Skyfall – A first impression of 4×5″ Kodak Aerocolor IV

Shooting color in large format is for the rich and very dedicated. I’m certainly not the former, and the latter…nah. Well, I can always try to cut a corner here and there, so I splurged on some Kodak Aerocolor IV film, conveniently cut to sheets by Reflx Lab. Here are the results of my first four sheets shot on this film.

It’s the oldest trick in the book in the film industry if you can’t actually manufacture film yourself: buy some film from a reputable manufacturer and stick a label onto it with a fancy name. Sometimes, resellers try their best to hide the true pedigree of their product – usually unsuccessfully, as someone is bound to figure out what it is anyway.

At least Reflx Lab are fairly straightforward on what their ‘Pro 100’ sheet film really is. It’s Kodak Aerocolor IV. This is convenient: although I have very little interest in the ‘unique’ properties (quod non!) that a reseller can imbue on an existing product by simply boxing it up, it is nice to have someone willing to sell you a film stock in a format that’s difficult to purchase as a private consumer. Apparently, the minimum order quantity is 10 rolls of 5″ film if you purchase from Kodak, which should run you around $6k. A bit much for a quick experiment.

So let’s give the nice guys at Reflx some money (this does seem like a fairly realistic ‘get rich quick scheme’ on their part). No, it’s not cheap at $100 for a box of 20 sheets, but it’s still about half the cost per sheet of Portra or Ektar. Granted, Reflx have put a nice 3-part box around the sheets and their order fulfillment seems to work smoothly. Of course, China has invested big-time in creating the channels to cart their stuff over to the west, and Reflx surfs that wave successfully.

Reflx “Pro 100” C41 film. In reality, Kodak Aerocolor IV aerial surveillance film.

Enough about the box and the pennies. What’s this Aerocolor stuff anyway? Well, it seems to be a fairly normal C41 color negative film, with a few caveats.

First and foremost, it’s maskless. This means it doesn’t have the orange/brown coloration in the unexposed areas. The mask is there to compensate for the imperfections in the absorption of the color dyes, and thus helps to optimize color fidelity. Since this film is intended for aerial surveillance and not for color-critical work like fashion or weddings (which, let’s face it, any sane photographer shoots on digital anyway!), it’s likely to not require perfect color reproduction. So they’ve just left it out.

Looking at the datasheet, it’s clear that this film is not intended by Kodak for any color-exacting work. Compare the curves of Aerocolor IV to e.g. Portra 160 and you’ll see what I mean:

Aerocolor IV (cyan) H/D curves plotted on top of Portra 160 (magenta)

A couple of things stand out immediately:

  • The Aerocolor curves are much steeper. But this is mostly because these curves are made for the ‘medium contrast’ development scheme proposed by Kodak, which is 4m15s in C41. The gamma in this case is 0.78, which is extremely high compared to regular color negative film. However, Kodak also give a gamma (contrast indicator) for regular 3m15s development, which is much more sensible at around 0.63. By comparison, Portra’s gamma is around 0.6, which is normal for regular C41 films.
  • Aerocolor’s curves all start near the horizontal axis of the plot, with blue and green a little higher than red. Portra’s curves start out much higher and with much more space between its curves. This is just a long-winded way of describing the orange mask that Portra has, like any regular C41 camera film, while Aerocolor lacks it.
  • The curves of Aerocolor don’t track quite as nicely as Portra’s, and they also shoulder off earlier. This means two things: (1) Aerocolor crosses over. In particular, highlights may go a little cyan and magenta (effectively ‘warm blue’) if shadows are kept neutral in high contrast scenes. And (2) Aerocolor is less tolerant of overexposure. If overexposed to the point it starts to shoulder off, highlight detail gets compressed and ‘flattens out’. This can also be exploited as an advantage, because it acts to compress high contrast scenes. But generally, the differentiation of such shouldered-off highlights is not necessarily pleasing.

The datasheet tells a pretty clear story: this is a fully functional color film, but it’s not up to par with regular camera films like Portra when it comes to objective quality criteria for still photography. Not to worry – the Lomo crowd has settled for a lot more arcane things, and surely, a little compromise in the curves does not necessarily create a horrible photographic experience. The proof of the pudding will have to be in the actual photography.

Secondly, this film is really intended only to be used in roll-to-roll systems, and certainly not as a sheet film in large format cameras. This means that the 4×5″ sheets Reflx sells they cut form 5″ wide rolls (apparently 150 meters in length). The film base is 0.10mm thin Estar; a bit like 120 roll film. That’s pretty flappy for sheet film, and one of the concerns is that the film may buckle in the film holder (especially with the camera pointing down, I imagine), that it may be cumbersome to load into the holders, and personally I wondered if it would stay put in my Jobo 2509N development reel.

