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How necessary is a wet lab in a high school?

I’ve got the task of making recommendations to a high school on how to equip a brand new photography classroom. I’m fairly sure they could fit a nice wet lab with a sink line, 3 or 4 enlargers, and a film room, in addition to a space for computers; however, I’m not convinced that it’s the best way to go.

Given the expense of starting up a printing room from scratch, and the capabilities of scanners and printers these days, I’m leaning toward recommending that they only provide for film processing. The space and money saved would buy a lot of film and digital camera equipment instead. Over the last two years, I’ve been very pleased with the results of shooting black and white, scanning the negatives, and printing on an ink-jet.

What do you think? Should they go with a whole wet lab? Just film processing + scanning? Or forego silver entirely and shoot all digital? I don’t want to contribute to the decline of film usage, but as a former economics major I’m loath to recommend a more expensive and complex option out of simple nostalgia. I’m sure LS has some educated opinions out there, and perhaps even the opinions of some actual educators. Let me know what you think!


Rob Strong

(Also, I’m going to insist on Mac OS… if you think that’s a bad idea too, let me hear it).

by Rob Strong at 2006-09-17 13:10:58 UTC (ed. Mar 12 2008 ) Madaba , Jordan | Bookmark | | Report spam→

Ive been teaching photo and PJ for some time…while film certainly still has its place, Id say go as digital as possible- though I wouldnt get rid of film altogether, i wopuldnt put ina whole wet lab. Too costly for what you will get.
The reason digital is great for teaching is it immediacy with the kids, as well as it ease of critiquing and helping students understand composition, aperture, shutter speed, etc. (They need DSLRs with manual controls, and this of course gets pricey). Going through the whole development/printing process in a lab, while important, tends to take enough time that the kids dont see the correlation between their choices when they took the picture and how it turned out.
for film, shooting b & w and getting a scanner should be fine, combined with digital. Going all digital is what we have done, but unless you have some start up funds, its a bit prohibitive. digital is also nice in that kids can build websites easily, email you their post processed work, teachers can post the best work on a class site, you can build powerpoint or keynote (or even flash) slide shows (if you have a projector) and submisisons to contests, burning images to disc, etc are easy.
I agree with the Mac recommendation. The newer the mac and the OS, the better. Also of course photoshop, and something like Lightroom, Aperture, etc.

by [former member] | 17 Sep 2006 16:09 | Salt Lake City, United States | | Report spam→
I should add that in addition to a photo lab, the school also needs to hire a whole bunch of teachers (including photo). If anyone is interested in working and living at a boarding school in the middle east (no Arabic required), let me know and I can send you some information. Send me an email at

rob.strong (at) gmail dot com

by Rob Strong | 17 Sep 2006 17:09 | Madaba, Jordan | | Report spam→
I think Eric is right, but bear in mind one thing. The emphasis on digital will also result to some extent in an emphasis on one particular form and thus a certain homogeneity of experience that can be very limiting to your students. I think the best education is the one that offers the most options for the development of one’s imagination. While you obviously ought not to invest in a complete wet lab, I dont see why you cannot have at least one good enlarger that can handle a variety of formats (35mm and 120). If the enlarger becomes increasingly unlikely as things take shape, then at the very least I am glad to see that you will make provision for film development, which, after all, is really very simple — a sink, some canisters and reels, chemistry. With film they can explore different looks, different formats and so on — and they may not all have access to digital cameras. They can just scan the film afterwards, as you say, and the scanner is probably going to be one of your most important tools. But learning to print and understanding what a good print is all about (silver halide vs. inkjet), would be a wonderful advantage, so if there is money enough left over for an enlarger, even just an old Omega or whatever, then I would spring for that too and set up a small space where they can print.

by Jon Anderson | 17 Sep 2006 17:09 | Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic | | Report spam→
i would also include an enlarger for a more esoteric reason.the sheer thrill and the magic of seeing a print appear before your very eyes.plus,anyone who takes to b&w printing will have a chance to develop a real skill,which will always be in demand’in some form or another,despite the present tyranny of the digital obssession.

