I’ve never shot Kodachrome. To be honest, I haven’t shot a lot of slide film, and so when Paul Simon sings the lyrics to “Kodachrome” I understand the meaning of the words, but I do so as a passive observer:
In 2010 the last roll of Kodachrome was processed and another creative choice was added to the history books of our craft. I felt little on that day, but in retrospect I see it as quite a loss. I think about all those colors and tones and the decades of history they preserved; that irrefutable Kodachrome look, and the magic they take on when held to a light. Since then I’ve made it a point to try various films when I have the chance. And so when I had the opportunity to shoot a couple of rolls to test out a truly unique process which makes not only slides, but black and white slides out of almost any negative film, I jumped at the chance.
The DR5 process was created in 1991 by photographer David Wood in New York. At the time Wood was a professional photographer discouraged by the fact that magazines largely required transparencies for submissions. His love for black and white and the requirement of transparencies led him to invent what’s known as the DR5 process. By 1997 he was processing film for other photographers, full-time, with this unique process.
Negative films such as Kodak Tri-X processed with DR5 become positives. For me the beauty of the process comes with the fact that you can lay your film our on a light table and view the images at their purest. The grain is finer with DR5 processed film, the scanning easier, and the end result is truly phenomenal.
The process is complex, consisting of some 18 steps that Dave created himself. A custom processor was designed to Dave’s specs to carry out the DR5 development at his lab. He created this process not because he wanted to get rich, but because he has a love for the craft of photography and wanted to enable photographers to make the best images possible in black and white.
The DR5 lab doesn’t have all of the hype surrounding it that a lot of labs do. I won’t jazz you up by telling you which pro wedding photographers send their work there, or which celebrities use it, and I won’t tell you that sending your photos there will make them any better. What I will tell you is that the DR5 lab doesn’t operate as a commercial lab, but instead as a personal lab. Service is on a one to one basis with a lab like this meaning if you have questions all you have to do is pick up the phone. The service from Dave is truly personal and the quality is second to none.
Upon receipt of one of my rolls of film I identified a scratch in one of the rolls which was shot with my trusty M4. Knowing it couldn’t possibly be the camera I contacted Dave. He was exceptionally helpful and inspected all of the equipment on his end going as far as to photograph the transport mechanisms and send me the photos with a thorough description of the process. To make a long story short, it was in fact my M4 scratching the negatives, and none of Dave’s equipment. My point here, is that he is a professional, he’s willing to work with you from end to end to make sure you get what you want, and when something doesn’t turn out as expected he’s there to talk about it with you. Does your lab give you that?
Process and Impressions
When I contacted Dave about processing some film for me I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I’ve known of the DR5 process for a number of years, but hadn’t really seen an opportunity arise in which I could try the process for myself. To be honest, even after sending the film to Dave I wan’t really sure what I was going to think. I sent him a box with three films in it: Ilford Pan F+, Kodak Tri-X, and Ilford HP5+. What I received back from Dave shocked me, but first a little background.
I shoot a lot of HP5+ and have for a couple of years now. With rare exception it is the only black and white film I use and every roll of HP5+ I shoot is processed in the same way, again with little exception. I always push the film one stop to ISO 800 and have come to love the grain and contrast I get out of it at the expense of tones.
Of the three rolls I shot the HP5+ was the most astounding, hands down. The HP5+ in this review was shot at ISO1000 and the grain has been reduced in a way that I can’t quite describe. It is still evident, but quite fine and seemingly more uniform than in standard developer. With the DR5 process, grain sees a reduction of 4-5 times and films see dynamic ranges of up to 12 stops depending on film stock. Tones take on a new form, not unfamiliar, but different. It’s not grainless, but the grain is so greatly reduced at no cost of speed. It’s a great combination for street photography in my opinion; it’s having your cake and eating it too.
Dave sent me a contact sheet via email of the film he had processed for me and I was exceptionally surprised by the result. In my eyes the film looked much more like it had been pulled (overexposed and underdeveloped) rather than pushed (underexposed and overdeveloped). In essence the DR5 process allowed me to shoot at a high speed and achieve tones that to my eye are normally only achievable when shooting at a much lower ISO.
Wanting to see how flexible the process was I loaded my Konica BigMini with a roll of Kodak Tri-X thinking that the simplicity of the Konica from it’s metering to it’s lens would reveal some sort of deficiency in the process. What it revealed instead was it’s flexibility. The tones of the Kodak Tri-X are to me, darker and more subdued; never fully black but carrying a depth and darkness that’s deeper than what I’ve achieved at home. To my eye, the roll of Tri-X I shot looks to be pulled, although it was in fact shot at box speed. The whites are hot, but never clip while the blacks have a richness that is hard to describe. Unfiltered skies really have a richer and more dynamic look with the DR5 process.
At first glance they remind me more of what my HP5+ looks like when I process it at home in terms of contrast but upon further inspection I think they start to look a little bit like the tones and shadow detail capable from Leica’s digital Monochrom camera.
