In movies and TV one sometimes [1] sees film being developed under a red safe-light, which of course cannot be done with panchromatic film. Is this portraying a common practice of journalists and spies using non-panchromatic film (perhaps because it was cheaper, more widely available, or more convenient to develop because it could be done under a safe-light) in the late pre-digital era ('80s and '90s), or is this just artistic license? Would a journalist have chosen a non-panchromatic film for their everyday work in this era?

I know what artistic license is. I know why it might be employed. I only want to know whether there is a plausible situation where this is realistic.

[1] The example that finally triggered this question was in Weißensee, season 3 episode 1, just after the 24-minute mark, where Katja is clearly seen loading film into a development tank in red light.

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    Most if not all of the darkroom scenes I've seen in the movies have involved printing, which can be done under a red or amber safelight. Seeing an image emerge in the developer is a bit more dramatic than agitating film... Do you have any examples of a program/movie where they are developing film under a safelight? – BobT May 22 at 13:06
  • @BobT: agreed that usually only prints are shown; I'll try to find the episodes. – Max May 22 at 13:28
  • "The example that finally triggered this question was in Weißensee, season 3 episode 1, just after the 24-minute mark, where Katja is clearly seen loading film into a development tank in red light." Just because it dramatized that way does not mean they know what they are doing. OR It could be artistic license, meaning they may have just used red light because the viewer would not be able to see them loading the film the proper way. I.E. in complete darkness. ( See Micheal C's answer. – Alaska Man May 23 at 20:10
  • @AlaskaMan: the character is an experienced photographer and she gets prints out of it, so it's not supposed to represent her not knowing what she's doing. My question is whether this is always artistic license, or is there a plausible situation where somebody who knows what they were doing would actually do this. – Max May 24 at 16:03

Ortho films were common as late as 1950. Panchro types were available as early as 1895 (based on the invention of tricolor technique around that time).

The famous Verichrome Pan, the commonest black and white film for American family photos as late as the 1980s, was called that to distinguish from the earlier Verichrome, which was an ortho film that was made from the 1930s until the early 1950s. "Verichrome" refers to "true color" to distinguish the film from the still earlier blue-sensitive stocks that were still familiar to photographers of the time.

Additionally, most Hollywood films shot before 1940 used ortho film -- the color response of which is responsible for the green tinted makeup that appears in the 1960s TV series The Munsters -- green was substituted for red on ortho films, because red lips, cheek blush, etc. recorded as unnaturally dark. Panchromatic films were available, but like many other things, cost was a big factor in film production, and panchro films generally cost more, in part because they couldn't be packaged and produced under red safelight, but had to be produced and handled in total darkness.

Possibly related to the cited (TV series?) scene, many microfilms were orthochromatic right up until the end of the film document storage era, and as noted in a comment, scientific film stocks often had no need for red sensitivity -- and even today, it's simpler to produce an ortho emulsion than a panchro type, because a single sensitizing dye (pinacryptol yellow, found in food coloring) can add green sensitivity to a basic blue-sensitive emulsion, but red sensitivity requires more expensive and harder to obtain specialty dyes.

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  • Indeed, while orthochromatic film is no longer common, ilfordphoto.com/… it does still exist from at least one manufacturer. – Jim MacKenzie May 26 at 22:19
  • @JimMacKenzie Not to mention that ortho litho film, once used a lot in darkroom techniques, is still sold, and many 8x10 and larger photographers use X-ray film (due to cost -- around 1/4 to 1/3 the cost of photographic films the same size), which is either blue-sensitive or ortho. – Zeiss Ikon May 27 at 11:03

or is it just movies being fake?

I'd say it is just movies being movies. Presenting the audience with a pitch-black scene is not overly helpful.

Even if we stipulate the use of orthochromatic film under a red safelight, the light levels required for capturing a movie scene are quite incompatible with an actual safelight as illumination. So the question is not really "is it movies being fake?" since according to your metrics, such a scene would need to be "fake" anyway. The question is how to best suspend the disbelief in the veracity of such a scene. A red illumination is sort of the agreed-upon filmic representation of a darkroom and thus will also serve as the background for handling film negatives.

Fake? Sure. But we knew that when buying the movie ticket.

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  • I'm not asking a question about how movies are made. I am fully aware that movies are not actually filmed with real safelights (but I do find it jarring when there is clearly white light in supposed safelight-illuminated scenes). A much better filmic and more realistic representation, mentioned by @BobT, is to skip film development completely and only show enlargement and printing. – Max May 24 at 16:07

It's a good bit of both.

I won't rehash what two other excellent answers have presented in support of:


except to say that movies scenes that appear dark are often filmed in light far brighter than what appears to be the case. So those darkroom scenes in films are probably using red light much brighter than what could be considered "safe" even when using orthochromatic film.

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The chief light sensitive ingredient in film is salts of sliver (silver + iodine or chlorine or bromine). These compounds form tiny crystals that are off-white in color. When exposed to light, these crystals reduce to metallic silver; the other component is a member of the halogen family, Swedish for salt maker.

Violet and blue light rays are most energetic. Early films were only sensitive to these colors. Old black & white films thus image with weird results. Rosy cheeks and lips image too dark, often reproducing a black void of detail. Green foliage images too light also void of detail.

Additionally, all early films suffered from a defect called “halation”. Bright highlights often imaged blurred seemingly showing an encircling halo. The halation resulted with bright light traverses the film emulsion, playing on the film emulsion to base junction or pressure plate, it was prone to be reflected back into the film, exposing it from the rear.

Professor Hermann Vogel of Berlin Technical set out to solve the halation problem. In 1873 he hit upon the idea of dying the film emulsion yellow. He reasoned, the yellow dye would act as a blue blocking filter thus preventing the halation. His idea worked – to his surprise, the yellow dyed film gained sensitivity to green light. Vogel had also invented what we call orthochromatic film, sensitive to violet, blue and green. This film and its predecessor can be handled under red safelight. Red light is void of violet, blue and green.

Vogel and his graduate students went on to dye film emulsions using various colored dye. These dyes altered the way the silver salt crystals responded to different colors. Eventually they produced panchromatic films. These are sensitive to red, green and blue light. Pan films are least sensitive to green. We can used a super dim green safelight placed some distance away from the film and used for only a few seconds. Such green safelights help prevent darkroom workers from tripping and they can be used to inspect the film as it develops. In modern times, military night scopes, infrared type, can be used and are greatly appreciated, these work!

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  • I do not believe this answer even attempts to answer the question, which already mentions the distinction between panchromatic and orthochromatic film and the fact that the latter can be handled under a red safelight. – Max May 24 at 16:09

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