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What is the darkroom printing method?

The darkroom printing method refers to the historical photographic process of producing prints from film negatives inside a darkened room. Before digital photography became mainstream, the darkroom was an essential part of photography and film development. Photographers would capture images on film, develop the negatives, and then use enlargers and chemical baths to expose photographic paper to light and create prints. The darkroom printing process allowed for a high degree of control over exposure, contrast, cropping, dodging and burning to create the desired look of the final print. While digital processes have made darkroom printing obsolete for most photographers, some traditionalists and artists still prefer the creative flexibility and hands-on nature of the analog darkroom.

Overview of the Darkroom Printing Process

Here is an overview of the key steps involved in the darkroom printing workflow:

  1. Set up the darkroom with enlargers, trays of chemical solutions, sinks, and safe lighting.
  2. Develop film negatives using chemical baths.
  3. Insert negatives into the enlarger to project onto photographic paper.
  4. Determine exposure time and use dodging/burning techniques for contrast control.
  5. Process exposed paper through developer, stop bath, and fixer chemical trays.
  6. Wash and dry final prints.
  7. Repeat as needed to make multiple prints from negatives.

Each of these steps requires specialized equipment, chemicals, and techniques to properly execute. Mastering the darkroom printing workflow took significant training, skill, and artistic sensibilities.

Darkroom Equipment and Layout

A fully equipped photographic darkroom contained the following key components:

  • Enlarger – Specialized projector used to shine light through negatives onto photographic paper.
  • Trays and containers – Used to hold chemical solutions for developing.
  • Sink and running water – For washing prints and cleaning equipment.
  • Safe lights – Red or amber lights used for low-level illumination.
  • Drying lines and clamps – For hanging prints to dry.
  • Thermometer – To monitor chemical temperatures.
  • Timer – Essential for keeping track of exposure and development times.
  • Focusing aids – Magnifiers and grain focusers to inspect negatives.
  • Cutting and cropping tools – Scissors, blades, and straight edges.
  • Safelights – Special lightbulbs that emit wavelengths not sensitive to photographic paper.

The darkroom needed to be completely light-tight during the printing process. Windows and sources of external light needed to be eliminated. Photographers constructed darkrooms in windowless rooms of homes, studios, schools, and labs.

A typical darkroom layout arranged the equipment in a workflow from film development to print finishing. Enlargers were set up on one side of the room alongside trays of chemicals. Sinks for print washing were on the opposite side. Safe lights were hung overhead or positioned as needed. There was a clear workflow path between each station.

Darkroom Chemicals

Photographers used various chemical solutions during darkroom printing which had to be handled with care:

Chemical Use
Developer solution Reacts with exposed silver halide crystals on paper to create the image.
Stop bath Halts development and fixes the image.
Fixer Clears away unexposed silver halide to stabilize the image.
Wetting agent Reduces surface tension of water to prevent water spots.

Chemicals had to be prepared and maintained at proper dilution and temperature. Thermometers helped photographers maintain the required temperature. Chemical trays were arranged close together to facilitate smooth workflow during the development process.

Darkroom Safelights

Since the printing process required total darkness, photographers used safelights providing minimal illumination so they could see to work. Safelights emitted wavelengths of light that would not expose the photographic paper. Common safelight types included:

  • Red – Safest choice that could be used with all papers. Produced a dim red glow.
  • Amber – Provided a brighter yellow/orange light but couldn’t be used with orthochromatic papers.
  • Green – Compatible only with orthochromatic papers but provided the brightest light.

Photographers had to choose safelights suitable to the paper in use. Keeping safelights on the minimum necessary brightness and maintaining distance from the paper helped prevent accidental exposure or fogging.

Preparing the Enlarger and Film Negatives

Enlargers consisted of a light source, condenser, negative carrier, lens, and adjustable easel holding the photographic paper. Photographers prepared the enlarger by:

  • Cleaning lenses and reflectors
  • Checking alignment and focus
  • Setting up the easel with test strips of paper
  • Inserting negatives into the negative carrier
  • Choosing the right lens for the desired print magnification

Negatives had to be handled carefully to prevent scratches or fingerprints that would show on the finished prints. Cotton gloves were recommended. Negatives were inserted emulsion side down.

Determining Exposure Time

The correct exposure time had to be determined for each negative. With the safelight off, the photographer used test strips of photographic paper to create test prints with a range of different exposure times. The ideal exposure showed solid blacks and good contrast without washing out highlights. Exposure had to account for variables like:

  • Density of the negative
  • ISO/ASA speed of the paper
  • Color and intensity of the enlarger bulb
  • Magnification (enlargement) ratio

Making a test strip for every negative ensured correct exposure compensation. Enlarger timers helped photographers control test and production exposure times.

