The Wet Darkroom Revisited

Many of us involved today in the art of photography cannot remember a time when photography was not primarily a digital experience, with images taken on digital cameras, recorded on digital memory media, imported to a computer, and then processed with a favored suite of software. For many the ultimate output from this endeavor is an image viewed primarily, if not solely, on an electronic screen.

Some of us can remember when telephone calls away from home required spare change for a pay phone, when navigation was via a paper map, when a pencil was inserted into the hole of a cassette tape to rewind the music, and when a cutting-edge computer used punched holes in a paper tape or card to apply machine code instructions – we also remember when a photographic image was recorded via light-sensitive emulsion on celluloid film, and the final product was a physical print that could be held and viewed.

There was no “chimping” of just-taken images on a screen on the back of the camera; you would not know the results of your efforts until the film had been chemically developed in a lab. The developed film then had to go through an additional step of enlarging and printing on light-sensitive paper that again had to be chemically processed. These procedures involved smelly and sometime toxic chemicals, employed in timed sequences of steps under specified temperature controls, while in either absolute darkness or using spectrum-safe lights to preclude ruining the film or print. If the image on the negative was not perfectly exposed in the camera, it could be corrected. But these corrections called for more than the tweaking of a software slider; they required the knowledgeable use of contrast-changing filters, and the precise and skillful use of burning masks and dodging tools for precise amounts of time while exposing the print in the enlarger.

With the demands and limitations of the old analog process, is it any wonder today that photography is so firmly entrenched in the digital realm? Curiously, there is a small but growing sub-culture in modern photography, on one hand comprising die-hard originalists who never abandoned the analog processes due to preferred aesthetics, nostalgia, or pure orneriness, and on the other hand made up of new initiates to the analog world – lomographers, hipsters, and sometimes just photographers who are fascinated by the time-honored art and craft of traditional analog photography and welcome its attendant challenges.

My photographic journey began in this pre-digital, film-only world; as a high schooler in the mid-70’s I received a 35mm rangefinder as a Christmas gift. This first “serious” camera introduced me to film photography, and led to black and white film development and enlarger printing in a bathroom converted into a rudimentary temporary darkroom. While my results were unremarkable as a result of equally limited skills and resources, the magical experience of watching images come to life in the developer tray is one that has not faded with time.

The analog process is neither superior nor inferior to the digital process; this argument continues to be waged in the photography world, but it misses the point – photography is a creative outlet for visual expression with countless paths. Tonality, sharpness, resolution, graininess, color fidelity – these and other values are not absolute standards that must be met but rather represent subjective qualities that the photographer chooses as his or her creative path. This path need not be justified save that the individual photographer finds meaning, merit, or satisfaction in the medium.

This long argument sets the stage for my recent foray back to the wet darkroom; it does not replace my interest in digital photography. Since I approach photography as an amateur, and it as a hobby, I view my attempts to master traditional equipment, materials, and methods as a rewarding challenge. I value the process as much as the final product.

This has led to my building a wet darkroom in my basement. The selected site is next to my woodworking shop and my wife’s pottery wheel, so separation from woodworking and pottery dust was a particular challenge.

 

Figure 1: Darkroom with Red-LED Safelights

I accomplished all the work myself, to include framing in new walls and ceiling, plumbing for hot/cold water supply, installing a drain pump for waste water (with venting into the main house vent), wiring for all required outlets and lighting (both white-LED and red-LED safe lights in recessed ceiling fixtures), entry door installation and light-proofing, installing light-proof filtered air inlet ducts and an exhaust fan, drywall hanging and finishing, cabinet installation, enlarger table construction, and all finish trim and painting.  Additionally I fabricated an 8-foot sink from Baltic birch plywood and epoxy resin, and installed a water temperature control panel. The darkroom features a Beseler 23CII enlarger, capable of working with up to 6×9 medium format negatives.

Figure 2: Beseler 23CII Enlarger

My film, ranging from 35mm up to 4×5 inch, is developed in one of several types of daylight developing tanks; the exposed film is loaded into the tank in absolute darkness using either the blacked-out darkroom or in a light-tight film changing bag – the daylight developing tank can then be used in normal lighting. For black and white film, three chemicals (developer, stop bath, and fixer) are prepared and brought to correct temperature, normally 68 deg F (20 deg C). The first chemical poured into the tank is the developer, in which the film will soak for several minutes with periodic agitation. The development of the film is then halted by pouring out the developer and introducing the stop bath for a short time. The image on the film is then made permanent by pouring out the stop bath and soaking the film in fixer for a few minutes. The film is now safe to expose to light, and the tank can be opened. The film is rinsed at this point for several minutes with plain water to remove any residual chemicals from the film. Then the film is hung up to dry.

Printing is accomplished in two major steps. First, the negative image is projected onto a printing paper using the enlarger, basically reversing the process by which the camera initially took the picture. Then, the print is developed in trays of developer, stop bath, fixer, and water rinse just as the film was similarly done.

Figure 3: Negative Image Projected in Enlarger


The image is focused on the paper using a grain focuser, which actually focuses on the individual silver grains in the negative. The next decision is to determine an exposure time for the print, which will usually run between 5-20 seconds. Normally, some test prints will be made using a range of exposure times to determine the optimum exposure. The test print will also be evaluated for contrast, and either differing contrast-grade printing papers or contrast filters with multi-grade printing papers are used to yield the desired level of image contrast. Finally, if specific areas of the image require more or less exposure than the base exposure time, dodging and burning techniques can used to fine tune these local exposure areas. Dodging is done by using the hands or a small card on a wire to block the projected light from hitting specific parts of the image; this reduced exposure will make that part of the image lighter in the final print. Burning is similarly accomplished by using masks with holes to allow extra exposure in selected areas; this increased exposure will make the image in the final print darker in the intended areas.

Figure 4: Dodging Image with a Cardboard Disk

These are obviously “hands-on” techniques that yield unique results for every print; multiple prints from the same negative can exhibit significant variations, as can be seen in original prints of the same image by Ansel Adams, who was considered a master darkroom printer. In fact, the required skill of the printer, combined with the variations inherent with the process, led Adams (who was also a classically trained concert pianist) to compare darkroom printing to performing music:

“The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways.”

Analog film work is technically challenging, but not clinically precise, as digital photography and its techniques sometime seem. Ansel Adams’ metaphor of the score and performance is apt; the output is not perfect, but reflects the skill and character of the artist. For some photographers the classic analog processes may represent an organic connection with handcrafted artistry that aligns them more intimately with the image they envision and wish to share. Or perhaps the child in all of them simply still marvels at the magic of an image appearing before their eyes.

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2 thoughts on “The Wet Darkroom Revisited

  1. I love this article! My wife learnt to shoot and develop film many years ago at a tech school. I only know digital, but I have a collection of analogue cameras and would love to develop my own film. However I have to justify the set-up costs somehow…

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