In an age where you can take a picture by simply pulling out your phone, using a film camera might feel as foreign as traveling by covered wagon. And the prospect of darkroom photography; that's how the dinosaurs did it, right?
But then you bought a film camera.
Congratulations! It fits your hand perfectly, and you love how the analog focus ring slides smoothly. You load your film (correctly), and as you go through your roll, your shutter gives you that satisfying click. Click.
And just like that, you've finished your roll. Now what? You could bring your film to the one-hour photo down the street. They'll take care of the rest while you go home and imagine all the awards your photos could win. But as you sit idly at home, some part of you feels like you cheated. You went all this way to experience the raw beauty of film photography... and then handed your work to a stranger.
I think you see where I'm going.
For the uninitiated, darkroom photography might seem like an extraordinary commitment. But many professional photographers and amateur enthusiasts alike will tell you that developing and printing your film is as important and fulfilling an experience as taking the photos.
So today, we're going to pull you out of the dark by inviting you right back in. We'll discuss what darkroom photography is, the philosophy behind its tradition, and take you step by step through the process of printing your own film photos. By the end, you'll know enough to create your own darkroom and print your own black and white photos just like a pro.
Cool… What's Darkroom Photography?
A darkroom is any space used by a photographer to print photographs taken on film. The primary characteristic of a darkroom is (surprise!) darkness. While in the movies you may have seen specialized rooms with all kinds of dedicated apparatuses, in reality, you can convert almost any room into a darkroom.
A Little History (Because We're Committing!)
The fundamental role of the darkroom was developed almost hand in hand with the process of capturing light. Or as we call it, photography. When Louis Daguerre, one of the forefathers of photography, discovered in 1839 that mercury vapor would develop a photo imprinted on a silver-coated copper plate, it set the foundation for darkroom photography.
The process, and resulting photographs, were called Daguerrotypes, and remained the standard procedure for the next two decades. But in the near two centuries since Daguerrotypes were first introduced, steady innovations, both in camera technology and in the chemical process of developing film, evolved into the modern process of darkroom photography we use today.
Let's Get a Little Light in Here
Don't! Exposing your film strip to unwanted light can, and likely will, easily ruin your photos.
Film strips are made with emulsion-coated plastic spooled into a light-tight casing. The emulsion is a mix of silver and a halogen dispersed in gelatin on the surface of the strip.
In order to minimize the necessary shutter speed to capture a clear photo, the mixture has innovated to be highly light sensitive. Any leakage of light onto the strip can immediately blot out your photographs.
Sounds Kinda Hard
Darkroom photography is actually not difficult; it just requires attention to detail and the ability to complete a process to the tee. But this fragility is all worthwhile when you finally pull out that perfectly printed photograph you handcrafted from start to finish.
So why does anyone commit to this process?
Darkroom photography is nuanced and intricate and can feel like a true artistic achievement. But ultimately, the answer to that question is up to you.
According to Adam Bartos, photographer, and author of Darkroom:
Photographer / author of Darkroom
I make distinctions about prints because I have a feeling for them as objects in history… It's quite easy to make a digital print that looks all right, but it's still very difficult to make one that is beautiful and expressive.
Film vs. Digital
So, it sounds like darkroom photography is better than digital photography.
Of course, with any artistic endeavor, that decision is subjective as well. The digital and analog processes can be easily juxtaposed because one often provides the exact advantages the other lacks.
You may already be familiar with the advantages of digital photography. For one, the moment you're unhappy with your photo, you can delete it—no harm, no foul. This allows you to take hundreds and thousands of photos of the same object to maximize the potential of coming out with one good image.
With film, the stakes are much higher. Once that shutter opens and closes, that's it. No matter how much you fuss, the end product will be a raw representation of that moment.
For many film photographers, that uncertainty is what provides the excitement that keeps them in the darkroom in the first place. In place of artificially extracting the best moment from a series, film photography embodies the spontaneity and unpredictability representative of the world it hopes to capture.
