Sunday, February 12, 2012

I hate change (in my darkroom)

I’m not much of an experimenter when it comes to photographic equipment, materials and processes.

Early on in my romance with photography I tried quite a few developers and films and even played with some alternative processes – gum bichromate, cyanotype, litho film, and a color transfer process the name of which I cannot remember. I dabbled with 4x5 and did a bit of color printing, both positive and negative.

With a rare bit of insight, it occurred to me that I didn’t enjoy the excitement and uncertainty of experimenting so I began to zero in on subject matter, cameras, and materials that I did enjoy and, when I found something that worked for me, to stick to it like Gorilla Glue. I have process instructions posted on the wall above my darkroom’s wet bench – both on how to mix the chemicals and how to use them.
The first how-to book on darkroom technique that I bought recommended Kodak Tri-X and Plus X films, D-76 film developer, Dektol paper developer, Rapid Fixer, and Hypo Clearing Agent. Those choices, apart from a few brief dalliances, lasted a very long time.

I changed to Ilford HP5+ film in about 1985 when a friend convinced me that it was a lot like Tri-X but with a longer tail into the shadows. I also changed to Ilford FP4 just because. I changed to Heico fixer about the same time when I got very tired of buying a hardening fixer and then throwing out the hardener. Heico Permawash replaced the Kodak Hypo Clearing agent because it is liquid and a lot easier to mix. In the mid-90s Kodak introduced XTol film developer as a much less toxic alternative to D-76 and it’s a lot easier to coax into solution, too.

My first how-to book also recommended Kodak single-weight, graded paper and I stuck to that until they introduced the variable contrast “fine art” double weight paper. I had a brief romance with a couple of other papers but the box-to-box variations drove me nuts so I stuck with Kodak until they outsourced their paper manufacture and their box-to-box variations drove me nuts. I switched to Seagull paper and loved it – until they went out of business. I started using Ilford Multigrade fiber paper and RC paper about 1995 and am still using it.

This sounds like a lot of leaping and jumping for somebody who claims not to be an experimenter but consider that I have just summarized nearly 50 years of splashing about in the darkroom. Moreover, each of these changes was accompanied by a period of dithering and complaining (ask my wife for verification).

Since the tidal wave of the digital revolution in photography, there has been such an enormous shake-out in the black-and-white, film-and-paper world that curmudgeons like me have felt very uncomfortable. Consider:

• About a year ago, Ilford abandoned packaging HP5+ and FP4 film in my favorite 220 roll length. My backup for 2 ¼ was Plus X and Tri-X professional in 220 rolls but Kodak stopped packaging those, too. OK – so I use HP5+ and FP4 both in 120 and 35mm.

• Heico fixer and Permawash are still nominally available but they aren’t on the shelf at the one remaining local source for darkroom chemistry. Late last year the darkroom guy told me: “We order them but they never come.” OK – switch to Ilford fixer and ZonalPro wash accelerator, figure out how to incorporate them into my darkroom work flow, and make new charts for the wet-bench wall.

• The last time I stopped in for chemicals, the ZonalPro wasn’t on the shelf. “We order it but it never comes.” Heck, I hadn’t even gotten use to having it in my work flow and I’m forced to change again.

So what’s my point?

I want to concentrate on making prints and not figuring out how to use an unfamiliar chemical. Besides, it seems to me that we throwbacks to the analog age should be very aware, appreciative, and supportive of the companies that are making a continuing commitment to the materials we need.

• Kodak has filed for Chapter 11 reorganization and claims that it will emerge from it a “smaller but stronger company” – they have long since abandoned black and white paper and the speculation is that they will sell off their film division as too small a “profit center” to fit their new model. They claim that their photographic chemicals division – pretty much a side-effect of their industrial chemicals division -- will continue to exist “as long as it is profitable”. Hmmmm.

• Ilford sold off their paper and chemicals divisions and the purchaser states that they intend to serve the smaller but still viable niche market of black and white photography for the long haul.
• EcoPro has a full line of black and white chemicals with the additional lure of low toxicity and environmental impact. They also claim that they intend to be around for the long haul.

• I’m sure that Photographers Formulary and Bostic and Sullivan will remain the places for raw materials and alternative processes – but I likely have a lifetime supply of ferricyanide bleach and that’s the only raw material I buy.

Fortunately, I’m already using Ilford films and paper. I spent quite a few hours this week pouring over the technical specifications for the EcoPro paper developer, film developer (gratefully just like XTol), fixer and hypo wash. I think I have all the numbers straight now. I have new charts up on the wet-bench wall (again). I even think I’m going to like it after I get used to it – but I’m an old enough dog that I’m not fond of new tricks.


  1. how are you enjoying the EcoPro paper chemistry (dev./stop/fix/hypo)? I'm building my own darkroom, final phases, and am really just down to chemistry. I was debating the EcoPro line for similar reasons, and would love to hear how the months of use have been to you.

    (and or recommendations on who/where to buy it from...DigitalTruth seems to have the most resonable rates so far, but your thoughts are quite welcome).

    thanks for the insight, and hoping all is well in your world/darkroom!!

    1. Whoa -- sorry about the long delay (see upcoming post for the reason -- a digital project has *consumed* me for a long time and I'm just back to silver and paying some attention to my blog)
      The EcoPro chemistry is working great. I'm using the paper developer 1:9 -- at that dilution it has a remarkable tray life, a week or so if I bottle it between sessions. What I really like about the entire set is that the wet time is much shorter -- especially the final wash. I also like dropping the acid shortstop -- one less chemical. However, I have to leave the white light off through the entire (but short) fix -- I believe that the print fogs a bit if I turn the inspection light on much earlier than that. Regards