Darkrooms In the Digital Age: Why Hand Made Printing Is So Important

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In the age of automation, hiking film prices, and a growing expectation to keep creating content fed into a fast-moving algorithm, hand-made prints have begun to dissolve from the photographic standard to an anomaly of the past. The time and care it takes to make a single darkroom print reflects a more tactile age of photography, where concerns of digital ownership and AI-generated photos were more of an Orwellian conjuring than an everyday reality. As we move towards this new age of highly mutable photography, it's crucial to take stock of practices like darkroom printing and conceptualize them not as a vintage and cumbersome way of creating but as an essential skill set in your practice as a film photographer.

As someone who spends hours hand printing every week and would not be considered by anyone to have patience on their list of virtues, I'm here to tell you why this slow, methodical process is a refreshing alternative in the age of digital photography.

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The Printing Process

The entire hand printing process can initially seem highly intimidating, especially since community darkrooms are an important starting place to learn the craft. Beginning in a darkroom can feel like entering a niche club full of highly skilled (and sometimes pretentious) members where you have no idea what you're doing. Failing numerous times in a semi-public setting is enough to dissuade many people from even attempting.

Before you start printing, you will need to develop your photos. Check out Nice Film Club for the best quality developing and scanning at an affordable price. You're ready to print once you have collected your negatives from the lab. It's crucial to find a community darkroom or a space to rent with already existing members who will support and encourage your learning process and who can even help you hone your skills. Everyone starts badly. Printing is a craft, like photography itself, that always has something new to offer its patrons regardless of experience. Don't let the fear or preconceptions of what community printing will be like stop you from the beginning. Once you have a handle on the basic printing steps, everything becomes easier, and you can relax into the craft.

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How Is The Print Made

The film negative is fitted into a carrier based on its size (120, 35mm, etc.). That carrier will hold the negative once placed into the photo enlarger. A photo enlarger is a transparent projector that turns developed negatives into enlarged prints. When the enlarger switches on, light shines through the negative. This light is often diffused by a piece of glass or other material to ensure even illumination. The light then passes through the enlarger's lens, much like a projector. You can adjust the lens aperture (how wide the lens opens) to control how much light passes through. A smaller aperture (higher f-stop number) means less light but a greater depth of field (more of the image in focus), while a larger aperture (lower f-stop number) means more light but a shallower depth of field. The light then projects the image from the negative onto the baseboard below.

The projected image is a larger version of what's on the negative, hence the term "enlarger." You can adjust the focus by moving the enlarger lens closer or further from the negative and changing the final print's size by moving the entire enlarger head (which includes the light source and the lens) up and down. Once everything is set, you place a piece of light-sensitive photographic paper on the baseboard, which is then exposed to the projected image for a certain amount of time, controlled by you. This time is calculated by making a "test strip," where a single sheet is exposed in strips at increasing times.

For example, a sheet is exposed in strips at increasing times like 5, 10, 15, or 20 seconds, and the strips are used to determine proper development time. This time, the lens aperture, sensitivity of the paper, and things like contrast filters determine the brightness of the final print.

Once the print is removed from the enlarger, it is moved through a series of baths. First, the print moves to the developer, then it is extracted using tongs and put in the stop bath tray; then, the same is done and placed in the fixer. Developing usually lasts 1 minute to 90 seconds, stops around 30 seconds to 1 minute, and fixers around 3-5 minutes; however, these times can change based on the paper used, the mixing ratios, and the brand of chemicals themselves. After fixing, the print can be rinsed in running water to remove residual chemicals, squeegeed gently to remove excess water, and placed on a drying rack to dry. Once you feel comfortable with this workflow, the world of darkroom prints becomes wide open.

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An image without an alt, whoops
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The Benefits of Printing

One of the most compelling components of darkroom prints is their unique aesthetic that simply can't be replicated with digital photographs. The richness of tones, depth of blacks, and the luminosity of highlights are key characteristic elements of darkroom prints. These organic and often surreal qualities add significant emotional depth to your work that is extremely hard to achieve digitally. Just because you physically print doesn't mean you can't flatbed scan and digitize these prints. The difference between scanning a film negative and scanning a darkroom print to produce a final digital image can be substantial, as the quality gap is often significant.

Creative Control

While digital printing offers excellent control, the darkroom provides a different, more tactile authority. You can manipulate light and chemicals directly on each print, producing endless possibilities for creative expression. Techniques like dodging and burning, toning, or solarization are all creative decisions you dictate with your hands and become part of your aesthetic as a printer and photographer. This kind of control lets you command your image as something you created and brought out rather than just happening to capture.


Darkroom printing is a craft that requires skill, patience, and knowledge. There is no denying the satisfaction of producing a beautiful print with your hands rather than merely sending a file to a printer. Working in the darkroom involves a tangible interaction with your photographs, leading to a deeper connection to your work. The process of seeing the image slowly appear in the developer becomes addicting. I've found that the ongoing process of fine-tuning my photos has become extremely meditative, with a calmness in repetition where I would have expected to be more irritated at this constant redoing.


Each darkroom print is unique. Even when printing from the same negative, slight variations in exposure and development make each print subtly different. This uniqueness can add value to your work or help you quickly discover what you like and dislike about an image. Do you want your image to have tons of contrast? Have large borders? Be warmer or cooler in tone? These kinds of questions present themselves naturally inside a darkroom. Through printing, I have learned so much about my personal taste, which has allowed me to alter my shooting process to match my ever-growing preferences.

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The process of printing in a darkroom provides a deeper understanding of the principles of photography. It can help you appreciate photographers' work from the pre-digital era, photographers still actively working in darkrooms today, and improve your skills in areas like exposure and composition. A dense, well-developed negative is the best way to get a good print. This comes mainly from mastering exposure and developing at a lab you trust. I use Nice Film Club’s membership service to develop my negatives and have always found the lab to produce excellent results. Printing is the best way to learn how improper exposure affects an image, losing detail in the shadows, the highlights, or both. This consequence of having poor exposure has made me a more diligent and thoughtful photographer in taking photos I know will print well. It's easy to forget and forgive a bad image on your phone, but it's a bit harder when you try to print from those negatives and can't achieve the desired results. Printing provides such a valuable learning experience for mastering the essentials of photography.

Slowing Down

Referring to today's world as fast-paced is an understatement. There is so much value in slowing down and fully engaging in a process that requires your attention. Darkroom printing needs focus and patience and quickly becomes meditation. Operating solely in a space where light is discouraged and detrimental to the photos is a great way to forget your phone for even a few hours a week. It can be hard or impossible to relinquish constant availability but engaging in an art form that won't work with those needs is a great way to practice general moderation in an area most of us struggle in.

Archival Quality

Darkroom prints, especially those made on fiber-based paper, have excellent archival qualities. When processed correctly, they can last for centuries without significant degradation. If you are a young photographer beginning your craft, prints will be something you are guaranteed to look back on with pride and joy. Depending on your career or aspirations, darkroom prints become exponentially more valuable over time and will always supersede the value of a digital print.

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