Single-Tray Print Processing

Lloyd Erlick.
August 08, 1997

All my thinking about processing prints in some sort of system alternative to the well known sequence of trays has devolved to a very simple and cheap one. I found a plastic bread-carrier on the street, the kind bakeries use for delivering loaves. It is nearly 30 inches by about 24, and six inches high. It serves very well as a stand for one tray, any size up to 20x24 or even 24x30.

Why bother? Well, by lifting the tray six or so inches off the sink surface, I can place containers conveniently by the pouring lip at one corner. No need to lift the tray much. Just hold it securely and pour carefully into a wide mouth container placed appropriately. Actually, I use seven wide mouth containers: dev, stop, fix1, fix2, KHCA-1, selenium toner, and KHCA-2. Get it?

So my sheet of photosensitive material, frequently 16x20 inches, is easily removed from the easel under the enlarger while dry, and easily placed in the elevated tray still dry. From then on the sheet is never handled wet until it is ready to be lifted from the tray and put into the washer. The wide mouth containers are crucial. They need to be rather low, able to hold at least two liters preferably three with plenty of head room, and they need to have handles. Then it is a simple matter to pour the developer carefully over the sheet in the tray, agitate it in the usual manner for the usual time, and then pour it back into its container. Same for the stop, and the rest. Since the containers take up so little space compared to trays, it is possible to have the complete set of chemicals ready, even the luxury of a double fix.

This method eliminates the need of transferring wet sheets of paper from tray to tray. A load of anxiety eliminated with it. Even the tongs are eliminated. No fingers go into the chemicals, either. When the process is complete, the print is rinsed with plain water, and the now reasonably clean sheet can be lifted out by fingers and put into the washer. Even the traditional holding tray is unnecessary. I use one anyway, to catch prints I'm not sure I want to keep.

So my sequence is: put the dry sheet in the tray. Pour on developer. Agitate for three minutes. Pour developer back into its container. Pour stop over sheet. Pour stop back into its container. Pour first fix over sheet for forty seconds, then return to container. Pour second fix over sheet for about thirty seconds. Lights can come on now if desired, or not. Rinse with plain water, being sure the underside of the sheet gets rinsed too. Drain off water, and rinse again as many times as your little heart desires. Decide whether the print is worth completing and washing. If it is, pour on first KHCA, pour off and then add toner. Then pour off toner and rinse again. Pour on second KHCA. Pour it off and rinse well enough so the print can be handled with bare fingers. Lift it out of the tray and place in washer. Start again.

Another advantage: changing sheet size is easy. Practically effortless, in fact. If a larger sheet size is desired, pick up the tray in use and put it away. Replace it with the desired tray. Just be sure there is enough chemistry in the containers if you're changing to a larger size.

And another advantage: if one of the chemicals ought to be at a different temperature, like selenium toner that should be at 24C, it is simple to place its container in a warm water bath. A thermometer in the selenium would help monitor. Simple. Just add hot water to the bath once in a while if the temperature drops.

This technique is most useful for large prints that otherwise are terrors to handle when wet. For small sheet sizes like 11x14 and smaller, it may not be so useful, although even here it may be simpler than a line of seven trays.

As far as chemical carry-over from step to step is concerned, one of the benefits of this method is that the tray is easy to keep perfectly clean. Hypo trays become that familiar way because in the conventional method they hold fix for long periods of time. Specifically, drops of fix at the solution-air boundary dry, as do drops and dribbles higher up on the tray walls, and on the tray exterior. They become very difficult to clean off, and because they are white are nearly invisible on a white tray.

Just for sport, I splurged on a new 16x20 tray to test my theory, although I haven't been doing this long enough yet to be certain. This tray was unused, and I carefully scrubbed it before first use. The worst offender in terms of staining trays is developer, but I find that the developer is never in the tray long enough to leave a deposit. Developer remaining in the tray after pouring it off is no problem for the stop bath, of course, and same for residual stop going into the first fix.

I follow the relatively new so-called "Ilford Sequence" which specifies an ammonium thiosulfate fix prepared at film concentration. The theory is that the worst contamination of a print from fix occurs because the fix permeates the paper substrate, where it is difficult to remove. Hence a high concentration fix for a short fix time. Ilford advise one minute. I use a double fix, each thirty to forty seconds. Not much time to soak into the paper, but also not much time to dry out on the tray either.

After the second fix I rinse thoroughly with tap water. Not only the sheet in the tray, but the tray itself, top edges and all. Of course, by the time the next sheet comes along the previous has been put through hypo clear, toner and more hypo clear, then rinsed thoroughly before being lifted out. And the empty tray rinsed thoroughly, too. So cross-contamination is easy to control. The key seems to be to never let anything dry out and leave hard deposits. This is very easy.

I have thought about a drain tube for my tray. Actually, a very short outlet directly out the bottom, which could be set directly over the chemical container, would be handy. Maybe one of those plastic garden hose shutoffs with the plastic ball inside turned by a plastic handle. No more lifting a full tray. But lifting and pouring out of the tray turns out to be not such a problem, because really it is never fully lifted. The pouring corner remains down until a large part of the contents drains into the container. Then it's easy to lift and drain off the last. For a big tray, especially bigger than 20x24 it probably would be a good idea. The problem is how high the tray must be raised to be higher than the top of the storage containers. The containers have to be broad and low, and have handles too. And they should be cheap and easy to come by.

The containers can't really be bottles, either, at least not bottles with narrow mouths. They pour too slowly and tend to splash. I wouldn't mind finding a low, broad plastic bottle with a six inch opening and closure, and a handle too! Preferably cheap, eh? But I'm satisfied with my present zero cost hacked up jugs. Concerns about hypo contaminating the tray are easy to deal with, but they apply to the containers! So I've marked each one clearly and dedicate it to its respective chemical.

And finally, a nice low-tech refinement is helpful. Take a single paper towel and tear it in three or four strips. Whenever the spirit moves you, use a strip to wipe the top edge of the tray. You'll soon be able to keep your hands perfectly dry. With very little effort not only will chemistry never touch your skin, you don't even have to get wet.

Copyright Lloyd Erlick. All rights reserved.