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 (I assumed he was not fibbing when he wrote they had been frozen).
*Note: My title needs to be qualified. Panatomic-X might have been the best fine-grain black and white film, but the old standby, Tri-X, is superb when you need faster speed and do not need as fine grain. Plenty of film users have other favorites.

Eastman Kodak Company introduced Panatomic-X in 1933 and discontinued it in 1987. The film had been reformulated during its five-decade existence, so my late production was likely 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. I also experimented with Agfapan 25 but could never get the contrast right (but that was my error, of course - 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.
Former residence room in the Junius Ward YMCA on Clay Street in Vicksburg, 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 case, 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.
Shotgun houses in Grayson Court, Jackson, 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 with a 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.
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. 
  • 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 photograph.
Unused church in Hermanville, Mississippi, January 2017. Rolleiflex photograph.
Little Bayou Pierre, Port Gibson, 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.
Crushing mill, Rte 3, Redwood, Mississippi, 2017. Rolleiflex photograph.
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 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. Techno-dweebs 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 no lame chimping (reviewing the pictures on the camera's screen) as you see in tourist sites around the world. Used film cameras are cheap - just go do it.


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