Working as a professional photographer for about seven years now, I think it’s quite normal that there came a time when I got sick of taking photos. I felt like I am in autopilot mode, day after day for each of my shoots.
And then pandemic hit and I found a way to rekindle my love for photography. I bought my first ever film cameras, a Hasselblad 503cxi with Zeiss Planar 80mm f2.8 lens and a Rolleiflex MX EVS. I know, I dove straight to medium format cameras without trying first the 35mm. And on top of that, I wanted to develop my films by myself. I thought I might as well figure out the whole shebang.
One of the things I’ve learned is that choosing the right film reflects which developing chemicals to use. And also, what developing tools you’d need. As for me, I knew I wanted to shoot black and white. There is just a timeless look to it. Also, let’s face it, all those formulas and chemicals in developing colored films are way too intimidating for a newbie. So I rummaged a lot of forums and groups online for film enthusiasts and quickly found out about Ars Imago’s Lab Box. It’s a darkroom in itself; supposedly very easy to use anytime, anywhere. And since it also bypasses the need to load the film manually, I was immediately sold.
But then one comment mentioned something about the supposed inspiration behind the Lab Box– the Agfa Rondinax 60. Off I went to research about this daylight-loading developing tank. I found out that they were indeed very similar to Lab Box, except that the latter is modular; you can use it for 120 and 35mm via interchangeable reels and modules. In the end, I quickly decided to get the Rondinax 60 instead of the multi-format Lab Box since I have always valued time-tested devices. That, and I am also guilty of being in favor of vintage items.
The Agfa Rodinax 60 is all that a newbie could ever dream of– relatively easy to load the film without needing to touch the negatives, and it needs lesser chemicals to use (150ml is enough). All this, I can do even in daytime without having to resort to making a DIY darkroom out of my kitchen sink! One just needs to open the top part, insert the film (of course the adhesive should already be removed before loading), and let out a few inches of the backing paper to draw it out in the rear. Then from there, you can close the lid and start gently pulling all the backing paper out.
Once you reach the end, open the lid and cut off the backing paper, and remove the empty spool. I usually just fold the sticky end of the tape and clip the leader strap on the small visible part of the film that is exposed; the rest of the film should be rolled up snug and tight in the “cassette”. Then close back the lid, lock it well and start pouring the chemicals slowly on the right side part that looks like drainage, while you turn the side handle continuously for a few minutes depending on your film and developing chemicals. For every chemical change, you just need to pour the liquid out from the spout and gently pour the next one in. Once all is done, you can now open the lid and slowly unroll the film to let it dry. Sounds simple, right? Here’s a manual I found online on how to use it.
There is also a 35mm version called Rondinax 135, which I also hunted down and bought, though haven’t tried to use it yet as I am still in my honeymoon stage with medium formats.
In truth, I am forever grateful for my Rondinax 60. It has helped me take a step forward and learn the basics of film photography, in a sense that it gave me completion in my work, as I am able to develop and see my photos, albeit digitally scanned. I am not ready to self-print my negatives just yet. The low learning curve also gave me some confidence, compared to those tanks with spiral loaders, which were notoriously difficult to manipulate in the dark. I then decided to keep a journal about my film photography journey on my Instagram account, and that comprises my digitally scanned photos including my first few rolls (badly measured settings and all). I know that one day I would want to look back and hopefully from where I would be standing in the future, I am way better than when I first held my film camera.
The first few rolls were perfect and made me look forward to shooting more. Then I started to have loading issues – and that’s where the honeymoon ended. Since the whole process happens inside the tank, I wasn’t able to know if my film actually loaded well. A lot of times I had one that was not even loaded at all. I did found a few band-aid solutions to those nuisances but ultimately, it killed the momentum as you watch a number of your negatives get destroyed. And film is not cheap for me.
One day, I just totally gave up on it and I bought myself a Nikor stainless steel tank with a Hewes spiral reel. Why these brands? I just happen to read a LOT of forums on which tanks are foolproof and these names keep on coming up and so I gave in. Also, I opted for the stainless steel ones because I don’t like plastic and I think it’s easier to clean and dry.
And I have to say, the first time I developed with these tanks, I was extremely nervous. But turns out, I loaded the film perfectly on my first try! Life could have been easier earlier, who would have thought. I followed the instructions on the agitation and didn’t have any issues about air bubbles on my film or anything like that. My negatives came out clean and clear. I even tried to develop two films at the same time, since I also got a second bigger tank. Once, I had a bit of difficulty loading the film as it got really hot that day and I have very sweaty hands. Fumbling in the dark doesn’t help too. Other than that, I haven’t looked back.
But, I don’t regret starting with the Rondinax 60. I think the (false) sense of ease of use helped me a lot in terms of confidence to keep shooting and developing. The thrill of what would it look like, once my photos get developed. Did I get a good combination of ISO and shutter speed? Did I get the framing right? I wonder if I executed well my ideas. These are the things that should matter most to you, as a film newbie, right? And not the “did-my-film-loaded-well-inside-my-tank?”
Your turn. Which tanks did you use during your first stages as a film newbie? Did you change it ever since?