Suggestions for a 21st Century Darkroom

January 28, 2016  •  8 Comments
Pt/Pd Workspace in a DimroomPt/Pd Workspace in a DimroomConsider the alternatives before you jump into creating your own darkroom


Now I know everyone out there in analog film world has an opinion on the subject of darkrooms, but having come to this party after the digital revolution I think much of the advice offered on forums is out of date. I've recently gone through the process of setting up my darkroom and I think sharing my though process will be helpful for the next person coming down the same path. I know I would have liked to have read this post a few years ago!

First off, can I dissuade you from creating a darkroom at all? There are simply much more compelling alternatives available to be considered:

(a) Go ADD: Analog Input - Digital Post Process - Digital Output

By which I mean shoot and develop your analog film, but then scan the result into a digital workflow for post processing, and then output the results again digitally on a high end Inkjet printer. If you use a dark bag and tanks to develop your film you don't need a darkroom at all and limited amounts of chemicals to develop the film. Think no space / little mess. Scanning the results into a computer is quick and easy, digital post-process is much easier and more versatile than anything that can be done in the "dodging and burning" analog world, and then talk about simplicity of outputting multiple copies of the same image on a inkjet printer! The quality of a high end Inkjet is really breathtaking and very similar to Silver-Gelatin.

See Table 1. for my recommendations for a set-up like this.


(b) Go ADA: Analog Input - Digital Post Process - Analog Output through Platinum Process in a Dimroom

By which I mean shoot and develop your analog film, scan the result into a digital workflow for post processing, output the results as a digital negative on plastic sheets using a high end inkjet printer, and then contact print the "negative" with chemicals. But I'd go one step further in my recommendations - don't print using the silver gelatin process because then you will need a darkroom. Instead print in the beautiful Platinum/Paladium process which only needs a dimroom. Now I'm sure many people reading this will think I've gone off my meds, they will be saying isn't Platinum printing expensive, complicated, time consuming, and just plain arcane? The answer is no because:

  • Platinum is printed on cotton paper that you apply chemicals to in order to make it light sensitive - so you don't every need to buy photo paper, so you don't every have to worry about accidentally exposing the same stock of photo paper to light and fogging it, and you don't have to worry about expiration dates.
  • With Platinum printing you can easily produce an archival image that will last the ages, which is not so easy with Silver-Gelatin with the need for Selenium toning and incredibly long washing cycles for Fiber paper.
  • As mentioned above, Platinum printing only needs a dim room with a low wattage tungsten bulb. So you can see what you are doing in white light! No need for a light tight darkroom and red safelights at all!
  • Yes, the Platinum sensitizing chemicals are expensive but you don't use much and even with the fixing and washing chemicals, they take up almost no room and don't smell bad like Silver-Gelatin.

See Table 2. for my recommendations for a set-up like this.


(c) Go ADA with a Jobo

If you don't want to give up on Silver-Gelatin printing, but also don't want a large darkroom because of space or cost considerations, the Jobo Rotary Processor may be just the thing. Not only can you develop your film in a dark tank or drum but you can also develop your Silver-Gelatin prints in larger purpose sized tanks. You just need to find a way to contact print the paper and get it into the drum all in the dark. This may be doable in a well darkened bathroom used at night.


(e) Go DDA with a professional Film Negative

This is sort of a variation of option (b). You can capture the image digitally with your digital camera, post-process as you would normally digitally, reverse the image to make a negative, apply a curve to the negative for the analog printing process you want to use (this will be different for silver gelatin versus platinum for example), and then contact print that negative using a regular darkroom process. The advantages are you don't have to mess with capturing the image in an analog camera with its associated narrower dynamic range, you don't have to develop the film, or scan it, and you don't have to use an optical enlarger as that step can be done in a computer, and the negative you professionally outsource production of is not only on film but at a high 2400 DPI which turns out to be far superior to what can be achieved with a InkJet printer. Have a look at for pricing and the possibilities with digital film negatives.

(e) Rent a Darkroom

It's never been easier to find a darkroom for rent now that we have Ilford's Find Darkroom website. Generally you just bring your photo paper and the rest is all set-out ready to use. No clean-up, no need to worry about what to do with your chemicals like your fixer or selenium toner, no investment in a darkroom or enlarger. No need for a dedicated space in your house or apartment. In fact, you may not have the ceiling height necessary to house an analog optical enlarger for 4x5 or 8x10 film anyway. In San Francisco we are lucky enough to have two excellent public darkrooms, The Harvey Milk Photo Center and The Rayko Photo Center. But even if no public darkrooms are available may private ones may be just an introduction away through a local analog photo group - just check in your local area. 


