A Transition from Darkroom to Digital

PHOTO Techniques, May/June 2007

By Dan Anderson Back to


I think my darkroom credentials are pretty solid: I have been making traditional black-and-white prints to the highest standards that I am capable of producing from my large-format negatives for more than 25 years. I taught darkroom workshops for many years, demonstrating the numerous techniques and processes I have learned over the years that enable me to get the look and feel I desire in my work.

Yet some years ago, when a friend showed me some early digital prints, they impressed me greatly with their crisp detail and resolution, qualities that I have always valued highly in my work. He also showed me how well he controlled tonalities and contrast throughout his image using his Photoshop workflow. I realized I did not have nearly the same degree of control in the darkroom, and began to seriously research the evolving black-and- white digital printing process. For some time, however, the more I learned, the unhappier I was with the results I could expect. The archival aspects of the early inksets and media were too poor for me to feel comfortable selling images using them, and grays often lacked neutrality. However, the introduction of Epson’s archival pigmented inkset and Color-Byte’s ImagePrint RIP software removed these roadblocks.

So several years ago I began investigating the process of scanning negatives and printing these digital files using an inkjet printer. My chief learning method was to take existing negatives and darkroom prints that I already was very satisfied with and try to duplicate them digitally. Just as a properly exposed and developed negative is the critical first step to a darkroom print, I found a correctly exposed scan crucial to a good digital print. Therefore, my first hurdle was to learn how to make a proper scan with- out losing detail in either highlight or shadow. I learned to read and evaluate the histogram of a scan to ensure it contained all the information necessary to interpret that scan in a way consistent with my vision.

I also found that the more skilled one is in interpreting negatives in the darkroom, and the more grounded one is in sensitometry, the easier it is to transition to the digital process. Because I was familiar with the characteristic film curve and what it told me, the ability to manipulate a Photoshop Curves adjustment layer was a natural next level of control for me. In fact, a Curves adjustment layer is by far my most valuable digital tool, and I use it both globally and with a local selection. The ability to selectively adjust parts of the curve by locking down portions of it and changing either the highlight or shadow portion alone is very valuable.

I now am able to say that I can digitally equal, and in most cases surpass, my ability to interpret negatives in my traditional darkroom. (In fact, the reason I’m not displaying any comparisons of any digital versus darkroom prints here is that the differences are too subtle to be visible in a magazine reproduction.) By far the most important difference is the increased ability that I have to control all parts of the image in the digital realm. All the techniques I brought to bear on a negative in the traditional darkroom have their digital counterparts, but the control is much more precise. During the past four years, I have also made digital color prints from negatives and transparencies with the same ability to get maximum control. I began to experiment with converting some of these color scans to create wonderful black- and-white prints using one of several different conversion techniques. This is very exciting for me.

Personal vision is key

Castelluccio, Italy is an example of a 4×5 Velvia transparency that made a very effective black-and-white print after starting as a color image (figure 1a). I do not merely change from RGB to gray scale, however, as that usually results in a drab black-and-white print (figure 1b). The conversion technique I use most is a Photoshop Channel Mixer adjustment layer. Often I use two Channel Mixer adjustment layers on top of each other, using the bottom one as a basic conversion to black-and-white. I then go much further in one channel or another in the top one, using a layer mask to restrict the effect to only the parts of the image needing the extra tonal adjustments. On top of these, I usually use a series of Curves adjustment layers to fine-tune various areas of the image that seemed proper in the color version but could obviously be improved in a black-and- white version (figure 1c).

black-and-white photography, digital photography, photo techniques, photography magazines, photo magazines, photography guides
black-and-white photography, digital photography, photo techniques, photography magazines, photo magazines, photography guides
black-and-white photography, digital photography, photo techniques, photography magazines, photo magazines, photography guides
black-and-white photography, digital photography, photo techniques, photography magazines, photo magazines, photography guides

I do not consider the transition to digital printing inherently good or bad. It in no way demeans or lessens the value of a darkroom process. It is simply the latest photographic process to be introduced. After all, the silver gelatin print, which has now come to be the traditional process, was itself a new process that was added to the other existent processes in the historic photographic tool chest many years ago. The only value that is meaningful with any photographic process is its ability to allow photographers to express themselves in a way that enhances one’s personal vision. I am certainly not trying to convince anyone else to turn to digital printing. After all, it carries with it another long, steep learning curve before one can be proficient with it. It also requires serious up-front costs for new equipment and software. This equipment and software then must be upgraded occasionally. For a darkroom printer, going digital is a personal decision based on personal preferences, and is worthwhile only if it adds to one’s photographic vision and control. It is turning out to be very worthwhile for me.

