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When I resumed shooting film a few years ago after a long period where I did little shooting at all and that was digital, I figured I would simply develop the film and then scan the negatives. This was partly simple economy, and partly for reasons of space and the rest the idea that it would be more effort than I felt like going to. While I’ve generally been been fairly happy with with the scans – particularly since I bought the Epson V500 – as I have been shooting more and more film I’ve often found myself looking at a frame and wondering what a print would look like.

A print from a scan is one option of course, but there’s something unsatisfying about that sort of print. I think it’s the way that the pigments from a printer are deposited on the surface of the paper, overlying whatever texture is already there. What I’m going to start calling “real” prints are subtly different because the image is formed within the surface of the paper, not upon it. There’s also something to be said for the process of printing in a darkroom in terms of understanding the craft of photography, which simply isn’t there when you send an image to a printer.

So I recently decided to give printing a go again – the effort seems like a worthwhile investment to create exactly the images I imagine as I click the shutter. As a teenager I used my school’s darkroom, and then my Dad handed over all his 1960s vintage equipment and I had a temporary set-up in the bathroom at home. Even some of the paper was 60s vintage, until I used up Dad’s remaining stocks. Having done some price checking on the consumables required I figured that it wouldn’t be too prohibitive to give it a try, so the last remaining obstacle was finding the space both for storing the kit, and for setting up to actually print.

After a bit of a clear out in my study I picked up all the kit from home and managed to squeeze it in somehow. I did a quick check of what I had and gave it all a good clean. I found I had almost everything I needed for black and white printing – a Gnome Universal Alpha II enlarger with a 50mm lens and a couple of negative carriers, three chemical trays, two pairs of tongs, an 8″x10″ easel, a safelight with an Ilford 902 filter, a print drier, and even a packet of Agfa paper. The only thing missing really was a paper developer and I’d be okay to do 35mm again. However, the enlarger intrigued me with its “Universal” designation. After a bit of research it was clear that this enlarger could potentially be used for medium format work, but a couple of tests proved that I’d need a longer focal length lens and also a larger condenser lens to adequately cover the larger negatives. So off to e-Bay, where I picked up a Rodenstock 75mm lens, a pair of 10cm diameter condensers and also a focus finder.

One last thing I needed was a larger stock of paper, and here I found something new. Most paper nowadays is of the variable contrast type, whereas I’d always used fixed grade paper. Reading up on the subject it seemed easy enough, requiring only a set of suitable filters which, again, were easily found on e-Bay. The only problem was that the Gnome enlarger, being designed purely for B&W printing, had no provision for filters – no filter drawer, no way to mount filters under the lens. I improvised by making a small holder out of some offcuts of hardboard and inserting it between the focusing bellows and the lens mount. And now after a further clearout and some serious putting up of shelves and general reorganisation I finally had space to print, I just needed one more thing – darkness.

My study has a single big square window. I came up with an easy way to make it pretty light-tight by pinning wooden picture framing moulding to either side, and slotting hardboard sheets in to cover the window. The small gaps in between I cover with the backing paper from all the 120 film I shoot. It works pretty well and with the door closed it’s very dark even in the middle of the afternoon. So now we’re all set. Here it is:

Darkroom

So far I’ve spent a reasonably productive couple of evenings getting back into the swing of things. I have apparently forgotten how to make useful contact prints, but after a couple of overexposed first attempts I started to get the hang of things again. I have half a dozen almost magical looking prints of some of my personal favourites that I’d say are pretty good. I scanned one in as a comparison with the original scan from the negative. There are subtle differences, but looking at the actual 18cm square print is much more exciting to me.

Hopefully this is the start of something, although I’m not entirely sure what. There’s a lot of stuff still to re-learn as well as new things to understand. For example, I’m going to have to get some experience of matching the right grade of filtration to a particular negative, and learn the dark arts of dodging, burning, printing in, and so on. I’ve also encountered my first frustration: the limiting factor on the size of my prints is that the trays I have will only take 8″x10″ paper. This means that I can only manage to blow up the 6×6 negs to 18×18 cm before I run out of paper. I can ironically enlarge 35mm much more because it is a better fit to the paper. Since some of my negs are crying out for huge prints, I’m going to have to find some larger trays from somewhere, and maybe a larger easel to match, although I can probably improvise something for that.

All in all, I’m pretty excited right now, even if it does mean I’m likely to spend some of the sunny summer evenings ahead shut in a blacked out study.

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