In a 1995 interview, the late Baldev Duggal, founder of legendary Manhattan lab Duggal Color Projects Inc., said, “This is the first major thing that has happened in the photography industry in 100 years.” What was Duggal referring to? Perhaps the introduction of the Kodak Brownie in 1900, which put photography within reach of the masses? The Leica I of 1925 which led to the rise and subsequent dominance of 35mm film? Kodachrome? Nope.
Apparently – and I would never have guessed – Duggal was referring to Agfa Scala, an ISO 200 black-and-white reversal film which can also be processed as negatives. Now I got the Duggal quote from this 1995 Washington Post article, and I wonder about the accuracy of the report (did he actually say 10 years?). If it is accurate, with all due respect to Mr. Duggal, I think his claim is a bit of a stretch.
Be that as it may, Agfa Scala was certainly held in high esteem by the cognoscenti. David Kilpatrick, editor of Cameracraft magazine, praised its “exceptionally fine grain and high sharpness, rich maximum density and extended tonal range.” Fine-art photographers – a notoriously hard-to-please lot – have called it “a joy to use” (Frank Van Riper) and praised its “amazing, amazing sharpness” (Jean Claude Maillard).
Unfortunately, AgfaPhoto filed for bankruptcy in 2005, and Scala was discontinued around the same time. But fortunately for us, it was not quite the end of the road. Argenti Scale-X, the 35mm film I’m reviewing today, gives the original Agfa Scala™ experience in 2021, a full sixteen years after Agfa ceased production of this short-lived but cult-classic film.
Two quick disclaimers before we start.
First, Argenti Scale-X can be developed either as reversal film, aka transparency or slide film (recommended rating ISO 160), or as negatives (recommended rating ISO 100). I did the latter, and that’s what I’ll cover in this review. I hope to try the reversal process in future, in which case I will write a fresh review.
Second, I didn’t pay for my roll of Argenti Scale-X. Foto R3, a Spanish film-shop/lab, graciously sent it to me as a test roll (along with some other films which I did pay for). But of course, in my review I have tried to be as accurate and objective as I can.
Origin, Availability and Packaging
There is not much information out there about either Argenti Scale-X (the film) or ArgentiFilm (the company). I understand from Foto R3 that ArgentiFilm is a European consortium, and Foto R3 is their distributor in Spain.
Foto R3 also confirmed that Scale-X is repackaged Agfa Scala; in fact, they gave a useful extra detail: that Scale-X is a “special, non-consumer variant of Agfa Scala.” Additionally, macodirect (Germany) says the Scale-X stock “comes from the original Agfa Scala production in Leverkusen which was stored frozen.” In short, shooting Argenti Scale-X, while stocks last, is essentially like shooting fresh Agfa Scala: 1995 all over again. It’s surprisingly cheap too – only €4–6 for a 36-exposure roll.
On the flip side, Scale-X is not widely available. Retailers include Foto R3 (Spain), Masterfoto (Latvia), Bristol Cameras (UK), macodirect (Germany) and Camera Film Photo (Hong Kong), and at the last two, it’s currently out of stock. If you want to get your hands on some Scale-X, just do a Google search to see if there’s a distributor in your area. Alternatively, one of the aforementioned stores may be able to ship to your location (Foto R3 shipped it to me, all the way to India). I understand that Argenti is currently looking for distributors in the UK and US, so if you’re a film retailer reading this, you may want to get in touch.
The roll of Argenti Scale-X which I shot came in a black plastic container with a white label. The metal cartridge inside has an identical label (not DX coded). Foto-R3 also stocks a version with a more “professional looking” red label. But they confirmed to me that the film inside is identical; the red label is just a “new production batch.”
Another film I should mention is Adox Scala 160. This is fresh film, a “remake” of Adox Scala (but not identical: ISO 160 rather than 200, and slightly finer grain). It’s more expensive than Argenti Scale-X, and also a bit hard to find.
With the right chemistry, most black-and-white film can be developed as reversal (aka transparency or slide) film, though some films respond better than others. Agfa Scala, however, was unique in that it was specifically designed for reversal processing. “Box speed” for the reversal process was ISO 200, but Agfa’s 2001 datasheet (PDF) says it can be pulled to ISO 100, or pushed up to ISO 800. Pushing increases grain and contrast while decreasing maximum density; pulling does the opposite.
How to process black-and-white reversal film? There are very few labs worldwide which can do it. DR5 is an option in the US, and the Fotoimpex website lists some others in Europe (I have not personally tried any of them).
For home developers like me, Foma, Adox and Rollei sell all-inclusive reversal processing kits. Ilford PQ Universal developer is another option, but you’ll need several off-the-shelf chemicals in addition. MR Alvandi’s website has a good overview and explanation of the process, and Jens Osbahr has a detailed technical paper (PDF).
