The Online Darkroom Store

Saturday, May 10

Darkroom v Digital Printing

Notre Dame Cathedral

The Louvre

There was a brief but interesting exchange in the comments last week at the end of this post about the merits of darkroom and digital printing. It was sparked by reader, Mike, asking whether inkjet prints or silver gelatin prints would be the best guarantee of an image lasting well into the future.

Mike's view was that inkjet prints delivered more resolution and were easier to produce so there was probably more likelihood that he'd get round to making them. He said, "Silver halide prints from the darkroom have a proven track record of longevity - provided they have been fixed and washed correctly - but they are time consuming to make, which probably limits the number of photographs taken that make it to the printing stage.

"Many a masterpiece will probably languish on the contact print. So how long do inkjet prints last nowadays if made on high quality fiber-based paper? Any idea?"

Phil Rogers, my pal in neighbouring Dundee, advised Mike to "go silver". His take is that, "Ink Jet prints are squirted by machine; proper, beautiful silver prints are produced by your blood, sweat and tears - they are as intrinsic a part of the photographic process as loading film in a camera, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

"Plus, when your survivors look at all this crap you've produced after your demise, I would say they might be more likely to keep something that was a product of your labours from beginning to end, rather than a bunch of squirts!

"Sorry, just my grumpy old, backed-into-a-corner-printer twopenneth - I've had enough of being regarded as an anachronism/antique."

Button Pushing

Inkjet v darkroom prints was a subject that obsessed me ten years or so ago when I decided to switch to digital. Having enjoyed darkroom work but with a young family demanding more of my time, I thought it would be easier to sit in front of a computer in the evening, hit a few buttons and produce an inkjet print rather than slaving away in the dark.

And it was - up to a point. The process of producing an inkjet print is, of course, just another link in the pixel/computer chain and dead easy in itself. Trying to produce really good quality on a consistent basis was, back then, quite difficult. I understand it's considerably easier now but I'm out of touch with that side of things.

I went through three expensive printers (actually still have two of them gathering dust), loads of paper and ink and have hardly anything to show for it. There were two prints that I thought were outstanding in terms of print quality and which I framed and have hanging on the wall.

Thanks to the capabilities of Photoshop, they are better than anything I could have produced in the darkroom - at least, one of them certainly is. There was a lot of local tweaking that went on to get the files just right - stuff I couldn't do under an enlarger - and, for once, my HP 9180B printer behaved itself and spat out two colour-cast free prints on matt art paper that are exquisite in their own way.

They've lasted well on the wall as well and I photographed them with the D700 in their frames to show you what they're like. You'll need to take my word for it how nice they are as the jpegs on this page were just quick, hand-held shots at 3200 ISO, reflections and all. The jpegs are large and it's worth clicking them for a closer look. In case you're wondering, they were taken with a Pentax K10D.

So even back then, maybe six years ago, it was possible to produce tremendous digital prints at home, albeit it was something I could never seem to repeat on a regular basis. But it's much easier now and improvements in the archival qualities of ink since then will no doubt mean that inkjet prints can be expected to more or less match silver gelatin for longevity. That, I think, answers Mike's questions.


But I have to agree with Phil that it all boils down to the processes involved. Even producing a cracking inkjet print didn't give me any feeling of satisfaction. No more so than uploading it to an online print shop and receiving a print back in the post would have done. My problem with inkjet printing is the same one I have with digital photography as a whole: it's all just button pushing, all just chasing pixels around a screen and all just, basically, farting about with software. A variation on a computer-based theme, as I like to say.

How much richer the world of film photography and darkroom work is. At the end of the day, darkroom prints may be marginally better. They may be the same or even slightly inferior in some cases. But that's not the issue. It's about the satisfaction you derive from your photography. If you like using a DSLR and are happy to produce an inkjet print then why would you bother with film?

But if you feel that there's just something missing, then film and darkroom work may well be the answer. Yes, it's much harder and can be a longer slog until you master it but the effort is all worthwhile when you can hold up a framed print - the culmination of a variety of artistic and craft-based skills - that you can say with certainty is all your own work. Yes, I'm very happy with how the framed prints I've shown here look but a "sense of satisfaction"? Nah.

