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Wednesday, 18 April 2012


Humungous digital printer? Moved on from the 3880?

I call dibs on being Ctein's first guest in his new, better, more luminous, guestroom!

Alternatively, Ctein, have you considered keeping it as it is now and turning it into a museum? In a few years Paula can conduct tours as you pretend to make prints in period costume (tie-dye T-shirt and shorts I pressume): Look kiddies, before pictures were taken with cornea-implanted cameras and shared directly via Bio-Fi to the visual cortex of those around you, photographers had to use boxy cameras to take the pictures and then make prints on paper in order to see them. How quaint, right?

Dear Richard,

I also have an Epson 9800.

pax / Ctein

If ever there was a stop-the-presses moment in darkroom photography, this is it.

best to you, say goodbye well...

Good. The faster everyone abandons their darkrooms, the sooner I'll be the last person left making good ol' silver gelatine prints.

"I also have an Epson 9800"

Those babies are big! I couldn't get a 9890
up my stairs. Had to get a 7890

Sorry, but to be honest that is one ugly darkroom; reminiscent of the sort of workspace Dexter would enjoy. I went through many darkrooms, finally dumping everything back in the 1990's when I moved into a house with a septic system. I couldn't bear the thought of pouring all those chemicals down the drain and into my back yard. Producing prints in daylight at a nice desk with a Gin and Tonic is much more my style now. Good Luck!!

The photo of the darkroom should be in color!

If that makes you happy, then it's the right decision for you.

I still look forward to going into my darkroom. I enjoy the time away from the computer. I don't mind the mechanical aspects of printing, but that part does get a bit tiresome if say I'm just making contact prints. But so far no digital black and white print I have made digitally has given me the same rush as a darkroom print (when I get it just right). I can't say the same for color, and I have been thinking of dumping the color processor and enlarger simply because I like the FB inkjet papers more than the RA4 papers (all RC).

You will miss it.


There must be a museum somewhere that can use some of your stuff.

Dear Robert,

Oh, excellent! Now I know who I'll be able to sell all my darkroom equipment to.


Dear Sean,

Yes, there is a reason it's in the garage.


Dear Miserere,

Hahah! But you're missing a key business element. To whit:

Some years ago, a girlfriend factiously suggested that Paula and I and her should abandon the ultra-expensive Bay Area and move into the mountain coastal country of far northern California. As she said,

"It's cheap living up there. I'll sell T-shirts to the tourists, Paula [[who is a geologist]] can open up a rock shop."

"And what do I do to earn a living? I hate gardening, you know."

"That's easy, you're going to make cute landscape photos and sell refrigerator magnets from a roadside stand."

That's apparently the secret to success-- no self-respecting photo enterprise can survive without refrigerator magnets!

pax / Ctein

I remember well when I stopped using my darkroom, and how freeing it felt. I can't even imagine going back to that now. You'd have to drag me kicking and screaming. I'm now printing on an Epson R3000. Cameras, printers, inks, papers...it just keeps getting better and better. Congrats in advance, Ctein, on your coming 2nd birth.

I think I'll still need my darkroom even if I get rid of my film cameras. I still have lots of B&W negatives that I still have to try printing.

Then how are you going to maintain your sense of individuality and distinguish yourself the masses of regular people?!?!

Ah: the beard.

Consider your last T.O.P print to be of your darkroom. That should fetch a price!

I ran my darkroom in Massachusetts in a house with a septic system, and Kodak was confident that my levels of photo chemistry weren't harmful for a septic systems (in fact they were willing to write me a letter for the condo association, if I'd bought the other place). Not sure that stands up by today's standards, though.

My first darkroom, in my parents' basement, was similar construction (black plastic on 2x4 studs), but much less well equipped (B&W only, Durst M35 enlarger). The Massachusetts one was a real room (already in the house when I bought it). And I never did put one in my Minneapolis houses -- last house because I was being too perfectionist, this house because I'd already scented digital (I started getting photo CDs made around 1993).

