photokina Special Coverage; Silver Halide Photography: Films, Papers, Chemicals, Darkroom, And More

Walking through some of the halls at photokina, you could be forgiven for thinking digital photography has taken over. But look again and you can find plenty of silver halide waiting to be discovered: new films, chemicals and papers, updated enlargers, a new cold light source, and a new archival washer. Old friends, companies like Paterson Photographic, Condor, Tetenal, and Hama, weren't showing new products, but they made it clear that they are still committed to producing and distributing all that we need to carry on making traditional silver-based images.

Let's start with new films. Just before photokina Kodak announced new Portra 160 and Portra 400 NC (Natural Color) and VC (Vivid Color) films. This is not just an upgrade of the existing films: there is some really clever new chemistry involved here. One of the advances is referred to as Micro-Structure Optimized T-GRAIN Emulsion. The new films have advanced development accelerators, and the 400 films have a new dye sensitization called Antenna Dye Sensitization. Rather than trying to explain the technicalities, suffice it to say that the new films give finer grain and better color rendition. Not only do they print very well conventionally, they also scan better than their predecessors. They seem, too, to have a much better ability to handle mixed light sources than any other color films I have ever tried.

Fuji introduced the films we saw at PMA to the European market, but what they said is arguably more important than what they did. They consider film to be the paradigm in photography, and all of their digital products are developed with this in mind. Fuji does not simply maintain that digital can equal the sharpness, resolution, and performance of film, though they do see this as an achievable goal. On the other hand, they aren't standing still when it comes to film. Research and development continue. One of the possibilities they showed was a holographic film. This may or may not come to market, but it shows Fuji's commitment to films of all sorts.

Maco had two new films: Rollei Scanfilm CN400 Pro and Rollei Retro 50 Slide Direct. The latter is a monochrome reversal film, while as the name implies the former is an ISO 400 color negative film (C-41 compatible). It has a clear polyester base, but no orange mask. It is said to scan well. It can be used to print conventional color prints, but it can also be printed on normal (non-panchromatic) black and white photographic paper. Gone are the "long exposures" caused by the orange mask, and although there will still be tonal inconsistencies caused by the colored image, they seem to be significantly less than with other more conventional color negative films--though I have yet to try this for myself. It is important to remember, though, that polyester-based films such as this are prone to light piping so they should be loaded in very subdued light, otherwise the first few frames are apt to be blue. The new film is available in 135/24 exposures and 120 roll film.

Maco's Rollei Retro series now includes glass plates. These are coated with an ISO 100 emulsion similar to Agfa APX. Plates offer excellent flatness and potentially superb resolution, but the prices are very high indeed. Twelve 9x12cm plates will cost you 358 euros (approximately $450 or over $35 per plate). The more common 4x5" size should cost about the same, and other sizes are available, though not in ULF (Ultra-Large Format): we specifically asked about 12x15".

Anyone who was committed to Agfa products should look at both Maco's website and Freestyle's website (Agfa distributors in the US). There are still plenty of Agfa products available because Maco bought a great deal of Agfa's production when they went out of business. This goes for chemicals as well as film. Nor will Rodinal disappear: unlike the films, most Agfa chemicals are now back in production by a new company, unrelated to Maco. But then, chemicals are a lot easier to make.

Slow black and white films are increasingly (and to me, inexplicably) popular and Bergger has a new one, an ISO 15 film with extreme acutance and fine grain. At first it is available only in 120 but other sizes will follow. Like many such films, it requires special low-energy developers.

Speaking of uncommon emulsions, if you are interested in such things as Adox Ortho 25, or uncommon sizes such as 127 or 620 roll film or even unusual cut-film sizes, contact JandC Photo in the US. They have good links with many of the smaller manufacturers and import many of the products that are impractical for bigger distributors to handle.

Ilford Harman selenium toner

The fortunes of both Ilford (now Harman Technologies) and Forte have completely turned around since last photokina. And, because Foma had geared themselves up to step into the breach if the other companies went down, they have found their business growing, too. One of the reasons for this is that their US distributor, Freestyle, now carries almost the whole range of Foma papers. Producing for such a big market has concentrated their minds and all aspects of production seem to have improved. All three companies told the same story: times had been very tough, but now all three are growing. Of course the disappearance of both Kodak black and white and Agfa papers are related to this.