Portable Darkroom Version 2

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Within a few months of learning how to make tintypes in the Haas Lab (thanks, as always, to Kari Wehrs and Brenton Hamilton) I enjoyed some quality father-son time making a darkbox in the woodshop where Dad lived. It is a very sturdy (i.e., too heavy and large) box, and, worse, the shroud that I use to seal out the light around my body was hard for mom and I to make…long story for a different post. Short version: sadly that darkbox has had more life as a nightstand beside the bed than in photographic pursuits.

First use of the darkbox my dad and I made.

The black shroud – actual plastic blackout material – is so thick that it broke every sewing machine needle mom had. Even a local cobbler didn’t want anything to do with it. It’s so rigid that I risk tipping over the darkbox just trying to slither up inside the shroud. Poor choice of material (and massive overkill anyhow, as I’ve since learned). Photo: Matt Craig

The next solution to make tintypes in the field (away from a fixed darkroom) was to get one of the nifty pop-up ice fishing shelters that are all the rage in tintyping circles. (Here it is in action at Birch Point State Park in Maine, and here at the Great Sand Dunes.) I really like this thing, and it’s neat to have a space to walk into and stand up, keep gear and supplies together, and have shelter from (minor) rain and snow showers.

_MG_0267 Mark Dawson exits his portable darkroom along the Rockport Harbor. Dawson is making tintypes of some friends with Rockport as the backdrop. IMG_0987

The two main downsides are that it takes a bit of time to set it all up and tear it down, and that’s if you can find a big enough spot to put it and fasten it down so that it doesn’t blow away like a giant box kite, which it will do, probably taking $50 worth of silver bath, other chemicals, and your street cred as a tintypist with it. (Miraculously when mine has taken flight it neatly lifted up and over all of the chemical trays and bottles. I still looked like an idiot chasing a giant red cube across the lawn, though.)

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Ooopsie.

If I rushed I could probably unload the car, set up, make a tin (and only one only if I’m super lucky the first shot), and clean / pack up… in maybe an hour and a half – if I rushed and only made one tintype – and it wasn’t windy. Obviously this isn’t suitable for pulling off onto the shoulder to grab a quick photo.

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On the beach at Birch Point State Park, Maine.

Hence the “Dawson Darkbox 2”. Not that anything with tintyping is “fast”, but the idea here is that the box can sit in the back of my hatchback car, with the critical stuff – silver nitrate, collodion, rinse water, and fixer – basically already in place. Loosen some lids, pour the fixer into a tray, and I’m ready to go.

I’ve also got a few cameras that are basically large-format point and shoots. One box camera, a Holga and Holga Panoramic (ok, not really “large format”) and a new Travelwide 4×5. For the box camera it’s just a matter of composing, I don’t even have to focus. Point is, with these cameras and the new darkbox I should be able to stop on a (wide, safe) shoulder and grab a “quick” tintype.

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Dad and I with the finished wooden Darkbox Version 1 (minus the notorious shroud).

The Design

Like I said, I originally I wanted a nice sturdy wood box, and hence spent quite a bit of time arguing with Dad about glue or bolts (in the end, often both!) and made something that cost a fair bit of money, weighs a ton, takes up a lot of space, doesn’t look all that interesting (for what that’s worth) and didn’t really work very well. I finally realized that what I want to do is make tintypes, and the rest is secondary.

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The basic idea was inspired by various concepts I’d come across while researching Version 1, such as Gerald Figal’s. Instead of a walk-in darkroom that is, by definition, large enough for a person to be inside of, take a pre-made box of some kind, make holes for arms and a viewing window to see into, et voila, done.

Version 2 started life as a ~30 gallon storage tub from Walmart. For a little bit of time researching, and about $14, I had the basic box that took Dad and I hours to construct out of wood. (Maybe Version 3 will be more like Gerald’s and collapsible so l can make tins out on the hiking trails…)

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$3.99 at Goodwill, woohoo!

One innovation I’m really happy about is the sleeves. Suggestions around the web were to use the arms of a film changing bag, but those range from $12 (cheap eBay stuff) to $24 and up for better bags. I hit the nearest Goodwill and scored a black tracksuit jacket with elastic cuffs for $3.99. Cut off the sleeves and I have a light-tight seal for my arms! And since the sleeves zipped out anyhow, I could re-donate the undamaged now-sleeveless vest to Goodwill!

