Guerilla darkroom 2020: hardware selection
Well, it’s been almost 20 years since I’ve did any updates on the original Guerilla Darkroom on the old site, so let’s bring things forward to this year. I’ll assume that the purpose of your darkroom work is getting to negatives for scanning, though almost all of this applies to regular printing.
Goal: get finished negatives. Do not scratch. Don’t go broke. Use what you have on hand. This part will deal with the equipment side. The next installment will cover chemicals and some finer points of (or really, cheats at, technique).
The three critical pieces of infrastructure that you do not have at home are (1) a developing tank and reels; (2) a changing bag; and (3) a thermometer. Let’s take these in turn.
First, get a Paterson Super System 4 tank. A new one (old ones tend to get chipped around the base, and their locking lugs may be loose). A Paterson Super System 4 developing set (tank, agitator, 2 reels) is $34 on Amazon. It’s hard to beat that. Consider that you may want to develop more than one roll of 120 at a time; realistically, this calls for a Multi-Reel 5 or larger.
Don’t screw around with Samigon/AP/Arista clones of older Paterson System 4 stuff.
- Old-style tanks are not much cheaper.
- Old-style tanks share the vice of older System 4 tanks: using a gasket to seal, being really easy to cross-thread, and therefore leaking all the time. Super System 4 uses a rubber cap over the whole top, and its funnel/light trap bayonets in.
- Super System 4 can be agitated using a key that fits through the hole in the “funnel.” This is like having a vertical Jobo.
Do not complain about how much tanks cost. Film photography is expensive. It is a luxury good. You picked this path. Tanks are a critical piece of the developing puzzle.
Steel tanks are functional and use less liquid, but they require a lot more skill in loading film onto their reels. The big argument for steel has been that plastic reels degrade over time. That’s not borne out by my experience; I have some plastic reels that are 20 years old now – and still reliably load 120 film. It all boils down to keeping the ball-bearings clean and not warping the reels through hot water or abuse. Steel reels also are single-size: so you have reels for 35mm and reels for 120, and never do the twain meet.
As to reels, there is little to recommend actual Paterson-brand reels (except that they are basically free with the Paterson kit pictured above). Any compatible type will work, with Samigon/AP/Arista reels being slightly less nice but having a slight edge for newbies because they have loading ramps. Note that with these ramps, you will have to separate the two halves of the reel to safely remove the developed film. With no ramps, you can flex it out if careful.
Second, get a big changing bag. You will use this in lieu of a darkroom for film work. Some bags at Adorama, for example, can hold a Paterson 8-reel tank. To be frank, there is nothing to recommend finding an actual dark room. The inevitable result is that you notice little pinhole light leaks and freak out. Or you get disoriented and misplace things. With a changing bag, you are no worse off for not being able to see what you are doing, plus you can watch television while you load reels. Just don’t wear your Apple Watch or your tritium-lumed vintage watch. Actually, you shouldn’t do that in any circumstance where you are loading film into tanks.
Do not waste time trying to improvise a changing bag. Yes, there are Depression-era guides that tell you that they can be fashioned from sweatshirts, etc., but film had a much lower speed back then, and if you get light-struck film, you waste all of the efforts you made shooting pictures in the first place.
Finally, get a good glass thermometer that can go several degrees above or below 20C and has fractional gradations (recommended: Paterson PTP381, 15C to 65C). Metal thermometers are sometimes hard to read, can fog up, and never seem to be as accurate. You won’t break the glass thermo as long as you keep it in its square-profile tube. This is $25-30 well spent, since an accurate thermometer can mean the difference between usable and unusable negatives. Overly dense negatives are not fun for printing and really not fun for scanning.
Other hardware (not so specialized)
Timer. Could be anything that can be set for a time between 1 and 7 minutes. LCD kitchen timers are great. Anything that disappears when not stimulated (like the iPhone clock app) is not. Try getting that phone unlocked with wet hands. The Massive Dev Chart app has timers built in. And noises. And klaxons. We’re easily amused.
Film leader retriever. This can be used for two different operations. One, you can retrieve and trim the leader square at the end (if you bulk load film, and your camera has a rubberized takeup spool, you may have just left it square). Bonus points for rounding the corners to make the film load smoother into the reel. Two, you can pull all the film out of the cartridge, which obviates opening the cartridge (generally something you would do with a bottle opener – caps are crimped on really, really hard). Many people reload commercial cartridges by leaving a little film out and attaching the new film to that. Here is the Ars Imago (B&H house brand?) version ($10), which is the latest knockoff of the classic:
Scissors. You can use any household scissors. I would recommend something sharp that cuts straight. So not pinking shears.
