Monday, August 8, 2016

Do you want a really good negative?

Typical New55 PN when done correctly
Copyright 2016, Robert J Crowley
A superb negative, and a positive print too. That's what we've said from the beginning, and why all New55 PN users have to clear the negative in Ilford Rapid Fixer (IRF).  This is a typical New55 PN negative, scanned on my Epson 750 scanner and NOT photoshopped in any way. Notice the good deep blacks, the sharp sharp details, the wonderful mid grays, and the crisp whites. This has it all. What you might not see are the subtle edge effects caused by the monobath processing that makes a sharp negative even sharper. So if sharp is your thing, this is it.

Surprising chemical reactions that are essential

The reasons for all this may surprise you. This is a story about the origins of type 55 and what had to be done by Polaroid, and how New55 FILM overcame a big problem with the Polaroid method and made it all so much easier.


Polaroid made Type 55 PN from the early 60s up until 2008. The product was unusual because it used a Kodak-produced Aerecon film that was also used for aerial reconnaissance. This negative film was a single layer, cubic-grained emulsion similar to Kodak's well-known Panatomic-X, but on a thinner base and with other small changes. Kodak supplied this material to Polaroid over many decades and it was labeled SO-139, which is a special order number among many others that Kodak produced in smaller amounts. SO-139.

The purpose of Polaroid Type 55 was to produce an instant negative. The positive print, which plays a role in the development of the negative, was secondary.

When processed and finished correctly, Polaroid Type 55 produced a sharp and permanent negative with very high acutance due to the static nature of the monobath reagent (or processing goo, or paste as some call it) used. The chemical process is too complex to get into here but suffice to say that this method of developing a negative film had several important advantages in negative quality over traditional wet baths.

Removing the goo - the old days

Users of Polaroid Type 55 had to treat the negative in a clearing bath for it to be both sharp and permanent. The clearing bath was sodium sulfite - a solvent that was hard to get - necessary to remove the goo that would otherwise fade the negative if not removed. Endless questions and gripes over the source, availability and cost of the sodium sulfite and the clearing process continued throughout the nearly 50 years of production.

Sodium sulfite worked in two ways: The first was by dissolving the goo so it went into solution, then as a fixer to remove the residual silver halides present in the freshly developed negative.  Polaroid even went as far as suggesting that users further fix the negative in standard fixer to assure permanence, but they gave up on that as too complicated for an instant film.

Polaroid also sold clearing buckets for the sodium sulfite so you had a convenient place to keep your negatives. If you have one you can still use it today, with sodium sulfite or Ilford Rapid fixer. They are quaint reminders of the old days, which are now gone.

Fast forward to New55 PN

When I started New55 in 2010, one immediate concern from users was the un availability of the sodium sulfite. They complained that it was hard to get, expensive, and always a problem.  I said I would look into that problem among several others.

Getting rid of the new goo

After several months of experiments I discovered that instead of dissolving the goo, I could get it to curdle and peel off as a sheet. This was far better and quicker than the old way. It turned out that shocking the goo with a low pH further polymerized the goo and caused it to shrink and separate. Lucky breaks sometimes come and this was clearly one of them, but how to implement it was not immediately clear.

Reviewing all the fixers including the fixer that was once used in a monobath designed by Donald Qualls, I noticed that Ilford Rapid Fixer  (IRF) was not only the more desirable ammonium sulfite, known for very quick action, but also came mixed with a generous dose of acetic acid which has a very low pH. Ilford Rapid Fixer is also available worldwide, and is inexpensive.  A series of experiments showed that a 50/50 mix of IRF and water was acidic enough to curdle the goo, cause it to float off, and it fixed the negative extremely well. All of the series of New55 PNs seen on my flickr feed were processed that way except one which we will talk about later.

Please look again at the example of a properly processed New55 negative that I want you to take a close look at. I've uploaded a large file so you should be able to zoom in if you like to see the incredible detail available. It's at the top of the page.

