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4x5 Negs - the heart of a business system

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Old 05-24-2002, 12:15 PM
Jim Conway's Avatar
Jim Conway Jim Conway is offline
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4x5 Negs - the heart of a business system

I've been asked to comment on 4x5 negatives. It's such a broad topic from both the technical and business standpoint that I'll just start with a few things and respond if there are questions.

We offer them as the "heart" of our business because it's my idea of a "best of the options" for a photo preservation system. This is not to start a controversy! As there is no specific place here for "traditional" work where everyone would agree with me - and I'm totally outnumbered by digital advocates - it's just the way I do things and here are just a few of my reasons;

FREEZING TIME - a good copy negative stops the clock on deterioration. You can give the customer several hundred years to get the rest of the work done. That time span is, of course, not etched in stone either, but I do use "silver lock", a system from RIT that in essence amounts to selenium toning. You can learn a lot more about that from RIT.

HUMAN READABLE - A true preservation system has to be able to be seen without the aid of a machine of any kind. Hugh Downs did a great radio talk on this. I've got the transcript and the OK to publish it so may do that someday. 4x5 negatives not only fit that criteria, by virtue of being in use for nearly all of the history of photography, they have become a de facto standard in the "size" compromises. In my opinion, that means there will be no problems at all for anyone who wants to get one printed in the year 2210.

FILM SELECTION - with roll film it's a "one size fits all" copy process - but all originals are not the same! You need a film that does the best job of isolating the image from the sub and that is different in every case. Good books are available from Kodak on this so I'm not going to write one here - the films I use on a daily basis are Plus X, TMax 100, Pro Copy and Tech Pan. It's also very fast and easy to retouch the negatives with graphite or dyes to correct minor flaws.

SIMPLICITY - An MP4 type copy camera (lots of them are available today for less than $300 on Ebay) can cover any size original from a looking down the barrel of a microscope to doing 30x40's with no trouble at all. As many of you know I did invest a lot in digital equipment in the past year and have found that scanners are just not suitable for the variety of work we get in our daily orders. Even with the sizes that do work well, they are very very slow compared to shooting and processing a batch of 4x5 film. I find that making the negative first and using that to scan if or when I want to use the computer for retouching gives me the simplicity I need to get the job done without a lot of experimenting or miscues.

DATA STORAGE - 4x5's can be printed to 20x30's without batting an eye. I personally have several thousand stock negatives in my files. They are stored on hanging files in a few file drawers in a fire safe. I don't want to estimate how many hard drives or CD's it might take to duplicate that if you (an important if) - want to house big enough data files to give the same results in the final printing size options..

Your turn Tom! :-)
Jim Conway
Timemark Photo Conservators
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Old 05-24-2002, 12:51 PM
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G. Couch G. Couch is offline
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Jim - I'm in no way qualified to give an opinion on this, but I would agree with you that a 4x5 neg is still the best way to preserve an image but at some point soon, I think digital is going to replace it as the "heart" of the business. (that's not to say it's a good thing!)

The only reason I say this is because so much of the "workflow" is becoming digital, that it makes economic sense for a lab to switch over to an all digital system. I think the future "heart" of a business is going to be a digital back camera. The lab I used to work for made the switch to digital back cameras because so much of the rest of the business had gone digital. It made more sense to shoot with a digital camera and send it directly to the Lightjet...it saved time and money.

Storage capabilities are quickly improving (double density DVDs, etc..) but as you point out, who's to say anyone will be able to read a DVD in 100 years. That is one of the distinct advantages a 4x5 neg has over digital, but I think in the long run, these issues will get ironed out...digital is still in it's infant stages.
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Old 05-24-2002, 12:53 PM
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How about the Film Transfer devices such as the Lazargraphics units and a few others which have the 4x5 camera backs. It is my understanding that by scanning in a positive, retouching and then transfering to negative you can get somewhat better results as regards clairity etc., than using the standard copy camera.
However, what are the steps you take in making a copy negative from an original positive print? ASA rating of film, type, special lighting etc....and, have you tried scanning in the negatives on some of the newer flatbed scanners which have transparency adapters?
I just finished doing 10 prints, 8x10, from some 4x5 (nominal size) B/W negatives dating from the 1920's and the results were amazingly good...Whats been your experience?
I agree that at the present stage of things, the 4x5 negative provides the best way to archive Historical prints etc., while using digital storage provides for ready access to the information without risking damage to the negative. Digital and traditional really are a complement to each other, each has its strengths and weaknesses, but integrated into a comprehensive business plan can be very compatable. Thanks, Tom
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Old 05-24-2002, 01:44 PM
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Jakaleena Jakaleena is offline
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I agree that a large negative is an excellent way to go.

My goal, at some future point, is to combine digital and traditional restoration methods. Restoring an image (for me anyway) is much easier to do digitally than traditionally. But I prefer a final print that is made on fiber paper. My ultimate hope is that I can restore images on the computer, make an RC print and then copy that print onto a negative. After the fiber print is made, then I could hand color as needed using Marshall's Oils and Prisma Color Pencils. If just straight preservation is needed, then the copy could be shot directly of the original instead of a restored print.

