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Wednesday 20 July 2016

Developing, Printing and a Trip to London

All the palaver of pre-digital photography: it seems as much of the past as typewriters and tape recorders – the business of loading the camera, rewinding, posting off the film, waiting for the prints or slides to come back hoping they will ‘come out’ all right, rationing your few remaining shots to avoid having to buy a new film, ordering extra copies for Grandma, and cluttering up drawers with boxes of colour slides, photograph albums and packets of negatives, and lofts with the slide projector, carousels and the glass-beaded screen.

And then there were those of us who took things a stage further: home processing. For that you needed another whole cupboard-full of esoteric paraphernalia.

It was Terry Hardy across the road who got me started. His dad developed his own photographs and had given him a packet of out of date contact papers. They darkened in light, so objects such as leaves or your fingers would leave a white silhouette. You could even print crude photographs from negatives in the same way. The problem was that the contact papers would continue to darken until they were completely black all over. Your silhouette or image lasted only five minutes at most.

Paterson contact printer
Well, one thing led to another, and before long I was making proper prints from negatives. I turned the yellow shed into a dark room, got a device a bit like a flatbed scanner for exposing photographic paper and negatives to light for just a few seconds, and began to spend my pocket money at the local chemists on packets of contact papers and bottles of photographic chemicals: developer to bring out the images and fixer to make the prints light-proof.

With the idea of taking photographs of London, we went down on the train to stay with Terry’s grandma in Hounslow for a few days, where turboprop aeroplanes rumbled low overhead smelling of paraffin, and we had to be up early so her night-shift lodger could use the same bed. We freely roamed the Underground on our Rail Rovers (would you let two fourteen year-olds do this now?), went to the Science Museum, saw the Houses of Parliament and The Monument, howled with laughter at The Road to Hong Kong in which Bob Hope and Bing Crosby get fired into space in a capsule designed for monkeys, and got free tickets for the live Friday lunchtime broadcast of The Joe Loss Pop Show with guests The Barron Knights and regular singer Ross McManus – Elvis Costello’s dad. Actually it was a bit disappointing to find the guests were only The Barron Knights whose act basically consisted of making fun of other groups. A few weeks earlier they’d had The Rolling Stones and The Searchers.

London Airport (Heathrow) 1966
London Airport, 1964 (renamed Heathrow in 1966)

I took my new Kodak Brownie Starmite camera (12 images of 4x4 cm on rolls of 46mm 127 sized film), but none of the photographs were any good except for one of London Airport (not yet called Heathrow): the last frame on a colour film left over from our family holidays.

Kodak Brownie Starmite camera with flashbulb I used the Brownie camera for the next ten years but always with black and white film because colour was so expensive. I could occasionally afford the flash bulbs though: disposable one-use plastic coated bulbs filled with magnesium and oxygen, sparked off by a battery. They melted when fired, leaving ash-filled knobbly glass inside the protective plastic coating.

Black and white film was easy to develop at home if you had a light-proof developing tank, and one conveniently materialised at Christmas. The most difficult part was getting the film into the tank. You had to separate it from its light-proof backing paper and feed it into a plastic spiral which went inside the tank, but you had to do it completely in the dark. The yellow shed was just about dark enough for contact printing – you could do that in the dim orange glow from the contact printer – but film was ultra-sensitive and had to be handled in pitch-black. You had to wait for night time, and then found yourself with head and arms beneath thick bedclothes, trying not to breathe on the film, getting hotter and hotter and gasping for oxygen. You really had to get a move on.

Paterson Major II Developing Tank

Once the film was safely in the tank the lid stayed on and you could work in daylight. It was essentially the same process as developing contact prints. You filled the tank with Johnson Universal Developer for a fixed amount of time, emptied it and replaced the developer with Johnson Acid Hypo Fixer for around a further thirty minutes, rinsed everything thoroughly with lukewarm water, took the film out of the tank and just like in Blow Up hung it to dry weighted by a bulldog clip to prevent curling. After that the negative images on the developed film could be contact printed.