Measuring vessel. A 1000ml graduated cylinder is customary. If you use HC-110, gradation in ounces may be more practical (since you mix 4 oz of developer to 124oz water to get 1+31, i.e., dilution B). If you want to see a real artifact of the past, some British grads have imperial ounces as well as US ounces and mL.
If you want to get really lazy, you can measure exactly 1 gallon of water into your storage bottle (or 4L, etc.) and mark with a line where the water level is. Dump out the water. From then on, you only measure the concentrated developer and simply fill with water to the line. Surprisingly, or maybe not, the width of a chisel-tip marker line is precise enough. Make sure you use this special bottle on a level surface.
Storage bottles. Bad news here: the thin 1-gallon bottles used for distilled water make really poor darkroom storage bottles. They do not seal well, and the thin plastic is permeable to oxygen. That said, if you are not storing chemicals for more than a month, no problem. Eventually, you will want to save any 1 gallon or 5 liter bottle from store-bought photo chemicals and repurpose it for storage of diluted chemicals. For example, I have an old Photographers Formulary TF-4 concentrate bottle that I user to store diluted Ilford fixer.
Dump bottles. Your life will be a lot more fun if you can quickly dump chemicals when you change stages of developing. The dollar store had some cylindrical 1-gallon cereal containers marked off in liters and fractions of a gallon. With a 20cm opening, these can catch your dumped chemicals. Key qualities of a dump bottle:
- Has a wide mouth so that a tank inverted above it will dump straight down.
- Holds at least 2.5L of liquid – the capacity of the biggest developing tank – and preferably a gallon – 3.8L – because you can also use it to mix chemicals. Try stirring chemicals through the opening on a milk jug.
- Has straight sides.
- Has something to hold onto (like indentations) and is not slippery. Developer is basic (not acidic), and you will find that like soap, it makes everything it touches slick.
These do not need elaborate seals or even really to be airtight because you are not using these to store chemicals. Having lids is preferable
Kitchen-type funnel. You already have this, though I don’t recommend using it for food or drink thereafter. If you have a spare Paterson “cone” for a developing tank, that also makes a good funnel.
Drying rack. For rolls of 24 frames or 120 film, you might find that a rolling laundry rack with a “grid” style top shelf is very practical (if you already have one). You can clothespin the film to the grid, and use more clothespins to weight the film ends. Film does not curl as aggressively as it used to, so you don’t need weights.
If you don’t have a rack like this, your “top” can be made from a two-clip trouser hanger that you already have in your closet – and hung off whatever is convenient (overhead pipes, usually).
36 frames of film require a lot of space and long arms. This requires being hung from the ceiling.
There are several things you can dispense with:
- Squeegees. These come packed with some older developing sets. They can be used to dry film faster. They are also good at scratching film if you don’t keep them clean. With the right wetting agent and a not-too-dry environment, film dries on its own in about an hour anyway.
- Weighted film clips. Not really needed.
- Hose-type rinsing attachments. If you use hypo-clear, the wash time for 35mm is not very long anyway. Plus these attachments tend not to fit any modern faucet. The longer you run water, the more likely you will have a temperature transient that can ruin your film.
- Forced-air dryers. If you are a photojournalist in 1965, and you have to rush out that print for the rotogravure section. yes. Otherwise, they are space- and energy-intensive. And are actually frustratingly slow.
- Sous vide heaters. Much the rage for color, if your bent is black-and-white, you don’t need any artificial temperature control. I’m as much a fan as anyone of using kitchen tools, but you can leave this one alone.
DX labels: you’ll thank me on your wedding night!
Every man with a hobby or particular skill likes to publish a self-serving, single-criteria test of manhood: whittling, hunting, tiling a bathroom, fishing, purifying rain water, rebuilding a Cleveland V8, growing hydrangeas, surviving a Turkish prison after a bad rap for hashish, brewing beer, operating a sailboat, bedding a strumpet, making an adequate gin & tonic, constructing your own lightsaber, &c.
Now I say unto you that you will not truly be a
man mature adult unless you can generate your own DX coding stickers decals so that you can use underwhelming offbeat slow-speed film in your way-too-expensive point-and-shoot compact camera. Or get your camera to read your Tri-X as 320 because your technique is that good, your meter is that accurate, and that 1/3 stop makes a huge difference. And because you’re too lazy to turn that ISO dial!
