How-To: Developing Paper Negatives “Outside” with an On-Site Developer Kit – by Jim Skelton

After learning a bit about how to use my Polaroid camera to take pictures on paper negatives, I made a little kit that included a Polaroid camera, tripod, black box with paper negatives loaded in film cartridges empty and a changing box in which I could exchange the cartridges while I took pictures. I then had to wait until I got home to develop the negatives to see how they worked.

But, the Polaroid camera was originally developed in response to a simple question: “Why can’t I see it (the photo that was just taken) now?” Well, I wasn’t about to reinvent Polaroid film with “under a minute” images, but maybe I could find something that could produce results soon after I took the picture .

The result? A mobile development kit that allows you to develop paper negatives in the field!

I happened to have a key component to make it work: a development drum. This version is quite small, only a few inches long and maybe 2 inches in diameter, but Polaroid size paper negatives are fine. Perfectly, and it allows me to develop negatives in daylight. The idea would be to load the exposed negative into the drum, then pour the developer in, stop the bath, then fix the negative which produces the negative. If a developer drum is not available, a daylight developer tray can be used, or even a tank, although this would require more developer.

3 pots with the chemicals and some water would also be needed, as well as a bucket for the water. Because I only had a homemade black box to use as a diaper bag, this kit was quite bulky, which meant I had to develop negatives in my van.

My first expedition…

…was exciting – I took a picture and loaded the paper negative into the drum and poured 30ml of Kodak Dektol and started rolling it back and forth. The first issue I found was that the chemicals weren’t flowing through the drum very well. Pouring too quickly would clog the intake hole and prevent air from entering causing a small spill. Then drops of developer made my fingers slippery and things got generally messy.

But, I continued, pouring the stop bath then the fixer into the tank and when it was done: the magic of the Polaroid returned. It was so exciting to see the negative right away! I took 2 more photos, pleased to see the results when the stop bath turned purple, indicating it had run out. I was wondering how the developer was doing as it was a bit dark. I had only brought about 100ml of each chemical, which I realized was too little. Then I didn’t really have a good way to store the drying negatives and ended up having to shake off the excess water. But my experience was quite successful – the negatives could be developed in the field!

I was better prepared for my next expedition. I had 3 large syringes to measure and administer the chemicals into the drum, rubber gloves so I didn’t have to worry about contaminating my hands, and I found 1/2 pint jars for the chemicals to chemicals don’t run out so quickly.

The second expedition…

…it went much better. The syringes worked very well in injecting the chemicals into the drum, and the rubber gloves reduced concerns about contaminated hands. But one of the negatives seemed to be slightly hit. The pattern seemed to come from the end of the development drum, and sure enough, it did. I found that I either had to develop the negative completely in the shade or cover the ends with my fingers as I rotated it. This is fairly lightproof, but not under direct sunlight.

On my third expedition…

…I parked my car in a parking lot and was going to take pictures around the Banff Center. I walked out and was surrounded by concrete. I never left the parking lot, taking and developing photos, struck by my surroundings – that I could be in such a beautiful place but confined inside a huge concrete structure.

The field development here helped me understand how paper negatives worked in a dark environment, so seeing the negatives right away was invaluable. It was also a bit misleading. My first photo looked like a failure, but when I did the print, I was struck by the theme: being underground in a parking lot looking at the light. Overall, this process helps me understand how to read a negative.

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After a few expeditions, I wondered how it could be done without being attached to my vehicle. I thought it might be fun to be able to carry a terrain dev kit in a backpack and set it up anywhere. The biggest problem is rinsing. It takes a lot of water and water weighs a lot. I also didn’t want to contaminate my surroundings by dripping chemicals on the floor or spilling rinse water, and all of that had to fit in a backpack.

I finally received a camera changing bag, which greatly reduced the size of the kit and offered a flushing pattern:

  • I would take 1 liter of water, an empty 1 liter container and 3 rinse tanks.
  • The trays would each hold approximately 150ml of water and the negatives would be rinsed in each tray for approximately one minute.
  • When a negative completed its rinse sequence, the first tray of water was discarded into the empty waste container and the tray was placed as the final rinse and filled with 150ml of fresh water.

In theory, I would be able to completely rinse about 6 negatives with just 1 liter of water.

Another challenge was to find 3 jars that didn’t leak. It wasn’t as easy as it looks. The canned jars seem to be the best, and they came in a tray that would keep them together in the bottom of the backpack. The drum, trays, squeegee and dryer were placed in a box on top. The tripod and water were rammed into the sides, and some rags, a mat, and the diaper bag were stuffed into the cracks. The negative black box fits on top. It was exciting to see all of this fit in a backpack!

My first truly portable experience developing negatives in the field was a lot of fun. I walked down a path to a bench and sat there. As I took photos and developed them, I noticed that something changed in my way of experiencing photography. Although I found shooting with film using manual exposure slowed down the photography process and made me think more about what I was doing, adding the developing process seemed to add another dimension to my experience.

First of all, seeing the negative right away was not only nice, but it also gave me immediate feedback on the result of the photo and allowed me to reshoot with different settings for different effects. And, the process of developing the negative immediately slowed down the photographic process even more. Time flew by as I immersed myself in photography, and packing up and leaving with developed negatives was satisfying.

Yes, this process only produces negatives. So I thought of a predictable process for producing contact prints in the field using ambient light. I’m not sure it’s worth it, as contact printing in a darkroom is much faster and things like test strips would be quite difficult in the field. Of course, I could try direct positive FB paper, but it would have to be rinsed much more thoroughly than resin coated paper.

But another idea arose: to film and develop paper negative inversions in the field. This would immediately produce a positive impression, mimicking the Polaroid process. So my Polaroid could become a Polaroid again!

There are limits to this process. Temperature is the main thing – it needs to be a nice day so the chemicals don’t get too cold, and it requires a bit of space to settle. And that takes time, of which I have to find more somehow. But, of all my photo expeditions that I remember, the fondest memories so far are when I developed the negatives in the field. I look forward to developing the two 4×5 paper negatives in the field in the future, as well as possibly developing film and lith negatives.

Oh, and you may have a nagging question in the back of your head. How was the 3-tray rinse process with minimal water? Well, my first dev session in the field was over a year ago, and the negatives are still in good shape!

~ Jim

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