So I couldn't dissuade you? You must have a full-on darkroom for Silver-Gelatin printing? In that case, I say be a circling vulture on the lookout. Old professional photographers are still dying leaving fully equipped darkrooms to be dealt with by their families. Photolabs are getting rid of old analog equipment. Schools are closing their analog darkrooms. Craigslist and to a lesser extent Ebay can be a treasure trove of information. Here are some pointers to help you stretch your dollars and get the right equipment for the long run:


  • Don't even think of color film development or color printing. Temperature control is demanding, the chemicals toxic, and the results not worth it given the time and the alternatives processes. Plus the suppliers are starting to fade out - so you may learn a complex process for nothing. Better off sending your color film out to be developed and then you can scan the results into a digital workflow. 
  • Look for an enlarger brand and model that has a large local/national user base with plenty of spare parts on Ebay. 
  • Prices for high-end enlargers tend to be binary - either very expensive or almost free! Shipping an enlarger anywhere is ridiculously expensive and they are quite fragile. If you are willing to drive and pick-up expect a good price! So go for quality and don't grab the first enlarger you come across. Good sinks can also be scavenged locally too - they are also less than portable!
  • Consider getting an analog color head for your enlarger because it makes printing on variable contrast B&W printing easier. Stay away from digital color heads with fancy electronics that will break and leave you stranded.
  • For the DIYers out there you can also make your own head using LEDs. I'd particularly recommend this route if you want to print 8x10 or even 11x14 negatives and enlargements. The power requirements of LEDs is minimal and hence very little heat is generated that might distort your film plane and damage your negative.
  • Consider getting an enlarger designed for the next format size up so you are upward compatible. Medium format instead of 35mm for example, or 4x5 instead of just Medium Format. There will be some size increase in the equipment but usually a jump in quality as well. Once you've set-up your darkroom it's usually almost impossible to bring in another even larger enlarger into the layout. 8x10 enlargers are generally too large for a home darkroom. Even if you have an industrial space 8x10 enlargers are huge and may have special power requirements.
  • Rotary processors like the Jobo CPP2 with Jobo Expert drums are a nice little luxury and allow for easily repeatable results for Large Format. 
  • Stick to one or two film types which are easily found - e.g. Ilford FP4+ (125 ISO i.e. medium speed, forgiving B&W film) and a higher speed film like Ilford HP5+ (ISO 400)

  • Pyrocat-HD in glycol is a staining film developer that can produce a single negative that has two densities for silver (visible light) or platinum (UV light) printing, plus it's quite cheap and lasts forever. The downside is that it is a little toxic so you need to wear gloves. Otherwise, I'd suggest Rodinal for a cheap and long-lasting developer.



Table 1: Analog-Digital-Digital Workflow Equipment
Analog Input: 
Medium Format Scanner: Plustek OpticFilm 120 for up to 6x12cm
Large Format Scanner: Epson Perfection V800 for 4x5 and 8x10 Film 
Digital Post-Processing:
Computer: Apple Mini
Software: Vuescan, Photoshop
Digital Output:
Printer: Epson Stylus Pro 3880, or the replacement Epson SureColor P800





