Large Format Photomicrography part: X

For absolutely silly reasons I’ve done this a bit out of order. By all rights I should have exposed and processed my first contact print in my improvised darkroom using open trays. Under the light of my spray painted night light “safe light” I could easily set up my exposure and observe the level of development as it progresses. That would give me a ready idea of the required development time and let me somewhat adjust for over or under exposure by pushing (extending) or pulling (limiting) the developing time.

The Changing Bag Contact Prints

Loading everything into the changing bag wasn’t too terrible. The worst part of the whole thing was being entirely unable to see if I was aligning the contact paper up with the negative. I had to resort to tracing the outside edge of one of the metal slats and slowly bringing the edge of the paper up to it. It was all the more hard as the changing bag prevented me from fully opening the lid of the contact printer. The lid fails to stay in the open position unless fully open so it was all the more difficult as a result. Patience was the key and below is the first result.

1 sec 2x40

Overexposed contact print

This first contact print (at left) was made using the decades old dual 40 watt Mazda bulbs that were installed in the contact printer when I received it. The exposure was made for one second after which it was processed in Dektol for just under 45 seconds with constant rotary agitation followed by a two minute plain water stop bath. The print was then fixed for two minutes using a 1:7 dilution of Kodafix. As may be seen the print is exceedingly overexposed having hardly any definite texture in the legs of the opilione (daddy long legs spider) and none in the body. I drastically underestimated the brightness of the lamps serving as the light source. I took into account that with the contact printer the distance from the light source was easily ten times shorter than that one would use with an enlarger and working the manufacturers data sheet describing the paper as 30 times slower than normal papers I selected a one second exposure and well, at least it was educational.

3 sec 2x15 d

Unevenly exposed contact print

With the above as a reference point I looked at what I had available in the way of medium base (medium Edison screw, or E27) bulbs. Failing to find anything less than 40 watts with a frosted or opal glass I settled on a pair of 15 watt night light sized clear bulbs—the type used in the B&L Opti-Lume illuminator. Apart from being significantly lower in wattage, the night light bulbs are much smaller physically and have a shorter total filament length. In the second print (at right) I used an exposure time of three seconds and processed the print as above. The results were better than those had in the first contact print but still quite a bit off from acceptable. The mounting hardware in the contact printer is on one side only so that two full sized bulbs have their filaments centered beneath the frosted glass. The smaller bulbs were far from centered and an internal wire partially occluded one of the bulbs.

Tray Processed Contact Prints

3 sec 2x15

Preferentially developed right corners with tray development

Resolved to get something much more like an acceptable print from the contact printer I adjusted the position of the internal wire and repeated the three second exposure with the night light bulbs and a different negative. This time I worked in my improvised darkroom and processed using Dektol and Kodafix in an open tray. I used a plain water stop in a third larger tray. Trying to be too clever for my own good in my first attempt at tray processing I sought to overcome the effect of the off center bulbs in my contact printer. I used roughly a minute and a half of total processing time and for nearly a third of that I held the side that corresponded with the bulbs out of the tray using my tongs and preferentially developed the opposite side of the print. The results as seen at left aren’t more even as a result, if anything they’re less. Rather than being more even the one side is significantly less developed overall and there’s somewhat less overall contrast. With little experience on the matter I’ll tentatively attribute this to the far lower rate of agitation I was able to achieve in the trays as compared to the constant agitation in the rotating print drum.

At this point I decided to make an attempt with my photographic enlarger. I had actually bought the enlarger on whim on the off chance that I’d one day be sufficiently enthusiastic to have a go at putting together a darkroom. The portable enlarger by Ilford isn’t able to handle a 4×5 negative for enlarging but it will work for a contact print. I began with a 15 second exposure time and processed in trays. When after the first minute of developing nothing was visibly happening with the print I started to think I must have had the print upside down in the printing frame. I tossed it in the general direction of the water tray and moved on, setting up another sheet of contact paper on my printing frame. Then I noticed something on the print that lay in the sink beside the water bath, it had developed to a limited extent! I gave it another couple minutes in the developer and started to see it a bit more clearly, at which point I put it in the water stop bath and thence into the fix. The result is below on the left. I left it in the water bath while I exposed the next attempt.


For the second print with the enlarger I used an exposure of 30 seconds, two minutes in the developer, two in the water stop, two more in the fix and then into the water bath. I ran the water from the sink into the water tray while I poured the chemistry from the trays back into their storage bottles. I made small hash marks on the masking tape labels of the bottles so that I could gauge the remaining capacity of the solution in the bottles. With that done I took the prints one by one and hung them to dry.

Large Format Photomicrography part: IX

At this point we have a few negatives, not to say that any of them are up to snuff, only that they are negatives. If one was of a mind to display one on a small light box permanently that would be the end of it, but a photographic print is much easier to display, and anyway that was the goal. The process of making a positive print from a negative is rather similar to that of producing and developing the negative to begin with, so some of this should feel a bit familiar.


The positive print is made by exposure of a sensitized paper to light which has been moderated by the negative placed between the light source and the photosensitive material. Which is to say emulsion on the paper operates chemically in the same way as that on film. Areas which are exposed to more light are darker while areas that are exposed to dimmer light by virtue of it passing through a darker area of the negative are lighter—it’s essentially a negative of a negative—we call a positive. This means that if one were to load a sheet of light sensitized paper into a film holder in place of a sheet of film one would obtain as a result a paper negative. There are specialty papers (and exotic processes that can be used with standard papers) that will produce a direct positive and so can be used to obtain a positive print directly without a negative (or a paper negative from a negative). Without using direct positive paper it’s necessary to use instead a negative.

The arrangement will be as follows: light source, negative, and then sensitized paper. The emulsion sides of both negative and paper will be facing each other. If there is an appreciable distance between the negative and the paper the resulting print will be an enlargement, if there is not the resulting print will be identical in size to the negative. In the aforementioned instance (of an identical sized negative and print) the result is called a contact print.


