Printing in Darkroom vs Film-to-Digital workflow

ES-face01 by Emir Shabashvili

I started in darkroom in my early teens, somewhere in 68 or 69. Back then, everything was simple: not too many graded papers available, one developer, water from the tap, fixer and free time, which I had aplenty. I did not use any advanced techniques. Masking with my fingers for dodging and burning was the farthest it went. Because of this, there were negatives I could print easily and some I did not know how to print, the negatives too dark or too contrasty…when I had one, I just skipped it. Here is one of the prints from the time: some TASMA film pushed to 500 ISO, some old paper my father gave me:

(View from my darkroom AKA attic room. Yelabuga, 1973)

I had been returning to darkroom many times over the years to print few family photos. In yearly 2000s, I resorted to digital processing of my films. Because of this, my darkroom techniques has not improved much…that is, until recently, when I started using a real big darkroom with all kinds of stuff regularly. Gradually, I restored my non-existing printing skills and went further. I started using split-printing on variable contrast paper, I cut masks and dodge/burn with different contrast filters, I use mainly RC paper but also fiber when I feel like it. I use different developers/dilutions for contrast control and for color variations. No toning though (not yet). Little by little, I started feeling confident enough to try printing “the bad and the ugly” : overexposed, underexposed, too contrasty, you name it…negatives. I use manual cameras most of the time; in real world of candid shooting often there is no time for fiddling with camera and as result I have this kind of photo junk all over my rolls. Even some of my most loved shots have wrong exposure, wrong development or both.

So, I decided to give it a try and spent some time printing from these crappy frames. In this post I’d like to share the results and compare printing in darkroom with scanning/processing/digital printing I had been mostly doing for the last ~ 10 years.
[Disclaimer:It is not a formal test. It is just my impressions. Its not digital in general or film in general. It is just my B&W films/paper and my scanning/digital processing.]

Ok, let start from the peculiarities of my digital workflow.


For 35mm I use two scanners, one is old Minolta Multi II and another is Nikon V. The Nikon V gets most of the work. I use Vuescan because NikonScan software is clipping some highlights and I don’t like this. Nikon V is noisy, slow, but good enough for my tasks. It has LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) for a light source and because of this it tends to exaggerate the grain. In the darkroom world, I’d compare it with enlarger equipped with a point light source: prominent grain, high contrast, sharp edges, all irregularities like dust and scratches greatly exaggerated. Its just specifics for a particular film scanner and not all scanners, but that is what I am limited to in my film->digital workflow.

Digital processing

In case of film photography, digital processing in general and Photoshop in particular is atrocious. Its true; like a double-edge sword it cuts your instead of your enemy all the time… and ruined picture is just one click away. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a novice, I use it for many years, I am very comfortable with it, I am in IT by trade. I profile my monitor, I control lighting in my room, and I try to process my images so that they would look natural. Still, I have many frames where I just couldn’t quite get the image I want. For instance, the blur is out of the question — use blur tool and it will ruin the grain structure while the very definition of 35mm pictures — at least, my 35mm pictures — is based on grain. Masks are powerful way to process scanned film images but one little mistake and you have visible artifacts. And the list goes on and on, counting every tool in PS’s palette: curves, levels, filters, you name it. In my view, the ability to process films digitally did nothing good to many film photographers: their (printed in darkroom) pictures from the film era look great, but new work, also done on film, but processed digitally, look unnatural: too contrasty (levels, curves), too sharp in every dot (sharping filters), no details in shadows or, the other side of the coin, shadows HDRed to the point where you wonder: was it really shot on film?! In my film-digital workflow I try to avoid these but it had always been a struggle. It is especially hard with overexposed and problematic in other ways (for instance, pushed to the limits) negatives.

Digital Printing

I am not a very good digital printer, but I have 2 photo printers at home (HP 7060 and Canon Pro-100) and managed to configure them to produce fairly neutral B&W prints. I don’t like much any of the inkjet papers I had to use; some I dislike less then the others. All in all, this step is the most simple and straightforward in my digital workflow.

Darkroom, Printing/Comparing

I took three negatives I know I had issues with while scanning, processing and printing digitally. In darkroom, I spent one hour on each; could easily be 3 hours/each, I just didn’t have the time. Here are the best prints I’ve gotten:

(Calle Ocho, June 2011, Tri-X pushed to E.I. 1600)

This one was no problem: printed on Ilford MG RC IV 8×10 paper, aperture f/8, split printing in 3 exposures:

  • Filter #0 (low contrast): sky only 32 sec
  • Filter #0 (low contrast): all but left side (Cafe with the couple) for 32 sec, plus dodging cyclist’s face for 22 sec during the exposure
  • Filter #4 (high contrast): whole frame for 18 sec, dodging faces of woman and cyclist for 10-12 sec.

Remembering how much time I spent trying to figure out how to process the scan and print it right, I was surprised how easy I’ve got descent print in darkroom. I was expecting more hard work. Here is the digital version to compare — the sky is completely white — that’s because I could not get it without ruining the picture!

