If you are struggling to load your MOD 54, read this

At this very moment you have your hands deep in a dark bag trying to load your 4x5 negatives. You've called a nearby family member to Google 'load a mod 54' for you because you've forgotten the details of what it looks like and things aren't going well. 

Don't panic. It is going to be alright.

  1. First things first - locate the ridges at the top of the MOD 54. The ridges on the negatives must be on the same side on the top left (note that this is different from the location of the ridges when placing them in a film holder, which is top right in that case).
  2. Get your first sheet of film in your hands. Bend it along its length and place it to the very bottom of the stack before releasing the bend. Check with your fingertips that the film isn't held up in one of the upper notches.
  3. Your breathing should be easier now and your heart rate lower. We are going to make it.
  4. The easiest notch to locate is the upper one, so here is the secret tip - load the second sheet into the upper notch. "That's crazy!" you say - but keep your trousers and/or pants on. From here you can carefully move the film down to the middle notch one side at a time. You know you've done a good job when you feel the sides of  two sheets of film are parallel.
  5. The third sheet of film goes into the easy upper notch and can be left there. Again, check the sides of the sheets are parallel. If they are not, work backwards until you find the offending sheet/notch combination.
  6. Repeat these steps for the three sheets on the other side of the Mod 54.

Hopefully you got this done before the combination of stress and time made your arms perspire streams of frustration in the dark bag.


Minimalist darkroom: An enlarger using a 4x5 camera

The creator of the Intrepid 4x5 camera announced he was working on an attachment to use the camera as an enlarger. What a brilliant idea. 

I'll be the first to sign up when the enlarger is released - but in the mean time I wanted to see if I could make my own contraption and get printing right away. Here's how I did it...

The enlarging attachment

The idea is simple - use a LED light source (large, even illumination and low heat production) to shine through a negative in the film holder location on the camera. I designed an adapter out of layered thin plywood  to hold a DIY foam negative holder on one side, with a multigrade filter and the LED source on the other. The entire thing is encased in a lid, using black silicone caulk to make it light-tight and painted it all black. This all sits on the back of a 4x5 camera and can be height-adjusted on a tripod (in this case, a 3 legged thing Albert). The Intrepid version looks like it will use the graflok system to securely attach the box to the camera. My version is loose, so there is a danger of it being knocked off.

DIY enlarger using an Intrepid 4x5

Film formats

The foam negative holder is removable so it can be swapped out with another to mask different sized film. Different lenses are required for different film formats, too. They should be close the normal focal length associated with that format:  I use a 65mm for 35mm film (the shortest focal length my camera can handle), a 90mm for medium format and a 150mm for 4x5 large format negatives. 

Additional enlarging equipment

Rather than get an enlarger timer, I took Ansel's advice to use a simple metronome. I use a Seiko DM110 which has red indicator lights. The enlarger LED has a physical on-off switch so it can be left in the 'on' position and activated remotely with a simple foot switch.

The only other equipment needed are 4 trays for chemicals and water, tongs, paper easels and a safe-light (I use a junior bulb in a light-stand socket).  The final critical item is a black-out screen for my bathroom window. I made it using layers of cardboard to act as a light-trap when inserted into the window frame.

All of this darkroom kit (bar the cardboard screen and the camera/tripod) can fit into a 32 quart storage container. Most of the chemicals used are part of my negative-developing kit. The only difference is the use of Ilford's multigrade developer for the prints.

This is a darkroom in a bucket. The world's most compact darkroom? It would be tough to beat this setup.

Using the minimalist darkroom

The first test of the darkroom was a success. I expected the LED was lower powered than a regular enlarger bulb, leading to very long exposure times, but in reality I was getting correctly exposed prints in the ballpark of 16 seconds at f22.

The main disadvantage was that the enlarger casing had to be removed to change the negative or the filter, whereas these items would be quickly switched out on a traditional enlarger. I also found that the honeycomb pattern of the LEDs was noticeable on the projection - this was addressed by placing a sheet of tracing paper behind the filter to act as a diffuser.

