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The Atomic Film: How Kodak Panatomic-X Captured The World In Fine Detail

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

Kodak Panatomic-X was a black-and-white film with a panchromatic emulsion and extended red sensitivity. It was known for its extremely fine grain, high resolving power and medium to high contrast. It was ideal for large prints that retained a ton of detail and sharpness.


An abstract black and white photograph using Kodak Panatomic-X
Unparalleled resolution | Photo credit: Michael Elliott

Panatomic-X was one of the slowest films ever made by Kodak, with a speed of ASA 32. It was also one of the most stable and long-lasting films, as it could be shot decades after its expiration date with minimal degradation. It was a film that appealed to photographers who valued quality over quantity, and who wanted to capture the finest details of their subjects.


Panatomic-X was not only a film, but also a part of photographic history. It was introduced in 1933 as a sheet film for aerial photography, and it went through several revisions and formats over the years. It was discontinued in the late 1980s or early 1990s, but it has left a lasting impression on many photographers who used it or admired it.


In this article, we will explore the history and versions of Panatomic-X, its characteristics and applications, the reasons for its discontinuation, and some sample images taken with this film. We will also pay tribute to this film as one of the finest ever made by Kodak.


History of Kodak Panatomic-X and Versions


Kodak Panatomic-X was first introduced in 1933 as a sheet film for aerial photography. It had an initial speed of ASA 25. It was part of Kodak's line of "X" films, which were designed to have extended red sensitivity and improved tonal rendition.


A spiral staircase on Panatomic X film
Photo credit: Michael Elliott

Over the years, it went through several revisions, changing speeds to ASA 32 and at one point, ASA 40. It was also available in 35mm and 120 formats for general and professional use. The film had different names depending on the format and application, such as Panatomic-X Professional, Panatomic-X Aerographic, Panatomic-X Aerecon and Panatomic-X Scientific.


The film was discontinued by Kodak in the late 1980s or early 1990s, but it has a reputation for being very stable and long-lasting. Many photographers have reported shooting expired rolls of Panatomic-X with excellent results, sometimes at box speed or slightly overexposed.


One of them is Mike Eckman, who praised the film's longevity and performance:

Regardless of when Pan-X was actually discontinued is largely irrelevant because the most amazing attribute of this film is how it continually defies aging (sic). I’ve shot rolls of Pan-X discontinued in the 1980s, 70s, and 60s, and the film almost always shoots at box speed, with little in the way of degradation.

He continues,

My experiences with the seemingly immortal life of Pan-X are not unique to me, as I’ve spoken to many other photographers who have witnessed the same things themselves. If you find a roll of 35mm Pan-X from 1977 in a closet somewhere, just shoot it at ASA 25 and you’ll likely get a whole roll of great shots.

- Mike Eckman, "Keppler's Vault 70: Kodak Panatomic-X" | mike eckman dot com


A riverside scene in Greenwich on Panatomic X film
Photo credit: Michael Elliott

Another photographer who shared his experience with Panatomic-X is Alex Luyckx, who described the film as "a fine-grained general purpose film and it seems the slowest of the X-Series of films (Plus-X, Tri-X, Double-X). And what a film Panatomic-X is [...] I’m more a slow film junkie and enjoy Panatomic-X far more than Plus-X."

I remember the first time I encountered a box of Panatomic-X and seeing the film seep of ASA-32, my mind was blown. I had never seen a film slower than ASA-50 (Pan F+). And then I sent it off to the lab to develop it and was even more amazed at the results.

- Alex Luyckx, Classic Film Review – Kodak Panatomic-X | Alex Luyckx | Blog


Alyssa Chiarello also wrote about her experience with expired Panatomic-X, mentioning that "it has an awesome name [...] Atomic! You can’t get any better than this!":


Originally released in 1933 as sheet film, Kodak Panatomic-X film has been reformulated several times since its original release [...] The roll I shot expired in 1987 so it’s older than me! [...] I shot it at box speed [...] The images came out very sharp with great contrast.

- Alyssa Chiarello, Expired Film: Kodak Panatomic-X | Aly’s Vintage Camera Alley


This relative indestructibility of the film renders it one of the legendary emulsions for those of us seeking to rediscover the more classic B&W film look. While newer emulsions have been introduced that render Panatomic-X redundant in pure technical terms (for instance, Kodak T-Max 100), the look and feel of a classic cubic grain film of such resolution is difficult to reproduce.


