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Gear review: SP-445 4×5 film processing system – by Richard PickupGear review: SP-445 4×5 film processing system – by Richard Pickup

Gear review: SP-445 4×5 film processing system – by Richard Pickup

Since beginning large format photography I’ve been developing my 4×5* sheet film in trays. This is not a process for the faint hearted and takes more than a modicum of skill. I’m lucky because I have access to a large professional darkroom, and my results have steadily improved as I’ve practised, but nonetheless, I have been waiting to explore a tank-based alternative to the labour intensive tray development. Enter the SP-445…

* EM: Richard originally wrote 5×4 but that makes my brain hurt, so 4×5 it is. Forgive me, Richard!

SP-445 Review - Tank

SP-445 Review – Tank

The SP-445 is marketed as a ‘4×5 Sheet Film Processing System’ and provides everything you need to develop 4×5 sheet film bar the film and chemistry. The tank has a notably ‘flat’ shape, with two screw-capped access points which protrude from its top.

Inside lie the plastic film holders, which will accommodate up to four sheets of film. Just 475 ml of liquid is required to fill the tank, considerably less than I had been using in trays.

The simple packaging contains the SP-445 and some clear, straightforward instructions. There is a somewhat intimidating diagram on the first page, showing a cross-section of the unit and all its various elements. In actual fact, the SP-445 is remarkably simple to operate and is a rather elegant design.

As you would expect, the film must be loaded into the plastic holders in darkness before chemistry can be applied. The instructions warn to be wary of flashing on the moulding on the plastic – excess material left on the moulded parts – something I duly checked for, and to some extent eliminated.

Of the two entry points, one is for adding the developer, stop (if you so choose) and fix, the other acts as an exit point for the air. This means you must unscrew both caps when filling and emptying the tank.

The top section is secured by means of a rubber seal. When I first inspected the tank I was a little surprised to see that there was no locking or fixing mechanism other than the seal. In my tests so far, however, it has worked just fine with no leakage at all. A gentle squeeze of the unit when uncapped creates a vacuum seal with the caps applied.

Having not used the SP-445 before I was flying blind as to development times and agitation regime. Using ILFORD HP5 PLUS film exposed at 400 in my tests, I plumped for 6.5 minutes and four inversions every 30 seconds (developer at 20c). I’d perhaps like to see a shade more density, so I’ll continue to tweak this starting point as I go.

SP-445 Review - Dunk

SP-445 Review – Dunk

I have only tested a handful of sheets so far, with a view to writing this little review. My initial results are good and I will certainly be embracing the convenience of the SP-445. My negatives were evenly developed with no streaking (see below).

One of the film holders appears to be leaving some small scratches on the film, but I put this down to residual flashing on the holder, as the instructions warned. This may sound more serious than it is: it’s easy enough to fix – remove more flashing! – and the marks are small enough to probably not print.

Otherwise, my negatives are very clean, indeed with fewer marks than I could manage developing in trays.

With the caveat that I haven’t been able to test the SP-445 to the point of wearing one out yet, I happily give it my recommendation. At £96.00 it strikes me as good value, especially for someone who is new to 5×4* and wants a reliable, economical way to develop their own film. Add to that the ability to develop four sheets at a time and the sheer speed and convenience of tank development (when compared to tricky tray development, which requires a darkroom) and you have an enticing proposition.

~ Richard

 

* EM: I’ll let you have that last one, Richard 😉

 

 

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About The Author

Richard Pickup

Photographer. Educator. Passionate about prints, darkroom and digital.

17 Comments

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  1. What a cool tank. I didn’t even know these are available.
    When using Yankee tank you don’t want to invert. Messy too because they leak a lot. It is better to use open tray processing if you can get a room dark enough.
    Tried the 4×5 tubes but didn’t like them. They are economical for fluid use though, but no light trap when changing fluid from one to the next, so you need darkroom until fixed (but can turn on lights once the cap is back on). Also the anti-halation layer never comes off when using the tube.

