Sunday, May 21, 2017

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


This is the first of an irregular series of posts on discontinued film types ("Films from the Dead").

Bad news, there is only one brick of 120-size Kodak 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 an eBay seller in California. As promised, they were in perfect condition. I was unaware when Kodak discontinued the product and therefore did not buy any stock at that time. The fellow in California was a lot smarter than I was. 

*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. Film users have other favorites, such as TMax 100, Ilford Delta 100, or Fuji Acros.

120-size box from 1961, courtesy of Pacific Rim Camera
1951 box for 828 size Panatomic-X, courtesy of Pacific Rim Camera
1937 box for 3¼×4¼" pack film, courtesy of Pacific Rim Camera

Eastman Kodak Company introduced Panatomic 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. Kodak packaged it in roll film sizes 117, 616, 620, 120, 127, 135 (standard metal cassettes), and 828 as well as in several film pack sizes. 

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 5- inch and 9-inch aerial photography film was a version of Panatomic-X known as AERECON II). 

Kodak reformulated the film during its five-decade existence, and my late production was different than the original. My 1980s version in 120 size was rated at ISO 32, but I shoot it at 20 or 25 and develop it in Agfa 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.

From the Archives

This is a photograph that my dad took somewhere in Burma on the Irrawaddy River. He used early Panatomic-X with his Leica IIIC rangefinder camera (still in operation).

1980s and 1990s Examples

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 EI (exposure index) 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 new 1959-vintage Rolleiflex 3.5E with 5-element 75mm ƒ/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, the factory tested every Rolleiflex camera with film before releasing the unit for sale. If there were any issues, the camera went back for adjustment or installation of new lenses. Rollei precisely matched the taking and viewing lenses in focal length.

Residence room in the Junius Ward YMCA, Clay Street, 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 is suited for this work because it does not have a moving mirror and is 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. (Update: Click the link for my 2021 article on 135-size Panatomic-X.)

2000s Examples

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.

Junius Ward YMCA on Clay Street, Vicksburg, 2004. The Old Courthouse Museum is in the distance.
Shotgun houses on Bowmar Avenue, Vicksburg, 2005. Both have been torn 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) 
Unused Teen Center, 407 West Green Street, Tallulah, Louisiana, December 2016. Fuji GW690II camera.
Unused church in Hermanville, Mississippi, January 2017. Rolleiflex 3.5E camera.
Little Bayou Pierre, Port Gibson, Mississippi, February 2017. Rolleiflex 3.5E with 75mm Xenotar lens.

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. 

Crushing mill, Rte 3, Redwood, Mississippi, 2017. Rolleiflex 3.5E with 75mm Xenotar lens.

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.

2020s Examples

Private cemetery within Vicksburg National military Park. Rolleiflex 3.5E, yellow-green filter

Closing Notes

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. (Note: many old-time photographers preferred the genuine Panatomic-X.)
  • A friend from Rochester, who has worked with Kodak, said there was a toxic chemical used in the Panatomic-X production (possibly cadmium). I have read the same pertaining to Agfapan 25, so maybe slow fine grain films required some chemical technology that manufacturers cannot use today.
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" (I am trying to be polite) on forums like Dpreview hate 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 "shot." 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 acceptable price 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.

Update November 2019

Here are examples of industrial machinery at the abandoned Redstone Quarry in North Conway, New Hampshire. I used my Rolleiflex 3.5F with 5-element 75mm ƒ/3.5 Planar lens, all tripod-mounted. Click any picture to see more detail.

Update October 2020

I bought some 35mm Panatomic-X from a seller on eBay. It expired in 1991 and proved to be fine, if possibly more grainy than when new.

Machine shop, Levee Street, Vicksburg, Mississippi (Pentax Spotmatic camera, 28mm ƒ/3.5 Super-Multi-Coated Takumar lens)

Please click this link for more examples of this 1991-vintage 35mm Panatomic-X inVicksburg and Louisiana.

Update July 2022

Good news! I bought ten more rolls of 120 Panatomic-X from the same gent who sold me rolls in the 1990s. 


Werewolf said...

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

Kodachromeguy said...

Sorry, I plan to use it!

Josu. said...

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.

Kodachromeguy said...

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:


momus1 said...

