In our travels through the
land of photography we spend a fair amount of our time talking with
folks who spend a fair amount of their time in darkrooms. And each one
has a list of darkroom essentials--no, not enlargers, paper, lenses,
and safelights; we're talking about the really important stuff--string,
a metronome, pushpins, and all kinds of tape--you know, the things you
didn't know were essential until you tried them...or tried
to get along without them.
Here are some of the perhaps offbeat but nonetheless essential goodies
that several darkroomers of our acquaintance were kind enough to share
with us. Hope these items will make your job as easy as these photographers
· Smudge Factor. No darkroom should be without
lens cleaner and cloth to remedy a smudged enlarging lens, which is
perhaps the number one cause of soft prints. Don't have a smudged
enlarging lens? You mean you've never reached for the lens ring
and inadvertently touched a thumb or finger to the glass? Better check.
And while you're at it, take a look at the back of the lens, where
dust often builds up.
· Totality. Naturally, it's essential for
a darkroom to be light-tight. Here's a rather low-tech solution
to the annoying problem of light leaks. Opaque blackout cloth, pushpinned
around doors and windows, will seal the tiny little leaks you had to
search so hard to find. The best cloth has canvas on one side, a rubberized
surface on the other; keep the rubber side toward you in case a bit
of chemicals happens to splash.
· Hole In One. When using blackout cloth isn't
practical--for those annoying little light leaks and pinholes that crop
up where pipes go through a wall or floor, for instance--Scotch No.
235 photographic tape is a lifesaver. It's like opaque black masking
tape, only with a really strong adhesive. For bigger holes, you might
try black mulching plastic, available in rolls at garden and hardware
stores. It's supplied as a double layer, and we suggest keeping
it that way: one layer might have an occasional pinhole, but the chance
of having pinholes in both layers at exactly the same place is practically
· Reach! Another low-tech solution to a common
problem. Thread a long string through eyelets and connect one end to
the pull-chain of your light. Position the other end so that you'll
easily hit it when you reach up and swing your arm. Now you can conveniently
turn lights on and off without fumbling. Best of all, wet hands are
no worry with this method of switching on the juice.
· Sounds About Right. To time your dodging and
burning-in, use either an electronic or mechanical metronome. Just set
it to click off every second, then count the clicks--much easier than
constantly resetting your enlarger timer. We hear it's what Ansel
· Speak Up. If you're doing complicated
dodging and burning-in, a good way to keep track of which print got
how much is to use a microcassette recorder that has a voice-activation
feature. Set it for your voice level, leave it in your shirt pocket
and talk to it as you work, describing what you're doing and for
how many seconds. Then play it back while you check the print to see
whether more or less time is needed.
· Stay Put. Got an easel that wants to skate
around your enlarger baseboard? Everything stays put when you use a
few strips of self-adhesive, anti-skid bathtub-type tape. It's
available at hardware and do-it-yourself stores.
· Clean Zone. Heavy-duty freezer bags with zipper
locks make great dust-proof holders for your enlarger lenses, empty
bulk-load cassettes, and other items.
· Multi-Purpose. A Swiss Army knife--for all
those peculiar little tasks. (Show me a photographer who doesn't
own at least one.)
· Get It Back! Keep a 35mm leader retriever in
the darkroom for those times when you just can't get the film
cassette to pop open. If you don't have a real leader retriever,
you can use a few inches of a stiff tape such as Dymo label-making tape.
Just cut off a piece about four inches long and strip the backing off
the first quarter or half-inch to expose the adhesive. The tape is stiff
enough to easily insert through the cassette's felt lips, and
the strong adhesive will grab the film leader so you can pull it out.
· True View. A good viewing light is vital--a
white light that's bright enough to let you see what your prints
really look like, so when they're done and you take them out of
the dark into the real world, you don't end up talking to yourself:
"Too dark," "too light," "too contrasty,"
"too flat!" Locate the light over your fixer tray, or over
a viewing surface that drains into the tray, and, of course, use it
only when your paper supply is safely stowed. If you're making
color prints, the viewing light needs to be color correct, such as a
lamp with a halogen bulb. The highly corrected fluorescent-type lamps
with a CRI (Color Rendering Index) of 90 or above are also good, but
be aware that some fluorescent tubes will glow a bit after they're
turned off--in some cases brightly enough to cause color shifts or fogging.
