Category Archives: How to Tips
This is my personal choice partially made by nostalgia for when I used to shoot and process dozens of film each week, but more relevantly because as I now have limited time I need simplicity. Film choice is subjective but with developer cost and shelf life are a big factor.
My Film Choice.
The films I like are Tri-X traditional for everything I now do. Ilford FP4 which I sometimes use for fine detail and the Fuji Neopan films are as good as film technology gets. Pretty much though I stick to Tri-X rated at 200 or 400 asa. I love this film because it has attractive irregular grain, can be punchy and is always sharp and consistent, and because as a younger man we shared some good times together.
The Ilford FP4 is good for 4×5 photography and has a big tonal range which can however make the finished print a bit flat unless the lighting is spot on. Fuji film technology is so clean and grain free which is very handy on a 35mm neg – but I am not using 35mm at the moment.
Recently I tried Adox films and made some very nice negs with them. However even being extra careful I got annoying process faults and so I said thank-you but good night.
My Developer Choice.
Film Developer has to be the big constant in consistent photography. The greats from the now distant past obsessed about chemistry and obtaining the perfect negative. Modern film has a lot of latitude which means you can be way off mark and still obtain a very usable negative. Modern printing papers too are forgiving and with multigrade papers you can happily print even horrible negs. None the less consistent processing is the bench mark.
My choice of film processing chemicals is a practical one. I now work from home and I often go months between film processes. Therefore I need simple and clean to use chemicals which are easily diluted to working strength. I also need developers which have a long shelf life.
This is my list of ingredients for B/W film processing.
Kodak D76 (Ilford ID11 is the pretty much identical). This is a great general purpose developer which works particularly well with traditional Tri-X. With 35mm it gives the classic 1960’s press photographer look. I buy one litre sachets of developer powder so I don’t need big mixing jugs or storage containers. I like to use developer as a ‘one-shot’, it is simpler than adding extra time for each film the solution has processed. With ‘one-shot’ you add an equal amount of water to the developer just before you process and by adding the extra water gradually to the jug of developer you can regulate the temperature and end up with developer at the standard temperature of 20ºC. After use discard.
I also like Adox ADONAL which is a copy of the discontinued Agfa Rodinal loved by arty photographers for decades. It is known for making negs look really sharp and making a nice and pronounced grain pattern. I give Tri-X a good long soak in this developer to make punchy negs with good grain. Adonal is a liquid and you only need a tiny amount diluted in water to process, measure with a syringe. The liquid keeps for years so if you only dev film once in a blue moon Adonal is perfect. WARNING do not shake the mixed solution because it foams leaving big bubble marks on your processed film, so always agitate the tank by stirring and not inversion.
2. Stop Bath
I use Fotospeed SB50 liquid Stop Bath with indicator. It does not smell like old style stop bath because it uses safer chemicals. Keep mixed solution in a plastic bottle so that you can squeeze the air out of the top. When the solution starts to go pink throw away.
I use Ilford Rapid Fixer which again avoids some of the dodgy chemicals older formulas used.
4. Wetting agent
After the final wash I add a tiny drop of Ifotol wetting agent to combat drying marks.
PART TWO – ‘Load the Spiral’. An extract from the chapter ‘How to process Black and White Film at Home’.
The thing which can be the most tricky part about processing is getting the film onto the spiral and into the tank. Fundamental but it is easy to go wrong. Sometimes the film just doesn’t seem to want to feed onto the spiral at all or you get three quarters in and the whole thing will not budge another inch no matter how persuasively you twist the spiral ends back and forth.
Here are a couple of tips that will help to avoid these pitfalls most of the time. I am thinking 35mm black and white film because this is where most photographers start to process. I have never got on too well with stainless-steel spirals and at home I use the nylon ones which you twist back and forward to draw the film onto the spiral. Patterson are the most popular make in UK. Practise makes perfect so use an old piece of film to practise before you go for it in the dark.
1. You need a dry spiral, moisture sticks the film to the nylon and typically the film goes nearly all the way on and then sticks fast. Before you start heat the spiral up with gentle heat, a hair-dryer works well.
2. Cut end of the film nice and cleanly with sharp scissors between the sprocket holes. It makes sense to leave the tail out of the film canister when you take the film out of the camera, or use a film extractor if your camera winds the finished film all the way in. With the film tail out of the canister in the daylight you can then neatly cut the film end to make an even rounded edge which will not catch on the spiral.
3. Also in the daylight start to load the first few inches of film onto the spiral, depending on the camera you get up to five inches of film before the first frame. That way you are sure it is running between the rails and following the rails into the first bend. It is all about symmetry, everything nice and neat and co-ordinated movements.
