Film Photography

Shooting Kodak Panatomic-X

Kodak Panatomic-X film has developed almost a cult following since it was discontinued in 1987. Look around the forums and the blogs: people call this the best black-and-white film ever made. It’s a fine-grained but slow film at ISO 32.

Mike Eckman of mike eckman dot com sent me two short rolls he bulk loaded, just to try this film. “Shoot it at ISO 20 or 25,” he said, “and develop it in HC-110 Dilution B for 6½ minutes.” I asked him what temperature. He said that it didn’t matter, 6½ minutes just always works. And so it did.

Light

I knew I’d want a fast lens for this slow film, and the fastest lenses I own say SMC Pentax-M on them. So I got out my Pentax ME, set it at EI 25, mounted my 50mm f/1.7, and loaded the first roll of Panatomic-X.

Cameron Fence

I shot indiscriminately around my yard and within a few minutes’ walk of my home.

Sprinkling

For the kind of shooting I do — handheld, outdoors — slow films need great light. I went out with my ME only on full-sun days and I still got shallow depth of field. But if you know that going in, you can work with it.

On the Deck

Mike told me that this stock is at least 30 years old. Yet look how it performs!

Bat

This fits Panatomic-X’s reputation: no matter how old, almost no matter how stored, this film performs well. These photos bear it out — they look very good, with creamy middle grays and solid blacks.

XOX

My scanner is the weak link in my workflow, as it delivers soft scans in 35mm. Even after heavy unsharp masking, the images still aren’t truly sharp. These negatives scanned as sharp as my tools can manage, and required only moderate unsharp masking.

Neighbor's Dog

To wrap up, here’s a shot of my neighbor’s dog, who came out to have a bark at me. I think he wants to be my pal, but his innate skittishness makes him back away whenever I go over to say hello. So I immortalized him on expired Kodak Panatomic-X.

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33 thoughts on “Shooting Kodak Panatomic-X

  1. Andy Umbo says:

    A great film! I think better than the Ilford Pan F, at least the last time I could compare…back when I was in photo school, (1973 ish), they made reversal processing kits for Pan-X, so you could shoot it and have really long scale black & white slides. It was stupendous, and we had to do it for a composition class where our teacher wanted to put everyone’s assignments in a tray and project for class comment.

  2. It always amazes me that the film you use is so old but performs beautifully. Until I began following you it seemed unimaginable that thirty year old film would still work!

  3. WOW! Pan-X! It’s been ages since I’ve even thought of that film. I had forgotten how tight that grain was. Sure wish Kodak would start production again on that film. There is definitely a niche that needs filling.

    Thanks for the DML, Jim.

    • Kodak will tell you all day long to just use T-Max 100 instead. I like that film a lot, so for me that’s no problem. But I do wonder what it would take to restart production on Pan-X and Verichrome Pan.

      • P says:

        I wish they’d start making Pan-X and Verichrome Pan again too, especially Pan-X! If they priced it right (unlikely) I’d buy loads of both stocks.

        Nice images here, Jim.

      • Andy (Crabby Today) Umbo says:

        I’m in for Verichrome Pan 120! I still think about that film all the time! I’m in for 20 rolls immediately!

        The fact that Kodak would tell you to use T-Max 100, is an example of how Kodak went off the rails in the 60’s and 70’s, when they eliminated actual wide-spread professional photographers opinions from the process and started relying heavily on engineers. We realized this in the 70’s, when our Kodak Tech Rep, who was a semi-retired studio owner, turned into a 23 year old Rochester Business grad, and didn’t know ‘nuttin’ except drinking the Kodak Kool-ade.

        They took some sort of survey and decided the general public wanted “less grain”, and then tried to force the T-Max films down everyone’s throats. I hated the stuff, it had terrible skin rendition, and I could care less about “grain” since I shoot 4X5 and 8X10! I can tell you I knew of zero actually professional photographers shooting daily that adopted any T-Max film. Whatever Kodak was looking at, the pros weren’t looking at.

        My account rep at the local pro shop always said Kodak had developed the “Touch of S**t”, everything they tried to do, they spent millions on, and it all went south. Kodak created a lot of nice stuff, including some silver heavy premium printing paper, but they pulled the plug on all of the good stuff; not because people weren’t buying it, and they weren’t making a profit, but because they weren’t making enough profit, and wouldn’t promote it.

        Sorry for the rant, but this column reminded me of all the wonderful stuff Kodak used to make, and how stupidity and “business think” wrecked it the company. My business friends tell me that they’ll be teaching the Kodak and Polaroid stores in business schools for years, mostly about how not to wreck a company!

