Instead of reviewing yet another needless classic camera, I wanted to talk about products that will actually help our photography while still indulging our universal fixation on gear; developing tanks.
If you are interested in developing your own film or have been doing it for decades, hopefully you find this review useful in some far flung way to you!
After about twenty years of doing photography and processing my own work off and on, I have landed on the ubiquitous Paterson System 4 film developing tanks as my champions.
As you may be aware, there’s a metal vs plastic tanks/reels debate that has been raging for decades. Metal developing tanks and reels are used more by professionals and serious hobbyists aka Leica Shooters and Zen Masters. They are favored because they require less chemistry, are greatly more durable and hold temperature more accurately. The reason I do not use them is that even after years of off-and-on practice, I have yet to be able to 100% absolutely positively unfailingly load 35mm film onto stainless steel reels successfully. Even when using the GOOD Hewes brand stainless reels, I just can’t reach a fool-proof loading situation with 35mm. I do prefer stainless reels for 120 though. Go figure. But when it comes to 35mm, which I do primarily, I have to choose plastic. I will keep fiddling with the stainless while my film dries, but in the meantime, it’s plastic.
Plastic reels/tanks are scorned and sworn at due to plastic being bad for the environment, their likelihood to crack with use or falls and that they use more chemistry than necessary. But I put up with all that because, from twenty years of this, I can remember only a handful of early attempts wherein I didn’t load my film correctly on these reels. And with all the seeming uncertainty involved in shooting film, any product that gives me, personally, a sense of certainty, is a warmly regarded product indeed.
So look, I don’t want to hear the flack from the metal crowd. Plastic works for me. You are more than welcome to keep enjoying your metal reels and tanks and I will envy you for it. But I’m holding tight to plastic. Namely, Paterson System 4.
While there is a lot of variation in the design of plastic tanks and reels, the Patterson System 4 components are the most common and most universally compatible. Dot Line, Vivitar, and various other plastic reels all fit inside Patterson tanks and Paterson plastic reels fit inside Vivitar, Dot Line and other various tanks. I don’t know if Paterson came first or just came biggest but when the early 2000’s death of film dust settled, Paterson of the UK, made in the UK, was still soldering on, putting out new product. And I respect that.
Dot-Line is no slouch either though. About the same age and about the same product range, if not moreso than Paterson, Dot-Line is an American company who, like the metal tanks/reels, I wish I could give my money to. Their plastic reels have big easy loading tabs at the beginning of the spiral. I REALLY want to LOVE these reels as they are SUPER easy to load. BUT, I found that with high speed film/longer processing times, those big friendly tabs block chemistry and cause incomplete development around the area of film that they cover. I found that if you load your film into these reels such that you begin with the tail and end with the leader, you reduce the chance for problems because the big feeder tabs cover the light-struck leader part of the film. However, this is not 100%. So I really can only recommend using these Dot Line reels if you do not shoot film, say faster than 400, where developing time is well under about 15 minutes.
I also like the Dot Line tanks, but again, a limitation. They only make two reel tanks. Which is really a shame because everything about their tanks is better than modern Paterson System 4. The flexible lid fits more securely, the funnel lid screws onto the tank instead of bayoneting on (which counter-intuitively is not good and I’ll get to it), the center column has bumps on the bottom to facilitate some vertical motion on the film when using the spinner method of agitation and the Dot Lines just feel like better, less brittle plastic all the way around.
So again, get the Dot Line tanks and reels if you only do two reels at once and it’s 400 or less ISO! Kind of restrictive. Clearly these tanks are designed for film photography students rather than professionals.
In fact, plastic tanks really just aren’t made for professionals in general. But we are lucky that Paterson makes big tanks and also, Vivitar used to make very good tanks.
I use Paterson because, as noted, it’s a very common, and universally fitting system. Paterson tanks come in 1, 2, 3, 5 and 8 reel sizes (talking in terms of 35mm reels). And their reels do not have the big easy load tabs like Dot Line. They do not interfere with chemistry in any way.
