Art 198
Independent Study in Black&White Photography

Basic Darkroom Operations

The previous notes on camera operation were all aimed at producing the best possible negative. Nevertheless, the negative is not the end of the process. The work of photographic art is the print. All the effort up to this point has merely been aimed at producing a negative with the greatest potential for producing a great print. Without good darkroom work, your efforts in the field will be lost.

Film development is a purely mechanical process requiring cleanliness, standardized fresh solutions, temperature control, agitation, and care in handling. If standard procedures (which are well documented in various darkroom manuals) are followed, allowing for the sensitivity of your film, and if the film is handled with care, using only clean materials, you should find yourself in possession of crisp scratch-free and spot-free negatives. You may either have your film developed by a local lab or you may develop it yourself. If you have a "black bag," you can load the film in a developing tank in your dorm room and process the film in your bathroom sink. You do not require a darkroom for film development. Commercial labs will usually provide you with a proof sheet. If you develop your own films, you will need to print a proof sheet in the darkroom. The creative side of darkroom work begins with the proof sheet.

The single exception to what has been said above is intentional over-development or under-development of the film. On occasion, in the field, you may find yourself presented by impossible situations where lighting conditions prohibit the creation of a perfect image. Perhaps it is a gray day and different elements of your subject present little contrast to each other no matter what you do. The result is going to be a very uninteresting mass of grays. Likewise, you may find yourself in a situation of bright illumination where standard exposure is going to challenge film sensitivity. In these situations the film can be over-developed or under-developed. The former expands the contrast of the final negative and the latter contracts it.

Remember that the B&W negative is a micro-deposit of silver crystals in an emulsion. The brightest objects activate the silver salts most so that development chemistry causes fast crystal growth here. Less activated silver salts respond more slowly to silver growth. When the negative is printed, the high silver density regions will print toward white (Zones VIII to X) and the lower density regions will print toward Black (Zones II to 0). The time of development has the greatest effect on regions where crystal growth is fast and the least effect where crystal growth is slow. Thus, the time of development has greatest effect on regions that will print to Zones approaching X and least effect on regions that will print to Zones approaching 0. Ansel Adams presents several graphs showing the accumulation of silver density on various emulsions as a function of Zones and development time. (The Negative, appendix II) Operationally, what this all means is that one can best adjust the exposure of dark objects at the time of film exposure and one can then readjust the Zoning of the light areas by over- or under-development. We will not discuss these options further because they are not very practical for roll films where you have perhaps 36 images that must all be developed in the same way. The technique is primarily useful for large-format cameras that expose individual plates. Photographers using 35 mm SLR cameras who want to use these techniques carry several camera backs that are marked for over-development or under-development so that the whole roll of film can be treated in the same way.

Image Selection and Adjustment

Adams says, "The making of a print is a unique combination of mechanical execution and creative activity. It is mechanical in the sense that the basis of the final work is determined by the content of the negative. However, it would be a serious error to assume that the print is merely a reflection of negative densities in positive form. . . The creativity of the printing process is distinctly similar to the creativity of exposing negatives: in both cases we start with conditions that are 'given,' and we strive to appreciate and interpret them." (The Print, p. 1) Later, he says, "The point I wish to emphasize is the dual nature of printing: it is both a carrying-to-completion of the visualized image and a fresh creative activity in itself." (The Print, p. 9)

Dark room work begins with the selection of an image from the proof sheet. One of many available small magnifiers will help you inspect the images on your proof sheet. You are looking for an interesting subject that offers exciting contrasts and is well focused. When an image has been selected, locate the negative strip and place it in the film carriage for your enlarger. You are now ready to make a print of this image. Adams suggests that you print a somewhat light (under-exposed) full-negative image (say, 4X6) so that you can carry it into the light and explore the contents of the negative in greater detail.

In this self-critique mode you can plan a strategy for making the actual printed image. At this point, you should be confirming the sharpness of your subjects, basic composition ideas, and qualities of exposure. This is also an opportunity to view potential problems --- poles coming out of people's heads, power lines passing in front of subjects, etc. The result of this study will be a decision to proceed or to junk the idea, and this will be based on whether the problems observed can be overcome with your darkroom techniques.

Having selected the print size and paper type and using the appropriate paper frame, you can explore the creation of various images. The enlarger head can be moved up-or-down to select anything from the whole negative to a small portion of the negative. The paper frame can be rotated relative to the enlarger head and negative to alter the horizontals defined by the negative. The lens can be adjusted to bring the image into focus on the paper frame surface. (If you are worried about paper thickness, you can use a throw-away piece of paper to focus on.) A single sharp and well-exposed negative can be used to create a variety of printed images.

The only problem so far is that increased enlargement tends to bring out graininess and lose sharpness. B&W photographers often shoot pictures a little wider than they think the print will be made so that they include everything that they'll want in the darkroom. But it is dangerous to include too much in the negative since enlargement up to the true subject will lose clarity and sharpness. Like all things in this art form, there is a happy medium. The 35 mm negative is a rectangle whose long side is 1.5 times the short side. A 4X6 print replicates the whole negative, but an 8X10 requires you to crop off 1/6th of the negative's length.

