in Photography

My notes from beginning darkroom printing

I’ve recently started learning to print pictures in an actual darkroom. I was a bit concerned that I wasn’t getting the full potential out of film, that I was missing out somewhere. It’s also nice to spend a few hours in a quiet dark room wholly involved in a creative process, and it is creative – the darkroom is where you do your post processing.

It’s slow, or at least I am. In the last session I spent four hours to print three negatives to a point where I was happy with them. At this stage I’m picking things that will challenge me each time – different films and development and lighting conditions – so that I learn, so this will end up being slower than if I was just printing a series of fairly similar shots.

It’s not very expensive though, even if it’s time consuming. I go to a darkroom in a community arts centre (Chats Palace if you’re interested, I can recommend it) and pay a few pounds an hour. The paper isn’t all that expensive. For learning purposes I bought a box of 100 5×7″ sheets of Ilford Multigrade RC Satin – this is a good quality paper that allows for different contrasts, not exhibition quality fibre paper but then you’d not print for an exhibition at 5×7″ anyway unless you were odd. That cost me about £20. At the moment I may use 3-4 sheets to get a print nailed – you need to use paper to test your exposure settings, and they change with each negative – but once you’ve done that you can make as many prints as you like at the same settings.

The technology of it is not difficult to learn. Objectively speaking it is far simpler than Photoshop. That doesn’t mean that it is easy to make good prints, but it means it is much quicker to get to the stage where it is your artistic ability and experience that is the deciding factor, rather than you not knowing where a menu is.

You do learn how forgiving film is in terms of exposure, but also how important lens and film quality is, because you can push the physical limits of the medium when printing. When scanning I’ve found that, while sharp film and a good lens does make a difference, it doesn’t make that much difference as you’re limited mostly by the scanner. This isn’t the case with printing, and the larger you print (including enlarging for a crop on smaller paper) the more you notice. Though even with my staple grainy Kentmere 400 it’s still not bad. I’ll probably buy more T-Max though.

And finally, it’s not something that is digitisable. You’ve made something that exists in the physical world. You may be able to put it in a scanner but at best looking at it on a screen will not be the same as seeing the original. I’m not quite sure what to do about this but it’s novel. I feel like making a zine or something.