(South Bech, June 2013, Tri-X pushed to E.I.1600)

The negative is much worse, its grossly overexposed; I bet I will reduce it one day. To get some clouds, I had to do this:

  • Filter #0 (low contrast) at F/0 66 sec, sky and building on the right only.
  • Filter #0 (low contrast) at F/8 34 sec, masking (i.e. dodging) girl’s faces for 12 seconds each
  • Filter #5 (high contrast) at f/8 26 sec, dodging girl’s faces 10-14 seconds

It worked, to a point. The print is ok, but probably needs additional work (or better reducing the negative). Again, I was doubting my ability to get a descent print at all from the negative that dense…but it turned out to be not too hard. In the digital version note the horrible grain in the sky.

(Little Haiti, Kodak 3200 TMZ film @ E.I. 12500)

This negative had great difference in contrast between background and foreground, but it was task simplest of all:

  • Filter #0 (low contrast) F/8 for 34 sec dodging girl’s figure and face
  • Filter #3 (normal contrast) F/8 for 44 sec

The digital version

Bottom line

It is not an impossible task to match or even surpass film-digital workflow in darkroom printing. There are few advantages I noticed while comparing prints made digitally to analog:

  • the grain structure is better on analog prints. And for me it is very important.
  • some artifacts present due to heavily pushed film are less noticeable on analog prints. For example, I spent some time battling nasty changes in brightness in the areas of high contrast — for instance, on the image #2 that would be where cafe roof borders the sky. There was no such problem in the analog version of the print. I was expecting it, and it is there, but does not look too bad. It still has this look of pushed film, but not as much as digital print and as a result it looks much more natural.

The final word

If you had been scanning your negatives for some time, try printing in darkroom. The results may surprise you.


Don’t fancy Leica!

This is a “quick and dirty” translation from Russian of the article I found in the old “Soviet photo” magazine, issue dated Jan 1934 with portrait of Stalin on its cover (of course, what else?):

Re-publishing today a photography article this old deserves at least an explanation, so here it is:
There was a time when 35mm film was rapidly gaining popularity while older types of larger format cameras and films, still in use at the time, were slowly becoming outdated. Most of the new 35mm cameras of the period were extremely expensive and out of reach of regular soviet citizen for the obvious reasons:

  • the production of 35mm Leica copies (FEDs) just started, they were not yet available for order;
  • there was no free trade with abroad;
  • the cameras actually were expensive;
  • the salaries were very low.

But still, part of the soviet elite and professionals who by nature of their work had to use photography were looking to acquire the latest equipment: it was fashionable, it was cool, it was better then the old, and in almost all cases it was (ta-dam) … Leica! Few examples come to mind:

  • …poet Bulat Okudjava in his teenage years before WWII imagining himself in “…black pants, white Apache shirt and “Leica” hanging from the shoulder” (see his short story “Certain failures among continuous successes”);
  • …writer Ilya Ilf buying “Leica” using money borrowed from Eugene Petrov, his co-author and friend; Eugene was joking that after this he had “no money no co-author”, because Ilf was busy photographing and did not have time to work and earn salary; with this camera Ilf photographed the USA in mid-30s, which resulted in their illustrated book “One-Story America”, published in USSR in 1936 and known to English readers as “Little Golden America”.

The article below is written by soviet official, Semyon Evgenov, director of SOYUSPHOTO trust. SOYUSPHOTO was created in 1931 by decree of the ruling communist party as the country’s main propaganda organization to produce and publish photo-illustrations for Soviet magazines, newspapers and other types of publications, so despite the fact the article was published in the widely distributed photography magazine, it was truly meant to be read and fully understood by the few elite readers, as it was usual for Soviet press of stalin’s period. It is poorly written in crude soviet official language I tried to imitate in translation, where photography gear referred as “photography weapons” and photographers as “photo-workers”. The author is following his absurd line of reasoning minding his own petty goals — like saying something bad about some photographers and something good about others (by coincidence, the “others” work for the author in his SOYUSPHOTO trust), but at the same time it is interesting and funny to see the parallels to the 70s photography discussions “automatic vs manual”, early 2000s topics “film vs digital” and so on. Well, enough said, here is the article:

S. Evgenov

“Soviet Photo”, № 1, 1934.


What to choose – glass1) or “Leica”?

In the controversy about “Leica” both sides are equally wrong: those who think “Leica” is the best weapon for the photo-reporter, and those who reject it entirely.

We believe the most correct solution is this: “Leica” is absolutely indispensable for shooting in remote and lengthy trips or expeditions, in the Arctic, in expedition to Pamir, during the Karakum2) car adventure and alike. “Leica” has no alternative where equipment and film should occupy minimal space and have a minimum weight.

“Leica” is also irreplaceable in all cases where photo weapons should be put to use as quickly as possible. This could happen not necessarily in distant expeditions; it could be for covering meeting at the railway station, where photojournalist has to move in the crowd, quickly change points of view, shoot from the raised hands and so on.