This phase of darkroom work is the first of two phases in the creative process. No matter how you conceived of the image when you were in the field exposing this negative, you now have the option of re-composing it. The same rules apply as above. First, what is your subject? Second, how can you call attention to your subject? And three, how can you simplify the image? You may want to begin by filling the frame with the subject. You can then bring the enlarger head downward to include more of the negative. As you do this, you should ask whether the additional objects included in the image help to call attention to or relate to the subject. What do they do for the composition? If new elements of the image fail to contribute anything, you should stop there. This is also where you can compensate for compositional mistakes that you made in the field. Perhaps the way the subject is turned or is moving requires some empty space for reference in making a balanced composition. Perhaps there are undesirable objects or contrasty parts that you can cut out of the image at this point.

Print Exposure and Processing

Once you have a well-focused re-composed image on the paper frame, you are ready to move to the second and final phase of the creative process. At this point, no matter what choices you made in the exposure phase of creating this negative, you now have the opportunity to manipulate the exposure of the light-sensitive paper. The discussion of Zones of luminosity in exposing a film moves directly into a discussion of Print Values. Other factors remaining equal, if you tried to place a given portion of the negative on, e.g., Zone V, you will want to adjust the exposure of the print so that this same portion prints to the gray-scale value associated with Zone V (18% luminosity). Of course, this is also an opportunity to change the relative values held by portions of the image in the negative.

Like film, print paper comes in different light sensitivities and can handle different levels of contrast. In addition, print papers are constructed in different ways, have different surface textures and thickness, and print to different color-tones on the gray scale. All of these factors need to be considered in selecting the print paper to use. New resin-coated papers are very easy to handle and dry very nicely with a variety of surfaces. Multi-grade RC papers are commonly available and allow a wide range of contrast control without having a large stock of different contrast grades in your favorite paper.

A second variable is the intensity of the lamp in the enlarger head. Furthermore, the amount of light reaching the print paper will depend upon the size of the enlargement being made. Generally speaking, there are too many variables here to allow us to accurately predict the optimum exposure for a given print. Common practice is to proceed on an experimental basis by printing a "test strip."

If the enlarger timer is reliable, you can set it for a standard time interval, e.g., 5 seconds. Place a strip of print paper in the paper frame and put a dense sheet across all but a small portion of the strip. Run the enlarger for the standard interval and push the dense sheet back along the strip to expose another portion. Expose another standard interval. Continue in this fashion until you have exposed the whole strip. Develop the strip, wash, and dry. Carry this into the light and write the total exposure times on each portion of the strip. If you have chosen the interval well, the strip will span a full range from under-exposed to over-exposed. You should now be able to interpolate from the strip to determine exactly what exposure time is correct for this image.

You should begin by making a "working print" of the image. This is a straight exposure of the paper, assuming no contrast adjustment and using your best guess at exposure time as indicated from your test strip. After processing and drying this print, carry it into the light and submit it to careful criticism.

The basic process is as follows. Expose the print paper in the enlarger for the estimated time. Immerse the print in the developer and agitate for about 2 minutes. Remove the print to a stop bath solution for 30 seconds. Transfer from here to the first fixing bath where it should remain, agitated, for up to 3 minutes. Transfer to the second fixing bath for another 3 minutes, agitated. Conclude the process with hypo clearing solution, about 3 minutes, and then wash in running water for about one hour. If you want to make a number of prints of the same image and have consistency, Adams suggests calculating a "development factor." Select a portion of the print that is middle gray and clock the emergence of this area in your developer. The "development factor" is the total development time of 2 minutes divided by this emergence time. If the developer temperature changes or the chemicals weaken so that the emergence time changes, development will remain consistent print-to-print by adjusting total development time by simply applying the same factor to the new emergence time.

Inspection of the work print gives you an opportunity to consider adjusting the exposure time or using a different contrast for the paper. Adams suggests that exposure time is most important for the high print values, those closest to white. In other words, the exposure time should be selected to avoid washing these out to an uninteresting textureless white. Exposure time may have to be increased in order to produce texture within the white values. The other print values can then be manipulated by adjusting the contrast of the paper. Either select a paper with a different contrast rating or, using a multi-grade paper, adjust the filtering for different contrast. (You will probably have to create a new test strip with the latter technique.) For example, if the exposure time that produces the best looking whites causes the low print values, the blacks, to become dense and uninteresting, you need a paper with a wider contrast range.

When you have established the optimum exposure time, paper grade, and contrast handling, you should make a final work print and inspect it closely. Now you are looking for parts of the image that might be improved by slight under-exposure or slight over-exposure done by "dodging" or "burning." These are techniques which require a lot of practice but they may be the extra edge in creating a sensational image.

Click here to return to the Home Page