Creating in the Darkroom

hat.jpg (10911 bytes)You and your classmates stare down at a blank white sheet of paper in a tray filled with photographic chemistry. You’re in a darkroom lit only by a dim, red-colored light which illumines the expressions of anticipation around you. You rock the tray back and forth, creating small waves in the developing chemicals. You’re holding your breath–waiting. A student next to you wonders aloud if the magic will work.

Then, gradually, the outlines of your photograph can be seen on the paper as a faint pencil-like sketch. The lines gradually become more and more distinct. Your friends grow wide-eyed as they watch your photograph seemingly draw itself onto the paper. At last, the entire photograph you made in your camera just a few hours ago is lying in front of you for all to see.

What a wonderful feeling! You’ve made your own photograph, from start to finish–something that is truly yours–something you saw with your own eyes in your camera. And now your image is down on paper for you to hang on your wall, send to a friend, color with magic markers, or anything else you can imagine. The possibilities are endless!

Most professional photographers still remember the first time they saw one of their images develop on a piece of light-sensitive paper in the darkroom. For many, that was the moment they realized photography would be their lifelong passion. Photography students should all experience that initial miraculous moment.

Most of you probably do the majority of your learning, research, and communicating using a computer, which is a great tool. Most young adults can teach the “older folks” a thing or two about using computers. However, even more “mature” adults do much of their work on computers now, and most of the time, computers are much faster and more reliable than the tools people used to use in the work place. The digital age truly marks a technical revolution.

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I am a photojournalist, and even in newspapers and magazines, photographers are using computers instead of a traditional “wet” darkroom with chemicals, trays, and photo paper. We don’t print our photographs in a darkroom anymore. We scan them into a computer, then lighten or darken areas in the picture using special software. This shortcut helps us meet our ever more demanding deadlines. But before we began using computers, we all learned photography in the darkroom. Most photographers agree that was the best place to start. Why?


The darkroom is still considered by many as a shrine to the history and creation of photography as a technical profession and as an art form. But it’s not only nostalgia which draws us, and–hopefully–you, to the darkroom. By learning about the darkroom, you’ll learn how light works to create a photograph. You’ll learn how to expose negatives in your camera, and then how to expose paper to light traveling through those negatives. The darkroom is a “hands-on” laboratory where you can create your own art while you’re beginning to understand the basic science behind photography.

Plus, darkrooms are a lot of fun!

The darkroom is a place to unleash your creative spirit. You can work with your hands to print your photograph in many different ways–especially in the one way that expresses the feeling you want to convey. You can print your image very small or very big. You can make fifty copies or limit yourself to one valuable copy ready to frame. You can print your image to be very dark and moody or very light–like a ghost, barely visible. You can print two negatives together, one on top of the other, to experiment with all sorts of interesting effects. You can trim your prints to make picture books, notes to your friends, cards for your family, or one larger picture made up of lots of smaller pictures. You can even learn how to change the contrast of the image (the difference between the lights and the darks), so you can print an image that is very dark in some places and very light in others for a very dramatic impact.

Think of your photo paper as being your canvas, and use your negatives and the light in the enlarger as your paint. “Photo” means light, as in “photosynthesis.” Painting with light! That’s exactly what photography is all about.


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Now, while you’re having all this fun playing with the tools of your art form, you’re also learning some basic science and math, even if you didn’t mean to. You are, in fact, learning how to use light, lack of light, and light sensitive materials to create a photograph. (Don’t let the science part scare you. You’ll learn by doing.) You can pretend you’re the mad scientist of photography and try all sorts of experiments to see what happens!

For example, if you place your hand in between your light source and your paper, see how your paper doesn’t record that part of your photograph? The light isn’t getting to the paper. If you hold up one side of your easel, watch how the light hits the paper differently. The longer light rests on your paper, the darker the end result. The less light, the lighter the image.

Watch to see how your negatives look compared to your prints and how light was blocked by the dark areas on your negative to create a light area on your print. Your final print is the opposite of your negative in terms of where the lights and darks are. Photography isn’t really magic. It all makes sense when you think about how the light is blocked or permitted through on the negative, but it sure does look like magic!

People know that different parts of our brain are used for different jobs. One side of our brain is the creative side. The other is used for calculations and step-by-step process thinking, such as mathematical equations. Learning photography in the darkroom requires both creativity and technical thinking. So, when you enter the darkroom, please bring both the left and right sides of your brain with you, and be prepared to use both!

by Sarah Martone

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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