Much like the negative, the exposed print may be processed in trays or daylight processing containers. It will require a developer, a stop bath, and a fixative. Once again a plain water stop bath is enough for the middle step. The same fixative can be used, but it’s important to note that when prepared for use with paper most fixatives will be more dilute than when prepared for film. In the case of Kodafix, rather than the 1:3 dilution used for film, a dilution of 1:7 will be used. It is not recommended to use fixative that has been previously used with film for fixing paper or vice versa. The developer used for paper is slightly different in formulation than that used for film. The reason is owing to the significant differences in the emulsion on paper as compared to that on film. Although some developers are suitable for both film and paper there is little reason to avoid using a different developer as one will be obliged to prepare the working solutions differently and store them separately anyway.

The Kodak D76 used for film can be used to develop paper. It has little to recommend it for the task and in favor of using something with explicit documentation the Kodak standard for black & white paper, Dektol, will be used instead.


The paper used is called photographic enlarging paper, or sometimes simply photographic paper. In this modern day and age searching for photo printing paper is apt to present the searcher with only page after page of papers meant to be used with various computer printers that are specialized for printing digital photos. Apart from enlarging paper there exists a second type of sensitized paper called contact printing paper or simply contact paper. Contact paper is made specifically for that use and is exceptionally slow when compared to enlarging paper. Slow in this case means that one needs either brighter light or longer time to expose contact paper.

There are a number of further variations on paper, a few of the more commonly seen are as follows:

  • Contrast, may be graded 1, 2, 3, etc. or VC for variable contrast (multigrade)
  • Material, resin coated (RC) or fiber based (FB) most paper is RC
  • Finish, matte or glossy

Printing Method

Contact printer on the left, portable 35mm enlarger on the right.

The usual method of producing a contact print makes use of the material one is expected to have on hand in the darkroom, that is a printing frame or easel and a photographic enlarger. The enlarger is not strictly necessary, when used for contact printing it serves only as an easily controlled light source. At the time of the release of the Kodak Brownie contact prints were made with the light of the (all too seldom seen) sun just up the road in Rochester, NY. Some few years after that, in the days when medium and large format cameras were more common (a classic holiday snapshot camera would shoot postcard sized negatives on a roll of paper-backed film) a hobby photographer who didn’t have an enlarger was sure to have a contact printer.

A contact printer is a small box, roughly the size of a breadbox, containing a light source below a frosted or opal glass plate. Above the glass, where the negative is placed emulsion side up, one is most often going to find either one or two pairs of movable blades that may be positioned both to hold the negative and frame its borders. Above that is some form of hinged plate, often fronted by felt or velveteen. When pressed down firmly this levered plate activates an automatic switch. The switch will at a minimum turn on the internal light source though it most commercial produced models it will switch off an internal safelight as well. Contact printers are seldom used in the present day, not only because of the waining popular interest in large format photography but also because they are unsuitable for use with enlarging paper. With a contact printer of the type described one must use contact printing paper and an exceedingly low luminosity light source. Originally intended for use with silver chloride contact printing paper, modern contact papers are much faster, and should not be treated in the same way.


Considering the above, one might be forgiven for thinking there is no way to make a contact print without a darkroom. I propose to cram the following into my large changing bag: a box of modern contact printing paper, a contact printer loaded with a negative and outfitted with two 15 watt night light bulbs, a daylight print processor. It’s going to be awkward and cramped to say the least. Inside the closed changing bag I’ll need to remove a sheet of paper from the package (and reseal the pack). Expose the paper with the contact printer. Place the exposed paper into the daylight print tube and close it up. If I can manage all that then I can take the print tube out and process the print.

As may bee seen in the two photos above there is not exactly ample space in the changing bag. It would be comparatively easy to wait for nightfall and work in my spacious basement with the lights out and the windows curtained, even working in the broom closest would be far more spacious. Still, I’ll give it a shot just to see before I cave in and use the improvised darkroom curtains I hung around my utility sink.

Next time, prints! -K

Large Format Photomicrography part: VIII

At this point I haven’t tried to make a print. So far I’ve only gone as far as developing a couple sheets of film to end up with a 4×5 negative. In order to get a look at a negative it will need to be backlit. In the old days this meant using a light box which was really just a deep picture frame containing a light bulb (usually a tube florescent) and fronted by a piece of heavily frosted or opal glass. Light boxes are still around, old and new, with the advent of LED lighting and translucent white plastic they can be had for just a few dollars. That would be a good option if there was a need, but any tablet or LCD display that can be set up to display a solid white background will work nicely.

4x5 B&W negative of assorted diatoms

4×5 B&W negative of assorted diatoms

The Negative Visually

There it is, those are some diatoms. If one looks at the Triceratium (the big triangular one in the center) it’s obvious that a higher power objective was employed. The center of the particular diatoms test is out of focus but the majority it, by this one can tell that the objective used provides only a relatively narrow depth of view. If this was a micrograph (that is a hand drawn image of a microscopic object) then the artist could easily compensate for the narrow depth of field by making slight adjustments to the fine focus while drafting the drawing. In the modern era the fame may be accomplished with a digital photomicrograph by taking multiple identical photomicrographs in which the optical section has been slightly displaced (again with slight adjustment of the fine focus). The image is then combined digitally taking only the sharply focused portion from each to form the final product.

In looking at the negative, even with the bright backlight, it is noticeably dense. There is comparatively little difference between the lights and darks; there’s little contrast. Ideally there should be a large tonal range and significant dark, nearly opaque, areas between the diatoms. Remember, this is a negative so the bright white background of the positive print would need to have a corresponding dense black background in the negative.

