Tech Pan and the Great Grainlessness Quest

Long before the digital revolution, my friends and I struggled to find the ideal way to express our photographic vision using film. Film was a fickle mistress at best, since it took a fair amount of finesse plus a huge amount of memorization to utilize film.

A lot of photographers in the film era settled on a favorite film. My grandfather used nothing but Kodachrome. Another friend of mine used nothing but Fujichrome Velvia.

This was the first frame I ever shot using Technical Pan Film, of water running in a stainless steel film developing tank. It was a dazzlingly sharp and grainless shot that was completely uninteresting.
This was the first frame I ever shot using Technical Pan Film, of water running in a stainless steel film developing tank. It was a dazzlingly sharp and grainless shot that was completely uninteresting.

I, on the other hand, was very much into black-and-white. When the mood strikes, I still gravitate toward the simplicity and elegance of a grayscale image. To that end, I worked with a lot of different black-and-white films over the years. I tried AgfaPan APX100, Ilford’s 400 and 1600 films, and even the occasional NeoPan 400.

In the end, I kept coming back to Kodak films. I never loved the tone I got from Pan-X or Plus-X, preferring the tonal range of the ever-forgiving Tri-X, a 400-speed film, but at the cost of a fair amount of grain. For a while I was souping my Tri-X in Microdol-X, a supposed fine grain developer. In terms of tonal quality and utter forgiveness of exposure errors, I loved Kodak’s Verichrome Pan Film, which was only available in 120 size.

It was with all these variables in mind that my photographer friends and I were pretty excited when, in the early 1980s, Kodak introduced Kodak Technical Pan Film. Developed as a lithographic film (meaning that it was not a continuous-tone film, but pure blacks and white only) for industrial uses, Kodak introduced with the film it’s own developer, Technidol, a compensating developer that allowed the film to be used for full-tone imaging. When processed in Technidol, Tech Pan was rated at about ISO 25, but promised to have the grain and resolution of large format image, like a 4×5-inch view camera makes, from a 35mm camera.

We eagerly loaded up and … uh, what now? The immediate problem was that anything in our regular photographic pantheon we wanted to shoot required 400 speed or higher film. To use Tech Pan, we had to make up stuff to shoot. That, of course, resulted in super-sharp, super-fine-grained images of our desk lamps. Then we discovered just how difficult it was to print this film, which was manufactured on a super-thin Estar-AH plastic base, which showed absolutely every speck of dust no matter how clean we kept our darkrooms.

In the end, I wasn’t really able to integrate Tech Pan into my work flow. In total, I doubt I shot more than ten rolls of it. Once in a while we found a legitimate use for it, but by then the film and/or the developer had expired, and had to replaced before we could shoot. I have maybe five memorable images made with Technical Pan Film.

This is one of the very few legitimately interesting images I made on Technical Pan Film, in the Wichita Mountains of southwest Oklahoma in about 1984.
This is one of the very few legitimately interesting images I made on Technical Pan Film, in the Wichita Mountains of southwest Oklahoma in about 1984.
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