Finally, the “Leica” and only “Leica” has to be used when the most sensitive negative material available to photographer for the photo-shoot is leica’s type negative material, i.e. leica’s film3).

“Leica” has flaws: even in the hands of most experienced masters it does not yield depth, conceals distance, and kills subtle nuances of light. Beautifully composed frames of such “Leica” masters as Ignatovich4) and Langman5) are usually flat, taken from a distance and the composition is done by arrangement of planes; the texture in their pictures almost non-existent, light and shadows are presented by big planes. The best leica works of Sterenberg, Kedoyarov, Markov-Grinberg6) are much softer.

Another common drawback: working with “Leica” will “undermine the creative discipline”, so to speak, corrupting the photography worker. “Leica” provides an opportunity to make a lot of shots in the short time. Undisciplined, nutty shooter, using this quality of “Leica”, stops thinking of the composition, loses himself, begins clicking at random, stretching luck – “let’s shoot many” – he thinks, – “should be something good to choose from later”.  Random frames are rarely come up good and photographer not only stops in his personal growth, but easily rolls back.

There are special drawbacks to using “Leica” in SOYUSPHOTO7) work: enlargements from “Leica” are far greater than from the glass. Of course, good print masters can pull 50x60cm and even more from  technically superb leica negatives, but in a case of mass printing by mid-experienced print workers (like it is in the case of the SOYUSPHOTO production facility) even 20x30cm or 30x40cm enlargement is a problem.

SOYUSPHOTO office receives photographs as negatives. Process of selection of leica’s negatives, identifying their qualities and characteristics is much more complex compared to the selection of the glass plate or wide film negatives. Experienced editors make blunders editing leica’s negatives, sending things to press not suitable for production, which have to be rejected later. Shipment and storage of leica’s negatives seems easier – roll film does not break8). But it wears out, can be scratched, it collects fingerprints, and finally comes completely useless earlier than the glass plate negatives.

From what had been said about “Leica”, in my opinion, one can also deduct advantages and disadvantages of the photographic glass plates and wide film. There is no wonder that abroad “Leica” did not become a press camera. Photo-reporters there still prefer large format cameras, up to 13X18cm, and there “Leica” is an amateur camera. We are trying to put the Soviet photojournalist in better working conditions than the conditions of the bourgeois press photographer.

In this regard, along with the klapp-camera9) and other equipment we allow “Leica”, we even recommend it in some of the cases like mentioned above, but with a caveat: take “Leica” if you can’t take bigger camera, when there is no place for it, there is no way to carry a supply of plates, when you do not have time to deploy a conventional camera. But remember, no matter what you shoot (if you know how to shoot at all) you will shoot glass better than the “Leica”. Pamir, sultry Karakum desert, Red Square full of people, illuminated by the soft rays of sun just breaking through the clouds, all of it you can show wider, larger, more expressive, more “juicy” while shooting glass or wide film, and editing by the office will do error‑free selection of the best material.

Based on these provisions, the SOYUSPHOTO office, starting from the second half of 1933 is equipping its best photo-reporters with both “Leica” and tropical Nettar10), striving to regulate the use of “Leica”, and forthrightly fighting the habit of some photographers to use exclusively “Leica”.

A few more reasons against ”Leica”: as proven by real experience the study of photography should not start from “Leica” and one should not start shooting “Leica” before universalka11) and klapp-camera had not been mastered to perfection. Photo-reporters who started using “Leica” untimely usually exhibit delayed growth and do not use all the features of “Leica”.

The craze for “Leica” is over. Recently popular among Moscow and provincial photo-reporters opinion that the first-class photo-reporter is the reporter shooting “Leica” is gradually getting rid of.

Once again, this does not mean: “Leica” is not needed, down with “Leica” — this means: do not get addicted to “Leica”, remember her huge flaws, the enormous difficulties of mastering all her virtues, perfectly master the universalka and klapp-camera first.

In the wake of XVII Party Congress the magazine “USSR in Construction” published luxuriously printed issue dedicated to the four Bolshevik victories (work of Epron, Karakum auto expedition, climb to the Pamir, stratospheric balloon flight).

Materials on panorama photography will be published in the next issue


1) Glass plate camera

2) Desert in Central Asia, site of early soviet auto expedition

3) 35mm roll film

4)Boris Ignatovich (1899-1976), soviet photographer

5) Eleazar Langman (1985-1940), soviet photographer

6) Early soviet photo-reporters associated with Soyusphoto

7) Soviet official photography trust created in 1931; S. Evgenov was its chief editor

8) Compared to glass plate negative

9) Klapp-Taschen or similar camera, from the early 20th century; a large format wooden-bodied strut‑folding camera with nickel-plated metalwork and a leather bellows often used by early Soviet photojournalists. Soviet versions: “Reporter”, “Tourist”.

10) Contessa Nettel Tropen large format camera made by Zeiss in early 20th century.

11) Jargon name of universal folding large format camera with ground glass. Soviet cameras of this type: “FOTOCOR-1”, APFO