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Darkroom economy: printing (cost) effectively?

Those that start working in the dark room to develop their own films and make their own prints soon find out that this is not a cheap hobby to pursue, especially compared to shooting fully digital. Now, some argue that because of the added expense of shooting film they shoot more deliberate, their pictures are better and their keep rate goes up. Although this is probably true to some extent, it does not outweigh the added cost of developing every photo to print. So, how to keep cost down if you prefer shooting film over digital? Here are three ideas I picked up.

Cost breakdown

Before discussing how to save money, let’s first figure out where the expenses really are. For this I made a spreadsheet to calculate the average cost per roll of film and per sheet, depending on some parameters such as volume, film type and reuse strategy, among others. I recommend that you play around with this sheet to get some insight on your own developing and printing cost per roll, per sheet and per session. Playing around with the numbers myself tells me that the biggest chunk of the cost is actually in the photosensitive material: the paper and the film. Saving on chemistry is not of genuine use when it only makes up for a small fraction of the total cost. Let’s look at an example.

I mainly shoot 120 Kodak Tri-x roll film with 15 frames per roll. Every roll is passed through the chemicals which are mixed according to manufacturer recommended dilutions. For developer I use Kodak D-76 at 1:1, for stop bath I use Ilford Ilfostop at 1:19, for fixer I chose Ilford Rapid Fixer at 1:4, and I use Kodak Photoflo 200 at 1:200 as a wetting agent. These go in a single 120 reel Patterson tank filled with 500 ml of working chemistry at every stage. The cost breakdown can be found in Table 1.

Table 1: Cost breakdown for developing one single roll of film.
Single shot Full reuse
Item Absolute cost Relative cost Absolute cost Relative cost
Film € 5,57 64 % € 5,57 78 %
Developer € 1,34 15 % € 1,34 19 %
Stop € 0,32 4 % € 0,05 4 %
Fixer € 1,47 17 % € 0,12 2 %
Wetting agent € 0,06 1 % € 0,06 1 %
Total per film € 8,76 € 7,13
Total per exposure € 0,58 € 0,48

Looking at the numbers, film is followed at a distance by developer and fixer. If you are going to save cost these are your two options. Reusing fixer and stop bath for multiple rolls until they are depleted lowers the cost by € 1,63/roll. For printing a very similar situation can be presented, as can also be seen in the spreadsheet. Because a tray of chemistry will last you quite some prints per session, the bulk of the cost is in the paper at € 0,60/sheet. Some money can be saved by using print chemistry until depletion, but the savings are small.

Save me some money!

Now we know where the costs are, here are some tips on how to save money.

1. Whatever you do, do not save on film developer!

I picked up this tip from Steve Anchell’s book “The Darkroom Cookbook” (ISBN 978-0-240-81055-3, 2008) where he discusses the required volume of developer for full development (p. 40-1). A single roll of 35 mm 36-exposure film and a roll of 120 film both have an approximate area of 802 inches of film. Research by Kodak has shown that it takes 250,0 ml of undiluted D-76 developer to cover and fully develop those 802 inches, although 150,0 ml was found to be sufficient for minimal development using a specific processor model. This is also what Kodak recommends on page 2 of their technical note J-78 [1]. For example, say, you are using a 500 ml, two 135 reel tank system like the common Patterson development tanks. With Kodak D-76 developed at 1:1 dilution you are good to go for a single 120 film. If you want to develop 2 rolls of 35 mm film in the same tank simultaneously, however, you are at only 125,0 ml of undiluted developer/802 inches of film. Far better results in terms of accutance (sharpness) and contrast are achieved when mixing 1000 ml of developer and developing those rolls in two runs. For those that are interested in more details on this topic, I’d like to refer you to a discussion on this topic on APUG. In Table 2, I have listed the minimal amounts of concentrate you need per 802 inches for several popular black-and-white developers. I took the numbers directly from manufacturer specifications or calculated them on the basis of recommended number of rolls per bottle of concentrate.

