Into the Darkroom

So you have been shooting film for a while and have even started processing your own black and white film. You love the results you are getting but feel that you’ve handed over the creative control somewhat by scanning your film. You can edit in Photoshop but it just doesn’t feel you’re being true to the films character.

If you are thinking “Hey, that’s me!” then read on as I am going to cover some important darkroom techniques to get you started with traditional silver gelatin prints.

Getting Started

In order to print in the darkroom you are going to need one. Any room in the house will do as long as it has running water, power and can be made light tight. Bathrooms are normally ideal. Seal up the window with some cardboard or timber and make sure the door is light tight. Turn off the light and wait. If you see light leaks within 5 minutes you may need to take additional measures to seal up the room.

Once you have a darkroom ready to roll you will need some equipment, below I will list common equipment needed to get started printing in your new darkroom

  • Enlarger with Timer
  • Easel
  • Grain Focusser
  • Trays
  • Bamboo tongs
  • Safe light
  • Chemicals
  • Ruler, pencil and scissors

You can get most of this stuff easily and cheaply on ebay, The timer isn’t essential but makes printing on your enlarger much easier. The trays are for your chemicals and prints to sit in during development etc. Safe light is again not essential but very handy. The ruler, pencil and scissors I find useful too for cropping etc.

Setup your darkroom so that you know where everything is as once the light goes off you will find it hard to navigate in the dark, even if you think you know where everything is, it’s best to have a test go first and find everything in the dark. Setup the enlarger on a table or somewhere suitable and line up your trays in order of. 1.Developer 2.Stop bath 3.Fixer. (Note: The stop bath is optional, you may use a water rinse as a stop bath as I do.) Test your safe light and make sure that your paper is readily available.

You are going to need some Test Strips for judging exposure so kill the lights and pull out some paper, Cut up one sheet into strips roughly 4cm wide and 12cm long. pack all this back away and turn the lights back on. We are now ready to start.

Choosing a negative

When choosing the negative that you will be printing from make sure to choose one with enough density. Ideally with nice highlight and shadow details. An underexposed or Overexposed negative will be hard to print from and is not a great place to start. Once you have chosen, place the negative in the holders and mask it up to the framing you would like. place the holder back in the enlarger and lock down.

Negative density refers to how well exposed it is. If the scene was overexposed then the negatives will be dense (Thick and black.) If the scene was underexposed then the negatives will be thin and clear.

Making a test strip

It’s time to delve into the darkness, Kill the lights and switch on your enlarger. Open the aperture up as far as it goes, the extra brightness will aide in focussing. With your easel on the baseboard adjust the enlarger head position to give you the approximate print size you are after. Centre the easel and adjust focus until the image looks sharp. (note: This gets you in the ballpark but even if it looks sharp it’s never perfect, time for the grain focusser.) With your sizing correct and your easel in position, Place your grain focusser on the centre of the image and finely adjust focus until you can see the grain. At this point I often check other parts of the image but only to be sure, Once the grain is in focus the image is in focus.

You are now ready to determine your exposure. Based on the image and the negative density choose an aperture that will give you the effect required, if you want a soft image choose a low f/stop, if you want it sharper stop down but be aware that the f/stop affects the time for enlargement. If you are dodging and burning you will need adequate time under light so don’t open up the aperture too much.

Before you switch off the enlarger, choose a spot in your image in which to lay the test strip. It needs to contain good highlight and shadow area to enable you to pick the best exposure. Now set your timer for 35secs and switch off your enlarger

You can enlarge under the safelight as long as you don’t have it too bright or too close to your paper, b&w emulsion is not very sensitive to red lights wavelength but you can fog your paper slightly if your not careful.

Pull out your test strip paper and lay it over the area in which you would like to test. With the timer set cover all but 1cm squared of the strip with some card. Now begin enlargement, for every 5 secs on the timer slide the card down exposing another 1cm squared of paper until you run out of time and the enlarger switches off (If it’s an auto timer.)

Take your test strip and place it in the developer and time for the recommended time. (Normally about 1min for RC paper.) You will watch in amazement as the image begins to appear on the paper, you will notice each stripe is slightly darker than the next and you should have a good tonal variation from white to black.

Once it has developed, wash under running water or place in stop bath. Then follow through with the fixer. (As it’s only a strip it only needs to be fixed for 10-20 seconds. you will discard this once you have finished.

Making sure your paper is light tight and stored away again, turn on the room lights and evaluate your test strip. There are a few methods of choosing the best exposure, Most state that you pick the exposure that’s 1 square back from black. This ensures that you have adequate shadow detail. Personally I look for where the blacks are black and the whites white. It’s hard to do and depends largely on the subject as to whether you will get that sort of tonality in one small square of a print. Choosing as mentioned above makes sure that you will have adequate constrast, Otherwise you may have a flat looking print. If in doubt, make several test strips of different area’s of the print, or use 1 whole sheet of paper as the test strip to aide in choosing. Trust me, it gets easier the more experienced you get.

Count back from white in 5 second increments, when you get to the frame you chose, that is the amount of time for the selected aperture for which to expose your print.

Printing

You are ready to make your first print. under the safelight, place your paper (emulsion side *shiny side for RC* up) on the easel and mask as necessary. Make sure here that your paper is completely flat. Any bend or bubble will result in a loss of sharpness.

Set the timer to the chosen time based on your test strip and make sure the aperture hasn’t moved. Start the enlarger and twiddle your thumbs until it cuts off. (or until you switch it off.) Now place your paper in the developer and with the tongs gently push down to make sure the paper settles to the bottom. Now gently rock the tray so the developer forms a smooth wave over the print. This will keep the developer from exhausting on one part of your print. watch as your image appears on the paper.

Once the magic (read: time) is up pull your print from the developer and put it straight into the stop bath or under running water. Once you have agitated in stop bath for a minute it’s into the fixer. Same applies for fixing, gently rock the tray for the full time (Normally 2-5mins depending on dilution.)

Finally you will pull it from the fixer and place in a print washer or under running water, Resin coated papers require less time washing than fiber, Typically up to 10 mins for resin and 4 or 5 times that for fiber.

Congratulations you now have a shiny new print. Hang to dry if resin. Some say fiber won’t dry well hanging and is best placed on a silk screen face down. Fiber also has a bad tendency to curl so once dry it will need to be placed under some heavy books for a couple of days before matting and framing.

That’s a wrap for a quick process from negative to print. Once you have mastered getting a straight print done you can move into more difficult territory, Dodging and burning to give you more creative control over highlight and shadow detail and chemical toning with Sepia or Selenium for archiving and rich tonal colours.

Stay tuned for my tech article on dodging and burning!

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