Many of the shots and collages on this site use pieces from various analogue prints, all of which can be dated to some years after 2010 and up to, likely not including 2015. In this showcase, I’m trying to move through the first contact with negatives and the early process we settled into and used for years, without making too many changes. It is now superseded by a new and much improved process that takes over for my return to analogue photography in 2021, coming together with guidance from my dear friend, more space, and a generally higher budget. All of these can be adopted when starting out with analogue photography and putting together a darkroom for the first time, but are just as integral for any later time.
This article is about developing film, the most central work of the darkroom. The overall process all of this takes place in is not the focus of this text, though it also had some significant changes worth talking about, between the distant past and today. I will return to all this in the conclusion. If you'd like to skip the personal lead-in, you can head straight into the process for a step-by-step accompanying a roll of film through the darkroom.
I began developing black and white film and making prints with all-time friend and colleague Steve Luxembourg around 2011 in a dark room set up in a countryside home basement in my hometown. Most of the equipment was second hand, chemistry and materials were bought off popular Berlin-based supplier Fotoimpex. I can vividly remember the moment the first package arrived in the mail, delivering a first batch of supplies at a time when we knew nothing about the process. Sitting in Silo, thinking about the unthinkable of making photographs appear from white sheets by bathing them in trays of toxic liquid, talking about which shots to pick from the roll, then jolting up in greatest anticipation when we finally heard the door bell, rushing upstairs to receive a giant cardboard box.
If the joy of seeing results makes one end of the spectrum, the endless repetition of exposing and developing paper, one sheet at a time, is its dark opposite. I found the following print at the bottom of a moving box to illustrate my point.
The print above is 13×18, black and white PE paper, probably Fomaspeed (made by Czech manufacturer Foma, established 1921). It's a fitting symbol of everything that was not right with the development methods we employed at the time and somewhat of an expression of the fury we nurtured inside us.
The signature of the process at the time was having an overbearing mass of steps before any photo was ever considered finished, introducing so many steps to make mistakes in, that even a single shot above the ‘dump it’ threshold might take as much as a whole day of work. Of course, analogue always requires some time spent wherein even Polaroid instant film is not actually instantaneous when digital is the final form — but there is an obvious difference in adding steps for better results or just adding steps regardless of results.
We will be going over some of the steps happening in the darkroom, walking it through from the roll that has just spun up inside your camera to a strip ready for making prints, scanning, or other digital processing.
Old Process: Before you can even get any chemicals on your hands, you need to get the film out of the cartridge. In our sessions, we took measures to darken the basement storage space we commandeered in the family home as best as we could, we shut all the windows and doors, stuffed some rags under the main entrance and left nothing but a red light on, a single bulb that you could control near the repurposed table we placed our tools and materials on. Sitting on chairs hard as stone, we manoeuvred around with scissors or, on better days, a bottle opener and tried to break open the can in total darkness, cut the film off the spool, trimmed the ends, and inserted it into the roll.
New Process: The renaissance of this step is that it doesn’t actually have to be done in a pitch black room that painstakingly had all its crevices stuffed with clothing or towels; instead, you can use a changing bag.
A light-proof bag replaces the need for a dark room when handling your film. In contrast to black and white photo paper, which isn’t sensitive to a specific light of either red or green colour (a “safelight”), the film itself is, of course, made to absorb all wavelengths and can not be exposed to any light without getting fogged and overexposed. You can use the changing bag by placing all your tools, the roll, spool, and development tank inside, and closing it with your hands stuffed in. Instead of doing the loading process blind in a darkened room, you do it blind inside the bag, and take out the loaded and sealed tank once done. This step saves you a lot of set-up, is likely faster, can be done anywhere and at any time of day.
Takeaway: Use a changing bag
Old Process: Development can be done in many ways, with many tools. Famously, rolls of film can be developed in the right concentration of instant coffee (caffeinated only) and other beverages. We developed spools in a tank, standard in darkroom set-up, used regular tap water for everything and checked the temperature once before beginning. Not infrequently, we'd use a high dilution of 1:100 with just 3.5ml of developer, a process that took up to half an hour, just for that single step. Rolls never came out the same way twice, every one had widely varying grain and contrast.
