I’ve finally set up my bathroom darkroom, pulled down the blackout blinds and given my enlarger its first workout. And though I’ve been in a darkroom before and made some prints I’m proud of (one has pride of place on a friend’s dining room wall) this was my first session where I was completely on my own – no one to guide me, no one to remind me what to do when. I couldn’t wait to get in there and try it out, see what I could do with a roll of film I’d shot on a recent family visit.
Just like when you develop your first film, it seems a whole lot more complicated in theory than it is in practice. I’ll admit to a fair amount of pfaffing around at the start, checking and double-checking chemical temperatures, the correct placement of tongs, making sure that my packets of paper were fully closed. (Though that was an empty gesture, as they’d been stored in a drawer which I’d opened in daylight). But finally, when I’d reread my instructions one last time I turned out the main light, switched on the safelight and began.
Would I remember all the stages?
I set up numerous timers so I wouldn’t forget how long to leave the paper in the developer and fixer for, and when it was safe to remove from the washing tray. That worked well enough, though I had to remember which timer was which. Since then the timings have become second nature.
Would the room be dark enough?
I did a £1 coin test, laying a coin on a piece of photographic paper in the darkened room and leaving it for several minutes (with the enlarger and safelight turned off) before developing. If there is no impression of the coin, you’re laughing. I was.
Then I did a test sheet for the contact prints, progressively covering up stages of the paper so that I had a range of exposure times to choose from. And the final contact sheet came out well, without a hitch.
But later when I tried to make a print I forgot to stop down the enlarger. You’re supposed to focus at the widest aperture to make sure the print will be pin-sharp, but then stop down the lens to make the most of its sweet spot and give an exposure time that is long enough so that if you blink you won’t miss it. The result of a two stop overexposure, I found, was a completely black sheet. I panicked through my developer away, convinced it was contaminated before I realised where the error lay.
After that I got into a rhythm of focus, stop down the lens, expose, develop, fix. It turned out to be one of those activities that become a kind of meditation, you go into a zone of concentration where you are so absorbed in the process that suddenly it’s midnight and time for bed and you wonder where the time went. I
never ever felt like that with scanning or digital processing. I get easily bored with the digital darkroom but I can imagine spending hours and hours in my bathroom darkroom, watching the prints appear one by one. So the darkroom obviously suits me, though I know it’s not for everyone.
And I can’t tell you if the most magical moment is when you see the print begin to emerge in the developing tray, or the moment of anticipation when you slide the negative into the carrier and get a feel for how those tones will flip and reverse to become a printed image.
Both moments are pretty sweet.
But probably the best is after you’ve turned off the enlarger, closed the door and left the prints to dry.
The best moment is when you come back to them later and have a really good look at how they turned out.
What I can tell you is this: that the scanned image does not accurately represent the print at all. Even the no-frills standard prints I’ve made on old paper that came with the darkroom kit.
I’m not going to use the words better or worse. Just different.
But I will say that there’s nothing like holding a print you’ve just made in your own two hands.