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Discover a Kaleidoscope of Colours and Contrast

Updated: Aug 29

The Art of Cross Processing Film - A Creative Technique for Stunning Colours and Contrast

A scene inside Canary Wharf's shopping centre on Rollei Crossbird - a slide film specifically marketed for cross processing (originally, I believe, Agfa RSX200). Photo credit: Michael Elliott
A scene inside Canary Wharf's shopping centre on Rollei Crossbird - a slide film specifically marketed for cross processing (originally, I believe, Agfa RSX200). Photo credit: Michael Elliott

If you are looking for a way to spice up your film photography, you might want to try cross processing. Cross processing is the deliberate processing of photographic film in a chemical solution intended for a different type of film. The result is a dramatic alteration of colours and contrast, creating interesting and unpredictable effects that can enhance the mood and atmosphere of your images.


As I mentioned last week, film photography is very much not dead, and is thriving in the 21st Century. It's because of its chemical and physical nature, and the experimentation you can perform, that film photography lives on and captures the hearts and minds of so many in this digital age.


Cross processing is not a new technique. It was discovered independently by many different photographers, often by mistake, in the days of C-22 and E-4 film processing. Some photographers used it as a creative tool, while others used it as a way to save money or time by using whatever chemicals were available. Cross processing became popular in the 1980s and 1990s, especially in fashion and advertising photography, where it was used to create edgy and eye-catching images.


In this article, we will explore the basics of cross processing, how it works, what kind of effects it produces, and how you can try it yourself. We will also share some tips and tricks to get the best results from cross processing, as well as some examples and inspiration from other photographers who have used this technique.



What is Cross Processing Film?

A crafty cigarette break, on Agfa CT Precisa 100 (original) - cross-processed. Photo credit: Michael Elliott
A crafty cigarette break, on Agfa CT Precisa 100 (original) - cross-processed. Photo credit: Michael Elliott

Cross processing is a technique that allows you to break the rules and have fun with film photography. You never know what you're going to get, but that's the beauty of it.


Cross Processing is intentionally processing film in the wrong chemicals, creating interesting and unpredictable colour shifts and increased contrast. For example, cross processing would be shooting a roll of colour slide film or E6 and developing it as if it were colour negative film or C41 (or visa versa).

- Cross Processing Film: A complete guide | The Darkroom Film Lab


The reason why cross processing produces such dramatic effects is because the chemical mixture is optimised for a specific kind of film. Each film has its own unique characteristics and sensitivities to different colours and light. When you process film in the wrong chemicals, you alter these characteristics and create unexpected colour shifts and increased contrast.


To mangle that philosopher of our age, Forrest Gump, cross processing is like a box of chocolates - you never know what you're going to get. It's the fun of discovery and one of many reasons to shoot film - these processes just aren't possible in digital.



How Does Cross Processing Work?

You can achieve realistic colours, although shadow and highlight detail will be reduced. Photo credit: Michael Elliott
You can achieve realistic colours, although shadow and highlight detail will be reduced. Photo credit: Michael Elliott

To understand how cross processing works, we need to understand how film processing works in general. Film processing involves two main steps: developing and fixing.


Developing is the process of converting the latent image on the film into a visible image by using a chemical solution called developer. The developer reacts with the silver halide crystals on the film that have been exposed to light, reducing them to metallic silver. The amount of silver formed depends on the amount of light that hit the film, creating different densities and tones on the film.


Fixing is the process of removing the unexposed silver halide crystals from the film by using a chemical solution called fixer. The fixer dissolves the remaining silver halide crystals that have not been reduced by the developer, leaving only the metallic silver image on the film. The fixer also makes the image permanent and stable, preventing further reactions with light or chemicals.


There are different types of film and chemicals for different purposes. The most common ones are colour negative film (C41) and colour slide film (E6).


Colour negative film is designed to produce a negative image on the film, where the colours are inverted from the original scene. For example, blue becomes yellow, green becomes magenta, and red becomes cyan. Colour negative film is processed in C41 chemicals, which consist of a colour developer, a bleach, a fixer, and a stabiliser. The colour developer contains colour couplers that react with the developer and form dye clouds on the film that correspond to the colours of the original scene. The bleach converts the metallic silver to silver halide, which is then removed by the fixer. The stabiliser protects the dye image from fading and deterioration.