Vivitar tanks came in 2, 4 and 8 tanks I believe. They may have also sold single reel tanks. But the reels are exactly the same as Paterson and just as effective for use with longer developing times/higher ISO’s. I like the old Vivitar tanks more than modern Paterson because, again, the flexible lid fits more securely, the funnel lid screws on and additionally, they come with a circular seal that fits between the tank and the funnel lid to help keep the chems from leaking. The Dot Lines don’t have a seal. On problem with the Vivitars, however is that their funnel lid assembly consists of three parts that are glued together. The shaft that the reels install onto also consists of two parts that are glued together. This glue has broken down on my Vivitar 4 banger tank and had to be re-glued in order to make it all work again. I still like these tanks though. The funnel lid swallows chemicals quickly and easily, such that the original packaging called this a “Big Mouth” tank.
So you might notice I have used the preface “modern,” and in “MODERN Paterson tanks.”
I don’t know their vintage or when the design changed but Paterson’s original, legacy, classic, vintage, whatever you want to tall them, System 4 tanks were much nicer.
The flexible lid was smaller and tighter fitting so as to prevent leakage. The funnel lid screwed onto the tank. When it comes to lenses, bayonet is more modern and secure than screw mount. But with developing tanks, I prefer screw. Screw lids secure more confidently and require some more serious fucking up when installing them to cause light or chemical leaks. The bayonet lids on current Paterson tanks are delicate affairs, easily damaged by drops and are dependent on glue holding the red plastic to the black plastic for the lid to lock correctly. They just feel dangerous and uncertain. So I like screw lids if I can get them. The older Paterson tanks also have a seal that one can install between the funnel screw-on lid and the tank. This is a nice touch. And unlike the Vivitar’s, the funnel lid had never come apart on me.
So my advice, if you have to have new tanks, I think the only real game in town is Paterson, unless you don’t want to move to higher ISO or larger tanks ever. Then check out Dot Line. But as much as I prefer the design of these tanks, you just can’t grow with them. And you’ll likely end up like me, with a massive surplus of them sitting around your darkroom from the days of growing pains.
If you can do some eBaying and fleamarketing, you might get lucky and find a vintage Vivitar or Paterson tank and reels at a good price.
Remember, when buying new tanks larger than two reels, they DO NOT COME WITH ANY REELS! Factor reels into your budget. The Dot-Line, Paterson and Vivitar reels are all interchangeable. Each brand’s reels can work in the others’ tanks perfectly. The old Paterson reels even have little black dots marked on them to facilitate faster connection of the two reel halves. Don’t be afraid to buy used/discolored, vintage reels on eBay etc but also show some support for the new stuff from a proper retailer so we don’t take Dot-Line and Paterson the way of Vivitar and countless others!
I currently have two modern Paterson 5 reel tanks, two vintage Paterson 5 reel tanks, a Vivitar 4 reel and a bunch of Dot Line two reels and a vintage Paterson two reel. As well as several metal tanks. And there are some more vintage Paterson’s on the way. Jesus! Let me know if you need anything!
But the main tanks I run are the Patersons. I landed on 5 reel tanks because each tank takes a little less than half a gallon of chemistry. I mix all my chemicals to 1 gallon bottles so this size works nicely. I load up two 5 reel tanks and mix my chemistry and process two tanks (ten rolls of film at once) together using the spinner agitation method.
When using larger tanks, one wants to spin agitate over inversions and tapping. Tapping, I’m quite sure, will eventually crack the plastic tanks. I’ve seen it happen. And inverting a heavy, wet plastic 5 reel tank is just a recipe for a fall, a break and ruined film. So spin! The folks who use metal and are looking for every little detail of what I’m doing “wrong” will also point out flaws regarding uneven development when using spinner agitation method over inversions. If you’re concerned with this, you can do an occasional inversion. In my experience, yes, I see that the chemistry settles more in the bottom of the tanks with spinning and this probably has some affect on the density of the negatives. But in practice, with 5 reel tanks, I’ve never seen an appreciable difference in negs from the top or bottom of the tank. Maybe you slide film guys can see something. But in print film land, I don’t give a fuck. Spinning keeps my hands and kitchen much cleaner and I’m less tired out!
If you’re going to run plastic tanks and reels, I highly recommend you keep spares around. Inadvertently, you will drop a reel. I’ve seen everything from reels taking a fall fine, to losing one of the little ball bearings that allow them to work to just totally cracking the plastic and making the reel unusable. So you want spares in the event that you’re counting on a full tank and you ruin a reel or need a part for repair. Same with tanks. I’ve accidentally dropped and cracked funnel lids, lost flexible lids, found leaks in the bottom of the tank, etc. You never want to be caught with film in a tank or in a dark bag and to be unable to solve a problem. Additionally, keep a tube of plastic-compatible glue handy!
