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Into the darkness


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.

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Into the darkness

22 Apr 2020 9:31AM   Views : 758 Unique : 448


If you’ve been following this blog for the last few days, you’ll know that yesterday’s blog – about scanning negatives – is my Option B: the real way to do it is to get into the darkroom and make prints on old-fashioned silver-rich printing paper. And you may be wondering why this post isn’t taking you into the darkroom and showing you the wonders of printing. (And they are wonders, truly: the peak experience of my photography is watching an image form in front of my eyes on a sheet of white paper…)

On a practical level, I’ve been neglecting my darkroom, and so I’m having to tidy things up a good deal to give myself access to the wet bench and the enlarger. I’m nearly there: today should see prints happen.

On a theoretical level, though, it may be a good time to backtrack and explain film, and paper. It starts like this: some compounds of silver are sensitive to light, and if light strikes them, they change subtly. Exposing the film they’re coated on to the right chemical afterwards allows that chemical to reduce the silver compound to metallic silver, which is black (like that tarnished silver spoon granny gave you as a Christening present). Bathing the film in another chemical dissolves away the remaining silver compound, leaving a black image where the light struck the film. In other words a negative – dark where the original was light, and light where it was dark.

If you then put the film in contact with paper coated with similar silver salts, and expose the whole lot to light, you form a positive image on the paper, which you can develop in the same way.

But with modern film, a same-size print will be disappointing – an inch by an inch and a half. So you will probably want to make a bigger print – an enlargement, in the jargon.

You do this by holding the negative in front of a light, and focussing an image of the negative onto a piece of paper. The working parts of my enlarger aren’t terribly obvious, so the picture of it is accompanied by a sketch of the operational bits.


You easily build up a whole series of ‘indispensable’ accessories – a focus magnifier, to allow you to focus the image accurately; an easel, to hold the paper flat, in precisely the position you want, a special large sink to allow you to have all the necessary dishes of chemical easily to hand, a print washer to help remove all the fixer from the paper. But in essence, you can do it all in a darkened room, without running water. I managed in my college room at university, and in my bedroom: even on my Mum’s dining room table.

Tomorrow, we’ll go into the darkroom and switch off the light, leaving only the safelight – an orange or red light that allows you to see (almost), but which doesn’t affect the printing paper. While many decades of effort have gone into making film sensitive to all wavelengths of light, for a natural-looking image, black and white printing paper is sensitive only to blue light (I generalise, a bit!)

And later today, I’ll find out if I can take digital images by safelight…

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mac Avatar
mac Plus
22 17 Scotland
22 Apr 2020 2:41PM
I recognize quite a lot from my old darkroom in the loft space. I note you also have a rocking print washer. Saves using the bath tub! I had a Durst Colour Enlarger. You are correct in that it is great feeling when you first see your latest masterpiece beginning to appear out of the blank paper in the developer. The struggle to manage 20" x 16" prints from developer to fixer and then carrying it to the bath tub for the final wash. Happy days, now past in my case living in an apartment. Brought back happy memories, John.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.2k 2064 England
22 Apr 2020 5:41PM
I'm glad it brought back good memories, Ian - I hope that one or two youngsters, who have never done darkroom work, will give it a go while htey have loads of leisure time...
Aeros Avatar
Aeros 6 12 1 Canada
22 Apr 2020 7:31PM
I can see DR printing is an art unto itself. Thanks John, for sharing this very valuable and interesting subject.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.2k 2064 England
24 Apr 2020 5:10PM
It's a craft first and foremost, Richard: and like most crafts, there's real art and sometimes a little magic once you're in the groove.

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