Table 2: Analog-Digital-Analog Workflow Equipment

Analog Input: 
Medium Format Scanner: Plustek OpticFilm 120 for up to 6x12cm
Large Format Scanner: Epson Perfection V800 for 4x5 and 8x10 Film 
Digital Post-Processing:
Computer: Apple Mini
Software: VuescanPhotoshop
Analog Output:
Printer: Epson Stylus Pro 3880, or the replacement Epson SureColor P800 onto Pictorico OHP Transparency Film
Paper: Bergger Cot 320
Chemicals:  Sensitizer: Palladium Solution #3 Standard - 25ml, Platinum Solution #3 - 10 ml, Tween 20 10% sol - 25ml, Ferric Oxalate Sol. #1 - 100ml / Developer: Potassium Oxalate (1qt) / Wash: EDTA Tetra Sodium - 250gm, Citric acid - 1000 grams, Sodium sulfite (All can be purchased from Bostick & Sullivan)
Brushes: 2" (5cm) Sterling Watercolor Brush,  3" (7.5cm) Sterling Watercolor Brush (Can be purchased from Bostick & Sullivan)
Moisture Meter: General Tool & Instruments MMD4E
Contact Frame: 16x20" and 11x14" Custom Made by Douglas Kennedy
UV Lightsource: Aristo UV Lightsource
Ventilation: Eepjon Hoods and systems are great. Don't skim on ventilation when using chemicals with heavy metals. 
Gloves: Nitrile Gloves, 100 pack - Medium Size
Trays: Cescolite especially  dimpled version which is only available in certain sizes
Sink: Large enough for 5 trays side by side in your largest format size
Print Washer: Versalab are inexpensive but a little bit of a pain to put together, if you can get a 2nd hand premium clear plastic washer for cheap go with that.

Old Saint Hillary's Chapel

January 25, 2016  •  3 Comments

Ladders on Old St Hillary's ChapelLadders on Old St Hillary's ChapelFuji GF670 with Ilford XP2

Every photogenic old church in the Bay Area has had Ansel Adam's sublime treatment. Usually St Ansel's image is so superb that it puts you off going anywhere near the same territory he's already marked. Even worse, when he was photographing, the Bay Area was much less built up so he rarely had unsightly powerlines, encroaching houses and highways to deal with. So I count it as something of a coup that I have taken an image of an "Ansel" church that I'm proud of!

About a year and a half ago, during one of our hot dry summers I decided to go to Old Saint Hillary's Chapel in Tiburon st midday at the sun's harshest height. Fortunately for me, the church was being painted by a solitary man using several ladders. At times, he would head back to the utility shed behind the church to clean his brushes or get new materials. So in one of his absences, I captured the North side of the church with three ladders leaning up against the simple white structure. 

My tool of choice that day was one of my favorite medium format cameras the Fuji GF 670 paired with my favorite medium format B&W film - Ilford XP2 Super. Scanned at high resolution, slightly sharpened in post processing, and with the gamma level turned up a touch, the image really spoke to me with it's harsh shadows, and high contrast between the windows and the walls. The digital image really doesn't do the final printed photograph justice. I used Epson Velvet Fine Art paper to give a painterly quality that comes pretty close to the look of a silver gelatin print on matte paper. 

Maybe now I've satisfactorily taken one image of a former Ansel Adam's subject I'll reconsider staying away from remainder of his Bay Area subjects!

The search for the perfect film format

July 08, 2015  •  6 Comments

Film FormatsFilm FormatsFrom 6x7cm to ULF what is the best format? In the past four years since I've returned to film photography I've used numerous medium and large formats. Initially I started with medium format 6x9 with a pair of Fuji GW690iii and GSW690iii, the so called Texas Leicas. I largely replaced these cameras with two modern 6x7 cameras with built in meters, namely the Fuji GF670 and GF670W, to reduce size and increase handheld portability. Then I moved to my first large format with a 4x5 Chamonix field camera, followed by a helical cone 4x5 point and shoot Fotoman 45SPS. Then I added the 6x12 and 6x17 panoramic formats with a Noblex 150UX swing lens camera and a Shen Hao PTB617 view camera. Finally I gave in to the lure of larger formats with a Ritter 8x10 and Chamonix 14x17. So in a way I've tried out many of the available formats in film world except returning to the 35mm of my childhood. So perhaps now it's time to reflect on the various formats I've used and rationalize down to a smaller sub-set if I can!

While you can divide these formats into medium or roll formats and large or sheet formats, in terms of functionality it's not quite so clear since some of the advantages of the format comes from the type of camera used, i.e. point and shoot camera, swing lens camera and view camera. You can and I do use a view camera with roll film, and you can and I've tried using a fixed lens point and shoot camera with sheet film. So instead I'll go through what I see as the benefits of each possible combination:

Point and shoot with roll film formats 6x4.5 through 6x9

I've used the Fuji GW690s and GF670s in this category. In my opinion, these cameras really shine when you are using a dye based film either E6 slide transparency or C41 color negative film, rather than traditional black & white because you get increased resolution which can really be pulled out in a good scan or analog optical enlarger. I especially include Ilford's wonderful XP2, a B&W film developed with the color negative C41 process. With those dye films you can enlarge to my preferred print size of 14x17 without any loss of detail. I've found that's not always the case with B&W film. But you may like their grainier authentic B&W film look. 

