Darkroom: Tanks and Reels

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Some of the most under-considered pieces of equipment in the darkroom are the tanks and reels in which film is developed. A good tank-and-reel set is something that you should definitely have for the long run. The reel holds your film inside the tank, and the tank is the light-tight container that is filled with water, chemicals and is exposed to heat and cold. Over the lifespan of your darkroom, your tanks and reels will receive much abuse. They’ll be exposed to a variety of chemicals; dropped; banged on countertops; washed a thousand times; they’ll collect dust; be thrown on shelves. Owning a good tank and reel is like owning a good pair of walking shoes—a good pair should last a long time.

There are many different types of tanks and reels on the market. They are generally made from stainless steel or plastic. The plastic ones are less expensive and their use is often easier to learn. Some plastic reels are even self-winding, which means that you can simply put the leader of the film through the opening in the reel and then ratchet the reel back and forth. The film will then wind onto the grooves without jamming, curling or buckling. On the other hand, stainless reels are not self-winding and require more concentration and technique when you load them. Most people say they are trickier to use. Everyone generally botches their first roll or two when using steel reels. However, with a little practice and diligence, you can master the technique rapidly. (It’s a question of gently squeezing the sides of the film into a very soft “U” shape with one hand as you wind the film on with the other hand, finessing the film into the grooves on the reel.) Some stainless tanks come with a steel top while others are sold with a hard rubber lid. The rubber lids work fine, although they can split from overuse or when put through undue stress. Replacement tops are available separately.

The advantage of steel tanks and reels is that they are not only more durable but they transfer the heat of the chemistry to the film far better than plastic ones. This is a critical factor when developing negatives. Remember that consistency is the secret to processing negatives. Steel reels come in different configurations. You will notice that some have a different gripping mechanism, in which the tongue of the film is first inserted into the loading slot. Some have one long metal band that holds the film, while others have a small, metal triangle that clips the end of the film tightly. Ask different photographers and you'll hear as many different opinions regarding which reel is the best.

Tanks and reels may be bought in many sizes: one reel with one tank; double tank with two reels, four-reel tank with four reels; eight-reel tank with eight reels; individual tanks; individual reels; 35mm reels; 120 reels. The list is long but finite. Remember that a double 35mm stainless steel tank often holds a 120 reel, and that a four reel 35mm tank can often hold two 120 reels.

Make sure the top cap (through which the liquid is poured in or out) snaps on and off with ease. A bent or warped tank can jam, preventing access to the reels. This can become a major catastrophe. If you close a tank, process your film and then cannot open the tank in time to dump the chemicals, the film will continue to develop, resulting in “bullet-proof” negatives. Whichever tank and reel you buy, it is advisable to have an extra set on hand.

After your shoot, you may have multiple rolls to process. The object is to enter the darkroom, roll ALL your film in one sitting and then move on to processing. When multiple tanks are involved holding different types of film, it is also a good idea to label each tank separately with a piece of tape so you know which film is in which tank. If you don’t like working in a blacked-out room, you can always load your film in a changing bag or tent, allowing you to work with the lights on without exposing your film. Changing bags are completely light proof and have sleeves that you pull up on your forearms, gaining access to the film and reels inside.

Once your washed film is ready to be dried, it is always a good idea to have some film clips and hooks handy to hang the film in a dust-free place.