Photographers Do It In The Dark

by ralph

Or at least, they used to.

Photography is probably the only activity that needs a darkroom. What makes the darkroom so important? I guess the word that leaps to mind is "control". Starting with the negative you can produce dark and moody or light and bright prints, often from the same negative; achieve dramatic contrasts or misty softness; also the size, cropping and sharpness can all be played with. In fact panoramic prints, i.e. severely cropped portions of wide angle shots, were easily done long before the current interest in panoramic imaging took hold.

The darkroom is the place to experiment with solarization, litho film, multiple images -- either on paper or film, which is later printed on paper. This is the place to play with the image color, which can be affected to some degree by toning the print, or much more widely by printing a B/W negative on color paper. Of course there's always dodging and burning in, to lighten or darken parts of the image. In fact with a dichroic color head you can even vary the contrast of different parts of a B/W print and you can vary the color of different areas of color prints.

Right at the starting point, processing the B/W negatives, you also have some control over the contrast and grain in the image with your choice of the developing "brew".

Even color positives (slides) usually considered end products, are useful starting points for color printing, montaging, sandwiching, solarization and various other masking effects,

Many of the legends of photography were made in the darkroom. Ansel Adam’s famous line, that “The negative is like a musical score and the print is its performance” should be taken to heart. He is certainly as well known for what he accomplished in the darkroom as what he did behind the camera. Edward Weston worked at producing painstakingly perfect prints, and of course there was Eugene Smith -who sometimes spent a couple days making sure the print came up to his expectations.

That's why it's so disappointing to see a judge at a competition evaluate only the subject and composition of a print and be oblivious to poor quality -- poor contrast control, bad color balance, or lack of sharpness. It's as if they are unaware of the tradition of craftsmanship and artistry (“the performance”) that the photographer is expected to bring to the print.

So selecting, composing and properly exposing a subject to produce a slide, while creative and rewarding in its own right, is only part of the range of things you can do to create great images.

And yet it seems that darkroom work is in decline. It has always been very difficult for apartment dwellers to make space for one, yet many people who have the space accept the slide as an end product and have no desire to go further. Some of the more knowledgeable photographers who have their negatives printed in commercial labs are able to exert some control over the end product on such factors as density, color and cropping, and so achieve some of the creativeness they might have had in their own facility. Many others, who aren't familiar with darkroom work tend to uncritically accept poor work from local labs because they don't know what potential their image might have.

The latest distraction from the darkroom comes from computer imaging. Almost every operation in the darkroom has its counterpart in image editing programs, (the best known being Adobe Photoshop). One can crop, re-size, dodge and burn an image, change its color, contrast and brightness, etc. Some things that are nearly impossible photographically are easy in the computer. For instance, you can bring the tonal scale of under or overexposed slides back to normal just by bending the curve up or down. You can also control the contrast/curves/density of each color separately and that's something that ended in the darkroom when dye transfer bit the dust. In fact ma
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r manipulations like multi-imaging, distortions and wild special effects are the main reason these programs exist.

Of course costs are high and there are some limitations but these factors change almost monthly. Every time I revisit the computer scene I find that “all the rules have changed”. A couple years ago I would have pegged the cost of a fairly photo capable computer + monitor at around $4000-$5000. Now it seems you can get the same specs under $2000.

It was commonly accepted that you could afford to have your own computer but image input (scanning) and output, whether to prints or film, had to be taken to outside shops because of the high cost of that equipment. The big news of '97 was the spectacular improvement in home/office small ink jet printers. That’s when Epson, Hewlett-Packard and Lexmark began claiming "photo realistic" images of near photographic quality. Through the year white hot competition turned the latest machines to obsolete in three month cycles and by years end several had achieved true photo quality-- and some of these machines cost under $300. Before then photo quality could be had only from the $8000 and up thermal diffusion printers. Now those may represent just another dead end technology without a market because printers of 1/20th the cost can do as well. One limitation, was that the size only went to 8xlO, but soon coming to the rescue, later versions of the same machines (particularly Epson), appeared, first going near 11x17” (the EX) then to 13x19” plus – (in the 1270 and 1280) and more recently the more archival Epson 2200. These larger sizes first cost around $2000 but are now around $500 more or less.

The big draw of the computer is that you don't need a darkroom and don't have to deal with (sometimes smelly) chemicals. In fact you don't need water at all and that's why computer imaging got an early start in such dry areas as southern California (OK it was dry back then).

Maybe the best way to pursue photography is to take the best of both worlds --- but for now I think I'll head for the darkroom and make some prints.