So to many, especially you digital peeps out there, what goes on behind the scenes of black and white photography is a big unknown. I’d like to take you through a typical day at the lab for me.
I usually start out with looking over my existing negatives and more specifically my most recent stuff to see if theres anything I’d like to print for fun or for a project, I like to do this before I actually go to the lab since I pay hourly there and indecisiveness can cost mucho dinero. After gathering all my supplies I queue up a good playlist on pandora to get me through the day and head off to photosource.
I like to develop any film that I need to right off the bat, because for me thats the most boring/exhausting part, plus once the film is dry it gives me something new to print that day. At photosource you’re lead through the darkroom to a small 2 part room in the very back with a long wide sink for mixing all your developing chemicals, all the stuff you need, and a film cabinet which is basically a long cabinet that blows hot air over your film to dry it out faster. Past that room is a (fairly) light tight room that is basically a closet with a countertop so you can roll your film onto the spools and load them into the canisters so they aren’t exposed to any light.
When I first learned how to roll my own film (which is one of the hardest parts about developing your own film by the way) I learned to do it using a light-tight bag and being in a lit room where my eyes were free to roam, but when I got to Sac City they had one of these rolling rooms and I had to adjust, which is a totally different experience; being immersed into total darkness, having to feel your way around the countertop to find your rolls, your spool, the can opener to open your film canisters, the SCISSORS!! YES thats right I use scissors IN THE DARK. So not kid safe, or Valerie safe. But I’ve been accident free since 2003 (that rhymed) so its okay. Anyway, over the years I’ve learned to be able to feel and hear if my roll is going on the way it should, which means I should hear no crackling, scraping, and especially no tearing noises, and usually you can feel if the film has doubled up on itself. The film spools have a pattern that kind of roll outwards so the film never touches itself, if it does touch itself you get giant blocks of undeveloped film that tend to stick together, its a mess and totally ruins the photos. Anyway, it becomes easy to second guess yourself if you’re having a not-so-confident day which means lots of rolling and unrolling until you know for sure deep down inside that that roll is PERFECT, which for others…means hearing the occasional cuss word leak out of that room. Ha.
Once that roll is on, IT is on and time to get to it. I double check to make sure my film is in the developing tank and everything is sealed where it should be before I flip the lights on and start mixing my developing chemicals. This part, actually developing the film usually flies by for me, probably because I time everything so I’m pretty preoccupied with timing stuff and pouring things and cleaning stuff as I go. My favorite part is once I’ve run Photo-Flo over the film (which is the last step for me) I get to unroll the film and examine it as I squeegee off the remaining liquids, its really exciting putting that time and effort into something and unrolling it before your very own eyes.
While the film is drying I like to get started on printing ASAP because here, time is money. I usually start working on whatever negative I chose earlier that day, I like to do a few test strips until I get close to the tonal range I want and then I go straight to printing 11x14s because test strips are just small by definition that I need to be able to see the entire picture to decide what I want to tweak. This is the part where most people check out because its kind of tedious if you’re a perfectionist like me. Usually I’d check out too with something like this but with the darkrooom its different, I can easily spend HOURS on my feet and not care as long as the printing is going good that day. As I print my stuff I like to jot down quick notes on the exposure settings and filters I’m using on the enlarger on the back of the prints so I know which is which and where to go from there, it helps me keep track of where I am on a photo. Generally speaking really difficult photos– and by difficult I mean I probably over or under exposed the film and am trying desperately to salvage it because it was a great shot and I’m hellbent on making it work, these photos take me close to 3 hours in the lab to get just right, where everything is the way I want the blacks are blacks, whites are whites, and very minimal spot-toning will have to take place after. Easier prints take me 45 minutes or less to get perfect. I usually make about 3 copies of a print once I’ve got everything right on it, one for me, one to show, and one just to have.
Once I’ve gotten a print I’m happy with I start on the new stuff I developed that day. I like to make a contact print (its one giant photogram of the negatives basically) and see where to go from there. If my printing day hasn’t been emotionally draining I usually will print something from the new stuff.
To digital photographers this may seem tedious but its the equivalent to spending time in front of the computer, uploading and editing. Personally I’m really picky with the stuff I DO decide to print, even though the whole roll was totally fine I only chose to print the very best ones, which means my black and white stuff I chose is usually the stuff I’m the most proud of. Its just not the same with digital. When I went to NZ I had over 800 digital photos from that Nikon, edited it down to 200 or so and while they were all good/decent shots… If I were printing them I would only be choosing like 5 probably from that entire batch. I am THAT picky. I think most b&w photographers are this picky too though, so thank god I’m not alone.
From there its all pretty standard. Once I’ve finished printing for the day, or given up I finish washing all my prints while I go pay for them and turn the print dryer so its ready to go by the time I’m ready to go. Thats pretty much it in the lab, I like to spot tone my prints only before I’m going to show them or mount them, that would be the next step I’d take to get my photos ready to be seen.
And there you have a typical day in the lab for me. When its been a good day in the lab and all my prints I wanted came out just right, I leave feeling good about myself and work, but there are days when nothing goes right and I just don’t feel right about a print and that feeling lingers around until I can get back in the lab and make it right, its really frustrating to leave unhappy with your work. I’ve been pretty lucky in that the past few times I’ve been have been good days, there was only the one bad day when I killed my phone and had to leave to get a new one, oops!