Cross Processing

What happens when you don’t follow the process?  Purposely do something that is not what has been specified by the manufacturer of the product.

Photography, like all other art forms, is a form of expression.  By its nature that means that experimentation is encouraged.  In fact, it is expected. In the digital world people change the colour profile of a photograph to create a new “look” in an effort to try something different.  Others apply readymade filters to photographs, in an effort to create something that their audience will be interested in, especially when uploading into social media like Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook etc.  In fact, a lot of the apps actually encourage this.

In the days before digital there were a number of techniques used to create striking results, apart from how the camera or film manufacturers expected.  Cross processing (also known as xPro) films is one of the more popular methods, which would give unpredictable results, but which could also be harnessed to achieve a particular look.

Interestingly I never dabbled in this until recently.  Now that I have tried, I do actually like the results. Before we head into the experience and technique, let’s have a look at what cross processing is.

Colour film types and “normal” processing

There are two main types of colour film and a number of prescribed ways of processing them.

First of all, there is chromogenic colour print film, which the majority of people would have used through until the early part of this century.  This is the film that would be put into a camera for the BBQ snaps at home, special events, and commonly used by portrait photographers.  Most people would drop this off at the one-hour lab, and an automated machine would process it, and generate a stack of prints for you to look at, you then put them into an album, and share with other people.

Colour negatives would be result of the C-41 development process with these films.  This is a process that was introduced by Kodak in 1972 and it superseded their C-22 process and quite a number of other processes from the other manufacturers.  The C-41 process produces colour negatives with an orange mask.  If you hold this film up, after processing, you will see it looks very orange.

Secondly there is reversal film.  Commonly this is referred to as slide film due to that fact that this is exactly what this film produces.  For instance, when old uncle Frank had his slide night, and for a couple of hours you got to watch everything ever seen at Coffs Harbour projected up on a screen at the end of the room, these were slides (i.e. slideshow).  Slide film, especially some of the later ones which had highly saturated colours, were popular with nature and wildlife photographers due to big impact the colours would produce.

Reversal film is processed in a development process referred to E-6 and produces a positive picture on the film itself which was not generally printed.  There were some other processes, including the famous Kodachrome process, but as these films died out, so did the process.

There are also a few variants to these films, including infrared and florescent balanced films, but these are a topic for another day.  There are also some films that a produced now that are also aimed at creating some effects with the colours (e.g. Lomography), but they are also not considered cross processing.

What is Cross Processing?

We have colour films and a specific way they should be processed.  So what happens when you purposely use the wrong chemicals to process a film?  For instance, a reversal slide film, which should be processed in E-6 chemicals, and have it processed it in C-41 chemicals.  Or visa-versa.

This is called cross processing, and can produce some very interesting but unpredictable results.  Taking the reversal film into C-41 example, this will generally produce a higher contrast result, with a grainier picture.  Other factors, like the specific film used will influence this result, as will using expired film, which can get very wacky.

Some people shoot a specific way if they plan on cross processing their film.  For instance, there is a general view that you need to over expose by a stop to avoid blacks without any details.  As film can be tolerant, the highlights can be retrievable.

Interestingly there was even some films which became popular specifically for this process.  Agfa RSX II slide film was one such film and even had a bit of a cult following.  RSX II film processed normally was known for its reds and blues making a statement in images with a Technicolor quality to them, with a feeling of retro.  When cross processed it produced pictures on the yellow/green side, but the contrast was way up, giving the pictures a real gritty feel to them.   It was a sad day for many when this film was discontinued by Agfa.

The Experience

The first thing I did when I decided to try cross processing, was to ask my lab if they still performed that process.  Luckily they did, but don’t take this as a given, film based services performed by labs are decreasing as are the number of labs around.

The next step was selecting the film I wanted to use.  I decided on Rollei Chrome CR200, which has some very similar properties to the old Agfa RSX II.  In-fact, and I did not know this at the time, Rollei has licensed the formula and in fact it is the same film.  How is that for the stars aligning?  I then decided to use one of my old SLRs, specifically the Nikon F70.  The reason I chose this is that I was shooting this project alongside some street photography and needed something with accurate metering, light and can be used quickly (which you can with this camera even though it has a very funky LCD control).  I paired it up with the Nikon 24mm AF-D f/2.8 lens, as I planned on shooting architecture in strange angles mostly, to accentuate the result.

Long exposures aren’t necessarily the forte of cross processing.

Long exposures aren’t necessarily the forte of cross processing.

I decided based on some research that I would rate the film at box speed, which is a slightly over the actual film speed.  As such I could leave the camera to read the film speed and meter on that.

Shooting was just like any other day, but I made sure it was a nice clear sunny day (which is quite easy in Sydney) and that I didn’t try and fall into my “good” habits of ensuring horizon is straight, buildings are vertical etc.  I finished off the role, including some longer exposures in the evening (hey, worth a try) in Circular Quay, as I was meeting a friend for drinks, and dropped off the film at the lab the next day, with instructions to have it processed C-41 rather than E-6.

A couple of days later I picked up the film, and when I held it up, the very first thing I noticed is that it was very purple.  I knew the results would tend to the yellow side, so this made sense.

I eagerly scanned the film in that night, and I must admit, I was very pleased on the results.  The pictures have a really great crispness to them. I had expected the contrast to be up, but this was much more than I expected. The yellow added to that, and I ended up with a very interesting sky which seemed to just pop out.

The part I did not expect was on what happened to the reds.  They really just hit you straight on when first viewing the picture.  Almost like the key colours really having a life of their own within these photos.  Also having expected lots more grain, I was actually quite surprised in that it was there, but not obtrusive, and really added to gritty feel to the pictures.

In general, I found the result to be rather other-worldly, in that everything looked normal, but not normal at the same time.  It was quite fun to try out, and definitely something that can be done alongside “usual” photography.  Give it a go and see what you end up with!

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