by Michael Bowring | 17 Sep 2006 18:09 | Belgrade, Serbia | | Report spam→
I agree with Michael on the point of wet photo magic. There is nothing comparable (maybe sex…or not) to standing under the amber lights of a darkroom and watching a print slowly materialize. Yes Im digi now but it still cant compare to darkroom magic.

by Gregory Sharko | 17 Sep 2006 19:09 | Brooklyn, New York, United States | | Report spam→
I agree with the guys above. I may know some teachers who would be interested as well, Rob. It cna be more difficult to develop certain styles w/o some provisions for film, esp once kids get to a more advanced stage in their ability. I have one student now who shoots digital and medium format; though we cant process his medium format stuff (no equipment in that area), he is absolutely encouraged to learn both mediums- and to gain a style that can use both.
As far as cameras go re: film or digital SLRs, get the burliest you can afford, and insure the hell out of them- the kids will, even if they don’t destrory them, be hard on them.
We use Rebel Xts and D50s, and I wish we could afford all 20ds or 30ds (or even D200s, though I am a Canon guy) instead, as they are just burlier bodies. Expecting the students to provide a camera at all may not b a problem since you are likely private; in public schools, you can’t get away with that- they can present a fee waiver and then you are SOL.

by [former member] | 17 Sep 2006 20:09 | Salt Lake City, United States | | Report spam→
I suppose it can’t hurt to have an enlarger or two, at least as an independant study option, keeping the introductory course with digital or scanned film. I don’t want to give up film all the way, because I’ve had a lot of fun with medium and large format, and it would be so simple to have just enough gear to run the films… and then once you’ve got chemicals, you might as well get an enlarger and be done with it. If only B&H and KEH delivered here a little more cheaply….

by Rob Strong | 17 Sep 2006 22:09 | Madaba, Jordan | | Report spam→
you can buy enlargers on eBay for almost nothing. Beseler 23 or 67 models, Durst M601s, all of these and others do 35mm and up to 6×7 or 6×9. Or the older Omega D2, that’s a workhorse that can go up to 4×5 with the right accessories. Teaching photography should include lots of fun stuff like Holga cameras, Polaroids including P/N, pinhole cameras, etc. For all this you need to develop film and experiment in the darkroom.

To have a basic understanding of what photography is and how it works, i think that some grounding in black+white wet processing is a MUST. historically, culturally, and scientifically. If you have the space and the plumbing, you could get two or three enlargers, safelights, trays, film developing tanks and reels, etc. all for a couple of thousand dollars.

last year i finally finished my “complete” darkroom with three enlargers; total cost including the sink and really high-end lenses and enlargers was $3000. That’s the price of two or three digital cameras. You can get a lot of value for your money. When you calculate how much ink costs of printers, and the paper too, you begin to realize that traditional printing is not so expensive after all.

Also, from a teaching point of view, you don’t need to teach digital. Your students who are interested in that will be better at it that you are, in all likelihood. It’s like how classical curriculum doesn’t teach Hemmingway or Joan Didion or John Updike, they assume you’ll read that on your own; they teach Homer, Shakespeare, Euripides, etc. So it is in the arts. You don’t start teaching painting with Jackson Pollack and Andy Warhol — your students will get to that if they have the inclination — you teach the Renaissance and Greco-Roman sculpture. You get the idea — with photography, what students need to learn is how we got here, not where we are now — showing them Fox Talbot, Julia Margaret Cameron, Weegee, the FSA, etc. — is more important than a pass to this year’s Perpignan.

Just my 2 cents.

by [former member] | 17 Sep 2006 22:09 | New York, NY, United States | | Report spam→
How would you learn not to have stains on your clothes if there is no wet lab? How would you learn about the magic of a picture appearing in the developer? It is essential. But keep it small

by [former member] | 18 Sep 2006 04:09 | Phnom Penh, Cambodia | | Report spam→

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Rob Strong, Photojournalist Rob Strong
Hanover, Nh , United States
Jon Anderson, Photographer & Writer Jon Anderson
Photographer & Writer
Ocala Florida , United States
Michael Bowring, photographer Michael Bowring
Belgrade , Serbia
Gregory Sharko, photographer Gregory Sharko
Brooklyn, New York , United States ( JFK )


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