Darkroom Printing – a typical session

Whats involved and how long is a typical darkroom printing session?

Do not be in a hurry

I thought I would describe a typical darkroom printing session. When I go into the darkroom to make a silver gelatin print I usually like to start pretty much first thing in the morning. This way, I can take my time.

I don’t like to be in a rush when I’m printing. Rushing is a mental state that is counterproductive to creativity. When you are rushing to meet a deadline you are less likely to be receptive to the materials you work with.

In my case, I print exclusively on baryta base or otherwise known as fibre-based papers. These papers have excellent tonal reproduction and archival qualities, but must be processed with care. Fibre-based papers, unlike resin coated, take longer to wash and dry.

Contain your expectations

When I step into the darkroom I will have one, or at best, two negatives I wish to print from. Usually, I have a contact print of the negatives in question. Better still, I may have an earlier print that has failed to meet my expectations.

I will use the contact prints or previous prints as departure points. They can guide me as to where I might like to take the image and materials. Before creating an exhibition print, I assess a photograph or negative carefully.

Plan your approach

Every negative is different. Plan your printing approach to fit the negative. I start by looking for what I find visually exciting in the image and to see how I can best translate it onto paper. Once I have determined a base exposure and paper contrast I can move my attention to these key areas. With smaller, localised test strips, I can see how far I can take the image before I destroy the very qualities or nuances in the print I am seeking.

This process gives me a foundation on which to assess the remaining areas of the image. Printing in black and white is all about the relationship of tones across the entire image.

Lefroy Brook Wattie tree karri forest Pemberton Australia

Typically on a 16×20 inch print like the Lefroy Brook one above, I will spend several hours making test strips.

I will be searching for the highlights that make the print sing. Next, the low values that anchor the tones to a deep baritone base. The combination of both reveals the beauty and tonal depth of a silver gelatin print.

In the process, I will often find a few printing problems that will call on my darkroom craftsmanship to solve. Sometimes they remain unsolvable. So I look upon them as an opportunity to learn about fine-tuning my craft and technique.

Full sized work prints

By midday, I will start making the first full-size images based upon proper exposure to the highlights. Then I will begin the first series of refinements using various test strip information. This may include some addition exposure (burning in) of print areas or shielding of areas (dodging) from the base exposure.  

This is an important stage because up to now only test strips have been made. Making a full-sized print is the first opportunity to see the image in its entirety and observe the overall relationship of tones. Further refinements of dodging and burning may be required. I am looking to balance the print tones and maximise details in the soft creamy whites of the prints.

Printing notes Lefroy Brook
Print exposure notes – Wattie tree Lefroy Brook

Printing recipe notes

To keep track of these adjustments I write them down on the reverse side of the print with a black china marker. Once all the adjustments have been completed to my satisfaction, I then set about making 4 or 5 finished prints based upon the printing recipe I have constructed. Notes on how I made the print are kept for future reference in a notebook, illustrated above.

It is now about mid-afternoon and I have made 4 or 5 prints from the one negative. All test strips and work prints are discarded, only the remaining 4 or 5 are washed. They must be treated in hypo clearing agent to clear any residual fixer, then washed again for several hours. The wet print is then dried face down on plastic screen mesh where they air dry for at least 24 hours at room temp. At a later stage, I will selenium tone the prints and rewash and dry.

Print Finishing

It takes me several days to finish a print. It must be selenium toned, trimmed and dry mounted onto 100% cotton rag museum board. A window mount and backing board must be cut. The matted and mounted print is then framed.

Overall, it takes several days of work. I get a deep satisfaction when I view the finished images. Knowing that I have been involved at every stage in bringing a print from just an idea into existence has its value.

Lefroy Brook is available as a hand-printed silver gelatin print. Lefroy Brook is near Pemberton in the Gloucester National Park.

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Since 1989, Alex Bond has published cards, calendars, books, and posters under his imprint Stormlight Publishing. His images showcase the West Australian environment. Bond's handcrafted, silver-gelatin, fibre-based prints are personally made by the author in his darkroom.

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