Being able to have amazing photos come straight out of the camera is a goal a lot of photographers aspire toward. But what if I told you there’s no such thing as “straight out of the camera?” Film photographers know this very well, and must face a series of decisions every time they develop and print, and those decisions influence how the final prints look. This has been going on since the beginning of photography, so it makes absolutely no sense to me when photography “purists” badmouth the practice of post production. Why not make the photo how you want it if the tools are available? My friend Aaron and I took a trip up to Yosemite last weekend, so I swung by the photo lab at Diablo Valley College, where Aaron is studying photography, to document exactly what goes into the developing and printing process. Aaron had already developed five rolls and printed contact sheets before I got there.
But he did have one more roll to develop. The roll of film is opened in the darkroom and wound up in a reel and placed inside a metal tank, where it gets soaked in developer, a stop bath, and fixer. From there the reel goes into a bubble tank for a final wash. How long you let the film sit in each chemical is determined by the temperature, and there are guidelines to follow. DECISION #1: If the photographer knows what he’s doing he might decide to leave it in the developer longer or shorter to increase or decrease the contrast.
Once the roll was washed, Aaron hung it up to dry in a closet with other students’ film.
We picked a shot of Half Dome to print, so Aaron loaded it into the enlarger in the darkroom.
DECISION #2: The enlarger can be raised and lowered to make the image larger or smaller on the paper. It’s like pre-cropping. While the negative might be in focus, the enlarger has to be refocused each time it’s adjusted, so Aaron used a grain focuser to view the individual film grains. That’s precise!
Next, Aaron loaded a test strip under the enlarger and then grabbed a piece of cardboard. He turned on the enlarger, which projected the image onto the light-sensitive photo paper, but blocked most of the paper from the light. At one-second intervals, he shifted the cardboard an inch or so a new section of the strip got exposed.
He dropped the test strip in the paper developer and the image appeared. You can see the differently exposed sections, some too light, some too dark, and one just right. DECISION #3: He chose to do a two second exposure based on the results of the test strip.
Aaron then loaded a full sheet of photo paper under the enlarger and did a two second exposure, and then put it in the developer, stop bath, and fixer.
DECISION #4: After it was dry, he marked it up with notations for dodging. He planned to do a four second exposure next, which would make the overall image darker, but he would use a wand and piece of cardboard to dodge, or cover certain areas of the paper, so they would stay lighter. Aaron wanted to darken the sky but highlight the mountains.
So he loaded another sheet of photo paper and got to work with the wand first. That’s the shadow you see in the far corner of the paper.
Next he used cardboard and moved it across the paper, creating a gradient.
As it appeared in the developer it looked better already!
It went through the rest of the chemicals, the washer, and the dryer, and then it was done.
Straight out of the camera? No such thing. As with film cameras, digital cameras are just tools for gathering light, and they have their limitations. Don’t be afraid to edit your photos to match your vision, or to create something otherworldly!
Photos by Conklin and Bohan