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Saturday, November 16

A look back at Agfa Record Rapid

I recently picked up some darkroom equipment that included 100 sheets of 7' x 9.5" Record Rapid and 100 sheets of the same paper in 5' x 7" format. Although I started printing around 37 years ago, for some reason Record Rapid never featured at any time in my darkroom. That's a bit strange given the great reputation it built for itself over the decades but I don't suppose we can try everything and I tended to mainline on Ilford Multigrade.

I'm not exactly sure when they stopped making Record Rapid but it must have been about 10 years ago and there are many photographers who have yet to recover from that blow. A high silver content and the later-to-be-banned cadmium seemed to endow it with some pretty special qualities during its early years that caused some printers to wax lyrical about the depth of the blacks and the glow from the highlights. The internet is littered with references to people asking what the best replacement for Record Rapid might be.

The paper I have is therefore well past it's best before date. I think it was around 1988 when Agfa removed the cadmium for environmental reasons but it's unlikely that my paper is from that era. The post-cadmium paper never scaled the same heights but, by common consensus, was probably still better or at least as good as anything on the market today.

To be honest, I wasn't expecting too much from the Record Rapid. A quick perusal of the web revealed that it was likely to be all fogged up. That would show itself in depressed highlights or even an all-over fog. There are a couple of things that can be done to ameliorate this fogging, one being the addition of a restrainer such as potassium bromide or benzotriazole to the developer to hold back the fog and the other a longer exposure/shorter development process to get the image down on paper before the fog gets a chance to build.

First test strip
Before going down that road, however, I just did a couple of prints in Spur's Straight Black developer and found it was still in quite usable condition. What a bonus! It's a normal grade (two) paper with an extra-white fine lustre finish which is absolutely beautiful. It's not unlike the finish on the Kodak Bromide paper I talked about in this post. The results are probably a shade softer than a normal grade should be but there are also a few ways of getting round that. I'm sure a proper test will also reveal a slight fogging but nothing too bad.

My first print was the one at the top of this page which I call "The chair in my hall". It proved remarkably easy to print. The test strip (above) gave me all the information I needed and the resultant print was totally straight. If only they were all like that! I scanned the print in colour so you can see the slight olive tone it had when it emerged from Spur's Straight Black developer. I think it's quite attractive but it can be neutralised by toning it in weakish selenium.

The second print is the one above which lacks a little bit of contrast. The negative is nice but just on the flattish side for this paper. After picking Phil's brain for a while, I decided to mix up some potassium ferricyanide and reduce the highlights for some sparkle. That's one of the ways I mentioned earlier of overcoming lowish contrast. I've used Farmer's Reducer before but it was about 12 years ago now and I can't remember much about it. It's made up of two solutions - potassium ferricyanide and sodium thiosulphate or plain old hypo.

Below is something like how it should have ended up looking. This one was "reduced" in Lightroom.

Here's how it actually ended up. Not a pretty sight.

The first Farmer's mix was a little on the strong side and I completely screwed up the print. I soaked it in a water bath for a while before dunking it in the Farmer's but the result was a quite severe streaking. Not to worry! I've got good notes and can easily chuck out another print like this for a second attempt. With the Farmer's just sitting there, I nipped through to the darkroom - I was doing the reducing in the bath - and grabbed a handful of prints for some fun. There's no doubt that Farmer's is a great way of brightening up a print. I've included a couple of examples below.

Here's a print that was an over-exposed cock-up. It looked beyond help but after swilling it around in the Farmer's for a few minutes and working on the brickwork and wood in the right foreground the print (below) was considerably better.

Now here's the "normal" print from the same negative on Record Rapid. I think I might prefer the rescued print. It seems to capture more of the moody feeling I was after.

Next is a shot of an old, disused rope works that proved just a little flat on Record Rapid as well. It's not too bad but there's no sparkle in the highlights. The whole print was submerged for a wee while in the Farmer's until it brightened up.

Below is the somewhat more sparkly result.

There's a real danger if you just jump straight in with the reducer that you'll ruin a print - as I so ably demonstrated earlier. Using a quite weak solution and taking it nice and easy will get best results. Phil's suggestion - "Softly, softly and carry a big stick is the way to go" - might well make sense. I'm still trying to figure out what it means. :)

I mentioned earlier there were a couple of ways of giving contrast a boost where a paper isn't quite the right match for a negative. As well as Farmer's, you can also add sodium carbonate to the developer which can give the blacks a bit of oomph and/or tone the resultant print in selenium which, again, strengthens the blacks a little.