The final film I shot for review was Ilford Pan F+. For me Pan F+ is too slow at it’s box speed so I am not quite sure what I was thinking when I chose this. Dave recommended trying a wide variety of films and with Pan F+ being readily available I figured I would give it a shot. The recommended ISO of 20 makes it a bit difficult to work without a tripod, but the rendering of the Pan F+ was in fact quite delightful despite the practicality of the film.
The highlights of the DR5 process for me are the key to what makes it such an important tool to have in my arsenal. First, the slides are exceptionally easy to scan, and to my eye sharper than traditionally processed negatives when scanning. Since the majority of people today are working in a hybrid workflow this is one of the greatest advantages. Second, the reduction of grain at higher speeds is a godsend; you simply can’t beat it regardless of which developer you’re using at home. Lastly, it’s beautiful; take a chance on the process and I guarantee when you look at it on a light table you’ll be hooked.
Points of Note
Dave has done a great job of providing technical notes for all of the films he is capable of processing. In addition, he’s very willing to discuss the process with anyone from beginner to pro. I highly recommend you contact Dave if you have any questions about the process or send him a couple of rolls to test before using this for a project. I can’t stress enough his commitment to your success.
A couple of notes from the DR5 website regarding the films I chose to use.
Ilford Pan F+ | Normal ISO20
If you are a 1st-time dr5 user, you must shoot this film @ ISO20. If you have shot this film @ it's factory speed, we will not run this film in dr5 for you, and there are no exceptions.
Pan F+ is a traditional emulsion, expect:
- very sharp
- almost grain-less images
- full tonal range
- Up to 12 stop dynamic range
- D-MAX 4.10+
The speed is slow under dr5. This sacrifice in speed might be well worth it as it has the best D-MAX of all the ILFORD films, 4.10+. Shooting Pan F+ at a slower speed compresses the contrast slightly but Pan F+ doesn't relinquish it's natural quality at any iso,. We suggest testing this film first in dr5. Experience is best obtained 1st hand when dealing with darker or shadow based scenes.
120 Pan F+ is not a hearty film so be sure to use the freshest film stock possible. Do not use old 120 film stock or long stored stock for dr5 use. Unlike the other Ilford films this film type is the most susceptible to fog. Protect the 120 film from direct light between loading and processing. Do not put 120 Pan F+ back in the fridge once it has been shot and do not put un-wrapped Pan F+ in the fridge or your film will be ruined!
Ilford HP5+ | Normal ISO400
The most popular film for dr5, expect:
- image quality at higher iso speeds
- Shadow detail
- Old fashioned image quality
- D-MAX 3.45
The "BEST" quality if your needing speed; 320-3200iso exposure latitude. HP5 holds detail in the brightest whites and deepest blacks. For many, It is the favorite film for dr5. DMAX is around 3.45 @400iso with fresh film. HP5 holds its image quality to 1600iso, with only a slight increase in contrast, there is also increased dynamic range.
NOTE: HP5 must be fresh when exposing @ 1000-3200 iso. It is important to keep this film away from any X-ray or heat as the higher iso will show the slightest damage. Damage from age, heat or x-ray can be seen as; lower dmax, lower contrast, blown out whites and a masked haze.
Kodak Tri-X | Normal ISO320
TX has near the same exposure latitude as HP5 but on a lower scale. TX has the 2nd highest EI-range in dr5. It is important to use fresh and unabused TX. With the DR5 process TX will respond to 1000iso but the film stock needs to be fresh. TX in developer 1-neutral has a 1st rate neutral. This is a traditional grain old-school film-type.
NOTE ON OLD TX: If you have old stock TX or TXP it might be best to run it DEV2 as it does not age well for neutral images. Contact us for more details. Tri-X is a different film than TXP 'TX' is a different film type than 'TXP' [roll-txp now discontinued]. Different in contrast, tonal range, and overall feel. TX still comes in 35mm & 120-rolls. TXP now only comes in large format sizes.
But I can develop Black and White at Home
It’s true: you can absolutely develop your black and white at home. Before taking on this review I planned to continue doing just that. But, I have to be frank and say that for a number of projects I’ll be rethinking that mindset and using the DR5 process. Think I’m kidding, read on.
We all pay a price for the things in our lives and it usually comes down to time or money. I’ve spent the last three years practicing and honing a workflow that works for me. Yes, three years. Three years ago I used Rodinal, then I went back to D76 for a while, then on to HC110 where I finally stuck and settled on dilution B. It would be months more before I worked out all of the kinks in my process and got an end to end result that worked for me. I have no interest in giving that up.
With that said, I can envision certain projects, one which involves the American Southwest, in which I think the DR5 process would be really well suited to what I want to achieve. When I think about the time cost associated with learning to alter my process for a shoot it makes sense to use a lab such as DR5 to get the right results on the first time. Additionally, I think a lot of the street photography I shoot will benefit from the DR5 process. The speed you gain with no increase in grain is nothing short of incredible.
On to Part 2 of the Review