Feet of clay – My first impression of Harman Phoenix

The recent introduction of a color negative C41 film by Harman Technology (of Ilford fame) was both unusual and gutsy. Entering the market with a color product with a strong reputation specifically in black & white is a surprising move to begin with. Doing so in a way that resembles a 2020s startup more so than a firm rooted in the early 1900s is even more surprising. But what gives? Let’s look at some pictures! In particular, some optical RA4 enlargements.

No, I did not buy all of this film. I just happened to be in the store as it arrived. And since I had placed a few rolls on order, this was convenient, so I could drag them home on the spot to play with.

But I feel I should share a tiny bit of the backstory. I was skeptical, or actually incredulous, that this product was about to arrive in the first place. It started with rumors on the internet in early November, that Harman was up to something. Given their legacy in B&W silver halide technology, I figured it would be something like 1600-speed 35mm film – something in-between HP5+ and Delta 3200, and with maybe a Kentmere label on it. That seemed like the most sensible and realistic option to me.

Certainly NOT a color product of any kind.

Well, clearly, I was wrong. It was a color product alright, and within that category, a color negative film makes the most economic sense. This recent ‘film revival’ (not too happy with that moniker) consists largely of people shooting 35mm color negative. I guess Harman figured that if they wanted to tap into that apparent success, it was the only option they had.

Sure, the film revival also comprises people shooting B&W, and other formats besides 35mm, there’s a few people shooting color positives and some people probably even get some darkroom printing done – but it all pales by the dominating demand for 35mm C41 film. I guess Harman/Ilford realized this very well and decided to take a bet on it.

One of the reasons I totally misjudged the possibilities of this ever happening is that I was thinking along the lines of normal color negative film. By this, I mean a masked film with very little to no crossover, large latitude, a gamma of around 0.6 – in other words, something like Portra, Superia, Gold or any of the well-known color print films on the market for the past five decades, give or take. Although we (I) experience such films as commodities, they’re in fact highly complex products that require many emulsion layers (easily a dozen or more) and several emulsion technologies that a manufacturer of B&W products is unlikely to have – and certainly doesn’t actively use in their products.

My tacit assumption that if Harman would introduce a color negative film, it would be something along those lines (masked, normal gamma, multiple layers per color etc.) turned out to be totally wrong. It does seem like Harman might be on its way to do something like that – but they’re not quite there yet. They seem to be inching their way, starting with a sort of skeleton product that appears to (1) test the waters in terms of market response and (2) raise some money for future developments.

So for now, Phoenix is a maskless color negative film, with a seemingly rather randomly chosen very high contrast (for a color negative film) and a pretty weird color response. To illustrate, look at the gamma of Harman Phoenix 200 (in violet) vs. Kodak Gold 200 (cyan curves):

Note how much steeper the Phoenix curve is, and also how its toe and shoulder are far more pronounced. The Kodak Gold curve is pretty representative for what a normal color negative film looks like; if you plot this against Ektar, Superia and even Vision3 films, you’ll see the difference are rather subtle. The difference with Phoenix, however, is fundamental.

In terms of exposure latitude, a regular color negative film doesn’t struggle much recording a 14-stop brightness range with acceptable color fidelity. Scanning this is also not an issue with any decent scanner – printing such a negative optically on RA4 paper may be a bit more challenging, but is certainly feasible. Phoenix, on the other hand, seems to record something like 7 or 8 stops, but will start to do funny things beyond this: you either end up in a low-contrast toe or shoulder zone of the curve, with shadows dissolving in a murky mass or highlights compressing into a barely differentiated fog. Additionally, its color balance will change depending on how much exposure you give it, given how the blue channel doesn’t keep track with red and blue.

Spectral sensitivity data also shows an interesting picture. Again, comparing Phoenix 200 (in red) to Gold 200 (violet):

Note the distinct peaks in sensitivity in the green (around 550nm) and red (670nm) channels. There also seems to be a relatively deep but narrow gap around 570nm. Although this corresponds to yellow light, it doesn’t mean that yellow objects will therefore always render darkly and unsaturated on this film, since we experience yellow not only as a result of yellow light, but also any mix of red and green.

I’ve been told that the green and red peaks are signs of Harman working its way towards a masked color negative film. The rationale is apparently that the masking dyes themselves act as a filter in the unexposed film, and this would allegedly coincide with these peaks. As a result, if the familiar orange mask is added, the peaks should drop significantly, bringing the spectral response of the film more in line with regular color negative films. I’ve not yet been able to confirm this; I guess I still have some reading ahead of me about masking dyes.