My thought was that I would purchase a 6x7 camera to shoot copy. I'd love to use 4x5, but processing options in my area for that format range from limited to non-existant. I can process 120/220 in a Patterson Tank in a home darkroom much more easily.
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Old 05-24-2002, 01:50 PM
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Doug Nelson Doug Nelson is offline
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4x5 b/w negs are a breeze to hand process...I used to do several a day. The trick is short fingernails and touching only the edges. Use a small tray, agitate by moving bottom neg to top of pile, repeat. The negs get quite slick, so it's easy to keep them separate.
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Old 05-24-2002, 01:54 PM
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Thanks Doug!

I've only ever processed 4x5 in the lab in a big dip & dunk machine. I never realized you could tray process them!
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Old 05-24-2002, 02:01 PM
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Doug Nelson Doug Nelson is offline
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And the Polaroid MP4 cameras are a joy to work with. I used one at a company I worked for, then had to settle for an MP3 when I set out on my own. They are the RollsRoyce battletank of copystands. Jim is right that they are easily available via Ebay, but they're heavy sons'o'guns, so try to find one locally (Ebay has that function). Points to check are condition of bellows and lenses (but both are replaceable).
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Old 05-24-2002, 03:14 PM
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Ed_L Ed_L is offline
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I've processed 4X5's many times the way Doug posted. I've also used 4X5 film holders, and processed them in a small tank. Agitation, in this case, is accomplished by lifting the negs out of the tank, then re-inserting them. Either way is easy enough. If you tray process, make sure you don't have two stuck together when you move the negs from bottom to top. Otherwise, you could get poor processing.

Ed
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Old 05-24-2002, 03:20 PM
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Jim Conway Jim Conway is offline
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{Quote} ...so much of the "workflow" is becoming digital, that it makes economic sense for a lab to switch over to an all digital system. I think the future "heart" of a business is going to be a digital back camera. The lab I used to work for made the switch to digital back cameras because so much of the rest of the business had gone digital. It made more sense to shoot with a digital camera and send it directly to the Lightjet...it saved time and money. {quote}

I'd agree with you if I could meet the rest of my standards - keep in mind that our first objective is preservation rather than saving time and money. I have another problem here as well. I had a very experienced young man come to work with me and leave a month later because we were experiencing some pretty disappointing results with what was coming out of our new digital work station compared with our traditional prints. He left me with this bit of advice; "You are NEVER going to get what you want using a desktop system!!" - If he is right, and the 10K I've invested into the digital system isn't going to cut it, even the idea that digital saves money is suspect. 30K scanners and 12K camera backs are being sold so I have to assume the savings are there or those products wouldn't be salable. It takes a lab that has the volume to afford them however and I don't intend to ever get to that point!

On to the "someday" - perhaps you are right but all new things do not work out well and most are supplanted by even newer and better things within a few decades - ask Polaroid. That hasn't happened to good old 4x5 negatives and it's been well over a century now since George started sell'n the dry ones.

Jim Conway
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Old 05-24-2002, 03:24 PM
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Jim Conway Jim Conway is offline
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Tom my response might be confusing but here goes. In traditional photos you grab your camera and make a negative of some subject or another with zillions of shades and colors. In doing a copy you are taking a shot of a piece of paper or some other lousy print (by comparison to your natural subject) that is lucky to have 120 shades of anything other then the foxing, rust and other flaws that you wish wouldn't come out as strong as the subject matter.

I'm using a converted horizontal process camera along with several MP4's all with critically sharp process lenses. With the combination of that and the films mentioned, you get everything that is in the original like it or not! Steps? Cleaning the originals is more important then anything else I can improve on! In the line of resolution, I'm already exceeding any ability to print out detail by ten fold or more. They just don't make a papers, digital or traditional, that has the power to reproduce everything that is on film.

ASA's? The same type of thing - they really don't apply to copy work. In setting up a system to gets the image from one piece of paper (the original) to the second, film speed is not a material factor. I suppose that working backwards I could give you an ASA but, unlike traditional photography, the film selection is based on matching "contrast controls" to the original print quality. Example; Tintypes need contrast and lots of exposure - go for Tech Pan .. Stains, foxing and other sub flaws? You need low contrast - go for Plus X . Copying a near perfect original for a glossy reprint? - load up the Tmax 100. The uses for ProCopy have been written about so often I won't run that one past you but some don't know that it's just Plus X with no red sensitivity so that's worth a mention.

Your question on scanning in the negatives on some of the newer flatbed scanners which have transparency adapters? I have an add-on adapter on an Epson 1200 and also use an Epson 2450 that doesn't need the adapter. Both produce virtually identical results.

When you say "I just finished doing 10 prints, 8x10, from some 4x5 (nominal size) B/W negatives dating from the 1920's and the results were amazingly good...Whats been your experience? I'm not sure what you mean - I assume you scanned them and printed digital.???

In my case , I would have just printed them in the wet lab with no reason to scan. We use a Cannon VizCam in the showroom so the customers can see negs as positives to simplify the sales (and so I don't have to make up proofs - a task that I hate!!!). I don't mind printing old negatives at all - it's really fun to deliver a really high quality print from them. The customers think it's magic for what was considered entry level work when I started in the business!.

You said that "Digital and traditional really are a complement to each other, each has its strengths and weaknesses, but integrated into a comprehensive business plan can be very compatable." I sincerely hope that thought will get echoed here again and again!! If it does, when someone says a print is a piece of crap we will all get the idea that it's because it was a piece of crap rather than trying to figure out if they think that way because it was on RC, an inkject print or some other paper! Have a great holiday all of you :-)

Jim Conway
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