Dark-room processes – given that they have been around for basically forever you’d think that every possible innovation must long ago have been made. To find out if this is true, in this post I’ll be exploring two (not especially) new innovations that might make the whole process simpler. Is a new era of efficiency upon us, or should all just accept that life in the dark-room will never change and Ansel Adams it for the rest of our lives? Fun (maybe) fact – Adams didn’t use a timer when making enlargements, he had a metronome in his dark-room, and used it to count exposure times by ear.
So, this all began when I came across a couple of tools designed to make that most critical of dark-room processes a little simpler – they are ‘test-strip makers’ – little thingies designed to help make the process of making test strips a bit less time consuming.
The first of these promises to really turn the whole process on its head. It’s a little piece of translucent plastic with a graded pie on it, it is pretty self-explanatory:
With its grandiose promises of saving me ‘time, money AND chemistry’, I picked one up and headed to the darkroom. Diligently following instructions, I exposed for a minute:
So apparently all I needed to do now was choose the piece of the pie that I thought looked best, and expose for the length of time suggested.
It wasn’t entirely successful – in theory the section of the pie I chose, and the final image should match. I actually chose the 32 second exposure, even though this ‘felt’ like it was going to be too long. Those suspicions were confirmed, and the resulting image came out darker even than the 48 second segment. I was fairly confident that I had been diligent about the rest of the process, making sure that the only thing that was changing was my exposure times. There were some issues with the negative I was using for this experiment, (which you can read about here), and I wanted to give the tool a fair shout, so I had a few more tries, and ended up with the same problem each time, massively over exposed images.
To be fair, I think the degree of over exposure was consistent, I think it may be possible to spend some time with it and re-calibrate the suggested times down to where they might work properly. However, given that I was promised time saving, this didn’t seem like something I wanted to do.
As for the other two claims, that it would save me chemistry and money, I don’t really understand how this would work, given that I still need to process my exposed ‘pie’ sheet in exactly the same way that I would a test-strip. Equally, the size of the test exposure is bigger, meaning that more paper is used, actually costing more money. But for these ludicrous claims of time/money/chemistry savings I could almost forgive the ‘test-strip maker’ it’s questionable performance if it was sold as something that might help you get around having a really accurate exposure timer, or even as something to help people who might struggle with making a traditional test-strip for whatever reason.
And so, I moved on to the second test-strip making tool I had bought along to the dark-room – the ‘Paterson Test Strip Printer’.
I slightly take issue with the use of the term ‘printer’ in that whilst this thing aims to help create a regular test strip in a slightly more controlled way, but it certainly doesn’t ‘print’ it for you. The instructions do a pretty good job of explaining how it is used:
As you can see, it’s potentially a nice way to get a good even test strip without having to move a piece of card. However, you will still have to put your strip though the same chemistry as usual, and you’ll still have to stand around flipping down those flippy things every three seconds, so it’s not really going to save you any time. That said, Paterson don’t make any claims about this thing – it is sold as a test-strip printer, that’s all it claims to do!
In use the Paterson Test Strip Printer is a bit of a nightmare. The first issue is that you have to have a very specifically sized piece of paper, which fits into its ‘grooves’. Anything too big bows up in the middle, and anything smaller doesn’t stay in place.
The other issues relate to getting your image in focus on the test strip. Unless you work out some sort of system to hold the thing in place under the enlarger (I am thinking blue tack) it is going to move around a bit as you flip down its flippers. Likewise, it raises your test-strip paper up slightly, meaning that you are going to have to re-focus the image when you are done making the test-strip and have moved the tool out of the way. Obviously, it is not critical that your test-strip is super sharp, but it’s important that it is clear enough for you to determine the correct exposure time. My attempt looked like this:
In conclusion, neither of my wonder-tools for test-strip making turned out to either save me time, or make a better product than I would have got using an old piece of card. Neither were they any more fun/intuitive/easy to use than the old piece of card method either.
This is not to trash the companies that make these products for trying, and there might even be a place for them for some photographers process, but it has become clear throughout my experimentation that these innovations fall very much into the category of ‘if it aint broke’. I know there are some cool dark-room innovations out there, which I will definitely be exploring in the future, but most of them seem like were developed home-brew style to solve creative problems, rather than trying to refine a process that is already pretty tight. Sticking with the cardboard method yields acceptable results.
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