        • P says:

          Andy, I’d say they continue to wreck their company to this day with “stupidity and business think.” Actually, it only seems to get worse with time as far as I’m concerned. It’s sad.

  4. I liked Pan-X too. Yes it was slow, but that was what enabled its fine grain and wide tonal range. However I seem to recall when last used it had an ASA of 50, not 32. And really that’s only one stop less than Plus-X was. Most people couldn’t tell the difference between the two in the end result. That’s what Kodak always catered to: the mass market. Oddly enough that was the mass professional market as well as the mass amateur market.

    • As I looked into it for this post I found conflicting data on Pan-X’s speed. 32 was cited most often so that’s what I went with. I never used the stuff when it was available so I don’t have personal experience to lean on here!

      • P says:

        Some people claim the stated 32 speed rating was the Weston value, and others say it’s the old ASA value before the ASA standard was updated to its current form. However, both of these notions are very easy to disprove as later Kodak boxes of 35mm Pan-X (and their corresponding tech sheets) clearly state ISO 32. Obviously, since it reads “ISO” this is well after the shift from Weston to ASA, and the old ASA standard; it’s after the final ASA revision was incorporated into the ISO standard. Hence why the box says “ISO 32.” Here’s an image of a later Pan-X box.

        https://flic.kr/p/2E3s8

        • Andy Umbo says:

          I think people are confusing Panatomic-X with Ilford Pan-F, which IS 50 asa/iso and has been for a long time.

  5. For those soft scans, I recommend a deconvolution sharpener rather than unsharp masking. I have two of them, Focus Magic and Topaz InFocus (the latter has been replaced with a newer product I haven’t tried). I use one of them with every scan (after I apply noise reduction), and it makes a big difference. It won’t magically make a genuinely unsharp image sharp, but it will fix the loss of sharpness that goes with scanning and even salvage a slightly unsharp image.

    • What an excellent tip. I looked it up and found a way to do deconvolution sharpening within Photoshop’s RAW editor. It looks promising! I’ll keep playing with it.

  6. Richard Scholl says:

    When I first started using a 35mm camera (rangefinder) in the late 1950s, I soon discovered Panatomic X (ASA 25 at the time), and it became my favorite film. I am sure it influenced how I developed as a photographer (I was in my early teens) as fine grain and sharpness became increasingly important to me. They remain primary goals.

    • I use the Canon CanoScan 9000F Mark II. If I had it to do over again I would have gone with the Epson V600. But the CanoScan is okay enough that I’m just going to stay with it. The CanoScan is out of production but the Epson is not.

      Be aware that you’re never going to get lab-quality scans from a flatbed. But when you learn all the ins and outs you will get good enough scans for most purposes. My medium format scans are generally very good and my 35mm scans are usually just good, and sometimes aren’t great. I always have to apply sharpening in post.

      If you buy the Epson, be aware that I have heard Mac users experience challenges getting the Mac to connect to it. You might want to research that. Whatever you do, buy better scanning software. The stuff that comes bundled with the scanner isn’t that great. I used Silverfast with my previous scanner, an Epson V300. Its interface was maddening but it did pretty good work and had a whole bunch of film profiles in it that helped a lot. I use VueScan with my Canon — it’s tons easier to use.

      I’m considering buying a Plustek dedicated 35mm scanner for my 35mm film. One other blogger I follow did that and the quality of his 35mm scans improved noticeably.

      • I have a Plustek 7600i, which is the same hardware as the current 8200i. The difference is that the 8200i ships with a newer version of Silverfast. Although the Plustek scanner is designed to work with Silverfast, it works perfectly well with VueScan. When I replaced my computer last year, I didn’t even bother to install Silverfast on the new machine. VueScan even works with Linux.

        The Plustek is a decent scanner, though definitely a step down from the Canon FS4000US it replaced. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of choice these days if you want a dedicated film scanner rather than a flatbed that can sort of scan film. I have a review and discussion of the Plustek scanner on my Web site. It’s more practical than technical, though I link to some more thorough technical reviews.

        https://www.tedsimages.com/text/plustek.htm

  7. Richard Scholl says:

    When I was looking for a film a couple of years ago I found the most detailed reviews at Film scanner.info/en
    FYI

  8. Richard Scholl says:

    FYI: the FilmScanner.info site is in Europe. Some of the scanners are sold here as different brands (e.g., Pacific Imaging)

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