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