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I am doing research for a story I am writing. If an investigator in the late 1920s privately needed to glimpse an image that was taken on a camera, perhaps a 35mm Leica or a Naegel, would it be possible to develop the image in a makeshift darkroom, perhaps in a matter of hours?

What would have been the quickest and easiest way to develop a photograph in the late 1920s or 1930?

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    Out of curiosity, what is the motivation for this question? Is this research for a story you're writing perhaps? – scottbb Jun 23 at 3:50
  • @scottbb yes! After several days of searching and coming up empty, I thought it might be time to approach some experts. If this is not an appropriate question, I will immediately delete! But if anyone might be able to help, I'd be so appreciative. Thank you! – PhotographyNewbie Jun 23 at 4:28
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    While this isn't applicable to creation of photos today, questions about the history of photography, what was capable historically, etc., seem on topic to me. Certainly different from most questions we normally get here. Very interesting question! – scottbb Jun 23 at 4:36
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    Are you set on a 35mm camera? I think the Nagel cameras you are looking at are a little later in the real-world timeline. Can a 4×5 format Speed Graphic work for your story? That's a pretty iconic photo-journalism camera that would be time-appropriate. This doesn't really affect the development part as the film would be essentially the same in chemistry. – mattdm Jun 23 at 13:14
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    I'd do some research into how press &/or war photographers worked. I am sure there are descriptions of people doing things in improvised darkrooms (which they did) which you could base the story on. – tfb Jun 23 at 15:12
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My antique wooden Kodak™ day-light loader (ca. 1905) was made with a removable spool of thin (now quite brittle) perforated celluloid with raised rubber edges. The film was sandwiched between the layers of the roll.

enter image description here

The celluloid strip was wide enough to accommodate all sizes from miniature to very wide 128 (2½" wide!).

The roll of film was wound inside the roll of celluloid and the assembly was put/dropped into a galvanized can (tank) to be developed. The holes in the celluloid allowed the liquids to quickly enter and drain to make development more even and precisely timed which was a big deal.

The lid could be put on so lights could be on during the development of the film. Today's daylight loading tanks work exactly the same way as daylight tanks did back in the day.

A normal darkroom session would be an hour or two. When I worked in news for a large broadcast company, we had faster techniques for rapid image access such as hot processing and one solution developer/fixer which could produce "useable" images on our way from the airport to the TV station.

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You might look at the Wikipedia Photography Technology timeline. A few key points from that reference:

  • 1909 – Kodak produces 35 mm motion picture film on an acetate (less flammable) base
  • 1913 - Kodak introduces panchromatic film (approximating the color sensitivity of the eye - older emulsions were not very sensitive to red light).
  • 1925 - These innovations inspired Leica and others to use that movie film in small cameras.

One film popular in the U.S.A was Verichrome Safety Film from 1931.

Developers such as Kodak D-76 were in use in the 1920's, and development time for a negative would be on the order of 10 minutes. To prevent fading, a few seconds in stop bath (vinegar) and a few minutes in fixer (sodium thiosulfate) are needed, so a rush job (e.g. press photography with a deadline) could produce a negative in 15 minutes or so. If one required a paper print, add a few minutes to dry the negative and a few minutes more to print each image (prints could be developed in parallel, saving some time overall).

See also History of the 35mm: The Original Compact Camera

BTW, you might try some experiments using household chemicals in development, if this is a spy novel ;-) [Sea water fixer, tea developer, etc.]

  • Yes, Just about everything back then could be done under a red 'safe' light since photographic film was orthochromatic as it still is with paper now. It took a long time for panchromatic (red sensitive) materials to be available widely. – Stan Jun 23 at 17:49
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    Rodinal (1891) is even older than D-76, and has the advantage of being supplied as a liquid for fast dilution. Contact prints could be made very quickly (as soon as the film was dry, or sooner if you were brave) and wouldn't need much more than a cupboard to develop them in. – scruss Jun 23 at 19:25
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    @Stan Wikipedia says that "Kodak discontinued manufacturing general-purpose orthochromatic motion picture film in 1930" ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panchromatic_film ), and I'd assume that since film costs matter a lot less in photography than they do in movie making, photographers were mostly using panchromatic film by late 1920's. Can't find the exact data though. – IMil Jun 24 at 0:15
  • Would nitrate have been a problem for still-camera-film usage? By my understanding, the biggest practical problem with nitrate was that projecting a large and bright image would require pumping so much light through the film that it would quickly ignite if jammed. Otherwise, neither cameras nor printers would have provided an ignition source. – supercat Jun 24 at 13:17
  • @supercat, cellulose nitrate slowly decomposes and attacks the gelatin layer that captures the image, as well as being flammable, even self-igniting. That said, as you state, it made little difference for short-term use whether cellulose nitrate or acetate was used as a substrate. – DrMoishe Pippik Jun 24 at 15:23
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Developing black and white 35mm film in the 1920s would have been similar to how it's done today. Here is what I found, along with links...