So my advice to Mike and anyone else who does some inkjet printing but wonders about the merits of darkroom prints would be to forget about the image quality or archival properties. Unless you're famous, your kids will probably bin your best work anyway after you're gone and long before light and the atmosphere start to degrade the prints. Don't worry about dots per inch or maximum density or metamarism or any other factors. Instead, ask yourself whether you're getting the satisfaction you'd like from your hobby or passion. Less head and more heart, I suppose.


Anonymous said...

Making a darkroom print is simplicity itself. A few seconds under an enlarger, dev, stop, fix and then wash. I see people spending far more time sat a computer tweaking.

Jan Moren said...

Overall, fewer printed pictures is likely a point in favour of darkroom printing. We all — individually and collectively ­— have way too many pictures already, and anything that encourages us to cut down is a good thing.

One great picture is great. But two great pictures aren't twice as great; they're slightly less than that. Twenty great pictures are nowhere near twenty, or even five, times as great. A pile of hundreds of great printed pictures is little more than a pile of paper. Each additional picture dilutes the attention and impact of the existing ones.

Make less. Make it count.

Paul Glover said...

I make way more prints in the darkroom than I ever did when shooting digitally or later shooting film but scanning it. It would be hard to make fewer prints than I did in the digital days (maybe half a dozen total in a decade!)

But I do produce far fewer final images than I did when I was cranking those scans through Photoshop and dutifully uploading them to Flickr. I consider that a good thing.

Anonymous said...

great couple of posts here! one more thought to the pile - when you go bad with a print usually you'll start to see the nature of the medium surfacing behind your mistakes - grain, paper white, blur, scratches. to my taste - all those look much more natural in wet printing than in digital. digital mistakes doesn't look as nearly good as analog mistakes :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Bruce,
I'm happy to see that my question sparked this post! The reason for my initial question was that I currently shoot both film and digital, both Leicas, so I get to use the same lenses on both cameras and a similar shooting experience. I much prefer to use the film camera. I love the whole process of loading the camera, winding on the film etc. I even love the smell of film when I open the film canister!
The problem, for me, is when I begin to scan the results. I hate scanning and I quickly ask myself why am I scanning film to make a digital file when I can just make a better digital file with a digital camera. A film camera only makes sense (to me) if the results are printed optically. And I don't have a darkroom.
However, I have recently contacted my local University to see if their darkroom facilities are available for hire and they are! I now have a chance to get back into a complete film workflow. But do I really want it? Am I just being a luddite (apologies to all fellow luddites here)?
I'll soon find out.


Bruce Robbins said...

Mike, I have to agree with you about scanning film. If I didn't have access to a darkroom I don't know if I would bother shooting film and scanning it either. I always seem to lose quality when scanning as opposed to printing in the darkroom. In fact, I've just scanned some Silvermax negs taken on a tripod-mounted Contax and 28mm f2.8 Distagon and they don't look too sharp when scanned at a high resolution.

As for your university darkroom? The only way to find out is to give it a go!

Anonymous said...

I'll let you know how I get on, Bruce. The university offers the use of what looks like a very well equipped darkroom with the ability to process formats from 35mm up to 8" x 10". Hire costs are £15 for the first 2 hours and £5 for every subsequent hour; chemicals included as far as I can ascertain. I'm hoping that I can process film and prints and take them home dry i.e. not have to transport wet prints home and then have to dry them there. I know from experience that having to transport chemicals, trays, film, prints etc. to and from a darkroom tends to dampen enthusiasm.


Herman Sheephouse said...

Mike - you don't need the Uni to process film unless it is sheet film. I do all my roll film processing at the kitchen sink - it's cheap and easy - all you need is a tank, the chemicals and a light-tight cupboard to load the film - never had any problems, even when I was using the super-light-leaky cupboard.
Prints - well if you use an excellent quality RC paper like Fotospeed, you'll cut your print processing time massively compared to FB.

Anonymous said...

Herman, I used to load my film into tanks in my wardrobe but I have no chance of processing film in my kitchen or bathroom: she who must be obeyed will not have that - no sir. I have to admit that I wouldn't want to either. I'm leaning more and more towards a high end printer.


Herman Sheephouse said...

Mike - how can she object about you occupying the sink with a daylight tank for an hour or so? You could say you'll pay for it by occupying the same spot for the same period of time with a dish brush in your hands . . .

