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Has the digital age left the dark room behind?

Has the digital age left the dark room behind? - Photographers debate the world over in regards to which path photography should be taking. Should we forget about the darkroom methods of the past or should these traditional techniques still be embraced in the 21st century? Jonathan Newman tells us more.

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Zeiss ikon camera frontWith the digital era now firmly upon us it appears that the world of photography is now at a crossroads, in one direction we have the traditional darkroom methods of the past, and the other is the shiny new digital world.

Photography is caught up in the long-standing dilemma of the old versus the new, the traditional versus the innovative, and the past versus the present. I spoke to a number of photographers and darkroom expects regarding the subject to find what they thought the future holds for the darkroom.

Darkroom photography was introduced in the 19th century and has been used by budding photographers all over the world but recently its popularity has steadily decreased. Many photographers have been drawn out of the darkrooms by digital cameras and the benefits that come with it. However, does this signify the end of the darkroom and the traditional printing techniques of the past?

The main casualties of the digital era are the darkroom equipment manufacturers and retailers, and one of Britain's most established darkroom equipment producers is Ilford Photo and Harman technology.

ePHOTOzine talked to the companies marketing manager Judy Wong in a previous interview earlier this year and she spoke of the difficulties that have faced the company in recent years.

The future of Ilford was on a knife edge and in 2004 they went into receivership; however out of the troubles came Harman Technology and they were able to continue to provide darkroom products for the public.

The fact that such a large company was so close to going bust is testament to the troubles that the darkroom market now faces. Many darkroom retailers are not as fortunate as Harman and are sadly no more; however this lack of competitors has enabled Ilford and Harman to flourish.

Speaking on the matter in the interview earlier this year Judy told us how the company is thriving in such difficult times, "Most of our competitors in the black and white market have pulled out of this niche market."

Image by Kay Goodridge Although the future of the company seems secure for now the niche market which Judy speaks of does denote a somewhat bleak outlook for darkroom products and the photographers who wish to continue using the darkroom.

I spoke to professional photographer Kay Goodridge about her opinions on the subject and she told me of her troubles obtaining darkroom products: "It's hard to get hold of the paper, chemicals and film that I love, I have favourites that have been discontinued which is frustrating for serious artists".

This lack of availability seems to be proving a major stumbling block for the future of the darkroom. Though many photographers have moved into the digital age, those that have opted to stick with analogue and darkrooms are struggling to get their hands on the products they need.

Award winning wedding photographer Peter Dixon is another artist who seems to have grown tired of the darkroom and opted to switch to digital: "I still have a working darkroom but the last time I used it was more than five years ago".

Peter also admits that the chances of him using his darkroom again are relatively slim: "I don't think I will use film again. I still have some in my fridge and if a client wanted film then I would use it, but it's unlikely".

Both Kay and Peter's comments regarding darkrooms and traditional printing products suggest that the darkrooms future does look quite ominous.

However precarious the outlook appears for the darkroom and black and white printing in the modern era the subject still receives much diverse and enthusiastic debate. When I opened up the subject on ePHOTOzine's forums I was inundated with varied responses and opinions, which goes to show what a passionate topic it is for all photographers.

Many appear to be in a quandary concerning the subject, with photographers seeing both the pros and cons in regards to the darkroom/digital debate.

One forum member who is able to see both the positive and negatives aspects of the two forms of photography is amateur photographer Kris Dutson.

Image by Kay Goodridge When discussing the subject Kris told me that digital printing was an easier alternative to the darkroom, due to its "speed, efficiency and cost effectiveness". However, Kris also admitted that nothing beats the feeling of accomplishment that one achieves when working in a darkroom, he spoke of the "Sheer fun and sense of achievement, plus the great British nostalgia factor".

This nostalgia factor which Kris speaks of is a concept that many of the photographers I spoke to talked of, and at the end of the day this sense of romanticism that is associated with the darkroom may just be enough to save it from being solely a thing of the past.

