Since I've started working with enlarging my film negatives in a darkroom, I keep getting the same series of questions.......
- Darkrooms still are a thing?
- Isn't it expensive?
- Why not just scan and print your negative?
All fair questions. Let's break down the power of the darkroom.....
1. Yes, darkrooms are still a thing, but increasingly rare. Where I live outside Cambridge, the closest public use darkroom is a little more than an hour drive away, but it's worth the drive. While I could (and will eventually) build a darkroom in my house, that will have to wait until I am not living abroad, so a public darkroom is the way to go. There are several websites dedicated to helping you find a darkroom, such as http://www.localdarkroom.com.
2. Name something in photography that is not expensive and you win a prize. For me, darkroom printing is no more expensive than my inkjet work. My consumables are the light sensitive papers and chemicals. In my case, I don't pay for chemicals because I have instead opted for a membership at a darkroom (The Photo Parlour), so my chemical cost is really my membership cost. Factoring in the cost of paper and assuming I make around 50 prints a year, my cost per print is around $3 - and that's good and large paper (8x10 or bigger). In digital printing, my costs are ink and again paper. The paper I was using, which is again a high quality paper, cost $2.75/sheet and my ink costs were about $2 per print. In fact, all factors considered, I once calculated that my "startup" cost for inkjet printing was almost $1000!
Let's assume I make 50 prints at 11x14 per year. My cost per print in the darkroom, including my membership fees, is about $4/print (also assuming some margin for mistakes and re-prints/ test strips, etc). The cost for the same 50 prints done at home on my inkjet printer is $5/print (I probably have less "waste" since a printer is a very.... mechanical..... object!).
Bottom line - it's always cheaper to mail order print, but that removes the "art" from a lot of the work. I enjoy watching my prints appear before my eyes, so for me, the costs of personally printing are worthwhile. And, in my current situation, the darkroom doesn't cost more than inkjet!
3. I really didn't appreciate the true magic of the darkroom until I began using it. This sounds stupid to say, but I always thought about my prints as having one single proper exposure. I thought there was one version that was the "proper" version (as conceived by the artist, not technically proper) and you print that version. I was blown away when I watched prints that were dramatically different come from the same negative...... slightly longer exposures in the enlarger made some prints darker and moody, while the same negative with less exposure time was light and bright. I was blown away. I can make two different prints with two different moods from the same negative? I know, it sounds stupid, but I never really considered this.
Suddenly a new world was unlocked. I now visualize an image thinking "is this a dark and moody photo, or a light and cheery photo?" ---> I am thinking about the development and enlargement before I take the picture. With digital photography I would think about the end product, sure, but I didn't think in the same tonalities and with the same possibilities that film has stretched me to consider.
The best example of how to get the different tonalities is best seen in a test strip. Check these photos below - the different slices are the same photo, but different lengths of time in the enlarger. Each has a different look and feel and none of them is "more correct" than the other.