Most people use two reel tanks. This forces them to process 35mm slowly and 120 even slower. I encourage you to step up to a 3, 4, or 5 reel. When I began moving up from 2 reel tanks, I just felt so much more productive and enjoyed processing much more. Imagine doing ten rolls of film in the time that you currently do two in! I remember only doing two and feeling like developing was a serious pain the ass. I was doing all this work for little reward. And worse, I’d have to consider how I was storing the chemistry and for how long all the time. Then if the chems exhausted, I was more likely to fuck up film later. When you process ten rolls at a time, you churn through your backlog of film much more quickly and you aren’t leaving developer in the bottle to expire.
If you want to move up to larger tanks just be sure your chemistry is mixed to an appropriate size. For example, I couldn’t move to two 8 reel tanks (16 rolls) without close to doubling my chemistry. So it might make more sense to move to four 5 reels (20 rolls). And also remember to buy enough film drying clips, negative sleeves and have space ready for the additional load. The last thing you want to happen is get all this film processed with nowhere to put it!
But with greater tanks comes greater responsibility. Be sure you’re comfortable with the films/chemicals/times/temps etc you’re running. The only thing worse than ruining two reels due to incorrect developer temperature is ruining five or eight or ten reels! Be sure to randomize your film so as to avoid total lost of a particular job or project. If I’m processing film from three weddings, I deliberately mix the rolls up so that I have only one or two rolls from each wedding in each tank.
Anyway, enough of a tangent. Like I said, regardless of where you’re with film processing, I hope my experience with these different tanks can be of some use to you. Are you a metal guy and find all this plastic talk cringe-worthy? Am I blowing your mind by talking about running ten or twenty rolls at a time?
Buy some new Paterson tanks from the following links and your purchases will contribute to keeping this site going! Paterson 2-Reel Tank Kit | Paterson 5-Reel | Paterson Auto-Load Reel | Paterson and Ilford Processing Starter Kit
Thanks for reading!
Follow, Favorite, Like, Add, Contact Johnny Martyr
Great post. I’ve always used Paterson tanks, they have proved really durable, but I don’t process as many rolls of film as I guess you do. The white lidded Paterson tanks always leaked a bit for me, but I liked the screw on lid fastening and the plastic collar to keep the reel secure. The only problem I get is loading thin base film like Rollei Superpan (one of my favourite films) etc, the reel has to be completely bone dry, even then it can be a struggle and induce a panic attack. I read somewhere that if you gently run a pencil around the spiral this can help ? will have to give it a try.
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Admittedly, yes, the vintage Paterson tanks with the smaller white or grey lids can leak where the funnel top screws into the tank base. Which is why it’s important to keep that seal that’s provided with them. Even still, if the tank is overfilled, it leaks out until an equilibrium is met. For me, I just prefer the security of a multi-thread screw than the loose fitting bayonet of the newer Patersons. I used to also run into this issue with damp reels not loading easily. My solution has been to simply buy more! This way, the wet stuff can sit and dry out completely over night while I am not slowed by its downtime! Glad you liked the post and thanks for reading/commenting!
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Once again, I concur with pretty much everything in this post. When I first learned to process film many years ago in school, I was advised to use Patterson tanks only for 35mm and metal Nikor tanks for 120. I also use the Hewes reels. I do own the metal tanks and Hewes reels for 35mm but never got the hang of them. I’m old and lazy now and send my film to the Darkroom every two weeks, they do a great job.
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Haha, I will have to come up with some more challenging material if you keep agreeing with most everything I write! Glad to hear I’m not the only vet who prefers plastic for 35 and metal for 120. I use The Darkroom for what little color work I shoot and have always been very happy with the results to.
I use plastic reels for both 35 and 120. When I was younger, I could load 35 metal reels np but always fumbled with 120. 10 years ago when I got back into all this, I went right to plastic and I haven’t looked back.
Love this article because I love processing my own film and love to talk shop about that craft. It’s very well written. Even after 100’s of rolls, I learned some tips from you.
