Wartime Pillbox on Silvermax

An Ilford MGIV RC print "toned" in Lightroom.

This is my first outing with Silvermax and I have to say it's a lovely film. I was quite excited when it first came out just over a year ago and I've no idea why it's taken me so long to give it a try. Better late than never I suppose so here are some results from the maiden roll.

This is the Adox film that claims to be "silver rich" and capable of recording up to 14 zones in its own dedicated developer. Well, that may be the case but I reckon most people are going to soup it in good old D76 so that's what this roll got.

The camera for these photographs was my Contax 137 MA with 28mm f2.8 Distagon, a very good focal length for the interior shots of this world war two defensive pillbox which sits lonely-looking on a slight rise affording a commanding 360 degree view of the surrounding Angus countryside.

I used D76 stock and got some nice-looking negatives which I've scanned for this post after tweaking them just a little in Lightroom. The first pic is a scan of a print which was made on grade 3 on MGIV but I haven't had time to print the others yet. It's also a subject that calls out for a little toning, maybe light sepia, as the straight black and white image of the concrete walls looks somewhat clinical. That's why I added a little warmth in Lightroom.

The pillbox is a Type 27 and one of only 84 still standing in the UK. It's a hexagonal design with three-feet thick outer walls. It has a central well that's open to the sky where a light anti-aircraft gun could be positioned. In the pic above, you can see the underside of the central well, with the "well" apparently taking on a new meaning judging by the water.

Aside from the obvious neglect and the several inches of bird crap lining the floor, it's in remarkably good condition. Scrubbed up, it would look good as new. It would be a great idea to open The Pillbox Cafe with seating around the central well. Very short staff could work in the "kitchen" beneath the outside gun emplacement, the latter doubling as a small roof-top terrace. There'd be hardly any passing trade though and those customers we did get would soon tire of wiping the sheep shit off their shoes that they'd picked up in the surrounding field. Better consign that idea to the round file then...

Alone and unloved - but not by me.
Silvermax, which I rated at the box speed of 100 ISO, has done a great job of capturing the extremes of light and shade and shown itself to be a very fine-grained film. Exposures in the pillbox were around eight seconds at f11. I wasn't sure of the film's reciprocity characteristics so I bracketed a couple of shots, one at plus-one stop and another at plus two. The shot above needed a four minute exposure as it was considerably darker under the well. Both the plus one and plus two negs look usable - probably 1.5 stops would have been spot on. There are tones everywhere from the deep shadows to all but the brightest highlights pouring in through the embrasures.

Are there 14 zones in the negatives? Who knows. I don't have a densitometer. All I can say is that Silvermax is capable of handling a wide range of tones which makes the photographer's job that bit easier. I might buy some Silvermax developer just to see if there's much difference but I wouldn't expect to see anything dramatic.

The corrugated roof is a nice feature helping to break up what might otherwise be a dark and boring slab of concrete. I didn't do anything to bring out the detail in the embrasures either in the negative scans or when making the print but I think there's something that could be dug out of there if I wanted. There's plenty of detail in the shadows which means that the negatives can be printed dark and moody with just a hint of texture in the shadows or lighter. I think it's got to be sombre, hasn't it?

This last pic gave me the most bother because the tripod was almost fully extended, right up against the wall and I was determined to frame it just so that the tiny bit of sunlight would poke through the far window. Much swearing ensued before I got it right. The only thing I'd say about the 35mm format for the pillbox is that it's difficult to get much of either ceiling or floor in the frame. You can have a bit of one or a bit of the other. I'm wondering how a 90mm lens on the Speed Graphic would cope. It would have about the same angle of view as the Distagon but, being a squarer format, I might get an extra bit of film at the top and bottom of the frame. I think I'll go back and shoot a sheet or two of 5x4 with the 127mm lens I have to get a feel for it.

So that's some belated early impressions of Silvermax, if you know what I mean. I'm not sure what sort of magic Adox work but both Silvermax and CHS 100 II have proved excellent at this low light sort of photography. Their reciprocity characteristics are good, contrast doesn't build up to unmanageable levels the way it can with some films and printing seems easy enough. Add fine grain and good sharpness to those qualities and there's an awful lot to like about these films.


  1. Thanks Bruce. Great reading.

  2. Thanks Bruce. Great reading.

  3. Hello. I am curious too to see if there are a notorious difference when you use this film with the special developer. I liked to discover your blog cause I love work with film too. All the best form Buenos Aires, Argentina.

  4. CHS100II and Silvermax are both 35mm only, right? At least, I only see 35mm on offer here.

  5. Hi, Bruce.
    The pictures look gorgeous, I think the mood of the place has been captured in the best way. This film looks very promising tone wise. Usually, in my experience, flat concrete walls produce also flat pictures, but this is not the case, they're in fact so rich... But, I would not put all the merit on the film, of course, the photographer did his good job in choosing the spots that got the best lighting... I like the light warm tone, it's the way I'd have chosen myself and I agree with you in liking the prints to be quite somber... to reveal the feeling of old age and quietness... It would be interesting to see the if the dedicated developer would keep its promises but I'm skeptic as you are, dunno if any difference could be practically appreciated without a densitometer. Good ole D-76 seems a good choice, these days I feel myself the impulse to go back to it too.
    Thank you for sharing your impressions, and also the wonderful images.
    Cheers, M.

  6. Those tones look very nice, Bruce. Love the band of light running across the center of the interiors. I hope to have some silvermax and chs in a few weeks. Can't wait really...cheers.

  7. Hi Bruce - lovely shots there. They actually remind me of John Sexton's LF photographs, which is no mean feat. There's a very broad pallette of greys, and a certain luminosity which is darned difficult to get these days. I'm jealous.
    Well done!

  8. Hi Bruce great atmosphere captured in mono , always seems so quiet when you step into these bunkers. Silvermax looks good Adox should be applauded . I rarely take shots in tight interiors but have you considered panorama or stitching shots to get the coverage. Not darkroom stuff really but I do it in photo elements. It may be a solution ?. I will post a close up pan in the flicker group which doesn't quite work but with care could have done. regards

  9. Hi Bruce,

    Nice shots, the corrugated roof detail is spectacular.

    I was reading through the whole article thinking to myself, 'why hasn't he shot this on the Speed Graphic ?' and then you come to it in the last paragraph !

    Couldn't think of a better subject matter - and you've got no wind rattling around your tripod for those long exposures and the detail from the 5x4 would be spectacular.

    I think the squarer format would also be a useful exercise in re-framing. It's easy to get tied down into a way of working determined by your format, a little of something different to break the routine is healthy.

    Really nice shots Bruce.

  10. Thanks for the comments everyone.

    Hello Hernan! I think you're my first Argentinian visitor.

    Jan, Silvermax is 35mm only but CHS 100 II is or will be available in a lot of formats. At least, that's what Adox have said.

    Andy, I've done photo stitching before but I wouldn't want to back to sitting at a computer for ages. I'm enjoying the darkroom too much!

    Nick, I agree with everything you say re 5x4. I'm definitely going to visit the pillbox again with the Speed Graphic.

  11. A useful "down to earth" review. It looks like a film worth trying, and I'm going to.
    Thanks for the information and excellent pictures.

  12. Hi,

    Nice pictures!

    Thanks a lot for reviewing this film and the CHS100II as well. I'm trying to find a couple of film and a developer combo's to stick with and your reviews are a great help!

    Regards from Belgium

  13. Pleasure, Henk. Good luck with your search.

  14. Congratulations, wonderful tones.