A skyscape with sunstar on Panatomic X film
Photo credit: Michael Elliott

Panatomic-X was not only a film for amateurs and enthusiasts, but also for professionals and scientists. It was used for various purposes and applications, such as aerial photography, mapping, reconnaissance, studio photography and scientific research.


Characteristics and Applications


Kodak Panatomic-X had a thin and highly hardened emulsion that provided high image sharpness and allowed rapid processing at elevated temperatures in modern continuous-processing machines. It also had a dyed-gel backing for antihalation purposes and curl control.


The film was best used for medium to high altitude mapping, reconnaissance and other earth resources applications. It was also suitable for studio photography, especially when a high degree of enlargement was needed. It offered excellent separation of highlight tones and very fine grain.


A busker on the South Bank in London on Panatomic X film
Photo credit: Michael Elliott

The film could be processed in a variety of Kodak black-and-white developers, such as HC-110, D-76, Microdol-X and Xtol. The recommended development times varied depending on the developer, temperature and agitation method.


Alex Luyckx shared his experience with different developers on his blog. For example, in Xtol:

The very first developer combination I found for Panatomic-X was Xtol [...] this is my personal favourite for this film [...] showing off the fine grain of the film even more yet maintaining a sharp image.

and in D76:

[...] there’s really nothing you can do to the film to make it appear grainy. And that certainly comes across with D-76, everything is near perfect, the contrast is low, but you get an amazing tonality across the range. You even get your whites and blacks still present. Zero grain in any of the images, certainly a great choice for this film.

- Alex Luyckx, Classic Film Review – Kodak Panatomic-X | Alex Luyckx | Blog


Reasons for Discontinuation


Kodak Panatomic-X was discontinued due to several factors, such as:


  • The decline of the market for black-and-white films in general, as colour films became more popular and affordable.

  • The emergence of newer films with finer grain and higher speed, such as Kodak T-Max 100 and Ilford Delta 100.

  • The difficulty of maintaining the quality and consistency of the film's production, due to its complex emulsion formula and coating process.

  • The environmental and health concerns associated with the use of some chemicals in the film's manufacture and processing.


The Design District in North Greenwich with the O2 in the background on Panatomic X film
Photo credit: Michael Elliott

Jim Grey lamented the loss of this film on his blog:

As faster films came and went [...] Kodak would discontinue Pan-X only to bring it back [...] It would stay in continuous production for the next several decades as the professional’s choice when absolute detail must be maintained in black-and-white images.

He also commented on the film's versatility and quality:

For the kind of shooting I do — handheld, outdoors — slow films need great light. I went out with my ME only on full-sun days and I still got shallow depth of field. But if you know that going in, you can work with it.

- Jim Grey, "Shooting Kodak Panatomic-X" | Down the Road




Conclusion


Kodak Panatomic-X was a remarkable film that offered extremely fine grain, high resolving power and medium to high contrast. It was ideal for large prints that retained a ton of detail and sharpness. It was also very stable and long-lasting, even after expiration. It was a film that many photographers loved and miss today.


Panatomic-X was part of Kodak's legacy of producing high-quality black-and-white films for various purposes and applications. It was a film that captured the beauty and complexity of the world in shades of grey. It was a film that challenged and rewarded the photographers who used it with care and skill.


Panatomic-X may be gone, but it is not forgotten. It lives on in the images it created and the memories it preserved. It is a film that deserves to be celebrated and remembered as one of the finest ever made.


Why don't you comment below on how you remember this legendary film? Do you miss it, or have you moved on? Let us know!

 

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Guest
Jan 18

It was the film of choice in the famous shoot that produced the cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to run

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Neil Waybright
Neil Waybright
Jul 02, 2023

Another of my favorite films of my early days in the 1970s and 1980s. The images we beautiful...

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Michael Elliott
Michael Elliott
Jul 02, 2023
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Yep it’s a crying shame the best films got discontinued but they’ve been replaced with things that are as good and better speed, but they just don’t have the same character because of the shift to T-Grain over cubic.

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Guest
Jun 28, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.
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