4. Now turn the lights off and gently twist the spiral back and forth until the film is on. Don’t go too fast because if the film does catch it will buckle if it stops with too much force. A bit of gentle tapping often frees up the jam together with small back and forward twists. Too much force will make the film buckle and either damage the film itself or make its surfaces touch and produce chemical marks during the process.
5. Sometimes you do have to take the film off the spiral and start again. I do not cut the film off the canister until it is almost all on the spiral so if for some reason the film simply refuses to load I can wind the film back into the can. Also the weight of the canister stops the film coiling up like a spring which is annoying. If you do start to freak out with a really horrid and badly behaved length of film wind it back into the can or if you can’t do that roll the film up and put it into the daylight tank and close the lid. Turn the lights on, cool down and start again some other time. NOTE that for some tanks to be light tight the pole you put the spiral on must be correctly inserted into the tank before the top is screwed on.
3. Do not worry too much because dry film is pretty tough stuff and scratch resistant. Try to work in a clean space free of dust… a print tray is good to keep everything together. Work above the clean tray so if the film does drop off it will land in the tray and not a dirty floor.
That’s it really. Easy when it all goes to plan which with practise makes perfect (using an old film if you can be bothered).
PART ONE – ‘Making a Start’. An extract from the chapter ‘How to process Black and White Film at Home’.
This is what you need:
1. A daylight processing tank and spiral.
2. Three chemicals: Developer, Stop Bath and Fixer. Wetting solution is handy especially if you live in a hard water area.
3. A thermometer is a must, funnel and measuring cylinder will make for an easier life. Wipe clothes and medical gloves sensible. Nail scissors are handy.
4. Find somewhere dark to load the film… inside a cupboard, under the stairs, anywhere reasonably light-tight and not too dusty. Wait until night time if you are really stuck, once the film is in the daylight tank it will happily sit around until you are ready to process, next morning, sometime over the weekend, if you ever get sometime for yourself! The main thing is to spend a good few minutes in your new loading area before you start messing with the film. Let your eyes open wide in the darkness so they can see if any light is creeping in. Mobile phones that burst into alert with a bright flash of light need to be avoided, glowing power indicators on computers are easily overlooked. Sometimes your eyes can play a memory trick on you so your brain thinks it can pick out details in the darkness, try wiggling your fingers in front of the detail you think you can see. If you can count your fingers you have probably left the light switched on! By the way when you are working in the dark keep your eyes open… bonkers I know but I actual did work with a good friend called Louis who happily processed a batch of film with the lights left on and his eyes tightly closed! In the dark practice finding where you have placed the lid, spool and film before you start in earnest with precious exposed film. I use a tray or washing-up bowl to keep it all together because if you are not used to working in the darkness it can all be a bit uncoordinated at first.
If finding somewhere dark doesn’t work for you then get online and buy a daylight changing bag. All the film and stuff is made nice and dark inside the bag and there are two light tight arm cuffs so you can poke your hand is and do the business. Saves a lot of messing around but make sure you give the bag a vacuum clean on the inside because even a single speck of dust stuck onto the film emulsion will cause an annoying see through pinprick on the negative which will enlarge into a big black spot when you make the positive paper print.
I work from home with a limited budget. Nearly all my equipment is second hand and found on eBay. By ‘making a start’ I mean no complications, a direct route for anyone to follow and end up with a nice easy result. From there you can either get into difficult darkroom stuff or spend your time finding lovely people and interesting things to make photos of.
Coming soon: PART TWO – Safely on the Spiral and into the Tank.
Working from home does has limitations. This morning I’ve processed three rolls of film and it has taken forever. My darkroom doubles as a studio area and is not plumbed in or permanently dark, so everything is a bit makeshift. Having worked in some beautiful process and print areas slumming it at home makes me grumpy as I worry about dust (loading film in the coat cupboard – drying it in the downstairs WC), drying marks, temperature control and reticulation, not poisoning my family by spilling chemicals onto the food prep areas.
So when recently I have had some faults in the films I have processed I don’t know if this is the arty ADOX film I have been trailing or foreign bodies getting in from my makeshift working practices. Today I am using the formula which a couple of decades ago was literally everyday for me.. Kodak Tri-X film developed in D76. They are still hung up with a big notice on the WC door saying ‘KEEP OUT’.
