SP-445 review

The SP-445 compact 4×5 processing system is one of the top gear purchases I’ve made this year, full stop. It’s made the prospect of developing sheet film much more palatable: from something messy and stinky that filled me with trepidation, to something easy and straightforward. For someone without a proper darkroom, it’s very nearly perfect.

It’s a fairly simple thing, really, and I’m shocked that it took someone this long to come up with it, surprised that Patterson wasn’t all over it a decade or two ago. But, then, twenty years ago, most everyone was still shooting 35mm (or 110 or APS) film, and ten years ago everyone was dropping film for digital, and most people who shot large format film were professionals or very advanced enthusiasts and therefore already had darkrooms in their garages or basements or living rooms, or had access to one somehow.

There were a home processing tanks available, but they tended to leak and durability was a question. Someone came up with an insert for a 3 reel Paterson tank and that also looks like a good option, if you already have a 3 reel Paterson tank, or otherwise need a 3 reel Paterson tank. For hobbyists with 2 reel Paterson tanks, the Taco Method looks promising, but the SP-445 beats them all.

Two rather standard caps keep it liquid tight. One side acts as a vent to make filling and emptying smoother; the other is the fill/dump portal. I keep the vent cracked while filling the tank, and only tighten it once all the chemicals are in and I’ve tapped some to dislodge bubbles.

It’s a bit of a pain to remember to unseal the vent a bit when changing chemicals, but practice will get that straight, I expect, and agitation is a breeze: 4 gentle inversions per minute should be good, but I’m no expert and I know that opinions are divided… Not to fear, stand processing should also be a breeze in the SP-445.

Inside, there’s room for four sheets of 4×5, along with some permanently attached rails and a light trap on the vent side. The two film holders slide in and out easily, and on the fill/drain side, two light traps are removable for easy cleaning. It’s easy to cross thread the film holders in the dark, but far easier to work with (or so I hear) than with the old dip & dunk type tanks.

The SP-445 is so very simple, and so very easy to use.

I did make one error on my first attempt: I loaded a sheet of film upside down. I’m a relative newb when it comes to handling 4×5 film, and I got confused about where the notches should be relative to the emulsion side. (In the vertical orientation, they should be on the right side of the top edge; in horizontal , they should be on the bottom of the right edge.) The holders have ridges in them to keep the film from sticking, and these ridges left lines in the emulsion side. You can see them clearly here:

The picture still came out, though, sorta…

(I already shared the picture above, and talked in some detail about all the errors I made in the process.)

Overall, I’m very pleased with the SP-445 and I have an itch to shoot more 4×5, to try out the Galaxy paper—I have an idea for something I want to do with that… God willing, I’ll try it someday soon—and experiment with some other things, but I’m very far behind on 35mm processing, book reviews, and all the other life-type activities going on, so the itch just annoys a bit.

Developing with the SP-445 couldn’t be easier: load some film in the dark bag just like you’d load a film holder, more or less; install the light traps; pour in some developer; agitate with 4 inversions every minute (or not); switch to stop bath (or Blix) and more inversions; then fixer and inversions; then pop the top off and wash: you can get good washing with about 1/4 stream from the kitchen faucet, but I’ll probably switch to filling a small tub with water and agitating the holders in it for a few minutes, rather than running the water for so long. Time will tell, but my tub method seems to work ok, and uses somewhat less water than the constant stream from the faucet.

The craftsmanship leaves something to be desired: it’s solid and well constructed, but the finishes on things are a bit rough, and craft does matter some. I found some bits of plastic around the lid that caused a small leak (a bit of rubbing with my thumb took the burrs off and it should be good now, though time and another test will tell) and you can see tool marks in the film holder. But all in all, the SP-445 Compact 4×5 Film Processing System is a solid piece of kit.

If you shoot 4×5 and don’t have a darkroom, you need an SP-445! And if you shoot 4×5 and have a darkroom, get one anyway: you can take it on holiday with you and develop film in broad daylight in a cabin somewhere with a bit of cheap instant coffee, washing soda and some vitamin C tablets… $87 might sound a bit steep, and maybe it is, but it’ll be worth it.

The SP-445 is on sale now, and you can pick up film and chemicals while you’re at it. I can’t recommend the processing tank enough: seriously, it’s one the best photography-related purchases I’ve made this year—it’s up there with the X70 and the 55mm Micro-Nikkor, and that’s saying something.

I might try to make a video of it in use… we’ll see how I feel and if I remember to do it when the time comes. It’ll be a new thing for me, with a good amount of editing and multiple camera angles, so it could be fun, but also quite time consuming, so God knows if I’ll do it or not.

In any case, I very much look forward to shooting more with the Crown Graphic, to shooting some color and maybe chrome with it, to trying a few experiments I have in mind, and the SP-445 will make all that much easier. Indeed, I doubt I’d even be thinking about large format much without it, it’s really made shooting 4×5 that much more practical for me.

Purpose
Price
Craftsmanship
Ease of Use

Overall, I’ll give it 4.6 stars… I only knock it for the price (it’s bit steep today, but I paid ~$50 for it via Kickstarter, so I can’t complain much) and the craftsmanship (it seems a bit unfinished).

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