Sunday, May 21, 2017

Kodak Panatomic-X: the Best Black and White Film*

Bad news, there is only one brick of 120-size Panatomic-X film left in my freezer. So it goes - all good things must eventually end. I bought several bricks in the late-1990s from a fellow on eBay who owned a refrigeration business. As promised, they were in perfect condition. (I was unaware when Kodak discontinued the product and therefore did not buy any stock for myself.)
*Note: My title needs to be qualified. Panatomic-X might have been the best fine-grain black and white film, but the old standby, Kodak Tri-X, is superb when you need faster speed and do not need as fine grain. Plenty of film users have other favorites, such as TMax 100 or Ilford Delta 100.
120-size box from 1961, courtesy of Pacific Rim Camera
1951 box for 828 size Panatomic-X, courtesy of Pacific Rim Camera
Eastman Kodak Company introduced Panatomic-X in 1933 and discontinued it in 1987. The earliest version of Panatomic (not X) was on nitrate base, but the X version was on safety base, probably around 1937. The film had been reformulated during its five-decade existence, so my late production was different than the original. It was designed to be an extremely fine grain film, which meant it could be enlarged for large prints and still retain details. This was of value to architectural, fine-art, and aerial photographers. Some 9-inch aerial photography film was a version of Panatomic-X. The version I have in 120 size was rated at ISO 32, but I shot it at 20 or 25 and developed it in Rodinal at 1:50 dilution. Agfa's Rodinal is a developer that retains the grain structure and therefore looks "sharp" (i.e., it does not have solvent action to partly dissolve the edges of the grain clumps). Used with good lenses and careful technique (that means a tripod), the detail in a Panatomic-X negative is astonishing, even in this age of 36-megapixel digital cameras.
These are 1982 examples from a farm in Clifton, Virginia. I had just bought a Rolleiflex 3.5E twin-lens reflex camera and was experimenting with different films. I wanted fine grain for architecture, and Panatomic-X was still in production. After experimenting, I settled on shooting it at ISO 25 and developing it in Rodinal 1:50. I also experimented with Agfapan 25 but could never get the contrast right (but that was my error - Agfapan was a fine film).
My most recent 1959-vintage Rolleiflex 3.5E with the 5-element 75mm f/3.5 Schneider Xenotar lens.
This is my present Rolleiflex 3.5E camera. It is similar to the one I used in the 1980s, which I should have never sold. The earlier one had a selenium light meter in the slot below the word "Rolleiflex." But my new one has better resolution; everything in its production chain worked out just right. In the 1950s and early 1960s, every Rolleiflex camera was individually tested with film in the factory before being released for sale. If there were any issues, the camera went back for adjustment or installation of new lenses. The taking and viewing lenses were precisely matched in focal length.
Former residence room in the Junius Ward YMCA on Clay Street in Vicksburg, Mississippi, early 1990.
Panatomic-X film was excellent for detailed photography in old buildings, but you needed a tripod to support the camera for long exposures. In this example, I found an old chair in the hall and placed the camera on it. The Rolleiflex was suited for this work because it did not have a moving mirror and was therefore vibration-free.
Cemetery in Kalavrita, Greece, 1998, Leica M2 35mm camera.
I occasionally used Panatomic-X in 35mm cameras. This is an example from Kalavrita, a town in the Peloponnese of southern Greece. I should have used the 135 size film more often.
Shotgun houses in Grayson Court, Jackson, Mississippi, 2004.
Grayson Court in Jackson was an old-fashioned alley with shotgun houses facing the common road. It has been torn down although the property owner did some renovating in the early 2000s. I took this photograph with my Fuji GW690II camera (the "Texas Leica") and its Fuji 90mm f/3.5 lens. The 6×9 negative (real size 54×82mm) scans to a 100 mbyte 16-bit TIFF file. More Fuji examples are below.
The Junius Ward YMCA on Clay Street, Vicksburg, 2004. The Old Courthouse Museum is in the distance.
Two shotgun houses on Bowmar Avenue, Vicksburg, 2005. Both have been town down.
The New21 Club on Hwy 61, Valley Park, Mississippi, 2016.
Blue Front Cafe, Bentonia, Mississippi, 2010.
Administration building (1936) at former Bonner Campbell Institute, Edwards, Mississippi (click to see 2400 pixel frame) 
Kodak likely discontinued Panatomic-X for several reasons:
  • Even by the 1980s, most photographers wanted faster film so that they would not need to use a tripod in low light. 
  • Newer T-grain or tabular films like Kodak T-Max or Ilford Delta 100 offered almost as fine grain but with faster speed.
  • A friend from Rochester who has worked with Kodak said there was a toxic chemical used in the Panatomic-X production. I have read the same pertaining to Agfapan 25, so maybe slow fine grain films required some chemical technology that manufacturers cannot use today.
Unused Teen Center, 407 West Green Street, Tallulah, Louisiana, December 2016. Fuji GW690II photograph.
Unused church in Hermanville, Mississippi, January 2017. Rolleiflex 3.5E.
Little Bayou Pierre, Port Gibson, Mississippi, February 2017. Port Gibson is the town that General Ulysses Grant did not burn during the U.S. Civil War because he admired the architecture so much. Rolleiflex 3.5E.
Crushing mill, Rte 3, Redwood, Mississippi, 2017. Rolleiflex 3.5E with 75mm Xenotar lens.
As a final example, this is some sort of early 20th century crushing mill, long abandoned in the woods just off Hwy 3 in Redwood. This is a 1 sec exposure at f/11. I resized this frame to 2400 pixels, so click the picture to see more detail.

Readers know I like film. One reason is I used film for 50 years and am comfortable with it. Another reason is it has a familiar look that we saw in prints, magazines, exhibits, and movies for decades, and it works well for recording urban decay. The self-professed "experts" on forums like Dpreview despise film because they think they are so superior with their new super digital capture devices. To each his own. Still, if you have aspirations to be a photographer, you owe it to yourself to use the traditional medium, learn how to calculate exposure manually, and contemplate each picture carefully. You need to think with film; no spray and pray that you might achieve a meaningful picture. And you cannot chimp (review the pictures on the camera's screen) as you see in tourist sites around the world. Read an interesting interview on The Phoblogger with the Richard Photo Lab about how film is appealing to more and more photographers of all ages and skill levels. Used film cameras are cheap and many emulsions are still available - just go do it.

Update March 2019

A reader in Photrio found this 1934 announcement from the British Journal Photographic Almanac. Thank you for the detective work.


  1. Are you selling that brick? If so, how much? That was my favorite film!

  2. Panatomic-X was a film waaaay better than TMAX 100. In my opinion , true look of classic film photography.
    And with Rodinal looks great indeed.

    1. I tend to agree, but TMax 100 is excellent. So is Ilford Delta 100. I tried Fomapan 100 Classic as a substitute, but had mixed results. Sometimes, it was really nice, other times the dark areas were just muddy: