The most common way that Kodak Panatomic X is encountered today is that we buy a camera from eBay or an estate sale and discover an errant roll has somehow survived through the decades hidden in the deepest folds of the former owner’s bag. We scrunch our noses against the dust of age and fiddle our fingertips in the side pockets of an ancient sack, hoping to tickle a forgotten hundred-dollar bill (for use in emergencies), or maybe to find a nice f/0.7 Zeiss lens that Kubrick used to shoot the candlelit scenes in Barry Lyndon.
Alas, all we find is an old roll of film.
But if we’re lucky, that roll of film is Panatomic X, because unlike old, expired color film, Panatomic X is often usable (and able to make excellent photos) even fifty years after its date of expiry!
Kodak Panatomic X was first created in 1933 as an ASA (ISO) 25 sheet film for making photos in which a high level of detail was required (aerial photography, professional editorial, scientific applications, etc.). It was designed to be a fine-grained, extremely sharp panchromatic black-and-white film for making extremely large prints.
Later, its sensitivity would be increased slightly to ASA 32. Even at this higher sensitivity, Panatomic X remained the slowest of the Kodak X series of black-and-white films, slower than the faster Plus X, Super XX, and Tri X.
The film was discontinued at some point in the 1940s, only for Kodak to bring it back in the late 1950s. After that, Panatomic X would remain in production for decades, until in the late 1980s or early ’90s, it was definitively discontinued.
Making the Photos
It was in just such a dusty camera bag that I found one old roll of Kodak Panatomic X. The box was stamped with an expiration date of 1970, which placed my roll’s age somewhere around 55 years. I held the film for a moment and wondered.
In late 2019, I’d stumbled upon a similarly aged roll of Kodak Plus X Pan in much the same way. That roll of film was forty-or-so years old, and yet it had made pretty good pictures. My experience with that roll of film even resulted in a well-loved article, an article as interested in film photography as it was in pets, kids, life, and living it.
Would this slower, older film make decent pictures, too?
The camera bag in which I’d found my new old roll of film contained a number of other things. Notably, a Canon EOS Elan II, one of the best, most advanced 35mm film cameras that Canon ever developed. Which is not what I would have expected.
How, I wondered, did this roll of film end up with a Canon EOS camera made sometime between 1995 and 2000? Even then, this roll of film was almost 30 years old.
Weird. But then, the whole world is weird.
It can be easy to fall into the trap of perceiving that old things are precious. I might have looked at this fifty-year-old roll of film and said, “No. Not today. Today is not special. I must await a special moment.”
Perhaps that’s how this roll of film survived to the 2020s. Who knows.
But things are meant to be enjoyed, or at least experienced, and on the very day that I unpacked my new old Canon EOS Elan II and discovered the barnacle of film clinging to its underside, I knew its days as an unexposed emulsion were over. Later that morning, my kids and wife and I went for a walk. The Canon went with me, loaded with a fifty-year-old roll of film.
The waterfront at Plymouth, Massachusetts is a funny place. Superficial wisdom would have us think that it’s where the United States was born, where the Mayflower sidled up to the coast, and where The Pilgrims first set foot on American land in 1620.
Plymouth Rock, the rock upon which the Pilgrims placed their wiggly toes upon first disembarkation, is cradled within a majestic granite monument, which probably cost millions of dollars to make. There’s a towering statue of a Native American (which, I add without comment, was erected by a white’s only, men only club known as the Improved Order of Red Men), and an exact replica of the Mayflower which can be toured for $18 a person.
There’s a Hawaiian-themed smoothie bar. There’s a guy who endlessly plays a flute, but the only song he knows is Under the Sea from Disney’s The Little Mermaid. There’s a cupcake shop sitting within the perpetual stinking miasma of the active commercial fish pier. On the day that I most recently visited, there was a sword-fighting instructor conducting classes upon one of the many small park spaces. He had a two-handed broadsword and what appeared to be hockey pads, and he was being repeatedly and noncommittally slashed by his apprentices, one of which was wearing a Naruto t-shirt and cargo shorts.
See? Funny place.
I’m just here to take pictures.
Kodak Panatomic X is slow. At ISO 32, it’s going to need a lot of light, and since my roll of film is fifty years old with an expiration date of—
Uh oh! Hold on. Am I about to mention the expired film rule? The decades? The exposure compensation? Am I, really?
Yes. I am. But only to once again lambast it as being nearly as absurd as brandishing a broadsword in a public park on a sunny Sunday morning. The “over-expose by one stop for every decade past expiration” rule needs to die.
Think about it. I need to set my exposure compensation on an ASA 32 roll of film to plus 5. That’s what the rule says. Plus 5? Do the people who spout this nonsense know what an image made at +5 looks like? Because I’ve included one in this review. And here it is.
The truth about shooting expired film is this. It’s very simple. To shoot expired film, any expired film, over-expose the film by one stop. Just one. A single stop, regardless of when the film expired. Set the exposure compensation dial to +1, or do it manually. After that, just meter normally, shoot normally, develop normally, and expect the worst.
I mounted a 28mm Canon EF lens to the EOS Elan II. It’s a fast prime lens with a wide focal length that I enjoy shooting. It’s modern, with excellent optical coatings, all-encompassing depth of field, and a fast aperture for use in low light. Great lens, great camera, old film – a nice combination.
I spent the day walking about with my kids and wife. We went into some shops. Touched some plants. Ate and drank some sensible yet delicious refreshments. I even found a Nikon film camera for sale in an antique shop for just $25.
Wow. What a day. The only thing that could ruin it is if I botched developing the film.
Developing the Film
Much as I’m repulsed by the expired film over-exposure rule, so too do I reject over-thinking film development.
I don’t imply that those careful, meticulous photographers who can recognize the difference between a negative developed at 78 degrees versus one developed at 74 degrees are wrong to be so meticulous and careful. I’m only admitting that I’m not among them.
My development process with this film was identical to my development process with any film (black and white). I look at Kodak’s data sheet (archived here by the ever-generous Mike Eckman), I look at Massive Dev Chart’s site, I take their recommendations for time (if available – if not, as was the case here, I default to my randomly-selected and largely uneducated guess time of 9 minutes), add about a minute when developing expired film, use whatever developer I find under my bathroom sink, and I develop the film.
In this case, I developed with Ilford Ilfosol 3, mixed 9:1 with water that felt as warm as the air in my bathroom. I developed for about ten minutes with agitation for the first thirty seconds of the first minute, and then further agitation for just fifteen seconds every minute afterward. I rinsed and fixed at 9:1, for five minutes.
After that, I use Lightroom to edit (read: ruin) every picture I make.
Those meticulous and careful photographers that I mentioned earlier might look at my images and fret that the highlights are blown out, or that the shadow detail is lacking. But for me, the resulting images are better than I could expect from a fifty-year-old film.
Not bad, Kodak. Not bad.
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