New Process: In the new process, all chemicals are still prepared ahead of time but kept in a temperature-controlled water bath until use. The development tank returns to the bath to keep its temperature as constant as possible between agitations. Keeping temperature consistent allows for development times to be calculated exactly and gives control to adjust additional stops of exposure if needed (or keeping it at ±0 stops). Using more concentrated solutions shortens overall development time and less time for variation.
Controlling temperature can be done with a few approaches of increasing cost, starting out with (1) a basic, reliable thermometer and checking water temperature manually, adding ice-cold and warm water as needed to push in either direction as needed, (2) an aquarium heating rod, a cheap way to achieve somewhat consistent 28–36 degrees with some compromises, and the high-end option, (3) a CineStill Temperature Control System (TCS-1000) that keeps the water bath in flux and achieves exact levels of warmth.
Takeaway: Control for temperature
Stop & Fix
Old Process: After development, we used a stop bath, an optional step that is often replaced with a wash using regular tap water. Afterwards, we added fixer to the tank, let it sit for a few minutes and poured it out. We hesitated to ever reuse film developer and applied the same logic to all solutions; for every session, we created a new set of dev, stop, and fix, even though a stop bath would only make sense to prevent contamination of fixer, so not reusing fix from a process using a stop bath is double wasteful. Generally, we only ever reused solutions when working with multiple rolls in a row, but never much between sessions on separate days.
New Process: A more conserving approach doesn’t necessarily reuse film or paper developer but definitely keeps fixer around after rolls are developed. Stop may be used to extend the lifespan of a preserved fixer solution but is not crucial and can easily be replaced with a wash step. If the recycled solution turns out to not be strong enough anymore when checking the roll after rinse, the film can be trivially re-fixed with new solution. Keeping fixer around until depleted is one of the most inconsequential step to take.
My friend Luxembourg gives an additional tip on this step: instead of trying reused fixer and rolling the dice, you can use a snip off an undeveloped roll, e.g. one cut off the ends of a roll before putting it onto the spindle and into the tank, put the snip into the prepared fixer solution, then stop the time it takes to become see-through; this gives an indication of the required fixing time. For a film that takes, for instance, two minutes to become transparent, that time doubled would mean the actual film should be given four minutes for a sufficient fix. Once the time exceeds an acceptable range or doesn't turn transparent at all, it's time for a new solution.
Takeaway: Reuse fix
Old Process: For the last step, the development tank was emptied again, leading into the final rinse where the film is cleaned with running water to remove residue chemicals. Afterwards, the roll was taken out, unraveled, and hung for drying straight away.
This is one of the few steps that might depend on the geographical location of the darkroom. Strips of the time had spots and splotches all over after drying — and that isn’t counting all the damage we might’ve done by other harsher drying methods to cut down on wait time before being able to finally jam it into a carrier, and that into the enlarger — if any reason can be named, impatience was the strongest force of the season. The marks left on the film were actually water spots, spots that appear when water with limestone or other contaminants dries on the surface. There might be steps to remove these after the fact, though that’s not something we ever tried; as a result, these get carried into scans and are tougher to digitally remove than other anomalies.
New Process: To prevent spots from water drying on the film surface, it helps to use a wetting agent. Our home store offers a product named “Adoflo II” (Berlin manufacturer ADOX Fotowerke GmbH) that is made for this exact purpose, it can be diluted and should fit into any darkroom budget. The agent breaks surface tension and allows all the water of the rinse to cleanly run off the film and leave it clear of random droplets and streaks — especially when combined with distilled water, this is another easy modification to make for visible improvements to the final roll.
There are stories of people using other mixtures like water with a drop of dish detergent for the rinse, though how different kinds of soap with additives might attack the film is impossible to say and the idea on its own very likely not worth the risk. The recommendation definitely leans towards picking one of the many tested and proven products out there and make it a permanent part of the process.
Takeaway: Use a wetting agent for rinse
Old Process: After completing a final rinse, spools were taken out of the tank, unlocked, and hung up for drying in the basement room we were set up in.