It was always exciting to take the shimmering wet film out of the tank to see the dark negatives for the first time and try to make sense of what they were. You could easily have forgotten because the earlier images on the film would often be several months old. When you then printed the photographs it was fascinating to watch the images emerge under the surface of the developing fluid, trying in the dim light to judge when they were ready. 

BBC Better Photography 1965
I was never more than an occasional snapshot photographer, but my uncle gave me his old enlarger for making prints bigger than the negatives and I avidly watched the BBC series Better Photography on Saturday mornings through the autumn of 1965. The Brownie Starmite was superseded by a Zenith E, a fairly basic Russian-made 35mm single lens reflex camera for which I bought extra lenses, an electronic flash gun and extension tubes for close-ups. I later tried the much more complex process of colour developing and printing but tended to have difficulty with the colour balance (see Colours I see with). Eventually I moved on to colour slides, and home processing came to an end.

Now, of course, everything is digital and so another of those experiential manual skills has been lost to the electronic world: the exercise of judgement, the physical manipulation of the materials, the strange saliva-inducing smell of the chemicals, the satisfying darkroom perfectionism ... all gone! Instead we compile our digital albums, Photoshop our images, blog about what fun things used to be and exercise our vainglorious self-expression in all kinds of other undemanding, pretentious, posey ways.

- Maurice Fisher’s web site Photographic Memorabilia is a real treasure trove of images and information about photographic film processing and equipment.
- The images of the Kodak Brownie Starmite camera and AG1 flash bulb are by Adamantios and Gotanero on Wikimedia Creative Commons. The image of the Paterson contact printer is in the Paterson developing tank instruction booklet. Inclusion of the cover of Better Photography is believed to be fair use. The other images are my own.

- My developing tank was a Paterson Major II but strangely, as shown in the photograph, the instruction booklet supplied was for the earlier Universal II model. The difference was not significant.


  1. I never tried anything like this. My dad did but then for a while he worked at Jessops in Leicester. I used to send my films to Bonusprint or Tueprint, the film would be developed and then returned with a 'free film. It was cheap and a few years ago I realised why because almost all of the photographs faded into oblivion.

    1. Wouldn't those with a free films be colour? I only ever did black and white. After that I nearly always used colour slides (Kodachrome / Agfachrome / Fujichrome) which seemed expensive but included free processing. When you see old colour slides images I always think you can make a good guess as to which film they are on because of the slightly different tints e.g. Fuji seemed to come out bluer.

  2. A couple of emails from Maurice Fisher of the Photographic Memorabilia website linked above adds some of his memories, which are copied below with his permission:

    On the subject of loading a tank under hot bed clothes, I was somewhat more fortunate by having a reasonably dark under stairs cupboard. But I still managed to make mistakes. On one occasion I was asked by a relative, who knew my interest, to develop his summer holiday film. Well, he must have had the film in his camera for some time, because when I tried to feed it into the spiral, it would go so far but then no further. It had lost its natural curl in one picture length and just wouldn’t go in! So, getting hotter and hotter, plus being asked by my Mum through the closed door if I was alright in there, I decided to take a rest and try again later. So – stupidly – I just dropped the bare film into the tank, put on the lid, turned on the light and opened the cupboard door. The tank was light proof – right ? Well no, only if the reel was in there to baffle the entry spout and I didn’t put the reel in ! Oh dear, the light reached the film and made a large dense black circle on one negative. I was lucky in that it only affected one negative was badly affected, and I kept my mouth shut when asked by the relative what I thought might have gone wrong in that one picture.

    For 10 or more years I laboured in my home darkroom to become proficient at colour negative printing. Though I say it myself, I think I achieved that end, after much time, materials and money wasted. But then, around the mid-1990s, I visited my wealthy older sister who had just acquired (at great cost) one of those new-fangled digital cameras. The definition was lousy (only 0.5MP or thereabouts) but she’d actually made colour prints from it by just connecting it to her PC and clicking on the print button.
    And there was the result, a full colour A4 requiring no skill or knowledge whatever. I gave up colour printing shortly thereafter! Just no point or satisfaction any longer. Having said that, my hard won colour darkroom skills certainly help me now when trying to colour balance an image on screen, so all was not wasted.

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