By Dick Kraus
Newsday Staff Photographer (Retired)

To continue last month's topic, Life Before Digital, I would be remiss if I didn't include a foray into the wet darkrooms that were required to process and print the films of yore.

It might be relevant to mention, here, that the seeds of my photographic career in photography were sown in a simple wet darkroom that was set up in the janitor's slop sink closet at Ludlum Elementary School in Hempstead, Long Island. When I was a 5th grade student, Principal Edgar B. Woodard started a camera club. We were asked to bring in some negatives from our family's box Brownies and we made contact prints in that tiny, improvised darkroom. When I saw my own, very first print begin to materialize in the dim yellow light, I was hooked for the rest of my life.

Any of you over the age of, oh 30 or so, probably had wet darkrooms in your basements, just like mine. But, it wasn't until I got into photography on a full time basis (for me it started with 4 years in the Navy as a photographer) that the darkroom became an intragal part of my life.

My professional career started with the 4x5 Speed Graphic. Last month's journal didn't mention it, but it was the press photographer's work horse until the early '60's.

4x5 Pacemaker Speed Graphic and an exposed sheet of 4x5 film.
© Dick Kraus

As you can see, this is one big piece of machinery compared to today's 35mm cameras.

The large sheets of 4x5 film had to be loaded into the film holders in complete darkness. There was a sheet of film on either side of the holder. The darkslide, seen at left in the photo, was then slid forward to cover the film. This would be withdrawn once the holder was placed in the camera back to allow the film to be exposed.

© Dick Kraus

Now, how did you know which side of the film was the emulsion side, when you loaded the holder in the dark?

You felt for the notch codes placed on one edge which identified what kind of film it was (color, b&w, infra-red, panchromatic, or orthomatic) as well as the film speed.

Notches on the top right meant the emulsion side was facing you.

© Dick Kraus

I mentioned last month, that the early versions of the 35mm cameras were very manual. There was no "auto this" or "auto that." Every adjustment had to be set by hand. Well, the Speed Graphic was more of the same but bigger, slower and more cumbersome.

The photographer had to make sure that he/she had a decent supply of loaded holders before setting out on assignments. A holder was inserted into the spring pressure back and the dark slide was withdrawn. The Compure shutter on the lens had to be cocked, the shutter speed and aperature set, the camera focused on the subject with the rangefinder found on the right side of the camera and then you switched your eye over to the viewfinder to make your composition.

We used the hand held exposure meters described last month, to ascertain the exposure, and perhaps used some of the flash equipment described in last month's journal.

When we got back to the office, we went to the darkroom with our film holders. We would take the temperature of the developer and adjust it if need be. Then the lights would go out and in utter darkness, working by feel alone, we would remove the darkslide and remove the exposed film from each holder and insert them into metal developing hangers.

Stainless steel 4x5 film developing hangers ready to be loaded in the dark.

We would gather up the loaded hangers and grope for the developing tank into which we would deposit our film. We would have to lift the hangers out of the developer and drop them back in every 30 seconds to agitate the film to ensure even development. Then, when the timer announced the end of the developing cycle, the film would go into another tank of running water to rinse off excess developer after which the load would wind up in the fixer (hypo) tank. After the proper amount of fixing, the film would go into a wash water tank and then into a film dryer. While the film was being washed and dried, it was off to the typewriters to do captions. The processing took about twenty minutes. Caption writing might add time, depending on how many had to be written. At that point, at Newsday, we would go over our take with a Photo Editor and the selected fim was handed off to the print darkroom technicians. We rarely printed our own stuff.

When we switched over to 35mm cameras, we had to switch our film developing equipment, as well. The rolls of 35mm film had to be loaded onto spiral stainless steel nikor reels and then dunked into stainless steel nikor tanks that had been filled with fine grain developer. After the cover was in place, the lights could go on while we stood there and tipped the tank over and back every thirty seconds; again, to ensure even development. When the timer buzzed, off went the lights and the reels were removed from the tank and run through some fresh running water and then into a tank of fixer.
Stainless steel Nikor 35mm reels and tank.


I always felt that a photographer who couldn't print his or her own film was not a complete photographer. We would be much more profficiant in our craft if we had to print some of the over or under exposed film that we made. Plus, the darkroom techs didn't really know what effect you had in mind when you pushed the shutter button. I had one tekkie complain about the lousy exposure I made of someone and he almost broke his fingers try to dodge the face in an attempt to hold some detail. I had to explain to him that what I was really after was a silhouette.

The image was projected onto the easel which held a sheet of photographic paper. After the exposure was made, the technician would place the sheet of paper into a tray of paper developer for about a minute and a half to two minutes. Then it went into center tray containing an acidic short stop for a few seconds and then it would go into the last tray which held a fixing bath. Everything up to this point was done under a safelight. After that, it was washed and dried; a caption was pasted onto the back and it would go out to the Copy Desk.

Above: A 35mm Leitz enlarger. Our print darkroom contained a couple of these, as well as several Omega D-II's with color heads.

At Bottom: Print developing trays.

© Dick Kraus

That's how it was done in the "Good Old Days."

But, would I like to return to those halcyon times? Nah. Not really. I like sitting at my computer. I can slip my digital camera card into my card reader and in seconds I can see my images. A little bit of image tweaking in Photoshop and I have exactly the image that I was looking for. A touch of a button later and in minutes I have a great looking 8.5 by 11 inch color print. There is no underlaying odor of darkroom chemicals and best of all, my fingers are no longer stained coffee brown from long immersions in caustic developers.

Now, how great is that?

Dick Kraus



Contents Page Editorials The Platypus Links Copyright
Portfolios Camera Corner War Stories  Dirck's Gallery Comments
Issue Archives Columns Forums Mailing List E-mail Us
 This site is sponsored and powered by Hewlett Packard