Having said that, if you're a professional photographer, you've got priorities you need to maintain. And there's nothing wrong with that. If you're taking photos professionally, the goal of photography should be to capture the best photo for the job. So, while it may feel honorable to stick with the analog, it isn't necessarily the end all be all.
This applies to the editing process as well. In darkroom photography, you can enhance your photos in various ways by manipulating the amount of light you shine on specific portions of the image.
In digital photography, you can pretty much do whatever you want. And just like in the process of taking digital photos, you can immediately nix any idea you don't like, and add layer upon layer of artificial embellishment to create the photo you desire.
Finally, the physical act of capturing light in the camera occurs differently in digital photos. Like we mentioned before, in film photography, the raw image is captured physically onto film strip. In digital film, the light data is received by a sensor, which is then immediately synthesized within the brain of the camera. At best, a digital photo is the camera's best attempt at recreating the information it received.
Convinced? Awesome. Let's do it.
Darkroom labs are not nearly as prevalent as they were in the 20th century. That doesn't mean they don't exist. In fact, finding a local darkroom is as easy as visiting www.localdarkroom.com.
It might sound like a joke, but the good folks over at HARMAN Technology Limited, attuned to the changing landscape of darkroom photography, have built an online network that allows you to find a darkroom near you. And if you have one--because you're making one after reading this article--you can register yours and share your darkroom space with other enthusiasts.
There are some clear advantages to visiting an established darkroom lab. For one, darkroom labs are already fitted with the exact materials you need, and if they were established in a public space (like a college campus), they tend to be located in windowless rooms.
The truth is, however, it's much easier and cheaper to convert a room in your home into a perfectly workable darkroom. And if you're not fully confident in your work (like so many of us), then the privacy might give you the space to explore your photography more freely.
So, today, we're making our own darkroom. And even if you ultimately decide not to, following these steps will help you the first couple times you use a shared darkroom.
First things first, compile the necessary equipment to fill your dark domain.
There are starter kits available online, which will provide you with everything you need. But you can easily run the risk of paying too much only to realize you don't need a large amount of the items you bought. That's not to say every kit is bad, and you should definitely window shop, just make sure you know exactly what your needs are before you hit that “checkout” button.
Here's a handy checklist of equipment for your first darkroom, compiled with the help of amateurphotographer.co.uk
I know what you're thinking. For a process described as “not difficult” and “the cheaper option,” that list feels awfully long. And we bet you just Googled “enlarger” only to find that the cheap options cost somewhere in the high three digits.
Secondhand darkroom equipment is often dirt cheap, and if you reach out to another local darkroom photographer, the sheer excitement of finding a peer can score you cheap or free equipment. (Pro tip: don't abuse the relationship)
Choosing the Right Materials
Searching for the right materials online can feel pretty daunting if you don't know what you're looking for.
Choosing an Enlarger
When choosing an enlarger, make sure the headpiece works smoothly, and the focus works properly. This is how most of the adjustments to your photo will be made before exposing your negatives onto paper. It's also a permanent fixture in your darkroom setup and one of the more expensive purchases, so you don't want to buy a faulty one!
Just because the paper all looks white, doesn't mean they are equal. The two main types of paper you'll encounter are Resin-Coated (RC) or Fiber-Based (FB). Within those are options for different finishes, ranging from glossy to matte, semi-matte, pearl, and so on. FB paper is harder to handle; we recommend starting with the Resin-Coated paper when starting out.
Here's a 14-minute video from Ira Gardner just about choosing paper. The time is emphasized not as a deterrent, but to show you just how much you can/should consider when choosing your paper.
Ira goes into great detail about the makeup of each type of paper, how they differ, and when to choose which type of paper.
Stop bath and fixer tend to be universally compatible, but make sure you research your developer before purchasing, as these can be restrictive in its compatibility with specific types or brands of paper. There are also options between liquid and powder chemicals. For the beginner, we recommend the liquid option.
