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Developing film


Attentive readers will note last week it was my byline on the photos taken at the Iowa/Ohio State football game. Don Lund normally takes them, but he’s sidelined after a hip replacement operation.
So they got me out of retirement, and you may have noticed the orange hat on the sidelines during the game. It was the first sporting event I’ve photographed since selling the newspapers in 2000.
Doug Lindner set me up with his Nikon, auto-everything camera. Besides having a blast being down on the sidelines, I also got some great photos, if I do say so myself. Of course, the advanced camera makes things easier, but there’s also the experience and skill of the user.
The experience got me thinking about the good old days.
I started rolling my own film with the use of a machine sometime in the ‘80s because it was so much cheaper than buying pre-rolled. A bulk roll of film, 100 feet coiled into a 6-inch wide ring, cost about $30. From it, a skilled operator could make 34 cassettes, each containing 36 exposures. Off the shelf, the same product cost $3 a roll so it was about a $70 savings.
Of course, there’d be waste.
The good old days
Although the coil was tight it was slippery and had to be loaded into the rolling machine in total darkness. At least once, the entire roll dropped like a slinky to the floor and couldn’t be salvaged. And on another occasion, I forgot to turn off the light.
It was also time-consuming, especially at first.
The end had to be aligned and taped just so to the spool. Then the spool had to be slid into the canister and a small, somewhat fussy, cap had to be snapped on. Then the spool had to be placed just so in the loader. Then a crank was turned and clicks counted to determine how many frames you were putting on the roll. The cassette was removed and again cut just so it could be loaded into a camera. Get any one step wrong and the roll was wrecked. Mishaps during these steps were the worst, since you didn’t learn something went wrong until you developed the film and found out the photos were ruined.
As you did the job, you got faster and more accurate. With everything at hand, a good roller could turn out one a minute.
The steps involved with getting the film ready for the camera were simple compared to the developing of the film.
For this, you had to be in the darkroom. The first, and most difficult step, was taking the film out of the cassette and winding it into another spool. This second spool was about three inches in diameter and consisted of two perfect spirals of wire held at a precise distance– slightly smaller than the width of the film– apart by a center column. In the dark, you had to feed the tip of the film into a tiny slot on the column and then carefully wind the film out following the spirals. You could tell if you were getting it right by the feel and the sound. If you heard a crinkle something wasn’t right. Once loaded, the reel had to be placed into a tank and a special cap put into place.
The special cap allowed liquids to be passed through but not light. Three chemicals– developer, stop bath and fixer– each at a precise temperature, were poured into the canister for a precise amount of time. Then the film could be removed, rinsed and hung up to dry.
Once dry, the film was cut into 5-frame lengths and slid into negative protectors to make them ready for viewing and selection. Then it was back to the darkroom where prints were made, an even more complex procedure. Today, photos can be enhanced a million ways with just the click of a mouse. Back then the magic happened in the darkroom and it was an art that took years to master.
Ah, the good old days.