Unfortunately I don’t have the chemistry for reversal processing. The kits are currently not available in India, and I’m reluctant to go down the homebrew route. But I am trying to source kits, and if I can, I’ll develop Argenti Scale-X as reversal film (as the maker intended!) and write a fresh review. Meanwhile, I developed Scale-X as black-and-white negative film, and that’s what I’ll cover in this review.
ISO and Development Information (or Lack Thereof)
There is very little online information about shooting and developing Argenti Scale-X as either reversal or negative film. Depending on your outlook, this can be (a) fun and challenging or (b) frustrating. Personally, I oscillate between the two. On the one hand, it’s fun to try and figure things out, have technical discussions with fellow film nerds (see my thread on the Facebook Darkroom group), and write a review like this one where I’m hopefully adding to the existing (rather small) pool of knowledge. Scale-X is not like other, more common films for which you can find information and sample photos for all manner of push, pull and developer combinations.
On the other hand, I do wish Argenti would release more data for different developers and ISO ratings. The film is advertised as having “variable sensitivity from ISO 100 to 800,” but currently the only “official” data is for ISO 100, and only for one developer (R09 Studio 1+31). But I did get lots of useful advice from Foto R3 (the sellers), my Facebook Darkroom group, and from Carlos Viejo who shared some Scale-X photos on 35mmc. And I do give Argenti credit – a lot of credit – for making unusual films like Scale-X (and Eastman 2366, which I reviewed earlier) available at very affordable prices, without the steep mark-up that we sometimes see from other companies.
In fact, the most useful piece of information, which Foto-R3 confirmed, is that Argenti Scale-X is basically Agfa Scala. This means you can use the Massive Dev Chart times for Scala (though in my experience, it’s better to treat Massive Dev Chart as a starting point rather than the final word).
Recommended ISO and Development Time
Short version: if you’re processing Argenti Scale-X as negatives, I would recommend rating it at ISO 100 and developing in it in Ilford ID-11 (or the functionally identical Kodak D-76), diluted 1+1, for 9 minutes at 20°C. Alternatively, you can follow Argenti’s recommendation for R09 Studio (Agfa Studional), diluted 1+31, for 15 minutes at 20°C. However, I haven’t personally tested Scale-X in R09 Studio or any other developers.
And now for the long version. If you’re interested in how I arrived at my recommendations, read on. If not, feel free to skip to the next heading.
Scale-X, as I mentioned, is advertised as having “variable sensitivity from ISO 100 to 800.” I rated it at ISO 100 because I like to err on the side of overexposure.
As for developing, Massive Dev Chart has a recommended developing time for Agfa Scala at ISO 200 in ID-11 stock (9 minutes at 20°C). But I was rating Scale-X at ISO 100 (not 200) and developing it in ID-11 1+1 (not stock). Massive Dev Chart does not have times for these. So instead I decided to go with 11 minutes at 20°C, which is the recommended time for Ilford Delta 100 (my ISO rating of choice) in ID-11 1+1(my developer of choice). Clearly this is not a very scientific approach: two films may have the same ISO rating but different developing times. But at least it was a starting point – a best guess, so to speak.
The negatives look nice, as you can see below. But for a more accurate assessment, there is an additional test which I do when trying a new film, and when I don’t want to do a full Zone System test. I take two test photos of a neutral, evenly-lit surface, one at Zone I (4 stops underexposed: film speed test) and another at Zone VIII (3 stops overexposed: developing time test).
On the processed film, Zone I has the right density, barely distinguishable from the film base, indicating that the ISO 100 rating is spot on. Accordingly, I recommend rating Scale-X at ISO 100 if you’re processing it as negatives. Higher ISOs will likely result in loss of shadow detail, even with extended developing times. For reversal processing, Argenti’s recommended ISO 160 – or even higher ISOs like 400 or 800, going by the “variable ISO” rating – may be acceptable, but I haven’t personally tested it.
However, the Zone VIII density in my test frame is more like Zone IX.5, indicating overdevelopment (approximately a 1.5-stop push). So I would recommend cutting the development time – 9 minutes for normal development, and 10.5 minutes for a 1-stop push.
Of course, this is just my recommendation. It’s based on my own development regime – ID-11 1+1 at 20°C, continuous agitation for the first 30 seconds and for the first ten seconds of each minute thereafter. Your mileage may vary, and my recommendations, like the Massive Dev Chart, are best seen as a starting point.
Argenti Scale-X in Low and High Contrast Light
My sample photos are all from a single roll of film, shot on a Minolta X-370S with an MD-Rokkor 50mm f1.4 and an MD 28mm f2.8 at ISO 100, developed in Ilford ID-11 1+1 for 11 minutes at 20°C. Despite my inadvertent 1.5-stop push (see above), the negatives are still perfectly usable. And thanks to the push, photos taken in low-contrast light, such as cloudy weather or open shade, look just right. The droplet-on-leaf photo was taken on an overcast day, and it printed beautifully in the darkroom at Grade 2 (normal contrast) with a condenser enlarger.