Getting the absolutely best quality out of the Record Rapid will require one or two of these special treatments. If the negative is quite contrasty then it will print with little trouble, maybe requiring just a little reduction in Farmer's. For those negs where contrast falls slightly short, then the Farmer's, sodium carbonate and selenium used together should give me the equivalent of around one grade or maybe a grade-and-a-half harder.

One thing's for sure: Record Rapid is a lovely, lovely paper giving me results that are superior to anything I've used. That only goes so far, though, as there are still quite a few papers, even in today's restricted market, that I've yet to try. If it was still made today I'd be sorely tempted to choose this paper and surface for all my prints. It's qualities are hard to describe. The highlights have a pearly - almost mother-of-pearl - sheen to them. The blacks are nice and velvety but they don't block up easily so it's often possible to "see" into them. One way of putting it is that comparing Record Rapid to, say, Multigrade fibre-based feels like comparing a good MG FB print to a good digital print. In fact, it's so nice that I've got an idea to kick off my plans for a portfolio with it.

The paper size I'm using here - 7" x 9.5" - is quite small and it left me wondering how I could make best use of it. For square prints from 6x6 negs, about 6.5" x 6.5" is as big as I can go. With 35mm negatives, 9" x 6" prints are possible and, with 5x4 film, 7-5" x 6" is the limit. These would all be full-frame as that's how I like to print if possible. I'd be restricted in the negatives I could use as the contrast has to be quite robust to fit the paper.

Still, I'm going to look through my files and choose maybe 20-25 negatives that I think will print well on the Record Rapid. I've got around 85 sheets left so that should be enough given that there will be the usual cock-ups, blunders, reducing disasters and heavy-handed burning and dodging to take into account! This will be my "small" portfolio. The intention is still to do a "proper" portfolio of 11x14 or 9.5x12 prints but more of that later.


Hernan Zenteno said...

Hello. During early 90's I used too another method to improve contrast and punch on the shadows side. It consist in give a brief selenium toning but the purpose is not to tone, is make permanent some silver. After wash the print briefly I used the ferricyanide.Then, If I remember ok, I had to fix again, then washing aid and wash properly. The issue with reducers is that you must be sure about how good you wash the prints specially with fiber paper that could be a lot difficult to wash well to reach the archival category.


Good point about washing, Hernan. Your technique sounds interesting. Does the selenium protect the highlights or shadows?

Vincent Brady said...

I must admit that I used Agfa RR for many years and then all of a sudden I found that I did not like the warm tone effect in the paper. I then then changed over to Ilford MG and found the more B&W effect more pleasing to me. Although I have on occasion use MG WT I still like the straight B&W effect best.

marty said...

Hi. Indeed an excellent set of photographs. It's good to see such nice paper put to good use rather than decay forgotten onto some dusty shelf, and besides that the fact it's still working it's a sign that our beloved "traditional" photography it's hard to die : -))))...
Selenium toner starts its action from the shadows reaching the lights over a time that depends on solution strenght and temperature so if you pull the print before completion the shadows will be already converted in silver selenide which will resist the bleach while the lights not yet. Working with more than normal dilution should ensure better control over the process. A good final wash is mandatory as the fixer residue is detrimental to the emulsion, in the best case a yellowish stain will show up in a short time but it might appear even in a longer time. I use a hypo eliminator after a short rinse followed by a longer and thoroughly wash.
An eventual over-bleach can be recovered putting the print again in the developer (this way the image will re-appear) before the refix and eventually going back to bleach. Intermediate wash is required.
Having that said my experience with FB paper is that the less it stays wet and the less is handled when wet the best it is (warp and delamination are always around the corner...).
Cheers, M.

Hernan Zenteno said...

Sorry I was busy but Marty reply explain a lot better the process than my poor english. The photographer George Krause used to process some prints this way with some specific concentration of selenium to get a pink tone on their prints.
About washing. I contacted some years ago the inventor of a serial flow print washer that told me his patent is free. He left the business when started the digital fever. I couldn't make build the washer cause the money and equal I have not time to do prints now. The inventor is Stephen C. Peterson, the number of patent is 4,269,209 and is named Serial Flow Photographic Washer. This is the link to the US patent search

Michael Stevens said...

A very interesting article. I wonder if you've tried Adox's MCC paper, it's often quoted as a modern alternative to Record Rapid. I've never tried the older paper but have got nice results from MCC.