After falling in love with my Sputnik Camera, I had a reason to shoot medium format E-6 film.
In my photographic dabbling, I like each camera or film to fill a specific niche. There has to be something about it that is better than any other option. If I am going to scan film, do digital darkroom, and print, I don't see the advantage of using slide film. There is far less leeway in the exposure latitude and very little trade-off in terms of sharpness versus a color negative film. With the Sputnik, you need to shoot slides to really shine.
Why A Home-Brew Process?
Medium format stereo slides have no equal and so E-6 it is. The problem is one of cost. My local lab charges $12/roll for 120 E-6 development. With stereo slides, that is about $16 for six photos (plus mounts!). I understand their problem: declining volumes, overhead costs, etc. I could mail the film but once shipping is figured into things, the costs are about the same. I could stockpile many rolls and send them as a batch but waiting six months to see my photos doesn't excite me and doesn't promote a learning curve. At-home E-6 is for me. The Kodak 5 Liter Six Bath E-6 Kit will process about 30 rolls and costs $50.
Archival properties are important to me because I want the stereo photos of my family to be enjoyed by the next generation. I want them to be a special window into the past. For that reason, I decided to use the Kodak E-6 kit and not use a 3 bath kit.
E-6 development has a good number of steps and the development process takes about 45 minutes. It is also very temperature sensitive. You can read all the details from Kodak here. A Jobo ATL 1500 or other automated processor would be ideal but I'm trying to save money with this strategy and I'm not going to be processing 200 rolls per year (which could amortize the equipment costs). If I was going to buy a processor, I'd go all the way. I don't see a point to the lesser Jobo's. Also, it is a cold, dull winter outside and I'm looking for a project.
Necessary Equipment And Modifications
For me, the most boring part of film development is agitating every 30 seconds. It makes my eyes bleed to watch the clock and agitate by hand. It has been a pain with my B&W slide process as well. A Beseler Motor Base seemed like a good idea. However, it can't be immersed into a water bath. And, my testing indicated that in my 2nd bathroom (which is oddly unheated), an agitating steel development tank filled 1/3 with water will drop almost 20 degrees from 100.4F to 82F in 6 minutes. No go.
The solution was a neoprene insulating wrap or coozy. Neoprene is a robust material and an excellent insulator. I ordered a scrap of 6 mil neoprene with nylon on both sides from www.foamorder.com. For $40, I have a lifetime supply of neoprene for future projects.
I cut a side, top, and bottom to the size of my 2 x 120 roll steel development tank. I borrowed a needle designed for repairing sails and some nylon thread from my neighbor. I'll bet any large needle will do. I sewed the two ends together with all the inexperience I could muster. I recommend taping the neoprene to shape until the first 5-10 stitches are in place. It made things much easier for me. Perhaps someone with more than 5 minutes of sewing experience has a better way. In fact, I'm sure they do!
Once the material was tightly stitched, I coated the seam with Lexel adhesive. I also glued the bottom in place and let the whole thing cure for 24 hours before touching it again.
The coozy also served a second useful purpose. A standard steel development tank doesn't have enough diameter to rotate on a Beseler Motor Base. The coozy adds enough thickness so that it can rotate properly.
I took the time to visit the pet store. I bought a 200W submersible aquarium heater for $25. If you were heating an insulated styrofoam container a 100 watt version would probably work. I am heating a rubbermaid plastic tub with no insulation and the 100 watt unit didn't have enough oomph. The 200W unit did the job. I already had a small aquarium water pump for circulation that I picked up years ago. Both of these items were placed in my Rubbermaid tub.
I specifically chose a heater that did not have any precise temperature markings or digital temperature control. They won't work because aquarium temperatures never even approach 100.4F. The unit I selected only had a 'hot turn right', 'cold turn left' dial The unit, as designed for aquariums, maxed out at about 84F.
To measure temperature, I use an Eastman Kodak mercury thermometer I found at a garage sale. I have checked this thermometer against a handful of cheapo digital thermometers. Guess what? They all match. A cheapo should work fine.
Anyway, this type of heater has a bimetallic strip which makes contact with a magnet. At the unit heats, the bimetallic strip pulls away from the magnet. When enough force has built up, it pops off and the circuit is cut. When the strip cools it moves slowly towards the magnet and eventually makes contact which re-engages the heater. The spacing between the end of the strip and the magnet is controlled by the temperature dial which moves a screw. The screw moves the end of a lever to control the angle and thus the distance.
To increase the maximum temperature of the unit, I decreased the spacing between the strip and the magnet. It should then take more force to break the circuit which means it will get hotter before switching off.
