Guerilla darkroom 2020: what to do with all that stuff

So three months went by in the blink of an eye, and I didn’t get around to Part Deux. Ok. Better late than never. Now that you have your unreasonably large arsenal of cheap darkroom hardware in place, let’s talk about some developing techniques.

The Box-Step. I had a professor in graduate school, a colorful character, ex-Marine, current pilot, and general hellion. He would write obscene puns into his own seating chart and then read them back and ask what other hellion wrote them. And then chuckle. There was a Jennifer day. There were pokes at city-slickers who didn’t know what a screw augur was (I’m pretty sure that he left Nebraska before he ever saw one in person). But I digress. His greatest line was that in school, they make you think that everything would be [a tango] but that when you get to the real world, it’s all a [box-step]. The bracketed words here stand in for obscene descriptions of something else. If you’re over twelve years old, you’ll get the joke. But Professor X did have a point: there is too much fanciness and not enough solid technique. And that goes for developing.

Developer. Get out of your head that you are going to do 1+200 standing Rodinal development. Put pyrocatechol-whatever in the back of your mind. Caffenol. Copex Spur-whatever. Buy a packet of D-76 (or equivalent) or a bottle of HC-110 (1+31!) and take it from there. Dig up your film manufacturer’s data sheet. Not “the Massive Dev Chart,” which I can tell you firsthand has some unusual and very obviously wrong information in some entries. Start with basics. Start with the book. The brave men of Kodak and Ilford killed themselves working on these meticulous tables. Do honor to their memory.

Mixing. Mix your developer well. Don’t be afraid to use very warm water with D-76. It’s actually shockingly difficult to break, cooling time is harmless, and solidified powder at the bottom of a bottle is unrecoverable. Let your developer sit overnight so that it returns to room temperature.

Temperature control. Here’s a life hack: if your darkroom is within 5 degrees C of any of your data sheet’s developing times, you temperature control your developer (only) and leave the others at room temperature. This is part of the reason you let the developer sit overnight. Five degrees C is not enough to make a difference for stop bath, fixer, or anything else. Most basements seem to be at almost exactly 20 degrees C, which is why that is a good temperature to pick. Most tap water is easy to get close to 20º C because it is traveling through pipes in earth that is 20º C.

To rapidly warm developer, put the bottle in a tub of warm water and monitor the temperature periodically. Do not let the thermometer touch the sidewall of the bottle, and agitate the bottle every few minutes.

To rapidly cool developer, pour it over a reusable “ice pack,” be it the kind that is like a foil sheet of ice cubes or a solid blue plastic block. This way the temperature goes down without dilution. Otherwise, you can lower a plastic bag full of ice cubes into your container of developer to cool it down.

Development time. Like I said, if your room temperature is within range, pick the time/temperature combo on the data sheet and run with it. If you don’t have a data sheet, a good starting point for normal-ish developers and normal-ish b/w film is 7 minutes at 20º C.

How do you calculate that time? The first question is “small tank” or “big tank.” Generally, for an eight-reel Paterson, you’ll use the big tank. Surprisingly, you will be fine using that for the 2-reel version. Small versus large tank in Kodak parlance is mainly a function of how easy a container that size is to agitate. You will not be rapidly flicking 2.5L of liquid in a tank with one hand.

Do you start the timer when you start pouring developer in or when the tank is full? It actually doesn’t matter, as long as you always do it exactly the same way. I generally start the timer when the tank starts to sound full (you will hear a gurgle) and take the first couple of seconds of the timer to fill the top.

Fill level. The tank should always be full enough that at least 1/3 of the light-trap cone (this is Paterson, remember?) is filled with developer. Do not do the bare minimum. Modern films have surfactants (like soap) in them that make them wet more evenly. This means bubbles. And your bubbles must have a place to go, above the film. Unless you want weird dark spots on your clear 35mm skies.

The burp. Get that lid on. Press hard in the middle to force the air out and make a tight vacuum seal. Hit the bottom of the tank on something reasonably firm (but not concrete!) so that any air bubbles release from the film. Do an initial agitation per the instructions. Then open the lid and let the bubbles bubble over the sides of the light trap cone. Reclose and start your cycle.

Development and agitation. Programmatically, this is how I would execute a 7-minute development with a 2.5L (8-reel) tank. This is based on “large tank” assumptions. The large tank format provides less streaking through 35mm film holes, and you can pretend it is more like standing development. In my exercise, these are the times shown on the timer (any waterproof digital kitchen timer will do, preferably one that counts up after it runs down to 0).

  • 7:00 (not running yet) – start filling tank from a container that can pour fast, like a wide-mouth bottle (see previous article).
  • 7:00 – start timer with tank almost full.
  • 6:50 – agitate and “burp” the tank.
  • 6:05-6:00 – end over end 5x
  • 5:05-5:00 – end over end 5x
  • 4:05-4:00 – end over end 5x
  • 3:05-3:00 – end over end 5x
  • 2:05-2:00 – end over end 5x
  • 1:20-1:15 – last real agitation
  • 0:15 – pour straight down into a wide-mouth container
  • + 0:10 to +30 – fill with stop bath and rapidly agitate

You’ll note that this seems none-too-precise. The fact is that it takes about a 10% difference in developing time to make for an obvious difference in the end-negative (N+1 needs 25%, and N+2 generally 50% extra). 7 minutes is 420 seconds. So even if you have 15 seconds of “imprecision” in the process, it is not that impactful (example: how long is the stop bath taking to fill?).