Funny. After 7 years of having a darkroom space, but not making the time to do printing, I started this week cleaning out the space to make it functional again. I think these things go in cycle. Unfortuneately, if your materials of choice are no longer available, that sort of makes the decision for you? Wet plate codillion anyone?

Dear Graham,

The reflections from the black plastic walls make it look MUCH more unpleasant than it really is. They aren't noticeable when you're there. It's quite comfortable to work in, save for the cement floors (always meant to get mats). Very well-lit (800W of overhead) and spacious (about 200 square ft). This photo just shows a corner.

I sent Mike three photos that give a pseudo-pano view, but for some reason he ran only one. Probably ran out of ink [vbg].


Dear g car,

Since you seem to know me so well, care to place a modest wager? I'll give you better than even odds, since I do have a certain access to inside information.


Dear Robert,

Most of the stuff I can figure out how to dispose of (friends and colleagues, charitable institutions, eBay as a last resort). Some items have me stumped. When this actually becomes real, I'll likely be asking readers for advice on some dispositions.

pax / Ctein

Geoff Wittig said, "By the end of the decade, darkroom printing is likely to be as arcane and deliberately retro as self-coated glass plate capture."

Don't worry unduly, Geoff: Ctein is only one man and there are lots of us still working in darkrooms with no intentions of quitting. If you haven't already done so, please check out the Film and Darkroom User (FADU) group here: http://www.film-and-darkroom-user.org.uk/forum/fadu_front_page.php

I even started a darkroom blog when I went back to film and called it The Online Darkroom in honour of ths website. It's at http://www.theonlinedarkroom.com/

I haven't posted for a while but that will be changing over the summer.

I miss my darkroom every day...

There is a darkroom facility here in Edinburgh that I hope to use once I have actually put a roll through my film camera.

The thing I miss most about using the darkroom is the physicality of it - walking gingerly so as not to cause vibration through the floor; leaning over the dishes like someone watching for signs of life; feeling the chemicals seep over my fingers from the not-so-well-fitting tanks; marvelling at the changes in a print when using selenium toner. These are real pleasures.

But the medium is the message! Film is something real, a tangible artifact, and a hearty reminder of the real craft of photography. Don't get me wrong, digital is great and has done a lot for photography in general and I quite enjoy using my digital camera, but there's always a certain background unease with the abstract nature of digital anything. Printing digital files helps, and archival storage solutions do too, but there's always an unexplainable but...

Plus, I kind of like the smell of my darkroom.

As digital has become the norm, it has surprised me how many technically proficient photographers have given up, practically run screaming from, their darkrooms as if it had always been torture to go in there.

For me it has always been the place where the mysteries were discussed and revealed. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, when you're tired of the darkroom you're tired of photography.


Interesting comment by MM, I'm a '59 model and bored to tears with digital, built a new darkroom of black plastic on stud in the corner of a garage after seeing Ctein's darkroom on TOP, and just love returning to the craft, love the serenity, it's the only place on my property that is totally peaceful (Ctein obviously does not have kids he needs a break from!).
In fact I wish I'd never given up the darkroom and wasted all those years on digital cameras and computers, and I have very few good photos to show for it. One difference is I do not do colour. My top 50 of my own prints are all silver, I've discovered I'm almost allergic to digital monochrome, so why fight it. I can still use black and white film, so I will.


As a color printer, I can fully understand your lack of remorse in finally moving to a full digital printing process. You'll also get longer lasting prints if done right, and I'm sure you will do it right.

It might be a very different story if you did B&W work. As someone that learn to produce very good B&W prints in their early teens, I still miss just a bit the magic of watching a print come alive. Perhaps someone should make a ink jet that only operates in the dark and prints layers, shows it to you and then prints the next layer :)

Enjoy your new rooms and head cleaning $ down the drain.


Went with my daughter to LaPete Labs yesterday to do wet B&W printing. Partly as learning experience for both of us (Bill's guidance is excellent), but partly because I've never gotten satisfactory digital darkroom results in B&W.

While I get great results with a calibrated monitor and sending the files to mpix.com in color, I've gotten nothing but mud from their B&W prints on Ilford paper. Never gotten a real black out of them. (I need to try Digital Silver Imaging.)

