Out of the darkrooms

10:37, Dec 08 2012
john bisset
BLACK-AND-WHITE: John Bisset in 1984 with the old way of doing things.

It's been a hectic few weeks, but we are finally on the move.

I have had to sort through almost 28 years of photographic negatives, darkroom equipment and thousands of prints. How things have changed over that time.

It was 1984; I was slightly younger, fitter and a lot thinner. We had built a brand new darkroom and had the latest 35mm Nikon film camera, which had no such thing as auto focus or automatic settings.

john bisset
TIME FRAMES: Herald photographer John Bisset pictured with the original enlarger used after the 1984 opening of the Timaru Herald in Bank St. He now uses a laptop.

We used black-and-white Kodak or Agfa film which we loaded manually from bulk rolls into film cassettes. The day started with a meeting with the chief reporter, who would type an assignment list. We kept in touch during the day with radio telephones that were installed in our cars.

Photography required a degree of skill in those days, unlike today, and there was no way of checking on how the photo looked until it was developed. We used a light meter to set the correct exposure, and would often take a number of pictures at different settings to make sure we had it right.

The days were always hectic; after an assignment we would rush into the darkroom to process our films. The first job was to heat the developer (chemical), to the correct temperature. The film was loaded into a light tight tank. Developer was poured into the tank and was agitated every 45 seconds for six minutes, before emptying and adding the next two chemicals. After the film was washed and dried it was placed in an enlarger and projected onto light sensitive paper. This required working in a darkened room under the glow of red safelights. The exposed paper was processed through four baths, developer, stop bath, fixer and wash as the print gradually appeared.


The final print was later sent to the photo-litho department for further processing to enable press plates to be made from it.

From clicking the shutter to getting the final print could take up to an hour.

Today, the modern camera can transmit pictures from a rugby match as they are being taken and the pictures can be uploaded to the web almost immediately.

We had no such thing as email; pictures were transmitted and received on a wire transmitter similar to a fax machine. Our Muirhead transmitter had glowing valves and a shiny drum onto which the photographic print was wrapped around. A bright glowing light would slowly scan the turning image and transmit the information to a wire receiver.

The digital age has certainly changed the way we work, and in most cases, has made life a lot easier. Gone are the days of endless hours in a chemically charged darkroom. We can get names from sports events by simply showing the players the camera's screen. No longer do we rush back to work during an event to develop and proof negatives so we can name players from that out-of-town team. Our fast film speed of 800 ISO has been replaced with a digital camera capable of 100,000 ISO, making photography without a flash in extremely poor light conditions possible.

We can literally take thousands of images without the expense of film and chemicals. It has been a huge chang - darkroom techniques have developed into computer and Photoshop skills.

Who knows where new technology will take us next? The better it gets the higher are people's expectations.

I have embraced new technology, but come Monday I'm going to miss the haunt of the old darkrooms, which will soon be but a mere memory and part of history.

The Timaru Herald