I recently posted an article showing an example where I edited a digital image in Adobe Photoshop. Starting with the original photograph straight from the camera, I showed how the image changed during each step of the process. I wanted to follow up that post with a similar article on traditional darkroom printing where I show the process of taking an image from the original film negative to the final print.

The Darkroom vs. Adobe Photoshop

With Photoshop, the rudiments of editing a photograph is fairly straightforward. While you can spend a lifetime learning the intricacies of Photoshop, you can learn the basics fairly quickly. Not only that, Photoshop allows you to experiment and see your changes in real time. Making a print in the darkroom is not that simple.

The learning curve with darkroom printing is very steep. You can’t step into a darkroom for the first time and emerge a few hours later with an acceptable print. It takes hours upon hours to learn how to make a competent print in the darkroom. Unlike Photoshop, you can’t quickly make changes and see the results. Making a print in the darkroom involves intuition and guess work. Nothing is ever exact and no two prints are ever the same. The nuances of creating a print can only be learned through hard work and experience.

The Nature of the Craft

It’s the difficulty and painstaking nature of the craft that ultimately makes it so rewarding. It’s not about clicking a button to see what happens but rather more about looking deeper and imagining what can be. It takes time. What can be done in Photoshop in a few minutes might take all day in a darkroom.

The process all starts with the film. The film you choose can have a big effect on the final print, from the grain structure and sharpness, to the overall tonality of the image. Developing the negative is an art in and of itself, but for now we’ll focus on making an actual print, assuming you are starting with an acceptable negative.

The Film Negative

For this example we’ll start with a picture of James. This image was taken in a studio with a Hasselblad 501cm and a 150mm lens using medium format Ilford HP5+ film. After development, this resulted in a crisp 6 cm x 6 cm film negative.

Darkroom Film Negative

This is the actual negative from which the final print was made. It was developed for 10 minutes at 70 degrees Fahrenheit in a 2:2:400 solution of Pyrocat HD film developer. The developer choice as well as the development time and temperature influences the negative contrast and sharpness.

The Straight Print

The next step is taking the negative and making a straight print in the darkroom. A straight print is a print made directly from the negative with no manipulation. This allows you to evaluate the negative and all the information it contains. Is it acceptably sharp? Are the highlights blown out or is shadow detail missing? Is the photograph worth taking the time to print well?

In darkroom printing, you can control contrast through the grade of the paper selected, or more easily by using paper that allows contrast to be controlled through the use of different filters placed under the enlarger lens. When making a straight print, I typically try and keep the contrast fairly flat to be able to better evaluate the negative. The other variable involved is the amount of light to which the paper is exposed. Like a camera, the aperture of the enlarger lens change be changed. The printer can also vary how long the paper is exposed. Finding the right aperture and exposure time is a process of trial and error that is greatly aided by experience.

Darkroom Straight Print

Above is the straight print of James printed on Ilford warmtone glossy fiber-based paper. The print was exposed with a #4 (higher contrast) filter at an aperture of f/8 for 24 seconds. In this form the image seems fairly flat and underexposed. It probably could have benefited from another half stop of exposure but it still gives me all the information I need to know.

Dodging and Burning

The next step is experimenting to change the overall look and tonality of the photo. For the most part this involves changing the exposure time, contrast filter, as well as dodging a burning. This is the part of the process that consumes the most time. Sometimes I spend hours and more than a dozen sheets of paper getting the process just right.

Dodging and burning alone can be quite complex. There may be more than ten or so distinct dodging and burning steps in making a print. I’ll use my hands, paper cutouts, and cardboard squares to block and manipulate the light shining on the paper as it’s exposed. That’s why no two prints can ever be the same. The process is way too complex for it to be the same every time. In my mind though, it’s these subtle differences that make a print feel like of real work of art.

Darkroom Dodged and Burned Print

The print of James after being dodged and burned. All of the different areas circled above are distinct dodging or burning steps. The arrows indicate a card is to be moved continuously in order to create a subtle vignette. The numbers indicate the extra exposure time needed for each section. For burning I typically use a sheet of thick paper with hole cut in the middle. The size of the hole will vary depending on how big the area is.

Toning and Bleaching

There is still one final stage before the print is complete, toning and bleaching. In this step experience plays a vital role. It’s difficult to judge how the final print will look. Inevitably a wet print sitting in a developing tray looks brighter than when it’s dry. When making the final print, the printer needs to understand that what he’s looking at in the darkroom tray will change by the time it’s hanging on a wall.

It’s an educated guess based on experience how toning and bleaching will change the final print. With Ilford warmtone paper, toning with selenium deepens the blacks while imparting a warm chocolate tone to the paper. Bleaching the print with potassium ferricyanide on the other hand, brightens the whites.

Darkroom Final Toned Print

The final print toned in a solution of selenium mixed with water in a 1:8 ratio for three minutes. The image was also bleached with a potassium ferricyanide and water in a 2:1 ratio for 30 seconds. These steps serve to add contrast and richness to the print, as well as adding a warm chocolate tone.

The Darkroom Process

I would describe the entire darkroom printing process as an exercise in trial and error. The more experience you have the less guess work there is. I tend to always work with the same paper and chemicals. Never changing the materials I work with allows me to better understand how the final print will eventually look.

Printing a photograph the traditional way is both time consuming and expensive. When I’m working well, the most I can expect is to finish two or three negatives in a single day. There are other times I’ll spend an entire day with a negative and still not be satisfied with the results. But as the saying goes, nothing worthwhile is ever easy. Nor should it be.