If you know a smoker who quit, or perhaps quit smoking yourself, you may know the how wonderful it can be just to catch the smell of someone’s second hand smoke. It was just that experience for me when I was shown a darkroom
To paraphrase “Apocalypse, Now!” “I love the smell of fix in the morning…that smell, that chemical smell.”
To me the darkroom was a sanctuary. The safe lights are on, music playing in the background, the developing trays bumping the bottom of the sink as they are agitated to assure even development, the sound of constant running water in the wash tray all play a part in creating that atmosphere. And magic happens in the darkroom as the photographer goes through the meticulous steps and makes the needed adjustments to create that final, perfect image. As you think about all those tedious, stressful hours spent in front of a screen doing the necessary to create your images, walk with me as I give you a quick tour of making of a black and white print.
As in digital, a great image in film requires a high quality negative. I was taught, and adapted to my own teaching, the acronym FAST which stands for Focus, Aperture, Shutter and Thought. A deficient black and white negative is extremely unforgiving. In order for a negative to print with the least amount of problems the following is required: 1. details in the highlights, a good range of grays, and details in the shadow areas If you have ever seen a photographer looking at negatives through a loupe, those characteristics are what he is looking for.
Once the negative is chosen, the negative should be cleaned off. There are a variety of ways to do so. Compressed air was my favorite. After the cleaning, it is off to the enlarger. The negative is put into the enlarger, and with the enlarger light on full, the carriage is raised and lowered until the negative is in focus. For final sharpness, a grain focuser is used. At this time any cropping decisions are made. My main rule for cropping was to get rid of any useless background that did not add to the image or story. When all this is done, the lens is turned down one of the smaller apertures and then the light is turned off.
At this point we need to find out the proper exposure for the print. Negatives are almost like snowflakes, each one will have a different exposure time for the perfect print. This calls for the making of a test strip. The aperture is kept constant, the variable is the time. For example, the time is set for a 3 second exposure. A button is pushed and the timer turns on for three seconds. Photographers call this a “push” (keep it easy, right?) The next step is to create a test strip of different exposure times which will determine how much light is needed. A test strip will have a series of exposures on it. The lightest exposure is represents one push, the next one is two pushes and so forth until the final exposure is the maximum number of pushes that was done. This is usually a minimum of 5. Once the test strip is developed, the correct exposure is determined. It is highly recommended to have a development journal, or to write on the back of the printing paper, so that the correct settings can be written down i.e. 5 pushes at 4.0.
On to the final step. Grab piece of printing paper and with emulsion side (shiny side) up put the paper in the easel and push the timer button the required number of times. Now it is on to the magic show, the development of the print. The steps are easy, the paper goes into each of these trays for a certain amount of time: the developer, the stop and the fix after which it goes into a final water wash for at lest 10 minutes to rid the paper of unused silver and chemicals. Off to the drying rack and the first print is finished. I say first because this normally will be your working print. I can only speak for myself and what my teachers told me, but there isn’t such a critter called straight out of the camera in black and white film. Although with experience, a photographer can guess what adjustments might be needed, there are usually one or two more prints that need to be done before perfection is obtained. My personal record is 16 prints were done until I got it right. That was about an hour and a half of lab time.
Singer/songwriter Graham Nash talks about how the first time he saw his father develop a print, his life changed. Even in my last year of teaching photography, I never tired of watching that white piece, after about 45 seconds, pop out the image that I took. I know that when I took the kids back into the darkroom for their first demonstration of this, once they saw the magic, I had them hooked into the class. Although Nash recently said that he hasn’t been in a darkroom in over 10 years, and I myself am making the transition to digital, I would encourage those of you who have never done film to give it a try, experience that thrill of the image appearing out of nothing.
Here is the link to the Graham Nash interview, in case you are interested http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6U32s_yC9I
Tim Poole retired from high school teaching and coaching 2 years ago. In his 31 year career he taught English, business, reading, physical education, art and for his last 15 years black and white film photography. Since retiring he has opened Poole Photography LLC emphasizing weddings, maternity, family and senior portraits. Tim is semi active in the PAC and is a Help-Portrait volunteer. He also has his own blog at www.poolephotographyblog.com