I was actually doing the former – trying to use 50-speed film in a Canon Sure Shot (Prima) 120 Caption, a phenomenal camera that oddly defaults to ISO 25 when it can’t read a DX code (the reliable plastic bulk loading cassettes are uncoded…). You just can’t overexpose Pan F Plus… and try using a P/S zoom at EI 25… and what better excuse to trash my home office with bits of paper and foil? And naturally, a child in the household had stolen the only X-acto knife with a good blade, so I wasn’t going to do it by hand.
Commercially-available DX labels are limited in ISO choices, and they are also surprisingly expensive. Also, film photography these days is about reinventing the wheel. You can make decals, in a completely overwrought and overly-technological way using a machine that might already be in your household: the pattern cutter (Cricut, Brother Scan ‘n’ Cut, etc.).* We have the Brother,** so you may need to adjust your technique slightly for the Cricut. A Brother has two funtions: drawing with a marker and cutting with a blade. We will use both techniques.
*I am fully aware that this is most likely to be in your household if you already have a spouse, and that the only way to get a spouse might be to perfect your DX decal skills, which is hard to do without a pattern cutter. Such a conundrum! Better brush up on your beer-brewing.
** The Brother is way more goth than the Cricut.
You will need: your cutter, its pen and knife attachments, a roll of commercial film for reference, a DX decoding chart (available online), some half-page (Ebay) labels, and a roll of self-adhesive metal foil (0.05mm / 0.002 inches or thicker). It can be any metal you want (aluminum, stainless, brass, copper), as long as it is conductive.
The drawn outer box. On your design software, make a box that is 33x15mm. Designate that “draw.” This will contain two rows of six boxes, each 5.5mm wide and 7.5mm high. Make these 12 boxes and position them in a grid. Looking at your DX chart, color the boxes you want to be insulators (i.e., black and not silver). Fill color doesn’t matter. These should be “draw” shapes.
Your DX code. Look at the decoder and figure out what film speed you want. That’s the first row. For the second, row, number of exposures, I would recommend 36 (so the 2nd and 3rd spots insulated). If your camera reads exposure count, it will then rewind neatly so you have 6 strips of 6.
Negative space (conductors). Now change all of the little white boxes (the ones you did not color in) to “cut.” Where they are touching, merge them. In the ISO 50 example in the pictures up top, these will result in one L shape and one T shape.
Optionally, you can also delete the color-filled boxes because they were only there for reference. Your finished label can use white paper as an insulator. But it also looks cool if you leave the solid boxes. That’s what I did for the pictures.
You can also add something to the top or bottom of your big box to remind you which direction the decal points. I make an extra 3mm box that I point at the 35mm cartridge opening. I suppose you could make a really long one if you wanted to.
Clone your decals. Now draw a selection box around your DX decal design and “group” it using the design software. This will allow you to clone and arrange copies without having any of the elements get out of place. I made two rows of 5, spaced 30mm top of one to top of the next, 50mm from left edge to left edge.
Draw the decals. Move the design file to your cutter. Insert a sheet of label paper. Run a “draw” pass. This will sketch the outline of the DX decal, and if you left them in place, draw in and fill the insulator squares. If not, you will just see the outer 33 x 15mm rectangles.
Cut the codes. Now run the “cut” pass. This is where the magic happens. Do it with a “kiss cut,” or the type that does not cut through the lining of adhesive material. When the cut pass is done, you can pull out (I think they call it “weed”) = the shapes corresponding to the “conductors” – so I pulled a T and an L. You will see the shiny label backing through the holes.
Cut out all the decals as a group. Now cut around all of your labels as a group (I recommend scissors, but you could automate this). This will give things structural integrity because you will next peel them all off in one piece and set them on the top side of your metal foil (your “insulators” should all be attached at a minimum of one edge to the “frame”). From there, you can cut your individual labels as closely as you want.
Trim and apply. Now your metal foil holds everything together. Peel off its backing, position the decals on your cassettes using a commercial cassette for reference, and validate using a DX camera, preferably one that shows you the selected ISO. On a Nikon, for example, you can put the cassette in, close the back door, and if your ISO is on DX, all you need to do to read the cartridge is hold down the ISO button. Do this for each cassette.
