The Darkroom
The Hybrid Darkroom; Combining Old And New Technology Page 2

Let's begin, then, with making the digital "contact print." The traditional way to make contact prints is to lay one strip negatives on a piece of paper, held flat against it with a piece of glass; make a test strip or two to get the right exposure; lay all the negatives on a full sheet; carefully lower the glass on top to avoid disturbing them; expose; develop; fix; wash; dry.

The final wet prints. Based on the computer manipulations, and experience, I made my initial test strip for the first on Grade 31/2 at 10 seconds. I needed only two test strips before I made the final print. For the other I needed only one test strip.

This is never fun but it is not too bad if all your films are perfectly exposed so that all the negatives have similar densities. But if your negatives need different exposures and different contrast grades, it really is tedious. This is where the computer excels, as already noted.

Sleeve the negatives in clear archival sleeving (I use Print File). Write a unique accession number on the negative sleeve, the contact print, and/or the CD on which the file is stored. A good scheme is year-month-day-film, so (for example) 05-04-03-02 would be 2005; April; third; second roll for the day.

Lay the sleeve on a flat-bed scanner with a transparency hood. Unless you have a very big scanner, you normally need to scan the sleeve in two bites, top half then bottom half, stitching the two together. Include the accession data and anything else you have written on the top of the sleeve.

Even if you scan at 300dpi and print at 200, you can go "half up." The important scan area of a 7x6 exposure Print File sleeve is about 9x11.5" so you need an A3 or "super A3" printer, about 297x410mm or near enough 12x16". Alternatively you can "tile" your contact sheets, printing out (say) four letter-size sheets.

In practice, because I use the "contact sheet" only as a reference, I sometimes print the whole contact sheet as small as a single sheet of letter-size paper. This shows very little detail, but you can see a lot more on screen and besides at the tiny contact-print size the strong compositions really jump out.

Because this frame needed quite a lot of dodging and burning, I made two additional wet work prints on my way to this final print--but without the digital "dry run" I might have needed two or three times as many attempts.

When I have selected the pictures I want to print, I'll usually make a first digital-only (not printed) "work print" from those frames. This is why I prefer to scan at 600dpi instead of 300. I don't need it for the contact sheet, but for the mini work print it allows me to go three-up to approximately 3x4.5". The only drawback of higher scan resolutions is ever-larger file sizes: around 30MB for 300dpi, but over 100MB for 600dpi.

An alternative, therefore, is another scan, this time using the DiMAGE Scan Elite 5400 II. A 1350dpi scan allows 4x to 6x, which is more than enough for my purposes: 4x6" to 6x9" off 35mm. This also gives far more sharpness and detail.

No matter which way I get this first image, I immediately save it. The file name may be a description or the accession number plus the frame number. This gives me a starting point. Now come the manipulations. Crop? Contrast? Lighten? Darken? Dodge? Burn? Image color? Perspective adjustment? Often, these manipulations are quicker on screen than they are in the darkroom, and, of course, I don't have to process the print each time: it's just there, on the screen.

When I have an image I like, I print it out. You may be surprised that I often do this on plain paper, not special inkjet photo paper. This is because a really good image can survive anything. If it looks good (or even tolerable) on plain paper, I should be able to make a really first-class wet print. On the border, or on the back, or on the print itself, I make notes such as "need less contrast in the sky" or "burn corners" or "dodge face" or "try pre-flashing" or even "PC" (for "Perspective Corrected").

Of course, you have to be able to translate your digital manipulations into wet darkroom manipulations, but that's not really difficult. Cropping is the same; lighten and darken correspond to less and more exposure on the baseboard; dodging and burning are identical in concept, though I find them easier in execution in wet printing; more and less contrast is achieved through choice of paper grade; image tone is via paper selection, developer selection, and maybe toning; and the only difficult bit is perspective correction, which is perfectly possible with my enlargers but I don't have space to deal with it here. Using either electronic or wet perspective control, you lose some of the image, but you can't always say how the losses in one process will correspond with losses in the other.

These are not the only hybrid options. For example, there are photographers who shoot digitally but then print out negatives on transparent film and use these for "alternative" processes such as platinum, Argyrotype, cyanotype, and more. Others scan 35mm negatives or transparencies; make enlarged inkjet negatives; and use those the same way. There are film writers that can create silver-halide negatives or transparencies from digital files. There are paper writers that make silver-halide prints from digital files. None of these technologies is best for everything. But by choosing the best combination of technologies for what you want to do, you can make better pictures, more easily, and more enjoyably.