Digital-shooting film detractors frequently, and rightly, point out that a significant disadvantage to analog photography is that you don’t know whether you have the shot until the film returns from the lab. (Out of politeness I usually don’t mention the digital shooter’s capture—I hate that term—download, archive, and backup chores as a countervailing argument.) In my case, the lab is ME, and this weekend I got a taste of what the future might hold as analog processes and gear begin to disappear or break down.
I put three rolls of color negative film into my heretofore trusty Jobo ATL-1500 and fired her up, walking away to do other things. I returned just as the machine’s end-of-cycle whistle would have summoned me. I removed the processing drum, popped the top, squeezed in a few drops of wetting agent, and filled the drum with filtered water for the final rinse step. A minute later I lifted the light-trap stem that axles the loaded reels to find…nothing. That is, nothing usable. Three rolls, ten 6×7 exposures each; maybe half a discernible frame on each roll, in about the same position on each. You know that slightly sick feeling you get when you hurry somewhere and reach for your wallet, only to recall that it is still lying on your dresser at home? That’s how I felt, only a bit worse, since at least the wallet will be there when you get home.
Now, as catastrophes go, trashing three rolls of images is not exactly the Apocalypse, I know. One roll was shot at various easily-accessible locations around here, and could be redone if desired. The second was of shots taken in my neighborhood, which could be replicated at least in their unique light quality—late day “golden hour” glow—if not in their timeliness—the day after the last day of pool season. The third roll, however, is problematic. I shot it in late-day autumn’s-coming direct sunlight while traveling recently in Indiana under unique (I hope) circumstances. Though I may get back to Indiana again soon, it’s unlikely I’ll do so with the good weather and light I enjoyed in those images.
What went wrong? Maybe bad chemistry? I’d just mixed up a fresh batch of C-41 developer; the bleach and fixer batches had been used previously with perfect results, and both have long shelf lives. I did have bits of visible, normal-looking negatives in a few frames, so the chemistry did its job properly in those places. What about the Jobo itself? I tried to run a cleaning cycle. Bingo—the motor that rotates the drum to and fro to agitate the solutions was moving slowly and actually stopping during its cycle. This explained why there were only fragments of properly processed images: where the solution sat on the film, something appeared, but elsewhere, nothing. So either the circuit board that controls the rotation motor, or—more likely—the motor itself or its drive train, has gone belly up.
Jobo no longer makes processors, though their USA distributor in Maryland supposedly services them. Too, I’m told, there’s a former Jobo factory technician in L.A. who works on these machines. I’ve sent emails to everyone to feel out my repair options. This time, as long as the parts are available, I should be able to get back up and running again, though at a cost and within a time frame TBD. But what about the future day when something breaks for which there are no replacement parts available, nor technicians to install them? I can always go back to doing B&W film by hand as I did for years; laborious and tedious, but eminently doable. But I’ve really grown to love the set-and-forget convenience, ease, and consistency of the Jobo. For color processing, it’s an essential tool.
Why not just send out my color negative film to be processed? Good question. It comes down to availability, cost, and convenience, again. Last time I checked, processing a 120 roll of C-41 costs at least $7.50 at any of the out-of-town mail-in labs I know about. And at the only local lab still doing C-41 in 120, it’s more like $10. This compares unfavorably to the roughly $2-3 I estimate I spend on chemistry per roll doing it myself in the Jobo; the machine itself has long been amortized. I’m on track, current speed bump aside, to shoot 200 rolls of film this year, of which at least 80-90% is C-41. So we’re talking significant economy with DIY. Plus, I like the immediate feedback and gratification I get from shooting during the day and having finished film to scan that evening.
Assuming my Jobo repair possibilities materialize as expected, and cost-effective repairs are possible, I’m golden. If not, the real fun begins. I’ll need to either locate a replacement Jobo I can afford—no easy task—or look at alternatives. The Phototherm Super SideKick line of processors is worth a look; these are well-thought-of machines that are still being made (though the company’s website suddenly went down over the weekend, raising concern) and thus still being supported. The Phototherm company itself makes other non-photographic products, which diversification might mean more longevity for the company than for an analog-photo-only cncern in this digital age. Downsides: the machines, at least purchased new, are quite expensive; and used ones aren’t that frequently found.
So if anyone has a line on a Jobo ATL-1000/1500, or on a Super Sidekick SSK-8R, please let me know. I’m going to have a backlog of film to process before much longer, and I may need a Plan B or Plan C before I’m back up and running.