Rob Smith is another forum member who shares the sense of nostalgia towards the darkroom and the darkroom techniques: "My first exposure to photography and darkroom work was standing beside my father watching the magic of an image appear in the developer, surrounded by the warm glow of the safelight".

However, even with such fond connotations that Rob has when discussing the darkroom, he also has switched to digital because of the quality pigment and paper printing options from Epson, Canon and HP. "I can't see myself going back into the darkroom working again," he said.

It would appear that the print quality that the darkroom was once prominent for can now be achieved more cheaply and easily with digital methods. Many forum members and professional photographers also spoke of how much space a darkroom takes up in comparison to a computer and how much quicker the digital process is.

Robin Hodges is one photographer in particular who is adamant in his belief that digital processes are by far superior to those of film photography and darkroom processes. When asked about digital advantages Robin told me: "The computer is cleaner, healthier and easier to setup. It is technically easier and you can operate with individual pixels."

So there is seemingly no denying that the digital technologies in photography have made many processes simpler and quicker for photographers of all ages, styles and experience. However, for many photographers the process of darkroom printing, though more technically difficult, conjures up images of tradition and is by far the more enjoyable and worthwhile method.

Image by Hayley Robinson I spoke to Hayley Robinson who is not only a professional photographer but also runs a darkroom in Shropshire and she is adamant that darkrooms and black and white printing will never be completely forgotten.

Though she admits finding it difficult to attain many of the chemicals and equipment due to "companies going bust through lack of sales and competing with the digital trend", she still believes that no other technique beats the thrill you get when inside a darkroom.

"After you have spent time in a darkroom under the red lights, smelled the chemicals and felt the texture of the paper under your fingers you are hooked," said Hayley.

Such enthusiasm is common place among those photographers who have opted to carry on using the techniques of the past and shun the bright lights of the digital revolution.

The ultimate question seems to be whether or not darkrooms still have a place in the modern world or whether they are simply a nostalgic pastime that is not out dated?

However, there is no definitive answer to the debate. Digital technology and all the advances it has brought has certainly revolutionised photography. Nevertheless, if photographers such as Hayley Robinson and Kay Goodridge continue to use darkrooms and remain so passionate about black and white printing then maybe there might just be a future for darkrooms after all.

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KTB 10 16 1 United Kingdom
I have to say, there is no thrill quite like the moment in the darkroom when an image suddenly comes to life in the developing tray. As a student I spent years doing my own processing, often on a shoestring and with begged and donated supplies from friends and family. My parents converted half of our garage into a darkroom for me and I would spend many, many hours in there, often oblivious to mealtimes, to my mother's chagrin ! The heady scent of fixing chemicals still makes me nostalgic for those 'pioneering' moments with safelight, enlarger and test strips ! Progress was always inevitable, but it's good to know that in some small corners of the world the skills of film processing can be kept alive.

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I can only afford to do medium format in film (120 roll) and use 35mm if I want high resolution, very wide angles or extreme depth of field from my lenses. I scan the negatives and post-process digitally rather than using a full darkroom setup. With 35mm, if I stick to good quality low ISO colour film, I can still way outperform the resolution of my DSLR (with good lenses) and capture a wider useful dynamic range. My 6x9 camera cost less than 10 from ebay; ok it has limited shutter speeds and aperture settings and the lens is a touch soft at the edges, but it is a cheap way of capturing useful hi-res b&w images. As an engineer, I am well aware of just how digital works and how fantastic the sensors are in low light; however digital will never really replicate the randomness in the silver of a high-iso b&w 6x9 shot. Many also forget that although digital manipulation is easy, the process is quantised and so quality falls rapidly with even minor amounts of manipulation (even the loss in dynamic range in camera by not using the 'sunny' white balance): the old adage of 'always capture the image as close as possible to the final print' is even more important with digital sensors and post processing. Film will never die, however the traditional dark room will become much more digital.

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