You can obviously re-use your design file to make more – and it’s pretty easy to change ISOs in your design file. Just keep a master file in which all 12 of the little boxes are still separate.
You’ve made it! Years from now, when you have 2.5 children, a happy domestic situation, a great job, and a really cool electric car or carbon fiber bike, you’ll know that all this work paid off. If we don’t get to talk then, you’re welcome.
Fadeout: Ilford Pan F Plus
If you’ve never wondered what it’s like to be at a stage of your life where you feel like you are just waiting to die, I recommend bulk-loading Ilford Pan F Plus and not using all of it before the end of summer. When the light gets poor, using up a roll of film this slow can be as excruciating as watching your grandmother shooting a single roll of 110 film over three Christmases.
Pan F Plus is described as “35mm, ISO 50, high contrast, super sharp black & white film with very fine grain. Ideal for studio photography and bright, natural light.” It has considerable charm and makes great pictures:
- It includes fine grain and a ton of contrast, no matter what you use to develop it (HC-110 dilution B, however, has a very, very short development time).
- It also makes it easy to shoot outdoor pictures with phenomenally shallow depth of field (witness above, a 50/1.4D AF Nikkor).
- It holds overcast skies reasonably well.
It’s a classic b/w film, with a classic film speed. It is not a specialist film, as some might claim. It’s actually what a normal film would have been 50 to 70 years ago. It’s no Tech Pan. As a historical note, the Kodak closest product would have been Panatomic-X at a blistering 32 ASA, discontinued in 1987. Panatomic-X was also a general purpose film.
If you shoot medium format, an ISO 50 film can be something of a hair shirt, since it is difficult to get hand-holdable exposure with lenses that often have f/3.5, 4.5, or smaller apertures unless it’s a bright, sunny day. And sadly, most medium- and large-format lenses perform poorly wide-open. Shooting this with a medium-format SLR? Hope you have a sturdy tripod. Thirty-five millimeter, though, gives you fast lenses – which makes things more fun.
That said, the most curious – and soul-crushing – feature of Pan F Plus is its tendency to disappear. The impact of this image fragility is that you pretty much have to develop what you shoot, as soon as possible after you shoot it.
Although this keeps your photos current (by force!), you also find that it’s just as much work to develop one roll of film as eight. I asked Ilford for an explanation of why latent images fade so much faster than with any other film. My smartarse best-guess hypotheses were:
- Somebody made a bad bet with the panchromatic doping back in 1992, and nobody bothered to change the formula to keep the image longer.
- Kodak fans like to joke that Ilford makes the second-best product for any application, and Panatomic-X has left the room. Of course, the same Kodak fans like to needle poor old Tri-X, too.
- Being owned by a pension fund (or venture capital company) means never having to say you’re sorry. Unfortunately, the income-generating pressures on both Kodak and Ilford have borne this out: some product has disappeared, and everything has become more expensive. Because shareholders.
The actual answer is (direct from Ilford staff – hooray for answering!):… a compromise with some other desirable characteristics. The basic formulation is probably the closest to the original of all our film emulsions even though it was updated several years ago. We have customers who are very attached to its particular curve shape and any emulsion redesign would inevitably change that so we are reluctant to touch it at the moment. However, we do review all our products and it is likely that at sometime in the future we will probably either update Pan F+ or replace it.
The note went on to explain that you should refrigerate the film after exposure to forestall this. Some of these points are expected (people liked the look…. refrigeration slows down chemical activity), and some are puzzling (it sounds like some Ilford formulas changed a lot). I like this answer. It means that one day, forgetting a roll or two of shot film will not spell disaster.
But you have to wonder: if I waited long enough, could I keep shooting the same roll of film over and over and over again, and only develop it when I had shot 36 frames I liked?
Of course, during a quarantine, anything passes the time.
Sony GPS-CS3KA: we’re all seekers
Sometimes you see a photo accessory and wonder, “where the hell were you all this time?” And the answer is, “it was too easy, so Sony canned it.” The GPS-CS3KA (“GPSman?”) is a smallish box, maybe two-thirds the size of a Metz 26AF flash. It only really does two things: (1) keeping a track log from GPS signals it receives and (2) writing them to the JPGs on your SD card.
A reasonable solution to a stupidly common problem?
Wait? What? Most GPS solutions for cameras have been pretty terrible. For reasons that are unclear (perhaps metal covers), high-end cameras have not had built-in GPS. In fact, few cameras period have it – aside from the ubiquitous iPhone or Android. This leaves you with some suboptimal options:
- Keep a tracklog with a separate device (GPS watch, tracklogger, battery-intensive phone app) and marry the coordinates to the files in Lightroom or Exiftool.
