Posted under Photography
Yesterday I finally got up the nerve to try out my RA-4 chems. RA-4 is the process used to develop color paper. Normally with color printing, you use a color enlarger, and a color analyzer, if you have it. I don’t have either, so instead, I just tried making color prints with my regular enlarger, which is pretty old-school – circa 1950s, I think.
Mixing up the chems was just like mixing up a batch of C-41 chems. You wind up with two solutions: developer and Blix. I bought a big honking kit from Freestyle last time I placed an order – it’s supposed to yield 4 liters – but only mixed up 250 ml, since I didn’t know how well the process would go.
The thing about developing color paper is that it has to be done in total darkness. You can’t even have a dim red safelight on. Because of that, color paper is typically not developed in trays, like black and white paper, but in rotary processing tubes, like these:
So, great! I could set up my enlarger and have my tube ready to accept the paper, and then switch off the light, get the paper out of the box, expose it, stick it in the tube, and then flip on the light and take it into the kitchen (where I had the motor base for the tubes set up) and develop it there.
Another difference about color paper processing is that, like color film processing, you’re working with chems at higher temps than black and white. Fortunately, the instructions for the RA-4 kit came with a bunch of time and temperature equivalencies, so instead of freaking out and trying to keep such a small amount of fluids at 102 degrees, I was able to work with them between 75 and 85 degrees.
The first thing I decided to do was a contact sheet of some cross processed Kodak E100G 120 film. I tore some of my paper in half, set the negatives on top, and exposed under the enlarger in increments of 2 seconds. Then I ran it through the developing process (which is quick – 5 minutes or less, depending on your temps). When I was done, I got this:
Not bad, right! Sure, there’s the weird flare on the left side (I think that came from the plastic sleeve the negatives were in), but besides that, I really loved the tones I got. So, I was all excited. Color paper developing rocks!
Unfortunately, that was the best thing I developed all day. The next thing I tried to do was make an enlargement, and that turned out to be an epic fail. My paper came out almost entirely black, and I stared at it helplessly for a few moments before I finally figured out – I think – what was happening.
It’s my enlarger. Despite the fact that my enlarger is retro-50s cool, it is very flawed in that it only came with one negative carrier that actually fits in it properly. I have a few other negative carriers, but they’re very thin, and when I use them, a lot of light leaks out from around the negative carrier. I tried using one of the thin negative carriers to make the enlargement, and I think what happened is that enough light leaked out to fog the paper. In retrospect, I bet that has probably happened when I’ve made black and white prints, too, but since it was black and white paper (and probably less sensitive), I didn’t realize what was going on and just blamed the quality of the negative.
So, I went back to contact prints. I placed a cross processed 4×5 negative on a piece of paper and exposed it, and got a print that was very much cyan and dark orange toned. It wasn’t anywhere near the colors in the first contact print, but it was Fuji film, not Kodak, so I wasn’t sure if the different color tones had anything to do with that.
The next thing I did was trying to do a contact print of some regularly processed C-41 negs. Here’s what I got:
Erm. Yeah. That doesn’t look especially keen, does it? That was even more cyan than the Fuji X-pro’d film.
At this point I started to wonder if I had contaminated my developer with Blix. I don’t know the answer to that, but I suspect… maybe? I was using the same tube to develop all of the papers, so maybe I didn’t rinse it out well enough after the first bit of paper. I know none of the other stuff I tried to develop even came close to the color vibrancy of the first contact print. Also, there’s the whole thing about me not having a color enlarger, which apparently makes two tons of difference.
Because here’s the thing about color film: you know how color film negatives have that heavy orange cast to them? You want to know why that is? It’s to cover up flaws in the color balance. Apparently, it’s near impossible to have consistency from one batch of film to the next, so the little differences in color film are always corrected in the printing stage, with color enlargers that you can shift the balance of yellow, red, and cyan. Which leads me to this: there’s no right or wrong way to scan in color film. There are a lot of anti-Photoshop people in the analog film groups on Flickr, but the whole functionality of color film is dependent on someone altering the colors in the printing phase – whether it’s someone at a lab doing that with a color enlarger, or some kid at home doing it in Photoshop, the end result is the same. When it comes right down to it, Photoshop is just another tool people use because it’s easy, and accessible. It’s not evil. It doesn’t want to kill photography.
All that being said, and despite the problems I had with my first day of RA-4 printing, there just is something magical about making a print on photo paper, even in spite of (or at times because of) my poor equipment and possibly contaminated chems. Oh, also, I think my color paper expired about 10 years ago, too. But still! Magical! Because I wound up making this little contact print by accident:
…which, frankly, I think turned out pretty freaking neat. This is a contact print of a black and white negative (Fuji Acros film) printed onto color paper. I think I got the softness because the negative was in its plastic sleeve, and wasn’t laying perfectly flat on the paper. It’s like an accidental Orton!
(btw – the Orton effect is something that is easily done using slide film and making a few exposures. Or, you can just Photoshop it after the effect, which is something I do all the time, because I love the Orton look. It’s a gimmick, sure, but I love how glowy it makes pictures look).
Anyway, the first day of RA-4 printing wasn’t exactly a success, but not exactly a failure, either. I think my number one revelation was that I probably need to start looking for a new enlarger that’s not archaic. I also may try to be a bit more vigilant about avoiding cross contamination with my chems next time, too, just in case that led to some of the weirdness issues. I’ll probably put more RA-4 printing on hold until I can sort out my enlarger situation.