Pros vs Wannabes
I once ran the photographic section of a division of the Texas Highway
Department in Austin. After many years of coping in a primitive darkroom,
we got selected to move into quarters in a modern building then about to be
built, and the boss asked me to submit my plans. So I did. The plans I
submitted were based on years of actual professional photo lab experience.
To wit: the sink was made of thick wood covered with fiberglass and epoxy
resin. It was divided into four sections, each 52 inches long by 42 inches
from front to back, with a bypass valve on the drain so that I could
develop photomurals easily and catch the chemicals in jugs after I was
done. The wood was because it was an excellent insulator, so my chemicals
maintained their temperature for an hour or more with no active regulation.
All the pipes and fixtures ran through a shelf behind the sink, with garden
hose type faucets coming out of the shelf about two feet above the sink, so
that the corrosive chemicals could not get into the piping and I could
screw lengths of cheap garden hose onto the faucets for a multitude of
purposes. The top of the shelf was a handy repository for chemical bottles
and timers and such. It extended twelve inches out from the wall, which
meant that although the sink was 42 inches deep, the shelf was only 30
inches from the front, and the faucets stuck out another six inches, so
they were only 24 inches. Easily reachable.
All of that was proven. I already had a similar sink ... this one was just
an improvement and expansion on the idea.
I divided the lab into two rooms. Chemical and finishing. Both of them were
full fledged darkrooms, which allowed other dark operations to proceed
without interfering with what was going on in the wet chemical room, if
necessary. Loading film, etc. It also kept the film away from sublimed
particles of chemicals that would settle on photosensitive materials and
make spots on them that you didn't find out about until the spot showed up
in the middle of an otherwise good picture.
The two darkroom design had a light switch in the inner room that allowed
one to turn the light OFF in the outer one. (No such switch in the outer
room) That way, if you were in the darkroom processing film or something,
and needed to get something in the outer room, you didn't have to interrupt
production by putting away all the photo materials before you could open
There was a red light out in the hall that came on when we went dark, and a
solenoid that bolted the door when you turned off the lights inside.
There was a choice of red, dark green (for panchromatic film inspection)
and green/yellow safelight ... lots of the red and green yellow. Since
black and white photo paper isn't sensitive to that wavelength at all, you
could use enough to make it easy to read things in the darkroom ... order
forms, technical info that came packaged with materials, look things up in
the Photo Lab Manual, find things you needed in drawers, and so on. The
walls were white to reflect that safe light and fill in the shadows. It was
bright enough that you didn't have to turn on the room lights to judge the
qualilty of a print. It was a great place to work. I already had a darkroom
like that, but this one was bigger and better.
There was a high capacity dedicated water cooler with a thermostat valve to
control film developing tank temperature + or - 1/2 degree.
I wanted wooden tanks covered with fiberglass and epoxy. This was a
standard at the time and although not as high tech looking as stainless
steel, it was much better for the same reasons mentioned for the sinks.
There was more, but this is enough to give you the idea.
Well, the architectural firm that the State of Texas hired, had a wannabe
photographer in it who was convinced he knew more and had sixty five points
more IQ than anybody else on the planet. This is a common characteristic of
stupid people. Smart ones know they aren't all THAT smart and listen to
others, especially others with experience.
He improved on my designs. I got a black walled darkroom with about a third
of the lights I had asked for. This was to protect me from my own
ignorance, you see ... he explained that to my boss ... because everybody
knows that a darkroom has to be D*A*R*K*. You couldn't see your damned hand
in front of your face in there.
Then he gave me stainless steel sinks. Not only did it sound like you had
just dropped the Anchor Chain of the Titanic into the sink every time a
pair of tongs hit the steel, the temperature would not hold within five
degrees for more than ten minutes. Since the building temperature was set
at 75 degrees, and we were trying to maintain the chemistry at 68, we ended
up cooling down to about 62 and working until it got up to about 72 before
stopping everything and cooling again. Higher than that and you got
chemical "fog" ... like the material had been exposed to a bit of light ...
the tonal quality deteriorated, and the incidence of stains increased
The pipes were all out in the open on the walls so they could be gotten to
for service. It didn't matter that they would probably never have to be
serviced and that this way they would have lots of crud stuck into all the
nooks and crannies about them all the time, and be impossible to keep
clean, and thus a source of stains and spots on the photo materials.
The shelf was BEHIND the sink. I got my 42 inch sink alright ...it was
forty-two inches from the front edge of the sink to the back of it ... and
then it was another 12 inches to the wall where the faucet handles were ...
approximately 54 inches. I am 6 feet three and I had to crawl into the sink
to turn the handles, because the faucets he got us had the handles on the
wall and the spout stuck out over the sink with a large crook on it
pointing straight down, with a high pressure chemistry lab type nozzle on
the end that blew high velocity water out so hard it splashed all over the
room. My assistant, who wasd 5' 10" had to use a stepladder to turn the
faucets. Also there was not enough space between the nozzle and the bottom
of the sink to get a typical gallon chemical jug under it. You were
supposed to stick a piece of surgical tubing on the nozzle for that, but
the water pressure always blew that off, because it could not be screwed
onto the tapered nozzle.
Oh ... and I wanted the bottoms of the sinks 40 inches bove the floor. That
is a good workbench height when you are standing ... which you always are
in a darkroom. If you want to sit, you use a high stool. Standard. Well, he
made them 28 1/2 inches high because that way they matched the sit-down
desks and tables in the administrative offices in other areas of the
building. I had to get the Department carpenter to come in after the
construction was all over and this fellow was completely gone, to raise the
sinks so we could use them without kneeling on a little footstool, or
getting a sore back from constantly bending over. (Eventually, over the
next two years, I got the entire lab re-built, at a cost of thousands of
dollars, just so we could do the same work we had been able to do in our
old primitive lab.)
I didn't get my wood and fiberglass developing tanks with floating lids out
of the same material. I got stainless steel that wouldn't hold the
temperature, with floating lids of stainless steel made like little boats
that sank to the bottom of the tank if you bumped it too hard.
For temperature control, he hooked up to the office water cooler, and in
TEXAS combined it with a hot water line running at 180 degreees Farenheit.
When I tried to insist on the dedicated chiller, he quoted enough figures
at my boss that my request was turned down. The hot water line hookup was
invisible, so I didn't find out about it until the first time I developed
color film. It ran out of chilled water in the dark and melted the emulsion
off a hundred sheets of 4 x 5 film I had taken a week to shoot out in the
Big Bend area. I mean, the emulsion turned into black goo that dripped off
the sheets of film.
We had bad problems with color film chemicals. They went bad in a few
hours, after which any film developed in them would turn out mostly green.
It took several weeks to discover that the trouble was the type of
stainless steel he had used. It contained cadmium, which reacted with some
of the chemicals ... but it took sending samples to the manufacturer of
the developer (Ansco, if any of you old timers remember when Kodak wasn't
the only American photo manufacturere) to find it out. They ran an analysis
on the developer and asked us how the cadmium might have gotten into the
Lastly, I didn't get my switch to turn off the light in the outer room and
the solenoid bolt ... instead, he put a light switch out in the hall so
that anyone passing down the corridor could turn the lights ON in the
All of the above is really true. I didn't make it up and I didn't