I have a very controversial little tool to thank for the cleanliness of my negatives; the Dot Line DL-6121, more commonly known as a rubber squeegee.
Many shooters will tell you that squeegees scratch negatives and to avoid them at all costs. I followed this advice for years but then came to firmly disagree with it. As the saying goes, “it’s a poor crafts-person who blames their tools.” I firmly believe that this is the case with squeegees.
I used to live in Baltimore. I didn’t use distilled water during film processing and I always dried my film by “squeegeeing” it with wet fingers prior to hanging. But then I moved to Frederick, Maryland. Every time I processed, I’d get water-spots drying all over my film. Apparently the water here is more fortified with minerals than in good ole Bmore. Healthier for people but no bueno for film processing!
To resolve, I started doing a final wash with Photoflo in distilled, rather than tap water. This reduced the water spots a bit but they were still occurring. A lot of people online swore at Photoflo and swore by LFN wetting agent, which is considerably more expensive. Expensive is always better, right? Well, the only difference that I saw between Kodak Photoflo and Edwal’s LFN was that the LFN, smartly, incorporates an eyedropper on its bottle so you can measure it out more precisely.
Finally, I decided to get a little crazy.
I remembered in school, we used a squeegee to dry our film. And water-spots were never a problem then. So I bought one. I chose the Dot Line probably just because it was available at a good price.
The way I saw it, I could either put up with water-spots and just rewashing my film over and over as I chased them from all the good frames to the bad frames. Or I could risk scratching my film from time to time, which isn’t hard to clone out of a frame or two sometimes.
Obviously, if you’re a photographer who makes optical prints directly from the neg, this option isn’t an option. But for those of us who scan, maybe a little, very occasional damage is OK. Not ideal of course, but OK.
In practice though, I can honestly say that the ONLY times I’ve scratched my film with the squeegee, it was because I, myself, fucked up. And using the squeegee completely eliminated my water-spot issue.
100% finished with water-spots. And now, 100% scratch free too.
So here’s the trick to using the rubber squeegee. Before I even begin mixing my developer or even setting all my gear out on the kitchen counter, I get out a beaker, fill it with fresh, clean distilled water and drop that squeegee in there to soak. The idea is that you want the rubber blades to soften up, making them as pliable as possible. I’ve talked to some folks who use hot or warm water for the same purpose. Then, when it comes time to use the squeegee, I follow these steps religiously:
1–Remove the squeegee from the distilled water and thoroughly rub the blades with my wet fingertips. What I’m doing here is removing any debris that may have gotten stuck to the blades somehow. If there is a bit of ripped film or a particle of any kind on the blade and you then apply it to the film, you are going to scratch.
2–Next I dunk the squeegee back in the distilled, getting the blades fully wet again. I do this because rubbing the blades dries them off too much and in order for the squeegee to glide safely over the surface of the film, it needs to be a little wet. I also imagine that if there were any debris on the blades that rubbing only moved around, a second dunk in the water may knock it off.
3–Remove the squeegee from the distilled water once more and fling the excess water from it towards my sink. The blades need to be wet but not dripping.
4–Here we go. Moment of truth. I hold the strip of film well above my head, making sure there’s no curls in it, that it’s nowhere near touching anything, etc. I want to make one, good, clean, single speed pass over the film without stopping or slowing down for any reason. If you stop or change speed, the blades may stick to the surface of film and drag for a moment. You don’t want that. One, smooth, constant motion is needed. I close the squeegee on the film leader, being sure not to clamp it tight. The blades should just kiss the film with a thin water barrier between the film and the rubber. You don’t need to examine this relationship with a microscope, but just have it in mind so you have a feel for how much pressure to apply. Affirm your grip on the film leader with your other hand so that you don’t pull the film out of your fingers when you begin to squeegee.
5–Now, do it! Squeegee that film!
If done correctly, you should get a little puddle of water on the floor and you’ll have some small drops of water still on the film, in long, narrow beaded lines, but no scratches. I hang the film strip in a bay window with a clip at the bottom to dry completely. Depending on a few environmental factors, the film is usually dry enough to be cut and sleeved within maybe half an hour or less.
Some people use a squeegee to avoid water-spots. Some people use a squeegee to dry their film faster.
Whatever the reason, I get really tired of shooters criticizing others for using squeegees. Darkroom people are some of the biggest know-it-all’s that you’ll ever meet. And there’s a sect of them who love to provide alternatives to squeegees. The only one that I can think of that should work regardless of the nature of the local water is if one used distilled water in place of tap water for 100% of ones workflow. Mix all the chems in distilled and rinse at every stage with distilled. Not only would this get costly, it would be quite annoying to have to deal with all those one gallon bottles sitting about. So I use a squeegee.
If you want to play it safe and find a workaround that’s fine. But I’ve been processing my film via this method for about a decade, shooting usually over a hundred rolls each year. We can all work a little differently and that’s OK. One of the beautiful things about photography is that there’s so many more than just one way to practice it.
In any case, hopefully, these comments will bring squeegee use out from the shadows to help those struggling to produce, nice, clean negatives.
Thanks for reading and happy processing!
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