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4x5 Negs - the heart of a business system

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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

  • #2
    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 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 is still in it's infant stages.


    • #3
      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


      • #4
        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.


        • #5
          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.
          Learn by teaching
          Take responsibility for learning


          • #6
            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!


            • #7
              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).
              Learn by teaching
              Take responsibility for learning


              • #8
                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.



                • #9
                  {Quote} 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 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


                  • #10
                    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


                    • #11
                      Re: Prints...I do all my in house work digital, as I have no room to set up a conventional darkroom plus, the results I get from my printer are very satisfactory to my clients. The value I see for digital print from a negative scan is that with the improvements in paper/ink/printer technology, it is quicker and less expensive for the client to run a digital print for casual display vs. a traditional print. The key to getting exceptional digital prints is really knowing your equipment, proper ink/paper selection and selecting a printer which is intended for that type of work. The "one size fits all" approach definately doesnot work in this instance.
                      What is your lighting set up like for doing the copy negatives? Do you use different lighting set ups for different types of photos, i.e., tintype vs albumin etc..? I had noticed that Kodak produces a special film for "archival" work...have you tried any of this type film and if so, what is your opinion? Tom


                      • #12
                        Wow great feedback here! First, Tom I think maybe you have enhanced my reasons for using 4x5 negs at the heart of my system. You can produce good digital prints, maybe even great ones, I wouldn't doubt that for a minute - I'd like to and someday maybe I will be able to, but for now mine suck and so do a lot of them that I've seen! Some being sold by my competition here would make you sick no lie!! So what about the clients? Now it's 20 or 30 years down the road and I'm long gone. How difficult would it be for my old client with their neg in hand to find someone that can make a high quality wet lab print or find someone like you that can scan and print from my negative? Piece of cake - and that's my point, it's the simplicity of it. Now, if we reverse that and I have your PhotoShop file, pity that poor client of yours! Have you no heart! :-)

                        ON PROCESSING - I may have processed as many negatives in bathrooms at kitchen sinks in my lifetime as I have in a lab! I still use those little 55 oz.Yankee tanks that take 12 sheets at a time and although I do line them up and generally do two batches (24 negatives) in a run, it's possible to process just a couple of negatives with no effort at all - it's just time and temperature. My control is in film selection and exposure so they can all be processed at the same time.

                        ON LIGHTING - I'll show a photo if anyone want to see my setup - the problem is that nothing like it can be purchased any longer as far as I know. They are ColorTran light banks that use four common old 7" 150W kitchen bulbs on each side . The controller is sensational and in my mind something akin to the eighth wonder of the world! It boosts the power of the standard light bulbs up to the same output that you would normally get from photofloods and it can be set for color temp at 2800, 3200 or 3600 K. with total accuracy. And yes, I do use different settings for different originals - very thin materials like albumen need very low light levels to keep from picking up the irregularities from the backing. I've seen copy setups that use strobes - wonder why those people don't just paint the inside of their cameras white, it would have the same result!

                        KODAK ARCHIVAL FILM - never heard of it nor have I seen any mention of it on the PhotoConservation Forum nor on COol (Conservation online) but will look into it. Interesting note on your comments of combining the best of all worlds, Kodak obviously agrees and is putting their millions behind their talk - spending as much of their R&D budget on films as they are on digital.

