My Experience Printing In A Darkroom

November 19, 2018

dark room prints

I hate post-processing. Frankly, I find it boring and hazardous. Boring as the tools you have at the glance of your hand offer so many options that you don’t know which ones are necessary and with which tool you should start. Hazardous because you can spend many long hours not even being able to decide of the right version of a picture,;coming back over the same image again and again, rather than being out shooting. I just prefer the jpeg setting I choose on my camera, or, when it comes to my recent interest for film, the way my negatives are scanned by the photo lab.

But recently, as I was at a photo exhibition, I met some quite renowned Japanese photographer Takeshi Ishikawa (he works on William Eugene Smith’s prints and was an assistant to him) who kindly offered to teach me how to print my negatives. The offer was a gift to which I couldn’t say no; it was taking a new step into the film photography world, a new knowledge, something fun and exciting. Post-processing the old-school way was something that seemed less dull than the digital darkroom.

I had never seen a darkroom before, never realized such chemicals were involved, never seen an enlarger, never worked in a room only lit by a red light. Everything was new and fascinating. The place was small, barely enough space for two people – although I start thinking that if the photographer makes the decision for how the prints should be made, printing is a real job, the one of a real craftsman… and, in the end; a photograph is not only the job of one single person.

Lights on in the darkroom, we decided to leave some white borders of 0.6 or 0.8 inch around the picture. It appears totally unnecessary to the novice, but it is crucial for the case pictures should be exhibited or framed. It was something I’ve never really thought of before; as the digital world makes us forget about the purpose of a picture and the way to materialize it. We scaled the final size of the picture on a baseboard easel (it is some kind of a plate with rules on the vertical and horizontal sides).

Then we placed my negative in the enlarger film carter, and placed the carter above the enlarger lens. Light up in the enlarger, projecting a positive image of the film negative; we adjusted the enlarger height so that the image projected filled in the size we’ve decided to work with, while keeping moving the baseboard easel to perfectly align everything.

Then, like on a camera actually, we opened the lens to obtain the maximum light onto the baseboard in order to check with a magnifying glass if everything was in focus or if it should be adjusted again. After the last check, we closed the lens by two stops (technically, I don’t know why, but this was our rule). We turned out the light in the enlarger; we turned out the bulb light in the lab; and turn on the famous darkroom red light. Already, it was a phenomenal amount of work I wouldn’t have imagined before entering a darkroom.

Once in the dark, the lab only lit by the dull red light, we took some sheet of photographic paper out of its black protection. But even at this step, things were still on trial. We cut the sheet into four segments in order to make exposure trials to select which exposure timing was necessary to have a correct picture. We decided to expose the four segments of paper to five, ten, fifteen and twenty seconds, under the enlarger light. When negatives were overexposed or underexposed, we also had to place a filter to bring back a correct exposure in the enlarger.

After it had been exposed, the photosensitive paper goes into three baths: the first, revealing the image (one or two minutes), the second (same amount of time), stopping the chemistry process, the third, fixing the image for about thirty seconds. Then, it has to be stocked under clear water, and then finally rinsed. Only after making tests, you know which exposure is the right one for your first print. Still, things are on test. An image, to come to life, goes through different manipulations, like unsharp masking, vignetting, or dodging and burning. I’ve only learnt the later.

Burning consists of giving an extra exposure to the initial exposure on some areas of the image. Dodging is taking out exposure time to the initial exposure. For these two processes, we use whether our hands, small cards, or cones, to enlighten or to darken our chosen areas regarding our personal artistic taste; while giving a motion to our gestures to smooth out the edges of dodging and burning effects. That’s when a flat image directly from a negative comes to life; as a raw image comes to life after it went through the digital darkroom.

It was exciting and amazing to see these pictures coming into “life”. They looked perfect to me, even after the first print. But having a professional teacher; telling you what’s right and wrong makes you realize that you have to insist; that you have to work, to put efforts to create the perfect image.

A photograph, indeed, is not only the act of clicking; but also an artistic decision – involving a good amount of maths! I enjoyed how my hands became magic to give birth to something tangible I’ve never experienced before. And every time the image appeared in the developing bath, it was a tremendous moment.

Photo Lab: Place M, 1 Chome-2-11 Shinjuku, Tokyo 160-0022
Cameras: Pentax K1000 (35mm) / Pentax 67 (120mm)
Films: Kodak Tri-X 400 / Ilford HP5 400
Paper: Ilford multigrade FB Classic Glossy – 9.5x12 inches
13 final images made in 7 hours (some prints have 2 or 3 versions)