Colour slide film is designed to produce a positive image on the film, where the colours are the same as the original scene. Colour slide film is processed in E6 chemicals, which consist of a first developer, a reversal bath, a colour developer, a pre-bleach, a bleach, a fixer, and a final rinse. The first developer acts similarly to the C41 developer, reducing the exposed silver halide crystals to metallic silver. The reversal bath then converts the remaining unexposed silver halide crystals to metallic silver by exposing them to light or chemicals. The colour developer then forms dye clouds on the film by reacting with the colour couplers and the metallic silver. The pre-bleach reduces the metallic silver to silver halide, which is then removed by the bleach and the fixer. The final rinse washes away any remaining chemicals and stabilises the film.


When you cross process film, you are using the wrong chemicals for the film type. For example, if you cross process colour slide film in C41 chemicals, you are skipping the reversal bath step and creating a negative image on the film instead of a positive one. However, because the colour couplers on the slide film are different from those on the negative film, they will react differently with the C41 developer and produce different colours than expected. Additionally, because the slide film has a higher contrast than the negative film, it will result in more saturated and darker colours.

Cross-processing creates warped colours, boosts contrast and adds grain. It’s a process that creates incredibly saturated, eye-catching pictures. In the days long before Instagram, it was cross-processing that made such a star of the humble Lomo LC-A, and spawned the analogue movement Lomography.

- 52 Photo Tips: #7 - Try Cross Processing | Film's Not Dead


The opposite is true if you cross process colour negative film in E6 chemicals. You are adding an extra reversal bath step and creating a positive image on the film instead of a negative one. However, because the colour couplers on the negative film are different from those on the slide film, they will react differently with the E6 developer and produce different colours than expected. Additionally, because the negative film has a lower contrast than the slide film, it will result in more muted and lighter colours.



What Kind of Effects Does Cross Processing Produce?

High contrast, muted colours, and grain for days are the hallmarks of some cross processed slide film. Photo credit: Michael Elliott
High contrast, muted colours, and grain for days are the hallmarks of some cross processed slide film. Photo credit: Michael Elliott
In photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.

- Alfred Stieglitz


The effects of cross processing vary depending on the type of film and chemicals used, as well as other factors such as exposure, temperature, and age of the film and chemicals. However, there are some general trends that can be observed.


Cross processing colour slide film in C41 chemicals typically produces:

  • Increased contrast and saturation

  • Colour shifts towards red, yellow, or green

  • Grainy and gritty appearance

  • Loss of detail in shadows and highlights

Cross processing colour negative film in E6 chemicals typically produces:

  • Decreased contrast and saturation

  • Colour shifts towards blue, cyan, or magenta

  • Soft and dreamy appearance

  • Loss of detail in midtones

Of course, these are not hard and fast rules, and you may get different results depending on your specific film and chemical combination. The best way to find out what kind of effects you can get is to experiment with different films and chemicals and see what happens.



How Can You Try Cross Processing Yourself?

The spiral of this bridge made me think of a snail. Photo credit: Michael Elliott
The spiral of this bridge made me think of a snail. Photo credit: Michael Elliott

If you want to try cross processing yourself, you will need some basic equipment and materials:

  • A film camera that can shoot either colour slide or colour negative film

  • A roll of colour slide or colour negative film (preferably expired or cheap)

  • A lab that can process your film in either C41 or E6 chemicals (or both if you want to compare)

The first step is to choose your film type and load it into your camera. You can use any kind of colour slide or colour negative film, but some films are more suitable for cross processing than others. For example, some films have more pronounced colour shifts or contrast changes than others. Some films also have more latitude or tolerance for exposure errors than others.


The second step is to shoot your film as you normally would. You can use any kind of subject or lighting condition that you like, but keep in mind that cross processing will affect your exposure metering and white balance. You may want to bracket your exposures by overexposing or underexposing your shots by one or two stops to see how it affects your results. You may also want to use a filter or adjust your white balance settings to compensate for the colour cast of your film. For example, if you are cross processing slide film in C41 chemicals, you may want to use a blue filter or set your white balance to tungsten to counteract the red or yellow cast.


The third step is to process your film in the wrong chemicals. You can either do this yourself if you have access to a darkroom and the necessary chemicals, or you can send your film to a lab that can do it for you. If you are sending your film to a lab, make sure to label your film clearly and inform the lab that you want to cross process it. Some labs may charge extra for cross processing, or may not offer it at all, so check with them before you send your film.


