Lady in dark room

Darkroom Film Development: Are They Still Useful Today?

History has done away with a lot of things. Whether it’s leaders, countries or footprints in the sand, few earthly entities are safe from the eraser of time.

However, there are other pieces of the past that seem to persist, even when the future pushes back. In the world of photography, darkrooms could be considered one of those tenacious relics.

Color photography and digital cameras have rendered them mostly antiquated, yet some photographers swear by the darkroom. With two convincing sides to the darkroom argument, let’s explore further and find out the true usefulness of a darkroom in a modern
context.

What Does A Darkroom Have To Do
With Film Development?

man holding a dslr camera in a studio

Image Source: Pixabay

Chefs have their kitchen, teachers have their classroom and photographers have their darkroom. Or, at least, they used to. These days, you might have a better chance of catching a photographer in front of a computer on Photoshop.


A darkroom is where film photography is developed. This film development process is a time-consuming one, but not overly complicated. In terms of time and steps, it’s no different than baking a cake or following any other recipe to completion.


As you might have guessed, a darkroom needs to be dark. This is to allow the photographic paper to process. In a bright room, the light would taint
the photographic paper
 and wash out the image, if any image remains.


In the darkroom, you’ll find something called an enlarger, which projects a finite amount of light through the photographic paper, causing a negative to become a positive.


Beside the enlarger should be a tub filled with a chemical solution. While timing will differ depending on the photo, it usually takes about one minute for an image to process.


Once you take it out of the chemicals, you need to put the photograph into another container filled with water, often called a stop bath. This will wash off all the chemicals, so you don’t accidentally get any in your mouth or on your skin.


After that, your picture should be done. It’s best to hang the picture up somewhere, so it can dry quickly and effectively. Many darkrooms are fitted with a clothesline-like structure, which is great for drying out.


While professional photographers will have specially made darkrooms, it’s actually possible for any room to act as a darkroom. All you need is darkness, an enlarger, chemicals and some water.

The Difference Between Film And
Digital

black and white image of a person taking a photo

Image Source: Pixabay

For many years, photography was done entirely on film, using a substance called celluloid. While this process worked perfectly fine, and still does, it requires a few extra steps and considerations that digital photography doesn’t.


For instance, film requires a darkroom in order to be developed, whereas digital photos are instantly available and transferable between devices. Film also requires the photographer to carry around actual film, whereas digital does not.


All of these quality-of-life differences make digital the easy choice for the average photographer, purely in regard to ease of use.


However, in the same way that hardcore music fans swear by vinyl, some photographers will never give up the darkroom and their precious film.


Some might find the darkroom process itself somewhat romantic and satisfying, like hunting for your food. But there are some who claim that the picture quality is superior to digital, or, at the very least, different in the best possible way.


In fact, it’s film’s minor imperfections that result in much of its lasting appeal. It makes the images feel more organic, as opposed to the cold perfection of megapixels.


In other words, a basket of wax fruit might look better and last longer than real fruit, but it doesn’t have the slight bruises or the minor discoloring, which is what makes fruit what it is.


For this reason, darkrooms are great for photographers who enjoy the craftsmanship of film development. But for most people, the differences between film and digital are too minor to tell. Plus, digital’s instantaneous results beat the chore of a darkroom.

Does Black And
White Hold Up To Color?

lady holding a camera

Image Source: Pixabay

In addition to their reliance on film, another debilitation for darkrooms remaining relevant is that they can only develop black and white photography.


Unlike film, black and white photography hasn’t lost much of its status. Due to its unnatural colorization, or lack thereof, black and white allows for a dreamy quality to seep into an image. On the flipside, there’s also a starkness that can strip away the frills and get to the core of a subject.


In addition to style and artistic license, black and white photography has actually gained something in recent years. Once color started taking over, black and white began to be initiative of a bygone era.


As such, modern black and white carries with it that era. Depending on the subject, the remnants left over from bygone eras could be the classy menace of film noir or the blunt realism of early photojournalism.


In a similar fashion, black and white photography has a feeling of timelessness to it, especially in its more modern usage. It’s almost like black and white exists in a separate plane of existence that acts as a shadow to our own.


Black and white is also a great choice for giving your images a thematic underpinning. For instance, if an image relates a feeling of duality or indecision, black and white can accentuate those concepts. This is, of course, due to the usage of only two colors.

Who Still Uses A Darkroom For
Film Development?

person looking at a preview picture

Image Source: Pexels

Even though darkrooms are out of commission in a public sense, they remain a part of the photography culture. This is especially true in academia, where art programs, such as the one at Northampton Community College, make sure that students receive an education in how the darkroom works, even if it won’t be a large part of their work.


On the other hand, many schools have dropped the teaching of darkroom procedure for economic reasons. Having an entire room dedicated to a practice that is largely antiquated, in the societal sense of the word, doesn’t make much sense, after all.


In the same way that vinyl has managed to have a big comeback in the last ten years, some believe that analog photography will experience a similar comeback. It seems that while some people seek out comfort and accessibility, others miss the inherent value of working for something.


This isn’t just conjecture, either, for a company called Reflex has recently released a completely analog, 35mm SLR camera. In fact, it’s the first new SLR camera to be released in 25 years.


It should also be noted that this camera was funded on Kickstarter, which leads one to believe that the majority of the backers weren’t those seeking a hit of nostalgia, but, rather, young people looking to find something new in something old.


Just when you think the past is gone, it sneaks up from behind.

Is A Darkroom Still Useful?

aperture camcorder

Image Source: Pexels

Now that we’ve explored what a darkroom is, explored its capabilities and examined its cultural relevance, we can come to something of a conclusion regarding its usefulness.


Ironically, the conclusion isn’t black and white. Other than photos and penguins, few things are.


Darkrooms, in a broad sense, are antiquated. The average person is simply not going to give up his or her digital photography to slowly process film in a specially equipped room. This is doubly so when you consider the prevalence of smartphones, which act as most people’s camera.


In terms of professional photographers or serious hobbyists, darkrooms and film development do have a future, and a potentially long one. In the same way that vinyl has outlived cassettes and CDs, film could very well outlive digital photography and whatever comes after.


In that same way of thinking, the darkroom’s reliance on black and white photography shouldn’t be too much of a hindrance on its ability to endure. Black and white remains a popular stylistic choice and will likely exist as long as photography exists.


While it might not be a strong, definitive answer, darkrooms lack widespread usefulness, but continue to find an audience in photography’s most hardcore fans.


This dynamic is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

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