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I have never been able to enlarge photographs.  I have friends who do it, and I trust them. I’m just interested in the shot. – Henri Cartier-Bresson

I purchased a Beseler 23C last fall from a young photographer moving out of Baltimore, thinking that I would start printing my own photos. Unfortunately, there was just no good place to set up a darkroom in my old place. Nevertheless, I proceeded to acquire a few trays, a Beseler polycontrast filter set, and a safelight, in the event that I should finally secure a place.  When we moved to our new place in January, I annexed the storage closet for my photographic purposes, putting my enlarger in there, together with all my cameras, lenses and tools.  I even purchased a large boot tray to prevent spillage, a blackout curtain to light-seal the room, etc.

Somehow, in the midst of the busyness of research life, I put the actual enlarging on hold.  Things piled on my enlarger and for a while I wondered if I should sell it on craigslist.  In the meantime, I continued to scan images into the computer, and posted them onto flickr, but I knew that I had to get to enlarging at some point.

Part of the reason for my hesitance has to do with not knowing how to do it.  I was concerned that the room will not be light tight enough; there will be insufficient ventilation; it might be too hot, and so forth.  I didn’t really understand how to expose paper (What is the ISO of the paper? Is there an equivalent of the Sunny16 rule? How does one know when to stop exposing? Aren’t all lamps going to give different power output?)  I read and re-read the literature for the chemicals, but there was just too much information there.

And then, it hit me.  I had those exact same fears when I first started developing my own film.  Armed with this fresh insight, I decided a week ago that this weekend I will enlarge my own photos.  After all, I already had the chemicals, and they will eventually expire. So what the heck.  I went for it and I am happy to inform that I am now a real photographer.  I make photos from film I develop myself, much like the masters of photography did decades ago (although it has to be said that many of them didn’t enlarge their own photographs).  And having now experienced the whole analogue process, I have a new-found respect for the great print-makers of the past.

For anyone who thinks that Photoshop/Lightroom is the same as the analogue darkroom, I have news for you – it doesn’t even come close.  You’d think that dodging and burning will be simple, but that’s where you’d be wrong.  You know how people always say that digital cameras allow better photographs to be taken since you get immediate feedback?  The same is true of paper development.  In the darkroom, the paper looks white, no matter how long you leave it under the light.  Only after it is dropped into the development tank will you be able to see the results of your actions.  And the process happens so quickly (and magically, I might add) that there is practically no way to halt it mid-stride.  Want to change the contrast?  Well, you have to slide in a filter and hope for the best.

The hardest part for me, apart from gathering enough courage to do it, is the setting up.  It was a fairly long process, and I had to calculate the concentrations, quantity required, print capacity of the various baths, etc.  The actual exposure took 20 seconds for the test strip, and development to washing an additional 5 minutes.  It was incredibly painless!  Here’s what one of my test strips and the resulting photograph look like.

Test strip, at 3-second increments

After I did the test strip, I realized that the photo has very high contrast.  I know that the desired exposure is approximately 6 seconds, so I added a 1.5 contrast filter to reduce the contrast slightly.  The result isn’t too bad, for a first try.

Final print, f/16, 6 seconds, 1 1/2 contrast filter

I will add a couple more posts to discuss the equipment and basic techniques for enlargement.  Stay tuned!

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