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Saturday, September 2

Atomal - nice, but...

I got through a pack of Adox Atomal developer a few years ago and loved the look of the negs it produced. They had a lovely tonality to them which suited certain subjects very well. I posted one or two images here but I remember saying that I'd reserve judgement until I could print them in the darkroom.

Well, having now done that - at least having printed one negative - the developer's Achilles heel was quite apparent to me. The problem is that Atomal is a fine grain solvent developer and the result is an erosion of sharpness. Yes, that nice tonality is there and the print looks smooth with minimal grain from the Adox CHS 100 II film but there's just no bite.

I'd imagine this developer might be a way of getting that 1940s Leitz Elmar look: there's detail there it's just not going to bite your hand off. For some people that might be an advantage. Portrait photographers might well love it and Atomal does seem to have quite a loyal following.

The photograph here was taken at a disused water company pumping station. I'd climbed in through a window with tripod in hand - no mean feat, I can tell you - and lined up the Contax 137 MA with the 28mm Distagon well stopped down for depth of field. CHS 100 II is a nice film and there should have been no reason to expect anything less than a good sharp result.

Having spent some hours in the darkroom over the past week printing from sharp 35mm negatives I noticed a difference this time round. Atomal, then, wouldn't make a great standard developer for me. But don't let me put you off. The tonality is great and, although this was a contrasty scene, there's detail in the deepest shadows and printable detail in the window highlights.

My darkroom notes (I've at last taken Phil's advice and starting writing down everything I'm up to) show that I used grade 1/2 for the print. The basic exposure on the Valoy II was 8 seconds plus 3 seconds for the side of the room lit by window light. The bottom right corner where the brightest tiles were got an additional 3 seconds and each window an extra 4s.

My initial test strip (above) was at grade 1 1/2 but the shadows dived off a cliff very quickly. At the grade 1/2 I went for, the contrast is quite soft but the print retains the feeling of light there was in the room largely as a result of the light-coloured tiles. If I print this one again I'll burn in the bottom left hand corner a little as I feel the rusty metalwork down there needs beefed up a little.

Now, having written the above, it's worth noting that sharpness isn't the only desirable quality in a print. Is there not a saying that you have to sniff sharpness but tonality screams at you from across the room? There's no denying there's a smooth, refined look to the Atomal-developed film. I'd say the print has a "cultured" appearance, if that makes any sense. Adox CHS 100 II has to take a lot of the credit for that, too. It's certainly not the first time I've found myself remarking on the lovely negs that the film produces in various developers.

What might the combination be like in medium format? That's an interesting question, isn't it? The tonality clearly isn't going to be hurt by a larger negative and there might be a little more apparent sharpness available as well. Adox CHS 100 II and Atomal could be a match made in heaven for a Rolleiflex.


DavidM said...

You poke the tripod through the window folded and make it stand up inside. Then, when you force your body through the window, you have a stable handhold on the other side. Same thing on the way out.
Nice picture, with no sharpness issues on my screen. Did you really mean burn down the bottom left-hand corner? It looks very dark already and the other corner seems rather bright.

Bruce Robbins said...

That's good feedback, David. On my PC, which I've just set up, the bottom left is quite dark but with plenty of detail. There's an arm of the big gear that fills that space that's near the very corner and a shade lighter and I felt it should be darkened a little. Just the last inch or so of corner on a 6x9 inch print. Maybe my screen is showing shadows that are too light - or, I suppose, yours could be too dark but then you wouldn't just be noticing it. I'll take a look at my monitor's settings later today.

John Carter said...

I like your last sentences. Medium format sounds great to me; I'm a tonality fan, but like you I can still 'sniff' sharpness or in-sharpness.

DavidM said...

A good point about different screens. I mostly set the brightness on this laptop for reading text without eye strain, so I turned it right up to eleven and a half. Yes, there is detail visible in the bottom left, but the highlight on the tiled surface now looks burned out. 13" MacBook Pro with Retina screen. Interesting...

Bruce Robbins said...

Thankfully there's an easy solution, David. Take the fleshiest digit on your right hand and place it over the burned out highlight. Problem solved. :)

Bruce Robbins said...

If you decide to try Atomal with medium format then please let me know how you get on. I'm restricting myself to 35mm just now otherwise I'd give it another go with CHS 100 II.

DavidM said...

Digital retouching, eh?

Bruce Robbins said...

Excellent, David! That gets a thumbs up from me.

Scotty Elmslie said...

As you have seen from information I have sent you separately, I have spent the summer testing combinations of films and developers. The research has been interesting but a bit tedious.

What it all boils down to us that tonality (distribution of tones in the negative) is the direct result of combining the exposure of the scene's values (it's dynamic range may be wide or narrow) with a developer, its concentration and the development time.

My conclusion is that almost any normal film can be developed to achieve the same tonality or range of densities. In other words, you can develop a film in any two standard developers and achieve pretty much the same tonality.

You would not be able to tell them apart if it weren’t’ for the difference in granularity and the potential for exposure at something other than box speed. For example, I can get the same tonality from Rodinal 1+100 with stand development as I can with a short development in Rodinal 1+24. There is a slight difference in granularity but there can be a large difference in exposure index (400 vs 125 for 120 FP4+).

There is also a difference in the performance of a given film in a 35mm when compared to roll film. This not only affects the appearance of granularity but it also affexts the development time and developer concentration.

So if you are finding that Atomal is too soft, you might reach the same conclusion with ID11 or some other soft developer at some of its common concentrations. You might also find Rodinal too harsh at almost any concentration since it does not contain any grain softener. You should be able to reach a compromise, hopefully with a developer that does not break the bank.

DavidM said...

Scott seems to be saying what I have long suspected; that there is little real difference. Presumably this is for properly and normally exposed negatives, properly and normally developed. Some people claim that staining developers are easier to print and of course, people have different ideas of what a "good" print looks like.
Is it possible that we are discussing the difference between resolution and sharpness here. Some time ago, the BJP ran some articles on the difference. The fine detail on film decays by having lower and lower contrast, until it vanishes into FB+F. This low-contrast detail can easily look like softness. If it's destroyed by the developer, the result is a more abrupt boundary between dark and light, which the eye interprets as sharpness.
I have to confess that the details of the article are vanishing into my own mental FB+F so there may be much more to be said. They may have compared formats too.