How did it work out? Loading the sheets into holders was actually a breeze, despite the sheets feeling disconcertingly thin and flimsy. Do they sag, buckle or otherwise cause fine focus problems? Honestly, I don’t know. But in the final result so far I can see nothing that points in this direction. It helps that on large format, I rarely shoot wide open – but even at f/32, depth of focus is really limited, so I’m sure if there was a significant problem, I would have noticed it.

For the ‘test shots’ I decided to take advantage of the skies created at dusk by clearing rain and overall, well, dreary Dutch winter weather, basically. It has its perks – although they’re few and far between! I rated the film at E.I. 125, although for a 3m15s development time, Kodak suggests an E.I. of 80 and E.I. 125 only for a ‘push value of 5’, which is a development time of 5m15s and a gamma of 0.90 (welp! that’s punchy!) But the shutter on my most-used 4×5 lens (an old Fujinon 150/5.6) is kind of slow, and I generally lean towards overexposure on top of that, so I guess I actually ended up exposing most of my sheets at 64-80 rather than 125 anyway.

Development was as I usually do color negative in sheet format: 3m15s at 38C using Fuji Hunt C41 chemistry in a Jobo 2500 tank with a 2509N reel. Surprisingly, the sheets did in fact stay in place just fine in the reel, despite their lack of rigidity. With sheet film, I always do a pre-rinse since I noticed unevenness along the film edges with regular C41 film if I leave it out. However, looking critically at these Aerocolor negatives, I do see unevenness along the edges, but also in the center of at least one sheet. The latter is a fairly clear flow mark where the developer seems to have flowed over the sheet before the entire sheet became submerged. I have the impression that Aerocolor might be more prone to uneven development and that I might have to resort to e.g. tray development with this film.

Yes, the negatives look a little odd compared to regular C41 negatives, but not all that outlandish due to the reddish minimum density. Here’s a scan of the four sheets I exposed in their print file thingy:

Flatbed scan of the negatives in their storage sleeve

The sheet top left is a little dense, because I didn’t fully trust my light meter (I’ll never learn) and figured it might be fooled by the specular highlights, so I overexposed that by a stop just to make sure. This was unnecessary, but this is color negative film, and despite the limitations discussed above, I think I got away with it.

A somewhat neutral (dreary) color balanced inversion looks like this:

Neutral balanced inversion of the negatives

I’m more interested in how film prints than how it scans. How does this film do when it’s optically printed on FUJIFILM DPII color paper?

The lack of the orange mask makes for some odd color balance. To make the printing experience more intuitive and similar to regular color film, I took a piece of unexposed, fixed out C41 sheet film and used it as a color mask in the optical path of my enlarger. Fortunately, the Durst 138 has a convenient drawer for a glass heat shield, diffusor or a color filter. I have a plexiglass diffusor installed in it, but the additional piece of C41 ‘filter’ can be kludged in easily:

Durst 138 filter drawer (partially withdrawn from the head) with the makeshift orange filter inserted. The latest generation of my LED light source (or at least its cooling device) is visible on the left. A piece of frosted glass that acts as a color mixer is also in there.

With the orange filter in place, printing turns out to be a fairly uneventful process. The prints have a nice ‘punch’ to them, possibly due to the slightly high gamma (0.63 or so, compared to 0.60 for regular C41 film). Sharpness is excellent; grain is as you’d expect it from 20x25cm prints from 4×5″ negatives: invisible to the naked eye. Using a high-powered loupe, the grain pattern is visible in the prints as very tight and fine. I’ve not looked at the grain in my flatbed scans since my 4990 tends to pretty much mush out all (fine) grain anyway.

Also, because the film is rather flimsy, I didn’t even try using a glassless negative carrier. I don’t hesitate to do so with regular C41 film, at least for small prints, but even then, negatives tend to sag a little, at least in the carrier I use. I don’t think these Aerocolor negatives will even stay in the carrier; they’ll probably just sag and fall through. So I used my old AN-glass carrier. Unfortunately, the glass is pitted in a few places on this carrier, which shows up on the prints.

Let’s have a look at them prints. And apologies for the tacky sunsets. If life gives you lemons, eh!

There’s a somewhat odd magenta/green crossover in this one, that’s emphasized in scanning, but it’s surely there in the print – and in the negative as well. It’s not entirely down to lighting conditions, either. Note the green foreground and magenta mid-field area stretching to the horizon in the center of the frame. I’m not quite sure where this crossover originates and if this may be an integral part of the ‘Aerocolor experience’.

(Ignore the area of darker spots in the middle of the sky; they’re a reminder I should once in a while clean the glass of my scanner!)

I burned the sky a bit in this one, and the bright part above the horizon even a little more to bring out the colors of the sunset a little more. Again, there seems to be some magenta/green crossover going on especially in the clouds, which is also present in the negatives. It’s not necessarily problematic in this image, but it’s also not what I’m used to getting form normal color negative film.

