Darkroom course 7th/8th April

The course was at Bristol Folk House and I attended it with Holly Woodward. Many thanks to Holly for letting me know about the course. I can recommend the venue, they run a variety of very reasonably priced photography courses and are located in central Bristol a few doors from an excellent bookshop that sells most of its books for £3 each.

There were six students and one tutor, we worked in the dedicated dark room which is based in a cellar with an adjoining small room for inspecting prints and negatives. The cellar had six enlargers (all donated and of different types!) and a very large ceramic sink that could take three large trays and a water bath. There was also a small length of counter with a paper safe and a print dryer.

On day 1 we spent the morning learning to get the undeveloped film wound onto the reels in the dark.  Even when successful this still felt a bit unsuccessful, it’s definitely something I need to practise whilst watching tv. The actual processing mechanics were fine, we used the Ilford rinsing method which uses less water. The developer has to be within half a degree of 20 C, any warmer or cooler required changes to the length of time that the film was developed for. Getting the processed film off the reel was a surprising challenge considering that it was done in full light, 36 exposures is slightly too long for intuitive handling and I think I may have got some dust on Holly’s film.

In the afternoon we made contact prints, which involved making a test print first. This is done with a strip of paper placed diagonally across the neg holder, and then another wider strip of card is used black side down to mask off sections of the photopaper. Each section was exposed for 5 seconds. Some of us then ended up working with 10 second exposures depending on how well the first one came out (I increased my intervals in this way). Once a satisfactory test print was obtained we inspected the residuals (the black bits between images) to identify the point where the residuals showed true black, and from that position on the strip we calculated the cumulative exposure needed.

Day 2 was about making prints. The neg goes into the holder in the enlarger and any filter changes applied. In red light, the image is projected onto the easel and the enlarger adjusted to get the desired image onto the desired size paper; this is done with the enlarger opened up two stops to give a bright image. Then the image is focused using the enlarger control first, then a manual focusing tube that allows you to inspect the grain of the projected image. After this you stop back down two stops and get paper for a test strip, then you make a test strip again.

Once the test strip is exposed you use consecutive baths of developer (2min), stopper (30 sec) and fixer (about two minutes). Don’t dip the tongs in the wrong tanks. That moment when you see your image start to appear in the dev tank really does feel like magic. It did make me wonder if I should shoot my fairies on film. After those three baths the print went into a tank with running water for 2-4 minutes before going through the dryer (you can also hang them to dry). This time, the test strip is inspected for the exposure that is just starting to show detail in non-specular highlights, and the exposure is calculated on that basis. Then a sheet of paper goes into the easel and you make the full print.

We were shown how to dodge and burn. Despite learning the technicalities of doing this in PS/Lightroom on the Foundation course, seeing it done on paper really helped my understanding of how and why you would do these processes.

Lots of learning for me over the weekend, and not just the obvious stuff. It’s tempting to look at a test strip with the same logic of looking at a digital histogram, but that doesn’t work. In digital, an overexposed pixel is white (blown) and underexposed is black. Whereas the shorter exposures on paper were whiter because the paper had less chance to react to the light and longer exposures were darker. I kept trying to read my test strip back to front on Saturday until I realised.

I loved the printing process – it’s very iterative, which I liked, but also it needs to be very precise and that continues to be a bit of a challenge to me. You need to be accurate in measuring fluids, in measuring timings, in squaring up paper in the easel, in focussing…  I am definitely going to do more. A friend has some old dark room gear that she is happy to lend to me, though the siting of the enlarger presents a couple of challenges. There is also a local private darkroom literally moments from my home and there is some availability to work there. Developing film at home and then printing at the darkroom might be a suitable compromise. I would love to work with layered objects and fabrics on the paper during exposure, I would have to see if that could be done in a commercial setting.

I find it amusing that after months of saving and toing and froing over buying a digital printer that my first prints are analogue. They are not perfect, even to my uneducated eye I can see issues with them, and focus is an issue too as they were my first prints from my Olympus OM-1 and I am definitely struggling with the manual focus on that. I did love the process though, enough to continue exploring.

My final prints:


My photos were taken on an Olympus OM-1 camera that was given to me by an OCA student last year. It’s been serviced, and these were the first prints that I’ve seen from it. I am undoubtedly at the start of a substantial learning curve re manual focus and manual exposure.

Film used was Ilford HP5, as requested in the course materials.

Paper was Ilford Multigrade, and we used the enlarger filter settings to adjust contrast/tonality.

I used f4.8 (I think, couldn’t really read it in the dark) when setting up and focussing the enlarger, f8 when making the prints.


7 thoughts on “Darkroom course 7th/8th April

  1. Catherine April 9, 2018 / 2:56 pm

    I love the prints you produced. I’m not sure I could cope with the technical stuff, even though you’ve described it very clearly, and I often wish my brain could work in a different way or I could switch it in and out of modes that include ‘technical’. To be honest, it just hadn’t occurred to me that the enlarger projects an image on to the right size paper – it sounds almost like cyanotypes!

    • Kate April 9, 2018 / 3:55 pm

      Thanks Catherine! Honestly, it is no more technical than following a recipe, and almost certainly easier as there are no parallel processes. I never knew that the image was made by projection either, but it is so straightforward once you’ve seen it done and had a go.

      • Catherine April 9, 2018 / 5:10 pm

        You’re very reassuring Kate.

  2. Holly Woodward April 9, 2018 / 3:44 pm

    Excellent post, Kate. All the instructional bits that I left out.

    • Kate April 9, 2018 / 3:56 pm

      Thank you Holly! I shall go to read your post now.

  3. sarahdandrews April 9, 2018 / 6:06 pm

    Kate, this is a fascinating blog. Thank you. My gut feeling has always been that understanding the film process would enhance digital, and you have confirmed this for me. It certainly reinforces my respect and awe for our forbears who worked with film to produce the iconic images we all learn from.

    • Kate April 10, 2018 / 9:20 am

      Thank you Sarah. I would definitely recommend a weekend course if you get the opportunity. Everyone I meet who used to work with film professionally says “never again” but they do now have the knowledge and experience to make an informed decision.

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