Retropan 320 ~ Searching for Dr Dee

Dr_DeeJohn Dee (13 July 1527 – 1608 or 1609) was an English mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, occult philosopher, and adviser to Queen Elizabeth I.
Dee straddled the worlds of science and  magic just as they were becoming distinguishable. He devoted much time and effort in the last thirty years or so of his life in the search for a transcendent understanding of the divine forms which underly the visible world, which Dee called “pure verities”.
In his 1993 novel Peter Ackroyd puts Dee’s world into perspective. Matthew Palmer inherits his father’s house in London’s Clerkenwell and learns that it contains the masonry of the original house occupied by Dr Dee. The house is apparently not of one time period, but of multiple dimensions of time. Which begs the question, can this distortion  of the space & time fabric be rippling into the surrounding Clerkenwell, and can we find evidence of it, & possibly even the verities, today? It seems a good enough reason for bringing up Foma Retropan 320, possibly a new addition to the big guns of photographic other-worldliness.

One photochemical mystical tour around Clerkenwell later…

The film was a cassette of 35mm Retropan exposed at 320 ISO, Nikon F4 with short zoom lens. The developer used was the dedicated Retropan developer. This comes as 2 parts, helpfully labelled ‘Big Part’ and ‘Small Part’ but it’s pretty obvious which is which, the small one is dissolved first as with Ilford ID11, followed by the second as soon as the first has dissolved. It mixes easily using slightly warm water. Developing times are given for 320 ISO & 640 ISO, 4-5 minutes with the lower speed at 20°C, which seems quite short.
In this case the developer temperature was 23°C so 4 minutes was given.
Agitation was 30 seconds continual, then 5 seconds every 30.
The negatives seemed delicate, slightly thin but with good shadow detail and the tonal range was all there.
Scanned as ‘contacts’, displayed in 3’s for clarity, & a few prints, one at the top, 2 at the bottom, some more on the ‘Gallery’ link.;

Clerkenwell_Contact_2_web   Clerkenwell_Contact_3_web





A bit premature to call this a review of Retropan 320 after shooting only one roll, but there’s very little up on the web concerning this film, so it might as well go up for the time being. Dr Dee was elusive on this occasion, but the moody quality of the film certainly helped to inculcate a foreboding atmosphere.

There’s certainly no problem with runaway contrast. In it’s grain structure the film is somewhat reminiscent of Kodak Infrared, but obviously without IR tonal characteristics. There is apparently a pronounced halation effect, but the flat lighting here didn’t reveal that. Retropan 320 is an unusual film with a character of it’s own, grainy, but also with a strange delicacy. There’s a sense of built-in veiling that needs to be ‘pushed’ against to make it reveal what’s required.  These results were only by scanning, and in all cases a boost in brightness and contrast were necessary, as well as some burning & dodging, and bear in mind that these were mainly taken in quite flat lighting. Looking at the characteristic curve, it’s a very strange shape compared to the conventional curve of a standard film, for example the Fomapan 100 next to it. The kink in the middle is unconventional, indicating an unusual emulsion composition, and the overall range relatively limited.


Possibly Foma haven’t helped the marketing by calling it ‘Retro’, which tars it with a certain type of usage, when in fact it needs a broader appraisal and is surely not to be relegated to nostalgic whimsies. I get something of the sense of Ralph Gibson’s images, 35mm Tri-X in Rodinal for sparing, grainy but bitingly sharp images, maybe Retropan could work as a similar hard task-master. So perhaps in the same sense as the way he worked, regard this film as a medium to bend to your will!

Previously I’ve used 35mm Retropan for making RGB separation negatives for colour prints, and once again it was a bit of a struggle compared to other films, but came across with a certain unique result;



At a guess, I’d say the characteristics of the film are due to the presence of a different silver crystal structure, and the film may bear some family connection to a film they discontinued quite some time ago, T800, which at the time was put up as an alternative to Kodak TMax. The dedicated Retropan developer is supplied with minimal information, so it’s not clear why it’s required, or what it’s function is over & above alternatives, so it would be useful to dig into this a bit. Possibly with the correct developer combination this film might be capable of significantly higher speed ratings.

As a side issue the processing was done in a hand tank using rotary agitation,, rather than inversion, and there is a degree of uneven agitation here, slight sprocket flow marks on neutral grey areas.

So needed next are further tests with the film in strong lighting, with a range of developer types, and prints on real paper rather than scans. Also will see if there’s any more information available from Foma.