Then, enjoy your results. You can either scan your film and edit it digitally, or print it on paper and display it. You may want to tweak your images slightly to adjust the exposure, contrast, or colour balance, but don't overdo it. The beauty of cross processing is in its imperfections and surprises.



Tips and Tricks for Cross Processing

The way the three people seated in the foreground mirror the masts of the Cutty Sark was pleasing to me. Photo credit: Michael Elliott
The way the three people seated in the foreground mirror the masts of the Cutty Sark was pleasing to me. Photo credit: Michael Elliott

Here are some tips and tricks to get the best results from cross processing:

  • Experiment with different films and chemicals. Each combination will produce different effects, so try as many as you can and see what you like.

  • Bracket your exposures. Cross processing can affect your exposure metering and make your images overexposed or underexposed. To avoid this, take multiple shots of the same scene with different exposure settings and see which one works best.

  • Use filters or white balance settings. Cross processing can create strong colour casts that may not suit your vision or mood. To correct this, use filters or white balance settings on your camera to balance out the colours.

  • Embrace the grain. Cross processing can increase the graininess of your images, especially if you use high ISO films or push the development. Don't try to remove the grain or smooth it out. Grain can add texture and character to your images and make them more unique.

  • Have fun. Cross processing is a creative technique that allows you to explore new possibilities and express yourself in different ways. Don't worry too much about the rules or the technicalities. Just have fun and enjoy the process.


Examples and Inspiration from Other Photographers

Cross processing lends itself to gritty, urban and industrial scenes with its harsher grain. This is a disused coal jetty that was used by the Deptford Power Station before its demolition in the early 1990s. Photo credit: Michael Elliott
Cross processing lends itself to gritty, urban and industrial scenes with its harsher grain. This is a disused coal jetty that was used by the Deptford Power Station before its demolition in the early 1990s. Photo credit: Michael Elliott

If you need some inspiration or examples of cross processing, here are some photographers who have used this technique in their work:

  • Lomography is a community of photographers who celebrate analog photography and experimental techniques, including cross processing. You can find thousands of cross processed images on their website, as well as tips, tutorials, and reviews of different films and cameras. You can see examples of cross processed film on Michael Elliott's Lomography Home page.

  • Ryan Tatar has made a name for himself with his lo fi photographs using expired or cross-processed film that depict simpler times. Originally from Michigan, he now resides in San Francisco and is busy with international photo exhibitions and editorial and advertising clients when not working at one of the most well known computer companies in the world.

  • Amy Elizabeth is a film photographer who writes for Shoot It With Film, a website dedicated to analog photography. She has written an introduction to cross processing film, where she shares her experience and tips on how to do it yourself.

Ultimately, the best way to experience the cross-processing marvel is to just do it yourself - bite the bullet, and go for it!



Conclusion

The sweep of the Westway on the left with the curving, modernist lines of the building on the right were cause for celebration through photography. Photo credit: Michael Elliott
The sweep of the Westway on the left with the curving, modernist lines of the building on the right were cause for celebration through photography. Photo credit: Michael Elliott
You don't make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.

- Ansel Adams


Cross processing is a technique that involves processing film in the wrong chemicals, creating interesting and unpredictable colour shifts and contrast changes. It is a fun and creative way to experiment with film photography and achieve stunning results.


Cross processing can be done by anyone who has access to a film camera, a roll of colour slide or colour negative film, and a lab that can process it in either C41 or E6 chemicals. The effects of cross processing vary depending on the type of film and chemicals used, as well as other factors such as exposure, temperature, and age of the film and chemicals.


Cross processing is not a new technique. It was discovered independently by many different photographers, often by mistake, in the days of C-22 and E-4 film processing. Some photographers used it as a creative tool, while others used it as a way to save money or time by using whatever chemicals were available.


Cross processing became popular in the 1980s and 1990s, especially in fashion and advertising photography, where it was used to create edgy and eye-catching images. Today, cross processing is still a popular technique among film photographers who want to explore new possibilities and express themselves in different ways. Cross processing is a technique that allows you to break the rules and have fun with film photography. If you want to try it yourself, all you need is a film camera, a roll of film, and some chemicals. You never know what you're going to get, but that's the beauty of it!

 

Why not stop by the shop and check out the latest in black and white fine art prints, or get in touch and see if I can produce something bespoke for your walls?

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