4x5 B&W negative scanned as a if it were a color positive

The Scanned Negative

In order to scan a negative one must have a backlit scanner. This could be as simple taking a flatbed scanner and placing the negative on the bed, emulsion side down, with a light box on top while scanning. Fortunately, I have a backlit scanner so I don’t need to bother with such things. In the above image the B&W negative was scanned as if it were a full color positive. Scanning in this way prevents the image from being automatically value inverted by the scanner. During the scanning process the negative is placed in a negative carrier that holds it in position beneath the backlight and neatly crops the unexposed areas at the edge where the film was covered by the holder during exposure.

If anything the scanned negative looks worse than it did against the backlight. There seems to be even less contrast than before.

4x5 negative, inverted and white balanced by Photoshop

The White-Blanced Positive

Now that we’re in the world of digital photo manipulation there’s no limit to what we might do with the image. In an effort to keep things simple the above scan was simply value inverted and then Photoshop was allowed to automatically balance the white. This relatively minor manipulation didn’t increase the contrast of the image, or significantly extend the tonal range. For a first go at a 4×5 negative it’s alright but as photomicrography goes it’s a failure. Because it’s been scanned as a full color image rather than a black and white image, one could go to the small trouble of manually setting the white balance by selling the tones which should be made white, black, and a middle gray. In my mind excessive manipulation is to be avoided so I won’t bother with that.


In the Photoshopped positive we can see just how little tonal range the image has. There is strikingly little contrast and the areas that should be a pristine white are middle-of-the-road gray. Additionally, in looking at the tonal difference between the left and right hand sides of the image it’s clear that the illumination was uneven.


This negative was taken using the 20x objective of the BalPlan microscope. The illumination system was run at 9v and no special care was taken to first arrange for Köhler. Only a frosted glass filter was placed in the light path. The shutter was operated at 1/125th of a second, the fastest speed available on the B&L Integrated Camera System II. It was developed in D76 1:1 for 10 minutes under continuous agitation.


Working from the assumption that the negative is over-exposed steps will be taken to address the issue. The exposure will be lowered by drastically cutting the power of the illuminator, dropping the voltage by half to 4.5v while keeping the shutter speed the same at 1/125th of a second. Because of the significant decrease in color temperature this will cause in place of the plain frosted filter in the light path a frosted day-light glass filter will be used. In an effort to increase the contrast the negative will be processed in an undiluted solution of D76 for 12 minutes with continuous rotary agitation. According to available information a less dilute solution of developer, and longer developing time will produce a negative with more contrast.

Tray Processing

What about tray processing the negative? Arista EDU Ultra 100 B&W film is panchromatic. Panchromatic film is sensitized to all wavelengths of light meaning it would require processing in an open tray in total darkness. I don’t know that I’m up for making my first attempt at tray processing under total dark conditions. Whats that, do it with a light on then? Sure! Why not?

Fogged panchtomatic negative developed in open tray under red 7.5watt bulb

Fogged Negative

The negative above was processed in open trays under a red 7.5 watt bulb. The outlines of a few diatoms are just barely visible. Note that there is no perfectly clear unexposed area at all on the negative, not even at the edges where it was covered during exposure. When the entire negative show some level of exposure it is referred to as fogged. This is a particularly heavy example of fogging and is caused by exposure of the film to wavelength of light to which it is sensitive prior to the end of fixing.

Large Format Photomicrography part: VII

In the previous post I wrote a little about the options for processing chambers and in the post before that a little about the chemistry that does the work. Now to put that to use!

The Plan

Out of something like home team spirit I’ve decided to go with chemistry from Eastman Kodak. Nothing exotic or home-made; all these chemicals are exceedingly well understood, readily available, economical and are rather more forgiving than some of the film processing guides out there represent. In fact, most photographic chemistry is surprisingly forgiving-there’s just a drive for consistent results that pushes folks into a corner and makes many too afraid to try or to color outside the lines. Everything will be happening in a daylight color print drum.


Everything needed to process


The film I exposed earlier is Arista EDU Ultra 100 ISO 4×5 black and white. In photomicrographic use lower ISO speed is generally a better bet than higher because it will exhibit a smaller grain size and permit the use of the longer exposures that provide good contrast in this the world of photomicrography. As a rule it’s also far less expensive than ISO 20 film. Many of the older texts on photomicrographic process recommend speeds as low as ISO 7, or even 4!


I’ll use Kodak D76 as my developer and dilute the working solution 1:1 with tap water for a 10 minute processing time. Kodak D76 is a classic and versatile black and white developer that does just fine in a tray, drum, or tank. What’s more, it’s so widely available that a quick search can usually turn up an account from someone using it in exactly the way a novice is considering. There’s data and recommended processing times for just about every film out there. Guides on stand developing (where there’s no agitation during development), continuous agitation, and drum processing abound. There are dilution possibilities for almost every need and temperature recommendations for nearly any conditions.

First about dilution. One can use D76 straight and undiluted or water it down to varying degrees. As a general rule the less diluted the working solution the faster it acts on the films emulsion. However, It would graph as an asymptote and concentrating the solution beyond a certain point will not decrease the developing time simply because the developer won’t have sufficient time to act upon the films emulsion. Conversely, diluting the solution too much will not extend the processing time beyond a certain point. Put another way, if making an acetic acid and sodium bicarbonate (vinegar & baking soda) volcano one will reach a point where using less acid will not make an eruption just as one will reach a point where using more will not make the reaction continue. For the most part one will not notice a difference in film processed in straight D76 for 6 minutes or D76 1:3 for 12 minutes (some people will claim to see a huge difference but will then proceed to upload zero examples or show anyone their proof). Is there a difference? Yes, one of those is going to look slightly different but unless your pushing the limits making a poster sized enlargement from a 35mm negative and using a hand lens to examine it, you won’t notice it and there are other things that will have a much bigger impact than dilution. Pick a dilution that sounds good and go with it, this is about just seeing if I can do this not if I can make a negative without grain detectible under a hand lens!