I turned the temperature dial all the way to hot. Then, I used a screwdriver to pop the plastic temperature control arrow off of the top of the unit. I slipped the plastic temperature control arrow back onto the shaft at the coldest setting and turned it all the way up to hot a second time. I measured the water bath which now rose to 95F. I repeated the procedure one more time and the maximum hot setting now heats the bath to over 120F. With a little experimentation I found the right spot for 100.4F and marked it on the top of the unit.
With my neoprene glued and my water bath at the correct temperature, I filled the coozy-clad development tank 1/3 full (350ml) of 100.4F water. I placed the top on my coozy (so the tank is insulated from all sides) and ran it on the motor base for six minutes. At the end, the temperature had dropped only seven degrees F.
I cut a second piece of neoprene to make a second layer of insulation. I stitched and glued it and slipped it over the existing coozy. The insulation was now 12 millimeters thick. I filled it 1/3 full with 100.4F water, covered the top and ran it for six minutes. At the end, the temperature had dropped only four degrees F.
The final step was to integrate a pre-warming pre-soak by filling the tank with 100.4F water and agitating for 2 minutes before adding the 'First Developer'. The tank was filled 1/3 full with 100.4F water and run on the motor base for six minutes. At the end, the temperature had dropped just less than three degrees.
The E-6 specification says the temperature needs to be maintained within +- 0.5F but actually you'll see that 3F is good enough!
Figuring Out A Workable Process
My experiments indicated that a pre-soak was desirable to bring the tank, reels, and film up to temperature. However, the Kodak E-6 instructions specifically recommend against using a pre-soak. I've researched this with experienced amateurs and none had found it to be a problem. I also discovered that if a temperature drop is to be expected during the first developer, one should change the start temperature so that the mid-point is 100.4F. I changed my start temperature to 101.8.
With E-6, success has less to do with your specifics (temperature, time, agitation) and more to do with consistency. If you figure out a way to get good results, just repeat your method precisely. This is why you need accurate thermometers and careful measuring. You need to achieve repeatability. It isn't hard to do. Also remember that only the first step is sensitive. All the remaining steps run 'to completion'...you can always add time to account for variability in your process.
Because I use a family bathroom as a darkroom, keeping my work area clean is very important to me. I need to know that after a triple wipe-down, the area is safe for my family. Many amateur darkroom users complain about chemical drips, dribbles, and spills. I've found that this can be avoided completely with some simple tools.
I use 16oz wide mouth jars to store all of my mixed chemicals. For a 2 x 120 roll tank, the chemistry used would be 12oz or 350ml. The wide mouth makes it easy to pour chemicals back into the jar for reuse.
I took a top from one of these jars and made a custom pouring top. I drilled two holes. One has a short right angle tube glued to it for air to escape. The other has a glued-on pouring spout which I cut from some other plastic bottle. This lets me keep the jars sealed during storage. When I want to pour, I put on the custom top and get drip free dispensing. It is also very easy to clean.
Instead of using graduated cylinders, I measure and fill using plastic oral syringes in varying sizes. I have a 60ml, a 10ml, and a 1ml. I can measure liquids very accurately without drips. They are easy to clean. I ordered a pack/bag of each from a medical supply web store a long time ago. I replace them occasionally. My supply will last a very long time.
With the Kodak E-6 kit, I followed the instructions for preparing 350ml of working solution. I then lightly sprayed Dust-Off into the head space of the container and quickly cap it. 350ml is enough for 2 runs of 2 rolls each of medium format film. The Dust-Off replaces the oxygen in the head space and should prolong the storage life of the kit. I keep the E-6 kit refrigerated when not in use.
The 45 Minutes of Truth
After I was finished agonizing over every detail, I loaded my test roll into the developing tank. I used a 2 minute presoak followed by a development time of 6:45 including pour-in and pour-out. The motor base worked great and everything went incredibly smoothly. I sat and read a magazine while changing the chemicals every few minutes. Relaxing.
After the film dried, I inspected it on the light box. Color balance was great. Exposure was a little dark (maybe 1/3 stop under) but I eyeballed my shots using Sunny-16. Next time I'll try 7 minutes. Everyone seems to agree that Fuji films need an additional 16% time in the first developer. I used Provia 100F for my test. It was nice to see that there were no development defects. Wow! It actually worked!
If you ask an online photo group about doing your own E-6, you'll receive two diametrically opposed responses: "Don't" and "It's easy". Well, now I can state unequivocally, "It is easy!". If you can handle B&W, you can handle E-6. Why not give it a try?
For me, 45 minutes of time is well worth $20-$40...the cost difference in running 2-4 rolls of medium format film at a time. For 35mm you could easily process eight rolls at a time. I get results on my own schedule and I don't have to drive to a store.