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How to Develop Large Format Negs

You can't beat a big negative.

There are as many ways to develop large format negatives as there are cameras to take them (well, not quite but you get the idea). I've been using the brush method to develop mine one at a time in trays, a technique that guarantees even development.

However, there are some brave souls who shuffle up to half a dozen sheets in the one tray at the same time. This is a great way to save time if you don't mind getting your fingers in the brew. I've avoided this method because of stories of scratching and uneven development but many other people use it successfully.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, reader David M. (he wishes to remain anonymous) read about my reticence in using the multi-sheet approach and emailed me a detailed and entertaining description of how he tackles it in case I wanted to have a go.

I thought it would useful to photographers who are just tackling large format for the first time or who who, like me, have never fancied handling the wet sheets several at a time. So here's David's account of the multi-sheet approach (with a couple of my pics for "decoration"). I'll add it to the ARTICLES section in the right hand column for posterity.

Developing Large Format Negatives

By David M.

You will need enough darkness to stand up in and be comfortable. You don't need piped water. I think you've arranged that already. You will need a convenient flat surface at about kitchen unit height. And jugs and so on.

Do not wear hairy pullovers. Do not trim your beard immediately beforehand.

I suggest a row of dishes in this order: plain water, developer, more plain water, fix, more water. I don't use stop, but let the films lie in the post-dev water and tell myself that it's helping the shadow detail.

The size of dish you need is one size bigger than the film, so that the short edge of the dish is nominally the same as the long edge of the film. I find that I prefer dishes with ridges rather than grooves (Paterson style).

Place a long batten under the far side of the dishes so that they slope gently forwards. This will make the sheets slide naturally towards you and keep them collated. You will have discovered just how slippery a sheet of wet film can be.

So much for the hardware. You will have your own favourite chemicals, I know. Pour in the chemicals. Check the temperature, as usual. Don't overfill as you'll just make a splashy mess in the dark. 500-600 ml will be enough (But check in your own trays. You are only covering a wad of film about a quarter of an inch thick.)

The unmistakable look of a print from a large format neg.

Now, put something on the darkroom door to keep out spouses, children and the rest of the world. Only open the door if your house is burning down. It's very useful to have some of those luminous dots on light switches and a few other significant things. It's easy to feel a bit unreal in total darkness.

You will need a timer that works in the dark. I picked up one of those big Gralab things in a closing-down sale and it's excellent. Set your timer to your chosen development time. All the other steps are going to be self-timing.

Arrange your film holders on a convenient surface at the developer end of your row of trays. Place an open film box above them. Provide a space to put the empty holders. Look round at everything. Put your hands on everything while the light is on. Check for open boxes of film, even If you haven't opened one for weeks.

Eyes Wide Shut

Do not close your eyes in the dark. Wash and dry your hands and check your fingernails for roughness. I should have mentioned this much earlier. Your hands must stay dry until they get wet. Film emulsions are made of glue and it's very good glue, so a wet, or even damp fingerprint between two dry sheets is a catastrophe

Put out the light. Keep your eyes open. Look around for leaks. Check the door. Last chance. You may like music but I prefer Radio 4.

Take the film out of each holder in turn and put each one sideways into the open film box, all the same way up, so that the end with the notches is propped up and protrudes over the edge of the box. Keep going until all the holders are empty and neatly stacked out of your way.

I suggest you start with two sheets – one holder-full – and work up to whatever feels comfortable. I do six at a time and I have done ten, but ten feels too much to me.

Pick up your stack of sheets using the hand away from the trays and with the other hand, take one sheet. Place it on top of the first water bath. DO NOT SLIDE IT IN AS IF IT WERE A PRINT. PLACE IT FLAT ON THE SURFACE. Sliding makes scratches. I prefer emulsion up but there is debate (long tedious debate) on this. Your dry fingers will not harm the emulsion unless you have just come in from carving gargoyles.

With you little finger tip, press the film under the water. Take your time. Contemplate the sensation of the water on your fingertip, think gentle thoughts, anything, in fact to avoid unseemly haste. Take the next sheet and place it gently, flat on top of the water. DO NOT SLIDE IT IN. A little press underwater to join its little wet friend at the bottom of the dish (which will have gently slid down the slope and be in a predictable position).

