Since I returned to using mainly film for my photography I’ve established a small darkroom in the corner of my office and have enjoyed reacquainting myself with the “dark arts”. I’m no more than a competent darkroom printer, at best, but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable aspect of the hobby. It’s also an aspect which provides lots of opportunities for problem-solving which is something I enjoy, not least because it keeps my brain engaged.
Of necessity though I have also had to learn some digital ways, mainly so that I can share images on social media. Even if I darkroom printed everything I’d still have to scan the prints! So, I have had to embrace the so-called hybrid approach and I have to say I’ve enjoyed the challenge. It was also good to refresh some of my digital skills and apply them to a negative-based media.
I was musing on this over the weekend as I was working on a 5×4 negative in the darkroom. I had made the image earlier in the week with my wooden Zero Image 5×4 pinhole camera and after developing the sheet had done a very quick copy with my digital camera. As much of my social media bound images are, this was quickly processed in Snapseed on my iPad and uploaded to Twitter.
The response was, for a post from me at least, phenomenal.
I had already made up chemicals for a weekend in the darkroom but hadn’t decided which negatives to print. I usually only print one or two negatives in a session and, allowing for domestic duties, I expected to get two sessions over the weekend which meant I would usually have earmarked three or four negatives. However, the response to my Brighouse pinhole image meant that there was no need to think too hard … it had been selected for me by my friends and colleagues on the Twitter-verse.
Saturday morning, I set up the trestle table for the developing trays, moved the safelights into position and blacked out the study cum office which as I’ve mentioned before also serves as my darkroom. I positioned the negative in my aged Johnson V5 enlarger, composed and focused the image ready for a sheet of 8×10 paper. Everything was ready for when I could escape the domestic chores. I’d only need to pour out the chemicals and don my apron and I’d be away. As is my usual practice I looked at the negative projected onto the easel for a few minutes before turning off the focusing lamp and heading downstairs.
Something was nagging at me as I walked downstairs and it was whilst I was folding the washing that I realised what it was. Whilst the digital camera had pulled every last bit of detail from the negative and the localised adjustments applied in Snapseed had created a lovely result the negative itself was horribly underexposed around the bottom and very overexposed in the centre particularly. This would be a huge challenge for my basic skills.
After my usual test strips to get a feel for the negative I quickly realised that my concerns were real, the bottom left and the centre of the image were going to be tricky. I made a test strip from the whole negative and used this as the basis for a printing plan … which got overwritten numerous times.
Long story short, I had three sessions in the darkroom over the weekend and ended up working with just the one negative and with just one “finished” print hanging to dry overnight. I’m definitely not finished with the negative however as I’ve not yet created a final print I am totally happy with. I went to bed a little low but woke up reminding myself that it was a tough negative to print and that I am by no means an expert darkroom printer. There will be another day!
It also reminded me of the importance of getting it right in-camera, something I do strive for and always have, but brought home very forcibly over the weekend. Could I have done much more at the taking stage? Possibly, possibly not. I was using an ambient light reading as I rarely take my spot meter out when working with pinhole cameras. On this occasion I might have made good use of a spot meter though to accurately place the shadows on zone III but without filters the central portion would still have been over exposed. However, there’s no mileage in playing “could’ve, should’ve” at this stage, simply add it to the store of knowledge and experience and move on.
On this occasion then, my hybrid workflow will eventually* provide me with a nice print from this negative. I learnt a fair bit from trying to print it in the darkroom and I will no doubt learn plenty more from playing further with the negative in the darkroom; I’ve already started scribbling notes to guide my next attempt.
I’m enjoying this hybrid approach although have to say I’ve also enjoyed being in the darkroom this weekend.
Which, all leads me to conclude that there is a lot to be said for my approach. Part-hybrid and part-traditional, I am at least able to complete my vision with a print and to me it’s not a photograph until you can hold it in your hand.
*as my regular reader might remember I do not have a digital photo-printer at the moment. I have however ordered a small printer for this purpose and you can be sure that this will be the first image I print on it!