It seems you've already done some research to determine that 35mm cameras, such as Leica A, were available in the 1920s. You can read a bit about 35mm film on Wikipedia (135 film; 35mm movie film). Note that preloaded cassettes were not available until 1934:

  • In the earliest days, the photographer had to load the film into reusable cassettes and, at least for some cameras, cut the film leader. In 1934, Kodak introduced a 135 daylight-loading single-use cassette. This cassette was engineered so that it could be used in both Leica and Zeiss Ikon Contax cameras along with the camera for which it was invented, namely the Kodak Retina camera.

Wikipedia also has a Timeline of photography technology and List of discontinued photographic films that might be helpful.

  • 1922 – Kodak makes 35 mm panchromatic motion picture film available as a regular stock.

This film was developed using the gelatin silver process that's still used today. The process was developed in the 1870s, and Kodak has been selling films, papers, and chemicals since the 1900s. However, I don't know the form or portability of the chemicals.

Color photography is likely outside of the scope of your story, but you might be interested in reading about it anyway. A Quick History of Color Photography (for Photographers). Kodachrome was introduced in 1935, and the standard C-41 process still used today was introduced in 1972.

Development uses a fair amount of water. According to How did living standards change in the 1920s?, "By the 1920s most small cities had paved streets, municipal electricity and water systems, telephone systems, streetlights, and sewage systems..." So you wouldn't have to worry about bringing in and disposing of buckets of water.

Early Photography: Darkroom Equipment has some interesting information. Although I don't see one for 35mm film, daylight tanks were available for other film formats in the 1920s, so there might have been one for 35mm film. It might also be possible to have developed 35mm film in a 127 film tank.

Initial loading of the tank would have been done in a darkroom or changing bag. I don't know when changing bags were invented. However, the creation of a makeshift darkroom could be done similarly as would be done today. Lock oneself in a closet and tape off any light leaks. While Gaffer tape does not appear to have been invented until 1959, "duck" tape (made with duck cloth) was available in 1902.

  • The tape used resembled masking tape. – Stan Jun 23 at 15:54
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    BTW, during WWII and perhaps earlier, the navy used plain sea water in the baths. To some extent, the chloride ion serves as a fixer, too! – DrMoishe Pippik Jun 23 at 19:37
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The black-and-white film development method hasn't changed much since the 1920s. There are basically two steps for going from camera to a photo:

  1. Developing the film negative. This step doesn't require much equipment:

    • Dark room, or a a darkroom bag (a black canvas bag that blocks light well).
    • Film holder and developing tank. In a pinch, any glass jar with a lid will work. It would just result in some scratches / blotches in the image.
    • Developer and fixer chemicals. Just developer is enough to see the image, but it will disappear in a few weeks without fixer. You can make a developer solution out of water, instant coffee, C-vitamin and washing soda.
  2. Enlarging for paper prints. This step needs more optical equipment:

    • A full dark room, with enough space for the equipment and red light.
    • Enlarger, which consists of a lamp and a lens and a platform. With some rigging, you could make one out of a camera and a flashlight.
    • Photographic paper
    • Developer and fixer chemicals. Sometimes the same ones are suitable for both paper and film.

With this backround, let's return to the question:

If an investigator in the late 1920s privately needed to glimpse an image that was taken on a camera, perhaps a 35mm Leica or a Naegel, would it be possible to develop the image in a makeshift darkroom, perhaps in a matter of hours?

For a glimpse, fixer would be unnecessary. And you can just look at the film negative directly, even though it is harder to recognize people in negative colors.

So the investigator would need a glass jar, water, instant coffee, C-vitamin and washing soda, and a dark bag. This would be easy to get today, but in 1920s instant coffee and C-vitamin weren't nearly as easily available. So either the investigator would have had to buy the developer chemical from a photography shop, or perhaps use some other recipe with 1920s materials.

Developing the film itself takes just 10-20 minutes. If the investigator hasn't tried development with this particular film before, they'd probably want to cut the film into pieces and use some less important photos for a test run.

Even allowing for time to gather the supplies, it would be feasible in a few hours. You can get the supplies in any photography shop, and quite likely from drugstores also.

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I don't know if it was available in the '20s but there was a type of film available with developer + fixer infused into the emulsion. Just immersing the film in hot water would be enough to process it. The film was used for photojournalism in the pre-digital era.

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