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 Nature Photography :: Essays :: Darkroom vs Lightroom

I've been a practising photographer (with some breaks) for over 30 years. My first photographic job was as a darkroom operator and since then I've worked in darkrooms ranging from professional labs in London to converted bathrooms in rural Australia.

I love working in darkrooms. There's just nothing like being alone with some fine music as your latest masterpiece emerges from the blank white paper and slowly solidifies into what, sometimes, becomes a fantastic image.

There's no equivalent in the digital world, and I'm sure that if my circumstances hadn't changed I'd still be delving in developer, rather than playing with pixels.

So why do I now use a computer instead of an enlarger?. Simple, with my nomadic lifestyle it's not practical to use traditional techniques.

The only feasible way I can produce high quality prints is to shoot film, scan the negatives, and "Photoshop it" from there, in what's becoming known as the "lightroom".

Let's go over some of the pros and cons of the lightroom.

There is of course the expense of the computing equipment. To properly set up a computer, scanner, printer etc. costs a lot, although probably no more that setting up a darkroom.

Unfortunately it doesn't stop there, unlike the traditional darkroom, where the equipment will be just as usable in 30 years as it is today, your lightroom will be out of date by the time you get it home. In a couple of years you'll find yourself spending as much again to upgrade.

One exception is the scanner. Depending on the size negatives you are scanning, and the depth of your pockets, you can buy a scanner these days that's as good as you'll probably ever need.

Of course it costs a lot to set up a good darkroom as well. Quite apart from the fact that you have to dedicate an entire room of your house (no converted bathrooms please, I said a good darkroom), there's the enlarger, lenses, trays, timers, plumbing, sinks, ventilation, lighting etc.

Learning curve
Then there's the learning curve. To master even 10% of Photoshop will take ages, to become an absolute whiz will never happen because there'll be another version produced, with new features, before you've mastered the old ones.

But, becoming a master printer isn't an overnight thing either. It takes years to learn all the ins and outs of dodging, burning, split contrast printing, selenium toning, ferricyanide bleaching, retouching, archival washing, drying etc.

In my particular circumstances the portability of a lightroom is of paramount importance. Without this technology I would not be able to live my lifestyle and practice my craft.

I suppose I could borrow or rent darkrooms every six months and print the latest batch of negatives. But to produce fine results takes time. You cannot simply breeze into town, spend a week producing 20 fine prints (from negatives you've never printed before), then breeze out.

You have to live with an image to realise its potential. This means sitting with it for a while, making another print, then sitting with that one for a while.

The portability of the lightroom allows me to do this.

There's no practical way to take a darkroom into the field. I know that early photographers did just that, but that was in the days when firstly, they had to because the technology forced them to develop and fix negatives immediately, and secondly they could just dump their spent chemicals anywhere they liked.

I did briefly think of moving up to a 10x8" camera and contact printing, this requires almost no equipment, even if you develop the film in the field.

But it's far from ideal, especially if you want to produce large prints. And you still have to store the chemicals, the unused of course, but also the used for disposal in the proper manner.

With a lightroom, the absolute control I have over the way an image looks is what blows me away. There is, in theory at least, nothing I can't do with an image in Photoshop.

To be fair, this is partly true in a darkroom. There's all sorts of techniques I can use to lighten, darken, contrast control etc. various areas of a print, especially with modern VC papers.

But can I use a red filter on the sky and a green filter on the foliage? Can I sharpen a single rock? Can I increase the contrast on just the base of that tree?

In apparent contradiction to my argument, the answer to the above questions is, to a large extent, "Yes". But at an incredible cost in time and wasted materials. In the lightroom these techniques, while taking some time to master, are relatively simple.

This brings me to a major downside to using lightroom techniques, there's almost no limits.

This is a downside?

Yes it is, because I cannot hide behind the limitations of the technology, because there aren't many. I can't say "Well I'd like to have a darker sky but it's too hard to burn it in?, or, "I didn't see that beer can until I made the print", or, "I know that branch spoils the composition but what can you do?".

In the lightroom I select the sky and use the red channel for that area, I get rid of the branch, I rubber stamp the unseen beer can.

If the print is not as perfect as the output device allows, it's my fault!

The print is the point
For me, the main point of photography is the production of fine prints that people can enjoy. So are my digital results as good as those produced with traditional techniques? So far I think so. Certainly I've been very impressed with the prints I've been getting.

I've seen many originals from master printers of the Ansel Adams, Bruce Barnbaum, John Sexton ilk, there's no doubt they're exquisite. But I haven't seen prints from the same negative, using both technologies, side by side.

I suspect that even if I did I would be hardpressed to pick the best print. Not that I couldn't tell the difference, just that I couldn't decide which was best.

Certainly that's how I feel with the material I'm producing at present. With my older negatives I have wet process prints to compare with their digital equivalent. When I hold them up next to each other they are certainly different, but I cannot say one is better.

I like the shadow detail in one and the sharpness in the other, the "colour" of one over the other, the surface of one over the other.

At first I didn't like the digital prints because they weren't what I was used to, they weren't the same as my old photos. Now I find the reverse is becoming true, I prefer the look of my new digital prints.

Neither is better, they're just different.

There is still the permanence issue haunting the digital print. A well made, selenium toned, fibre based print should last well over 100 years. The same cannot be said for digital output, regardless of Epson's claims. You can perform "accelerated testing" until you're blue in the face, but the only real way to find out if something will last 100 years is to sit and wait...for a 100 years.

With traditional prints we've been doing just that.

And my final analysis?
It doesn't matter how you produce your prints. Do what fits your lifestyle and what's appropriate for your audience, whether that be MoMA or your Mom.

Both technologies have capabilities far beyond most photographers. Neither the finest enlarger nor the fastest computer will make you and artist if it's not in you.

Conversely, someone with real talent will produce results with the simplest of equipment, even a bare light bulb and a sheet of glass. Ask anyone who owns an Edward Weston print.

The process is not important, the results are.

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