Handling and Processing Exposed Prints

During and after exposure, prints had to be handled in total darkness to prevent accidental extra exposure. Timing and agitation during chemical processing was also critical. A working print workflow moved through the following stages:

  1. Exposure – Paper is exposed under the enlarger for determined time.
  2. Developer – Print is agitated in developer tray for specified duration to reveal the latent image.
  3. Stop Bath – Acid bath halts development and fixes the image.
  4. Fixer – Removes unexposed silver halide from the paper.
  5. Wash -running water removes all processing chemicals.
  6. Dry – Prints are hung up to dry before viewing and finishing.

Photographers had to use safelights minimally between stages to check print development and avoid overexposure. Proper agitation techniques prevented uneven development. Throughout the process, working prints had to be handled along the edges only using tongs.

Dodging and Burning Techniques

Skilled darkroom printers used various techniques during exposure to control contrast and lighting effects:

  • Dodging – Selectively reducing exposure on areas of the print by blocking light.
  • Burning – Increasing exposure on areas by intensifying light.
  • Flash exposure – Very brief exposure used for only part of the print.
  • Split-grade printing – Using lower contrast filters during initial exposure.

These methods allowed the photographer to darken highlights or lighten shadows for a print that matched the desired vision. Specialized darkroom tools like Dodge/Burn tools and contrast filters aided the process.

Dodging and Burning Techniques Effects
Cardboard cutouts, fingers, or hands used to selectively block light during exposure. Creates lighter areas (dodging effect) on final print.
Stencils, hole cutouts, or printer’s hands target light onto specific areas during exposure. Creates darker areas (burning effect) on final print.
Brief opening of the enlarger’s shutter during full exposure. Flashes light onto only a selected area of the print.

Work Phases of the Darkroom

The darkroom printing workflow moved through three main phases:

  1. Pre-exposure – Prepare the enlarger, negatives, safelights, chemicals, and paper.
  2. Exposure – Shine light through the negatives onto paper to expose the print.
  3. Processing – Develop, stop, fix, and wash prints to stabilize the image.
  4. Post-processing – Final drying, spotting imperfections, cropping, and print finishing.

Efficient darkroom technicians developed smooth rhythms moving between enlargers, trays, and sinks as multiple prints progressed through the phases. The dim safelights facilitated movement through the lightless space.

Darkroom Safety Precautions

The darkroom contained many potential hazards. Photographers had to take precautions:

  • Wear goggles and gloves when handling chemicals.
  • Carefully pour chemicals when preparing solutions.
  • Follow dilution instructions to avoid chemical burns.
  • Clean up spills immediately and safely dispose of used chemicals.
  • Avoid electrical shocks from equipment around sinks and water sources.
  • Print in adequately ventilated spaces to avoid chemical vapors.
  • Work carefully with sharp cutting tools and broken glass.
  • Use tongs and trays to handle wet prints without damaging emulsions.

Observing basic safety measures helped create an efficient productive darkroom free of health and physical hazards.

Advantages of Darkroom Printing

The analog darkroom printing process offered unique advantages:

  • Hands-on creativity – The photographer directly crafts the final print.
  • Artistic flexibility – Allows for nearly endless toning effects and image manipulation.
  • Higher resolution – Film negatives offer greater resolution than digital sensors.
  • Distinctive look – Darkroom prints have a particular texture and tonal beauty.
  • Teaches discipline – Methodical workflow develops technical skills.

For many, the rhythmic darkroom process and alchemy of transforming raw negatives into perfect prints had intrinsic rewards beyond the final product.

Disadvantages of Darkroom Printing

The darkroom method also came with some downsides:

  • Cumbersome workflow – All equipment had to be used on site and required careful calibration.
  • Hazardous materials – Chemicals pose health dangers if improperly handled.
  • Steep learning curve – Achieving competence required extensive training under master printers.
  • Costly equipment – All components like enlargers had high initial investments.
  • Lack of flexibility – Needed to work near the bound darkroom space.

As photographers worked to streamline and automate the process, digital technology eventually provided an accessible alternative. But for dedicated practitioners, the darkroom’s disadvantages were outweighed by the craftsmanship and visual artistry the process allowed.


While the popularity of darkroom printing has diminished with the rise of digital photography, the analog process still holds an important place in photographic history. For decades, iconic photos passed through enlargers and chemical trays in darkrooms around the world. Mastering the technical intricacies required extensive training and skill. But with experience, photographers gained unparalleled creative control over their images. Many artists today continue to practice traditional darkroom printing for its hands-on rewards and peerless print quality. Though equipment and knowledge of the process can be hard to find, the magic of the darkroom lives on.