The Digital Darkroom
Making Better Color Prints

Photos © 1999, Darryl C. Nicholas, All Rights Reserved

I've spent the better part of the past 20 years teaching folks how to do things in their traditional color darkrooms. But, I've got to tell you, since digital imaging has become a reality, there are some things I just can't do in a wet darkroom that I can do with a computer. Let me explain.

With RA-4 color printing, Kodak offers us three different contrast grades of color negative printing paper, and one grade of Type R, color positive, printing paper. Now, if your original image was shot on a cloudy, overcast day, there's just no way that you are going to be able to put any life in that print, even with the highest contrast grade of RA-4 from Kodak.

If your original was shot on color negative film and was a little over or underexposed, there's no way you are going to be able to offer much correction when you print it. If your original was shot on slide film and was a bit underexposed, again, there is no way you will be able to make it look like it wasn't underexposed.


For color negative printing, the three grades of contrast that Kodak offers with RA-4 paper just don't have all that much separation between them. In fact, you've got to look real close in order to be sure which grade you're working with. I've spent years struggling with marginal negatives and slides trying to get prints that would be at least acceptable. Usually, I fell far short of what I would have liked to have achieved.

Now, along comes digital imaging, and what a difference. Let me show you. Take a look at Image 2. It was shot on a semi-cloudy day with Fuji Super G800 color negative film on a 35mm camera. Notice that there was enough sunshine to produce some shadows on the ground at the time the shot was taken. Image 2 is about the way this negative would print in a wet darkroom.


I scanned the negative on a Nikon Super CoolScan LS-2000 at 2700dpi and brought it into Adobe Photoshop Version 5.02 using a Pentium II-400 PC computer. There I deliberately lowered the overall contrast of the image and made Image 1. I wanted to show you that the contrast of a color image can be lowered. Black and white darkroom technicians do this all the time with black and white images. But, it just can't be done with color images--short of doing some very elaborate contrast control masking or dye transfer printing. In this case, it really doesn't help the image much. But, if the original color negative had been a bit overexposed, the ability to lower the contrast just a little would have been a big help.

I then took Image 2 and raised the overall contrast and made Image 3. Again, black and white darkroom technicians do this all the time with black and white images, but it just can't be done with color images. And, again, with this image it really doesn't help much. But, if the original color negative had been a little underexposed, then the ability to perk up the contrast would have been a big help.


Then, I took Image 2 and increased the contrast in just the highlights and left the mid tones and shadows pretty much alone, producing Image 4. Notice that the overall image is bright and snappy without the blocked up shadows that occurred in Image 3 when I increased the overall contrast. The ability to selectively make changes in just the highlights, mid tones, or shadows is a great tool. Black and white darkroom technicians do this all the time. It's called selective contrast printing. They will print the highlights with one contrast filter, then switch variable contrast filters to print the shadows. There is no way to do anything similar to that when printing color in a wet darkroom, short of contrast control masking.

If you look closely at Image 2 you will notice that the highlights are a bit washed out. There isn't much detail in them. So, with a little help from Photoshop, I added some detail back into the highlights. I left everything else alone. Therefore, Image 5 is pretty much the same as Image 2, except that the highlights are a little lower in contrast, resulting in a little more detail being visible. Black and white darkroom technicians can selectively burn in areas of a print with ease. But, if you try to do much dodging or burning in when printing color, you will get reciprocity failure that will result in color balance shifting. It's a terrible problem for color printers, requiring even more tricks to later retouch the print to correct for the color shifting.


As I was studying Image 2, it became clear to me that the hot, dry weather of northern California had really taken the bright green color out of all the vegetation. I thought that the picture might look a little better if I could water the lawn and get the grass and trees to green up a little. So, with a few clicks of the mouse in Photoshop, I produced Image 6 with greener grass and greener trees. But, other than that, Image 6 is basically the same as Image 2. With a RA-4 color print, can you imagine how much time it would take to use wet dyes and try to add green color into those trees in front of that white building? I've done things like that for customers. It takes hours to retouch just one print. For Image 6, I brightened all that green up in less than two minutes on the computer, and could then make as many prints as I wanted at any size I wanted. Think of it as having retouched the negative. Imagine doing extensive color retouching on a 35mm color negative in two minutes.


All of these little image manipulation tricks are easily done in just a few minutes with the computer. It doesn't take hours of endless test printing and contrast control masking. In fact, all six of these sample images were prepared for this article in less than 30 minutes total, including the time it took to scan the original color negative. I can't do things like that in a wet darkroom.

Considering the cost of a decent RA-4 processor, an enlarger with lenses, negative carriers, sink, plumbing, and everything else that goes into making up a wet darkroom, my digital darkroom is certainly no more expensive, and probably a little less. I can make gorgeous 13x20 color prints on a $500 ink jet printer, and I don't know of anywhere I can buy a new RA-4 processor for $500.

By the way, archival inks are now available for color ink jet printers that are rated at 65-75 years. I can live with that.

If you'd like more information about how to use Photoshop and do the things that I've talked about here, just let me know. I'll try to help. You can send e-mail to me at: or you can write to me care of Shutterbug.

Photoshop Advantages
Adobe Photoshop allows the digital darkroom technician to manipulate the color saturation, color balance, density, and contrast in the highlights, mid tones, and shadows of the image. This great range of flexibility offers unheard of control for manipulating color prints. With just a few clicks of the mouse and in just a few minutes of time, you can now make the sun shine where it wasn't, you can make the grass grow where it wasn't, you can make color images look like you want them to.