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Brilliant Mistakes, Part 2
Here's the epic tale of what happened when someone who thought he could easily build a pro darkroom actually did it

Darron Spohn

Ready for the Toys

Now that I had eliminated dust and light leaks, and scrubbed my footprints out of the studio carpet (I still can't believe I did that), it was time to get some toys.

OK. Back up. I already had a few toys. I wish I could claim I am so organized that I prepped the space, made a list, bought the equipment and had everything up to full speed in two weeks. Those of you who are like that are probably wondering why I even mention this, but not all of us have that high a degree of organizational acumen. What really happened is the lab owner asked me in November if I would be willing to buy the equipment and convert some unused space in the back of the store.

We had been talking about a similar project for a couple of months, but with the lab buying the equipment, not me. However, a large account went bankrupt and blew that budget. I had been looking for a darkroom close to home anyway (Ansel forgot to stipulate in his will that I have free run of his darkroom), so I jumped at the chance to build a professional darkroom two blocks from home. I made a list, going through B&H and Calumet catalogs and comparing prices in a spreadsheet. One glance at the total field sent me looking for used equipment..

While researching darkroom equipment for the lab I spent a lot of time at Keeble & Schuchat in Palo Alto, CA. Now that I was serious about writing checks I decided to check out their used gear. They had a near mint Beseler 45 MCRX, with all negative carriers from 35 mm to 4x5 glass for a mere $600. Although this was a great deal, it was getting near Christmas, and I really wanted to put off any purchases until after Jan. 1. I decided to think on it and look at a couple of other stores. I drive to Seawood Photo in San Rafeal, but didn't find an enlarger that matched the Beseler at Keeble and Schuchat.

I thought about that enlarger all week, and returned early Saturday to purchase it. Keeble & Schuchat also had a near mint EL Nikkor 80/5.6 enlarging lens mounted on a Beseler board, so I picked that up for $120.

That Murphy guy has a bad habit of striking at random. We found a dolly, and I agreed to meet the salesman at the back door. It was clear outside when I arrived at the store, but El Nino struck quickly this past winter and a light rain was falling. Well, it's what passes for rain in the Bay Area. In Texas we called the stuff mist. However you define it, that enlarger wasn't riding 10 miles in the back of my truck with water coming out of the sky, and it wouldn't fit into the cab. I left the equipment there and drove home to get my wife's car. You guessed it, the sky cleared before I got back to Palo Alto. We dismantled the enlarger and squeezed it in the trunk anyway.

So far, so good. I stored the enlarger in my planned space, and combed the internet ads for used darkroom equipment.


Before leaving for Christmas vacation, I made another trip to Keeble & Schuchat and bought a Jobo CPE2 Plus starter kit. If my budget had allowed, I would have purchased the CPA2 instead, because I anticipate processing 100 rolls per month.

But after pricing stainless steel tanks and reels, I decided to spend $700 on the CPE2 Plus and some extra tanks and reels. Buying stainless steel to process the same amount of film (four 120 and eight 35mm) would have cost about $400 even with used tanks. I figured I would at least have the benefits of rotary processing and temperature control, and could convert to stainless steel later. The CPE2 is a bit small for commercial work, but still much easier and more consistent than hand processing. However, those plastic reels Jobo sells for the 1500 series tanks are worse than worthless.

Maybe you can use those reels. Some people love plastic reels and some people hate 'em. I'm from the old school. I hate plastic reels. Always have and probably always will. I have had few problems loading 35 mm film onto the plastic reels, but 120 film has been disastrous. After ruining some negatives of Halfdome covered in snow, I decided to invest in the stainless steel.

I looked on Jobo's web site, found the part numbers, and began emailing resellers. The first place that had them in stock was Glazer's Camera Supply in Seattle. I called and spoke with their darkroom specialist, and also found that Glazer's has very good prices. Keeble & Schuchat wanted $28.50 for the Hewes SS reels, which is one reason I bought the CPE2 Plus. Glazer's sells them for $18.95. If you decide to try the SS reels for your Jobo, make sure you get the ones made for Jobo processors. They have different centers to fit the center cores you'll also need.

After the reels arrived I unpacked them, read the directions and went ballistic. According to Jobo's literature these reels and center cores only work in the CPA2 and CPP2 processors, and the larger Autolabs. Nothing on their web site mentioned this. I had told Michael at Glazer's I was using these in a CPE2 Plus, and he hadn't mentioned anything. The people at Keeble & Schuchat told me these would work. Apparently Jobo wasn't giving their resellers vital information. I was not happy.

I fired off an email to Jobo, explaining why I was upset, and asking them to help me out of this mess. I tried to remain polite, but was very firm in telling them they should take some unusual steps to remedy this. The next day I received a very polite reply apologizing for the confusion. Jobo revved the motor in the CPE2 Plus so it is strong enough to turn the extra mass of the metal reels and center cores, but forgot to revise their instructions and their web site. The CPE2 Plus will work with the stainless steel reels and center cores if I buy the Jobo Lift. That was good enough for me, and I'm a happy customer again.

