Field Photo Processing – A Simple Alternative

By Clay Kessler

I feel a little like Andy Rooney: "Have you ever gotten your negatives back from processing and found lots of scratches? Don’t you just hate that?? What do they do with them – drop them on the floor and dance the Fandango?"

Well, I cannot type in that nasal voice for very long – it makes my fingers ache. I have, however, had an increasing number of problems getting my negatives processed. I am not talking about odd color balance, I can correct that after the negatives are scanned. In fact, I am probably one of the easiest customers that any one hour photo shop could have. I always give very precise instructions on negative handling and I don’t care how the prints look. I never argue about "I don’t like this print so I won’t pay for it". You would think that these places would be overjoyed to see me wouldn’t you? Why is it then that my simple instructions are not followed?

Maybe I am just getting pickier as I do this more but it seems that I have suffered increasing negative damage over the last 8 months or so. It came to a head after the Texas Star Party. None of the prints looked scratched but when I got out the negatives to scan them there was a huge amount of scratches on some of them. Some negatives were rendered unusable! It actually looked as though some were dropped on the floor and walked on – and I paid a "premium" because these were astrophotos and required "extra handling". Thanks a bunch!

Even my regular one hour photo at the local Meijers has given me problems lately. Several times I have picked up a "wad" of negatives and received the explanation that "nothing came out". When I straightened out the wad and pointed out the Swan and Dumbell nebulas I got a blank look and a "Oh! Is that why you didn’t want us to roll the negatives – I forgot!"

So – what do you do about all this? Start taking CCD images maybe? Nothing that drastic I hope. I started to get some ideas on this while at the TSP. Our neighbor would hand process his negatives in the sink of his camper every day. I always thought that there were very precise timing and temperature requirements for color negative processing. These are open enough to allow processing under fairly primitive field conditions. After a couple of conversations with this gentlemen I found that he loaded his negatives onto reels in a changing bag. Once the reels were loaded into a tank and the tank sealed the rest of the process could be carried out in daylight. Hmmmm…… Temperature control? He filled his sink with warm water and had a thermometer in his developer fluid. When the thermometer hit 100 degrees he poured into the tank. HMMMMMM!!!

Well – when I decided to do this I went to a local photo equipment shop. Adrays seemed to have a large array of equipment – a confusingly large array! I talked to the "Processing Expert", a young fellow named Justin. Justin explained how the process worked and just what equipment was necessary for a small system. "Of course," he told me "what you really want is a Jobo!" I asked "What the heck is a Jobo?" He showed me a semi-automated processing machine that is designed to handle the temperature control and the agitation. This is the exact setup that Justin uses in the field to process his nature photographs. "$650.00 !!!! I don’t want to spend that kind of money! Heck, that is two or three Nagler eyepieces!" "No! no!" Justin told me – "you don’t want to buy a NEW Jobo – get a USED one!" "Just where do I find a used Jobo?" Justin said "Try eBay!"

Nope – not going to spend that much just to process negatives. I will just get a hand process tank, a changing bag, a thermometer and some chemicals. I can hand agitate and keep the temperature fairly constant in the sink. Yep, that’s what I’ll do……. Well it probably wouldn’t hurt just to LOOK up on eBay – just to see what is available you understand – not to buy anything. Well, to make a long story short, I was the high bidder on the second Jobo that I bid on, a Jobo CPE-2 to be exact.

For those of you who have not been to eBay, this is an on-line auction service. For a fee you can list an item that you want to sell. People that want to buy the item bid on it. High bidder wins and everyone goes away happy. I found eBay an interesting new way to spend money and I now check it regularly to see what else I cannot live without.

I obtained the correct chemistry and a tank and gave the system a tryout after the Kensington Metropark Star Party. By golly, it seemed to work well! It took less than a half hour to process two rolls of film and in the end I had clean, scratch free negatives to scan and print. Of course, doing this in my kitchen is not much of a challenge, the real test will be in the "field". I carried the system down to Harry Kindt’s home in northwest Ohio for a Labor Day star party weekend he was having. We processed five rolls of film that weekend with no problems at all! I think that this just might work out very well!

Cost you ask? Well consider that I did not get the Jobo to save money but rather to save negatives. The cost for the chemicals involved is about $2.50 per roll. Probably about what a photo process service would charge to develop the negatives. The real savings is in time! For example, at the TSP the photo process place was in Alpine, a 60 mile round trip – and you had to return hours later to get your photos. Most good observing locations are not very close to a one hour photo so an hour or more of driving and a one to two hour wait for photos is not unusual. This Jobo seems to work very well and can be done at the observing site, as long as you have electricity.

I like this very much and I think it will work well in the long run. Now all I need to do is to get out in the field and take some more astrophotos – oh, and stop spending so much time up on eBay……..