Black and White Darkroom Skills

Posted on December 2, 2012


The OCA course structure does not include any darkroom processing skills. It is pretty obvious that this is because the OCA course is structured around distance learning and access to a processing labs would be a major problem.

As I have explained previously I am keen to use a large format camera for some of my portraiture work see previous post here. The economics of large format photography are serious and potentially prohibitive. Each sheet of colour negative film costs around £4.50, development costs £3.20 and scanning if done professionally a further £10 plus if scan is to high resolution. So anything up to £20 per sheet! I needed to find a way to practice my large format portrait skills more economically.

This is why I enrolled on a Darkroom processing skills course with the City Lit in London. The course started four weeks ago. We have learned to process film, make contact sheets, make test strips and print a photograph. Next week is the final week and we will be printing on matte paper.

As part of the course I needed to take along some undeveloped film to work with. I decided that I might undertake a small project to provide some source material. For a while I’ve thought about making a documentary piece about the people who work in the shops and such like on my local high street. I saw this as another opportunity to make portraits of people on a collaborative basis. Here are the portraits.

The High Street by Keith Greenough

The High Street by Keith Greenough

I am now developing my own 4×5 inch sheets at home. My early ups and downs with this are recorded in the post mentioned above. Since then I have refined my approach and I am now getting pretty clean negatives and digital scans. The improvements I have made are as follows:

  1. I am now using the Jobo 4×5 tank and film sheet holder. I find it much easier to load and I no longer have the problems with scratching the emulsion on the film which I had with the MOD 45 holder. The disadvantage is that the tank takes 1.5 litres of chemicals rather than 1 litre. 
  2. I am now washing the film in the tank using the Ilford method – three washes with increasing numbers of inversions (5 then 10 then 20). I was previously flushing the tank with water directly from the tap using a Paterson film washer hose. Our tap water is very hard and the taps have scale build up on them. This was breaking loose and sticking to the emulsion.
  3. I now wash the film for the first two washes in filtered water from a Brita jug. The final wash is in de-ionised water which I buy from Halfords. This water is not distilled water but is close to it and is much cheaper to buy.
  4. I am now drying the film on a clothes rack placed in a shower cubicle. I run the shower with very hot water for a short while beforehand to create steam which dampens down the dust.
  5. I am being very careful not to overdo the wetting agent…I am not sure I have got this quite right yet.

I have a few more improvements to make yet including mixing my next batch of chemicals with de-ionised water, using a hypo clearing agent in the second wash and trying out a Rollei wetting agent, which has had some good reviews. I am hoping that these steps will result in my no longer getting the occasional small traces of residue on the negatives which show up as small dark marks on the scans.

By using black and white film and developing and scanning my own film I estimate that each sheet now costs me about £2.50 including the cost of the storage media for the negatives…quite a saving. Given that with large format I need to be much more careful about setting up – composition, lighting, lens selection etc the cost per ‘keeper’ photograph is acceptable. By way of comparison, for 120 medium format film I am paying about £1.50 per image for buying the film, developing it and getting a low resolution scan made.

All of the above has been part of a steep learning curve but a necessary one if I am to get the most out of shooting large format. Once my process is bedded down I will then be able to concentrate on the photography and have the confidence that I can produce excellent output from my work. I will post some photographs, which will show the direction my large format portrait project  has taken,  on the blog soon.