Anonymous said...

Last Friday I visited the National Museum of Film & Photography (ignore their Media fancy) to view the Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr exhibitions.

All photos in the black frames were TRJ original silver prints; all in the pine frames were digital prints by both artists, but processed by Martin Parr. He states that the TRJ pics that he printed were produced deliberately with his interpretation. All his output was larger than TRJs originals, about 16x12', whereas the Silver prints were typically from a 10x8" paper. The TRJ prints were a mixed bag.

I observed 4 clear standards of print 'quality':

Best by far were the finest of TRJs silver prints. Wide tonal range, but printed a little heavy perhaps for some.

In the second grouping and not too far behind were MPs inkjet prints from his film scans. Maybe some of these were from his Mamiya 7 days, but I suspect most were from 35mm film.

The next group consisted of TRJs silver prints that were not well processed, IMO. Over-exposed, under-exposed etc. bearing in mind the first set, I predict that TRJ would have re-printed these for exhibition and more would have elevated to the top group. But, it did demonstrate that film images printed carelessly, or by a newbie, on silver paper could underperform. I suspect all of these could be improved by scanning and ink printing, mainly due to the additional time that could be devoted to them. Maybe, TRJ didn't consider them to be worthy images, but today it's all we've got in terms of originals.

In fourth place, and a long way behind were the insipid TRJ ink prints that MParr had produce. Burned out highlights, washed out shadows. He was probably making a style statement, but I thought they were very under-par.

On until 1st June in Bradford.


Bruce Robbins said...

Hi Gary,

I suppose a bad print is always a bad print regardless of the medium. I agree with your observation that the best of the best tends to be a silver gelatin print.

James said...

Hi, I am a novice when it comes to posting comments but this subject intrigued me. I am a similar fellow born again film photographer, I found that I was spending so much time using computers to get the digital to look more filmic but never getting a satisfying print. Completely agree that while we can horse trade over things like 'quality' and 'archival longevity' the difference with a silver print is the time, effort and skill of the printer. The print itself becomes the work rather than a readout copied from the screen. Just my two pence though. I will say that using a film manner is a great way of making previews for negatives, to get a sense before the darkroom of which negatives might do well. I think that might circumnavigate the possibility of a unrealised masterpiece?

Andrew Wittner said...

Hi - Very interesting to read this blog and all of the comments here regarding b&w digital vs. darkroom prints. Just yesterday I visited our most prominent photographic gallery here in Melbourne Australia (Monash Gallery of Art) to view an enormous installation of b&w print photographs of 'Australians in Papua New Guinea' by photographer Stephen Dupont.

These were HUGE, very well made digital prints, made using black inkjet pigment inks which produced good, rich, dense neutral black image tones, printed onto a beautiful mat paper which - due to their huge size - were simply pinned bare to the wall. The photographs themselves were interesting images, well photographed, which created disappointment because they could have been SO much better had they been printed onto traditional silver-gelatin FB paper, which probably would have forced smaller images but tonally and 'informationally' vastly superior ones.

This exhibition confirmed my most recent observation, which is that every time I see 'best quality' b&w digital prints I see exactly the same thing, namely a paucity of shadow (dark tone) detail. That's the real bottom line: b&w digital inkjet and pigment prints distinctly lack shadow detail; it's as if Ansel Adams's Zones III, II and I don't seem to exist in the world of b&w digital print photography, and the photographers who persist in printing their b&w images in this way have adopted a new strategy to try to compensate for it, which is to 'print down' the image so as to force a new range of grey tones in areas - such as pale white skin tones - which would normally have been reproduced as much lighter tones, eg. Zones VII and VIII. As a result, I see the same result time and again: dark over-printed b&w digital prints which essentially appear 2, 3 or more stops too dark. It's the new 'look' of black & white digital photography, and it further serves to separate - qualitatively - digital b&W prints from silver-gelatin analogue darkroom prints.

It looks very poor to me; If I'd produced SG FB prints that looked like today's 'best' b&w digital prints I would never have passed my photography diploma course. It does seem as though digital photography, whilst improving the colour photographer's lot, has taken b&w print photography well-and-truly backwards. Digital photography HASN'T nailed black & white print photography! Hang in there with your enlarger and your best FB paper and make a photograph that's actually a beautiful object too!

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