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To my mind, the digital age has taken away a vital part in the enjoyment of taking pictures – making beautiful prints.  The process of taking pictures is indeed fun. It’s also great that we are able to so quickly see you images materialize – first on the back LCD, and hours later on the big, color-corrected monitor.  And don’t even get me started on the level of precision AND speed one can work with digital files in software like Nik and Adobe Lightroom/Photoshop.  However, there’s something to be said about the painstaking process from exposing the film, to developing it into a negative, and finally making a print from it.

I’ve been on a journey backward in photographic history, moving from digital to film to view cameras to self-coated emulsion-on-canvas prints.  Through this process, I’ve found the traditional darkroom, using resin-coated paper and small to medium format cameras to be the sweet spot on the Craft-Pain continuum (briefly, for me the processes transition from being a craft to a pain once you get to large format printing, and when you cross get to fiber-based paper).  Owing to space constraints, I’ve been limited to 8×10 prints for the longest time.  While reasonably large, they were not particularly exciting since my inkjet can easily make prints just as large.  So I was stoked to be able to print on 11×14 paper after weeks of preparation.

I picked out two negatives, one of which is shown below.  The picture was taken in Paris over Summer 2012, and shows the Eiffel Tower in the background.  The negative was particularly dense in the sky as well as the front facade of the building on the right.  It also had very deep shadows, making for a particularly hard print.  Now note that I am far from being a good printer, but this was one of the hardest prints I have made.

The things you have to do to get a decent print in the darkroom. This takes 1 minute on Adobe Lightroom, and almost 4 hours in the traditional darkroom.

The things you have to do to get a decent print in the darkroom. This takes 1 minute on Adobe Lightroom, and almost 4 hours in the traditional darkroom.

Print 1: Top left
The first print in the series is the one in the top left.  The print was made by exposing the whole image uniformly at f/8, for 20 seconds.  A couple of things stood out for me:

  1. The sky was blown-out;
  2. The shadows were much too high; and
  3. The overall contrast seems a little high for my taste.

To address these issues, I used a #1 and eventually #00 filter (Ilford Multigrade) to reduce the contrast.

Print 2: Bottom left
The second work print was made using the #00 filter to reduce the contrast. The total exposure time was 36 seconds at f/5.6.  The extra exposure is to compensate for the 1-stop filter factor and also because the filter affects the contrast by lightening the shadow region.  You can see that the sky has a nice tone, and the facade is also a nice grey (the print is in the shadow of my bathroom door, causing it to look darker than it actually is).  Unfortunately, all the shadow detail was lost.  So I had to dodge the shadow regions.

Print 3: Top right
After making some test strips I made this print.  The main improvement is that the shadow regions look much better.  However, the sky was actually pretty grainy, and the large-ish aperture at f/5.6 was also causing the print sharpness to be uneven – the print became defocused as you move from left to right.  I checked the negative carrier and corrected some minor misalignment, but the main problem was the aperture setting.  In addition, as the print dried, the image looked somewhat darker than it did before.

Print 4: Bottom right
The final work print I made had a pretty involved process.  I burned in the sky with approximately 10-15 seconds of extra exposure by cutting a hole in a piece of scrap paper and moving it around for a total of 90 seconds (the area ratio between the hole and the sky is approximately 1:8). Then I exposed the whole image for an additional 45 seconds and dodged the shadow regions around 5-10 seconds.   Th result is a print that, when dried, produced some faint detail in the sky and facade without too much grain, and also sufficient shadow details. A half-decent print!

Finished, mounted print.

Finished, framed print.

This is what the print looks like framed.  I have to say, the whole process of getting this print was incredibly involved, and it took more than 3 hours to get this image.  It took about 1 minute to perform all the same adjustments in Lightroom.  However, I have to say that the physical print is a much more rewarding outcome.

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