Contrast this with a badly processed negative kept down here on purpose. I see these things posted on flickr sometimes and though we do need to share our failures too, there is no need for this kind of bad result. Some of the reasons this looks so bad could be:

There can be artistic merit to weird
results. But better to know how
to do this intentionally rather
than accidentally. 
-No washing or rinsed with water. Obviously a disaster.

-Peeling too soon. Wait 2 full minutes

-Not getting the negative into the fixer right away. That is necessary.

-Wrong fixer. "I alway use Kodafix" means a bad result.

-Letting the negative dry. This makes it very unsharp and likely to fade in weeks.

-Scratched. Handle more carefully to avoid it.

There you have it. It is simple. We've worked very hard to bring back the look of T55 which I achieve every time, and so can you.

As always, I welcome your comments.



E said...

Sodium Sulfite is not hard to come by: B&H also carries it, as does Amazon and plenty of other places.

We get that you are a fanboy of the ilford fixer, but don't cloud the issue with BS about how Sodium Sulfite was ever hard to acquire. It's probably easier to find than ilford fixer, definitely cheaper, and easier to use in the field.

Bob Crowley said...


Users overwhelmingly chose fixer over the sodium sulfite. Since you call it BS, and have no name, I won't take your comments seriously.

Also, you seem (again) to be resistant to the facts about releasing the goo from the New55 negative.

If you are serious, which I think you are not, go back and look at the many comments and the poll, and know what you are talking about.

Jay Cordaro said...


I appreciate the effort you and your colleagues have put into new 55 PN. It came at the right time, because I am down to my last box of Polaroid 55 (just 3 frames left), and all my 665 has gone bad. I've shot 2 boxes of New 55, and look forward to shooting more (from the latest batch, I think), soon. I've gotten good results but was initially disappointed I had to use rapid fixer. Sodium sulfite was not hard to find, and for field processing, it was a lot easier because you could carry powder and mix it up at location, and it didn't go bad in hot/tropical environments. This might have been the reason Polaroid specified it for 55 and 665. These days though, if I shoot 4x5 on location I would probably use 1SHOT and use my DSLR to check exposure instead of shooting instant 4x5 and processing on-site. I am using New 55 for portraits at my house/studio. Keep up the good work and I look forward to new developments at New55.

Laena said...

Hi Bob,
Thank you for your conscience efforts to keep us informed - I appreciate you choosing a chemical option that is most attainable for your users and that will produce the best results.

I have a bit of an unusual circumstance. I am traveling to Tanzania with your NEW55 film and for 2 reasons i am hoping I can substitute Sodium Sulfite for the Ilford Fixer.

1. I am worried to travel with chemicals in my suitcase ( they could be confiscated. or burst open / leak and damage the 55film, clothes etc in my bag) It would be a disaster to be in the field with out that VERY important component to the process.

2. I am worried about pouring the fixer down the drain at the location. I hate the idea of adding those harsh chemicals to their environment. Perhaps I am wrong but somehow the sodium sulfite seems less toxic.

Is it possible to successfully clear the negatives with the sodium sulfite rather than Ilford fixer? I am happy to take your answer in an email if that is preferable.

Thank you kindly, Laena

Bob Crowley said...

Fixer isn't going to do much to pollute and is similar to the chemical used in swimming pools. I would think you would practice before your trip and get used to the processing routine. If you must, use an acid fixer. We picked the Ilford because it has acetic acid already in it. Vinegar is acetic acid, and the acid curdles the goo so if floats off the negative. Stop bath and then fixer could be used but you should practice it. Sodium sulfite is not very good at clearing the goo and the negatives.

Before your trip, qualify your routine that way fewer surprises and of course in the field everything you haven't thought about is a concern since often that means you cannot just go back to the store. If at all possible use the Ilford fixer which is available worldwide, or a fixer with a good dose of stop bath, acetic acid, or strong vinegar if you can stand the smell.

Good luck and let us know how it all goes