Making large format negatives with X-ray film

Scott Wittenburg shares his experience of working with large format x-ray film photography and how he uses them as an inexpensive and fun way to create large-format negatives.

Writer and photography / Scott Wittenburg


large format x-ray print
First print!

I began my X-ray film experience after building a homemade 11×14 view camera from scratch several years ago. Having finished construction, I started looking for traditional 11×14 black and white sheet film online so I could try the thing out but soon realized that film this size was not only extremely rare but also extremely expensive.

Fuji medical x-ray film
Fuji medical x-ray film

I soon discovered that some folks had used X-ray sheet film with encouraging results, so I decided to give that a try. Not only was the film easy to find, but it was also incredibly cheap—only around sixty dollars for 100 sheets! Since I was new to all of this, I decided to give Fuji HR-U X-ray film (green) a go simply because I was familiar with that brand name.

 

I ordered a box of X-ray sheet film from an online medical supply company and couldn’t wait to get started!

My first attempts were discouraging, to say the least. I had shot two sheets of film in my backyard and estimated the exposure settings. I then processed the film in my darkroom and examined the negatives. Not only were there light leaks from my homemade film holder, (through no fault of the film), there were scratches in the fragile emulsion. Also, the film was underexposed with very little contrast.

I had tray-developed the film and theorized that the raised ribs on the bottom of the tray were the reason for the scratches. To resolve this issue, I decided to use sheet film hangers instead. I bought a pair of 11×14 stainless steel film hangers from a different medical supply company and a three-gallon developing tank from a plastics company. The scratches disappeared, but the film still lacked decent contrast. So I tried a different developer with a longer developing time, which yielded better results.

Scott Wittenburg proofing negatives.
Scott Wittenburg proofing negatives.

After many trials and errors with exposure settings, developing times, and contrast filtration, I have finally worked out a system that works for my personal needs. I suggest to anybody wanting to give X-ray film a try to use whatever you have on hand before sinking a lot of money into it and to experiment with film types, exposure settings, light sources and processing times. As with any new process, experimentation is often the key to success and half the fun!

Since most of my work is done in the studio, I prefer studio flash as my light source. If you are going to shoot indoors and are photographing people, I suggest that you use flash to avoid long exposure times. I learned very quickly that it takes a LOT of light to achieve acceptable results indoors with this film since the effective ISO is only around ISO 50. My vintage Balcar 1500 watt second monolight has just enough power to give me sufficient light for synced exposures. If you are going to shoot still life, continuous light sources are fine since long exposures aren’t an issue.

Film tank and holders for photography
Film tank and holders

As for processing, I use Rodinal diluted 1:100 for 5 minutes at 70°F, while agitating the film every thirty seconds for five seconds. I don’t use a stop bath at all and simply place the developed film in the fixer for a couple of minutes with continuous agitation, followed by a five-minute wash time. I always develop my film in total darkness, one sheet of film at a time, while listening to music —a necessity, especially whenever I’m developing six sheets or more in a single session!

With regard to contact printing my negatives, I use a number 2.5 contrast filter in most cases and Ilford Multigrade paper for conventional prints. This relatively low contrast filter number is pretty remarkable, really, since it yields decent contrast with good mid-tones that rival conventional film prints. I have used my X-ray negatives to create cyanotypes and salt prints with great success as well, and love the fact that I don’t have to rely on digital negatives to get the job done. Using a real negative is so much better!

large format negative with x-ray film
Alisa Anika by Scott Wittenburg. Large format negative (or positive) with x-ray film.
Cyanotype made from X-ray negative
Alisa Anika by Scott Wittenburg. Cyanotype made from X-ray negative on watercolour paper.
 
example of using x-ray film
Lauren, by Scott Wittenburg. Using x-ray film.
Salt print by Scott Wittenburg
Lauren, by Scott Wittenburg. Salt print made from large negative.
 

In closing, I’m thrilled with this film! Not only has it exceeded my expectations, it is inexpensive and easily obtainable. I encourage anybody who is into large format photography to give X-ray film a try. It’s a wonderful way to yield large, inexpensive negatives for conventional printing and alternative processes!

Silhouette with x-ray film
Addy Silhouette, by Scott Wittenburg made with x-ray film
Example print
Example print
Print made with large format x-ray film
Print made with large format x-ray film.

Read more in Built from Scratch. See more work in Scott Wittenburg’s gallery.

Learn more in Scott Wittenburg’s book
Built From Scratch: Adventures in X-ray film photography with a homemade 11×14 view camera by Scott Wittenburg
 
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