Photos taken in bright sunshine or other high-contrast situations have good shadow detail (indicating correct exposure) but slightly-too-dense highlights (a sign of over-development). The photo of the cyclist is a relatively high-contrast image with his white shirt and the dark asphalt. I had to print it at Grade 1.5 (lower contrast), and burn in some highlight detail on his shirt.
Having said that, Scale-X seems to have good latitude for overexposure, at least when developed as a negative. Despite the push, there is good separation of highlight detail. With the shirt on a clothesline, I overexposed by one stop to capture the delicate highlights and backlit glow. The photo turned out as I had visualised, if not better. Likewise, there is highlight detail on the cat’s fur which a film with lesser latitude would have struggled to capture.
Film Speed, Base, Grain, and Resolution
ISO 100 film is sometimes regarded as too slow for general use, but it has its advantages. Take the photo of the cyclist shown above. It was shot in broad daylight, but simply by stopping down to f/11, I was able to get a slow enough shutter speed (1/30 sec) for a pan shot. I could also take shallow depth-of-field portraits in bright light, whereas on faster film, and with a camera which maxes out at 1/1000 sec, I would be forced to stop down.
For that matter, I think we’re a bit spoilt by digital cameras which perform well at ISO 3200 or even higher. In many situations, ISO 100 is perfectly usable. Just for fun, I even tried it at night. The night scene below was shot handheld at f2.8 and 1/8 sec. There’s a bit of blur (camera shake) but I don’t mind. You might even say it adds to the photo.
Scale-X has a clear triacetate base with an anti-halation layer which is decolorised during development. Below you can see a comparison with Ilford FP4 Plus, which also has a triacetate base but with a faint purple tint. The clear base makes it easy to scan, but Argenti recommends loading in subdued light to avoid light leaks. The film has a thickness of 125 µm (same as Ilford FP4 Plus 125) and the processed negatives have no more than the usual amount of curl. Scale-X has frame numbers – rather faint, but helpful for sleeving and archiving – but no other edge markings.
The grain is fine, even for a 100 ISO film. By magnifying a ridiculously small area (the red square in the portrait above), I can see some grain, but frankly at this level of enlargement, I am not sure how much of it is digital noise introduced in the scan. As you can see from the MTF chart on the PDF datasheet, Agfa Scala has high resolution, at least when developed in the recommended reversal process. It may be different for negatives, but I don’t have the equipment to do resolution tests. In any case, it has more than enough resolution for my needs. For me, the limiting factor is not film resolution but the camera lens, focus, camera shake, and subsequently, the darkroom or digitising setup.
Most modern black-and-white films are panchromatic, which means they are sensitive to the entire range (more or less) of the visible spectrum. Datasheets released by film manufacturers have spectral sensitivity curves showing how the emulsion responds to different wavelengths of light. Most curves are plateau-shaped, but Agfa Scala is a bit unusual. In the comparison with Ilford HP5 Plus, a classic panchromatic emulsion, note how Scala has a spike around 550 nm, corresponding to the wavelength of green light.
Does this have an observable effect? I devised a test to check this for myself. I won’t go into the details (topic for a future article), but in short, I took test shots of a colour chart (see above), in controlled conditions, on both Scale-X and HP5. From the processed negatives, you can see how the green band is rendered lighter on Scale-X than on HP5. In fact, on Scale-X, the green band is lighter than the adjacent blue band, while on HP5 it is the opposite. What this means is that greens (e.g. foliage) will be rendered slightly lighter on Scale-X, almost like using a green filter on a typical panchromatic film.
Film reviews – including this one! – always go on about grain and contrast, but these factors are heavily dependent on how a film is exposed and developed. Colour sensitivity, on the other hand, is rarely discussed. Nevertheless, it is an intrinsic feature of black-and-white film – each emulsion has a distinct profile, which subtly defines its ‘look’.
I’ll leave you with some more sample photos from the same roll.
Argenti Scale-X is a rather uncommon film, but there some examples online: articles by Carlos Viejo (who developed it in Kodak D-76 1+1) and Juan Gambin (Rodinal 1+31), a Spanish video by Héctor Guzmán (R09 Studio 1+31), or check the Instagram hashtags for #argentiscalex and #argentivarioscalex.
As more photographers discover and shoot with this film, I am sure we will see many more examples in different developers and lighting conditions. Above all, I would like to try reversal processing. I have a slide projector at home, and as I mentioned, Scale-X (Agfa Scala) was specifically designed for transparencies – one of very few such black-and-white films ever produced. But meanwhile, it also gives excellent results when developed as negative film – a fine-grained, high-resolution emulsion with lovely tones, good latitude and a prestigious lineage, all at a surprisingly affordable price.
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