Notes from a dark room…

December 31st, 2012

It’s Christmas, and at Christmas along with a Turkey, too much wine and The Queen on the telly I normally have a ‘tidy’ up which consists of sorting through my in-tray and general year’s paperwork detritus and forming it into two neat piles. ‘Keep’ and ‘Chuck’. However this year was different…For those of you who have been keeping up with the more regular updates (yes, I’m not really a good regular blogger!) over on my incamerastock site will know that this year I moved back to the UK from a period living in France. So the general detritus got a decent going over before packing to come home. Because, and believe me when I say this, you don’t want to pack and move anything you really don’t have to when contemplating moving between countries!

During a frenzied period of unpacking the other day I uncovered one of my old “Darkroom Notes” books that used to accompany every print I made. Flicking through I was amazed to see how much detail I wrote about the image I was printing. I don’t make *any* notes now on the images I make in Photoshop. I just make them. But back in the days of printing, accurate Notes almost guaranteed repeatability and success. Without knowing the settings that pertained to a particular negative I would be unlikely to produce a decent print later down the line. So each print was planned, tested several times and then when an optimum formula was discovered, I wrote it down in the book. This page is from the year 2000 and was a series of prints I was commissioned to do for a brewery’s calendar. It was all b&w work.

What are these scribbles?! A particular print would have:

ENL: Enlarger height above the table (where the image was focussed on). Enlargers have a scale running up the centre column.

M value (i.e. M40): The amount of Magenta filtration added to adjust the desired contrast level of the print.

f-stop: The f-stop value of the enlarger lens

basic value: Number of seconds to expose the whole negative

burn and dodge notes: the areas of the print that needed more (burn) and less (dodge) light in seconds. Often quite complex shading went on using cut pieces of card as masks or sometimes hands. Always moving about (to ensure a soft edge). Sometimes would need to make filtration (and therefore exposure changes) during the burn and dodge times. No room for a mistake, make one error in this elongated sequential process and you had to start the whole print from scratch again.

sepia (finish): On this job we went for a rich sepia tone look to the prints so the x3 refers to the number of bleach and sepia baths the print went through before final wash and dry. This was often by hand/eye/experience and if you fouled up here….. you went right back to the beginning again.

For those of you reading this who’ve never printed their own images I can only describe it as a kind of magic that you just don’t get with digital. Don’t get me wrong, I’d hate to go back to those days for production work, especially in stock, but there was a great sense of end-to-end satisfaction gained from making a great print which started out as undeveloped film. Seeing it appear in the trays before your eyes was just amazing. Remember, unlike today, you had no idea (until that very moment) whether you had got “the shot” or not. Unless you pulled a few MF Polaroids on set but they tended to be to check lighting, not on the actual frames that mattered. Of course most things were conspiring to help you fail (focussing the negative, exposure variations for filtration, chemical freshness and temperature of the mixes and of course, doing most of this in the dark, under just a red ‘safelight’). Just like today the negative was manipulated via a choice of paper grades, filtration, dodge and burn, to produce the best print from the given negative.

The negative really was a blueprint and the master printer could get so much out of it. Just like a conductor and orchestra can take a score and interpret it with their own style. I set up all my digital cameras to capture incredibly “flat” because I “make” the image in Photoshop. I like to have the best dynamic range to work with and then I can decide how to present the final image to the viewer.

It’s New Year’s Eve today and next year it will be 13 years ago I wrote those notes. We’ve come a very long way in photography since then. The whole process of getting from the press of a shutter to a final image is now quicker and far easier than it ever was. Photoshop and latterly CGI allows us to distort reality, to undo our mistakes, to make images that are only limited by our imagination. Cameras have become “instant feedback” machines. In 2000 you had to wait until you developed your film, then made some prints to see if you had nailed the shot. Now it’s instantaneous.And once you have a memory card, you have no film costs at all.

I love technology. I’m doing things with images now I could only dream about 13 years ago, and I can do them in the relative comfort of my office, not in a basement darkroom, in dim light, breathing in fixer fumes for ten hours a day. I can experiment, I can ‘undo’ the last 30 things I’ve just done to the image. I can record an “action” to make the mundane stuff even faster and automated. I can take the component parts of several images and combine them together to make one image which would have been impossible in the darkroom. I can push the initial image much farther and further than I could ever do with film to get the look I want. And I can do this time and time again until I get exactly what I am looking for.

I wonder what I’ll be able to create in 2026? As long as it makes me $s I’ll be content :)

Happy New Year!






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