Printing: Darkroom vs Lightroom

For the longest time I've wanted to get into printing more of my photos.  In the 4 or so years I've been into photography I've only printed a small number of items for gallery showings and a meager portfolio.  In the past year I have spent a lot of time looking at printed work.  I have attended museum exhibitions and studied a number of published portfolios by photographers whom I admire.  All the while I have thought to myself that it would be nice to print more.

I have to admit that I have procrastinated on the printing thing.  There are a number of reasons for this.  The main reason is that I have chosen to focus more on image capture and post processing.  I continue to hone my post processing skills in particular and the addition of printing seemed too daunting.  Getting a good print is an art unto itself.  Then there is the matter of how to go about it.  I have printed through a number of labs locally and online.  I had mixed results and consistency seemed to elude me, in spite of my best efforts to have a calibrated workflow.  The next step in my mind was to try printing myself and frankly I wasn't crazy about the idea.  The cost and potential aggravation of owning and maintaining a printer could become a nightmare!  Then there is the fact that I've been shooting a good amount of film lately.  My film workflow has been digital after development.  What about darkroom printing?  Shouldn't I consider that for the film stuff?

Well, after months of agonizing over the myriad of options I decided that this weekend was going to be my starting point into the world of printing and I jumped in with both feet.   To kick the weekend off I attended a darkroom printing class at Holland Photo Imaging in south Austin.  They are the folks who have been doing my film development.  They have a darkroom for rent and they teach classes so I jumped at the opportunity to learn and experience wet printing of film.  

Philip Rogers taught the class I attended.  He has a very hands-on approach and wasted no time getting us started on the enlargers.  Within 20 minutes of the class starting I was watching my first print appear in the developer tray!  The class took turns printing and through the course of the morning I got to print a few images from 35mm and 120 B&W negatives.

I quickly learned there are a lot of skills to master in this art.  There is much more involved than I realized - things like evaluating the negative to figure out what kind of contrast and fine adjustments the print will need, using test strips to determine exposure, what enlarger aperture to use, what chemicals to use and time in each one, and how to dodge and burn to get desired results.  My mind was spinning (the chemicals may have had something to do with that!)

My first negative that I developed was probably not the best choice as it turned out.  I wanted to print one of my favorite shots, a special moment with my wife and 2 dogs that I just happened to be in the right place at the right time with a film camera to catch.  The exposure was natural light through a window and I had quickly dialed in an exposure for my wife's skin.  Two poodles, one white and one black were in the shot.  The room in the background was very dark compared to the window light.  Yeah, good luck with that.  I managed to get the shot and tweaked the scanned negative in Lightroom to produce a great digital print that now sits over our fireplace.  I wanted to see what a darkroom print would look like for comparison.  Unfortunately, I didn't get the result I wanted in class.  There just wasn't enough time to get the base exposure right along with the necessary dodging and burning.  Even so, I came away a reasonable print and a good understanding of what needs to be done so I can practice more on my own.

Not to be defeated, I did a couple more prints: a portrait and an urban landscape.  The portrait turned out to be a rather easy print and apart from a few dust spots it looked quite good.  I was highly flattered when our instructor said it reminded him of Avedon's work.  As a big fan of Avedon, I couldn't have received a better compliment.  The urban landscape also printed fairly easily.  It could have used some burning in the sky in my opinion, something I had previously done in a digital rendition from the scanned negative.

All things considered, the class went well and I learned a great deal.  I wasn't done printing for the weekend though.  Not by a long shot.  I covered the analog process - on to digital!  Canon has been running a crazy deal on their Pixma Pro-100 ink jet printer.  I haven't been able to get it out of my head since my friend Andy turned me on to the deal.  He bought one and I was really impressed with the prints he has been getting.  The rebate deal, which gets you a $500 printer for a little over $100 after rebate, ends on June 30 so I succumbed to printer lust and picked one up from Precision on the way home from the darkroom class.

The Pro-100 is a beast of a printer.  It's huge and weights over 40 pounds I believe.  It can print on up to 13"x19" paper.  The reviews on this bargain printer are virtually all positive so I felt like I had little to risk.  At the price, it would would pay for itself quickly with relatively few large prints.  Setup was pretty easy.  I had some initial issues with wireless and lacking the patience to figure it out I opted to connect via ethernet.  I picked up 13"x19" luster paper but I decided to start with some cheap letter size matte paper I found.  After 2 or 3 test prints with different settings I felt like I had things figured out and I printed the same images that I had printed in the darkroom class for comparison.

The matte paper I was using produced a slightly dull image, closer to a print like you would see in a book vs photo paper.  It could stand to be have a little more contrast and that's something I could probably tweak.  The weight of the paper was nice and I preferred its thickness and feel to the semi-gloss photo paper from the darkroom.  Overall I was pretty impressed with the look of black and white prints on this cheap paper.

It was interesting to compare the digital prints with the darkroom prints.  The problematic shot of my wife and dogs looked better in the digital print as I expected.  I have adjusted that shot in Lightroom and it looks fine on paper.  The darkroom print needs careful dodging and burning, a skill that will take time to master.  The portrait shot looked better in the darkroom version overall.  I originally intended it to be a darker, contrasty image.  My darkroom exposure with a fairly low contrast filter produced a lighter and softer image.  There is a certain look and tonality to the darkroom print and it definitely looks more along the lines of Avedon's style than the digital version.  I tend to like darker images but I found the look of the darkroom print to be very appealing.  The urban landscape turned out pretty well in the darkroom.  It was my last print of the morning and it was kind of hurried.  I did a good bit of burning in the digital print and I'd want to try and replicate that in the darkroom.  I achieved a grittier look with the digital rendition and I like that a little better.

So, how would I rate the experience of printing in the darkroom vs the digital workflow through Lightroom?  I have to say that the digital process is easier in a lot of regards.  Once things are calibrated, it should be a WYSIWYG workflow.  The darkroom process is open to a lot more variation.  On the other hand, my portrait print showed me that there is a certain look to the darkroom prints that can be highly desirable.  Is that exact look obtainable in the digital workflow?  Maybe.  I'm far from the expert on the matter at this point.  I do have to say that there was something really rewarding about doing things the old fashioned way with no computers involved.  It was a refreshing change from staring at a computer screen.  After 4 hours in the darkroom though I do have to say that I was glad to get home and grab a shower to wash off the chemical smell that followed me home.  Ultimately, the biggest negative (no pun intended) in my first experience in the darkroom process was dealing with dust.  In spite of my care in blowing off negatives and gently removing dust specs with a soft brush all of my prints had visible dust.  Dust is so much easier to contend with in software!

At this point I see myself probably doing a lot more digital printing than darkroom printing.  Still, I'm intrigued by the process and I'd like to experiment some more.  I certainly don't have enough time in a darkroom yet to be able to say I've been there, done that, and like or don't like it.  I consider myself lucky to live somewhere that has a good darkroom to rent and I intend to take advantage of that from time to time.  The journey into the art of printing has only just begun.