Photography / Hands-on Review

In the Field: Bergger Pancro 400 B&W Film and Model Railroading

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As a film photographer, I rarely get to experience the joy and excitement of new products being released to the market. I’ve made my peace with this and have learned to work within a milieu of cameras and materials that have been on the shelves for decades. However, when Bergger recently released Pancro 400, I eagerly anticipated the chance to try a truly new film for one of the few times in my life.

Besides just being a new film, Bergger Pancro 400 is a serious new film, which contrasts with other more recent films that rely on very distinct, abstract qualities to produce a unique look. Whereas Lomography is producing films with a playful, kitschy quality to them, Bergger’s new film is akin to the more vanilla Kodak and Ilford options that have been around forever. Quickly running through the more technical side of this film, Bergger states that Pancro has a new dual-emulsion design that uses silver bromide and silver iodide layers to realize a more organic grain structure, while still achieving a long tonal range. Its box speed is ISO 400, although Bergger claims it can be pushed or pulled up to two stops with acceptable results, and it is available in 35mm and 120 roll sizes, as well as in 4 x 5, 5 x 7, and 8 x 10" sheets. For my review, I worked with the 120 variant and shot the film at box speed.

When planning to photograph with this film, I had the initial idea to photograph grand, expansive, and isolated Western landscapes. Seeing as how I live in New York City, this seemed a little unrealistic. So, I opted for the next best option: photographing the claimed-to-be world’s largest model railroad, Northlandz. To my untrained eye, this incredible HO-scale model railroad layout perfectly and playfully mimicked the Westward Expansion of the railroad system, and sated my craving to be in the real Wild West. To photograph this overwhelming land of miniatures, I used my Mamiya RB67 Pro-S with 90mm f/3.8 and 250mm f/4.5 lenses, as well as a tripod, since most of my exposure times were pushing well past 1/8 of a second, with many ranging up to 30+ seconds. This proved to be a good test for the film in a few ways: the lighting at Northlandz is much harsher than expected, which certainly challenged the tonal range of the film. And due to the overall dimness of the lighting, and the long exposure times, I got to see how this film reacts regarding reciprocity failure, as well as overall film speed.

I spent the day photographing different areas of the model railroad from the nearly mile-long path that takes you through the entirety of Northlandz, focusing mainly on the vernacular architecture of many of the houses and commercial properties, as well as the grandiose, sublime landscapes. While this is a model railroad, and there were many trains running, my exposure times were too long to photograph many of the trains themselves (I’ll concede a point to digital cameras and their ridiculous ISOs here). Nonetheless, the backdrops to the railroad and amount of detail and attention given to the scenes kept me fascinated enough to not miss the trains speeding by.

During shooting, I ran into a recurring problem with the film that I worried was going to taint my entire perspective: after finishing most of the rolls, the adhesive tab to secure the film after being removed from the back was almost always pre-stuck to the backing paper, leaving me without a direct way to secure the film from being exposed to light if I let go of the roll. Luckily, I keep a bit of gaffer tape around one of my tripod legs, and a few rubber bands in my camera bag, so I had no ruined rolls, but the fact that this quality control error happened on seven or eight of the 10 rolls I shot had me a bit miffed. It reminded me of working with many of the Eastern-European films that had a resurgence in popularity about 10 years ago, that had very shabby backing paper and often no adhesive at all on the tab to seal the film after shooting. Hopefully, my issue with this can be chalked up to a one-time event. But I digress… I finished shooting for the day, retreated outside to the Northeast, and headed home to develop the film.

As previously mentioned, I shot all the film at box speed and used stock Kodak D-76 to develop the film for 9 minutes at 68°F. I did this process five times, since I only have a tank that holds two rolls of 120 at a time, and slightly tweaked my development time after each batch as I got to see how the film was turning out. My initial reaction was that the film was a bit slow, and rating it at ISO 400 was somewhat liberal, in terms of giving it enough exposure (in hindsight, and noted for next time, I should rate this film around EI 250). The first round of negatives was a bit thinner than I like, but after adding a minute to my developing time, the remaining rolls turned out fine. Also, as Bergger claims, the film dries very flat with almost no curling, making it perfect for quickly sleeving and scanning.

Since I no longer have access to a black-and-white darkroom, I scan all my film on an Imacon Flextight 646 and, thus, my final impressions of the film are based purely on scans rather than darkroom prints. After my first few scans, I quickly pick up that this film is quite a bit grainer than I expected. This isn’t a bad thing, but caught me off guard, seeing as how I primarily have been shooting Kodak T-Max 400 lately, which is known as one of the finest-grained films you can use. With its grain, the Pancro 400 gives you an image quality that is somewhat gritty and biting, yet the overall flat contrast profile tempers the aggressiveness of the grain and renders the overall result a bit… boring.

But don’t take that the wrong way; in fact, for scanning, this works perfectly with a digital post-production workflow because you have more latitude to adjust contrast and values. Returning again to my comparison with Eastern European films (I am thinking specifically of Efke films), Pancro certainly has that classic feeling, with its blizzard of grain and muddled contrast. Despite the high-tech sounding “double emulsion,” the look this film gives me is very reminiscent of a silver-rich, soft emulsion film with a crunchy grain structure and long mid-tone range. And that is a really nice thing to have, especially with the speed of the film. I enjoyed the chance to try something brand new in the film world, and genuinely like the results I get from this film. Am I going to trade in my T-Max for this? No. But I will certainly keep a brick of it in my fridge for the next chance I have to go photograph the West.

3 Comments

Very cool. Will look into this film soon.

Just purchased 2 rolls of 120 format of this film. I use many different toy cameras and I don't forsee any problem with this film. I usually hang my film when drying with extra weight at the bottom to ensure a straight negative. For me the test will be on the beginning and ending of the rolls if it truly dries flat.

Hey Mike,

Hope you've enjoyed the film. I had no issues with waviness and this film, but definitely agree that hanging with a film clip and some weight on the bottom definitely makes things easier when sleeving and later scanning the film. I think it also promotes more even drying since the water will run to the bottom of the strip rather than potentially being caught on the sides of the film. Good luck!

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