However, it also reminded me of my frustration with the wet darkroom. So slow! Four prints in eight hours. OK, I'm rusty (nearly 30 years since my last session), and I was dealing with strange equipment. But I think it will never be fast, and life is so short.

My parents' water bill tripled when I started printing on fibre paper at home in the early 90s. In hindsight I found the old darkroom process very wasteful of both time and material resources.

Nevertheless I have some of my good FB prints framed and hanging on the wall at home and it's nice to think about how much work was involved in creating them. There isn't much point to reminiscing about making an inkjet print - "I moved some Photoshop sliders and then pressed Ctrl-P..."

Dear Robert H.,

Umm, but I do do black and white photography and printing, and I am extremely happy with the results I get printing digitally vs. printing in the darkroom. Vis:


I photographed the Alcoa building in Pittsburgh in 1972. It made a gorgeous silver gelatin print, but after that paper was discontinued in the late 70's, I could never again make an acceptable-looking print. Digital printing let me recreate the characteristic curve I needed. Once again it's a lovely print.

Not so by the way, this is one of my most popular new prints.


Dear Jon LE,

I am not running from anything. I am running towards something.

If my columns over the past four years have given you the remotest impression that I am tired of photography, then I have done a piss-poor job of writing.


Dear John S.,

Don't give up hope. With practice you can become considerably faster in the darkroom. In fact, my chief frustration with digital printing is that I can still print both black-and-white and color at least twice as fast in the darkroom as I can digitally, and I don't think that's going to change in the future.


Dear Tom D.,

Unless you're willing to get into film scanning in a serious way, you're right about that. I don't know any even halfway decent photographer who hasn't made far more print-worthy photographs than they've had time to print. It's pretty much a universal problem, whether you do black and white or color. Me, I hit the point somewhere in the mid-nineties where if I decided to put down my cameras and never make another photograph again, it would still take the whole rest of my life to print my backlog.

In fact, around the turn-of-the-century I simply gave up on the notion it was ever going to happen. It was just frustrating me too much trying to catch up. It was a lot less irritating accepting that I'll have a whole bunch of really fine photographs, be they film or digital, that I just won't ever get around to printing.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

I distinctly remember two darkrooms of the 20 plus that I have used or owned.
One was the last darkroom I owned, and while compact, it was a stainless steel beauty. I confess that I bought the house because of the beautiful darkroom.

The other darkroom was before I was married, and it was a huge stainless steel beauty in a private home owned by a ravishing divorcee in Aspen.

I do wonder if she has replaced it with an Epson.

Dear Geoff W.,

I do understand and appreciate your feelings, although I would not worry about darkrooms disappearing. Heck, I have pretty good reason to believe that even dye transfer printing will continue to be done long after I'm dead.

That said, I can empathize and sympathize. I am kind of an institution (I don't mean that in the egotistical sense), a fixture in the photographic landscape. Suddenly, I won't be there (in the same way) any longer. It's not at all surprising that engenders a certain amount of melancholy.

I've experienced it from the other side. For example, when Joni Mitchell announced that she would no longer be recording albums but would concentrate on painting, I had that “Nooooooooo" reaction. How could she do that to me?!

The answer, of course, is that her institutional stature is a consequence of her status as an artist, not her reason for existing. As an artist, she's entirely entitled to say that she wants to do something different. As her audience, I'm entitled to feel the loss.

Consequently, I realize there will be people who will feel my absence from the darkroom far more keenly than I will, and I do understand their feelings. Nonetheless, those are their feelings and not my life. Me, I'm hugely excited about my entirely-digital future.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Dear MM,

A very thought-provoking post. I'm going to riff off the comment in italics, because I've experienced kind of an inverted version of that.

I've long had a reputation for being one of the very best color printers to have ever lived (there have been folks who've said I'm the best, and I know they're wrong, because Joe Holmes, for one, is vastly better than I am). That's very nice for my ego, but some indeterminate part of that reputation has been based in the fact that it's been built on a rare and palpably superior media: dye transfer printing. To be sure, I deserve some measure of credit; I'm better than most dye transfer printers, even. But, were the playing field truly leveled, would I still stand out much?

