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Photography tips

The Fotospeed complete guide to darkroom printing

Posted: 09 Oct 2018

Darkroom printing can seem to be a bit of a dark art to most people. If you’re not really familiar with the process, it can seem unnecessarily complicated and fiddly, and many will argue that you can achieve the same results in a few minutes with just the click of a button. So why would anyone bother setting up and using a darkroom?

Here at Fotospeed, we’re passionate about traditional darkroom printing - after all, it’s where we started back in the 1980's! We believe that the process of creating a print in the darkroom can help you become a better photographer by helping you think more deliberately about creating your print. Plus, the experience of creating a print in the darkroom really is one of a kind, and every print you will create in this environment will be completely unique.

Darkroom printing doesn’t have to be a dark art – we’ve got the lowdown on everything you need to know about producing a print in the darkroom. You don’t even have to have a professional darkroom available – with the right gear, you can set one up in the comfort of your own home! So here’s our complete guide to darkroom printing!

What you’ll need

An enlarger – this doesn’t need to be new or expensive
Three large trays
A power socket
Red light
A safe light
Plastic tongs
A timer
Masking frame
RC (resin-coated) or FB (fibre-based) paper
Paper developer (powder or a liquid concentrate) mixed to the correct strength, stop bath, and fix
Measuring jugs and bottles for mixing and storing chemicals
Wiring setup
Print washer or bucket/drying screens

Step 1 – the set up

The first thing you’ll need to do is gather your equipment and set up your wiring, ensuring it is safe. Then you’ll need to set up a space for your three trays and enlarger, keeping it steady on a flat surface – you don’t want blurry prints! Keep your developer, stop bath, and fix near the enlarger in that order, too. You’ll also need to set up your print washer/bucket and drying screens a little further up. Try to keep your setup divided into two separate sections – a dry area for the enlarger, composition, and negative handling, and a wet area for mixing solutions and print processing.

Step 2 – handling your paper

If, at this point, you’re ready to tear open your box of paper, we’d suggest you stop and take a moment. The paper used for darkroom printing is sensitive to light, meaning any exposure to it could ruin your paper and consequently your print. Make sure to use your orange or red safe light but remember to check that the room is in complete darkness first. This includes covering ANY source of light, both natural and not – yes, that means putting your phone away!

You will need a power supply for your enlarger and safe light, although a battery-powered red bicycle light can be used at a pinch, so long as it is well away from the paper.

Step 3 – measuring out your chemicals

This is pretty straight forward – measure out your chemicals as instructed on the bottles.

Step 4 – using the enlarger

Place your negative in the carrier of the enlarger, keeping the shiny side up and the numbers facing away from you. Then set the enlarger to the correct height, remembering to refocus the image each time, to project an image the right size for your print.

Next, you can turn on the enlarger. Remember to only have the lamp on when the enlarger is in use, as not doing so can cause the lamp to burn out as well as damage your negative. You can then alter the aperture ring of the lens until the brightest image is projected onto the baseboard, and focus your image on the masking frame. Turn the aperture ring until there’s a slight darkening of the projected image - about 2 stops darker than the lens’s maximum aperture. Remember to check the sharpness using both your eyes and a focus finder if you can get one.

Step 5 – making test strips

Turn off the enlarger and take a sheet of paper to make test strips – how many you can get depends on the size of your paper. Put all but one of them back in the box, place a filter in your enlarger, and the one strip on your masking frame. Expose it for a few seconds, cover up a small section (about a centimetre) with card, and expose for a few more seconds. Be careful not to move the paper when you move the card! Do this until the last strip of paper has been exposed and then evaluate tones of the entire test strip to see which represents the least and most exposure.

Step 6 – developing your image

Place your exposed paper into the tray of developer fluid, rocking the solution back and forth gently over the paper. Do this for about a minute (details will be on your solution’s instructions), and make sure not to touch the paper with tongs or your hands as this can leave marks.

Step 7 – using stop and fix

Take your paper out of the tray developer solution and drain it. Then, slide the paper into the stop bath and gently rock the tray as before for a few seconds. Remove it, drain, and slide it into a tray of fixer, gently rocking the solution over once more. This should be a few seconds for test strips, and a minute or two for final prints.

Step 8 – reviewing your test

Once you’ve removed the test from the fix, you should remove it to view by white light. Count in batches of five seconds from the lightest end of the test while looking for the first exposure that looks correct. This will be your exposure time for your final print. If the contrast is too high, you will need to lower the grade of your filter. If it is too low, you will need to up the grade of your filter.

Step 9 – making your print

Now you’ve identified the correct exposure and contrast grades, you can move onto your final print. Place a sheet in the masking frame and expose as before. Then, develop and stop as you did for the test, followed by fixing and washing. Then you can hang the print up to dry.

Step 10 – dodging and burning

Once you’ve printed your image, there may be some local areas which don’t not achieve the desired effect. At this stage, you will undertake secondary action to further control the printing effect. These are called dodging and burning.

Dodging is used to lighten specific areas of a print by giving it less exposure, giving detail. In this method, a dodging tool – which is a card or other opaque object – is held between the enlarger lens and the photographic paper to block to a specific area. Conversely, burning darkens an area by giving it additional exposure after the main exposure. The method involves placing a card or other opaque object between the enlarger lens and the photographic paper to allow light to fall only on the part of the image that needs to be darkened.

Check out our darkroom supplies, or get in touch with the support team to find out more about how you can get started in the darkroom.


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