Lessons Learned 2: First Darkroom Prints

Over the last weekend, I finally pieced together the last components of the darkroom. First, a trip to The Camera Store to pick up the chemicals. There, I talked to Stefan, a very helpful salesperson/photographer, who thoroughly explained to me some of the nuances of developing in a darkroom. Since I am developing Ilford Multigrade RC paper, I got the Multigrade developer, Ilfostop, and Ilford’s Rapid Fixer. Stefan was such a great salesperson, I also picked up some Rodinal Developer for negatives (sold under the name in Canada).

This 100+ year old formula is very stable and economical, but most importantly, will allow me to do stand development. What is stand development? You can learn more about it here, but in essence, it is a way to take advantage of the way that diluted developing solution exhausts itself. This results in very sharp prints (perceived sharpness, you will still need to shoot sharp, focused shots for it to matter).

Anyways, getting the chemicals was the easy task. Next I had to finish the modifications in the bathroom. First, a table top is needed for the three chemical trays (developer, stop, and fixer). Being a small condo bathroom, the logical location choice for this table is on the bathtub. Two pieces of 1×2″ pine boards bridge across the width of the tub so that a vinyl surfaced board can be rested on top. This is stable enough for short-term work. I think some legs to elevate the table higher would be more ideal. After all, it’s easier to stand than to sit in such a tight space.


Bathroom Darkroom

Crammed Bathroom

The scene is set, Act 1:

“How on earth do you tell which side of the paper is the right side?”

Well, I did a search on google but there was very little help. Must be obvious I guess. I took out a test paper and examined it for clues. First, I have the pearl finish paper, which is slightly shiny. This also translates to a slight tacky feel when you touch it. Not sure if its the moisture on my finger tips sticking to the emulsion layer, but it works well to identify the right side. Once you got that feel down, just make note of the way the lightproof envelope is folded close. This way, every time you unfold the envelope, you know which side is correct.

Act 2:

“How on earth do I secure this little piece of paper under the enlarger?”

The enlarger I bought had an easel that was in very poor shape. While I do want to try and fix it, this is a parking lot item for another day. After searching online, I settled on using double sided tape. This, combined with masking tape to identify the borders, made holding the print flat pretty easy. Of course, I find the tape too stick sometimes. To prevent the tape from getting stuck to the print, I made sure to touch the print side of the tape a lot to transfer some dirt and finger grease.

Act 3:

“How on earth do I determine the time it should take to expose the paper?”

I following the general practice of doing a test print. This print is incrementally exposed so that a number of different exposure times can be tested. Sounds easy? It is. Just make sure you use the right aperture on the enlarger though… I focused mine at F3.5 and forgot to turn it down for the print. At F3.5, as it turns out, it would take less than 1.2s for a proper exposure. I learned quickly, the next prints at F11 then F8. At F8, I think I have hit a sweet spot of 10-12 secs. I don’t think the enlarger will get any sharper at F11, so this saves a whopping 10 secs.


First Prints

Test Prints

Act 4:

“How on earth do I know when the photo is developed?”

Before I started all this, I spent some time to record down all the timing for the chemicals. This was good and all, but I really didn’t know what to look for or expect. My first test print turned dark so quickly that I dumped it into the fixer in less than 30 secs (the actual time should have been 90 secs).  I guess you don’t want to mess with the development time. Learning from Act 3 above, I adjusted the timing of the exposure instead until I finally got full development at around 90 secs. This ensured that the process is consistent and reliable. Which is very important if I want to print papers of different sizes. For example, my small prints are 3.5″x5″ and the medium prints are 5″x7″, exactly twice the size. Under ideal conditions, the same amount of light per sec is hitting the two prints, so for 2x the area, I need 2x the time. I confirmed this with a medium print of the Oyster Bar photo, though I think it could be a bit darker. Hard to say for certain, as it was the last sheet in the bag and could just be really old.


Enlarger Exposure Tests

Multiple Test Prints


Act 5

“What’s next?”

While the majority of the prints are nice, I need to practice more and add in a new variable – contrast. Multigrade paper has different emulsions that are sensitive to slight different wavelengths of light. This means that you can adjust the contrast by filtering the exposure light source (the enlarger lamp). I don’t have the Ilford multigrade filters, but I do have a Unicolor filter set. This comes with filters of varying density so that you can mix and match to get the desired multigrade equivalent.

Scene End




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