    Reply
  2. I bought one as soon as they became available and am very happy with it. If I have more than 4 sheets to process, which I usually do, I use a second pair of film holders that I bought to speed up throughput. I leave the films in the holders while washing in a Nova print washer, as I get on with developing the next batch. Loading the film holders and sliding the holders into the slots in the tank needs to be practiced, but is easy once you get the knack. I can thoroughly recommend this tank, It just works without any hitches.

    Reply
  3. I’ve used both. The Mod54 holds 6 sheets and it’s a bit harder to load. I’ve also found stick rotation has given me development artifacts so I do inversions as well.

    Really the choice between them for me is the number of sheets I need to develop. Both are good and much better than any method I’ve used in the past (tray development, hangars, and the Combi-Plan daylight tank).

    Reply
  4. The entire photographic industry and publishing houses on both sides of the Atlantic refer to film formats as 4×5, 8×10 etc. Even the Chinese have chipped in, with the manufacturer of Chamonix view cameras calling his smallest LF camera “45F”. Only the Irish seem to have opted out, with Morgan O’Donovan calling his 4×5 adapter for Patterson tanks “MOD54” ;-(
    Date formats are, of course,a different story.

    Reply
  5. Perhaps you should start with Ilford and Foma, both mark their boxes of film as 4×5…

    Reply
  6. Finger trouble: should be 5th of April is 5/4 this side, and 4/5 in the US.

    Reply
  7. Hundreds of photographers have been using the SP-445 for over 18 months, so far, the only failure has been a few O rings. And caps. Don’t know why. We’ve bounced them off the concrete floor without any issue but occasionally they crack in shipping.

    New way to load the film holders: https://youtu.be/DNSNFY85lqc

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing, Timothy. If you’re ever interested in sharing more with the community here on EMULSIVE, please drop me a line and we’ll figure something out!

      Reply
  8. Phil Harrison

    Excellent review Richard. I am playing with some Harman Direct Positive Paper and I guess this tank would work well with this material. On another note, I think we should campaign to have this format known as 5×4 and not 4×5. I wrote 4×5 in my Intrepid piece recently, because I knew the EM auto spell checker would alter my correct terminology. I have for the last 47 years called it 5×4. Clearly this could lead to an endless discussion on the correct terminology …… which is 5×4!

    Reply
  9. I have used the SP-445 for a few months now and I agree with the gist of the review.
    I do, however, have some reservations about the shoddy manufacturing quality and the materials used. The fact that flashing remains on the finished product speaks for itself. The plastic used is more reminiscent of the cheap model airplane kits I used to assemble as a kid – hardly the kind of material I would expect in a product that sells for about 120 Euros. I don’t expect the film holders to last me a lifetime – as the products from JOBO, the German manufacturer of developing tanks, do. The design is brilliant, the execution is miserable, imho.
    I find that inserting the sheets of film in the film holders takes a bit of practice, but once you master this, you can rely on producing evenly developed, scratchless films.
    Bottom line: I will stick with the tank and keep my fingers crossed that it will last me for some time to come.

    Reply
  10. @richard_pickup I would like to see more details photos of the thank. I’m curious to see if I can 3d design….

    Reply
  11. @richard_pickup For a first timer shooting 4×5, and using the SP-445 I have to agree with that review… https://t.co/t3914yYglG

    Reply
  12. A random thought not directly related — seeing as how on this side of the pond the film size is 5×4, and on the American side 4×5, and the 4th of April is written as 4/5 this side and 5/4 that side, shouldn’t that be a large format day (rather like the three 127 days).

    Reply
  13. Has anybody directly compared it with the Mod54? Apart from the lesser amount of chemistry.
    I have the Mod54 and have found it fine for Fomapan100 (the only film I’ve used so far in 5×4), provided I invert the tank rather than twiddling the centre column which leaves over-developed bands at the level of the support struts. However the instructions warn that it’s not suitable for some of the thinner stocks like Rollei IR.

    Reply
  14. Thanks for the great review! For more info visit shop.stearmanpress.com.

    Reply

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