Quick Tips, our continuing series explaining elements of photography in simple terms, is back. In past articles we’ve explained things like ISO, how to load film, and unraveled the mysteries of the focus scale. Today we’re looking at a colorful niche in photography, cross-processing of images in both analog and digital shooting.
So what is cross-processing? Simply put, it’s the intentional processing of any type of film using a chemical solution intended for a different type of film. With film it involves sloshing around stinky chemicals, but when shooting digital it’s as simple as a click of the mouse. The resulting images are unpredictably colored and often show extreme contrast and pleasantly shocking visuals.
Cross-processing is one of the simplest ways for any photographer to create some seriously unique images without any changes to their gear or budget. For full details and sample shots, read on.
How does it work?
With film, cross-processing (sometimes called X-pro) is most often associated with developing color slide film in the chemicals that are normally used for color negative film, or vice versa.
Color negative film uses C-41 process chemicals, while slide film (also known as color-reversal or transparency film) uses E-6 chemicals. Develop either one in the chemicals of the other and you’re cross-processing. Sounds a bit messy, but the great part is that any professional photo lab can handle this process for you with ease.
So how do you know which chemical process is used by individual films? Just look at the canister. Most display the process chemical right on there, as well as including in no uncertain terms whether the film is for slides or negatives. Once you know what type of film you’re shooting, simply drop off your film as usual and tell the clerk whether or not you’re looking to cross-process. That’s all there is to it. Pick up your film as usual and enjoy the results.
Things are even simpler when looking to cross-process your digital shots (although the results are certainly less satisfying). Using Lightroom or Aperture, simply open the adjustment panel and look for the Cross-Process presets. Both applications offer multiple X-pro options, so play around until you find the final shot that strikes you best.
All of the established benefits of digital photography are accentuated when the aim is to achieve a shot that has the look of a “cross-processed” image. Unlimited edits and side-by-side comparisons certainly help to nail down the look you’re going for. But it’s just not the same as loading up a roll of Provia and knowing that the next 36 exposures are going to give you something completely unexpected. Digital is great, but as always, we think you should shoot film.
With X-pro’d shots, things get wacky in a hurry. Developing slide film in negative solution creates some of the most vibrant images you’ll ever see. Colors shift and pop with reckless abandon. Greens become blue or yellow, reds become orange or purple, and blacks and whites become whatever they feel like becoming. It’s a truly unimpeded world of color.
Similarly shocking, contrast and saturation typically shoot off the scale, creating stark images with profound depth and dimension.
It’s also important to note that different films will react differently in the same process chemicals. It only increases the possibilities when slide film from Fujifilm will make images completely different from a slide film from Agfa, even if both are developed in the same process. It adds to the mystery and excitement of X-pro shooting.
Which brings us to the number one reason to cross-process; anticipation and reward.
Whether cross-processing or not, shooting film is a generally rewarding experience in large part due to the excitement of the development process. Whether you develop at home or use a photo lab, that period of waiting for your prints to come back and the joy of discovering you’ve shot something wonderful are among the best feelings in all of creative pursuit. Cross-processing only enhances this by adding a sense of mystery and surprise.
It’s not uncommon to get your X-pro’d prints back and be completely stunned by the images you’ve made. We don’t want to belabor the point, but trust us, cross-processed images are just bonkers.
While not every X-pro’d shot is a winner, it’s the knowledge that anything can happen that makes it such a viable alternative to standard photography.
By cross-processing you’re relinquishing a bit of control to the film, process chemicals, and developer, and you’re allowing these things to influence and alter the shot you envisioned. It’s a wonderful symbiosis that helps to nurture creativity and keep things interesting. When you’re not entirely sure what the end result will be, shooting even the most mundane subjects can result in thrilling shots.
Where to get slide film?
Color negative film is pretty readily available in your drug stores and supermarkets, but slide film is less common. It has a reputation for being less forgiving and more “professional” (i.e. difficult). Because of this, slide films are most likely to be found via online shops or in the now-rare, well-stocked camera shops. Expect to spend some time shopping on Amazon, eBay, or Adorama.
The more you shoot the more you’ll learn about which slide films you prefer for your particular flavor of photography. Fujichrome’s offerings are a personal favorite, but experimentation is key in photography, so buy as many types of slide film as you can, shoot, and enjoy the results.
Photography is all about having fun. Cross-processing your shots is a simple, affordable way to add a bit of mystery and imagination to your photography. Buy some slide film, load it up, and enjoy the surprising fruits of your labor.