Sunday, March 6, 2016

View Camera and a Darkroom in a Small Apartment

Although I haven't written about it on this blog yet, I have been an avid (amateur) photographer for many years. I certainly enjoy the conventional artistic side of it, composing and mindfully lighting a beautiful image. But like most things, a lot of my enjoyment also comes out of trying to deeply understand the technical aspects, getting my hands dirty doing as much of the process myself as I can, and mechanically modifying things.

I of course own a digital camera, but my favorite camera by far is this 5x4" sheet film view camera. Looks old-timey, but I actually bought it manufactured new. Some quick snapshots:

The basic principle is that you point the camera at a subject, then use knobs to move the entire lens (just that little thing on the very front) to focus, the accordion part expanding or contracting as needed to keep the inside of the camera dark. The frosted / ground glass on the back (with grid, shown) then shows a faint image of whatever you are aiming at, and you can use this to ensure focus is correct. Putting a fabric hood over your head like you often see people doing with camera like this helps see this focusing image better. Disregard the tilting and pivoting of the lens for now, I'll discuss that some other time.

Once you're happy with your focus and composition, the whole panel with the glass tilts outward as a spring-loaded clamp, and you carefully insert a film holding device (shown below) into the clamp, so that the film holder is now held in between the glass and the body of the camera.

The film holder is designed so that once the glass panel is clamping it down, the film inside the holder is now positioned precisely as far from the lens as the glass USED to be, so that if the image was in focus when looking at the ground glass, it will be now on the film too.

The film holder consists of a frame, a central membrane, then then two (usually metal) "slides" with handles at the top. The photos below show modern ones (top, closed, slides in place) and an older one but easier to see the concept (bottom). In a darkroom, you pull a slide out, and feed a piece of film (5" x 4" sheet film, roughly the size of my hand) into guides so it rests against the center membrane. It holds another on the opposite side. Then you put the slide back in, forming a light-tight seal, so it doesn't expose the film once you turn the lights back on and go traveling to a location to shoot.

Later, when you're ready to shoot, have attained focus, closed the lens diaphragm, and inserted the cartridge, you can then remove the slide, and the film will be exposed to the dark interior of the camera. Now you snap the photo. The lens itself has gears and mechanics and setting knobs on it to select an aperture and a clockwork timed shutter to expose the film for just the right amount of time you've calculated (using a light meter or just experience with lighting and weather). Then put the slide back in protecting your film. Then remove the cartridge and store it to be developed later.

(5x4" film holders, 2 sheets each Jtknowles, wikimedia, public domain)

Uwe Aranas / CC-BY-SA-3.0

This film has to be developed manually. The developing process conceptually involves only a few simple steps: go somewhere absolutely dark, remove the film from the holder, submerge it in developing chemicals for the right amount of time, rinse with mild acid to stop the developing, then submerge in a fixer chemical, which stabilizes the image and makes it light-insensitive. Rinse again, and dry, and you have a negative.

There are many interesting details to all this that I will explore in other blog posts: the science and process of how to determine your developing times and chemicals, how to test and calibrate this for a given film, where I got giant sheets of film to begin with, what the tilting and pivoting parts of the camera (80%-90% of its hardware) is for, how to digitize large negatives, etc. etc. For now I'm just going to finish up with a description of my darkroom setup, though.

I have nothing remotely approaching the space for a dedicated darkroom. I live in a small one bedroom apartment. But you don't really need a dedicated darkroom unless this is your full time job. All you need is a place you can make very dark with chemical resistant surfaces in it. For me, this was my interior bathroom, which has no windows and opens into a hallway:

Not shown is the doorway, which I sealed with double flaps of painter's tape in opposite directions--one on the frame, one on the door--to force any light to pass through an "S" curve of tape, which stops nearly all of it. I also threw a towel on the bottom of the door for good measure. It is PITCH black in there with the lights off just from that, even after 20-30 minutes of letting your eyes attempt to adjust. Darkness is actually not difficult to achieve.

Other parts of my setup:

A) You can see some film holders with film inside ready to develop on the side of the tub. It looks like I only had 4 sheets of film (two cartridges) this session.
B) Containers of concentrated developer chemical and a jug of DISTILLED water to the left. (I was not using that blender pitcher for anything other than clean water...)
C) A graduated cylinder for measuring out precise dilutions, and rubber gloves -- developer isn't incredibly dangerous, but safety never hurts. I also wear goggles, and have a fairly strong bathroom vent fan on at all times.
D) I bought a number of these convenient half liter or so plastic containers. Before turning the lights off, I pre-fill them in order with everything I need. Developer, mild acid wash (just dilute vinegar), fixer, and water, and arrange them on my tray in memorized locations. I also cut small scores into the bottles with a knife that I can feel in the dark with my thumb to identify which chemical was inside.
E) The actual film I developed in PVC tubing. The inner circumference of this tube size is perfect to hold a curled 5x4" film sheet without overlapping itself. The developed side faces inward. You can see the tube is coated in black duct tape, because even light that gets through solid PVC can be enough to mess with the film if the lights go on or the door opens (like if I need to step out to answer the phone, etc.). The pipe is capped on both ends, caps shown next to it. This long pipe holds two pieces of film in a row.
F) I have a red lightbulb on the shelf here. It turned out not to be safe for the film to have on constantly, but for parts requiring fine accuracy of pouring, I sometimes flip it on briefly. The book shields the film area from any direct light, so it's only light that bounces that arrives there. Mostly, though, I work in complete darkness with just practiced movements.
G) A simple piece of twine and some binder clips works great for drying  developed film. This is where the DISTILLED water becomes important: tap water won't screw up the chemistry, but it will leave spots of minerals on your film when it's dry, which will show up in the final image. Distilled water leaves nothing behind. The binder clip doesn't mar the image, because the very outside of the film isn't exposed--it's where the holder holds it. You can see this outline edge portion in the example photos further below.

Darkroom with low intensity red light on

Again, I'll be putting up several more posts including discussion of how to actually calculate and test developing times and chemicals and all sorts of processing steps, with many examples of the kind of results that come out, but for now, here's one example of a 5x4 developed film photo of a local hydro/gas power plant (inverted in photoshop to a positive image):

Notice I added a box in photoshop in the middle. See the top bit of that brick building in the box, with the three prongs sticking out of it with shadows cast from them? You can barely even tell it IS a brick building in the image above. But here's a higher resolution (still not full res! But you can start to see the fuzziness now) detail of a tiny bit of that brick building and one of those prongs:

Now suddenly you can review the consistency of the masons' mortaring job on individual bricks... Yeah, large format film is amazing. And this is with a bargain basement $50 or something throwaway lens, too, and film designed to be used in x ray machines, not for fine photography. It could get crisper still with professional materials and equipment. This is also a detail in the center of the image, where most lenses are good. My terrible one I used here gets very soft at the edges, while a high end lens would not.

One more example photo:

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