How I broke my fixer

“My genius knows no bounds”, Jeremy Clarkson says something. I often feel the exact opposite: my own stupidity never ceases to amaze me! Here’s another one that had me stumped for a while: a weird red/cyan cast on my ECN2 negatives. Annoying!

Spoiler alert: the whole thing can be prevented by simply following the instructions. But come on, I’m way too stubborn for that! Here’s the deal:

This is a quick & dirty flatbed scan of a couple of ECN2 frames (Kodak Vision3 250D). Note the pretty darn horrible, atrocious cyan/red balance on those. And it’s not even a balance issue, either. It’s massively uneven at that! What the…!?

Sure enough, it’s there on the light table, so we’re not looking at some kind of weird scanning artefact. It’s really in the negatives themselves. So I checked pretty much everything I could check, including the possibility of some freakish light leak on (both!) my Canon EOS 30v cameras. Nada.

Alright. See if we can reason this out. Some facts about the freak artefact:

  • It seems to be limited to the cyan/red channel.
  • The problem actually shows up as areas of excess cyan on the film.
  • It’s uneven. Some frames are more affected than others. Same parts of a frame are more affected than other parts. Some frames are seemingly free of the problem. Many aren’t.
  • The problem seems worse at the start of the roll.
  • The problem occurred on several rolls, and in hindsight, even on rolls developed on totally different days, with fresh developer, etc.
  • The problem only occurs with ECN2. I’ve so far not run into it with C41, and I also have never had any similar kind of fogging issue with B&W. Or did I…? So many rolls and sheets of film…but the issue didn’t ring a bell.
  • The problem seemed to be worse in the center area of the film and the area around the sprocket holes seemed to be less affected, or not affected at all. Odd…
  • The problem is present in frames as well as parts of the film (leader & trailer) that should be blank.
  • There seems to be no relationship between shooting conditions (e.g. shooting out in sunny weather vs. indoor sessions in dim light) and this effect.
  • There seems to be no relationship between the time between shots and/or time the film spent inside the camera and this phenomenon.
  • It’s there on film that never went through any x-ray scanners (e.g. airports).
  • There are no projected sprocket holes, making a massive light leak in the cassette, around the camera’s uptake spool or in the bulk loader unlikely culprits.
  • There’s something odd going on if I look on high-res scans…

Here, have a look at this. Ignore the red band along the bottom edge of the film. That edge is a little fogged due to how the film is handled in the bulk loader and reused cassettes. Look at the edge print. It’s not a solid grey, as it should be. It’s solid grey with a very clear red outline. There’s a hint!

And here’s another one:

This is from the same leader strip as the edge print shown above, but here, it also shows the anomaly in its full glory. Observe the two reddish blobs, one just to the right of the felt trap fogged edge (normal) and one at the far right of the strip, extending past the cut (and into the first frame).

They are vaguely outlined blobs, that tend to keep clear from the sprocket holes, and especially the right-hand blob shows a slight pattern that runs lengthwise along the film. Now…this roll was rotary processed…so are we looking at a processing problem, here? Up to this point, I was absolutely convinced that this was some kind of optical fogging problem. But this takes it into a new direction…

Let’s have a closer look at that phenomenon of the auras. It’s actually a lot more apparent in this example:

The aura is certainly there, along the edges of the frame. But there’s also a reddish kind of infill in the black areas. It’s almost a kind of tone reversal, with the deepest shadows becoming lighter…something a bit like…a sabattier effect?

And that finally rang a bell. What processing problem tends to show up especially in areas that are supposed to be (nearly) blank on the film, tends to be clearly associated with film geometry and fluid dynamics (think sprocket holes, processing reels, mode of agitation) and also tends to show interactions with the actual image content? That’s right – fixer problems!

To verify the hypothesis, I took a leader strip and dropped some fresh fixer onto the cyan blobs. After waiting a few minutes and rinsing the strip, sure enough, the result is quite convincing:

Ignoring the newton rings, Northern-light like edge fog at the top margin and the loads of dust for a minute…observe the red fog with the two round dark spots in it. Those are the droplets of fixer, and the proof that the red fog (cyan on the negative) really is retained silver.

The one thing that puzzles me, is why it shows as cyan. I’m sure someone out there can elucidate me on this, but apparently, a mild case of retained silver tends to show as cyan, and not as the more tell-tale quasi-reflective, metallic sheen that you get when there’s a lot of retained silver on the film. See e.g. this post on Photrio and the first example image in it for a very nice illustration. In my case, the actual film looks like this when viewed on a light table:

And this is when looking at the emulsion side at an oblique angle:

It really looks like normally processed film, apart from the cyan blobs. The retained silver only shows up as something I mistook for cyan dye, and not in its typical, metallic and more neutral-tone way.

One theory (but it’s kind of far-fetched) is that somehow, the retained silver interacts optically or perhaps even chemically with the cyan dye coupler specifically, making it actually look cyan instead of transparent as it’s supposed to be. But that’s really a wild guess.

Oh, one more thing. The actual cause. Why does this happen in the first place in a process that otherwise works perfectly fine for me? Well, here’s where my stupidity comes in. Several years ago, I was having trouble with specks on my color negative film. I ultimately tracked down the problem to a couple of issues, including deposition of solid silver in heavily re-used and apparently insufficiently replenished C41 fixer. In the process of solving this issue, I reverted to a one-shot use of my C41 fixer. After all, it’s reasonably cheap stuff anyway, and why risk those precious color negatives?

However, in an attempt to shave off another penny, I did start using the fixer at a weaker dilution. This fixer (I use FUJIFILM Negacolor replenisher) is to be used at a 1+4 dilution. It’s also a rapid-access fixer, so it only needs two minutes or so of fixing time at C41 processing temperature. I generally fix for 3m15, because I just leave the timer on C41 developing time for the (rapid access) bleach and fix steps. This already gives a significant margin over the prescribed rapid access times.

But I figured that if I use the fixer only once, I might as well use it at a dilution of 1+9 instead of 1+4…

Sure enough, this works fine, at least as far as I can tell, for C41 film. No problems whatsoever, and I’ve been doing this for a few years now. However, apparently, this Vision3 film apparently fixes with slightly more difficulty, and it looks like I either have to increase the strength of my fixer (e.g. 1+6 instead of 1+9) or just extend the fixing time a bit.

For me, this is one more sign that ECN2 film really is different from C41 film, although there would have been absolutely no problem if I had just stuck to FUJIFILM’s recommendations for the use of their fixer. It’s when we explore the edges of the process envelope that things start to get a little funny. Well, lesson learned.

I’ll now go and re-fix those film strips and hang them up to dry…

PS: about that film strip I showed at the start of the post – here’s how it looks after fixing it again to remove the cyan stain and rescanning:

It’s absolutely fine now, apart from the digital color balancing being somewhat haphazard.

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