The darkroom in the digital age

  While equipment and supplies may not be as freely available as they once were, many darkrooms are still in use. Richard Sibley investigates the current state of traditional developing and printing THERE was a time when cupboards, bathrooms and sheds all over the country were used as darkrooms. For enthusiast photographers, the regular trip to the local photo store was a chance to check out the latest chemicals, paper and film. While most photographers have now replaced the chemicals of the darkroom with the glow of a computer screen, traditional photographic developing and printing is by no means dead. Although its popularity has waned, there are many people for whom darkroom developing and printing is not just a practical skill, but also an art, with photographers young and old preferring the bespoke quality of hand-made prints.


Traditional film photography has seen a huge decline in the past ten years, with some manufacturers, most notably Agfa, going out of business. With Ilford Imaging, which is based in Switzerland, concentrating on the development of inkjet media, Harman Technology, which trades as Ilford Photo, has had the rights to manufacture Ilford black & white photographic paper, film and chemicals since 2006. Although these products are now produced on a smaller scale and prices have had to rise, all the key Ilford film, paper and chemicals are still widely available Steven Brierley, of Harman Technology, told me that  sales of Ilford 120 rollfilm have actually increased year on year for the last four years Despite Kodak discontinuing some films, including Ektachrome, its range of T-Max films, with sensitivities of ISO 100,400 and 3200, are still in production, and Kodak has promised they will continue to be available for as long  as there is demand. A quick look through the Silverprint catalogush   that more than 30 different black & white films, including specialist infrared and orthographic products, are in stock, from manufacturers such as Rollei, Adox, Efke and Kentmere, as well as Ilford and Kodak. While an increase in price may make black & white film a little more expensive, for those who regularly shoot and develop monochrome images, it means that the business is at least viable, so production can continue for as long as there is enough demand Commercial demand should also be around for the foreseeable future due to most photography courses at schools, colleges and universities still requiring at least some of their students  work to be produced in the darkroom. Meanwhile, those more confident in the art and science of developing films and prints are choosing to explore alternative methods. These can range from hand-coating their own choice of substrate to print on, to using new formulations of developer and fixer. With this in mind, Nova Darkroom  has recently begun importing the Photographers’Formulary range of chemicals . Based in the USA, the Photographers  Formulary range includes many classic developers, as well as modern formulations specifically designed for developing films such as Kodak T-Max. While all these types of chemicals have been available in the past, the fact that new companies are growing and new product ranges are being imported into the country shows that thousands of darkroom users still operate in the UK.


For those who use a darkroom or are thinking of setting one up for the first time, the one area where there is an abundance of products is darkroom hardware. Although companies such as Kaiser , Paterson and LPL (via Nova Darkroom) still manufacture new enlargers, there is a growing trade in used equipment.  The darkroom in the digital agePaul Petterson of Secondhand Darkroom Supplies (www. has been trading in used darkroom equipment for around ten years, while Ian Windebank of Nova Darkroom told me that the company has been buying and selling second-hand equipment for the past 13 years. Many high-quality enlargers have become available as photographers have ditched them in favour of computers and printers, and there is still a demand for them. Certain makes and models of enlarger are still sought after, such as those by Devere, LPL and Leitz - in particular the Leitz C35, which is regarded by many as the best 35mm enlarger ever made. However, there are many budget enlargers that now sadly have no value. I ended up giving away one such enlarger to a local school after failing to sell it for just £10 online. There are many other sought-after pieces of darkroom equipment, and both Ian and Paul tell me that Jobo processors are one such item. there are very few people printing colour photographic prints, many still process C-41 colour film at home,  says Paul. Ian agreed, saying, Washers, dryers, processors and anything a bit exclusive, such as the high-quality metal Peak focus finders, are still wanted. Other items in demand include apochromatic (APO) enlarger lenses. These are optically better than most standard enlarger lenses, particularly when high-magnification enlargements are made. Most photographic printers who have APO lenses won t want to part with them, so as a result, APO lenses have held their value on the second-hand market. THE EXPERIENCE Compared to digital printing, darkroom printing may sound like hard work. However, to get the perfect digital print, you still need to consider your choice of inks, paper and printers, and check monitor calibration, ICC profiles and ink heads. Darkroom printing is a craft that allows the person who is making the print to become part of the process, which isn t the case when sitting behind a computer pressing buttons. A few hours spent in the darkroom can be relaxing, and there is something almost magical about seeing an image slowly appear on a blank sheet of paper - seeing and hearing an inkjet print creep out of printer just does not compare. For many people, hand printing is as enjoyable as actually going out and taking images. As Paul Petterson says,  We have cars now, but many people still enjoy going out and riding horses.

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