I recently processed 4×5 sheet film in the closet under the basement stairs. This is a task that I have not done in 24 years. It is a skill I learned when I was going to college to be a photographer. I remembered back to my school days and the uneasy feeling the first time that I had to do this. Every time there was almost a fear of getting it wrong. Now those same feelings were holding me back from accomplishing this task. In fact it took me over a year and a half after shooting the film to tackle it. I could have taken the film to a lab and had them deal with it for me but what would I learn from such an experience.
My time working in photo stores and labs gave me many opportunities to buy odd bits of gear. So I had the fortunate foresight when I was younger to amass a small amount of 4×5 film processing equipment because I always felt that I would work with this format again at some point in my life. I gathered all of the tanks and the sheet film hangers etc and pondered the task at hand for weeks. This slow build up to somehow made the task a bit less daunting.
This is a task that has to be done in complete darkness from the beginning to end of the process which is why i choose the closet under the stairs, it is the only place in my house that I can make almost completely dark. Before starting I wanted to make sure that I had everything in place when it was needed. There would be no running out of the darkroom when the film was in process not at least until the film was well in to the fix.
So I prepared the Developer having to figure out a ratio of water to liquid developer and got it to 20 Celsius. then warm the stop and fix. Then put 2 litres of developer, stop and fixer into their respective open processing tanks. Filled up another tank with water to put the film in when fix was complete. My closet has no water or electricity to speak of so I prepared the bathroom sink for washing the film and ran an electrical cord under the door for my old GraLab timer.
The next step involved getting the film from the film holder in to the processing hangers. Of course this has to happen in complete darkness, at this point there can be no light in the room so before I did that I turned off the light and stood in the closet and waited for about 2 minutes so my eyes could acclimate to the dark. There was a tiny bit of light coming from the door behind me but not enough to affect the film. Next time I do this I will grab some weather striping from the hardware store and seal around the door. So with the first sheet of film I sort of fumble around for a couple of seconds then muscle memory kicked in and before I knew it all six sheets where loaded into their hangers on the dry side of the darkroom. Now came the nerve racking part immersing the film in to the developer. I set the timer, turned it on and into the developer we go. Before I knew it I was in the fix and then the lights were back on. Magic. Six sheets of film all exposed and processed well. Then I did it all over again on six more.
Will I shoot more 4×5? Yes and no. 4×5 involves a great deal of time and concentration when shooting and the same when processing. It requires a sturdy tripod and light meter. When you view the image on the ground glass the images is upside down and backwards so you have to rewire your brain for that. In the time that I take to set up one photo my counterpart will have shot 60 with their digital or 35mm film camera. I like to be free to play with angle and perspective so for me a hand held camera is a better fit. However there is no better feeling then holding a 4×5 negative up to the light after processing and realizing that I have done something tangible.