Old School For New Students – Part Three – The Standard Recipe

Old School For New Students – Part Three – The Standard Recipe

You need three ingredients to do correct processing of black and white film; tomatoes, onions, and capsicums.

No, wait. That was the next page of the recipe book. That one is for Italian sauce. What you really need for film processing is developer, stop bath, and fixer. Mind you, if you’ve already started and poured the first mixture into the tank you may want to boil some spaghetti and take a break for a while.

The standard developer used to be whatever was your standard. In the film era there were literally dozens of choices of chemical for the first step – Kodak, Agfa, Ilford, Adox, Gevaert, and co, and all the rest made powdered and liquid solutions for all sorts of films. You could deal with slow films, panchromatic films, orthochromatic films, fast films, films in the arctic, films in the tropics, portrait films, x-ray films, microfilms, etc. And there were books of formulae that each devotee just knew held the secret to success. Not a few darkrooms had a set of chemist’s scales for weighing out the exotic components.

Photographers sometimes suffered for this sort of enthusiasm – or at least their fingers did. Stains were a sign of professionalism in some cases, as were cases of chemically induced asthma. The whole thing was another barrier to participation by an uninitiated general public.

Now it’s different. There are fewer companies making chemistry available to the general darkroom worker – but the ones who do have made a real effort to keep the business as simple as possible – Ilford or Harman being one of those. Camera Electronic has always stocked their chemicals – we keep in three of the most accessible ones right now:

a. Developer


The bottle of Ilfosol 3 that you’ll find on the darkroom rack behind the printers is the standard medium-working developer for today. it will accommodate all of Ilford’s own films and most black and white films from other makers. You get it in 500ml bottles with the instructions to dilute it to either 1+9 or 1+14 parts of water. The developing times for these dilutions at different temperatures are detailed in a little stick-on chart that is wrapped around the bottle, but interested photographers who want to see what can be done can probably download the thing from the www.ilfordphoto.com site.

It is medium-acting and medium grain for most films. It hardly ever fails. You’re best to use it as a one-shot material to preserve the consistency of operation. Once opened, you’ll want to go through the bottle in 3 or 4 months.

B. Stop Bath

Between the time when the developer has done all the good it can and before the fixer can make it permanent and safe to open the tank comes the point where you need stop bath.

I didn’t think this was necessary in North America when I developed film in cold darkrooms with slow developer. A wash out with water seemed to be all that was needed and I was unsophisticated enough not to notice whether there was over development or not. Then I hit Australia where the darkroom air temperature in summer hovered around 38º C and the fight to keep the developing tank anywhere near the 20º to 24º mark for six or eight minutes meant ice baths and bad language. Over development was always a possibility if I was slow pouring and flushing and I discovered the value of good old stop bath.

Good old indicator stop bath. Far better than just mixing up white vinegar in a vague dilution and hoping for the best – indicator stop bath showed by its colour whether the pH was still correct to stop alkaline developer action. When it went noticeably purple it was time to chuck it and mix  new batch.

A good bottle of the stuff will last for ages.

C. Fixer

Well, if you are going to keep what your hard-earned efforts have recorded on the film, you need to wash out the silver salts that are masking your image. Ilford rapid fixer does it. Rapid as in 4 minutes, with agitation.

Don’t make it 5 or 6 just to be sure – this fixer in fresh concentration will start to remove some of the more delicate bits of desirable silver that you need on the negative. Stick to time and temperature and then make sure that the tank gets a good flooding with circulating water for ten minutes after this. There are various chemical tricks you can use to cut down on the amount of water you need to use, but you still have to make sure that all the fixer is gone if you want your negatives to last.

The joking reference to temperatures in some of the sections above wasn’t meant to raise a laugh. It really did become the governing factor for processing for a number of months in some of the darkrooms that I built. Winter was easier – you could use a heater in the room before you started and keep the tank temperature somewhat constant. And for colour processing, summer at 38ºC was just perfect – you could tank process without a water bath some days. Of course you were sweating like a pig, but in the dark no-one could tell where the smell was coming from.



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