In my view you can either use two fixed lens cameras (one wide and one normal) or one interchangeable lens camera like the excellent Mamiya 6 or 7 cameras with two or more lenses. Either option gives you plenty of flexibility and relatively low weight / volume given the image quality possible. There is no movements possible unlike with a view camera but with helical mounts it's easy to shoot using depth of field markings or a coupled rangefinder as most cameras in this category have.

Point & shoot with roll formats 6x12 through 6x24

Beyond 6x7 or 6x9 formats it's possible to find 6x12, 6x17 or 6x24 panoramic cameras in this category. These cameras often have large heavy cones and use large format lenses rather than integrated leaf shutter lenses or proprietary lens mounts. Typically they don't come with rangefinders and rely on depth of field markings or ground glass focusing. While these cameras are rugged, they tend to be quite heavy, bulky and not very flexible given a single focal length and focusing limitations. In my opinion in most use cases you are better off using a view camera with roll film holder as described below. Having said that I haven't used or owned one of these cameras.

Point and shoot with 4x5 sheet film

I've used the Fotoman 45SPS in this category. It takes regular 4x5 sheet film in a regular film holder. The lens is parallel to the film plane although you can shift a small amount upwards. The main advantage is the larger negative but this negated by the weight of the camera and the size of the camera with its cone. It's really neither fish nor fowl: none of the advantages of the field view camera - movements and compactness, multiple focal lengths and none of the advantages of the fixed lens roll film camera - speed of use, light weight, multiple images etc. Also you are really restricted to one focal length unless you are willing to carry around another heavy cone and lens. Plus any cone over 90mm in length starts to be unwieldy. Really the sweet spot for this type of camera is when using a super-wide lens like the Schneider 47mm which has little or no movements anyway and gives you a very small and flat cone. In hindsight one of the older Cambo cameras with the 47mm lens would be the best option in this rather special use category. 

Swing lens with roll film in 6x12 or 6x17 

I've used the Noblex 150UX (6x12) and 175UX (6x17) in this category. These cameras have a small sharp fixed focal length lens that mechanically swings around focusing a portion of the image at a time on a curved film plane. They are moderately heavy and moderately bulky but have really sharp lenses and super wide field of view - so much so you have to be worried about getting your fingers in the picture on the sides! All focusing is by depth of field made by combining a three level distance setting with an aperture setting. It's simple to use and the results speak for themselves. But this is a really specialized setup with limited applications. Something to definitely consider if you love panoramic formats.

View camera with roll film in 6x9 through 6x17

I've used a dedicated Shen Hao PTB617 view camera with roll film back and a 4x5 view camera with 6x12 roll film back. These setups give you multiple focal lengths at relatively low weight, the important shift movements, and the relatively less important tilt movements. If you are a panoramic junkie, a dedicated camera like the Shen Hao is a no brainer, but if you are an occasional panoramic shooter and already own a 4x5 view camera then a roll film back makes more sense. Either way you'll get to use more film types than the limitations imposed on you by using sheet film.

View camera with 4x5 or 8x10 LF sheet film

I've used a Chamonix 45F1 and Ritter 8x10 in this category. View cameras have the functionality to make movements of the film relative to the lens plane. As such they are invaluable for architecture and certain still life subjects where converging verticals become a problem otherwise. Each sheet of film can be independently developed to allow for easier N+ or N- management. View cameras can use many different focal lengths and more flexible as a result. 4x5 film is really the sweet spot given the different types of film available, the size of the negative and the size of the camera. Its optimal for optical enlarging or digitally enlarging using a scanner. 8x10 becomes more unwieldy. While the negative is four times larger the resolution gains over 4x5 aren't really worth the extra weight of larger film holders, bigger lenses and bigger cameras. Where 8x10 might become attractive is in contact printing since 4x5 contact prints while nice really don't have the scale most people prefer.