The bad news in all of this is that digital printing alone most definitely will not make one a better photographer or printer. It still depends on one’s ability to see photographically and to know what it means to interpret a negative. Digital printing is not easier than traditional methods. Just as in the traditional darkroom, working in the digital realm requires much time, thought, and a set of skills to arrive at the final “recipe” that results in a truly expressive print. What was important in arriving at one’s personal photographic vision in the traditional darkroom is equally important in the digital process. A good personal grasp of the concept of just what constitutes a fine print is critical to both processes. You also need to learn how and which digital tools can be employed to help in the successful interpretation of your scans or captures to make evocative, luminous prints. Then you must become proficient with those tools. This of course, mirrors the same concerns with darkroom tools and techniques.

My view now is that black-and-white prints are somewhat harder in the digital realm. I realize that some may disagree with this statement, but I feel that a darkroom black-and-white print responds to the contrast, both global and local, of a graded or variable-contrast paper more evenly across the whole gray scale. Much more care must be taken in the digital realm to ensure that local contrast is adequate, especially in the mid-tones, when doing global contrast changes. This is why I typically use a series of Curves adjustment layers, with the first taking care of most of the global contrast corrections from the lightest tones with detail to the darkest tones with detail. Subsequent Curves adjustment layers ensure that the local contrast within specific areas of midtones are as dynamic as desired.

To increase local contrast, my preferred method is to select an area of relatively even tonality (whether midtone or other) within which I want to increase contrast using a Curves adjustment layer, and make a higher- contrast “S” curve on the graph so that it looks correct on my calibrated monitor. I then always use a Gaussian blur to feather the effect. A Levels adjustment layer may serve the same purpose and can be accomplished by dragging the black-and-white sliders in towards the middle to almost meet their respective ends of the histogram. The good news is that the tremendous control available digitally allows this to be done with great effect; to me, that greatly outweighs any difficulties. The bad news is that it is critical to realize that this needs to be done—and one must be able to recognize inadequacies in local contrast before one can begin to correct them.

Proof often

An important principle to keep in mind when interpreting digital files is print early and often, not later, when working on a digital print. The monitor image always will be different in some way from the printed image, even when using properly calibrated equipment, because monitors use transmitted light and prints use reflected light. So don’t fall in love with the monitor image, but rather evaluate from sequential test prints during the interpretation of a scan, just like one would do in a traditional darkroom. After all, my goal is to make an evocative print, not an image that looks good on a monitor.

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black-and-white photography, digital photography, photo techniques, photography magazines, photo magazines, photography guides
black-and-white photography, digital photography, photo techniques, photography magazines, photo magazines, photography guides
black-and-white photography, digital photography, photo techniques, photography magazines, photo magazines, photography guides

A good example of the increased control that the digital printing process allows me is Churches, Noughavel Ireland in which a Celtic cross was an important element in my vision and composition. My mind had no trouble isolating this cross from the background bushes when I was composing this scene. When printing the 8×10 negative in the darkroom, however, I found I was unable to solve the tonal merging problem even after employing several darkroom techniques (figure 2a). Normal dodging and burning was useless, as was an Alan Ross selective dodging/burning mask, and selective print bleaching. All of these techniques failed because I could not adequately control them on a small enough scale. I revisited this negative as part of my digital printing learning experience and quickly found that the digital process offered me the precise control I needed to express this negative following my original vision. The only real difference is the ability of the digital process to offer precise control on the very small scale that this negative required (figures 2b and 2c). The entire fix was accomplished in Photoshop using a single layer in Soft Light blending mode as a dodging/burning layer (figure 2d). The final digital version is shown in Figure 2e.