As for temperature there is an insane amount of importance placed on it, why? Well anyone who took a chemistry class knows that temperature has a big impact on reaction time, and film processing is all about chemical reactions. The rule of thumb is hotter temperatures cause faster more complete reactions than colder temperatures which still happen but happen slower and are less complete. Some folks read that the packet of developer says processing takes 9.5 minutes at 20˚ C when diluted 1:1 and think that’s a rule. It’s not, that’s just a starting point. That’s just saying that if you always develop under those conditions you’ll always get the same results from an identical negative.

There’s all manner of water baths and water bath heaters that keep ones chemicals at just the perfect temperature for processing. Those would be handy if they were portable but for the most part modern room temperatures are depressingly stable. 20˚ C just happens to be magic, it’s the so called “room temperature” of science. So what temperature should one strive to process at? Why your own personal room temperature of course! Don’t bother with folks who put extreme emphasis on temperature, and don’t bother pointing out the fact that a thermometer that isn’t regularly calibrated can be off by as much as 5˚ C. Is getting a consistent temperature ideal? Yes. Is consistency important? Sure. Is it super-ultra-stress-about-it-so-much-you-don’t-even-try important? Hell no! There’s no need to needlessly complicate this, look up the time recommendation for D76 for whatever room temperature happens to be on site and use that.


Water water water! Distilled? No! You’re not pumping your drinking water out of a limestone cave, it’s not going to leave hard water concretions all over the place after a minute long bath! Set aside a jug or two of water and let it come to room temperature or just get good at adjusting the taps on the sink. A minute of processing in a plain water stop bath is perfect.


Kodak Fixer (Kodafix, a.k.a. Kodak Professional Fixer). Purchased as a condensed liquid it’s diluted 1:3 for the working film solution and takes from 5-10 minutes according to the bottle. I’ll go with 5 minutes. Mixed from powder it’s used 1:1 as it mixes to make the working solution rather than the condensed stock. Unlike the developer which I’ll discard after a single use (it can be saved and one can add a bit of D76R-the R is for replenisher to get it back to working strength) the fixer will be saved. A given volume of fixer has a given capacity of material that it can fix. This capacity is generally rated in some specific quantity that one will have to use to calculate for their own needs.

A volume of 3.8L of 1:3 dilution of Kodafix has a film fixing capacity of 120 rolls of 36 exposure 35mm film. A single roll of 36 exposure 35mm film has a surface area of 0.0465 m² so 120 rolls would have a surface area of 5.58m² which works out to 8649.017 in² or 432 sheets of 4×5 film, if I mix up the whole bottle. My little 4×5 print drum takes not quite 50ml of solution. So 432/3800=x/50 meaning I can mix up 50ml and use it for 5 and a half sheets (5.68 sheets of 4×5 film for every 16.7ml of condensed stock solution).

Fixer should be replaced when it takes twice the time to clear undeveloped film that it took when it was fresh. What does that mean exactly? Take a strip of film cut from a fully exposed but undeveloped sheet (or the leader cut from a shot but unprocessed roll of 35mm) and drop it into your fresh working solution of fixer. Time how long that piece of film takes to turn clear, and that’s the clearing time. The fixing time is double the clearing time. After you’ve processed a whole bunch of film test it again for the clearing time. It’ll be longer than it was when you started but probably not double the original clearing time. Double the new clearing time to get your new (slightly longer) fixing time and keep right on going.


After fixing it’s time to wash it five minutes or so in a plain water rinse is all that’s needed for that. If someone does happen to have particularly hard water, or a very humid environment it can be a good idea to spend $20.00 on a bottle of something like Kodak Photo Flo. A couple of drops in the final water wash will help dry the film without streaks or water-spots. It handle necessary though and is really just a way to sell photography people a surfactant, Worth it though, if your having troubles on that end of things.


  1. Load a sheet of exposed 4×5 into print drum inside changing bag
  2. From stock solution of D76 make 50ml of working 1:1 dilution in a beaker (25ml D76 & 25ml tap water)
  3. From concentrated Kodafix make 50ml of working 1:3 dilution in a second beaker (17ml Kodafix & 33ml tap water)
  4. Pour working solution of D76 into drum
  5. Turn drum on it’s side to release developer and roll drum back and forth on table for 9.5 minutes
  6. Hold drum upright over sink to drain
  7. Turn on the sink taps and let the drums internal cup fill with water, release the water roll it around briefly before allowing the water to drain, repeat as many times as possible for 1 minute
  8. Drain water from drum
  9. Pour working solution of Kodafix into drum
  10. Turn drum on it’s side to release developer and roll drum back and forth on table for 5 minutes
  11. Hold drum upright over sink to drain
  12. Remove funnel cap (and cup) from drum and throughly rinse film under tap water at sink for 5 minutes (alternatively place film in high volume water bath for 5 minutes)
  13. Hang film to dry

Timed Audio Guide

The above process is nice if you can remember it or read along as you go. For anyone who’s going to be giving it a go in a darkroom with trays (or anyone who just want’s to hear me ad-lib the whole process) I’ve created a timed audio file. You’ll need to start with the working solutions measured out if your using the file with a drum or tank, or already in trays if your going that route. Everyones phone has a voice recorder theses days so you can of course make your own timed audio guide if you’re using a different bunch of chemistry, film, or temperature conditions. That lovely busy-bee sound you hear is me being lazy and using a motor base to do the rolling of the drum.

Play it in your browser above or here’s the link to download as an m4a, and here’s the link to download as an mp3.

Next time: scans of some negatives and notes on my attempts at tray processing. -K

Large Format Photomicrography part: VI

Apart from the chemistry, (and it’s worth knowing that’s the lingo) in order to do the actual processing one will need something to do the processing in. In keeping with the philosophy that the best material is worthless if one hasn’t got it I’ll begin with something that’s likely to be on hand, and move forward from there.