That question did seriously concern me a decade ago. I mean, I know I'm good; I'm really good. But in the brave new world of digital printing, there are an awful lot of good printers (people, that is) out there. My career was built on a highly bespoke product, and my prices were set accordingly. When everyone can own the same printer (machine, that is) I do, even if they don't know how to use it as well as I do, am I still going to stand out enough to keep in that kind of business.

I really didn't know the answer to that. If I had been forced by accident or circumstance to close my darkroom 10 years ago, I would've suffered some considerable anxiety over my new position in the photographic universe.

Since then I've found that I'm good enough at this that I still stand out amongst the pack, even having lost the advantage of a rare and valuable medium. I suppose I'm still one of the best color printers out there, but “one” might now mean in the top 100 or even 1000 instead of 10.

Whatever, it seems I can still make a living selling relatively expensive printing services and decently priced prints (and I've never been big on selling high-priced prints; it's just the cost and time consumption of dye transfer demanded it).

Consequently, I agree with you; the master darkroom printers will be increasingly valued because they will be increasingly rare. Mind you, they WILL have to be a master printer; the medium is not so big a crutch that they can afford to turn out lame results (pun intended). But it definitely gives a leg up.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

It's a curve. Once you get into digital photography, it feels so good, it's so fast, smooth and easy, you start hating shooting film. After a few years of dumping and giving away all your darkroom, you start missing the sense of crafting images instead of taking pictures, in the words of Sally Mann. You miss the photographic object all by itself, the beauty of holding a piece of paper done with your own hands. Pushing Command P doesn't substitute that in any way. I am right now suffering a new form of angst: having a catalog of half a million pictures in my LR database and a lots of hard drives, each with a duplicate, that has to be updated and upgraded and rechecked constantly, shooting 8x10 feels liberating. Just 2 plates and you move on. I realize how strong an effect it has on ones mind the idea of being limited by hard facts (a limites amount of film). It is so difficult for me to shoot final statements with a digital camera, because I always end up making sketches and leaving for later the editing stage. Shooting film, especially LF, forces you to further refine what you have to say the moment you are shooting, and ten thousand pictures later. I usually have more keepers shooting film and less archive problems.
I would keep both ways of making images. Horses for courses.

I believe that shutting down companies is something of a management specialty (some managers specialize in it); if it's going to be done it makes a huge difference how it is done. It requires the kind of difference in thinking that Ctein mentions; you're not trying optimize for the long run, but for a fairly clearly-delimited short run, and that's entirely different.

Strange timing. I have just gone in the opposite direction. After 10 years of doing nothing but digital printing from digital capture and scanned 120 negatives, I have just cleaned out my darkroom. Layers of dust that would have had Miss Haversham in intensive care have been removed. Enlargers, timers, safelights, densitometers are cleaned off and still work. I have just spent £500 on chemicals, paper and sundries and am looking forward to going back to where I started. Somehow digital prints from my Epson 3880 just don't do it for me anymore.

Mind you my darkroom is in a basement and couldn't be reconfigured to any useable space.

Dear Ctein -

Sorry, no offense intended.

I know other fine photographers who work from scanned negatives and claim to make better (and larger) prints than they ever did on the darkroom.

But, it just ain't the same. If I ever see an 8x10 inkjet print that has the qualities of an 8x10 contact print, I might change my mind.

My opinion remains humble.


Dear John L,

Darkroom enlargements from 35mm and medium format also don't have the qualities of a well-made large-format contact print.

So what?

Are you equally dismissive of film photographers and darkroom printers who never indulged in such? I mean, other than for clients I 'd be one of those, so that shoe would fit. As would something over 99% of the serious "analog" photographers/printers in the world.

It's OK to say that is why YOU like and do analog work. It's a different thing when you try to establish your particular preference as saying something universal about the field.

Observe that I did not disagree with Sergio, who shares some of your predilections, because he was talking about what works for him.

pax / Ctein

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