Darkroom Chemistry: Aged to Perfection?

A few weeks ago Hin contacted me with an offer to act as an occasional guest blogger for Hin's Tech Corner.  At first I was hesitant.  After all, this blog is technically oriented with a slant towards Pentax products and who knows more about current Pentax offerings than Hin?  And while I have some skills with my dSLR and am an avid photographer, I am sort of an old guy and am really involved more with my collection of vintage equipment and traditional photography.  I was not sure just what I could write about, so I asked Hin.

The conversation went something like this:

Steve:  Can I talk about film?
Hin:  Yes!  Talk about film.  I like film.  I am buying many film cameras!

Steve:  Can I talk about old lenses?
Hin:  Yes!  Talk about old lenses.  I like old lenses.  I am buying many old lenses!

Steve:  Can I talk about darkroom and hybrid (figital) processing?
Hin:  Yes!  Talk about darkroom.  I am taking a darkroom class!

Steve:  Can I talk about Large Format (view camera) photography?
Hin:  Yes!  Please talk about large format!  You have a real cool looking view camera!

So, here I am and for my inaugural post I am going to talk about darkroom.  More specifically, I am going to talk about darkroom disasters.  As I mentioned, I am an old guy and am stuck in my ways.  I really like my film cameras and I really like working with film.  While I do very little enlarging/wet printing, I do process my own B&W negatives.  This is the sad story of artistic expression, human desire, wishful thinking, and how all of these impact good darkroom practice.

So, to set the stage, let me tell you a little bit about my choice of developer.  Hot topic, eh?  Well, I am particularly fond of a premixed liquid concentrate called Edwal FG-7.  This developer has a long and honorable history dating back to at least the late 1970s when I first started using it.  Ansel Adams mentioned it in one of his books.  It must be good and I can tell you from personal experience that it is good.  Here is why I like it:
  • Easy to use liquid concentrate.  You mix up a working solution fresh only when you need it.
  • One quart is good for about 60 rolls of 35mm film
  • It is a "compensating" developer meaning that it supports retention of shadow detail while avoiding blocked-out highlights
  • It provides high acuitance and fine grain (sharp, clear images)
  • It does all of the above while providing about double the box film speed (ISO)
Cool, huh?  It has only one drawback.  The concentrate in the bottle tends to go bad with age and exposure to air.  This is true of almost all developers, but FG-7 is particularly bad in this regard.  Enough of this background, now for the story...

Old Developer and Wishful Thinking
I was out this last weekend at Mount St. Helens and conditions were great for photography.  The skies were clear, the clouds were puffy, and the volcano was in full view.  I got off several good shots to finish off a roll of Rollei Retro 100 (aka Agfa APX 100) and was very anxious to see the results of my labor.  When I got home I loaded up the daylight tank and laid out my processing stuff.  Everything was going fine until I started to prepare a working solution from the last couple of ounces of developer in the bottle of FG-7 that I had been nursing for the last year or so.  What poured out looked, for lack of a more appropriate public term, disgusting.

When developer goes starts to go bad, it turns to various shades of brown.  The darker the color, the worse things are.  The color of what came out of the bottle was the color of yesterday's coffee.  Hmmmm, I said to myself, I must have forgotten to put a shot of canned air into the bottle to displace the oxygen the last time I used the stuff.  Reasoning that it was concentrate and should look concentrated, I went ahead and did the 1:15 dilution to a working solution.  That looked better, but still was the color of half-strength cola.  It was decision time.  I was now out of developer and the replacement bottle was backordered at Freestyle Photo.  I really wanted to see my pictures.  I carefully formed a rational in my head that went something like this:

"It can't be that bad...it will probably work just fine...I will just add 10% development time and everything will turn out great.  This will be sort of a test to see if bad looking developer really is bad."

Is Bad-looking Really Bad?
I can affirm that if developer looks bad, it truly is bad.  Even with extra processing time, most of the negatives were painfully thin and underdeveloped.  To add additional injury, there apparently was some sort of precipitate that settled on the emulsion that shows on the scans like a thick scattering of fine dust.  No, it does not clean off...I tried.  Of the 30 exposures on the roll, only two were worth doing anything with.  Here is an example of one of the bad ones:


Yes, the reflections and sky looks pretty nice.  Too bad that is all there is.  There should have been lots of detail in the foliage.  Notice all the specks?  So the answer is, Bad looking is Bad...Really Bad!

A Shot At Redemption
While most of the roll was ruined, the last several frames were actually not too bad and worth saving.  I figure they were in the direct path of the developer as it was poured into the tank and had the benefit of whatever goodness and strength was left.  Here is the best of the two after a fair amount of attention in scanning, a fair amount of post-processing in Lightroom and a lot of time spotting the specks from the image.

Sand Ladder, II
"Sand Ladder", Windy Ridge, Mount St. Helens

Lessons Learned
While all was not quite lost, I made the following resolutions:
  • Don't use nasty looking developer
  • Aliquot the FG-7 into well-sealed smaller containers to allow for better shelf life after opening
  • Be religious about purging oxygen from partially used bottles of developer concentrate
  • Don't do testing on images that might be worth having
  • Order next bottle of developer when the current one is half empty
My apologies to Hin for being so wordy on my initial post.  I also hope he has a good sense of humor regarding him talking me into contributing here!  The above "conversation" at the beginning of the article is a complete fabrication on my part.


Hin Man said...

I absolutely love this post. Thank you so much to my blog partner.

Fotostevia said...

You are very welcome Hin. I will try to follow up with other equally entertaining topics ;)

Anonymous said...

Great stuff, looking forward to more from you and Hin!

Sérgio Silva said...

Nice post, keep them coming!

Hin Man said...

Thank you all for the support and visit, please give your support with comments to Steve and we can all learn from each other. Steve is my blogging partner and I don't see him as a guest blogger. Please welcome Steve with all your support.

Miserere said...

And that, Steve, is why I don't want to shoot film or develop it when I do shoot it! :-D

Thanks for sharing your pain, and I look forward to reading more stories...hopefully with happier endings. And middles.

As for you initial conversation with Hin, even if it was fabricated, it sounds completely plausible :-D

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Welcome to Hin's Photo Corner, this is my learning blog on photography, blogging and advertising. And I hope you enjoy your visit. For contact, please comment in blog post or email me directly hintheman at gmail.com.


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