Film processing tanks

Tray Developing

No need to rush out and order some fancy perfectly size plastic or enamel developing tray, a cheap plastic storage box or even a Chinese take out container can serve as a processing vessel. If going this route one will need three trays to make things easy, and a darkroom. Don’t discount this as an option if a darkroom isn’t available. Working at night can go a long way to solving most of the troubles of setting one up and a roll of aluminum foil and some masking take can handle the rest. There isn’t really a need for a safe-light but it goes a long way to making things easier. There’s no need to buy a fancy or expensive safelight either, a can of red spray paint can transform a standard lightbulb. The ubiquitous smart-phone displaying a full screen solid red picture works just as well, it’s a little safer to just adjust the display settings for a deep red tint though.

One will have to figure out the volume of chemistry to get a centimeter or so of depth in the trays. Additionally, a pair of tongs or rubber gloves will need to be used for shuffling the film about in the tray and moving it from one to the other. Some photographers wouldn’t touch tray processing for anything and others wouldn’t dream of doing anything else. It can be pretty daunting to start with tray processing and the need for a darkroom can turn a great many people off.

Darkroom Film Tank

If trays aren’t to ones liking, a film tank will do. These are basically deep open tanks into which one dips the film after loading it into a specialized hanger sized exactly for a sheet of film. Darkroom tanks require significantly more chemistry than trays but have a smaller footprint and due to the lower surface area they expose the chemistry stays fresh a bit longer than an equal volume in a shallow tray-great news if you’re running a school darkroom on a shoestring. The hangers keep the individual sheets of film from touching and run a dollar or two a piece on the second hand market.

Daylight Film Tank

Particularly dexterous photographers can process as many as 10 sheets of film in trays at once without any issues, other folks struggle with scratches from a single sheet. Just as one can process 36 exposures of 35mm film at once in full daylight provided it’s been loaded in the dark, so can one processes a number of sheets of 4×5 in a daylight cut film tank. There are a number of vintage and modern options when it comes to these sorts of tanks and they run the gamut as far as quality and cost goes.

Downsides to daylight cut film tanks abound. The vintage ones are inexpensive but leak like nothing else and may be rather incomplete. They require a heroic volume of chemistry, many take 2 liters or more. New systems, such as the Combiplan, tend to cost a ridiculous amount for what they are but don’t leak and use far less chemistry. All of these will be a struggle for anyone working in even the largest changing bags. Still the old tanks from Yankee hold 10 sheets and only run $20.00 or so second hand, just don’t make the mistake of shaking them all around like one would do with a 35mm tank.

Daylight Print Drum

Ostensibly made for processing prints, daylight print drums are available in a range of sizes, including 4×5. The small black tube in the photo above from Ilford Cibachrome is only a bit larger than an empty roll of toilet tissue and can handle one sheet of film at a time. Larger drums can handle multiple sheets and different brands have different takes on the internals with channels and grooves to keep multiple sheets from overlapping or knocking around. As new old stock one can expect to pay $10.00 or so (including pack and post). Daylight print drums use very little chemistry, are inexpensive, and can be quite convenient provided one doesn’t need to process a couple dozen films in an hour.

At their most basic processing drums of this sort are a hollow tube with a light-tight drain on on side and a light tight funnel and cup combo on the other. Hold the drum vertical and pour the chemistry in to the funnel where it gets caught in the internal cup. Tilt it onto it’s side and roll it back and forth on a table to start processing, or spring for a motor base that will rotate it at the push of a button. A couple hardware store casters screwed to a scrap of wood will do for a manual roller base if space is tight. Flip it on it’s end to drain the chemistry and move on to the next step.

Daylight Cut Film Drums and Tanks

There’s a whole range of brands out there that can handle cut films. Some of them work more like the 35mm daylight film tanks that look and work pretty much like a cocktail shaker and others look more like a daylight print drum. They are all hopeless overpriced for anyone who doesn’t just want to dip a toe in and test the water. Get ready to shell out $300.00 or so just for a Jobo tank (never mind the film insert) or any of a dozen exotic film holders that will fit in a standard three reel 35mm film tank.

The Jobo’s are a breeze to load up and use while most of the insanity that they call 4×5 “reels” are variations on the trials of Hercules, hard enough in the light and true madness in the dark. They require a motor base in most cases or a bit more thought out placement of casters for manual rolling because of their more complex construction-the chemistry might not be evenly distributed if it’s just rolled on a table.

Daylight Roll Film Tanks

Grab a plastic two reel Paterson super system 4 and search the web for “4×5 taco method”. It’s easy, it works, it’s affordable, and if one picks up two multi-format plastic reels with it one can process their own 35mm and 120 roll film too. This is the way to go for anyone who isn’t adventurous enough for trays and is to wary (or just unlucky) on the second hand market. Anyone lucky enough to have an area photography store can pick up the gear for this new in store while everyone else can support the few stores still out there by buying it new from a website and having it shipped.


There is an option out there for anyone who needs one. The goal here is just to get one print so the daylight print drum is the way to go, no darkroom required and it’s small enough to fit with room to spare even in a small changing bag.

Don’t get discouraged if you were hoping to see me flub an attempt at tray processing! I just hung a few black sheets around my basement utility sink and I’ll be flailing around in there as well!

Large Format Photomicrography part: V

Previously the general program and goals were covered. After which a ground glass focusing screen was cobbled together. A plan for a home built 4×5 photomicrographic camera was outlined, all before finally exposing a sheet of film. This is the point at which enthusiasm begins to come up against the fear of chemistry and nyctophobia that plagues analog photography. Whatever else the writer might be, he is certainly not a chemist, a well-informed photographer, or particularly strict in his adherence to procedure. Fortunately, apart from all that, he is as well not one for whom fear of failure (or failure out-right) has ever been dissuasive!

