These days, developing film and making prints in a darkroom seems a little outdated. Why spend time in a dark, smelly room working to get the perfect print when you can upload them and photoshop them to perfection? Theres no arguing that digital is more convenient and is growing increasingly flexible as camera capabilities and software options improve, but sometimes its fun to break it down to the basics and spend a little time in the dark. If youve never ventured into the darkroom before, this is your guide to getting started.
We won’t mention getting supplies or developing your film and instead will focus on the process of developing your print.
Printing 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 on to the surface of your photo paper where the light sensitive chemicals are exposed.
In order to create a print, you will have to line up the frame with your enlarger’s light source, then project it onto a blank mat and make sure it’s properly focused by adjusting the knob on the side. Most darkrooms have magnifying glasses lying around; make sure you can clearly see the grain of your image. You need to play with the exposure timing to make sure the image turns out okay, then you should be just fine.
Once youve decided on the correct timing and exposed a full photograph, its 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 youll start to see your image come through. If you don’t like the contrast or exposure, just head back to the enlarger and get another piece of photo paper and adjust your timing. Once you have a print you like and it’s done developing, move it to the stop bath for a soak.
2. Stop Bath The stop bath will prevent your image from developing any further by neutralizing the chemicals found in the developer. If you have ever been in a dark room, the stop bath is the distinct smell you probably remember. 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 short 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 prints in fixer for very long- usually about 5-10 minutes depending upon the paper and chemicals.
4. Rinse Naturally youll want to rinse your photos of all the harsh chemicals youve soaked in them. Most dark rooms have a sink and a rinsing tub with a continuous flow of water so you can leave your print there as long as it takes to remove all of the chemicals. While waiting, this is a great time to print other pictures from your negatives!
Once youve 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 frame.
The darkroom can seem intimidating, but once you have a bearing on the process you will enjoy printing your own images. Its a great way to get away from the world for a little while and focus on your art (bring a radio if you can) and provides you infinitely more control over your final images than having someone else print them. Just remember to ask around before turning on the lights!