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In my secret life


Time for an update: I still use film, though. Not vast quantities, but I have a darkroom, and I'm not afraid to use it.

I enjoy every image I take: I hope you'll enjoy looking at them.
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In my secret life

23 Apr 2020 7:59AM   Views : 614 Unique : 401


First, look up the Leonard Cohen song. And then, we’re heading into the darkroom.

I’m particularly delighted that my digital Sony allowed me to take pictures of things as they happened in the darkroom. 100k ISO is really, really useful.

In one sense, it’s a repeat of two days ago, and developing a film: a developer, a rinse and a fixer, followed by washing in running water, or a number of changes of water.

The big difference is that the developing is – as they used to say – ‘by inspection’ rather than thermometer and timer. The magic moment – you watch the image appear, and then see it darken. Hint: when it looks right, leave it longer. It’ll look grey and weak in the light if you stop now.


Now, my darkroom has got quite a few mod cons: a printing meter/timer, focussing magnifiers to make it easy to get the image sharp: but let’s assume that you’ve bought an old enlarger and some dishes secondhand, and have none of the mod cons. More work, but not impossible!

The essential kit is enlarger with lens, three developing trays a size bigger than your paper, a safelight, and two pairs of print tongs (so you can use one pair for the developer, and another for later stages. Fixer stops developer working properly if you cross-contaminate).

When I was a lad, you had to buy paper of different grades – degrees of contrast – to print negatives shot in softer or harsher light. These days, almost all paper sold is ‘multigrade’ one pack gives all grades, with the aid of filters you put on the enlarger lens. (Again, I cheat, with a multigrade head on the enlarger, so that the filters are a matter of turning a dial. By the way, ‘Multigrade’ is an Ilford trademark – they were first to market with the technology in the Fifties: it now works very well, and they set a benchmark for all other manufacturers.


Rather than trying to describe how to match negatives and paper grades, I'll suggest that you try different grades and see for yourself. That way, you’ll get a feel for what a contrasty negative looks like, and how a soft negative appears.

Set your equipment up in two areas: a dry area (enlarger, paper, negatives) and a wet bench (three print trays: developer, rinse, fixer, plus a bowl of water for fixed prints, all at around 20ᵒ Centigrade. Ordinary room temperature usually works fine). Use print tongs, not your fingers – it’s possible to develop an allergy to developing agents with too much exposure. Also, you don’t want fingerprints of developer or fixer on your negatives, because they will compromise their stability.

Choose a nice, average negative, with even exposure all across the frame, and what looks like moderate contrast.

1 put the negative in the enlarger, and switch on. Adjust the enlarger up and down its column until the image on the baseboard is around the same size as your paper, and then focus as sharply as you can, all at maximum aperture (for the brightest image on the baseboard), then switch the enlarger lamp off;
2 close the lens down two stops, and add the Multigrade filter of your choice. Now, you have to assess the exposure. Tear a strip off the edge of a sheet of paper, and put it in your easel, across the middle of your picture;
3 cover most of the strip with a piece of black card, and switch the enlarger on for five seconds. Move the card to let the light reach more of the strip, and give another five seconds. Do the same thing again and again, so you end up with a strip of paper with sections that have had 5, 10, 15 and 20 seconds exposure;
4 develop the strip for around two minutes, rinse, and put in the fixer. Turn on the light and have a dekko. If one of the areas look really good, use that exposure for a full print. If not, refine, using longer exposures if the results are all too light; or stop the lens down a bit more and repeat if they’re all too dark.


And that’s it, really. Everything else is just adding refinements (a word on a few of those in a couple of days’ time) and finessing your results.

Paper takes a bit more washing than film, especially if you use the more expensive fibre-based paper instead of resin-coated. The paper itself absorbs chemicals, and you need to wash enough to remove them. However, resin-coated paper is cheaper and generally easier to handle.

After washing carefully, remove excess water with a towel, and lay the prints out to dry on a towel. They’ll be dry enough to handle in a couple of hours on a warm day.

Then – just enjoy them!


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Nikonuser1 Avatar
Nikonuser1 Plus
11 176 16 United Kingdom
23 Apr 2020 11:26AM
A great article John, I hope this gets more people to try B&W. developing and printing.There is just something about see your print appear in the developer, a little piece of magicSmileSmileSmile

bricurtis Avatar
bricurtis Plus
18 2.8k 54 England
23 Apr 2020 1:03PM
Saw your Cohen title ........perhaps ' You want it darker ' by laughing Lennie would be good too.Smile I admire the work you are putting in on the site.
Never experienced darkroom photography, but this is a great insight.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
23 Apr 2020 2:23PM
A darkroom seems like a very secret place - hence the title.

However, as almost every first print that I do needs more exposure, even I will want it darker! (I may have used that as a title a time or two already...)

And there's a pun in that, I've realised. Though it was a column I tended not to read, Amateur Photographer used, in the Seventies/Eighties, to have a column about refinements in processing (and most other things) by a chap called Roger Darker. I suspect there was much wisdom in those pages.
handlerstudio Avatar
24 Apr 2020 12:51AM
I saw Leonard Cohen about three weeks before the end of his very long world tour when he was in his mid 70s.....Perhaps the greatest concert I have ever been to.

And that song....so meaningful.

Saastad Avatar
Saastad 4 16 17 Norway
24 Apr 2020 1:17AM
Great article. My memories goes back to school where I learn this process the first time. It was so fun, and like magic.
I got the possibility to learn even more when I was in the navy. But I never got my self a darkroom Smile

dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
24 Apr 2020 10:12AM
Anywone from EPZ passing through my area is welcome to drop in to see (and possibly use) my darkroom, once lockdown's over.

Mind you, it'll need to be well and truly over: social distancing in a spce that's possibly six feet by three (the floor space between benches) is not an option!

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