Photo by David Uzzardi
Someone emailed asking about leveling up their darkroom printing. Some of you might be thinking, “This dude can’t be qualified to answer this. He mostly shoots with his phone and makes xerox prints.” Well, that is me today. But me 3 years ago I literally lived in a darkroom. I owned and managed a darkroom rental facility with 5 darkrooms for 8 years. I couldn’t pay 2 rents, so I moved out of my apartment and into one of the back offices at the spot. Don’t tell anyone, I’m not sure it was legal. I also spent most of my 20s working in commercial labs, mini labs, private labs, etc all for processing and printing black and white film.
TIP 1 – Make good negs.
When I was in school, we had to turn in negs. At first it was to make sure we were using the camera properly but mostly it was to learn how to expose the film and process it perfectly to make printing easier. (I went to Palomar City College for a few semesters. I remember on day 1 my teacher said she may not make me a good photographer, but she will make me a great printer. Their photo dept had won numerous photo awards surpassing some of the big name art schools and universities.)(They were very proud of their photo dept and apparently so am I.)
You need to be processing your own film to make good negs. Or find a lab that will hand process it, or find a better film that will handle machine processing for that particular lab. For instance, when I lived in Hawaii for a minute, turning in Ilford HP4 actually came out better than Kodak Tri-X when it came to the lab I was using.
Shoot the whole roll. I know this isn’t always possible, but for me, especially at night I would try to shoot the whole roll. That way I can process it a certain way. If no flash, I would add more time and go a little over. If I did use flash, I would process it a little under to make it less contrasty. And that’s not even mentioning yet pushing and pulling the film. Sometimes I would process 5 rolls but each had different processing times.
“Expose for the shadows, print for the highlights,” That’s a common black and white darkroom standard statement. (It’s opposite for digital, btw.) But I always thought it should be changed to, “Expose for the shadows, process for the highlights.” Meaning control your contrasts in the processing of the negatives.
Learn about pushing and pulling your film. Learn about all the different developers. I kept it standard and mostly shot everything at 400 or 1600. That’s T-max in T-max developer at 68 degrees. Tri-x actual rating is 320, but they put 400 on it because most people don’t know what they are doing. If I shot Tri-x, I developed it in Rodinal. The old school guys shoot their 400 at 200 or less. I can’t seem to find it right now, but there’s a book out there with all your favorite photographers recipes. I remember Larry Clark had a weird one in that book. He shot everything at 600 and 1200 or something like that.
The point is 90% of your printing problems can be solved if you know how to make good negs.
I know you’re thinking, “What if you have a good photo but a lame ass neg?” That happens. Sometimes you have to get off a photo and all the settings are wrong on your camera. Or sometimes you put the roll in the wrong batch. There’s a lot of ways it go sideways. It’s ok though, we’ll discuss that in the next section.
TIP 2 – Print the whole neg.
What makes a good print is pretty much defined in 3 parts. The first part is the photo itself. Is it good? But this is about Part B, which is details. And Part C, tonal range.
If there is details in the sky, like clouds or ufos, bring them out with dodging and burning. If there is details in shadows, bring them out with dodging and burning. This is another reason for turning in negs when I was learning. The teacher wanted to see if we were ignoring these things.
You tend to print for your main subject, like if you had someone centered for a portrait against a brick wall. But in that brick wall background there may be a rat’s head poking out, some weird graffiti, or some other thing you didn’t notice when shooting. Granted this also depends on the sharpness of the lens your using, but in general try to bring up all the details if they exist in the original neg. It will make for a better print.
Printing for the entire tonal range also makes for a better print. Try to represent all the tones of gray in one print. Especially if these tones exist in the negative, you are doing a disservice if you do not showcase them. I have seen people who would spend a week on one photo. Like 40 hrs printing one single image to try and bring out everything and anything that is there in the negative.
You have heard the word “richness” when people are describing contrast, they are talking in terms of all the different levels of grays. When I started printing, all the 100 companies making fiber paper each had 100 different ones to choose from. These papers would range from warm to cold, matte vs glossy, hi contrast, etc etc. all with the purpose of finding those deeper blacks and subtle creamy levels of white. Part of the fun is these discovering these things and then creating your own recipes.
When doing your test strips, try doing a full size one. The whole photo. And then do another test strip for all the filters. Do different test strips for different sections of the photo. Think about printing split filter. This means printing the highlights with a low contrast filter and the shadows with a high contrast filter. This means you are exposing the print twice, which means you could fuck it up in many ways.
I can’t describe how to do split filter without making a video, but I’m sure one exists. It’s a game changer. I’m not sure but I think it came from the Zone System guys. When I was in school people would whisper things like, “See that guy over there, he’s a zone system guy.” Better get out of his way.
Go find a museum and look at the black and white photos. Locate the good prints and make note of what makes them good. Work on your stuff and show it to other older photographers and ask them how you could do better.
In conclusion, I think people in general aren’t trying hard enough to make good prints. I know at the moment I’m one of those guys, so don’t follow what I’m doing. I’m like those mechanics that drive beater cars. They know they can just fix stuff, but they also know it looks like shit right now. My photos look like shit in general right now, but if and when I ever get asked to do another exhibit in a museum or fancy gallery, I know and they know that I can make some good prints for them.
For me zines and blogs are my chosen destiny though. It’s my vibe. What’s your vibe? Print for your vibe but get good at the basics first.