The editing tools that Photoshop offers are very numerous but I find that my workflow uses only a few of them often. The one I use most is a Curves adjustment layer, and I may use several with each image. Another that I use a lot is a separate layer in a Soft Light blending mode that I use as a dodging/burning layer. On that layer, a black brush stroke at varied opacities acts as a burning tool and a white brush stroke at varied opacities serves as a dodging tool. Another occasional technique I like is using the Distort command to crop in a very valuable manner unique to the digital process. It sounds counterintuitive that one can distort a landscape without being obvious, but it works well. Burnt Forest shows a typical situation where I find it useful. The upper left triangle of sky is distracting to the image as I want it to be seen, and simply cropping the entire top loses the top of the right center prominent tree as well as the tops of all the trees in the upper right (figure 3a). By dragging the top left handle of the distortion box up, one can crop off just the offending upper left triangle while leaving most of the top right image information intact (figure 3b).

black-and-white photography, digital photography, photo techniques, photography magazines, photo magazines, photography guides


The equipment needed for a transition to digital printing has been discussed in great detail elsewhere, so I will just mention the equipment and software I use. My current computer is a Mac G5 with 4 Gigabytes of RAM, which allows me to run Photoshop CS2 with reasonable speed. A similarly equipped PC should give equal performance. My decision on which scanner to buy was based on having many years of 5×7 and 8×10 negatives that I wanted to interpret digitally, as well as new large-format negatives. My current scanner is therefore an Epson 4990, which scans negatives up to an 8×10 very well. My typical print size has always been a 16×20, so I own an Epson 4000, which can print that size. The Epson drivers and paper profiles included with the printer produced wonderful color results. A neutral-toned black-and-white print proved impossible to obtain, however, so much research went into buying ColorByte ImagePrint, a RIP that gives me beautiful neutral-toned black-and- white prints. (The new generation of Epson printers with K3 inks has solved the neutral-print issue.)

I still choose to use a view camera and film, principally because I find the view-camera movements so useful, and the 16×20-inch prints I like to make require the amount of information and detail that large-format film provides best. However, I don’t believe that film is inherently better than digital capture, and in my ideal future world, I would love to attach an affordable digital back with a 4×5 sensor to my view camera.

The world of traditional darkroom processes is reasonably limited in terms of film, paper, and chemical choices. There are several excellent darkroom papers but that universe shrinks yearly. I have used Kodak T- Max films and Ilford Multigrade fiber paper for many years, and know well just how that combination responds to various light conditions and to my vision. I still intend to use Kodak T- Max large-format film. However, the digital darkroom has a huge and growing universe of available papers, and one has to sort through the hype, settle on just a few, and become very familiar with their look and feel.

My current papers for digital printing are Moab Entrada and Epson Enhanced Matte, both of which display seamlessly alongside my older darkroom prints. I have always dry-mounted my prints onto acid-free museum board. I use exactly the same technique and equipment with my digital prints, so once my prints are made, they are mounted, over-matted, and displayed in the same manner as I have done for many years. It’s important to me to have the same “look and feel” of a displayed print whether produced in my darkroom or on my Epson printer. This is not to say that they are exactly the same. A digital print can simulate—but so far, not duplicate—a darkroom version. A digital print certainly has its own characteristics, but when framed and displayed behind glass, inkjets and sil- ver prints are virtually indistinguishable on my gallery walls.

There is no question that acquiring a skill in any photographic process has a fairly steep and lengthy learning curve, and the digital process is no exception. However, I never felt that I had finished the learning curve in the darkroom printing process; rather I was always learning and growing in my ability to express a negative. I expect and hope that the digital printing process will be no different.

About the Author

Dan Anderson
Dan Anderson's work has been widely exhibited throughout the United States and Europe in numerous one-man exhibits and group shows and is included in many public and private collections. He currently has gallery representation in Ellison Bay and Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Dan has studied with Ansel Adams and other contemporary masters of photography. He has been an active teacher in photography, participating in many workshops throughout the United States. As founder of Wisconsin’s Door County Creative Photography Workshops, Dan has offered darkroom printing and other workshops to hundreds of students since 1984.