If you can do the process consistently, then all you have to do after that is dial back your total time as needed to adjust the contrast of the negatives.

Push/pull processing. Shooting Tri-X 400 at EI 320 is pointless. It’s not significant for most purposes. Shooting Tri-X at 1600, though (see top picture here) can be helpful. Push processing generally brightens the highlights by making them more dense on negatives. It does not, repeat, does not really change the speed of the film, which is defined at midtones and below. So you tend to get normalish pictures from mid to high but a lot more blackness below middle grey. Pushing is good for overcast days or flat light; it is not very helpful if you generally lack light. Pulling supposedly improves shadow tones, but modern, straight-line films just need more exposure.

Standing processing. This is mainly for when you have an emergency or can’t identify what film is in that bulk canister. Standing processing tends to compensate all over the negative so you have a moderate tonal range. The downside is that it is a moderate tonal range that tends to defeat the “curve” built into the film and is miserable to print on RC paper. Standing processing takes a long time. Standing processing can lead to streaking. Standing processing sucks if you don’t actually need it. As a good friend of mine told me, standing development is good for taking pictures of lit filaments in lightbulbs and outside of that, covering screwups. Like communism, everyone thinks this would be a good idea if someone could just execute it correctly.

Pyrocatechol. Isn’t it amazing that a chemical that causes cancer can’t cure people’s poor photographic technique?

Caffenol/urinol. I’m not sure if the latter is real (I read about it in a lab book), but if you’re too cheap for HC-110 or Rodinal, you probably shouldn’t be using film.

Exhaustion. If you stick to 20 rolls of film per gallon of developer, it’s generally unnecessary to adjust the development times for successive batches. You pour the 2.5L of used back into the big container (1 gallon, 5L, etc.) and then pour from there for the next batch. Why does this work? Because 2.5L of developer is almost double what you actually need to develop 5 rolls of 120 or 8 rolls of 135. This is because exhaustion of developer is a function of film area (expressed by Kodak as square inches it’s about 80 for a roll of 120 or a roll of 135). It’s not how many rolls. It’s how much surface.

Stop bath. The only thing that stop bath does is change the pH of the film to arrest the development. Indicator is best. Ilford odorless is the best of those. You could probably use vinegar or even water to do this, but stop bath is cheap, and there is no reason to take chances.

Fixer. Fixer usually takes the solution back up to acid (a couple fixers are actually base in nature), which is why it is an archiving problem. Start with the fixing time on the bottle, but you can also take the cut (and undeveloped) end of a piece of film, drop it in the top of the tank, and monitor until it goes clear. Double that time, and your film is generally fixed.

Fixer does not take the purple stain out of film. It removes the unexposed silver, converts the exposed silver, and takes off the anti-halation backing, which is the milky opaque stuff on the back of the film. Anti-halo dye is generally removed by the developer and the fixer remover. And failing that, just put your b/w negatives in the sun for a little while.

Fixer remover and rinse. This process neutralizes the acid fixer and finishes off the dye. Take the light-trap cone out of the tank. Fill your tank with plain water and let it sit for a minute. Dump and refill with water plus a capful of Heico Perma-Wash. Let that sit for five minutes. Dump it out and see all that purple dye go down the drain. Your final rinse is 5 minutes or eight changes of water. That’s it.

Wetting agent. Photo-Flo 200 is designed to be used at 1:200. Try to understand what that means. Generally not more than half a cap to a tank. Too little, and it doesn’t work. Too much, and it gets gummy and nasty. May I recommend this? If your arm-span is long enough, hold the film in a U over a vat of water and Photo Flo. Run it back and forth in the U, dipping the “vertex” into the solution. This technique uses far less solution and also prevents Photo-Flo from getting all over your tank and reels. This U technique – which I cadged from an old Kodak instruction manual on developing orthographic film – helps make sure that the solution sheets off quickly, especially when you finish the cycle (I recommend 10-15 cycles of the U). For this solution, I would recommend distilled water with the Photo-Flo, although you can still get occasional water spots no matter how pure the water.

That wetting-agent contamination is not a big deal (note as above that “bubbling” when you add developer is actually coming from a coating on the film, not some insignificant amount of Photo-Flo residue), but it it doesn’t take much to hang up the little ball bearings in plastic reels.

Hang dry. Hang up your film in a reasonably humid area (basement or bathroom). This allows slower drying (less violent curling) as well as helps cut down on dust. Never, ever, never let drying negatives be so close to each other that they can kiss. If the emulsions get stuck together, it’s game-over.

See how you did. If your negatives are too dense overall, cut back on exposure. If they are thin but have blown-out highlights, you need more exposure. If they lack contrast, extend the development slightly. If they look bulletproof, cut the development slightly. This is a learning process. Note that in an era of scanning, overexposure is not your friend because scanners struggle with dense silver hightlights on negatives. For optical printing, you want normal if not beefier negatives, since there is a ceiling for improving contrast (5+ on Ilford papers).

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One response to “Guerilla darkroom 2020: what to do with all that stuff”

  1. Pierre says :

    28 years old and I didn’t understand the joke.

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