Red Light Allure

Digital photography has been mainstream, affordable to the masses for just over a decade and in that time billions of images have been captured, but how many have been printed? Why spend all that money on a digital camera and never print the files? Prints will give files life; an appreciation of tonal range, contrast, colours and depth.

With two youngsters, the time I have to sort through my digital files to upload to a lab for wet-printing is diminishing and so my print output is slowing down. As a consequence I have started to purchase more colour print film to put through my Leica M6TTL. That way I get the immense satisfaction of using the Leica, then drop my film into the lab and get my prints back – thats it. Of course it costs me more than digital files, but I exercise plenty of discipline as I learnt on film.

However, my true love lies in the darkroom with black and white film (from my Leica or Mamiya RZ67) and the characteristic prints it produces. Ultimately all the effects created in the darkroom can be emulated virtually in a computer. It’ll be quicker and less smelly (thats open to debate – darkrooms smell nice to some), but there is immense satisfaction in creating your own prints. If you have only ever known digital photography, take a look at the paths available for the black and white film photographer to get to the final image, and you’ll understand why they enjoy what they do.

There is a wide and varied selection of monochrome films available, from smooth ultra-fine grain through to coarse grained ones, enabling you to choose the effect you desire. The faster the ISO the larger the grain has to be, but some films are smoother than others, yet some subjects benefit more from the effect of grain. Each type of film also responds differently to developers; grain can be small, soft, sharp or coarse depending on the developer selected. However, you cannot for example choose a coarse grain high-speed film and develop it in ultra-fine grain chemicals and expect the grain to simply get smaller and finer. The limits are defined by chemistry so your first choice in the process to a print is important.

Despite a decline in materials available to monochrome printers there are still numerous papers to choose from. Manufacturers each produce papers with their own characteristics, and most offer a choice of matte, semi-gloss or gloss as a finish.

Because developers and toners will react differently with each type of paper there are a large number of combinations for the darkroom user to select from on the route to the final print. You may want rich, warm tones, cool tones, or perhaps the overall image responds well to a particular hue. Some papers have a warm base that can vary from an olive feel in their hue whilst others have inherent characteristics that produced beautiful ivory tones throughout. Toners can lighten a print, reducing the contrast or increase the overall density giving greater contrast, and the print may also be toned to virtually any colour you desire. Toners such as Gold or Selenium give proven archival permanence that far exceeds that of a digital print. Whatever ‘feel’ you want, the chemistry is available.

Contrast is controlled through film exposure and film development, and also during printing by the use of filtration when using multi-grade papers. If you wish to use papers with a richer finish, fixed grade ones tend to have a higher silver content but can be more expensive. The negative needs to print well at that particular grade, but as you will have read, developers and toners can adjust contrast, so you need to bear this in mind when printing.

Those who have printed in the darkroom will fully understand when I say, the moment you see an image come through on paper in the dull glare of the red safelight feels magical. (We really know that its chemistry, but this is emotion not science now). Before you can truly admire your work (this can be up to a couple of days away) a fibre-based silver gelatin print has to be fixed and washed thoroughly to prevent the final image fading in normal light. (I use a hypo-clearing agent, then an hour in a wash).

There are several ways to dry a fibre-print (if left to its own devices it will simply curl up). Some printers peg them back to back so that one counteracts the other, or they can be placed between blotters, perhaps taped to a glass surface or placed for a short length of time on a print dryer. Then, and only then, is the final print truly appreciated (but then you may think it would look better to toned). Bear in mind though, when printing fibre-based papers they tend to dry approximately 10% darker, so if the print looks perfect when you’ve taken it out of the fixer and gone to white-light in the darkroom, it’ll dry too dark.

My standard choice of paper is Ilford MGIV multigrade fibre-base developed in Tetenal Eukobrom developer giving the print a neutral feel, with no change in hue plus deep blacks with a pleasing tonal range right through to the highlight detail. (I do use other papers and developers too). The whole print truly represents the scene. It has a wonderful 3-D feel with clarity and depth that gives it life. I have yet to dabble with some of the other wonderful papers available from Adox or Foma and see how they work, that it is something I’m looking forward too that will give me even greater scope to interpret my negatives.

For my general printing of everyday monochrome negatives to go in an album, (think of it as machine-printing by hand) I use 7″x5″ Ilford MGIV resin-coated, Pearl finish developed in Tetenal Eukobrom. I can knock these out quickly in the darkroom, washing takes minutes (as does drying) using resin coated paper, and all my camera exposures are accurate throughout the film so there is no need to do a test strip for each print. If one negative needs to be printed lighter or darker my experience will let me get it where I want it in within two attempts. All this will take time and I’m sure you’ll recall at the start I mentioned my constraints, but the fact remains I enjoy the darkroom and producing prints far more than I do processing files in Adobe Lightroom or Capture NX2.

As you will have seen, making the print in the darkroom is produced physically using chemistry and crafting a print is becoming a rarity. The images produced in the red-light have had a journey to get where they are with physical involvement every step of the way, which is why they carry the emotion of the photographer. Decisions in the darkroom are made with consequences as there is no ‘Undo’ keystroke; so whether good or bad it is not a decision made lightly.

Re-creating the effects of film using software is becoming more popular, but film will never vanish completely, and will certainly become rarer and considerably more expensive, and the those prints from negatives will be all the more unique.

For the record, at the time of writing (June 2011), I am building another darkroom having moved home last year.

UPDATE – darkroom is now active – June 13th 2013.

I shall leave the last words to The Manic Street Preachers from the track A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun –

“Who needs patience anymore,
When all our pleasure’s virtual”

If you’re thinking of having a dabble in the darkroom I can recommend:

Ilford – British company that’s left a footprint in three Centuries, with black and white analogue photography, and for a good reason. Superb black and white products.

Silverprint – Everything for the monochrome darkroom printer

Film & Darkroom User Forum – very friendly and knowledgeable bunch of people

Robin Bell – Photographic Printer – I wish I had a fraction of this man’s talent – Saw his work at Richard Young Gallery in 2009 – ‘Robin Bells Silver Foot Print’ – spectacular.

There are plenty of others out there but these four are an excellent starting point.


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  1. Out and about in Barbrook and Gardom's Edge - Ross Photography - the blog of Ross Photography Landscape photographer and Experimental Xpan Streetphotographer

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