(Your eyes might not notice the residual glow because they'll
still be re-adapting to your safelight.)
· By Whose Standard? Another necessity to ensure
that you don't spend hours making prints that you later realize
are too dark, light, or contrasty is a long-tonal-range Zone System-type
reference print. Place it alongside the print you just made and view
both by your viewing light. Even if your photography is nothing like
traditional Zone System work, you want a reference with a long range
of tones, from inky black to practically paper white. Reference prints
are sold by darkroom supply specialty firms and fine-art photographers.
So don't use your first good print as a reference; use a reference
as a reference, and get a print you really like--you'll be looking
at it a lot.
· The Searcher. You turn off the white lights
and then you drop something. To find it--as long as it's not a
piece of undeveloped film--use a flashlight with a bit of safelight
filter taped securely over its lens. The most convenient are penlights
with goosenecks; look for models that you can clip to your shirt or
blouse. Or get a bendable snake-type flashlight. To avoid leaking white
light around the safelight filter--you guessed it--use Scotch No. 235
· Then Play On. Music! A Walk-man, Discman, or
mini bookshelf-type stereo will make your darkroom a much more pleasant
place to spend a few hours. May we suggest Dark Side of the Moon, A
Whiter Shade of Pale, and anything by the Chemical Brothers?
· Treatment. Speaking of chemical, potassium
ferricyanide was mentioned by several photographers. To make eyes whiter,
to eliminate grays in a print, to help control the contrast of specific
areas of a print.
· Leak Proof. Enlarger light leaks often come
from the area where the negative stage goes into the unit; or sometimes
from around the lensboard. With careful use of our favorite black photo
tape and little baffles made out of black cardboard, you can direct
the light away from the paper and, say, into the area of the darkroom
behind the enlarger. You have to be very careful, though--if it's
a light source that needs proper ventilation, you can't block
it. Do this one carefully and check up on it regularly--there's
the potential of heat build-up and fire.
· Variable. A favorite gadget of one photographer
is an old variable vignetter with blades that can be adjusted to almost
any shape for dodging and burning. Great when you're working with
something that requires an intricate shape--things aren't always
in a straight line.
· Fabric Softener. An embroidery hoop with a
nylon stocking stretched across it, held under the enlarger's
lens to diffuse the light, can become a favorite softener for the appropriate
areas of images.
· Paint Pattern. One photographer we know has
painted the areas behind, above, and to the sides of his enlargers flat
black to minimize reflections. The rest of his darkroom, though, is
a light gray; the soft, even lighting is very comfortable and convenient
to work in. There's no reason to have a really bright safelight
area and then not be able to find anything anywhere else.
· Is It Safe? It makes sense to be conscious
of proper safelight illumination. Regularly test your safelights to
ensure that the filters haven't deteriorated with age or use,
which they will do over time. It's an often overlooked element--not
very glamorous, but it can make a difference in print quality, as can
something as simple as properly aligning the enlarger. Many people test
their safelights by placing an opaque object on a piece of paper and
seeing how long it takes before the paper shows some sign of fogging,
a method that doesn't take into account the exposure under the
enlarger that sensitizes the paper. Best way: First give the paper an
exposure so the emulsion reaches its threshold. (The kind of safelight
fog we're talking about won't turn your borders gray, but
it will degrade the subtle highlights of an image.)
· Automotive. A photographer friend of ours has
found that commercial squeegees, even the photographic ones, are too
hard, especially with un-hardened prints. So he uses a decidedly non-photographic
item as his print squeegee--a rubber windshield-wiper blade insert that
he's glued to a piece of wood. It's soft, flexible--perfect!
Buy the size you need and glue it on to a 1/2x1" piece of lumber
· Safety First. You didn't think we'd
let you get away without this one, did you? A sign that reads, "Caution:
Please don't open door. All the dark will leak out."
Note: A few of these items appeared in slightly different
form in the Autumn 1997 issue of the "Ilfopro" newsletter.