I really believe that to be a complete photographer it is imperative to either hone the skill set of printing within a darkroom environment or be knowledgeable of the process. For me personally, printing in my darkroom encapsulates the journey of being a film photographer.
Really whenever I press the shutter on my chosen camera, I have already imagined the finished print in my head. This is where the journey starts and I then work backwards. I have always used this mindset throughout my photographic career.
Not that I think about this process too much, nowadays it only takes a millisecond for this to happen but that’s not always been the case… Once I’ve seen the image in my head, I’m then making instant decisions on how I’m going to print it, what grade of paper I’m going use, whether I need to dodge or burn, what type of negative I require and “do I need a slightly thicker or thinner negative”.
All these decisions are made before I even press the shutter, and it makes my life easier in the darkroom. This thought process is also part of my preparation, for example, the decisions I make before even going out, such as my subject matter will determine what film I’m going to use.
I really love working in the darkroom. Mine is my garden shed, my space, my place of peace. The smell of chemistry, the anticipation of creating that final print. Creating a good contact sheet is not only is essential but It can also help hone your skills too.
Getting each exposure correct in the camera is very important, it’s also a good guide towards creating your final print. Of course, a good contact print looks beautiful on its own and framed can look beautiful. It also shows how the photographer works and their journey of capturing their subject matter. This is all part of the journey to becoming a better photographer.
Once the contact sheet is created, washed and then dried you can then make your decision on the final print. Next it’s test strips, testing for exposure, how much time you need to expose it through the enlarger and what grade to use. In the old days, you would have used single graded paper, now we use multigrade paper, and as you become more experienced these decisions will come naturally.
Then it’s about making your first print and seeing it come to life in the developer. Watching the tones build and into the stop bath to stop the developing process. Next onto the fix, gently tipping each tray back and forth to assist the chemistry in working its magic. It’s so mesmerising watching the waves hit one end of the dish making the journey back to the other. Finally into the wash.
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At this point, don’t rush! Once washed, leave adequate time to dry as all prints look different when wet. Once dry, study it! I then consider whether I need to dodge or burn a selection of the print in or out to create the intended mood.
Now onto the second print with your adjustments, going back through the process again. You’ll know when it’s right and you may then have to do one final adjustment to the third print.
As the final print develops I still get that feeling of ‘Wow’ washing over me! A great emotive feeling that I will never tire of. The feeling of pride and completion, there’s nothing like it!
If you want control of your work there is nothing more rewarding than getting stuck into the darkroom. It will give you the ultimate sense of achievement, make you a more rounded and accomplished photographer completing the creative process.
This example is taken from a walk in Dean Village and Stockbridge, Edinburgh. The camera I used was a Pentax Spotmatic with a Carl Zeiss Flektogon 35mm f/2.4 lens. The film is Kodak T-MAX 400 processed in Ilfosol 3, 1 to 9 dilution at 20c Printed on ILFORD Multigrade RC gloss, grade 2, with Multigrade paper developer.
My biggest tip is to start with knowing what you want to achieve, your end goal. Always have the final print in your mind before pressing the shutter.
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