Laverghetta Photography & Portraits | What goes into a darkroom print and why is it so special?

What goes into a darkroom print and why is it so special?

January 07, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

I've recently put together and posted a video about printing in the darkroom and I wanted to elaborate on some things. If you haven't seen the video, please check it out here.


I use the silver gelatin process because it is much more involved and it feels like more of a craft than dinking around on the computer, adjusting sliders, and then printing your image on a printer or sending it off to a printing service. Of course, I understand that calibrating everything can be a very involved process and your first print from an inkjet might not be perfect, but to me, it doesn't feel as intimate. It's a bit like painting in Photoshop compared to painting on a canvas with actual paints. You might get some nice stuff with digital painting, but it won't be the same.

Loading film

When I start the process of making a photograph, I shut off all the lights in my darkroom, turn off the computer and shut off the power strip, plus I've even got a piece of thick tape that goes over the LED light on the smoke detector. You wouldn't believe how well you can see with just that one light after 10 minutes of letting your eyes adjust. You can have NO light at all when handling film. My film is 4"x5" and comes in small boxes. It must be handled pretty delicately so it doesn't get scratched and it must be handled in a fairly dust free environment. Two sheets of film are loaded into a special double-sided holder that's about the size of a small spiral bound notebook. I'll probably load between 3 and 6 of these film holders which gives me 6-12 shots when I go out. I load up my film bag with my light meter and the film, my camera backpack holds my camera, 3 lenses, contrast filters, dark cloth, bag bellows (for wide angle lenses), shutter release, and magnifying loupe. I also have to take a sturdy tripod with me or else there's a 90% chance I won't photograph anything while I'm out.

In the Field

When I reach the place where I want to photograph, I have to set up the tripod first. Then I can hang my two packs on the tripod knobs. Setting the camera up takes a couple minutes because it actually collapses into itself like a Transformer, from innocent wooden box with knobs, to an old looking, but still high-tech looking, camera. It's probably from about 1990. 

I have to turn some knobs on the camera to focus properly, my handheld light meter tells me how much light is reflecting off of certain parts of the scene before me. I have to interpret these readings in order to know how much light needs to hit my film once I get it placed in the camera. At this point, the camera is just a plain box with a lens at one end and fogged (ground) glass at the other. I need to put a dark cloth over my head to see the flipped and reversed image on the ground glass because it's so dim compared to the light I see when I just look in front of the camera. My light meter has a chart on the side of it to tell me which settings to use in order to take the picture that I want. Generally, two settings are used. There's a shutter speed, and an aperture. One controls the time the lens is open, the other controls how much the lens is open, whether it's open all the way or just a little. 

To take the shot, I need to get a film holder from inside my film bag. This piece is inserted into the camera like a cassette would have been inserted into a Sony Walkman (sorta). There's door that needs pulled open to expose the film surface to the inside of the camera. After opening the door on the film, I click the shutter, and put the door back in place. The film holder is safe to remove, and then I make notes on the picture that I just took. Not all film is developed the same and it's always good to know which film holders contain which shots. There are no test shots to see if I got the shot right. 

Processing the Film

Once I'm home, I set up my chemistry trays. All chemistry must be as close to 68 degrees Fahrenheit as possible, or else my film won't develop to the extent it's supposed to, making printing harder. The trays I use to develop are filled with plain water, developer, acid stop bath, fixer, another plain water bath, and fixer washer. All of these steps must be done for a certain amount of time in order to process my film to where it needs to be. After it's processed, it's washed in plain water for around 10 minutes, a drying chemical is added, and I hang it to dry for a couple hours in the shower. After it's dried, I need to put it into special archival plastic sheets to keep the film safe from dust and scratches.

Making the Print

This is where the video picks up. The film is loaded into the enlarger which is like a projector, but it projects the image straight down onto a table. Again, this is almost just like a camera, but in reverse. There is a lens that has an aperture that can open up and close down to just a very small hole. I turn the light bulb in the enlarger on and off to simulate a shutter speed. Then, I need to find how long this light needs to be left on in order to make a good picture on the light-sensitive photo paper. If too much light hits the paper, the picture looks too dark. If not enough hits the paper, the picture is too light. The light makes a chemical reaction in the paper and when a special solution is used, that reaction turns the paper black, or at least partially gray. On top of that, contrast must be adjusted while printing. That way, the bright points aren't too bright, and the dark points are as dark as they're supposed to be. It's almost like a science, discipline, and art rolled all into one. Sure, your image is still captured for you, but from there, there is much control over how the photo turns out. I usually use fiber based (FB) paper as opposed to resin coated (RC) paper. This paper is a type of plastic, similar to most of the photographs you've held in your hand. 

After the photograph is printed, it needs to be washed for 10-20 minutes. It goes through almost the same process that film does, but fiber paper needs washed longer since the chemicals are actually able to soak into the fibers instead of being stopped by the plastic of RC papers. It may not be over though, if the photographer hasn't accounted for dry down. Dry down is what happens when the fibers in the paper bunch up as they dry. This has the effect of darkening the highlights in a photograph, making them look muddy and flat, with low contrast. To dry the paper, it is squeegeed lightly, and set on a fiberglass drying screen to dry over the course of a few hours.

Finishing Touches

It might not be done yet, though. During the film drying process, film will gather a few specs of dust from time to time. Since the dust on the film stops light from reaching the photo paper during printing, this shows up as a white spot on the print. This must be "spotted" during post-processing by using a black dye and a very fine-point brush. 

In order to display a fiber print, you can't just put it in a frame and be done. It needs to be dry mounted to be held flat. Then, a window mat is placed over the top before it is inserted in a frame. 

If care was taking during printing and the print was washed thoroughly enough and not contaminated after drying, it should last for many decades without yellowing or degrading in any way. 

Additionally, some color may be introduced into a black and white print. It may be just a subtle cool blue or even purple tone added by selenium toning, which also increases archival properties, or it may be true chemical sepia toning where the image is basically wiped from the paper and replaced by a brown color. It's also possible to do a mix of these two processes.


As you can see, there's a lot that goes into making just a single traditional silver gelatin darkroom print. I take great pride in my photography and wish to share it with as many people as I can. I hope you'll take some time to look around at my available images here


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