C-41 tribulations

Although I am fully digital-capable, I still shoot a large amount of medium- and large-format film, both black and white and color negative. I prefer to process the film myself for a variety of reasons. Black and white chemistry is no problem; the ingredients to make it yourself are cheap and readily available, even in the unlikely event that Kodak stops making D-76 and fixer.

Color negative chemistry, however, is another story. Unless you are lucky enough to live in one of the ten largest US cities, you’ll likely not find this stuff in your local camera store—heck, the store itself is not a given. And although I’m sure there is somewhere a hardy amateur photographer/organic chemist mixing her own homebrew color chemistry, I have neither the time nor inclination to do likewise. Which means I have to source it somewhere, and those “somewheres” are becoming fewer as digital sucks all the air out of the photographic world.

Color negative film is developed using process C-41, which consists of three chemicals: developer, bleach, and fixer. Time was, Kodak and others offered these components in several variants and numerous sizes to suit the needs of everyone from the small volume home processor all the way up to professional labs processing hundreds of rolls a day. Since the developer component has a shelf life measured in mere weeks, buying the package size appropriate to your needs is crucial. Buy too much at once, and most of it spoils before it can be used, making processing uneconomic.

While the big professional labs can still get their C-41 chemistry in quantity from a number of sources, Kodak has discontinued supplying the smallest size ready-to-use packages I’ve purchased in the past, leaving me with no choice but to buy the larger sizes. No problem for the fixer; I’ve already bought a ginormous package of the concentrate that will keep virtually forever, and which has the added virtue of working perfectly as black and white fixer too. So problem one, solved.

Developer, too, I can work around. Developer “kits” (three subcomponents mixed with water to make the ready-to-use developer) are meant to be mixed all at once and used within a few weeks or “replenished” (practical only for high-volume labs). However, I can buy the smallest available kit size (10 liters of working solution) and make up partial batches as I need it with a bit of careful cipherin’ and measurin’—y’know, ratios and stuff. The subcomponents keep relatively well until you add water; and everyone will ship the kits without restriction. That’s two down.

Bleach has proven to be the rub. Shelf life isn’t the issue–it lasts practically forever, and unlike the other two, it actually likes the oxygen that destroys mixed developer. Problem is, bleach contains something that classifies it as HAZMAT. For this reason several of my usual suppliers, while they carry it, won’t SHIP it to me. I don’t see myself driving to Manhattan to buy bleach from B&H Photo, so….

I have found a couple of possible sources for the bleach, one local and one distant. The former is a local lab operator kind enough to do me a favor if he can work out the details. The latter is a lab-chemistry supplier from whom I’ll have to buy something like a zillion liters, and pay to ship what is essentially water, and pay some more for HAZMAT precautions. On the other hand, I’ll not likely need to buy it again in mine or my children’s lifetimes. Get ready, MasterCard, this is gonna smart….

Why, you ask, don’t I just forget about color negative film and all this hassle, and just go all-digital? Hehehe…If you’d ever looked at a 6x7cm negative or transparency, you’d not have asked that question.

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