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Glad you liked it and enjoy processing your own film. I’d be interested to know what specific tips you got out of this just for reference. I’d like to post more about how I process and what advice I can offer, and also learn from readers. There’s so many little details involved with processing film, we all can probably benefit from discussing them.
I use Samigon reels (with the bigger tab, (which I LOVE), and just bought another one last month. I never thought about the advantage of doing 5 rolls at once, so my biggest tank is the Patterson 3-reel. But your post made me think that I might spring for the 5-reel sometime. I prefer the screw tops as opposed to the standard because the plastic lid always leaks, which annoys me. That plus how I was trained (inversions instead of spins) leads me to have leakage when I invert. So your post made me re-consider spinning, especially if I go to 5-reel tanks. People pooh-pooh spinning; I took Bruce Barnbaum’s darkroom workshop last year and he was very critical of spinning and that’s why he doesn’t have any Patterson tanks in his darkroom. For a while I had an issue (since I invert) with the reels sliding up the post and the top poking out of the chemistry a bit, and the solution I found was wrapping a rubber band around the post and that fixed the problem. I use the Ilford system for washing.
As always Johnny an insightful article. Free of paid writer shadow. I have lots of old Paterson gear, micro focus, paper easel and others. When I actively pursued photography, I had my solution to the bubble issue. Twirly stick agitation, then hit the tank with unneeded X-Mas gift back massager (the two small boobs on a plastic handle type). Cradled the tank nicely. Stole the idea from a cheap hunter, who railed at the price of vibration units to shake powder for reloads.
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Love this post! I learned on Paterson tanks and reels when I had my first basement darkroom in my parent’s house in the 1970s. They have not failed me decade after decade. As long as the reels are nice and dry before loading, you’re golden!
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Well done and a nice topic to review. I use both plastic and metal but reach for metal first. Of the plastic tanks, I do prefer the vintage Paterson plastic to my other plastic tanks, but I never knew why. Thanks for the education! I learned to roll metal reels as a freshman in college and the muscle memory just stuck with me. I also like that stainless cleans easily and completely. I’m paranoid about cross contamination with the plastic and as you mentioned, metals tanks are much easier to control temps. Great article Johnny, thanks for all you do.
I just put a dedicated towel over the top, hold it with my right hand (I’m left handed) and invert away. The towel gets washed occasionally and gives a better grip on the tank.
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Good advice! I use the “swizzle stick” for my 5 reel tanks but yeah, the towel is a great idea for inversions.
I like the larger Vintage multi reel JOBO tanks that have screw tops. They seem to be much much thicker than what JOBO makes today. I also do not like the snap down / lock on top of current JOBO tops. When I am forced to use them, I actually use theatre tape to make sure they do not pop off or leak. Especially using them on a Beseler Motor Base to agitate. Using a JOBO tank extension with the combination of it being a thin walled tank extension combined with snap together rings, take a stiff drink and say a prayer before processing. Putting it on a motor base is unnerving and requires constant attention.
I also like Old Paterson, and Vivitar screw top tanks, they work well too. The newer bayonet Paterson tops are scary junk IMO, and will actually “lock” closed crooked, light leakage, etc. One has to be very careful of an even level fit before locking in place and then triple checking it for proper locking. I tape these closed as well. They leak like a fountain with inversion agitation in my experience.
I have plenty of Metal tanks a well, small to large, and I like loading film 35 or 120 on the metal reels. You are more “of the process” in loading the stainless reel Vs pushing film on a screw like plastic track. I also tape the seam of the top lid while processing as well. Nothing like the feel of a good slam the bottom of the tank down of a metal tank to rid any air bubbles 🙂 One think I do like about plastic reels is that you can DIY to “make a reel” fit an odd ball film size and then just process that odd sized film (122) into a larger tank and get great results. My reel sides are on a tube that is a very tight fit , but I can still adjust the width before hand or if need be, tweak as I am loading. All film in 120, 122 127 is NOT the exact same width so this gives me a little play that I sometimes need. Another plus for plastic reels is that film that is 60 years old and the paper backing is stuck to the film, WILL load on a plastic reel, soak for 24 hours, drain and develop, and the paper floats right off after fixing. Impossible to load on a stainless reel in my experience, I just heard dreadful cracking instead while trying to load on a stainless reel. Develop On !
Been using Paterson System 4 tanks for 50+ years. Just keep them dry, and no problems!