How To: Develop Paper Negatives “Away From Home” With A Field Development Kit – by Jim Skelton

After learning a bit about how to use my Polaroid camera to take pictures on paper negatives, I put together a little kit that included a Polaroid camera, a tripod, a dark box of paper negatives loaded into empty film cartridges, and a box to change diapers in which I could change the cartridges while taking photos. Then he would have to wait until he got home to develop the negatives and see how they worked.

But, the Polaroid camera was originally developed in response to a simple question: “Why can’t I see it (the picture I just took) now?” Well, he wasn’t about to reinvent Polaroid film with “less than a minute” photos, but maybe he could think of something that would produce results soon after the photo was taken.

The result? A mobile developing kit that can develop paper negatives in the field!

It so happened that it had a key element to make it work: a developer drum. This version is quite small, only a few inches long and maybe 2 inches in diameter, but Polaroid-sized paper negatives will fit perfectly, and allows me to develop negatives in daylight. The idea would be to load the exposed negative into the drum, then pour in developer, stop bath, and then fixer, which produces the negative. If a developer drum is not available, a daylight developer tray, or even a tank, can be used, although that would require more developer.

3 cans with the chemicals and a little water would also be needed, as well as a bucket for the water. Since I only had a homemade dark box to use as a changing bag, this kit was quite bulky, which meant I was limited to developing negatives in my truck.

My first expedition…

…it was exciting: I took a picture, loaded the paper negative into the drum and poured 30ml of Kodak Dektol on it and started rolling it back and forth. The first problem I encountered is that the chemicals didn’t pour into the drum very well. Pouring too fast clogged the inlet hole and air would prevent it from getting in, causing a small spill. Then the drops of developer made my fingers slippery and things generally got messy.

But, I pushed, poured the stop bath and then the fixer into the tank and when I was done: the Polaroid magic was coming back. It was so exciting to see the negative right away! I took 2 more photos, excited to see the results when the stop bath turned purple, indicating it had run out. I was wondering how the developer was doing as it was getting a bit dark. I had only brought about 100 ml of each chemical, and I realized that it was very little. So I didn’t really have a good way to store the drying negatives, and had to end up shaking off the excess water. But my experiment was quite successful: the negatives could be developed in the field!

I was better prepared for my next expedition. I got 3 large syringes to measure and administer the chemicals in the drum, some rubber gloves so I don’t have to worry about contaminating my hands, and I found 1/2 pint jars so the chemicals wouldn’t run out so fast.

The second expedition…

…it was much better. The syringes did a great job of injecting the chemicals into the drum, and the rubber gloves reduced concerns about contaminated hands. But one of the negatives seemed to have been hit by the light. The pattern appeared to be coming from the end of the developing drum, and indeed it was. I found that I had to develop the negative completely in the shade or had to cover the ends with my fingers while turning it. It is justly light tight, but not in direct sunlight.

On my third expedition…

…I parked my car in a parking lot and was going to take pictures around the Banff Center. I walked out and was surrounded by concrete. I never left the parking lot, taking and developing photographs, impressed by my surroundings, which could be in such a beautiful place but confined within a huge concrete structure.

Developing in the field here helped me understand how paper negatives worked in a dark environment, so seeing the negatives right away was invaluable. It was also a bit misleading. My first image looked like a flop, but when I did the print I was struck by the theme: being underground in a parkade looking at the light. This process in general is helping me understand how to read a negative.

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After a few expeditions I was wondering how this could be done without being tied to my vehicle. I thought it would be fun to be able to carry a field development kit in a backpack and place it anywhere. The biggest problem is the rinse. It takes a lot of water and water weighs much. I also didn’t want to pollute my environment by spilling chemicals on the floor or having to dump rinse water, and all of this had to fit in a backpack.

I finally got hold of a camera changer bag, which reduced the size of the kit considerably and came up with a flush scheme:

  • It would carry 1 liter of water, an empty liter drum and 3 rinsing buckets.
  • Each tray would contain about 150 ml of water and the negatives would be rinsed in each tray for about a minute.
  • When a negative finished its rinse sequence, the first tray of water was thrown into the empty waste container and the tray was placed as the last rinse and filled with 150 mL of fresh water.

In theory you could completely rinse around 6 negatives using just 1 liter of water.

Another challenge was to come up with 3 jars that would not leak. This was not as easy as it seems. Mason jars seem to be the best, and they came in a tray that would keep them together in the bottom of the backpack. The drum, trays, squeegee and clothesline were placed in a box on top. The tripod and the water ran down the sides, and a couple of rags, a mat, and the changing bag got into the cracks. The negative dark box fits on top. It was exciting to see that everything fit in a backpack!

My first truly portable experience developing negatives in the field was a lot of fun. I walked down a path to a bench and sat there. As I was taking pictures and developing them, I noticed that something changed in the way I experienced photography. Although I found that shooting film using manual exposure had slowed down the photography process and made me think more about what I was doing, adding the developing process seemed to add another dimension to my experience.

First of all, seeing the negative right away was not only nice, but it also gave me immediate feedback on how the photo turned out and allowed me to reshoot the photo with different settings for different effects. And, the process of developing the negative immediately slowed down the photographic process even more. Time flew by as I immersed myself in photography, and packing up and leaving with the developed negatives was satisfying.

Yes, this process only produces negatives. So I was considering a predictable process for producing contact prints in the field using ambient light. I’m not sure it’s worth it, as contact printing in a darkroom is much faster, and things like test strips would be quite difficult in the field. You could of course try direct positive FB paper, but it would have to be rinsed much more thoroughly than resin coated paper.

But another idea arose: to photograph and develop paper negative reversals in the field. This would immediately produce a positive impression, emulating the Polaroid process. So my Polaroid could be a Polaroid again!

There are limitations to this process. Temperature is the main thing – it has to be a good day so the chemicals don’t get too cold and it does require some space to set up. And it takes time, that I have to find more somehow. But, of all my photographic expeditions that I remember, the best memories so far are the ones where I developed the negatives in the field. I look forward to developing 4×5 paper negatives in the field in the future, as well as possibly developing film and lithographic negatives.

Oh, and you may have a nagging question in the back of your head. How did the 3 tray rinse process with minimal water work? Well, my first field developing session was over a year ago, and the negatives are still in great shape!

~ Jaime

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About the Author

Avatar Jim Skelton

I stumbled across my first Polaroid pack camera at a thrift store the year after we got married. Peeling the first photo got me hooked and I ended up collecting a bunch of these cameras. After the film in the package was sold out, my despair turned to hope when…

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