With all the flaws in our workflow and the growing disdain for the overbearingly time-consuming approach we followed, I should add that it was always a joy taking the spool out of the tank in this step, seeing the pictures on each roll for the first time. Although it never happened, there always was a fear of unwinding a highly anticipated roll and it turning out completely transparent — it began with the day the first package arrived and never quite left me. The takeaway is probably that, even when making mistakes, there are always some recuperable results and the chances of completely destroying a batch are low.
To provide some more context on the place we worked in, the basement of the house was a storage area and had an attached boiler and wash room; it was full of cardboard boxes and — from these sitting around everywhere — had a lot of particles and dust in the air at all times. As a consequence, even a perfectly prepared film will immediately get specks of whatever’s in the air on it, most of the time making it all the way into archival. When later making prints, the marks of having been dried in a dusty room will be made visible and magnified significantly once shoved into the enlarger for a print. Almost all photos of the time have white marks, scratches or other damage on film, or dust on paper.
New Process: While some rooms may be convenient for drying, others might be just as accessible while providing distinct benefits over any cardboard dust-filled basement depository. The room usually least dusty in any house is the bathroom due to consistently high humidity levels; equally as beneficial, bathrooms usually don’t have paper, cardboard, or other sources of fine dust sitting around. A darkroom doesn’t necessarily have to be set up near a water source, but it turns out, a place for drying film might be best located near one. The prime approach sees film not just hanging in the bathroom, but actually inside the shower or over the bathtub and letting hot water run for a few minutes before the drying session. Keeping windows closed and air circulation to a minimum all promote a spotless result.
Takeaway: Dry film in a bathroom
Old Process: Once we grew more patient and had lived through some rather subpar results, developing and making prints became a two-day endeavour; development was one day, often in the evening, left to dry on its own terms overnight, then picked up first thing next morning. As mentioned before, the process of the time went from negatives to prints to scans, no digital versions existed before prints were made, as well; this means, the vast majority of time in the darkroom was spent either bent over an enlarger or trays of chemistry in dim red light. The central piece of this was a battered enlarger with missing parts we bought used. Essentially, film was handled with bare hands, the same hand that might grip a glass of wine or a sandwich the moment before or after, and then scraped through whatever qualified for a negative holder at the time, a particularly incomplete part in the makeshift set-up. On top of water and dust spots, film was also scratched up when run from picture to picture through the enlarger.
New Process: Obviously, film is sensitive and should be handled with care. The new process no longer involves an enlarger but a method to hold and flatten film is needed for direct digitisation as it is for projection. I use a little bellows to blow dust away just before shots and the strip itself is placed between special treated glass. While wine and food may still be part of the darkroom experience — as it remains with other work — soft fabric gloves are now worn most of the time, preventing smudges and fingerprints.
Takeaway: Wear cotton gloves
Old Process: Incontestably, the archival step was the most neglected and most horrific part to witness later on in the old process. There is not much to go into detail here, but let me say, there are still moving boxes in that exact basement space I haven’t taken with me, sitting there with rolls and rolls of loose 135, bathed in dust, vulnerable to scratches, completely unorganised. Let’s not try too hard imagining the state these rolls are in and move onto what we can recommend, and what we should have done from the start.
New Process: A fine and long-term approach to archival is sensibly cutting the roll into strips of six exposures each and putting them into paper sleeves made of a soft paper material like glassine/pergamin. Storing it this way prevents scratches, dust, and other marks. If the sheets are then also neatly kept in a dry and dark place, your film is sure to keep longer than most digital media available today.
Takeaway: Store in paper sleeves
I like to say that the time we picked up analogue was slightly before the pop craze began ramping up, bringing with it new batches of instant film, first the Impossible Project, followed by the revival of proper Polaroid instant, the introduction of CineStill, and now even with articles from 2020, talking about a possible comeback of Kodachrome reversal film, with more to come. Available information, despite being able to research online, was limited when we put everything together initially; best practices weren’t clear to pick up just by browsing forums and watching the few YouTube videos on methods and praxis out there. Getting the fundamentals working is one thing, refining it for long-term is another.
For now, I’ll leave the reader to their own dark room — a future showcase will be exploring the more personal background of the shots of the time and the different approach now adopted for the greater process, from the click of the release to a digital master.