Visit ILFord Photo to extend your knowledge about the developing chemicals you'll need.
Now that you've successfully gathered your materials, you'll have a better sense of what space to convert into your darkroom.
A windowless room in your home is perfect for a darkroom. If you don't have one, you can take a few easy steps to convert your bedroom, bathroom, garage, or any space you choose into a properly darkened darkroom.
To cover up any light that might seep through a window or a sliver in the doorway, use blackout curtains or any material advertised to block out light fully. If the room naturally lets in minimal light, you can even use a black trash bag.
Then, run black duct tape around the entire edge of the material to fully seal the light source. If you have any doubts about the quality of your work, sit in the darkened room for a few minutes. As your eyes adjust, they'll begin to pick up the faintest source of light.
We recommend completing this step before you begin moving your materials into the room. Since you'll be working with chemicals and fragile equipment, you want to make sure you have time to get used to the space in the darkness, or at least minimize the risk of breaking something the first time you darken your room.
One feature in your home you'll need is running water to wash the developing chemicals (developer, stop bath, fixer). The nice thing is, the part of the process can take place in light, and therefore doesn't need to be located in the darkroom itself. The running water should be close for convenience and to prevent excessive dripping of chemicals.
Now that you've blacked out the windows and you have your materials, place your enlarger in an area with enough space for three trays to rest nearby. These trays will be filled with your developer nearest to the enlarger, then stop bath, then fix.
Now, you can measure out the proper dilutions for your developer, stop bath, and fix.
Everything from this point on should occur in the dark. And by dark, I mean that this is how your darkroom should look.
Once you've confirmed your darkroom is properly dark… check again to make sure it's really, properly dark. Put your phone in your pocket, unplug anything that emits LED light, or really any light at all, and then triple check the whole room again.
Now, you can turn your red safe light on and get going.
You're ready to begin.
At this point, your film strip should be fully sealed in a light-tight canister. But before you choose which photo to print, you need to process your roll of film so you can look at your negatives in light.
To do this, you'll need your developing tank and reel to hold your film. You'll also need to concoct a developer mixture; make sure to find out the recommended time and temperature for your particular film beforehand.
The next steps are difficult in the dark, so you need to practice, practice, practice.
In total darkness, so as to not ruin your negatives, spool the film strip onto the reel, and load it into your tank. Then, pour your developer mixture in from the opening at the top. Screw the lid on tight, then, follow the instructions to agitate the tank properly.
Once finished, pour out the developer safely and hang your negatives. You can now look at them in the light to find the perfect picture to print.
Here's a handy animation created by ILFORD Photo to help you visualize the process.
The Enlarger (Dun Dun Duuuuun)
Take the negative you want to print and load it into the enlarger carrier, then slide it into the top portion of the enlarger.
Turn on your enlarger. The light should now shine through your negative and project down onto the easel.
You can adjust the desired size of your print by moving the enlarger head up and down. Don't forget to refocus your photo when you adjust the head.
You should also adjust the aperture ring until the image is at its brightest. Then turn the lens's aperture ring until it clicks twice. The projected image should darken slightly.
Once you've found the correct size and focus of your photo, turn off your room light and turn on your safe light. Then, and only then, should you take out your paper. Make absolutely sure the room is dark—otherwise your paper will be ruined.
At this point, you can use your Multigrade filter to adjust the contrast of your photo.
Slide the paper into your easel, and expose it to the light from the enlarger. You should have a timer to help you expose the paper for the correct, recommended amount of time.
At this juncture, you won't see the photo appearing on the paper, so you can't necessarily confirm that the process is taking place properly. But when that timer goes off, your photo is ready to be developed.