While not as convenient as a permanent darkroom, this compact setup might be what you are looking for if you have limited space.


Using negatives as a final image

When scanning black and white negatives, the moment when the negative image is inverted into a positive is captivating. No matter how much I study the negatives, they always seem blurry and difficult to interpret. The positives suddenly seem sharp and the scene presents itself clearly.

But sometimes a negative stands out on its own. It seems ethereal, or occasionally more real than when converted to positive. Some subjects work better than others - a human face often looks demonic in negative form as the eyes turn black with white pupils. But natural scenes and architecture seems to have their own charm as negatives.

As most photographs are subjected to some sort of post-production (whether in the darkroom or Lightroom), it seems that a conscious decision to not invert the negative is also a creative possibility.

Hybrid film processing (no darkroom needed)

Most people don't try film photography because they fear film processing lab costs or think they need a full-on darkroom to get the job done. I shoot black and white film which is easily developed at home for very little cost and without a dark room, but it takes a little time (the money-time compromise). I scan the images so they can be manipulated digitally and printed. I'll describe the entire process here.

NOTE: If you are in Houston and looking for overnight developing and scanning of your black and white film, you might be interested in my developing service.


I use purchased 120 rolls for medium format and sheet film for 4x5. I use bulk film for 35mm and load it into reusable canisters using a Lloyd daylight loader. Getting film from its box to the loader requires a dark-bag.

developing the Negatives

Ilford chemicals to develop film

This can be done in a kitchen or bathroom using a dark-bag. The only time darkness is required is getting the film from the roll/film holder into a light-tight developing tank. This even works for 4x5 sheets using the 'mod54' insert.

Four liquids are used in specific dilutions: developer, stop-bath, fixer and a rinsing agent. They are mixed in  plastic measuring jugs and brought down or up to temperature in a water bath (kitchen sink) using a thermometer. The stop-bath and fixer can be reused to save on cost and waste. 

Developing times and temperatures are determined based on the developer and film combinations used. See the massive development chart for suggestions. I use my smartphone as a developing timer.

After rinsing, film needs to be hanged to dry (i use wooden clothes pegs) and they are cut to length with a film cutter to fit into dedicated plastic binder sleeves


Using a 6D Mark ii and a lightbox to scan 35mm film

Darkroom printing requires a lot of extra equipment and a dark room. As much as I'd like to do this for fun someday, I currently use a hybrid method of shooting and developing film, but then scanning it and processing on a computer. A dedicated scanner can be used, but as I already have a digital camera, tripod and a macro lens, I simply place my film on a light box and take digital pictures of each frame. To make this process easier, I use the Canon's tethering software to use live view and remote shooting through my laptop. The images are high resolution RAW captures, and the resolution can be increased by stitching multiple images of different parts of the same negative.

Digital manipulation

Negative images can be inverted to positives using Lightroom or Photoshop (but not Adobe Camera Raw, the Photoshop Elements Organizer or Canon Digital Photo Professional, annoyingly).

A note on inverting photographs: I used to use Photoshop Elements for this task, but that means opening each image separately, inverting to a positive image, and saving the file (fortunately, saving can be done as a batch process). I have since started using Lightroom, and created a preset to invert a set of images automatically. This saves so much time it might be worth getting Lightroom for this reason alone.

With this hybrid approach, many digital techniques are now available: HDR, panoramas, spot/dust removal,dodging and burning, smoothing and sharpening, colour mapping, the list goes on.

The digital scans are effectively a backup of the physical negatives, which are stored in a folder and can be re-scanned with future technology at any time.

An image doesn't exist until it is printed, and I can easily send my scans to a print service or create a photo book.

In conclusion

There's a lot to think about when using film and developing at home, but it is not all that difficult and the process itself is part of the attraction of film photography.