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Back in a darkroom (after a decade)!

I think I mentioned in an early post that I used to have a darkroom at home. When the family arrived it sadly had to go, along with nearly all my film photography and darkroom gear. I don't regret it all as it made way for the fabulous family I now have, but I did and do miss it.

Very recently a wonderful lady called Mikaela has opened a Studio / Gallery / Darkroom space quite local to me, just outside Ipswich in Suffolk. It's called Illuminate and has got off to a great start with an initial gallery opening, a very interesting Artist talk and a chance for me to get back into a darkroom after over a decade away,

1 x MF, 2 x 35mm enlargers

The darkroom is a lovely space. 3 enlargers, a film drying cabinet, worksurfaces, large darkroom sink and an RC paper dryer. There's also a small UV exposure box for altprocess printing available to use. The enlargers are colour, 2 x 35mm and 1 x MF. I'm hoping I can talk Mikaela into a 4x5 enlarger if the venture is successful so I can enlarge my TiTAN pinhole 😁

After a quick run through of the equipment I was off and running trying to get my darkroom brain in gear, using some Kentmere VC paper to just get into the swing of things. Like Mat Marrash says about using a large format view camera, there's also a "dance" you need work out and make a habit in the darkroom. It gives you a flow, but also prevents you making expensive mistakes and wasting time. Things like:

  • Taking a single test strip or sheet of paper from the pack and making sure the envelope is replaced and pack closed before doing anything else

  • Swinging the red filter in and out as needed

  • Focusing with full open aperture then closing aperture back down

  • Placing the tongs in same places so you don't mix them with different chemicals

  • Checking everything is light safe before turning on the white light

(and various other steps I'm still to remember)

Each darkroom and combination of equipment needs it's own rhythm or you spend too much time second guessing yourself so I took my time, didn't make too many mistakes and slowly got comfortable.

The plan was to just have fun, make something whilst understanding what I was remembering and what I needed to brush up on but most importantly to see if I still enjoyed it. I had booked for a morning, but ended staying the day as I was indeed enjoying myself and slowly getting the hang of things.

Approaching Storm, Felixstowe

I wanted to try and print a combination of 35mm and medium format from some HP5 and XP2 negatives to see how they feel in a proper darkroom print rather than scanned, processed and printed digitally. First up was "Approaching Storm", 35mm XP2 taken with the OM4Ti and 21mm. Quickly finding a base exposure and contrast for the foreground I then simply had to burnt in the clouds a little to bring them out.

In the past I used to have an RH Designs f-stop timer, so I made use of the "f-Stop" app on my phone to calculate the required f-stop printing times.

Print in fix

One of my favourite cameras has been the wonderfully quirky Horizon S3 Pro. It creates these fabulous 58x24mm negatives that I was dying to print. I made a cardboard mask before coming and just had to trim it down for the holder in the MF enlarger. That's what is giving those lovely borders in the print. I messed up my maths or measuring a little which gives the thicker top and bottom but to be fair I quite like that. This was an HP5 negative and the difference in grain in the darkroom print and a digitally produced image is quite startling. Much less in the darkroom print. I will need to explore this more.

Reeds at Snape (Horizon S3 Pro)

The medium format HP5 I tried was this 8 exposure Holga negative of a door and bike racks in central Ipswich. This needed printing at Grade 5 and needs more work to burn in the foreground a touch. That's not at all unexpected as the negative was produced with zero exposure control on a Holga using HP5 a yellow filter and an ND4 and 8 exposures on a single frame. Very much cross your fingers and hope 😁

Holga multi exposure

Ironically, whilst I was at the darkroom my Lith paper and chemicals where delivered at home. This is the main reason I want to get back into the darkroom, I absolutely love the randomness, tones and unpredictability of Lith printing. Tim Rudman is one of my all time photography heroes. I'll fill you in about how dipping my toes back into Lith printing goes next time 👌

I won't harp on and eulogise about the magic of seeing a print appear in the developer. It's more "holistic" than that for me. As a career software developer sat in front of computers the act of making images with film, developing the film and making prints from it gives me the satisfaction of creating something tangible and touchable with my hands. The results might not be perfect and to be fair I'd be much more confident making a decent print digitally than after any amount of time in the darkroom, but that's very much not the point.

If you have a chance to do a darkroom workshop, use a local darkroom or even create your own I would recommend giving a good go. Don't expect perfection, but do expect to enjoy yourself and the great satisfaction of creating something with your hands that you can be proud of.

I can't wait to get in there again and do some more printing. I also have some plans for 7x17" paper negatives and maybe even reversals thanks to the inspiration of Don Kittle's stunning work.

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