Permanent Tourist

A personal website by Mark Howells-Mead

D is for Darkroom

(This is one in a series of essays I’m writing about my life. A specific kind of autobiography, I guess. The rest of these essays are here.)

“It was amazing to watch him in the darkroom at an advanced age, still get excited when the results were pleasing. He still struggled like we all do in the darkroom and he struggled behind the camera, and when he had a success he was beaming.”
John Sexton

It’s a bit scary to think that my first forays into photography as a hobby began thirty years ago this year. I started at secondary school in 1983 and one of the extra-curricular activities was a camera club, which took place at lunchtime and which drew my interest. I can’t remember what, exactly, appealed to me but I turned up, paid a meagre membership fee, and joined the half dozen students who wanted to learn about working in a traditional photographic darkroom.

The club was officially run by one of the teaching staff, but the daily organization and tuition was left to the more senior students: fifth- and sixth-formers who had learned their limited skills from their predecessors. The club rooms were in a (barely-) converted coal cellar beneath the Victorian red-brick building known as “the Old School”, where only a minimum of classes were still held and which was a good five minute walk through the grounds from the remainder of the school. I was hooked from early on: gathering together with a few others with similar interests, to head down into the cellar and begin working with unfamiliar equipment to create small prints from photographic negatives.

For those who have never worked in a traditional darkroom, I’ll explain how it all works. The photographic negative — i.e. the film in a camera — is sensitive to light. As such, developing the film must begin in total darkness. First, you open up the canister of exposed film and load it into a small, light-tight processing tank. Once this is sealed, the lights can go on again and the developer uses a series of chemicals at a specific temperature during a set of rigidly fixed time intervals to develop and “fix” the image on the film. The final chemical in the process smells largely of vinegar and this smell takes me back to my darkroom days even now.

Once the film has been developed, washed and dried, the process of making prints from the negative can begin. The negative is loaded into an enlarger — a projector of sorts, shining vertically down onto a board which holds a piece of photographic paper — and the first “test strips” are exposed. The longer the light shines onto the paper, the darker the image will be. In order to find the optimal exposure time, the developer exposes the entire strip of paper for a few seconds, then covers part of it and exposes the remainder for a further few seconds, and so on. The end result is a small strip of paper with increasingly darker sections, from which the developer can choose the correct exposure.

The terms “burning” and “dodging” pervade to this day in image processing software, referring to the additional darkening or lightening of part of an image. “Burning” means shining more light onto the paper to make the section darker, and “dodging” means hiding a section from the light during the exposure to keep it lighter. Whereas the modern equivalents in Lightroom are carried out with a digital “brush”, the original darkroom process used small pieces of card (or the developer’s outstretched hand) to cast a shadow on the pieces of the image which were to remain lighter. This part of the process always appealed to me in particular, as it was like re-composing the image through a series of precise hand gestures and movements.

Once the paper has been exposed, it goes into a series of chemicals in trays, to develop and “fix” the image in the same way as during the film development process. Because the image doesn’t appear on the paper until it’s in the chemical bath, there’s something quite magical about the way in which is steadily appears. The process may be familiar to anyone who has seen what happens when you take a Polaroid photo, or to anyone who has seen someone processing an image in a t.v. show.

In contrast to the very clever process invented for the Polaroid camera, normal photographic paper is sensitive to light. As such, the printing process has to take place in as near to complete darkness as possible. Whereas color photographic printing paper is sensitive to all forms of light, black and white paper is not sensitive to light in the red and yellow end of the spectrum. That’s why developers can use dim red or yellow lights in their darkroom instead of spending their hours at work in pitch blackness.

I think that the hundreds of hours I spent in darkrooms illuminated with red light have had a psychological effect on me, as years later, I still find it relaxing to have a red lamp somewhere in the room.

Darkroom work requires a lot of patience and skill, as well as a not inconsiderable amount of money. The combination of paper and chemicals cost around 30 pence per sheet of paper when I was at school and by the time that test-strips and test prints were made, and the end image was finally produced, it would usually have cost around £2. That meant that you either had to become very good at developing prints, in order to use less paper, or produce less prints. There was no opportunity to “save” your results beyond writing down precise temperatures and times, and hoping to achieve the same results the next day.

I was never really skilled at developing prints and although I have a few dozen good results in my archive at home, they are the only ones which ever made it to exhibition quality. The skills I learned through working in a darkroom, though, stood me in good stead even after I switched to the modern digital equivalent of the darkroom: the lightroom. This was a generic term for photographic computer software during the advent of digital photography, which was subsequently adopted by Adobe for its terrific image cataloguing and editing software.

By learning the benefits of dodging and burning early on, as well as the importance of setting the camera to capture detail in the highlight areas of a scene, I was quickly able to see how much better photos can be when they’re correctly exposed and selectively edited. I have been an aficionado of Ansel Adams for many years, whose Zone System has stood as a monument for all photographers and developers since. By paying specific attention to the tonal range of a photograph, and always taking photos in digital RAW format (which is the modern equivalent of the raw photographic negative), the developer has the widest possible range of image detail available.

Although modern point-and-shoot digital cameras produce excellent results, it’s always worth thinking whether they can be improved upon by a little “tweaking” or by dodging and burning parts of the image. That’s why, even though I use more advanced cameras than point-and-shoot models, I make sure to remember the difficulties of the darkroom and ensure that my “negative” is of as high a quality as possible. Once I have that, then I can process the image to create the effect I want, whether dramatic or subtle. With subtle results, my aim is that only the most attentive of photographers or imaging experts will be able to tell that the image has been adjusted at all.