Local darkroom experience

Fascinating thing about London is that you can find anything here. As long as you’re looking for something, have ambitions and generally things to do (people to see), London is your place. Recently I discovered a local photography studio with darkroom, few minutes of walk from our current place in Bethnal Green. If you’re into analog photography, this place is truly magical.

Yesterday I spent 8 hours (mostly) in the dark, sniffing chemicals and trying to distinguish contrasts on a negative black and white picture in red light. This blog is all about it.

Place’s name is Four Corners. It is located very conveniently, and despite heavy Saturday rain, I managed to get there before getting completely soaked. Two rolls of exposed Ilford HP5 film and pack of fiber based photographic paper were expecting to cross their paths with help of underground facility I was about to pay visit into. Place itself is not huge, but packs a nice variety of things and activities. They got their own exhibition space, offices, terrace, rental services, video editing studio. They also got underground labs and darkrooms for all things analog.

I used to print black and white during my happy Soviet childhood. As my dad just shared with me, he used to print black and white even before their village got electricity. There would be diesel generator and heavy set of limitations of “no more than two lamp bulbs per house”. He and his friend basically hacked the system in 1960th by implementing an additional electricity socket in the transformator, and would perform heavy printing while nobody would watch it. Photo enlarger is the only piece of printing that really requires electricity. So here it is - since I was something like 4 years old printing was exciting part of my quality time with dad. And it would take a whole weekend. Usual schedule was as following:

  • Day 1. Prepare chemicals, process film, put it on the curtain strings to dry. Then, when it’s night, set up our darkroom in the kitchen (food and chemicals, I know). I was very proud to be big enough to spend night not sleeping but doing something cool instead. We’d usually split the job in a way that dad would expose paper, and I would be in charge of developing, stopping and fixing pictures. I would also participate in discussions which picture deserves to be printed, and how large it should be. We would finish by placing all prints to dry on sheets of old newspapers.
  • Day 2. Check out on prints, and collect those that dried up. Decide which prints go into which album. Distribute good ones to albums and make labels. Proudly display result to mom.

Things haven’t really changed since then, despite 20 years of time and a very different country. Equipment is sort of different, and there is just more of it. There are tools for every single aspect of printing, including special can opener for film cassettes and cabinets for film drying. Dave Than from Four Corners was kind enough to spend quite a lot of time on the day, showing around, setting up my printing place, teaching how to use tools and machines, bringing up neccessary chemicals and explaining how to use them. In the end this pretty much was a crash course into film processing and printing. This is something you don’t get from a normal printing course, which cost more, and expect you to turn up with already processed negatives ready to be projected onto paper. Not going to diminish value of such courses - printing is hard and definitely deserves such attention.

Processing film is pretty much straightforward, but took me about 2 hours to finish. Nowadays everyone is using something called Paterson Tank - it is indeed a sealed tank to soak your film in differend kinds of chemicals. The trick is to load it with film. In total darkness. Dave asked me when I used to do this last time, and after learning that I indeed only seen it on YouTube videos, handled me a roll of exposed film, Paterson tank, showed to me how to load film on reel, and suggested that I’d train this for a while - first with lights on, and then in the dark. Once you get film into the tank, it is very much safe from light. The trick is to get it there in a first place.

Another issue that came out while I was already in the pitch black film loading room (size of a large cabinet), is that my film was still inside the cassette. There was a special tool (Ilford branded) that looked like a can opener. To this moment I never opened film cassette before. There is first time for everything. Wasn’t hard in the end, and in general the whole film loading thing felt like learning how to ride a bike.

Once the film is processed and well rinsed, it was time to dry it up (special machine) and cut into pieces (light table and scissors). A professional would also take notes at this point, pre-select frames for print and maybe even put some notes on how the printing should be done in terms of exposure. When I was a kid, we’d never cut film, but instead used special film holder with the enlarger that would hold a whole roll. However, this feature was absent from De Vere film holders, and this was good reason to split film into small enough pieces.

There is a communal darkroom and a couple of “private” darkrooms in the basement of Four Corners. Communal darkroom is large, I counted 6 spaces with enargers for printing, common sink for chemicals and baths, and 3-level waterfall for proper rinsing of your final prints. There was another couple printing their pictures, but they left in the afternoon. I was the only guy for the rest of the day there, figuring out things and just being fascinated by the process. Suddenly there was quite a lot to do. My general process was like this:

  • Pick a strip of 6 frames and try to pick a picture to print by holding it agains a bulb of red light
  • Put film into holder, adjust frame and install it into enlarger
  • Try and figure out exposition time by looking at how bright the frame is. Adjust exposition time and light intensity (iris?).
  • Cut the photo paper in half - I got 8x10 inch large paper, which was generally a bit ambitious (and expensive).
  • Expose paper by using handy timer gadget connected to the enlarger
  • Develop print in a first bath. Try to figure out if the exposition time was correct. Try not to ruin the print by overdeveloping.
  • Stop developing in the clean water bath.
  • Move print to fixer bath. Move prints that been in the fixer long enough to the second level of waterfall.
  • Move prints that been long enough in the 2nd level waterfall upstream
  • Move prints from the top level of waterfall to the drying sieve
  • Repeat

I was running around darkroom for most part, and wasn’t really effective at all. In 4 hours I managed to print around 20 pictures from 2 rolls of 36 frames long film. That was about time when I realised that it’s time to try and finish things before studio would close. This was also time when I started thinking that prints will not dry up in time for me to pick them home.

There was indeed a tool for that. It was a print dryer - hot drum and fabric that would (slowly) spin your prints and give them injection of heat. It was very effective too, and soon I got my hot fresh prints, very dry and ready to be taken home.

Things I’d do differently next time:

  • Process film at home. This is not hard, and once I have Paterson tank and a bit of chemicals, this should be easy to perform at home. This will also save a good hour in the darkroom that can be dedicated for printing. I mean, 4-hours slot cost £25, but this easily turns into 8 hours if you’re going to process and select pictures on the spot.
  • When processing film, use a few drops of water agent when doing final rinsing, as was suggested by Dave and ignored by me. This should prevent drops of Thames water from staying on film and leaving nasty traces of calcium.
  • Pre-select frames for printing at home, and prepare photographic paper of a proper size. Maybe get a cutter.
  • Get smaller sized baths for developing and stopping. Large bath for fixing was actually quite handy, since you’d want to avoid piling up of prints in fixer.
  • When using drum dryer, put the emulsion towards the fabric, not towards the hot drum. Yep, that will ruin the print, and will leave parts of this print sticked to the hot drum.

Thanks again to Four Corners and Dave for being calm and understanding with me having not much clue about things. I’ll be back in that darkroom!

  • A few scans of my prints can be found here. I think I’ll move to 500pixels now for this sort of thing.
  • Four Corners site