Back in 2009, it felt like the beginnings of the “make-your-digital-look-like-film” movement, except it wasn’t the soft pastels or creamy skin tones of the pro stocks we were going for, it was the surreal color shifts of cross-processed film.
I looked up tutorials about how to give my digital photos the “X-Pro” (short for cross-process) look in Lightroom. It was all about flipping curves to create all the funky color shifts, and, yet, I didn’t really know what cross-processing meant.
In this introduction to cross-processing film, we’ll go over what cross-processing is, how it affects your images (with lots of examples!), and how to develop it.
What is Cross-Processing?
It wasn’t until I started shooting film again that I learned that cross-processing just refers to any film processed in chemicals in which it wasn’t designed to be processed.
This can mean developing your C-41 film in E6 chemicals, your C-41 film in black and white chemicals, or most commonly, developing your E6 film (slide film) in C-41 chemicals.
(Caveat: Developing BW in C-41 will lead to varying results, and the bleach will strip away some or all of your image, so do it at your own risk.)
If you’ve read almost any of my other articles you know that a major reason I love film is because it lends itself to experimentation (Hello light leaks! Film soup! Pushing film!). So I was really excited to cross-process my first roll of slide film and get those results I had hoped to get by messing with curves in Lightroom.
In fact, the two things that pushed me to learn to develop my own C-41 film was film soup and cross-processing.
Now is the time I admit I’ve never shot slide film and processed it in E6 chemicals, so I am NOT a slide film expert, (nor am I a cross-processing expert), but I do have some basics to pass along for those wanting to dive in!
And if you’d like to more info on slide film and the different film stocks for slide film, check out this Guide to Slide Film.
Slide film is known for its true to life colors and subtle grain, and cross-processing basically undoes all of these characteristics of slide film.
The grain is chunky, the colors are wonky, and I have found it hard to predict what will happen.
But if you’re like me and you love experimentation, you will find these things are features and not bugs. In fact, I oftentimes think slide film looks too akin to digital images, and cross-processing it gives it that gritty character I love about film.
Slide film developed normally in E6 chemicals produce slides, which are positive images, so instead of seeing the weird colors you’re used to seeing on a negative, you will real-to-life colors.
But when you develop slide film in C-41, you won’t get a slide; you will get a negative. So expect to scan just as you would scan any other negative.
How to Shoot for Cross-Processing
Cross-processing kind of reminds me of pushing film in that you get higher contrast and color shifts.
I shot my first roll of slide film in the winter, and all of the snow was blown out and anything in the shadows basically had no detail on the final negative.
This makes sense because slide film is known for not having as wide a latitude as C41 film. It also means I shoot my film at box speed and meter for midtones or shadows.
Unlike negative film, more exposure isn’t necessarily safer!
I have primarily stuck to shooting Lomo X-Pro and Fuji Provia 100F, and maybe I haven’t done enough cross-processing, but it feels like I have yet to nail down which film produces which results.
Provia is known for being a better portrait film than Velvia, which is known for being a good choice for landscapes. This is one of the reasons I have stuck with Provia… But since I am cross-processing, I kind of assume all those rules go out the window.
The other reason I tend to shoot Provia is that Velvia tends to be more expensive, and if I’m going to “ruin” the film anyway, why spend the extra money? Yafeelme?
Lomography claims their slide film is especially meant for cross-processing, but I have found Lomography X-Pro (find at Adorama) to be the biggest wildcard of the bunch (I suppose that’s the point of Lomo!).
I have gotten crazy grain, weird yellow color shifts, and overall less predictable results. So if you’re really down for experimentation and unexpected results, definitely give this film a try.
Fujifilm Provia 100
Fuji Provia 100 (find on Amazon), on the other hand, has given me more expected and classic cross-processed looks with skin tones and color shifts, especially in the shadows.
The part that is more surprising is that in a shot that is accurately metered and has a lot in the midtones, it can be difficult to tell it was cross-processed film!
I would say choose this film if you want finer grain (it’s all relative), more consistent results and maybe even if you want less obvious results.
For developing crossed-processed slide film in C-41 chemicals, you’ll follow the normal C-41 developing instructions based on your chemicals. You can read more about how I develop color film here.
The big question is whether it messes up your developing chemicals. I did A LOT of research before developing it and found very mixed results.
I had faith it wouldn’t mess with my chemicals, so I cross-processed at the beginning of a batch (I use a batch of 1L chemicals on about 15ish rolls of film).
Although the rest of the film I developed with those chemicals turned out, they all had some color shifts to them. Everything seemed to have a more yellow tinge, especially in the highlights.
Now, I realize correlation does not equal causation, but I was suspicious enough that I haven’t done it since. I now wait until the end of the batch and develop it right around the time I’m developing film soup, or often times WITH my film soup.
But this is going off of one data point, so I am not completely convinced it was the cross-processing’s fault.