So, before diving into the actual photos (sorry for taking so long), what can we expect based on this little theoretical foray? It seems we’re in for some very high-contrast negatives, with blue/yellow crossover, some compression of highlights and/or shadows on high-contrast scenes, and maybe a fierce response to specific colors. Vivid, punchy – and probably an interesting challenge to print in the darkroom.

I divided a single roll into two halves, and shot one half at its box speed of 200, and another half at E.I. 125 because rumor has it that this is closer to the real speed of the emulsion. I would take the latter with a grain of salt; with this kind of toe and high gamma in straight line section of the curve, I think establishing the ‘real’ ISO is a bit like trying to fix a screw in a wall made of jello. Anyway, I figured that given its pronounced toe, the film might do well with a tiny bit of additional exposure.

Tis the season for dreary weather, so I ended up shooting all of these test frames under similar conditions: overcast, low light, on the verge of raining or just emerging from a downpour. Since I already knew contrast would be…interesting, I figured that the very low inherent contrast of the scene would establish a useful starting point.

The first half of the roll, shot at 200, I developed for the normal 3m15s in C41 developer. The second half, shot at 125, I developed a little shorter; around 3m00s or so. To be frank, the net result isn’t all that different. Maybe the second set of negatives are slightly more manageable. It’s a close call, however.

Virtually all of the examples of this film I’ve seen so far are from scanned film. That’s perfectly fine, but I personally find it very hard to tell anything useful from scanned images. They mostly say something about the skill and preference of the person twisting the sliders in the scanning and post processing software, and very little about the film itself. Moreover, my interest in color photography is mostly in printing, with optical RA4 printing being my favorite at the moment. So where I’ll be heading with this film, anyway.

Enough talk; let’s look at some pictures. To get an impression, here’s that first half roll, all frames scanned on a flatbed at once in positive mode. I inverted and roughly color balanced these to more or less neutral.

Nothing special – looks perfectly neutral and normal, right? Dreary scenes of a dreary winter afternoon, rendered pretty much as you’d expect them. Here’s the other half roll, processed similarly. I did not bother to color-balance these ‘contact sheets’ identically, so they look a little different. I wouldn’t attribute too much meaning to the differences.

Things only get a little funny when we start looking at prints. For instance, take the bottom right frame of the first set. Here’s that frame, the digital version to the left, and an optical print onto Fuji DPII paper to the right:

The optical print is balanced differently; it’s far more red. This could be balanced out at will, by either making the print more cyan or the digital version more red (I’d prefer the latter). The main difference between the two images is the massive punch the print has. While the negative scan looks as drab and grey as the real scene looked, the print shows the massive contrast that Phoenix gives. And on a scene like this one, I actually quite like it. It just…gets out of hand pretty easily. Have a look at the bottom left frame of the other set:

Uhm, right. Interesting. There’s punch, and there’s…a wrecking ball!? The scan looks again pretty much like the real scene. The print looks like all dials were turned up to eleven!

Yes, I did try curtailing the contrast by preflashing, but frankly, it’s no use. There’s no amount of flashing that harnesses really helps, at least not without flashing the paper whites into a grey mess.

Burning in bright areas is more useful, and actually opens up interesting avenues. Drab skies can turn quite dramatic. Again, scan from negative on the left, DPII print on the right – this time with generous burning of the sky:

Burning really isn’t optional, either. If omitted, I ended up with the choice of either the shadows, or the highlights in the print – not both:

As you may note, I didn’t particularly carefully color balance the prints. In part, it’s because it took a *lot* of time to balance each shot individually. On normal color negative film, you balance out one frame and then the rest of the roll pretty much falls into place. But because the curves of Phoenix are so steep, each individual negative needs to be adjusted individually, with quite dramatic filter adjustments compared to normal color printing.

And in part, I have to admit, after two or three frames, I decided that there was simply no point in trying to color balance these prints ‘realistically’. It felt like taking a wild lion and trying to turn it into a meek lap cat. What’s the point? Instead, I decided to go with the flow, see what a test print or strip yielded, and then gently (or maybe not very gently) nudge the result into a direction that seemed pleasing. Let the colors do weird things and allow the contrast to go through the roof. Heck, why not.

Trying to coax this film into normality, at least in optical printing, just feels antithetic. This is one of those frames that drove this home with me:

The print on the right I pre-flashed to harness the contrast in the sky, and I burned the right side a little as well. The result has very little to do with what the scene looked like, nor with what the scan shows. It has become…something else. A straight print wasn’t all that more realistic, by the way. I just liked the heavily doctored version better. Note that most of the prints I show in this blog aren’t very heavily doctored; apart from some burning here and there and some adjustments to color balance, I didn’t use flashing to adjust color balance very often.