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In the first iteration of the new darkbox (shown above) the arm holes were both too small and too far apart, which made it difficult to reach things inside the box. Just increasing the diameter by 1 inch (which also moved the inside edges closer together) made a huge difference.

Since learning how to use the laser cutters at TechShop last fall, I laser the heck out of whatever I can think of. Naturally the safelight window needed to be held in place by a laser-cut wooden frame with my name and website on it.

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TechShop’s laser cuts the final outer line around the top of my viewing window frame.

I wanted to protect the plexiglass viewing window while in transport, so I lasered a couple of cover plates that recess into the box lid.

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The laser bed can handle material up to 24″ x 18″, so I had to design the protective lid in two pieces. Or make it by hand, but that would just be crazy talk.

Time to try it out in the field! It’s hotter than blazes in the Phoenix area in mid-August, so I headed north to higher and cooler climes. My first stop was Sunset Crater National Monument, near Flagstaff, where I tried the new darkbox for the first time.

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Here it is in action, I think at the South Rim of the canyon. On this trip I had too much gear and not enough organization, so things are a mess. As a result of what I learned on this trip the whole operation looks much tidier now!

It failed completely. I just got totally blank plates – something was letting too much of the wrong kind of light in, and I didn’t know if it was the viewing window plexiglass (not dark enough, not the right color red) or the LEDs inside the box, or what. Or, since this is wetplate work, it could have been any number of other variables – bad collodion, bad silver, etc.

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No, you’re not missing something – there is nothing on the plate. No Sunset Crater, no grass, no sky, nothing.

Oh no! Flash flood!

Oh no! Flash flood!

NPS employees are building a new walkway to the Wukoki Pueblo ruins. Apparently they had to take cover quickly when a monsoon storm came through. Fortunately I don't think any of their tools washed away.

NPS employees are building a new walkway to the Wukoki Pueblo ruins. Apparently they had to take cover quickly when a monsoon storm came through. Fortunately I don’t think any of their tools washed away.

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Storm runoff politely runs around the construction cones marking the temporary walking path at Wukoki Pueblo.

Even though the tintypes weren't working out, it was still a beautiful trip.

The ruins of the Wukoki Pueble rise out of the desert like the prow of a ship. Even though the tintypes weren’t working out, it was still a beautiful trip.

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Sunset Crater (center) as seen from the road up to my campsite in the San Francisco Peaks. My new obsession with camping for free in National Forest and BLM lands has lead me to some beautiful campsites.

I wasn’t excited about the subject, and it was near sunset anyhow, so I made camp, regrouped, and headed up to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to make some modifications to the box (shortened the sleeves) and try again.

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The edge of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon isn’t the worst place to work on troubleshooting tintypes!

Still no luck. I tried changing exposures and light sources. Finally as the sun was going down, I got a faint image. I think it was a combination of factors, but the main problem, I think, I didn’t realize until a week or so later.

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This is the first tin I really started to see much on. It’s pretty terrible – so much silver nitrate had sloshed out of my leaky tank that I didn’t have enough to cover a plate, so that’s why it’s black at the bottom, plus lots of other problems. But at least it’s better than the nothing I’d been getting!

The hat looks way less dorky as a shadow than in reality.

The hat looks way less dorky as a shadow than in reality.

The San Francisco Peaks, as seen from Wukoki Pueblo.

The San Francisco Peaks, as seen from Wukoki Pueblo.

Success! …sort of

I made some more modifications to the box, to make it easier to use and also to block more incoming light. I also double-checked all my chemistry to be sure that wasn’t culprit, and streamlined all of my gear generally. Then when I thought I had it all fixed the best I could I headed back north. This time I aimed for a place near Sunset Crater that I had scouted out before, the ruins of the Wukoki Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument.

No luck. Again, it was late, I left and made it to my campsite high in the San Fransisco Mountains north of Flagstaff well after dark.

I spent the next day very methodically experimenting at my campsite, changing only one variable at a time. I finally realized that I think the main problem is actually light coming through the box itself! So I headed into Flag (that’s how the hip people call it, right?) and bought some heavy spray paint.

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I didn’t bring masking tape or newspaper on my camping trip, so I had to make do with gaffer’s tape and pages from the old atlas I keep in the car. (I picked pages I didn’t think I’d need any time soon. Sorry…Louisiana and New Jersey.)

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The various pieces of wood in the center lift out to open up the red plexiglass viewing window. I still haven’t decided on how big the opening should be, hence the multiple options.