                        Jim Conway


                        • #13
                          I keep running across references to " 4x5 Duplication Film", if that helps any...I have no idea what qualities it has that set it apart from the ones you mentioned, except that the inference is that this type of film uses finer silver grains and something to do with ASA value, and produces higher quality negatives.
                          The problem of saving just digital copys is a thorny one. At present I donot believe that there is any hard proof of how long a CD will last and what the optimum storage conditions are...however, as digital continues to mature I suspect that those questions will be adequately addressed. Because of the overlap in storage technologies, such as, 5.25 to 3,5 floppy; CD to DVD and so forth, keeping a digital archive up to date and avaliable does require that the data be transfered from one storage medium to another on some sort of a regular basis...perhaps yet another avenue for Digital retouchers to look into.....a sort of digital "copy-transfer to new storage media" service....
                          Right now there are several other folks in this area doing digital prints and I know what you mean about quality..specifically lack there, thin paper, run off on $99.00 inkjets with refilled cartridges do not produce lasting, high quality prints. Most begin fading after 6 mo. and by the end of 18 mo. are usually in pretty sad shape....Again, quality comes from using equipment and supplies which are designed only for photo printing. Plus, taking time, Lots of it, to really learn the strengths and weaknesses of the entire process.
                          Do you have any insights into film transfer? I still am curious about being able to correct/retouch in an Image Editor, then transfer the product to film, either 4x5, 220/120 or 35mm negative. Thanks, Tom


                          • #14
                            All roads lead to Rome!

                            Look at it this way, the original scene had "gigs" of information - the negative or transparency of that scene had "megs" of information and the poor print that represents the negative has a very small percentage of that even if it was made by a master printer! Let the print deteriorate for decades and it has even less so information so you might say you are lucky to have bytes of information on most of the paper copies (originals) you come across..

                            The confusion is introduced by thinking in terms of the wrong point in this process. We all learn by saturation advertising that we need to select the "right" film for our scenic or portrait shoots. Kodak makes special films for everything and tells you theirs is better than Fuji. etc. so you can all go out and make really great transparencies of pretty girls flying through bigger than life posters on water skis!

                            When you want to "duplicate" that transparency or negative rather than print it, you are down to the "megs:" of information that was on the film (no pretty girls) and to KEEP what is left of that information, you are looking for duplicating materials to do the job. It's for making new slides, transparencies or negatives and has nothing to do with prints or printing.

                            So here is the important part of this - if I go from the "scene" to a "negative" and from the "negative" to a scanner, I can make a big enough file to preserve the detail (just like I can using a duplicating film in a wet lab) because the detail is there..

                            Continuing from that perspective, if I go from a "paper print" to a negative (or scan) (what we refer to as copy work), I never had the information that was on the original negative because it wasn't on the paper. I get 120 shades of gray at best. I can jazz up the image a little, print it, run it off with lots of lines on a film recorder or save it to a file big enough to fill a 20 gig hard drive, it STILL won't change the fact that the information wasn't there to start with.

                            So I'm back to square one here - a good copy negative on film is the one thing you can't go wrong with - it stops the clock on deterioration, it's easy to do and as good as you are going to get for any further work or reproduction and it preserves history as a factual representation of the original.

                            From that point on it really doesn't matter how you reproduce the image. That's just a case of satisfying your client. Let them decide how they use or view them. I say that my copy negative is the heart of my system because I can count on it being there even when Wilhelm or Epson gets it wrong again. History repeats - George didn't get it right the first time and had to pull his dry plates off the market and I'm sure that some of you are old enough to remember what happened when Polaroid introduced color! In preservation you work from a "base" with a proven product so that anything you add is reversible - but that does not have to extend beyond that negative! With that gem in place - have fun - you can't go wrong!

                            Jim Conway


                            • #15
                              Anyone with a digital heart?

                              I don't know if any of this helped anybody or not but I've been thinking about it all weekend and wondering if any of you that are basing your systems exclusively on digital are willing to offer some explainations on the hows and whys of your systems.

                              I'm curious about your starting points. Do you think about the clients need for preservation or feature that in your product mix in any way? Do any of you clean the originals? How do you sell big prints - 16x20 and up? Are you using CIS systems on desk top printers or sending your output to outside labs? What do you do about hand coloring or offering your clients any of the traditional prints styles that we have so much demand for with people trying to "match" other old photos. If you limit your offerings to simple desktop capabilities, how do you keep enough work in the place to pay for all this high price computer stuff that I'm supporting with a traditional wet lab????

                              I know you sell what you show and all that, but so far at least, I've never had a single person ask me for a "digital" print of any kind so I'd really like to know?

                              Jim Conway


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