I did some extensive burning in of the sky here as well so that it balances out with the reflections in the foreground. This is the sheet I overexposed intentionally; the band of green grass and the differentiation in the backlit trees are the reason why I did this. And while it wasn’t necessary to this extent, it turned out to be useful to have some detail and color differentiation in those areas alright. In this image, the sky does such funky things that whatever odd stuff the film may throw at it doesn’t really matter anymore. It’s wild, anyway.

Again, burned the sky to balance it with the green stuff at the bottom. In doing so, I left the tree outline alone a bit. I did plan on the tree rendering as a black silhouette alright, but in printing, I did notice that I liked the ‘glow’ it gives if I burn around it a bit instead of all over it. This also helps the small twigs to not bleed out too much.

I’d be a bit hesitant to use this film on something that requires neutral colors and where some funky crossover issues would get in the way of the image; the first print is a good illustration of what seems to happen in those cases. Whether that is due to the lack of masking dyes, the inherent crossed over curves of the film or some other factor (i.e. me messing up somehow), I can’t tell.

I’m sure I’ll be having fun with the remaining sheets in this box of film. With a bit of luck, I’ll figure out to work around some of its particularities. If I’ll purchase another box…I doubt it. Not because it’s a bad film, per se. I guess I could work with this just fine, for the most part. But in all honesty, it’s expensive for what it is. Too much so, in my opinion. The price differential with a ‘proper’ still photography film is just too small – if this would cost let’s say 20% of the price of Portra (entirely feasible given the price of a 150m roll of Aerocolor IV), it would be a good deal in my view. But I’m afraid the Reflx guys are trying to take too big of a bite to make this work. My use of Aerocolor may continue in the future, somehow. But I think my purchase from Reflx will be a one-time thing.

4 thoughts on “Skyfall – A first impression of 4×5″ Kodak Aerocolor IV”

  1. Nice job with printing from Aerocolor, you are maybe the first one who tried it? You overtook me btw., because I wanted to try Santacolor a half year ago, but my Santacolors are still sittin’ in their cartridges. Maybe I should use them now, while it’s Christmas. Speaking of Christmas, I wish you a Merry One!
    But I cannot say much about your prints, without directly seeing them. Also direct comparison with prints from masked negatives of the same scene would be useful. Along with magenta/green crossover in darker parts you mentioned, I can also see the grass green significantly blueish, opposed to the scans. Maybe this is the result of lack of the mask?
    You also print with RGB LED head, which surely gives different color rendition than usual continous, filtered light source would do.
    Judging from higher gamma, the Aerocolor would be maybe good candidate for reversal development. Question is, if bare E-6 would work here without some modifications to the process.
    Inherent crossovers and lack of the mask would be worrying for some serious fashion photographer, but not for lover of old tech like me.
    Given that 99,99999% of all the color negatives exposed nowadays get directly scanned and digitally manipulated before printing or posting to some social network, such flaws are not a big issue and can be easily corrected digitally, if one knows which buttons to press in the photoshop.
    I think I’m gonna enjoy it, but as casual color film it’s for me too expensive even in 135 format.

    1. Merry Christmas to you, too, Ivan!

      Thanks once more for your comments. As to the bluish grass: that’s really just me filtering the sky for a (personal taste) indigo blue and magenta hue. I might have filtered it a little less magenta and especially more blue and the grass would have been different. And yes, the LED head will produce different prints than a dichroic head, and I also suspect that this difference may be emphasized on non-masked film.

      As to reversal processing, it will most certainly work, but I wonder how the hue of the clear areas on the film will turn out. This may produce a problem, but it’s worth a shot for those who are into reversal processing.

      I agree with you that it’s not very attractive for casual use as you put it. It’s nice film, but not at a price level that approximates (or perhaps even rivals) regular masked color film. Especially in 35mm, I’m pretty happy with Vision3 films and that price point is hard to beat. For 4×5, I guess I’ll have to keep looking…

  2. Aerocolor’s higher contrast is due to the low contrast of the world seen from the air. Kodak used to make b/w aerial films with varying levels of contrast for photography at different altitudes… one of those lucky breaks where higher contrast and higher resolution go hand in hand. Especially if you plan to fly at 80,000 feet (like in a U-2) and enlarge the resulting negs to find targets. Of course the limited resolution of color films (by comparison) meant that it was impractical to fly it at extreme altitudes, thus Aerocolor’s only slightly higher than normal contrast.
    You’re doing great work here. I haven’t used 4×5 color neg since maybe 2009 (and won’t be going back to it) but it’s lovely to see the medium being used well.

    1. Thanks Mark for the kind words, and yes, you’re right about the contrast – there’s that thick layer of atmospheric haze that this film needs to account for. I really should expose some more of those Aerocolor sheets and print them.

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