Use your tongs or tweezers to place the exposed paper into your developing tray, then gently rock the tray back in forth with both hands. Try to submerge the entire paper at the same time to ensure that the image develops evenly. DON'T press the image into the developer with your tongs. You'll immediately see why. Try not to find out the hard way.
Make sure you know how long to rock the tray. Timing through this whole process is incredibly important. Any deviation from the recommend figures can result in your photo developing incorrectly.
Next, pick up the paper right at the edge, and slide it into the stop bath. Again, gently rock, but only for ten seconds.
Pick the paper up again and slide it into your fixer. Gently rock for one minute.
Here's a video to show you what motion you're trying for as you rock your trays.
Finally, place your print in the wash for 5-10 minutes. Never leave your print in the wash for longer than 30 minutes. Then, hang it up to dry. (You can use any kind of clip that is strong enough and hang it like you would laundry.)
Hey, you did it! You printed your own photograph!
Wait… hopefully, you read through the entirety of this article before trying it out, because it's time to cover…
Always try to remember these tips, especially if you're in a shared environment. Boom, done!
Now you've completed the printing process, but at this point, you might notice some of your precious prints have blemishes. Or worse, they just didn't come out at all.
Don't worry. It happens to the best of us, but identifying the causes of specific mistakes can help you adjust your process and prevent mishaps in the future.
Now that you're done let's back it up for a moment.
Before you go through the process of printing your image, take time to conduct tests. This will ensure that you hone in on the right exposure and contrast before creating your final print.
Sure, you can just make multiple full prints of the photo to do this, but that would be a massive waste of time and precious paper.
In order to prevent waste, begin by cutting your paper into smaller pieces. Now put these away until you're ready to turn off your light.
Set your negative in the enlarger exactly as you would when printing. Adjust the aperture, size, and focus as desired.
Turn off your room light and retrieve one of your test strips. Place the test strip on your easel, and position it over a portion of the image that exhibits a wide range of tones so you can see how they interact.
Hold a piece of black paper or cloth (anything that can block the enlarger's light) over 80% of your test strip. After three seconds, expose a little more of the strip to the enlarger's light. After three more seconds, expose a little more.
Once you've reached the end, effectively exposing the last bit of test strip to three seconds of light, develop the strip and wash.
There should be five even sections exposed differently. As you compare these differences, the exposure you prefer for your image should become pretty clear. Pick which balance of tones is most desirable, and replicate it proportionally for your final print.
You can also change your filter if you don't like the contrast. Higher numbers mean more contrast, and vice versa.
Embrace The Dark
Whew! You made it.
There are a lot of steps involved in darkroom printing. But don't face it with dread. The more knowledge you accrue, the better you'll get at it. And guess what? You're probably going to make mistakes. But as with anything worth doing, it's rewarding work, and once you can go through the process comfortably in your head, you'll be printing full rolls of film in no time.
The time you spend in the darkroom with your photos can be special. It's a welcome vacation from the flashing lights and constant noise of the outside world, and can be an almost meditative process.
Now that you know all the necessary steps to printing in your own darkroom, you can become a part of the community. There are plenty of resources online. Especially as the art form continues to move farther from the mainstream photographic experience, those committed to it are working harder to preserve the tradition. And now you have the knowledge to share with a supportive network of darkroom technicians.
And really, we've only scratched the surface of what you can bring out of your photos. If you're interested in learning more, the Internet is the perfect place to start. Below, we've shared some helpful links you can bookmark to look back on as get better at the printing process.
This site isn't dedicated just to darkroom photography, but they have detailed, easy-to-follow breakdowns for beginners and experts alike.
This is a branded resource, run by the same people who created localdarkroom.com. That means they'll give you helpful information about darkroom photography, and you can buy materials directly through them.
ILFORD PHOTO Animation Series
This helpful series of short animations can help you keep essential points in mind, while also helping you visualize the process.
Congratulations on making the first steps toward becoming a darkroom photographer. Now get in there, print your photographs, and most importantly, enjoy it.