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Brilliant Mistakes, Part 3
Here's the epic tale of what happened when someone who thought he could easily build a pro darkroom actually did it
(Read to the end--there are plenty of resources here!)

Darron Spohn

Hold The Dektol, Pass The Ketchup

Well, things have gotten a bit crazy since my last installment. I know this one is late, but I got a promotion at my day job and the black-and-white lab work has been keeping me busy in the evenings. Not busy enough to make a living, but busy enough to pay for the equipment I've purchased so far. That was the original plan anyway, so things are working well so far.

Word started spreading that a local lab actually did black-and-white well. New customers appeared weekly, and became repeat customers. Copy work flowed in. Restoration work trickled in. People brought their negatives for processing. I even convinced a few that properly toned fiber prints are worth the extra money, and none argued after seeing the prints. Some people just came in to chat. Then two bombshells hit.

About mid June, a drugstore within site of the lab installed a one-hour lab. The second came in early July. My wife and I went hiking in the Redwood National Forest in late June, spending one week tromping around all the spots Steven Spielberg used in his sequel to that dinosaur movie. When we returned I found out that a California sandwich shop chain approached the lab owner and said they wanted his space. We knew about the drugstore's plans, and expected it to hurt the color business, but the sandwich shop was a surprise. The owner has a 15-year lease, and there are one-hour labs springing up at every intersection in this area, so he's been negotiating ever since to buy the sandwich franchise.

By the time you read this I'll have lost my darkroom space as construction begins for turning the one-hour lab into a restaurant. This just goes to show you the hazards of depending upon someone else's lease. There will be to be a happy ending to this, though, so hang on while I give you an update to my portion of the business. I'll get around to my plans at the end of this article.

(Almost) New Lenses

Part three described the equipment I had purchased. I left off with a discussion of my lenses, which I have since upgraded. I walked into Keeble & Schuchat in Palo Alto, CA on Saturday last June and spied three EL Nikkor lenses in excellent condition: a 50/2.8, a 105/5.6 and a 150/5.6. These were the three I had been waiting for, so I immediately charged them on one of my pieces of plastic money, then auctioned my Mamiya C330 system on eBay to pay off the credit card. I miss the Mamiya system, but not as much as I had thought I would, and those Nikkor lenses will serve me well for many years.

I'm still using the other equipment I listed in part three, including the old Zone VI cold light head. Graded papers and the kind of production work I'm doing aren't a good mix, though, so I'm still planning to get a variable contrast head. Maybe Calumet will have a sale soon so I can save a few dollars, but nevertheless I'm eyeing the Zone VI variable contrast head for my Beseler 4x5, and maybe the RH Designs ZoneMeter.

I also added a 35mm Beseler Negatrans I found used on the classified ads. It isn't as pretty as a new one, but was $85 cheaper than new and looks really don't matter much under the safelight. Other additions were limited to a couple of Speed Easels, which make working with fiber papers much more pleasant than trying to keep them straight under the multi-format easel I use with RC papers.

In part three I also mentioned that I'd had some problems getting my Cachet Ecowash 4x5 film washer to automatically drain and refill. One of my friends solved that problem by turning the washer 90 degree in the sink. My original suspicion was right; you need to make sure the Ecowash is level for it to work properly, which is now does. I plan to keep that piece until it wears out or I retire, whichever comes first.

In Search Of...Space

As mentioned above, I'm looking for new space for my darkroom. When the lab owner decided to close his store and reopen as a sandwich shop (this would make more sense if you knew the guy), my wife and I started researching places for my darkroom. My choices were limited. I could quit my day job and open my own lab in leased space, or we could buy a house and build a darkroom. Quitting the job to open a lab is not feasible with retail space going around $3 per square foot in Silicon Valley, so we started looking for a house to buy.

Culture shock. Housing prices in this part of the country are outrageous. Anything large enough for a home business and in a good neighborhood costs at least $500,000. That's right. Half a million bucks for a 2,000 square foot house. So we needed a third plan. In October I took my son to Yosemite National Park for a weekend, and picked up a real estate guide in Oakhurst, CA, one morning while eating breakfast in a local restaurant. Hmm... one acre lot, 2,200 square foot house, $140,000. Now we're getting somewhere.

Problem is, we'd have to live on my wife's income, and she would have to stay in Silicon Valley to work. My son and I would see her only on weekends, and we'd still have to pay rent on an apartment. In addition to the logistical problems, the numbers just didn't work without my income. Back to Plan B. (Plan A was the lab space I lost.)

My wife and son and I started looking around Silicon Valley again. Housing is relatively affordable around here if you're willing to drive a little or take public transportation to work. I've spoken with a few local labs, and at least one is anxious to send black-and-white work my way. I'll have to keep the day job for a year or two, working at home in the evenings to build the business. My 13 year old son, an avid photographer, is itching to learn darkroom work too, so maybe he can help out during the summers when he doesn't have homework.

Next Step

We still have a lot of details to work out. Buying a house is only the first. Then we'll need a business name, a URL for the web site, a tax ID, insurance, more equipment, advertising, negotiating with the local labs for their business, and a thousand other things. Looks like part five of this series could be interesting. Stay tuned.

Darron Spohn can be reached at

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