Apr 20 2010

Darkroom Photography – How to Get Started

Published by at 4:03 am under General

In this day and age, the darkroom almost seems like an outdated inconvenience. Why would we want to spend hours in a dark, smelly room, sweating over our images and struggling for the perfect print when we can just upload them to our computers, fire up Photoshop, and have a hot chocolate? There’s no arguing that digital is more convenient and is growing increasingly flexible as camera capabilities and software options improve, but sometimes it’s fun to break it down to the basics and spend a little time in the dark. If you have never been in a photo darkroom before, this is your dark room guide to getting started.
We’ll skip developing your film and getting supplies for now and just talk about the actual process.

Making Prints with an Enlarger

An enlarger is exactly what it sounds like – a machine that makes your tiny squares of film into large, printed  photographs. It does this by projecting light through your film and onto the surface of your photo paper, exposing the light sensitive chemicals buried inside.

In order to print a photo, you’ll need to line the frame up with your enlarger’s light source, project it onto the blank mat, and ensure it is correctly focused (usually by adjusting a knob on the side). Most darkrooms have magnifying glasses lying around; make sure you can clearly see the grain of your image. You’ll need to mess with the exposure timing to ensure the image comes out right, then you should be good to go.

The Chemicals

Once you’ve decided on the correct timing and exposed a full photograph, it’s time to get your hands dirty. Darkroom chemicals have a smelly and distinct odor and will ruin any clothing they come in contact with so make sure to wear an apron or wear old ratty clothes.  The chemical process can be broken down into four steps:

1.     Developer – Soak your paper, which will still be completely white, in the developer. This chemical will activate the photo paper and over the course of a few minutes you’ll start to see your image come through. If you’re unhappy with the contrast or exposure levels, head back to the enlarger and adjust your timing. Once you have an image you like and it has fully developed, it’s time to move over to the stop bath.

2.     Stop Bath – The stop bath will prevent your image from developing any further by neutralizing the chemicals found in the developer. If you’ve ever been in a darkroom, the smell you remember is the stop bath. If you want to make sure your print is done sitting in the stop bath, rub your fingers on the paper to see if it will squeak. If it squeaks, then you know the chemicals have been properly stopped. This should only take a few minutes.

3.    Fixer – While the stop bath will stop the effects of the developer chemicals, your paper will still be sensitive to light exposure. Fixer is the last chemical in the process so once your print has soaked in this, it can be exposed to light without ruining the image. You don’t need to soak your images in fixer for too long, but 5-10 minutes depending on the chemicals and paper is usually a safe bet.

4.    Rinse – Naturally you’ll want to rinse your photos of all the harsh chemicals you’ve soaked in them. Most darkrooms have a sink of some sort that keeps a continually flowing tub of water for rinsing and you really can’t rinse for too long, so leave your images in the rinse as long as you need. This is a good time to print some other shots from your roll!

Once you’ve enlarged, developed, stopped, fixed, and rinsed your images, set them out to dry in a safe place and come get them the next day. Don’t forget to rinse your prints well because if you don’t, your photographs will turn brown over time from the chemical residue left on the print. Pick up your dry prints and put them in a heavy book or photo press to straighten them out. After that, your prints are ready to put in a picture frame. Although choosing a frame for your print could be a separate article altogether, you want to choose a frame that complements your picture. This could be anything from a choosing a black picture frame that highlights the contrasting colors in your black and white print to using an antique gold picture frame that accents the tones in your sepia print. Now, back to the darkroom…

The dark room can seem a little intimidating at first but once you understand the process it’s a lot of fun. It’s a wonderful creative outlet and gives you a lot more control over your final images then having someone else print them. Just remember to check before turning on the lights or you may just ruin someone’s photograph!

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