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).

Special hardware

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.

Not critical.

There are several things you can dispense with:

  1. 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.
  2. Weighted film clips. Not really needed.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

6 responses to “Guerilla darkroom 2020: hardware selection”

  1. Jim Grey says :

    I’ve got the Paterson Super System 4 tanks. I’ve not enjoyed the lid, it’s hard to get to seal. So I appreciate your perspective on the older Paterson tanks and the other systems — maybe I should just stay with what I have.

    • The Machine Planet says :

      If you haven’t tried this, wet the inside rim of the lid. Then push down on the middle of the lid with the palm of your hand and “burp” some of the air out. It seems to be designed to work partially by mild vacuum seal. After your initial agitation, which is really where you need it to seal, you can use the little agitator thing.

      • Jim Grey says :

        Hunh. I didn’t know that. I assumed I had to really seal it, like a Tupperware lid.

      • The Machine Planet says :

        Not sure at what point I figured out the vacuum thing, but I hated Super 4 for a while until it started working. Not thrilled about chipping the Bakelite when you “rap it on a hard surface to dislodge air bubbles” (thanks, Kodak…), a problem with every plastic tank that has a bottom rim, but you can hit it on a towel on a hard surface, and it does just fine. This is going to be in the next installment.

        >

  2. Paul Thornton says :

    Hey Dante,
    Been reading your site for years (both original and this blog) and have really enjoyed your writing. You have some great advice for the setting up film processing here. I agree the Patterson tanks and reels work great. I would be interested in your experience with developers. I use XTol and have used it replenished.. I keep it at room temp and adjust times depending on what that is. Then water stop (30 sec), rapid fix, and the water usage friendly Ilford method of washing. The rapid fix means you don’t need hypo clear and saves a step. I am usually hanging up a couple rolls to dry in about 25min… which isn’t too bad!

  3. Mark Lacey says :

    I hope you will be going into some detail about agitation.
    I used 4×5 and 35mm for years with no problem, started on 120 and getting bubble marks on one edge with inversion agitation even with tapping on benchtop hard. and if I use the swizzle stick get uneven skies. Driving me mad so all advice appreciated. Using paterson tanks and reels for 120 and 35mm.

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