Now, one could without too much searching locate a mail-order film processor who would happily provide a mailing label and some assurance. Safely packing off ones exposed film (still in holders) to an accomplished film processing service is not for everyone however, and potentially as expensive as processing it ones self. There are a few choices to make, and some purchases that will likely need to be made.


Assortment of powder and liquid photographic chemicals

Here’s what one is going to need:

  1. Developer
  2. Stop bath
  3. Fixer
  4. Developing chamber

That’s all, four things, simple. Developer and fixer can be daunting but it needn’t be, it’s available as kits from all manner of specialty shops on-line, the only hard choice is what to get. First one will need to decide to go with color or black and white. Obviously this is contingent of the film that was used in the earlier posts but one can always choose to color outside the lines and cross process (develop film in alternate chemistry). Black and white processing is simpler so one can’t go wrong with that as a first choice. There’s all manner of options even after one limits the choices to black and white developers but one can generally put them into two very broad categories based on the manner in which they are sold, those that come as dry powders and those which come as a liquid. There are positives and negatives to either but the chief among them is generally perceived to be lifespan.

Developers that are sold as a liquid may be provided as a single concentrated solution or a couple concentrated solutions. Those of both types are added to a prescribed quantity of water to make what is called a working solution that will be the actual developer used. The developers that are sold as a powder have an indefinite shelf life, until they are mixed and the same may be said for most liquid developers. So-called Pyro (PMK or Pyro-Metal-Kodalk) developers generally have a phenomenal shelf life and as a single use developer (working solution discarded after use) may be a good choice for someone who expects to only process a limited number of films in a given year. Regrettably, even as developers (essentially all of which are toxic) go Pyro developers are on the far end of the safe/environmentally friendly spectrum. Pyro developers also impose limits on the stop bath and fixer that one may use in a later step. A concentrated liquid developer such as Ilford’s Ilfosol-3 may be a better choice for anyone who wants to keep their options open.

Powder developers are well worth consideration. One of their modern-day assets, and one which should not be overlooked, is the ease of acquisition. All powder developers are freely shipped to any mailing address through the normal mailing services, they require no special hazard labeling, address requirements, or delivery services (a number of liquid developers are disallowed by the USPS and may not be shipped to PO boxes or residential addresses). The concern that puts many off of using a powder developer is primarily of shelf stability and mixing. Preparation of the developer from powder is far simpler than one may expect. As most home plumbing can supply water at the recommended mixing temperature an inexpensive pitcher, spoon, and thermometer are all that is required, then follow the directions on the packet. Self stability of the mixed solution may be easily addressed by keeping the mixed developer in full, small, brown plastic bottles-the sort in which hydrogen peroxide is sold are excellent. Most powder developers mix to create a US gallon of concentrate and will fit exactly in four, empty, one quart, hydrogen peroxide bottles.

The stop bath is more restrictive for color film processing and one may employ a plain water stop for most black and white processing. There’s no need to buy a specialty stop bath although of course, it is an option some photographers will never give up.

Fixers are a necessity however, and much like developers are available as both powders and concentrated liquids. Shelf life is generally not an issue with fixers and unlike developers are frequently used for multiple rounds of use before they are discarded. The two primary varieties of fixer are those which are acid and those which are called archival (base). In a general way one can always achieve acceptable results by making use of the flagship fixer made by the same company that produces the developer. Alternatively one is free to make use of the classic standby, sodium thiosulfate, popularly called plain hypo or photographers hypo. Hypo has the particular benefit of being widely and inexpensively available in brick-and-morter pool and hot-tub supply stores where it is sold as a chlorine reducer.

One may as well employ a dedicated final wash but much like the stop bath it is a matter of personal choice. To many it’s an unnecessary complication that is best when in the form of plain tap water.

This is already too long so next time, developing containers! -K


Large Format Photomicrography part: IV

The earlier posts of this series have covered everything up to making the exposure, and took a bit of a detour to outline a method for performing the work with an improvised camera. At this point one is expected to have a focusing screen, a loaded 4×5 film holder, and an attachment or integrated camera compatible with the same. Two additional items that will prove helpful but are not strictly necessary are a simple hand-lens (a linen tester or tripod magnifier is ideal), and a photographic light meter. I understand that there are smartphone apps that can serve as a light meter, but I have no recommendations on that front. The remainder of this installment will take the form of a checklist.

  1. Place the focusing screen on the bellows of the integrated or attachment camera.
  2. Properly align the illumination source, the brightest available is ideal but depending on the ideal color temperature for the film non-standard sources may be preferable to those used for normal visual work.
  3. Place a specimen on the stage either in the object holder of a mechanical stage or beneath the stage clips (even if neither are usually employed).
  4. Where available make use of voltage control or dimmer to moderate the lighting to a comfortable level for visual work. Neutral density filters may be employed where the lamp may not be otherwise moderated.
  5. Obtain clear visual focus at the ocular.
  6. Where required (as in the photomicrographic BalPlan head) divert the light path from the ocular into the path of the attachment or integrated camera.
  7. Remove any neutral density filters in use or turn up the dimmer to provide the color temperature dictated by the film.
  8. Where available set the shutter speed to “T” and activate the release to illuminate the cameras light path. If “T” is not present but “B” is employ a locking shutter release.
  9. Where available (as in the Integrated Camera System II) focus the image projected on the ground glass using the control on the camera body. If the image will not focus (as is likely if using an improvised camera) one will need to adjust the length of the draw-tube or camera bellows to achieve focus. Do not focus the image on the screen by operating the focusing mechanism of the microscope-doing so will exaggerate any optical defects present.
  10. Use a hand lens to view the image seen in a clear area of the focusing screen to achieve fine focus without the interference of the grain of the focusing screen.
  11. If available place a light meter over the center of the focusing screen and using the reading calculate the necessary exposure.
  12. Close the shutter mechanism and set the shutter speed founding the preceding step. If using an improvised system without a shutter place a light opaque filter (i.e. tin foil) in the path of the illuminator.
  13. Remove the focusing screen and replace with a loaded film holder.
  14. Remove the dark slide from the holder.
  15. Operate the shutter to make the exposure.
  16. Replace the dark slide.
  17. Note the settings that were used to make the exposure if known. The voltage of the illuminator, color temperature, light meter reading, setting of the cameras control, and shutter speed are of particular usefulness. One should of course note the slides catalogue number, the objective, and ocular (if using one in the cameras light path), used.