Current outside appearance. I tried to paint the inside yellow to brighten it up, but the paint scratches off the smooth plastic easily, and at the moment the inside looks terrible.

Current outside appearance. I tried to paint the inside yellow to brighten it up, but the paint scratches off the smooth plastic easily, and at the moment the inside looks terrible.

Next attempt, back to Wukoki! Now remember, I picked these locations because they were northern Arizona and hence higher elevation and cooler temps. Well, I didn’t really pay attention, and Wukoki is actually quite a bit lower than Flagstaff and Sunset Crater, and 4000 feet lower than my campsite the nights before. Short version: it was between 85F and 90F, with low humidity. Not sure I can call my work here “wet”plate photography.

Anyhow, I got set up…

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My current setup, with Wukoki Pueblo in the background. Now that I’ve organized and streamlined my supplies better, I can park, unpack, and get to shooting much faster, and with a smaller footprint.

Poured the collodion, sensitized the plate, exposed my first tin of the day, and…

This is the first plate out of my new darkbox that looks more or less like it should. I didn't pour all the chemistry neatly, and then I accidentally dumped it in the fixer face down, but still, this counted as a huge success given the previous four days of failures.

This is the first plate out of my new darkbox that looks more or less like it should. I didn’t pour all the chemistry neatly, and then I accidentally dumped it in the fixer face down, but still, this counted as a huge success given the previous four days of failures.

I admit, I got a little emotional. Between good teachers and my own attention to detail I’d never had such a string problematic tintypes. I hadn’t been able to make one in nearly a year (for unrelated personal reasons) and now that I was trying to get back at it, and working so hard to do something special, the utter failure of two 500-1000 mile trips and hours of construction work were getting me down. When this first tin came up and I could actually see the image like I normally would, it really meant a lot. And then I accidentally dropped it in the fixer face down.

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Again, not ideal, but not a total failure. Between the haze scattering UV light and everything else the details in the distance got lost, but it’s still neat for me to see the depths of the canyon rendered like this.

I had one of the National Park Service’s annual passes that expired on August 31st, so to celebrate my (modest) success with the darkbox, to escape the heat of Wukoki, and to get one last day out of my pass, I headed up to the South Rim and set up at Lipan Point to try a few tins there.

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Grand Canyon, South Rim, Lipan Point, looking west.

Grand Canyon, South Rim, Lipan Point, looking north.

Grand Canyon, South Rim, Lipan Point, looking north.

I didn’t have amazing success – I think a combination of issues with the box, extreme haze in the canyon, and being pretty tired by this point – but again, the edge of the Grand Canyon is a mighty fine place to work out problems. (As long as I’m not so frustrated that the box takes the fast route to the river…)

This raven watched me for a while, trying to decide if he would be able to grab any of my picnic. He finally realized I was onto him and hopped off, although I seriously think he was just looping around to try to attack from the rear. Anyhow, I composed and waited and "hop!"

This raven watched me for a while, trying to decide if he would be able to grab any of my picnic. He finally realized I was onto him and hopped off, although I seriously think he was just looping around to try to attack from the rear. Anyhow, I composed and waited and “hop!”

So, Dawson Darkbox Version 2 is far from finished, and I’m still refining my workflow – for example, so I can reach the fixer tray without risking the plate going in upside down – and have yet to produce a plate that I consider “good”, but I’m at least confident I’m on the right path, finally.

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Grand Canyon, South Rim, from Lipan Point looking west, non-tintype version.

Other links:

http://www.cwreenactors.com/phorum/read.php?1,6572,6574

http://www.cwreenactors.com/phorum/read.php?1,6494,6509

6 Responses to Portable Darkroom Version 2

  1. Pingback: The Nomadic Frog Blog » Archive » Wukoki Pueblo and the Grand Canyon Tintypes

  2. Pingback: The Nomadic Frog Blog » Archive » DIY Soles for my Birks

  3. Pingback: The Nomadic Frog Blog » Archive » More than one way to create with light

  4. Gerhard says:

    Some good memories of your dad. :)

  5. Mark Dawson says:

    Yeah. Every time I’m in the woodshop now, gluing things together like I own stock in Titebond, I hear dad’s voice telling me “it’s stronger than the wood itself” and wishing I could tell him “ok, ok, you were right”.

  6. Pingback: The Nomadic Frog Blog » Archive » Chiricahua National Monument Tintypes

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