If I had to do it over, I would purchase a Jobo tempering box instead of the CPE2 Plus. Had I found Glazer's sooner I may have done it that way, as $10 per reel adds up quickly when you're looking at nine reels (five 35mm and four 120mm). I'll probably upgrade my CPE2 with the Jobo Lift so I can use the stainless steel, but I will probably quickly outgrow that model and move on to the CPA2 in about one year. At that time I'll either sell the smaller processor or keep it as a backup.

While I was getting that mess sorted, I also needed to replace the condenser with a cold light. I have a friend who lives and works in Yosemite Valley, and he just happened to have a Zone VI cold light and compensating Tik Tok timer for sale. Always looking for an excuse to go to Yosemite I packed my son in the truck and headed out. One hundred dollars and bottle of Scotch later I had my cold light head.

So now I was ready to print. Oops. Need some trays. Back to Keeble & Schuchat. I walked into the darkroom department at opening time again on a Saturday, and found them unpacking some darkroom supplies from an estate sale. What do we have here? Processing trays. Two 25-sheet packs of Oriental Seagull 8x10 grade 2 8x10 paper. I bought the trays and volunteered to test a box of the Seagull. They had no idea if the Seagull was good or not, so let me have it for free. While there, I picked up a paper safe, some chemistry and a used darkroom timer.

I also bought a six-foot sink and stand. This time the rain held off and I was able to transport my new equipment in the truck.

I got back to the lab about 11 a.m. and set everything up A customer walked in at 1:30 p.m. wanting to know if we develop black-and-white film, and how long it will take. I asked him how soon he needed it, and he said he would like to see proof prints by the end of the day, but we could mail them to him in New York as he was leaving the next day. I just happened to be warming some chemistry for a T-Max 100 run, and the customer had T-Max 100, so he had his film and his proof prints by 5 p.m.

That felt good.

Those pesky customers

The largest difference between setting up a commercial darkroom in an existing lab and the home darkroom I had before is the customers. In Texas, I worked with professional photographers and my own film. My largest account was a jewelry manufacturer with an excellent studio. They were making a new dealer catalog, and shot each piece of jewelry with a Nikon F3 and 105 macro lens. I had to print each at actual size and make sure the gray background matched. This job taught me the value of Beseler's Negatrans. I could insert a negative in the right side, spin a knob and slide the negative into place. No refocusing necessary, and no futzing with aligning the negative in a sandwich carrier.

In California I rely on walk-in traffic, and have to be prepared for a wider variety of films and printing options. My Texas customers shot either T-Max 100 or Ilford Hp5 Plus. So far I've processed T-Max 100, 400, 3200, Tri-X, Ilford Delta 100 and Fomapan 100 for customers in California. Some customers bring old 4x5 negatives to reprint, some bring 6x8 negatives shot in the early 1950s. In Texas, all my customers were happy with Ilfospeed #2 or #3 matte paper. My California customers ask for glossy most of the time, and sometimes want sepia toning. A few of them ask for fiber paper.

Many of them ask for things they don't understand. I spent five minutes one evening explaining to a customer why I charge extra for toning prints. She agreed $5 was reasonable for toning. When she picked up the prints a few days later, she could not remember the conversation, told the lab owner I never informed her we would charge extra for toning, and said she would never set foot in our store again. I only hope she asks some of our competitors how much they charge for toning.

Most customers are far more agreeable. One brought some negatives she shot at a rock concert. The band shall remain nameless because they don't allow people to take photos at their shows. The customer used a borrowed point-and-shoot with a zoom lens, shooting 10 rolls of T-Max 3200. She had one unprocessed roll and wanted t know if I could bring out more detail than the thin negatives she showed me. I said I would try.

When I took her negatives out of the wash they looked great. The only thing I can figure is she and the other labs processed the film about 90 seconds less than they should have. Of course, the best shot was on one of the nine underprocessed rolls, and the customer wanted two 8x10s of Mick and Keith. I printed them on RC paper, and managed to print a deep black without losing the highlights. Under the circumstances the customer and I were both pleased.

Know Your Customers

When planning a commercial darkroom you need to plan for your audience. Identify your customers and buy the equipment you will need for their negatives. If you will work with a few companies shooting 35mm film and a few professionals shooting 120 film, you can get by with a smaller, less expensive enlarger. If you rely on walk-in traffic, you have to be more versatile. Remember the Fomapan mentioned above. Who's heard of the stuff? Well, the people who contribute to PhotoSource web site have, and Fomapan is in their development chart.

If you decide to buy a medium format enlarger and someone brings you a 4x5 negative, you will either have to turn away the business or subcontract the work. Where's the fun in that? Get yourself a good used 4x5 enlarger instead. Although expensive new, 4x5 enlargers have poor resale value and you can find some excellent enlargers for under $1,000 if you are patient and open-minded.

You will need to stock a wide variety of paper and chemistry for walk-in traffic. Try to anticipate anything your customers will want, and stock supplies for the most common requests. Talk to a photo lab owner, and unless it is a specialty lab, you'll find than 90 percent of the work is 8x10 or smaller. Stock accordingly.

To be continued...

Darron Spohn can be reached at

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