- Use a separate device with Bluetooth to feed coordinates into your camera’s remote port (a la Red Hen).
- Use a clunky GPS add-on that takes up both your remote terminal and hot shoe (looking at you, Canon and Nikon).
- Try to graft an NMEA cable to your DSLR’s accessory port.
- Use a clunky grip with GPS built-in (Leica Multifunction Grip M)
- Stick a GPS in some other accessory, like an EVF that you might otherwise not user (Leica EVF-3).
Sony quite possibly solved this problem by accident with the GPS-CS3KA, which takes a reading every 15 seconds into 128mb of memory – and when you insert an SD card will look for the closest matches and tag your JPGs in batches of 60. I say “by accident” because operation is far to simple for a Sony (at least compared to a Bravia TV). There are only three options:
- GPS: display GPS screen – hitting enter gives you different permutations of time and GPS coordinates.
- Match: automatically counts the number of files to be tagged and only lets you start or cancel. Matching stops the GPS reception.
- Tools: set the time zone, undo-ability, and erase internal memory.
How does it work?
- Stick a single AA battery in one slot.
- Set your correct GPS plus or minus time zone (as I write this, -400 for Eastern).
- Turn on the machine.
- Shoot a bunch of pictures.
- Put your SD card in the slot.
- Use the “matching” function to assign locations (use “undo” to clear all of the data you just wrote).
- Repeat as many times as necessary in batches of 60 files.
Note that when you initiate a card matching session, you may lose the GPS signal – but then again, you won’t be shooting pictures while your card is in the device.
GPS performance is actually quite good. Cold start will grab coordinates within about a minute; on a warm start, about 10 seconds. Your initial startup will be minutes as the device updates its GPS satellites. The device apparently can read a signal in many indoor settings, which is neat. Or scary.
My performance tests on accuracy landed this within about 15 feet of where I was standing. It does read out in minutes and seconds too. For most purposes, it suffices to see degrees to know that it’s locked on.
Observed battery life with alkaline was about 12 hours. Not terrible, considering how much power this probably draws.
I did not test the Sony software, but I did note that connecting the USB cable does not bring this up as a drive with an easy-to-access GPX log.
Where does it work and not work?
I tried this a Sony A7rii and with cards up to 64gb. The results were better than expected for a device this old.
Cards that work: up to 32gb only, the faster the card, the better (realistically, that’s a Sandisk 95mb/sec card).
To be safe, I would recommend using SDFormat and not opening cards with files on a Mac before encoding. Macs tend to throw indexing files on disks that are invisible to the user but can hang up particularly primitive embedded devices (of which you should assume this is one).
Cards that don’t: 64gb and up; WiFi-enabled cards. I suspect that 64gb is outside of the ability of the device to read cards (even devices that read FAT32 sometimes cannot address an entire card). You get “matching error” as your only clue. As to WiFi, my best guess is that since it works for a couple of frames and then blanks, that the card sees that x files have been read and that it’s time to turn on the WiFi. The problem is that one AA battery doesn’t have enough power to allow that. In my testing, there has been no way to shut off the FlashAir’s desire to start transmitting (unlike EyeFi, which could be set to transmit only images that were write-protected).
Files that get encoded: the spot of bad news is that the current ARW raw format doesn’t get location data with the Sony GPS. But since the device will record location data onto almost any JPG, it will work equally well (or poorly) with many types of cameras.
Within the limits of a certain card size, and therefore speed, the Sony GPS does allow a relatively automated geotagging process for JPGs. Like Lex Luthor’s henchmen, it has “one job.” But unlike those people who never succeded at killing Superman, the Sony performs that job well.
Notably, you can generate tracking data usable with multiple cameras, since you can insert SD card after SD card and use the same body of GPS data to code files shot in the same time period. This is a bit more flexible than solutions that would have to be transferred from camera to camera (or just duplicated with good old cash). It does require than your cameras’ clocks be synchronized reasonably closely.
It does not solve the problem of writing geolocation data to RAW files (Lightroom, for example, simply ignores this data if you import both tthe RAW and the JPG), and no one will likely ever solve the mystery of why cameras don’t have inbuilt GPS. But it’s a lot better than trying to marry track logs and files by manual labor.