E6 sheet film processing on a budget

By John O'Connell for the Large Format Page

LF really set me back financially, even though I did it on a budget. Old rail, decent lens, old (square-leg!) tripod, t-shirt for darkcloth, my old folding dyer's loupe to focus. After I had shot some film, I needed to get it developed and printed...

I settled on contact printing 4x5 for black and white, because I couldn't afford an enlarger worth owning. It's not really satisfying. But it got me thinking -- why not try slides?

So I went out and bought some out-of-date Velvia and shot it. Then I found out it would cost me $2-3+ dollars per sheet to get it developed! Money was an issue for my photography: not the immediate $30, but the continual drain.

I looked into developing E-6 myself. It didn't look too tough. I could keep a bath at about 100F(+/- 1 degree) with water from my tap. Kodak's 1 gallon kit was $50. I figured it would do at least 40 sheets. $1.25 or better!

Tanks were another story. JOBO starter tanks were $120+. Trays didn't look like they'd work. I didn't know about the old Unicolor print drums. So, I succumbed to the $30 Yankee Agitank...

I provide the following information for the amusement of those who don't have to do this and to convince those who think they must do this, to do something else. It is not for the faint of heart. So:

Do not trust an Agitank out of the box. It was designed to fit a whole gamut of formats you can't even find film for nowadays. The rack for the sheets is collapsible, and only small notches in the central post keep it up. HINT: the post falls and springs your film out when you agitate, either from tapping the tank to remove bubbles or from sloshing the liquid. Of course, this will only happen after you take your first perfectly exposed flash portraits of some excited children, resulting in long explanations to their parents and 35mm replacement shots which must themselves be shot, developed, and printed...

Take a stainless steel screw and fix the collapsible rack at the 4x5 position WITHOUT PIERCING THE CENTRAL BLACK POST! (If you do, it's not necessarily light-tight anymore. If you don't use the set screw, it will collapse on you and spring your shots out against the side of the tank, to be found all pressed together in a multicolored stack after fixing. Aaaagghhhh! And I wouldn't use glue: E-6 first dev, color dev, or bleach might take it out or react with it.)

And now you must load your Agitank. It's about as easy as loading film holders. There's a sliding doo-hickey you run along one edge of the rack that you drop the sheets through into separate slots. You'll look at it, wonder if it scratches film, use it, and discover that yes, sometimes it does. (Aaaagghhhh!) You can carefully load without it, provided you practice and trust yourself not to double load any slots. Loading a full 12 and checking at the end to see if you're in the last slot helps.

(By the way, my Agitank has proven to be light-tight under ordinary circumstances (i.e., not daylight), but if one absent-mindedly lifts the lid to pour in the first developer, one ruins the film. Current losses due to this: 10 sheets, E100S.)

The Agitank also requires 55 oz. of solution to process anything in 4x5. Yep. And it only holds 12 sheets. So, you need to re-use the slightly exhausted developer, and to do that in E-6 it means 6 available containers and 6 funnels, because pouring out of the Agitank before you can expose the film to the light is MESSY. So is pouring 55 oz. after you can take the lid off. And you should be testing pH levels to assure effectiveness the second time round (I don't, even though I should know better).

The INTERESTING bit about E-6 on a budget is that you can't afford any fun temperature regulation equipment. You need to keep all of your baths at about 100F, some more precisely than others. I keep telling myself I'll go to an aquarium supply store and get some of their stuff, and I keep saying that I'll build an air box heater for bringing the chemicals up to temp, but for now I use a little faucet flow to keep an 11x14 developing tray at 100F. It works. You need another 11x14 tray to hold the chemicals you'll need later, also, so I keep that one at temp by -- get this -- using a coffeepot full of hot water to bring it up occasionally. Transfer chemicals out of that bath to the good bath, where the Agitank sits, BEFORE you need them, to assure proper temperature control.

Use the instructions for small tank processing, and follow the directions on top of the Agitank about agitation direction. Failure to do so may cause problems. Wear rubber gloves when using E-6 chemicals, by the way. Agitation causes a little to come up around the edges. Warning: many people have different recommendations for E-6 development with Kodak vs. Fuji films. I develop my Fuji Velvia for 6'30" in 35mm, but 6' for the 4x5 sheet stuff works fine (EI 50 for the 4x5).

The only good thing about the Agitank for E-6 is that you can expose the film to light after the reversal bath, so you can fill and drain without the lid fairly quickly (for the 1/2 gallon quantities you'll need).

After you finish, you can let the film dry in the Agitank's racks. It may have a blue look to it, as if you screwed up. You didn't; it'll dry fine. Everybody repeat Philip Greenspun's words after me: "You'll feel like a hero."

Unfortunately, your Agitank's rack may look pretty warped by the "high" temperature (or the bleach -- who knows?). Don't worry. It's still usable, and as a plus, it makes that scratch-o-matic loading device nigh-unusable.

If your Agitank IS unusable afterward, consider it a blessing. You'll never be tempted to fill it with the outrageously expensive 4x5 Tech Pan...

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