There’s a lot more to printing pictures than I ever realized before taking a class in darkroom printing. In the world of digital photography, so many devotees espouse their ability to shoot “straight out of camera” images that require no post-processing at all, as if venturing into the territory of Photoshop is antithetical to the entire art form. I think that this kind of attitude, at least to some extent, is understandable–knowing how to use a camera in manual mode, knowing at least a little about exposure, will probably help your photos a lot more than post-processing ever can.
But I think, too, it’s a bit misguided. When you’re shooting film, photography isn’t finished just because you’ve developed your negatives. Darkroom printing is basically photography after the fact–the original scene you shot is now recorded on a negative, but you still need a lens, a light source and a photo-sensitive surface; you essentially start over, making exposures on paper instead of on film, and you have to develop the exposed paper in chemicals just like the ones used to develop film. Anyone who has attempted this even once will tell you there is no such thing as a “straight out of camera” image if you’re printing in a darkroom. Getting a good print can take hours, and many, many pieces of paper to achieve. There’s no light meter to tell you exactly how you should expose your paper to get the best result, and there are lots of techniques and tricks you can do to create an image that you’d never see in the real world. There’s not much you can do in Photoshop that can’t be done in a darkroom. (Point being, if you refuse to use Photoshop on principle alone, you’re ignoring a large part of what it means to make rather than just take a picture. Darkroom printing is “post-processing,” and I kind of think of using Photoshop as similarly “developing” images.)
That said, I’m pretty much a total beginner. I was fortunate to be able to take a class, but now I’m on my own and excited that there’s so much more to learn! Along the way, I’ll share some of my attempts here, explaining as much as I can (there are definitely a lot of gaps in my knowledge!) and what did and didn’t work for me. Below are some of the steps required to print one of the images I brought with me to my class:
Step 1: Take a stab at finding a reasonably not-terrible exposure by making a test print. A good exposure should have both a distinct black and a distinct white.
I made this by covering my paper with cardboard and exposing bands of it for 2 seconds at a time, so the lightest part shows what 2 seconds exposure looks like, and the darkest part shows 26 seconds (there are 13 bands). Unfortunately, 26 seconds wasn’t long enough in this case, because I didn’t have a distinct black area in my print.
Step 2: Try again. In order to save paper, which is expensive, I cut a piece into three strips and focused on the part of the image where I would be most likely to see a black the fastest. I also learned quickly that if you don’t write down the exposure settings on the back of the paper, unhappiness ensues.
Step 3: So, after the 3 second intervals, there are definitely some black areas in the image. The next thing is to find out where the black just starts to appear but the white hasn’t started turning too grey. Again, I tried to economize even more on paper.
Step 4: After actually way more than the two attempts shown, I found an exposure that gave a reasonable trade off between having a black, and retaining (sort of) the white of the snow. But since it’s such a small portion of the image, I tried again with a larger piece of paper to make sure nothing else had been noticeably compromised in another part of the picture.
Step 5: It looked OK to me at the time, so I went ahead and made the “final” print. Then I decided the snow was too grey for my liking, so I fiddled around with a few more pieces of paper until I got the image below:
The snow is a bit whiter in this version because I simply hovered my hand over the paper for a few seconds (how many seconds exactly was determined in some embarrassing number of pieces of paper), which blocked the light coming through the negative so that the snowbank was exposed for less time than the rest of the image. The process, from start to finish, took about three hours (the entire length of the class), during which I produced this print, which I am only about 85% happy with and will likely try printing again in the future now that I know a few more elaborate tricks.
So far I’ve found that printing in the darkroom is an incredibly involved process requiring a lot of decision making in terms of exactly how you want your end product to look, and it has totally changed how I approach my digital post-processing. I’ve found myself nit-picking for hours over shades of grey, trying to figure out how to keep this part just the right shade of grey without getting that corner too dark, getting flustered over minor contrast adjustments. It forces me to think of the image as a whole, and as a million little parts, at the same time, and by the time I’ve finished printing something it’s not just any old picture, but something I created. If an area is lighter or darker than you think it should be, I can tell you why I chose to make it that way, because there’s a reason. It’s a great feeling.