We have now crossed the Dry/Wet boundary and cannot return. Have a towel ready just in case. You should have done any scratching and nose-blowing earlier.

Slide your fingers under the bottom sheet and slide it gently out, away from you. Place it gently on top of the water and press it gently down. SO NOT SLIDE IT. Do the same with the new bottom sheet and shuffle through the pile until you get back to number one. Easy if you have two, of course. Repeat this three or four times in a very leisurely way. Look around for light leaks. Adjust your stance for greater comfort. Wriggle your shoulders.

Now the scary bit. Pick up the slippery, wriggling, semi-sentient stack of wet film and place the sheets in the dev, one at a time, using the same flat-on-top-and-press-under technique. (You might think that the earlier negs will get more development, but they come out in the same order so that the times are automatically equalised.)

Start your timer. Now slide your fingers under the bottom sheet, slide it out and place it on top in the same way as you did in the water bath. Go through the pile for the first thirty seconds, but always going through the complete pile, only stopping when you return to number one.

Shuffle, Shuffle

I shuffle every thirty seconds, just like tank development. You can easily get through six sheets in this time, plus a bit of time for twitching your feet and looking round for light leaks. Don't press them together, just submerge them. When the time is up, lift out the whole slippery mass, and one by one, put them into the second water bath, (you may prefer stop bath of course). Shuffle through the stack twice if it's stop and if it's water, shuffle and leave alone until your nerve cracks.

The next stage is perilous. Take the stack out of the water/stop and place each sheet one at a time into the fix. Take your time. The fix will shrink the emulsion and if you are hasty, the sheets will be stuck together, possibly forever. Anyway, take your time. There is no pressure to do this quickly. Shuffle again, continuously this time, until your preferred fixing time is up. Now it's into the last tray of water, one at a time again. Shuffle in this tray once or twice.

Look round and check for leaks, stretch your shoulders, ease you back and think about adjusting the height of your bench. Sneeze if you like. (Sneezing over a tray of developer in the dark is a once-in-a lifetime experience.) No rush. Dry your hands on the towel (remember the towel) and switch on the light. Aaaah! I did it! A little dance might be appropriate, but don't knock over the dishes. And don't grab the negs either. Someone very close to you has put a good deal of effort into them, so treat them with respect.

I wash them by using several changes of water. You may have other ways. Finally, wetting agent and hang them up to dry from one corner. Use enough WA. I've seem forums where they are very competitive about how little they use: "Two drops in a quart jug is enough for a Real Man", and so on. The wetted water should flow unbroken off the sheets. I'm sure you know this already. You'll need to shuffle a couple of times in the wetting agent, too.

After they've hung for half an hour or so, a little drop will have collected on the bottom corner, touch it with your finger to remove it. Go away. Have a nice cup of tea or do a bit of emailing (other beverages are available; other ways to waste time are available too) for a bit longer than you want to. Give the film a bit of time to itself, so that it can decide if it wants to be a masterpiece.

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James McEwan said...

Hello Darkroom. This is my first post. I started in Large Format at Napier Uni in the late 60's and I have used every different developing method there is, The Napier system was the best at that time . we clipped the negative into a wire frame and the frame was hung on a rack with up to 20 others and processed in 3 Gallon, 13.5 litre tanks.
However I found a FR USA daylight tank in the bargain bin of an old photo shop . It takes 12 sheets at a time. comes with a loading guide and takes a Patterson plastic lid , It means I can process anywhere . I 'm enjoying your site enourmously, especially as I live in Australia now and don't get back to Scotland often enough. Cheers Jim McEwan.
I have pictures of the tank how do I upload ?

Greg said...

Thank you for the very wry and enjoyable post on sheet film processing. I notice you did not mention having a little something before processing, to steady the nerves. Hemingway apparently advised lesser moratls to write drunk and edit sober; perhaps the same can be said for shooting and developing.

Greg Marinovich