The value of darkroom work, in a student's words

Why study darkroom in the 21st Century?

When I enrolled at the CCP I was surprised to see that we had to undertake subjects using film cameras and learn darkroom skills. I remember asking myself “what use is this in the digital age?”

How wrong I was in this thinking.

Through using film I learnt to slow down and consider my photography. I tried to envisage what it might look like once I developed the film. I visualised the photograph before pushing the shutter release. By slowing down:

  • I became a more thoughtful and reflective photographer
  • I was challenged to move around the scene in order to construct the best image
  • I also became more conversant and confident with using the aperture and shutter speed settings.

I was able to translate all these skills and dispositions to my digital work.

Working in the darkroom helped me understand that as photographers we truly “paint with light”. The time of developing the film is full of anticipation if not some anxiety as I would wait to see if I actually had negative images on the roll. I was always and still am excited to see the negatives knowing that I would be able to print my images.

The process of printing always seems to be rather mysterious, almost magical. Watching the image slowly appear and looking to see if I achieved the image that I constructed in my head when I first took the picture has its own challenges but also rewards. Again the process is slower than digital printing as I would often return to the negative to dodge and burn in order to create the image I was after.

One final point is that I have never reproduced the quality of my black and white film based prints with my digital camera and processing. Perhaps this is my lack of skill but I believe that film based black and whites are deeper in the black and richer in whites.

The work I undertook with film and in the darkroom has made me a better digital photographer. I no longer need to take hundreds of images to get that “good one”. I am more considered and reflective and I am always looking more deeply at what is in front (and behind) me before I press the shutter.

Michael Campbell