Before digital took over, just how were photos made?

My first foray into photography was when I was aged 9 in 1990. I had saved up £5 from selling fennel on the side of the road and purchased a Minolta SLR and telephoto lens (not too dissimilar from the one below) from a church fete

These cameras are vastly different from what we have in use today. Generally limited to 36 exposures, (although 12 and 24 exposure films were available. You could also buy bulk film spools) and no way of knowing what you had taken a photo of until you had used the film up and taken it to a professional developers like Boots. I must admit however, that I did love the smell of the developing process when you walked into these places!

Anyhow, fairly rapidly after getting this camera I wanted to delve into the world of developing my own photos. Firstly because it was very expensive to get a film developed and secondly, I just wanted to be able to do it! Remember in the 1990’s there was no internet, if you wanted to find something out or learn something you couldn’t just google it and get instant instructions. You had to join a club, or go to a library and find books on the subject you wanted to know about. In this case photography. I learned fairly rapidly that there was no way that i could develop and enlarge colour photos. This was because colour developing chemicals were very sensitive and had to be held within  a narrow temperature band to work properly (i believe about 37 degrees Celsius +/- 1 degree from memory) Nowadays to build such a temperature controlling device could be done for literally less than £1, back in 1990 heated developing baths cost far more than I could hope to afford. So, black and white, or sepia it was to be.

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The first step was to build a darkroom. (This is basically exactly what you think it is, a room that is dark! However, film is not sensitive to red light so the room was dimly lit using a red darkroom light) I used a small cupboard in my parents house, which meant I only had to seal the doors so no light would come in therefore was a fairly simple task to fulfil.  Once complete the next step is to remove the film from your 35mm film canister and place it in a light proof canister like the one below:

The film was threaded onto the white cassette that you see in the picture above. This kept each side separate from the rest of the film and allowed the chemicals to permeate all the film. The cassette was placed into the container and the lid screwed on. The normal lights could then be turned on and work could continue under normal lighting conditions.

Two sets of chemicals were then used to firstly develop the film, then ‘fix’ it. You can actually see the detailed process in this video below:

Once all of this was completed you were left with a negative in a 35mm format. Your next step was to convert that negative into your full size finished image. On your negative you typically had 36 pictures, and due to the time and expense involved wouldn’t want to go through every picture and create each one! So, the first thing you did was create something called a ‘contact print’ an example is shown below

This was made by placing each negative onto a photographic sheet and exposing it under an enlarger for a period of time. You would then develop the one sheet and isolate which pictures you would like to develop to the full size. Once you had ascertained the picture that you wanted to blow up you would feed your negative into a special carrier and place it into something called an ‘Enlarger’

The one above is very similar to the one i used in my darkroom days. In it’s most simple form, it’s a lamp which has it’s light reflected through a set of filers, usually cyan, magenta and yellow, then through the negative, and finally through a lens onto the photographic paper below. The head of the enlarger was usually able to move up and down a column do create the final size of the photo and the lens used for fine focusing. A detailed video is below if you would like to see one in actual action

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Once the image was placed into the enlarger and the light switched on, the filters would be adjusted, the lens focused on the enlarger base plate until the image was in crisp focus and the colour balance was what you required. It was then turned off and the photo paper placed under the enlarger. A timer was then used to control the exposure time, very similar to the way shutter speed works on a camera, the image exposed and then the paper developed in developer trays. Once the image had been exposed to developer chemicals, ‘fixed’ it was then hung up to dry and that was it. Your image was complete!

Far harder than pressing the print button on your images today! I hope you enjoyed this article, and if you’re into photography why not upload some photos to ClickASnap and start earning money for your photo views today?

Tom Oswald




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