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The ILFORD Pop-Up Darkroom Review by Simon Riddell

Full Review – Simon Riddell March 2022.

ILFORD were kind enough to send me their first prototype pop-up darkroom in early February this year. I was tasked with testing it out in the field for my ongoing wet plate collodion projects. This would see the darkroom put to use in both studio settings, and in the harsh conditions that the Isle of Skye has to offer in the mountains.

[ ON T H E M O V E ] - 10th Feb.

The darkroom arrived in the morning of the day I was inbound for Skye, I was thrilled to receive it, as I knew the potential that it would give me to create wet plates out in the field; without the darkroom, I would have to try and make do with karting a dark box around with me that was just ridiculous to even think about in a mountain setting; still, I was committed to trying a plate, whatever gear I had or didn’t have, but believe me I was extremely happy to have the darkroom!

I was able to set the tent up in my studio within two minutes, no instructions were necessary, everything was immensely simple and quick to put together. Essentially there are four collapsible poles that attach to a 4-pronged plastic junction at the top of the darkroom. Each pole is then inserted into a series of clips spanning down to the base of the darkroom. Thereafter, the poles are attached to locking rings that can be used to secure them with pegs if you’re out in the field. There are also eyelet rings two thirds of the way up the poles to allow for cord to be attached and secured to the ground, again via pegs or stones if operating in the field. This facility would surely be essential where I was going.

[ 1st T E S T ] - 13th Feb.

I had arrived in Skye and decided to head to the Quiraing as the location would allow me to be entirely reliant on the darkroom, carrying all of my gear with me. This also meant that I had to be inventive with the way in which I maintained an operational temperature of my chemicals. I worked out that I had about an hour in which to get to my location, assemble the darkroom, set out all of the developing equipment, compose my shot on the Intrepid 4x5 inch field camera, expose and finally develop my plate. If I was to take longer than this, the temperature of my chemicals would be declining, which would result in no good result, essentially the entire effort would be a waste of time.

I was able to complete all of the above extremely quickly. I chose a location approximately 3 metres from the cliff-edge, a bold move, considering the location and the potential for the wind to pick up however, it was the only suitable ground close by that didn’t involve having to run and jump with gear, over a ditch. I was glad of the ability to tether the darkroom to pegs!

Thus far the darkroom that ILFORD had designed was not letting me down. I was so pleased with my progress, but a little anxious of the gusting wind, currently at around 10 mph. I put my concerns aside and poured my first plate, the collodion was flowing nicely, and I put it inside the tray of silver nitrate to sensitise it over 3 minutes to U.V. light.

The end result was that I was able to shoot wet plate collodion with success out in the field, close to a cliff-edge without any of the potential for wing-suit carnage that I was stressing about!

Pictured here is the digital scan of the 4x5 inch tintype I shot that day.

Naturally, a few passers by stopped to ask me what I was up to, the combination of the large format camera and darkroom all set up in a formidable location was attracting a lot of attention. I was able to explain the entire process to a few people who were excited to see the results.

One chap took this shot of me from the opposite angle to what I had shot.

The wind inevitably started to pick up and I decided to disassemble the darkroom after packing away my gear.

I took everything back to the vehicle in one trip, enjoying all the challenges of carrying my table in slightly windier conditions, immensely happy that I was taking some plates home with me!

Here's a video of the day.

I should explain the Peak Perseverance project under the umbrella of Skye Collodion.

Shooting wet plate collodion in a purpose-built studio is challenging enough, but I could feel myself getting comfortable. I don’t like to stay I my comfort zone too long as there is no room for growth and challenge. So, a few months ago I began to research wet plate collodion expeditions within mountainous regions in the winter season. I didn’t find many examples. It seemed that this pursuit was deemed too difficult for all, other than the insanely committed and well-resourced photographer / explorers, nevertheless, the few examples that I did find were captivating to read about, especially regarding the sheer scale of their expeditions and how innovative the individuals were.

I wanted to get out into the mountain and shoot wet plate. I needed this challenge. I realised that it would entail a lot of failure, but that this failure would allow me to learn a different side to wet plate collodion and at the same time connect with the early pioneers of the art.

Before I had started to test the ILFORD pop-up darkroom, I had been out for a recce with my friend, photographer and climbing partner Adrian Trendall, who also happens to be an awesome mountain guide, operating in the Cuillin. This recce was intended to allow me to experience a trek with a fully laden pack of large format gear, as this would be my starting point. I would be able to figure out what I was capable of in terms of operating up there with type-1 injection-controlled diabetes, as well.

We started out early, I left our house at 0300 HRS to meet Adrian at 0500 HRS to begin our ascent. This would afford us enough time to get to where Adrian thought we would see a nice sunrise. My pack at that time was over 20 Kg. We were greeted with gusting winds of 20 mph from the outset, which was fine.