Table 2: Minimum developer volume recommended by the manufacturer for some popular developers. Spot any mistakes? Let me know!
Developer Minimum volume/802 inches of film Reference
Kodak D-76 236,5 ml Technical Publication J-78, p. 2 [1]
Kodak T-MAX 79 ml Technical Publication J-86, p. 9 [2]
Kodak HC-110 125 ml stock or 31 ml of concentrate Technical Publication J-24, p. 2. Solution A. [3]
Kodak XTOL 100 ml Technical Publication J-109, p. 2. [4]
AgfaPhoto Rodinal / Adox Adonal 5 ml ADONAL product page
Ilford ID-11 100 ml ID-11 Technical Information, p. 11 [5]
Ilford Ilfosol 3 32 ml Ilfosol Technical Information, p. 8 [6]
Ilford Ilfotec HC 21 ml Ilfotec HC Technical Information, p. 13 (use and dilution dependent) [7]
Ilford Ilfotec DD-X 63 ml Ilfotec DD-X Technical Information, p. 10 [8]

2. Reuse fixer and stop bath

Although the bulk of the cost is in the film and the paper, reusing chemistry can save you some money. Both fixer and stop bath can be reused until they are exhausted. The fixer I currently use, Ilford Rapid Fixer, can be used at film strength (1:4 dilution) or at paper strength (1:9 dilution) and will last for a long time. Even at working strength Ilford recommends 80 sheets of 20,3 cm x 25,4 cm (roughly 4 m2) can be processed per liter of working solution which can be kept for up to a month. This can even be stretched further by regular replenishment by adding fresh working solution. In a tightly capped bottle, unreplenished fixer can be kept for two months, which should be sufficient to bring you from printing session to printing session, while an opened bottle of concentrate will last you up to six months, although I have read accounts of people having an opened bottle of concentrate sitting on a shelf for years which was still fine for use. As you are using up the active elements in the fixer, the fixing time will increase, so it is advised to test the fixer before use. In addition to keeping fixer you can also reuse your stop bath. I use an indicator stop bath, Ilford Ilfostop, which according to the manual, will keep for 7 days unreplenished and of which a liter of working solution (dilution 1:19) will last for 60 RC prints of 20.3 cm x 25,4 cm. As soon as it is exhausted it changes color from yellow to purple.

3. Print small(er)

At the moment I only own paper stock in two sizes, being 17,8 x 24 cm (7 x 9,5″) and 20,3 x 25,4 cm (8 x 10″). Based on the price comparison I did for another article we know that a single box of 100 sheets of Ilford Multigrade De Luxe Pearl goes for anywhere between € 50,- and € 65,-. Although I personally like the sizes I have now, the price per sheet is evidently better for the smaller formats such at € 0,37/sheet for 12,7 x 17,8 cm versus € 0,60/sheet for 17,8 x 24 cm sheets. Especially when you are still learning or making proofs this is an easy way of keeping the cost down.

Do you have any other tips? Please let me know by dropping me a line on social media or via e-mail. I’d be happy to hear!

References

[1] Kodak Technical Note J-78, Retrieved on 22 December 2015 from http://www.kodak.com/global/en/professional/support/techPubs/j78/j78.pdf

[2] Kodak Technical Note J-86, Retrieved on 22 December 2015 from http://www.kodak.com/global/en/professional/support/techPubs/j86/j86.pdf

[3] Kodak Technical Note J-24, Retrieved on 22 December 2015 from http://www.kodak.com/global/en/professional/support/techPubs/j24/j24.pdf

[4] Kodak Technical Note J-109, Retrieved on 22 December 2015 from http://www.kodak.com/global/en/professional/support/techPubs/j109/j109.pdf

[5] Ilford ID-11 Technical Information, Retrieved on 22 December 2015 from http://www.ilfordphoto.com/Webfiles/2011427133131459.pdf

[6] Ilford Ilfosol Technical Information, Retrieved on 22 December 2015 from http://www.ilfordphoto.com/Webfiles/201142795941192.pdf

[7] Ilford Ilfotec HC Technical Information, Retrieved on 22 December 2015 from http://www.ilfordphoto.com/Webfiles/2011427105392231.pdf

[8] Ilford Ilfotec DD-X Technical Information, Retrieved on 22 December 2015 from http://www.ilfordphoto.com/Webfiles/2011427124733149.pdf

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