The Digital Silver Darkroom

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digital silver darkroom

If you don’t have access to a darkroom or the skill and experience, it doesn’t mean you can’t make a traditional black and white print—high quality silver-gelatin black and white prints are only a few clicks away, and you will never have to work under safelight conditions or stand in front of an enlarger to achieve them. Using your images, computer and Internet access, you already have the tools available to make black and white photographic prints on traditional silver halide paper. All ‘prints’ referred to in this article are real black and white silver-halide photographic (not inkjet) prints. With only a handful of labs in North America making digital black and white prints on real photographic paper, one lab with a real passion for black and white is Digital Silver Imaging (DSI) in Belmont, MA. Owner Eric Luden shared information about how his lab is able to make these professional quality prints.

How it works

A photographer uploads a digital file to the lab. The file is exposed onto photographic paper at the lab using laser exposure in a digital enlarger. After exposure, the paper is machine processed in print processing chemicals, and the result is a digitally exposed black and white silver-halide print. Although they look and feel exactly like traditional photographic prints, the real difference lies in the emulsion technology. These emulsions are panchromatic, and optimized for digital laser exposure. Luden’s lab uses Ilford Ilfospeed RC Digital and Galerie FB Digital papers and exposes them with a Durst Theta 51 digital enlarger. This sophisticated digital lab system uses a modified laser designed for true black and white printing from digital files. Imaging is at 400 pixels per inch, and prints may be made up to 20″ wide and 15 feet long. The paper is machine processed in standard darkroom chemicals, then washed to produce archival silver images. Fiber base prints get an additional wash to ensure the permanence of the prints. DSI offers sepia and selenium toning and protective wax coatings as additional services.

When the lab does the conversions, a digital proof is sent back to the photographer for approval before printing. Files are RGB (not grayscale) at their native resolution. Uncompressed JPG, TIF, or RAW formats are accepted. Luden’s team extensively uses NIK Silver Efex Pro 2 for color to black and white conversions. Well known for innovative digital workflow solutions, NIK incorporated special algorithms in the software that translate into user-friendly darkroom-inspired tools.

When asked about comparing prints made in a regular darkroom vs. using the digital enlarger, Luden said, “Even with the best of master printers in the traditional darkroom, there is no way to reproduce a silver print exactly from print to print, and there is the beauty of that uniqueness to a ‘handmade’ print. With digital printing, however, there are ways you can open up shadows and control highlights in the file itself, so once you have that, using digital workflow, you can get repeatability from print to print. We’re able to provide something that isn’t available to photographers and that’s the traditional darkroom print—we’re helping people learn to see in black and white again.”

Resources: Digital Silver Imaging, www.digitalsilverimaging.com; Durst, www.durstus.com; Harman Technology Ltd., www.ilfordphoto. com; NIK Software, www.niksoftware.com