View camera with 4x10, 7x17 or 8x20 Panoramic LF/ULF sheet film

I've not owned any camera in these formats. While I do like panoramas I'm not really attracted to them in large format because the cameras are so specialized in their use and the film is expensive, not easily available, and mostly limited to black & white. Contact printing is the most likely way you are going to be producing output or using an expensive drum scan. A high resolution scan of 120 roll film in pano format will get you equivalent quality output at large print size so I guess I don't really see the reason to tie myself up with one of these cameras. Plus most of the cameras in this format are turn of the 1900s banquet cameras designed for portraits of large groups and their bellows do not extend very far. Odds are you will have to be happy with a wide or wide-normal perspective. Wet-plate processes are where these cameras shine as a cheap way to get into historical photographic processes.

View camera with 11x14, 14x17, or 16x20 Square ULF sheet film

I own a Chamonix 14x17 camera in this format. Really what is there to say about ULF? It's the province of madness. Again you are pretty much restricted to contact printing unless you pay for a drum scan and have a very powerful computer able to post process such huge files. Lenses are large, cameras are huge and film holders gigantuan. You will probably need to upgrade your tripod/head, carrying cases and still need an assistant. In the smaller sizes wet-plate processes might be where these cameras shine. I don't know since I don't do wet plate. Putting the enormous film negatives on a light table is quite the rush.

In Summary....

So which combination is best? I think it's fairly easy to rule out Point & Shoot cameras in panoramic roll film formats and Point & Shoot helical cone based cameras using 4x5 or 8x10 sheet film. Otherwise, I would suggest it's basically a personal choice between a couple of sweet spot combinations: Point & Shoot in 6x7 or possibly 6x9 roll film formats, and a view camera in 4x5 sheet format. Besides that if you 'see' in panoramic format I highly recommend the Shen Hao PTB617 or Noblex 150UX. As mentioned before ULF is the realm of the mentally unfit - but it's such a nice asylum.

The Compound 5: a big shutter for big barrel lenses

June 28, 2015  •  5 Comments

42 Artar in Compound 5 Shutter42" Artar in Compound 5 ShutterA great option for mounting large barrel lenses for ULF photography

The Compound 5 shutter is a great alternative for shutter mounting large barrel lenses for ULF photography. It has an appreciably larger aperture and cell mount than the Copal 3 or Ilex 5 alternatives - so it can avoid vignetting. The Compound shutter was developed in Germany in 1905 and stayed in production until the 1970s. It was prized for its reliability and unlike modern shutters uses a pneumatic cylinder to regular the exposure time. Care must be taken when undertaking a CLA of a Compound shutter since it has delicate workings which do not take to the typical cleaning approaches used with clockwork designs. SK Grimes has a list of lenses and suggested shutters for mounting them on which is a good place to start when considering barrel mounting. Strangely this list doesn't mention the Compound 5 which is certainly a better option for a 42" Artar for example.


Large Shutter Options for ULF
Shutter Aperture Lens Cell Mount Shutter to Board Mount Max Speed
Copal 3 45mm 58mm M 60mm x .75 1/125 second
Alphax 5 58mm 73.8mm 3.117 inches - 30 t.p.i. 1/50 second
Ilex 5 63mm 75mm 3.225 inches - 30 t.p.i. 1/50 second
Compound 5 64.5mm 82.8mm M 90mm x1 1/50 second
Sinar Copal 76.2 mm (3 inches) Mount rear of barrel to Sinar Board Part of system 1/60 second
Packard 88.9mm (3.5 inches) up to 203.2mm (8 inches) custom Custom front or rear of lens Custom 1/25 second


How to use the Compound Shutter

The Compound 5 shutter is similar but different to the modern Copal shutter. There is a Wheel (1) for setting the exposure time which goes from 1 second to 1/50 second. There is a Mode Setting (2) to switch between "T", "B" and "M" or manual (using the exposure time wheel). The is a Shutter Cock (3) for cocking the shutter - but this is only to be used in the "M" setting. Using the shutter cock when in "T" or "B" modes may damage the shutter. There is an Aperture Setting (4) ring for setting the f-stop. There is a manual Shutter Trigger (5) and a Cable Release opening (6) for taking the exposure. Apparently pneumatic shutters are more accurate if you pause briefly between cocking the shutter and taking the exposure to allow the cylinder pressure to equalize with the outside pressure. Note: The image below is of the Compound 4 shutter which is identical in all respects besides its size and fastest exposure time.

Compound Shutter LayoutCompound Shutter Layout(1) Time, (2) Mode Setting, (3) Shutter Cock, (4) Aperture Setting, (5) Manual Trigger, and (6) Cable Release


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