"Use The Cloth, Luke!"
And Other Essentials To Have At Hand When Confronting The Dark Side

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 made ours.

· 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 zero.

· 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 used.

· 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 photographic tape.

· 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 or lattice.

· 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.