I'm going to be the contrarian on this one. Because Pan X is ISO 32, it's way too slow for me, especially if used w/ a yellow filter. And while the pics are sharpish (who knows w/ web photos?), they look like digital....gray. I want BLACK and WHITE. So for those reasons, and because it just looks "better", Tri-X all the way baby.

. said...

You can definitely get “black and white” with it, a while back I scanned some negatives of my mother’s of a roll she shot in the early 70s in London

Kodachromeguy said...

Hemulen, these 1970s frames from London are really interesting. Some of the storefronts resemble ones in New York City in the 1960s and early '70s. This demonstrates the archival value of film. And you are right, you can develop just about any B&W film to be as contrasty as you wish. Thanks for writing.

Anonymous said...

Panatomic X was one of those films that may not be replaceable, like Verichrome Pan. I've started using a lot of the Ilford just because they support the film world, unlike Kodak, who could really care less, and will pull the plug the minute Tri-X reaches a profit margin they don't like. That said, I've tried Pan F 120 from Ilford over the years, even before Panatomic-X was gone, and just never warmed to it, never had that "X" look. Some of the "slow" old world "euro" films might be a match, but I haven't got around to testing them.

Interesting to note, on your comment about VOC's in Panatomic-X hastening its demise. As a pro, I can tell you that a lot of photographers never warmed to the "cleaned up" Kodachrome 64 and 25, over the old dirty Kodachrome II, which looked beautiful. I never did, altho it didn't meet my processing turn around time anyway for my business. I did try the 120 Kodachrome Kodak reintroduced in the 80's and it was OK, so maybe they fixed some of the problems with cross-over, BUT, it just goes to show you, sometimes a lot of the old "dirty" stuff just could not be made "clean" and be as good!

Bill Spurlin said...

Link to two Panatomic-X images I took in 1971. I couldn't tell you what kind of 35mm camera I used, but I do know I developed everything in D-76 at that time. Sorry for the low resolution scan, but check out the tonality. I have many more of these.

Anonymous said...

Back to this thread after a few years.

I recently used the last of my Panatomic-X. Ten rolls of 120 probably dating to the early '80s - I vaguely recall having bought it in 1983 to take with me on a trek across Australia with my Rolleifled 3.5E2 (Planar).

In those heady days when film was actually affordable and we all took the time to think about our images and compose ever so carefully and one or two images did the trick of 1,001 digicrap ones, I used a lot of Panatomic. I bought it from Kodak Australia in 100-foot rolls and souped it in D76 1:1 which gave perfect mid tones.

ten years ago when I retired I did a stocktake at home and found I had more than 200 rolls of 120 and eight or nine 100-footers of 35mm. All now used up. The last of the 120s was shot about a month ago. The 35 went during the Covid lockdown when I went back to film photography to preserve what remains of my sanity. (SO has serious doubts about this, but please let's not go there, okay?)

I agree that TMax it not what Panatomic was (in spite of Kodak's marketing entreaties when it came out, I suspect it was never meant to) but the 100 and 400 TMaxes are still good films in their own right. So he admits, grudgingly...

I now use Ilford FP4 and HP5, both excellent films in their own right. But they are NOT Panatomic, that was one of a kind.

Anonymous said...

A passing comment, this. It's heresy, I know, and I may well be burnt at the stake for thinking it, let along putting the words to the keyboard. But here goes anyway.

A close digital equivalent to Panatomic, I've found, is what I find I can do with the B&W film simulations in my Fujifilm XE2. The Acros with yellow filter produces mid tones most pleasantly reminiscent of what I once got with '35' Panatomic. For a deeper mood, the Acros with red filter is super good.

Like we used to do with film, and notably so with Panatomic-X, it's important to not overexpose or underexpose digital B&W too much.

I realize I may be offending some with this, but in this digieverything era, we have to make do and work with what we have.

So yes, no more Panatomic, but I make do with Ilford FP4 and careful (relatively mind) spot-on time development in D76 1-1. said...

Thank you, Anonymous. I have recently been using Acros 100. It is an amazingly good film.

For 120 size: I think recent and fresh Acros is about as fine resolution as my 30-year-old Panatomic-X, even with the latter having been frozen all these years.

For 35mm: If I had more time, I'd like to use TMax 100 some more, but for now, Acros suits my need in 35mm.