Developing 4x5 large format slides at home with the Unicolor E6 kit

October 29, 2019  •  1 Comment

If you have explored the other galleries on my website, you might have come across a gallery of my large format film work. I've been shooting film for quite some time now, especially so when I purchased my large format Horseman 45FA field camera in 2013. I do shoot smaller formats from time to time, but the resolution and definition of larger formats is something to behold in-person, where a single 4x5 frame is almost like a portal or a window to the time and place where the photo was taken. I especially use large format to complement my digital work, particularly when documenting soon-to-be-demolished buildings or spaces in land-scarce Singapore. That way, it's almost as if I get to keep a tangible piece of the place.

Film photography is no longer as widely-used these days, and so it can be tough finding places to develop film. While one can still find many places to develop C41 colour negatives in 35mm and 120mm, E6 and C41 in 4x5 and above is a trickier affair in Singapore as there's only one lab that processes it (Analog Film Lab). Large format photographers will be hard-pressed to find processing services for both C41 and E6 in Singapore, and usual solutions would be to send it in to Analog Film Lab or mail the slides to overseas shops. While Analog Film Lab usually does a good job with slides, prices can be...well, pricey for 4x5 sheet film. At $10 per sheet (it's $10 per roll for other formats, which is still pretty reasonable), it would make more economical sense to me to self-develop them at home or my alma mater's photography club.

Purchasing Chemicals

Personally the trickiest part of the process to me, because not every supplier can ship these things in. Locally, we have a Fujifilm chemical process plant that still manufactures the Fujihunt chemistry, but it is a six-step process and they only ship in volume. That leaves us with shipping chemistry in from overseas. I used to ship the Tetenal Colortec E6 kit from FotoImpex, but they stopped overseas shipping of chemicals and Tetenal kits have been tough to purchase ever since they had financial troubles. 

These days, I get my kits from Film Photography Project. They sell both the Unicolor E6 and C41 kits, and can be shipped into Singapore through a shipping redirector service. I use EZBuy for this, but do check with your preferred service if they allow chemistry to be brought in. Alternately, you can also purchase chemistry from Omega Brandess. They can ship film directly to Singapore, but shipping fees are expensive. 

Unicolor E6 Kit

Equipment Needed

Since E6 and C41 are temperature-critical processes, you need to have a heated bath to immerse the working solutions to ensure that their temperatures are kept constant. Otherwise, there will be errors in processing and your slides will end up too dark and muddy. I use a big plastic tub as a bath to hold the working solutions and the developing tank, as well as a sous-vide immersion heater and circulator to keep the water exactly at 38°C. The sous-vide heater is a great tool for this as it can keep the water temperature constant through circulation. Plus, it can cook up a real nice steak too!

I'm using the standard Paterson developing tank for this process - this is a slightly larger one that can take 6 sheets of 4x5 film through a special holder, or up to 4 rolls of 35mm film through the Paterson reels. The film holder I'm using is the B's Roll by Bounet Photography. It's a lot better suited for agitation with the agitating stick, and it holds the film very securely within the 3D-printed plastic slots. I used to use the MOD54 holder, but that holder is more suited for inversion processing as twirling it around with the agitation stick may cause uneven development. It also doesn't hold the film securely, and I have issues with film getting dislodged mid-way through processing.

After loading the film into the developing tank within your standard light-tight environment (darkroom, changing bag/tent, etc.), you can start your developing process just like for black and white film. The only difference is that everything must take place in a temperature-controlled environment as much as possible. For both E6 and C41, I try to process my film in a well-ventilated environment and avoid skin contact with the chemistry as much as possible as they can be toxic. This is also why I use the agitation stick instead of inversion processing in order to prevent spillage.

Processing Film

Now that you have your workspace properly laid out, it's just a matter of following the processing steps listed in the instructions that came with the chemistry, which is a 4-bath process. For my Unicolor kit, I'm using the following steps:

  1. Pre-heat the film in the developing tank by filling it up with 38°C water and letting it soak for 5 minutes.
  2. First Developer: 6 mins 30 secs - Constant agitation for first 15 seconds, then once every 15 seconds till completion.
  3. Wash: 2 mins 30 secs - Running water at 38°C if possible, or change water once every 30 seconds with constant agitation.
  4. Colour Developer: 4 mins 30 secs - Constant agitation for first 15 seconds, then once every 15 seconds till completion.
  5. Wash: 2 mins 30 secs - Running water at 38°C if possible, or change water once every 30 seconds with constant agitation.
  6. Blix: 6 mins 30 secs - Constant agitation for first 15 seconds, then once every 15 seconds till completion.
  7. Wash: 4 mins - Running water if possible, or change water once every 30 seconds with constant agitation. This part is no longer temperature critical, and film can be exposed to light.
  8. Stabiliser: 1 minute of constant agitation before hanging and drying. Do not wash film after this step.

Once the blix step is completed, you can take your film out for inspection and carry on the final washing and stabilising steps in the light. Although it is possible to take film out after the colour developer step, I prefer to play it safe and do so after blix. The Unicolor kit also doesn't come with a stabiliser, so I'm using my old stabiliser from the Tetenal kit. You can also use the C41 stabiliser that comes in the powdered kits. I'm not sure why Unicolor leaves out the stabilising step - I find it pretty crucial as it coats your film with a preserving agent that helps to prevent fungal growth.

Once the final rinse and the stabilising steps are completed, you can hang your film up to dry. Be sure to leave the stabiliser on the film instead of washing it off as it needs to be absorbed into the film for protection. I use hangers and clips to dry my film.

At this point you can proceed on to another batch or pack up your chemicals and admire your work. Be sure to keep track of how many sheets or rolls of film you have gone through. The E6 chemistry are usually good for multiple uses, and may be able to process more than their rated capacities but you may have to compensate in certain ways (extending processing time, etc.). Once fully dried, you can store the film in plastic sleeves or scan them.

Processing film - both colour and black and white is always a therapeutic affair for me, and the results at the end are certainly very worth it (especially for slides)! I do think that it should be an endeavour that every film enthusiast should try at least once.

Some samples from my E6 endeavours viewed on a lightbox:


Thank you for this post - you have spurred me on to order my first kit from FPP!
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