Focus on Imaging
For years, photographers seeking to produce black-and-white chromes directly from their camera film have had little choice. If they were willing to venture into a darkroom, they could buy a direct-positive chemistry kit and process their film, roll by roll. If not, there was only one commercial processing choice: Agfa’s Scala slide film. Now dr5, a unique, relatively new lab, based in Los Angeles, is offering a proprietary process that can produce black-and-white transparencies from a wide variety of standard black-and-white negative films.
Owner David Wood is a photographer who developed the dr5 process because, he says, he couldn’t find a method to produce black-and-white chromes that was suitable for his own work. He applied his own chemistry background to the problem and, over the past decade, has perfected the process.
Today, Wood’s lab offers two options—a neutral gray process named developer-1, and a sepia process dubbed developer-2. The company’s web site (www.dr5.com) describes the distinct attributes of dr5 chromes produced on each of several types of film.
Because of the unique requirements of dr5 processing, Wood commissioned the Italian company Tecnolab to develop a one-of-a-kind custom dip-and-dunk machine according to his own specifications. To his surprise, Wood found that using the Tecnolab processor not only handles the dr5 process, but actually further improves the resulting black-and-white transparencies.
Why Black-and-White Chromes?
Wood’s testing on a variety of films indicates that image quality is dramatically better in a dr5 transparency than in its negative counterpart. “Resolution, sharpness, tonal range—in every respect, the image quality is improved,” he says. “D-Max is 15-to-30 percent greater than with E-6 processing. For Kodak Professional Tri-X (TXP) film, for example, dr5 produces a D-Max of 4.70. There’s detail further into the darkest shadows and lightest highlights than in traditional black-and-white negatives, and far more detail in dr5-processed film than in the prints made from negatives.”
The black-and-white chromes that result from the dr5 process also yield exceptional scans—even better, Wood claims, than scans from negative films. Of course, because the original camera film can be viewed as transparencies, photographers can see and pre-edit their work without having to make contact sheets or enlargements first. That reduces the turnaround time and costs involved in pre-production processing.
Testing indicates the dr5 process also offers great versatility for push- and pull-processing, allowing photographers to choose from multiple effective ISOs and contrast ranges. Of course, different films respond differently to the process.
Premier dr5 Film: Kodak Professional Tri-X /
Wood rates the non-professional version of Tri-X film (TX) at speeds ranging from 125–1000 ISO. Wood says “With the recent upgrade of the Kodak black-and-white films, all the films have improved in the dr5 process, and we are glad to see this improvement.”
Wood counsels photographers to test their favorite films extensively in the process. “I designed this process to give the photographer the largest amount of control possible—essentially putting a custom darkroom inside the camera,” Wood says. “That means photographers can change the contrast, speed and tonal range at will, simply by changing the ISO or choosing another film type.”
In all, Wood has tested his dr5 process with over 30 different film types, and outlines the results of each of those tests on the web site. He’s also happy to spend time talking with photographers who want to try the process, and suggest a film type based on their needs.
The dr5 process can be used for Agfa’s Scala slide film, too, once the only option for black-and-white transparencies. And Wood says Scala film performs well in dr5—even better, he believes, than in the Scala process. “But regardless,” Wood asks, “with all the black-and-white negative films available at less than half the cost, and with most producing better image quality in dr5, is the added cost of a transparency film worth it?”
The Road to dr5
Wood kept the process to himself until 1998, when he was working in Los Angeles and had a meeting with Bill Pyne and David Alexander of AIM Color Lab, A&I’s affiliate lab in downtown L.A. They began offering the process. The lab would collect the film and Wood would process it all—by hand—in the loft he converted to a lab. “I had maybe 20 to 30 rolls a day, and it would take me all day to do the processing using an old Arkay rotary machine,” he says.
At this point, he had only one developer, which yielded the sepia result. Wood continued experimenting to develop a neutral developer. After six months, developer-1 was ready for commercial use. He took his process to the Photo District News west coast show in June 1998 and helped A&I win the “Best of Show” award for the process.
In late 1999 Wood decided to take the plunge and have a custom processor designed, and determined that Tecnolab was the company to make the machine. That was a $100,000 gamble, but it gave him the capacity to do 100–200 rolls per day (depending on the number of rolls requiring pushing or pulling). Wood thought he would need two machines, one each for the developer-1 and developer-2 processes. Instead, Tecnolab proposed a machine that could handle both.
The result is a three-lift processing machine with 15 tanks. Normal development time is about two hours. Wood typically processes a batch of developer-1 in the morning and a batch of developer-2 in the afternoon, though the machine can actually accommodate both processes at once.
He initially set up his dr5 lab in New York City, where the processor was delivered and set up in early August of 2001—about a month before the September 11 terrorist attacks. The impact on business from those events prompted him to return to Los Angeles in the summer of 2003.
The dr5 lab is located at 5084 W. Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles, 90019. About 20 percent of the lab’s business comes from local photographers who personally drop off their film after discovering the web site or being referred to dr5 by a camera store or photo school. The remaining 80 percent comes from pros throughout the U.S., along with the occasional international order.
In the past year, dr5 has expanded to offer cinema direct-positive processing, an extensive interpositive service, and a new service offering dr5-chromes from digital files. David Wood has also added ultra custom black-and-white negative processing and fiber-based paper printing to round out the business.
Spending Time With Customers
So, will dr5 become widely accepted as the premier process for photographers using black-and-white film? Only time will tell.
Meanwhile, Wood says his business venture has paid a variety of dividends. “I really like the idea that I’m possibly giving something to the history of photography, providing something that photographers can use,” he says. “I’m actually more involved in the photographic community now than I ever was when I was shooting. Photographers don’t really collaborate on things easily. I have more photographer friends now than I ever did in the past. I’m not competition for them; I’m an ally.”