP. It works perfectly, and although I'm sure there are other perfectly good materials, I can't make any firsthand recommendations.

Start with a sheet of the plasticized printing backing paper that comes in each package of Pictorico OHP. Make the first fold at ¾-inch from the edge. Crease the fold with a butter knife (or similar). Make the next fold over the first. Crease again, and repeat until you've made six creased folds. The roll will be almost an inch wide after all the folds. Cut off a 1-¼-inch piece. Now, take two 1-inch pieces of double-sided adhesive tape and put one piece on the bottom (when looking at your piece in the orientation of the illustration here) and the other piece on the inside of the next fold. The bottom piece will secure the roll to the camera and the one inside piece keeps the roll from unrolling, but still lets it be springy.

The new "springy roll" lines up along the outside of the pressure plate, but not under it. It stays in place as long as you are using the camera with handmade film.

But speaking of variations: many cameras don't need the help. The Canon F-1 has its own film roll "manager." It has worked perfectly every time I've used it. That hasn't been often, however. The camera is as heavy as a tank — not what I (personally) want for a "go everywhere in my purse" camera. I just got a Nikon F and I haven't used it yet. Its pressure plate helper is a single bar and lower than the pressure plate. I suspect that it will need a bit of extra help to hold the sprocket holes in place.

All negatives below are 'X2Ag' orthochromatic run-salt emulsion, ISO 25-125, depending on the season, the latitude, and the weather.

Autochrome Update

July 22, 2016

This is a long time overdue, but I've been in denial that I'm done trying to fit autochrome into my life. It can be done — has been done: http://shop.getty.edu/products/the-lumiere-autochrome-history-technology-and-preservation-978-1606061251 — but not by me. Here's the story:

Mess. Yup. That's all there is to the story. Well, a very hazardous mess. As you might guess from my last autochrome post, all was going swimmingly with my project. I found all, except one, of the dyes specified by Lavedrine and Gandolfo. And, of course, the emulsion is no problem. I dyed tapioca starch rather than potato starch because the size of the particles fit the process without the filtering step required for potato. And, unlike with rice starch, the tapioca takes the dyes beautifully. I found a material to adhere a single layer of starch and lampblack to film and a material to protect the dyed layer from processing.

The only problem is in the unavoidable nature of the starch and the lampblack — dust. It's not ordinary dust. It's dust that has a life of its own; more a film than dust. I'm sure it qualifies as a nanoparticle material. No matter how hard I tried to contain it while I was making it and using it, it traveled. It traveled through the whole house. It traveled into my lungs (and I wore a high quality dust mask). I got bronchitis. To say that my appalled husband protested is an understatement, and he is the most accommodating and supportive partner an artist could ask for. After I recovered, I cleaned house for week. Still, there was a film of colored dust in corners and on screens on the other end of the house from my studio for weeks afterward.

It was obvious that if I were going to continue with autochromes, it would need to be in a separate structure, with climate control and HEPA air filtration. This is not a viable option for me.

Let me end with encouragement for anyone who wants to make this a life's priority. The Lavedrine/Gandolfo book is beyond excellent. Everything needed is there. The Light Farm book will teach you precisely how to make an emulsion. I hope that someone makes the medium their own.

August 11, 2016: For the sake of simplicity and organization, I'm closing out this journal, and starting a new one — The Clan of the Velveteen Rabbit. The Clan journal will be specifically dedicated to research and testing of Volume 2 of The Light Farm book series. I hope you join me there.

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