A couple of hours on into our ascent I was struggling with the sheer physicality of this prolonged upward trek on harsh terrain in low-light conditions. I realised that this was simply due to my blood sugar being consistently low. I wasn’t used to this situation, as previously I had been using insulin pump therapy to treat diabetes. Unfortunately, I had developed an allergy to the adhesive that is applied to the cannulas which for the foreseeable future meant that I had to revert to injections. The problem being is that this inherently required me to inject a background insulin, something that is not required when using insulin pump therapy. What this means in the field is that you have this background insulin in your body for the entirety of its duration (around 20 to 24 hours), and without very accurate planning, the kind of activities that I had been used to were proving to be very difficult and potentially dangerous.

It is for this reason, coupled with the very low success rate of shooting wet plate collodion in the mountains of Skye that I called my project Peak Perseverance. Adrian shot this picture of me at about 0600 HRS when we stopped to check my blood count and take an injection in driving rain.

We decided to push on and as the sun started to illuminate our way, the wind picked up to 40 mph and triggered us to re-evaluate our plans. We were both struggling to place our feet safely in the gusting wind, which also resulted in temperatures in the -15C range. It was time for a pasty, and we called it a day.

Adrian had his pasty and I had my challenge, my mind was alight with innovative ideas to implement, and I was on my way.

[ 2nd T E S T ] - 17th Feb.

A storm was forecast for the Highlands and Islands. I spoke with Adrian and we thought there might be a window of a couple of hours before it all hit the Cuillin, in the morning, so I made my way to Sligachan which offers fantastic view of the Cuillin.

The darkroom performed brilliantly, again, and this time in higher winds with a harsher, rockier base.

I was able to concentrate on the technical aspects of shooting as opposed to just getting the logistics sorted as I did in my 1st test.

The results enabled me to take 3 different plates and record the findings to better inform my creative process down the line when we shoot on my ultra-large-format camera.

Adrian took this shot of me standing with a 4x5 inch tintype looking toward the Cuillin with the Collie / Mackenzie monument pictured in the foreground.

We also put together a video of me shooting wet plate collodion from the darkroom.

This is Adrian and I after shooting my third plate. It was a struggle to expose correctly to bring out detail in the Cuillin and also the monument, but I like this plate as there is just a hint of the ominous mountain within the gaze of Collie / Mackenzie.

I feel an innate connection to this plate, as I stare out to the Cullin, myself, imagining when I am successful in shooting a wet plate up there. No easy task.

Another shot by Adrian pictures me showing an interested passer-by another composition of the Cuillin through the Intrepid 4x5 inch field camera.

As this project has evolved, I reached out to Intrepid to ask for their help. Ideally, I wanted to shoot using a 5x7 inch format and needed something light. Thankfully Maxim and Naomi sent me one of their 5x7 cameras for Peak Perseverance, they also put me in touch with the Gearing Company, who manufacture an incredibly innovative tripod system.

After speaking with Ellen, I was intrigued to unleash the potential of their system in the Cuillin.

One major advantage to the Gearing tripod system is that it has the ability to deconstruct into a set of trekking poles, thus saving weight on carrying a tripod and poles. The entire system comprises of carbon fibre and aluminium, so it is incredibly light-weight and strong. The payload of the tripod head is also extremely capable, and using any of my large-format cameras will not be an issue.

This is the digital scan of the 4x5 inch tintype I shot at Sligachan.


A Facebook Post by Adrian Trendall, in All Things Cuillin. Link here:

Out today with intrepid wet plate photographer, Simon Riddell, as we attempted to refine some of the kit and skills needed in the field for “Peak Perseverance” project. Today really brought home how much perseverance the project will require.

After a winter of bad weather, today’s conditions were a welcome change with lots of sunshine, some snow still on the peaks and not too windy (well, according to the forecast). By now Simon should be admiring a few plates shot using the collodion process but, unfortunately things didn’t work out that way.

Picture By Adrian Trendall of the ILFORD darkroom, Intrepid 4x5 inch camera, and Gearing Company tripod, in-situ at Glenbrittle.

It was a big learning curve, but as today’s lack of end product suggests, the learning is ongoing. The good news was that the Ilford pop up darkroom worked in the wild, although stronger than forecast winds did push it to it’s limits. Simon shot four plates and for some reason not one image actually developed. I’m certainly not a scientist but Simon thought there might have been problems with the developing chemicals. The other culprit might be Ultra Violet Light, maybe too much or maybe not enough. It’s something Simon has to go away and research but a bit of a puzzle since other plates on previous days have turned out brilliantly.

