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Thursday, May 7

Monobath Magic

A neg from hell that could do with some help.

One of the interesting things about the mini-Renaissance film is undergoing is the rediscovery of old techniques and processes by those who are, perhaps, new to the game. I'm not speaking here about alternative processes from the 19th century but those that flared up and died out over the last 60-70 years or so.

One of those seems to be monobath development which a reader kindly pointed out to me. You can read about it here where they're using a single bath developer called R3 to develop a variety of black and white films although it will happily develop most monochrome emulsions.

Essentially, a monobath developer has the developer and fixer in one solution. How can this possibly work, I hear you ask. Well it does so by combining a weakfish fix with an energetic developer so that the latter is downing its second pint before the former has even got its coat off.

Its main drawback is that the fixer can kill development in the shadows before they've become fully developed although the mid tones and highlights are usually fine. Other than that potential pitfall, monobaths can produce high quality negatives with good grain and sharpness. Monobath processing was never really a mainstream application from what I can tell but did have some loyal adherents.

Slippery when wet

For roll film in a Paterson tank or similar, I'd rather just use a normal development procedure but I can well imagine that monobath treatment would be very handy indeed for tray development of sheet film. Transferring sheets of slippery wet film between trays of developer, stop and fix in complete darkness or pouring separate lots of chemicals into one tray draining thoroughly between each is not one of the most enjoyable things in life.

With the monobath, all you need is a single tray and a jug of your preferred brew. Lights out, pour in the chemicals, give minimal agitation and Bob's your uncle.

The late Barry Thornton wrote about this subject but, being Barry, he added a twist - monobath development after bleaching already developed negatives to control dense highlights. Confused? Don't blame you. What he explored was the following.

Say you've been photographing a contrasty scene - Barry cited a church interior with a dark shadows and an exterior window or two in the shot - likely to produce some very dense highlights on the negative and you don't think two-bath or compensating development will manage to control them. His solution, which I seem to remember he got from a reader or customer, was to expose the film for the shadows and then develop it as normal.

No Farmer's allowed

Then bleach away the image until there's nothing left (N.B. - you can't use Farmer's Reducer here as that has fixer in it which will leave your negs permanently bleached). Wash the film thoroughly to remove the bleach then, with the room light on, re-develop it in a weak, high definition developer until the shadows look right but before the midtones have developed.

Give the film another wash and then pop it into the monobath for about a minute by which time development will be over and then give it the usual stop bath and fix. Since the shadows were developed before going into the monobath, their development can no longer be stunted by the fixer but the midtones and highlights will come out peachy.

If you're still awake at this point, it might have occurred to you that you can use the bleach/develop the shadows/monobath routine on your old negatives as well. If you have a nice negative with bullet proof highlights that's always been a bugger to print then it might be worth a try. And if you don't like the results you can simply bleach away your negs again and repeat the process.

I just did a search for Barry's article on the subject and found it here along with his recommendations for bleach strength, etc.

I've never tried this technique so can't say how well it works. The trouble with these things is that they sound a lot more complicated than they actually are. If you tried this once or twice it would become second nature.

Having read Barry's article again, he mentions another approach where you dip your undeveloped negs in a weak solution of bleach to cut back some of the highlight density in the latent image before developing normally. This method seemed to require quite a lot of experimentation to get it just right and there is always the chance of ruining a negative.

These approaches aren't something you would use on every negative but they might be useful on odd occasions or where you do a lot of contrasty interior photography.

As always, if you have a bash at it, please let me know how you get on. It's something I might try myself now I've written about it to see just how well it works.


DavidM said...

I seem to remember a monobath solution that was used to develop film while still in the cassette with no darkroom. You mixed up the solution and put it into any container that would hold it. Then you jammed a pencil into the end of the cassette and put it into the solution, twirling the pencil to alternately coil and uncoiled the film. After a time (I forget the time) the dev/fix mixture had done its work and the film could be washed and hung up to dry. It was suggested as being useful in schools, while travelling light or away from regular facilities or for beginners.
I don't think I ever tried it.
I didn't know there was a "respectable" use for monobath.

Bob Crowley said...

All instant photography uses a monobath. Monobaths are used by Impossible, Fujifilm, and New55 FILM, the only difference is that these have a thickener. We looked into all of it, and wanted to give people the ability to process ordinary film that way, too.

Hernan Zenteno said...

I coincide with you that it is a very interesting workflow for Large Format. I don´t know if this would work with prints to make negative prints. But the monobath formula sounds very tricky to prepare.

Paul Blanchard said...

I used a Monobath for about the first years of my photography,say, 1960 onwards, when Monophen and others were available, largely under the influence of MODERN and POPULAR Photography magazines. However at some point early in the 60's there was an article in Popular Photography advocating about one minute development in print developer followed by rapid fixing with the same time for all speeds and I went over to that method. It certainly worked for mixed tanks of various makes and the results were average with some risk of reticulation.Eventually it became clear that dedicated dilute developers with matched times were probably the way to go and I have never revisited this strange method.