The Bausch & Lomb Model R part: II

It’s time to see how the optics of the original B&L Model R perform. To begin with a few common test objects, beginning in this instance with the wing of a fly, will be evaluated visually. Then, the next visual test will be the scales of a Podura springtail followed by the more finely striated Pleurosigma angulatum. The ability to resolve the features of these objects once served the same descriptive needs that the numerical aperture measure serves now.

It’s worth mentioning that no special effort will be made to ensure perfectly clean elements, so although this microscope is in exceptional condition for a stand of its age one could expect to see a not insignificant improvement in resolution should the effort be made. All photomicrographs taken will be made with a ring-stand supported iPhone camera. To avoid putting up an over abundance of images that will will only be given a cursory place only two images of each test object will be provided. The lowest power is that marked on the Model R microscope as 75 while the highest power is that marked as 300. It’s worth noting that to configure the Model R to provide the lowest power one must remove the front element of the objective lens and set the draw tube to its shortest length. To achieve the highest power one must use both elements of the objective and set the draw tube to its greatest length. Lighting is provided by a high variable intensity condensed B&L illuminator.

In the low power photomicrograph we can see that there is some indication of markings on the various cells of the wing and make out a pattern of hairs on the costa. At the high power end of things we can clearly see the individual hairs of the costa, they are not the toothy spikes represented on the first photomicrograph. The pattern of hairs on the marginal cell is clear but the individual definition is somewhat obscure. It is not immediately clear that they are in fact raised hairs, easy enough to determine with a bit of back and forth of the focusing knob. All things considered the imaging abilities of the microscope are surprising. The axial third of the field of view is surprisingly clear and sharp, even when viewing so comparatively thick a specimen as a fly wing. Except at the lowest power, without the complete objective in place, there is very little evidence of chromatic aberration.

In the low power image of the podura scales we are able to discern some implied texture on the surface of the scale, it’s obvious it is not simply a color gradient. Again it is clear that there is some chromatic aberration, more in evidence due to the slight misalignment of the illumination source, but one should expect that when using a divisible objective. Turning to the high power photomicrograph the texture becomes a clear pattern of lines although, one could certainly not make any secure judgment as to the nature of the texture in cross section. It should perhaps not be surprising that the Model R can make no clear statement on that count, there was in fact profound disagreement on the form a podura scales texture would have that was unsettled until the rise of electron microscopy. As a side note, these scales are not intact lined but rather feature a pattern of lines composed of fine hairs.

Although the Model R did not provide the performance of a professional stand on any of the test objects thus far it certainly stood tallest on the fly wing. It’s then somewhat pointless to set it against the Pleurosigma angulatum as there’s little reason to expect it to resolve the finer points of the diatoms test. Fortunately, one would hardly expect someone to put such a difficult object before the Model R. It is gratifying though to note that if hard pressed one could certainly enjoying viewing diatoms with the stand, clearly it’s not the ideal object one might chose to observe but it certainly performs far better than one might expect. The red and blue fringes of an achromatic objective are obvious on the photomicrographs of the diatoms; they are by no means reason to disregard the Model R. It would be a great thing if a microscope of this quality were put before every elementary school student rather than the sort of needlessly complicated and overly ambitious toy one can find at any of the “science” themed stores that exist in shopping malls and digital marketplaces.

In part III, a few simple tests one can perform to find the powers of the optical elements. -K

Large Format Photomicrography part: IV

Photography Basics / Darkrooms

Not having a darkroom doesn’t mean giving up on large format photography; there is a darkroom solution for every problem out there, ranging from fully equipped professional quality spaces all the way to under a comforter, with the lights out, at night. One could run over to a site like to see the spaces available in ones area and, if fate is kind, find out a nearby space can be had for a nominal fee. If everything is hopelessly far away or self reliance is more ones style it’s just a question of expense. Free solutions can be as simple as waiting for nightfall and putting towels over every bit of light in evidence in a darkened bathroom, or cleaning out a little space in a closet.

Buying a photographic changing bag or darkroom tent is certainly an option. A changing bag is essentially a darkroom, for ones hands. A fairly large changing bag may be found in the $25.00-$40.00 USD range on any of the countless “we have everything” web-stores, just search for “changing bag.” If going that route don’t try and save a little cash by purchasing an undersized bag that’s really only useful for 35mm work, unless of course that’s ones ambition. Except in cases where every penny must be pinched it’s generally good advice to buy the largest changing bag one can afford; something about darkness turns a meter into a millimeter.

Photography Basics / Holders for 4×5

With some sort of perfectly dark place, a box of film, and a film holder one’s all set to load some film. The assumption here is that one will be loading up 4×5 film into a 4×5 holder.

If working in an improvised dark room take a moment to lay everything out that will be needed in an orderly way. It’s imperative that the box of film be fully reassembled as the final step; it’s no fun at all to have the lid of a box go missing as a result of a cluttered workspace. Where at all possible bring everything that is needed and only what is needed into the darkroom, whether that darkroom is a closet or a changing bag. It’s a good habit to open up the dark slides of the film holders as shown before going dark; closing the holders then only after film has been loaded. In this way one avoids both failing to load film and wasting time trying to load a sheet in a full holder.