Well, I guess you get the point with the comparisons. The prints just look very different to the scans, which I processed as I would generally process color negative scans: adjust contrast so the scenes fit in the histogram, adjust color balance so everything looks pretty much neutral. Only when optically printing this film, I feel it starts to show its true nature – and lives up to the things we could initially glean from the curves.

Here’s some more – just the prints. Because those are what matter, to me, in the end.

Finally, here’s a fun little thing:

Notice the tiny little dot just to the right of the tree? Harman promises the possibility of coating defects (they’re quite clear about this being an experimental product) – and this is probably what they mean. They appear to be tiny globules of dye that somehow emerge in a fully colored state from processing. I guess it has something to do with the emulsification process where tiny dye globules should be dispersed among the gelatin matrix. It seems this process isn’t entirely under control, yet. Here’s a close-up of the little thing:

On the left, the globule as it appears on the negative scan – it’s a cyan globule, clearly. On the right, a slightly larger, inverted and approximately color-corrected view.

Finally, there’s the grain that needs to be remarked upon. Since I balanced my negative scans to a pretty muted, realistic looking result, the grain doesn’t stand out all too clearly there. However, printed on the natively high contrast of RA4 paper, Phoenix 200 proves to be quite grainy, indeed. The prints I made are fairly small ones; 12x18cm (roughly 5×7″) image size. Yet, the grain is quite apparent in them. Here’s a crop of a 240dpi scan of one of the print:

Yeah, that’s grainy alright. In fact, I don’t think I’ve printed anything this grainy on RA4 paper, ever.

All considered, Harman Phoenix 200 seems to offer something unique in the color negative film landscape. It’s a wayward, wild animal. I don’t doubt that Harman are on their way to tame the beast and work towards a more mundane C41 color negative film. I’m not quite sure yet if that would be an improvement. After all, isn’t it nice to be able to slide an Instagram filter into a 35mm camera once in a while?

12 thoughts on “Feet of clay – My first impression of Harman Phoenix”

  1. Interesting film. The steep gamma-curves and „peaky“ spectral sensitivity remind me characteristics of positive material, but with daylight balance and speed boosted up.
    Maybe you can try to contact print your negatives onto it, to make slides out of them ( :
    The film would maybe readily develop reversal, too.

    I can imagine that I would liked to photograph on it, but with contrast turned down a bigger bit (maybe using „pull“ process, or less active ECN-2 developer), and with price turned down, too. Well, the price…

    Question is, how did they come to such a formula. Seems like they had some formula for positive material on hand, so they started with it. (But this is only my guess, don’t take it too seriously).

    Your direct scans of the negative show on the other hand, that in modern digital usage the kind of film doesn’t matter too much. Everything can be flatten out or everything can be boosted to the extreme by digital means, no matter how primary negative looked like.

    And question is, how the prints from the film would come out in modern digital photo lab – would it flatten out everything like in your scans, or would it let at least partly show its distinctive character?

    1. It’s really a C41 negative film though; this is not some kind of very rudimentary E6 formula sold as C41. It seems to be a very first step in the process of making a regular C41 film. Add masking to it and additional layers (esp. green & red) to expand latitude, and put some bells & whistles on to make it more linear. It’s a long way they have to go, still, it seems to me.

      I suppose this stuff could be reversal processed. The color of the unexposed areas of the negatives is pinkish; not sure how that will pan out upon reversal.

      And yes, scanning is really flexible; this is a good illustration.
      The output of a digital lab will depend on how it’s scanned. A digital lab is really just a scanner + printer, after all. But some minilab scanners seem to be struggling with this film, if I look at the examples posted online.

      1. Yes, I also believe that what they present as C-41 film is what it’s meant to be a (future) C-41 negative film. I didn’t say either that it’s some rudimentary reversal film by nature.

        If you look at gamma, steeping around 1,5 and spectral sensitivity, which is rather peaky than flat, you will see some similarity with positive (not to be confused with reversal) print film. Compare with Kodak 2383 print film. This real print film has of course gamma even higher, and peakiness of spectral sensitivity is more pronounced, but some similarity is there.
        Other properties like grain and resolution are of course incomparable, as real positive films have very low ISO, and they are balanced to masked negatives and tungsten light.

        On the other hand, reversal (“E-6”) film would have standard spectral sensitivity (i.e. more round “hills”, nicely overlaying) and gamma slightly under 1 maybe (I am not sure now). So I don’t think that this film has some relation to reversal films.

        So my thought for consideration is that they maybe, _maybe_, they started with positive print film formula. For any reason. Maybe it is easiest to produce.

