The Darkroom
The Hybrid Darkroom; Combining Old And New Technology

The way the battle lines are drawn, you might think that all photographers are committed exclusively to silver halide or exclusively to digital and n'er the twain shall meet. It isn't so. In reality the twain have met. More and more photographers weave seamlessly between the two without a thought. It's only the die-hards in each camp that refuse to acknowledge the advantages of the "other side."

Now, I still shoot on film. Next to digital, film cameras are cheap to buy. Film is simple, reliable, archivally superior, and delivers much better quality. Also, it's often easier to go through negatives (or contact prints) or slides than to hunt through a stack of CDs.

Above, left: This is as scanned and stitched. Some of the exposures are too light and some are too dark, and the black areas in between the filmstrips use up a lot of ink. Above, right: Here I have lightened some frames and darkened others; there wasn't much need for contrast adjustment. I have also reversed the black areas between the strips, to use less ink.
All Photos © 2005, Frances E. Schultz, All Rights Reserved

You can either get your film processed commercially, or do it yourself. Both have advantages, but film processing is easier than most people think. If you use something like a JOBO CPE-2 you can even process color films faster and more reliably than a minilab. This is not the place to go into details, but there are plenty of sources for learning how to do it. Once I have the processed film, I choose silver or digital according to need and preference.

With color, it's all electronic. Before selecting color negatives for high-resolution scanning, I may or may not make digital "contact prints" in the way described later; with slides, I select and scan only the slides I want. For both negs and slides I use a Konica Minolta DiMAGE Scan Elite 5400 II for 35mm and a high-end Epson flat-bed for larger formats. "Wet" color printing just isn't as good as digital. I so rarely do "wet" color printing anymore that I replaced the color head on my second enlarger with another VC head. It is much easier to scan color negatives, cleaning them up with Digital ICE and all the other clever products that Kodak acquired along with ASF.

The resolution is low, but a higher-resolution scan would rapidly result in unmanageably huge file sizes: half a gigabyte at 1200dpi. Sometimes a low-res enlarged contact like this is good enough; other times, I'll do a DiMAGE scan at 1350dpi of the individual frame in question. Stripping the negs out of the sleeve would improve resolution slightly with the flat-bed, but at 300dpi it is hardly worth the effort.

Gone is the tedium of printing ring-arounds, images with subtly differing filtration to see which looked best. Gone is the tedium of working toward a neutral gray strip, only to have the chemistry go off just before you start to make the final print. Although a good color analyzer, like the Lici Colorstar, made color printing easier, it was still never as easy as it is with the computer. But don't get rid of your Colorstar: it works for black and white, too.

With black and white, I still prefer "real" (traditional silver halide) prints, but I start out by making digital "contact prints." I find this quicker, easier, and better than the old "wet" approach, for the reasons given later. Then, I often make my initial "work prints" digitally, exploring the possibilities of contrast changes, cropping, burning and dodging, and even perspective adjustment. Once I'm happy with the changes, I go into the darkroom and make a traditional wet black and white print.

I don't have to justify why I prefer traditional black and white, any more than a painter has to justify choosing oils or watercolors or acrylics. Even so, it's worth saying that I prefer the "look" and I find it easier to do many of the traditional manipulations in a traditional darkroom. In particular, I find it much easier to do the sort of dodging and burning that doesn't announce its presence all too clearly.

A true hybrid technique: but I find it a much faster and better way of getting a general impression than using electronic "crop" tools.

On the other hand, a few pictures, mostly old pictures and record shots where the quality is never going to be great, no matter what I do, are scanned and printed with an inkjet printer.

"Contact prints" and "work prints" are in quotes earlier for two reasons. Partly it's because I don't always make actual prints in either case--I just work on screen--though I usually do make small reference prints to help me in the wet darkroom. On the reference prints, front and back, I note down what I did with the computer and then what I did in the darkroom to get the final image.

Partly, too, it's because there's no "contact" in the "contact printing." It takes very nearly as long to make the digital "contact prints" as to make wet ones, but there is a lot less setup and cleanup time with the computer (unless Windows crashes...) and besides, time isn't the real advantage.

There are three big advantages to the digital route here. First, you can correct individual frames for exposure and contrast: a traditional approach in wet printing was to make two sets of low-contrast prints at different exposures, optimized for the thickest and thinnest negatives, respectively. Second, you can make "enlarged contact sheets," simply by scanning at a high enough resolution to allow enlargement. And third, you can make (small) "work prints" straight off the contact sheet.

There is admittedly one disadvantage. Even enlarged "contacts" will have nothing like as much sharpness and detail as a true contact print. You can see the overall composition, and even people's expressions, but you can't judge sharpness. For that, you need the negatives themselves and a good magnifier.