I was quite happy helping carry stuff, and there’s a lot that needs carrying. Not just the obvious 5 by 4 inch camera, tripod and other photo gear but the pop up darkroom, assorted chemicals which need to be kept at a critical temperature and a table to do the magic alchemy on. It was warm and sunny and there are worse places to be than below the northern Cuillin. I wasn’t too worried at the failure of the first plate but by the third, my heart went out for Simon who’d put so much effort and determination in to this project. Not just the physical graft but he needs to keep an eye on his sugar levels. Being diabetic meant an al fresco injection half way through this morning’s shoot.

What made matters worse were the stunning clouds above the Cuillin. In fact they were so good that I got my camera back out to record their flowing shapes of fluffy white, an ephemeral strata above the ridge. At the time I was really pleased that today was working out so well for Simon and was really looking forward to comparing my photos using modern technology with Simon’s process that dates back to Victorian times.

Unfortunately, there was no chance to make any comparison but Simon drove off determined to get to the root of the problem. Knowing him, he’ll be back with a vengeance, super inspired and eager to get the plates in the bag.

Picture by Adrian Trendall of the ILFORD darkroom in-situ at Gelnbrittle.

I shot some footage of the day:

The outcome of my testing back in the mainland studio resulted in confirming an ineffective mix of collodion. The lesson here is to test new collodion before leaving for an expedition, you can’t leave anything to chance or rely on things working as they did last time.

[ SKYE BRIDGE STUDIOS ] - 11th March.

My schedule necessitated some time away from Peak Perseverance as it was time to take half of my studio from the mainland over to the Kyle of Lochalsh to host a demonstration of wet plate collodion at my exhibition of Mental Collodion at the Skye Bridge Studios. I also took the ILFORD darkroom with me, and I looked forward to using it in an environment that was less stressful than the mountain.

You can read more about the Mental Collodion project here: www.srfilmphotography/mentalcollodion

Essentially the project aims to raise awareness surrounding mental health and inspire positivity, using the cathartic nature of art to improve well-being. I'm about to embark on the first run of hand-made books this coming May, entitled, ‘Mental Collodion: A Celebration of Our Resilience’.

Pictured here is just some of the gear I took on the 300 mile round trip. The ultra-large-format camera is made from a Durst 4x5 inch Laborator darkroom enlarger and is capable of shooting plates 16 x 16 inches.

I arrived at Skye Bridge Studios at 1100 HRS and was ready to shoot by 1300 HRS, the darkroom was set up initially and I let my chemicals warm up naturally to room temperature. Then I set about lifting the ULF camera inside, my friend and fellow wet plate artist Paul Whitehouse had just made me a hand-turned lens cap which completes the overall aesthetics of it all.

This would be the first time the Swift and Son’s brass lens had been put in action outside of my studio to shoot portraits. It opens to F4 and has an incredibly shallow depth of field. I had no idea who might turn up at the demonstration, but I was pleasantly surprised to have the opportunity to shoot three portraits that evening, including one school-boy who managed to hold a ten second exposure without moving.

Following on from the un-workable collodion scenario in the field, I reverted to some very old collodion I had with me, and I kept my fingers crossed when I was developing the test plate (nobody was about to be my test plate subject, so I opted to use my Scarpa mountaineering boots).

Pictured in the background is a series of nine portraits of my fellow Lifeboat Crewmembers from the East Sutherland Rescue Association. All 8x10 inch tintypes, this was for a commission awarded by the Spirit of the Highlands.

I’m pictured here holding my first plate of the night, Sara Taylor. Picture by Sara Taylor.

I’m pictured here setting the neck brace for my next sitter. Picture by Sara Taylor.

I’m pictured here holding an 8x10 inch wet plate of John, clearing in the fix. Ten second exposure. Picture by Sara Taylor.

Pictured here is a selection of plates from the evening.

[ C O N C L U S I O N ]

The ILFORD pop-up darkroom has excelled in all of the environments I took it to. When I took it to the Quiraing, the conditions underfoot here incredibly boggy, I was concerned that the water would ingress up, through the ground sheet which attaches via a Velcro perimeter to the wall sides, this didn’t happen and my gear inside the tent was kept clean and dry. I was really impressed by this as it meant I didn’t have a massive clean-up operation on my hands.

It was definitely light-tight in all areas, and easy to get into and egress from. I could open the zips without encountering any issues, oftentimes one-handed holding a plate, coated with precious chemicals.

Set-up and take-down is achievable within a couple of minutes, and the darkroom fits neatly into its bag. The material is easy to wipe down to clean. There is a convenient internal hook on the interior at high level which I used to hang an array of red LED’s.

Ventilation apertures are provided at the base and head of the darkroom for safety, these have drawstrings on them to affix tightly around tubing etc.

The build quality is strong, allowing it to withstand the conditions in Skye without any issues.

Ultimately, it was instrumental in the production of a fantastic series of wet plate collodion photographs shot both indoors and outdoors. I can highly recommend the pop-up darkroom, the potential it will afford to people on the move, or with limited space in their house is outstanding!




Here is where you find out a little more on the darkroom from ILFORD:

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