        As to “photolab behaviour” – photolabs is what I am no expert with. You are right, it is scanner + printer. But the image processing software in them deals somehow with scanned image, it expect some standard low-gamma, masked negative and I am not quite sure, how it will react to such nonstandard image from this Phoenix film. I can imagine that automatic image processing has some limits and this one will maybe need some manual intervention to make acceptable prints out of it.

        1. User Lachlan Young on Photrio has been quite adamant that the spectral sensitivity peaks are consistent with a regular C41 sensitivity if you take out the masking dyes. This is one of the things I’d like to read up about, but haven’t gotten round to, yet. I think all sings points towards Harman trying to make a normal C41 film and this just being the first step in that direction. What they started out with, I really don’t know. I trust they had a good look at the published data, did some lab tests and then iteratively inched their way towards what we now know as Phoenix 200 – which is likely just one iteration on a much longer road.

          As to the minilabs: yes, it does seem they’re sometimes struggling making sense of the film. I’m not surprised given how different it is compared to a normal C41 film. It’s far outside the normal process envelope.

          1. /// Again, I have no problem to agree that it’s just a first step to more convenient C-41 neg film… But on the other hand I would like to have some film which is different from a generic C-41 film we know from Alaris or Fuji, so I am little anxious what will final version be like. I would like to have some maskless universal film, which is able of negative or reversal process, for instance. With distinctive look.

            /// I think absorption spectras of mask dyes are flat. Yellow mask dye should be similar to yellow dye of yellow layer, and red mask is even wider – absorps blue and green area. But maybe I am wrong and maybe there are really some inherent absorption peaks in the mask dyes? But what about the yellow gap? Will it become then more sensitive to yellow?
            Until we are not able to remove the mask from normal masked negative and to measure its sensitivity after that, we are not able to say anything about that.
            My opinion for now is, that they just applied simpler or easier-to-obtain set of sensitising dyes in the layers, which don’t cover whole spectra. But again, I am speculating here.

    1. Very much appreciated, Richard. I’ve taken a quick peek, but I’ll need to do some detailed reading to make the most of it. It does look very promising!

  2. ‘photo engineer’ in threads with search ‘dir’ coupler has digestable info.
    the older posts have good interaction with some astute readers.

    >> or: DIR (development inhibitor releasing) couplers. In addition to forming imaging dye, DIR couplers release inhibitors that can restrain silver development in the layer in which release occurs as well as in other layers of a multilayer photographic material. DIR couplers can help control gamma or contrast, can enhance sharpness or acutance, can reduce granularity and can provide color correction via interlayer interimage effects.
    US5981158A – Photographic element containing a DIR coupler – [one point of departure]

    DI(A)Rs can be used to make enough adjustments so harman could bring a much improved V2 in march without having to produce many complex couplers in volume to make a coating-

    >> going far out on ice, I don’t see harman trying for a masked neg system that fits into existing wet-lab world. they could almost make a paper(s) for a CN they may have by august. [i don’t think they will]

  3. Quite interesting. Sometimes you got results that were more red, sometimes more blue. Sometimes when they should have been, other times not.

    On the characteristic curves, does it matter at all that the curves are “stacked” in a different order? Kodak Gold goes, top to bottom BGR; while Phoenix is GBR

    Interesting how when you burned the sky (sounds metal, doesn’t it) the reflections off the water seem to match better. I mean, the reflection would cut down the brightness some, but you made the clouds quite dark and it fits very nicely.

    It’s cool to see a film reviewed with color prints like this! Scanning seems so subjective, and even while a choice of paper and printing steps can change things, it seems to be the closest thing to a “right” way of presenting the colors on a negative.

    1. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, Greg!
      > On the characteristic curves, does it matter at all that the curves are “stacked” in a different order?
      Not necessarily; as long as the curves remain parallel, it’s just a matter of a different filter combination/setting to get the same color balance in the print. This does not fix crossover or the lack of a mask (or the high contrast of this film!), so prints from Phoenix will never look entirely ‘normal’. But the layer ordering in the H/D curves as such isn’t much of a concern.

      > Interesting how when you burned the sky (sounds metal, doesn’t it)
      Hah, I like that one! Yes, “very metal” indeed! (not sure if you know The Young Ones!)

      > Scanning seems so subjective, and even while a choice of paper and printing steps can change things, it seems to be the closest thing to a “right” way of presenting the colors on a negative.
      Yes, in a way, and that’s also why I think this set of examples may be useful in addition to the also highly relevant scanned examples already present on the net. I feel the optical prints really capture the uniqueness of this particular film and it’s something I’ve not quite seen in any of the scans.

  4. Nice review!
    A high contrast maskless film? It would seem to be a good candidate for reversal-processing I would think.

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