Before the actual business of loading a few notes on film holders and loading 4×5 film. Holders usually have two sorts of indicators to avoid loading film incorrectly and double exposures. The first indicator is less universal and is based on two colors, white and black. One side of the dark slides handle is apt to be painted white or molded from white plastic. By convention this side is placed facing out when the film is un-exposed; it’s ready to see the light. After exposure the dark slide is placed back with the opposite (black) side facing outwards, indicating that the film has been exposed and should only be removed in the blackness of the darkroom.

Vintage or antique film holders are liable to have plain metal dark slide handles (or to have had all their paint worn off). Moreover, one can hardly observe the color on the dark slide when working in a darkroom or changing bag. All film holders thankfully have a second indicator which most commonly takes the form of  one or more raised or recessed dots on the upper right hand corner of the dark slide when viewing the un-exposed indicating side.

In addition to indicating the exposed or un-exposed state of a loaded film holder the raised dots serve as a reminder of how to properly load film. Every sheet of film has two sides, the emulsion side and the back. The emulsion side is the side which has been coated with light sensitive material and is the side which should be exposed to the light from ones camera lens. Unlike 35mm film which can only be loaded in one direction (as a result of the cartridge construction) 4×5 film can easily be loaded backwards. To address this issue every manufacturer includes a small indicator on each sheet of 4×5 film.

The indicator takes the form of one or a series of shaped notches in on corner of the film. Different patterns of notches indicate different types of film, speeds, manufacturers, and emulsions. Explanations of the notches is beyond the scope of this post, see the film makers documentation for details. Just as the raised dots of the dark slide should be in the top right when the film is un-exposed so too should the notches in the film be in the top right when loaded. If the notches are loaded such that they are in the top right, whether one loads the film by sliding it up from the bottom of the holder or down from the top, it is not possible to face the emulsion side away from the lens. Thank goodness for chirality.

Photography Basics / Loading 4×5

One should prepare for loading 4×5 film holders by giving them a good clean up. Take a clean, 2″ paintbrush, just the sort one would use for painting trim or moulding, and brush out the film holders. In a similar vein it’s frequently recommended that one use some sort of air duster for the task. The thought of so powerfully propelling dust into the air at a time when it would rather be settled seems enough to proscribe that practice. Pull all the dark slides out only so far as to expose the channels into which the film will be slid. Don’t pull the dark slides out all the way, doing so only serves to clutter up the work-space. At the same time do not think to simplify the task by only pulling out the dark slides a very minimal amount; one should be able to bend the partially loaded film slightly upwards to tell that each side is uniformly slid into its channel, a task that’s impossible if the dark slide itself is holding down the film.

If a picture is worth a thousand words I own at least one now.

Well there it is, enough to get anyone loading 4×5 in no time at all.

Large Format Photomicrography part: III

The Homemade Camera

At this point I’ve got everything I need to shoot some 4×5 film. I could load some film into a holder, and start shooting without any delay. I wonder though, what about everyone else? What if I didn’t have a trinocular BalPlan, a working System II shutter assembly, the proper camera body, and the right adapter? What if all I had was was a basic monocular microscope and dreams of shooting 4×5? Could I get away with something simple and homemade or would that be too impractical. Thinking about the preceding one is apt to consider the old standby of shoe-string photography: the pinhole camera. Such a camera need be nothing more complex than an opaque box with a pinhole at one side. It should then be entirely possible to use the same principles in the task at hand; replacing the pin-hole with a microscope wouldn’t do though. One would need some way of determining focus. Depending on what’s to hand it may prove more or less feasible to solve the problem of focus by building two cameras; the one for focusing only a screen of some sort in place of a sheet of film. Two identical carers could be easy (perhaps two identical shoe boxes) or nearly impossible at a moments notice (the recycling picked up yesterday). In any case I have a ground glass and a film holder so a single camera seems easier. A student should be able to borrow both from the art department or one could buy a holder second hand and make their own screen easily enough.The question now becomes how to attach the box that will be our camera to the microscope. With a basic monocular microscope with inclination joint, using it in a fully horizontal arrangement seems ideal. One needn’t bother with standing on a chair to view the screen or precariously balancing the “camera”. So far, no consideration has been paid to the question of a shutter. The simplest option would be to ignore a shutter in the traditional sense and merely block out the light source with a bit of light opaque material, tin foil, for example. Then we need only consider the need to ensure that the only way light may enter the camera is through the microscope. Easy enough, a hole only just the size of the ocular tube is made in the camera and the connection masked with a bit of gaffer tape. All that remains is to consider how the film holder will be held to the box. This being the most complicated aspect of construction it has been left for last. One need cut away enough of one end of the box so that the light may reach the film. This hole may be made large enough to utilize the entire film or it may be masked so as to provide a circular photomicrograph. With the hole cut one should then glue a few layers of soft dense material to the area the film holder will press against. This material will serve as a light seal. A few layers of dark colored fleece or soft foam insulation will do nicely. To hold the film holder in place one has a number of options, the first that occurs to me is to poke four holes through the box and insert through the same a pair of dowels or pencils, mask the ends with tape for a tight fit, and then stretch rubber bands from end to end to hold the film holder tight against the light seal.

1. Place the specimen on the microscope stage and position the “camera” at the ocular.

2. Affix the focusing screen to the camera.

3. Turn out the room lights, turn on the illuminator, and focus the microscope.

4. Taking care not to move anything, remove the screen.

5. Place the loaded film holder in position.

6. Block the light of the Illuminator with foil.

7. Pull out the film holders dark slide.

8. Briefly remove and replace the foil in the illuminators path to control for exposure.

9. Replace the dark slide with the exposed film indicator facing out.

10. Process exposed film as per developer instructions and enjoy!