Ilford, now Harman, ship their chemicals in high quality bottles made to outlast humanity. Not so good though is the cardboard disc they have always used in the screw-top lid. This has always been a drag for things like photowash where the contents last for years but the lid goes soggy in weeks. It is a pity though not to reuse these high quality bottles just because the lids are rubbish. My easy answer is to buy plummers ‘O’-rings, which you can get in a perfect fit, cost next to nothing and last forever.
If you have got any simple tips please let me know!
If like me you don’t have the luxury of a permanent darkroom then the problem of making the darkoom light-tight is a big one. No need to buy expensive photographic blackout material or blinds though as there is a much lower cost and much better material easily brought from good curtain shops – 100% opaque curtain blackout lining is perfect. Made for night workers or people who just can’t stand the light from passing traffic.
It doesn’t cost much, it comes in big widths and can be cut with household scissors without fraying, it is white so the window isn’t weird looking from the outside and the hot sunshine is reflected away.
I had the curtain shop make a neat professional job and sew on velcro edges which marry discreet self adhesive strips on my window frame. In point of fact I have a second piece of material which I hang like a roller blind on the inside wall which is longer and wider than the window aperture, it is an extra precaution so I have no worries about light creeping around the edges or the velcro strips peeling apart. To make the door light tight I simple tack with drawing pins a length of the material from the top of the door frame, it is heavier than normal cloth and hangs nice and flat.
To test your darkroom is totally light safe place a coin onto photographic paper, leave for five minutes and process. Any fogging will reveal a whiter circle where the coin covered the paper. If you can see where the coin was make sure the problem is not the darkroom safelight rather than day light getting in.
Here is a simple printing tip. Even with very expensive print tongs it is all too easy to scratch and crease prints moving them across the wet dishes of chemicals. Then there are those infuriating prints which manage to slip out of the tongs and land in a contaminating splash of chemicals. With a big print I find it such an awkward job merely to get the print to lay flat in the dish. My answer is simple: Don’t use tongs! When it comes to the final print I wear medical gloves. Buy the non-powdered ones from your local pharmacy, in boxes of 100 each glove costs just a few pennies. I wash my hands wearing the gloves and dry with a towel. I like the biggest size which are easy for me to slip on and off.
Everyone wants flat prints, to keep in a box or to hang on the wall in a frame, life is just so much better when your prints lie nice and flat. I used to hang my prints using two clips and two weights in the hope the print would dry with out curling. I’m talking about fibre based prints, resin prints dry flat whatever you do. I’ve also tried drying racks and lying damp prints between blotting paper. With all these methods I got wrinkly prints which needed hot-pressing to iron flat.
Then one day I read on the internet the most simple solution… simply hang the print from one corner using a big plastic peg. Leave until completely dry, it will gently curl but all I need to do is to place the prints overnight under a weight and they come out completely flat. I use a nice piece of heavy glass and I uncurl quite a few prints in one go, you don’t need to use blotter but I am happier interleaving with blotter just incase moisture is drawn out of the fibre based making two sheets stick together. It is so clean and simple and has never let me down. The biggest size I print is 16×12″, but I don’t see why really big pictures would dry any different.
Always lift the print completely wet from the wash tray and straight onto the peg allowing the water to run uninterrupted straight down the paper.. don’t turn the print round as any change in water flow direction can cause a drying mark particularly visible on flat black areas. This applies to resin coated prints too. There is no need to squeegee or wipe or add wetting agent, just let the water freely run off. I work in a hard water area and have had no drying marks with this method (apart from a very occasional chalky mark which rubs off with a soft cloth). If you water is really bad you can give the print a final soak in softened or bottled water.
I spend lots of time right at the start of my printing sessions to ensure I am going to print from a dust free negative. Spotting, particularly spotting out hairs from a finished print, is another time consuming skill to master particularly if the print has warm tones.
I clean my carrier glass with lighter fuel using a lint free cloth and brush the glass with a ‘sable-type’ cleaning brush. Hopefully my negative is pretty clean when I take it out of the storage sleeve but I carefully check it with a magnifying loupe and brush off any particles with a puffer brush. Once in the carrier I again check with the loupe (my younger eyes did not need this aid). I use both a light box to see dark coloured particles and I also hold the carrier over a sheet of black paper to spot lighter particles especially small hairs. Single particals can be lifted off with a clean spotting brush.
Aerosol dust off cans are handy but can blow dust about rather than removing specific particles, also it is easy to blow the negative out of your hand and across the room or worse still make a horse-shoe shapped buckle in the negative… more expensive brands are easier to control. Half and hour or so seems like a drag but a clean print is much more satisfying solution than having to spot out pointless dust.