“Ok, got the film out.” the message read. What followed in the chat was a photograph showing the full length of a 36 exposure roll of film spiraling out of its canister in front of a flung-open camera back. This is but one of the adventures of teaching analog photography to high school students over chat during distance learning in a pandemic. In a sense, it’s not such a bad way to learn – mistakes are life’s best teacher. This particular student learned a lasting lesson about the light-sensitivity of film, and how to properly unload film from a camera.
In the year prior to this incident, I had arranged a field trip to Gallery 44 in downtown Toronto for my Photography Club students to participate in a darkroom workshop. The workshop was an absolute hit. That’s not to say it was without challenges, though. The best part of any darkroom experience is seeing your images appear on photo paper in the developer, but the printing portion of the workshop was cut short for some students who had spent a large portion of the workshop struggling to load their exposed film onto reels and into developing tanks in total darkness.
Despite the setbacks, the workshop was a great success with the kids, who couldn’t wait to get back into a darkroom. That warmed me to the idea of having a darkroom at the school, and I began to ask for donations and to scour the internet for the necessary equipment.
In the process of looking for Paterson developing tanks I had the good fortune to stumble across the Rondinax 35 Daylight Developing Tank. The discovery of a tank that could be used outside of a darkroom or changing bag triggered the memory of those students who blindly struggled to load their film into developing tanks in the dark, and I decided right there and then that the Rondinax Tank was an essential piece of kit.
What is the Rondinax 35 Daylight Developing Tank
The Rondinax 35 Daylight Developing Tank is a 35mm film development tank that can be loaded and used in the light. This means that no part of the developing process must occur in darkness, as is the case with most other types of development tank, like the typical Paterson tank that almost every new film shooter will use today.
The Rondinax was made by Agfa, and at different times was branded and marketed under other names. The one I bought is the Leitz Agfa Rondinax 35. They also made 120 medium format Rondinax tanks, though these are harder to find and more expensive.
The Rondinax shares features with both a camera and a record player. Like a camera, it is a light-tight box, but instead of a shutter and aperture for an opening, it has a port for chemicals. Like a record player, it spins a disc, in this case a developing reel.
Like a camera, it has a mechanism for loading film, but instead of film moving to a take-up spool, it is fed onto a developing reel. A clamp affixed to a rubber strap is attached to the trimmed film leader, with the other end of the strap attached to the axle of the developing reel. A spin of the exterior dial turns the reel to wind the strap around the axle, which pulls the film from the canister (at this point the lid goes on the tank to protect the emulsion from light). The film is fed through a mechanism that lightly squeezes the film edges before they are unfurled into the grooves of the reel, moving from the center of the reel to the edge. Pretty clever.
A modern version of the Rondinax has been manufactured by Italian film specialist Ars-Imago, called the Ars-Imago Lab-Box. This device is essentially a modern take on the Rondinax, and it works just as well. The price, $180 USD, is about double what we pay for a vintage Rondinax. Buyers will need to weigh the cost of new materials, total price, and the value of history, and determine for themselves which is the more appealing device.
Using the Rondinax 35 Daylight Developing Tank
Sometimes if I’m feeling especially bold I will fully embrace the daylight developing tank by developing film with it outside on a sunny day, for no other reason than because I can. Even though the Rondinax may allow you to stay in the light while developing, the film is still in the dark, so there are some thoughtful features to provide you with feedback about what is happening inside the tank. First and foremost, the whole process should be butter smooth, and if it isn’t you know you’ve had a mis-feed and should start again.
A truly helpful feature is the exposure gauge on the side of the tank. As previously mentioned, the film feeds into the grooves of the reel from the center to the outer edge, and as it does the feeding mechanism slowly raises like the arm on a turntable moving through a record (in reverse). When it comes to rest, an attached metal arrow, which is visible on the exterior of the tank, will indicate 12, 24, or 36 exposure marking, depending on the size of the roll. Once confirmed, you use the internal guillotine-style blade to cut the end of the roll, freeing the film from the canister, allowing it to move completely onto the reel. You definitely do not want to make the cut before we’ve in fact reached the end of the roll, which is why this feature is nice to have.
There is a built-in thermometer for determining the temperature of your chemicals. Mine doesn’t work, as far as I know, and this may be a common problem. I check the temperature before processing so I can set my timer anyway, so it’s not a big deal.
The Rondinax uses less chemicals than a Paterson tank. That has a lot to do with the tank being smaller and only capable of processing one roll at a time, but also because that relatively small tank need only be filled halfway; the reel is rotated by turning the external dial attached to the axle of the reel, cycling the emulsion through the pool of chemical that rests in the lower half of the tank. In fact, if the tank is filled above the midline, it is prone to leaking through the hole that connects the axle to the dial.
The tradeoff for economy comes in the form of elbow grease, or more accurately, carpal tunnel syndrome; the developing process requires constant agitation in order to ensure even development of the film, which adds up to about ten minutes of spinning per roll of film.
If processing several rolls of 135, the Rondinax might not be the most efficient choice compared to a large Paterson tank. The level of tedium involved in spinning a dial for that duration alone would be considerable. This is likely the driving force behind the ingenious solution I have seen online of rigging a small battery motor with a belt drive to spin the exterior dial automatically on your behalf.
That said, I have put many rolls through mine spread out over the course of a year, and despite some minor mishaps such as leaks, misfeeds, and the cutting of some rolls a few frames early, the relative ease and convenience compared to fumbling in the dark has been a noticeable and welcome change.
All of this is not to say that the Rondinax negates the need to engage in the learning curve of using Paterson tanks. This process is second nature to many, and mastery is certainly attainable for anyone, with practice. The Rondinax Daylight Developing Tank however, does not have the same degree of difficulty right off the bat, and that makes it a good entry-level training tool. This device is also a potential cost-saver and waste reducer, as it requires less chemical. Where its true strength lies is in developing single rolls. In this case its convenience is hard to beat, and that makes it a useful addition to a darkroom.
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