Photography & Filming

From Idea to Print: The Darkroom Process

Last week, I talked about the process of visualizing and composing with large format film during my trip to Yosemite in the fall. In recent days, I’ve been working in the darkroom to print those photos, and today I finally have some results to publish and discuss!


I told you that this series would have some tips even for digital photographers, and that’s partly because the same process – visualization – applies no matter what type of camera you’re using.

The idea is that it’s important to have some understanding of how your “final product” will look, whether that’s a print, a digital image, a book, a magazine spread, or anything else. Then, make decisions in the field with the final product in mind.

For example, it’s important to maximize your post-processing flexibility by using the right camera settings, including things like focus stacking or HDR if the photo calls for it. And when you’re composing the photo, think how it will look on a bigger display size, not just the small image on your camera’s LCD.

In the film world, the biggest component of visualization (at least on the technical side of things) is your choice of exposure and development. The classic adage is to expose for the shadows, then develop for the highlights. In other words, your choice of camera settings in the field allow you to add detail to the shadows, while you can push the highlights increasingly further away from the shadows by using longer and stronger development methods.


I’ll say up front that this is my least favorite part of shooting with ultra-large film sizes like 12×20. There’s no such thing as a daylight tank to develop 12×20 film (at least, I’ve never heard of one) and my attempts with automated Jobo print processors tend to give me uneven development in the sky areas.

Instead, I develop my film in open trays of chemicals: pre-wash, developer, stop bath, and fixer. I use a gentle brush to “paint” developer over the surface of the film and ensure that the entire film gets developed. Here’s how my setup looks – very high-tech, I know:

Apartment Darkroom with Trays
My home darkroom setup

The difficulty is that all of this must be done in pitch darkness, and it takes about 20 minutes of transferring the film to each tray before it’s no longer sensitive to light. If one step goes wrong, the film can be ruined, so it isn’t something to be done thoughtlessly! It’s not a quick or comfortable process, but at least I don’t take very many 12×20 photos per trip.

Here’s how a 12×20 negative looks after it’s been washed and dried, then placed on a light table. This is the first moment since taking the photo that I can really see how the print will turn out:

12x20 Negative Example
A developed 12×20 negative from Mono Lake

Pretty cool, in my opinion! These days, my target for exposure is to retain full detail in the shadows with no clipped areas, while my target for development is to push the highlights toward a nice spot for Grade 3 contact-printing paper. (This relatively high-contrast paper is the only type of contact-printing paper that I have, and the only one that’s still easy to find these days – although tons of multigrade paper options still exist in case I miss my target.)

In the Mono Lake photo above, I hit that balance pretty well. However, a few of the photos I took during this trip have a bit too much contrast for Grade 3 paper, so I needed to print them on traditional multigrade paper instead. In the future, I’m going to make sure to write down my meter’s reading of the highlights in the field, and then tone down my development times if it’s a high-contrast scene.


This is the part of the darkroom that I love! At this point, you can use a red or amber-colored light to see what you’re doing, since B&W darkroom paper isn’t sensitive to those wavelengths of light.

Darkroom printing generally starts with using some test strips of paper to judge the right exposure, like this one:

Test strip of paper darkroom amber light red
A test strip to use to judge a print’s exposure in the darkroom

It ultimately looks like this and allows me to see if my exposure time in the darkroom is right (as well as which filters I need to use, if I’m working with multigrade paper):

Test strip of paper darkroom printing
The exposed test strip in fixer, after it’s no longer sensitive to light

Upon finding the right exposure time, it’s time to make the print itself! One of my two favorite darkroom papers is Adox Lupex contact-printing paper. Unlike most darkroom paper, Lupex has a more or less fixed amount of contrast. It’s also very unsensitive to light. In this case, I needed about a two minute exposure with a bright lamp pointed right at the paper!

Contact Printing Paper with Negative in Darkroom
Exposing a sheet of contact-printing paper

The final step is to put the paper through a series of chemical baths again – developer, stop bath, and fixer. I use the same stop bath and fixer that I did for my film development, although I do use a dedicated paper developer instead of my HC-110 film developer.

Once the paper has been sitting in the fixer for a minute or so, it’s no longer sensitive to light, and it looks like this:

Print in Fixer Darkroom
A print in the fixer tray in my darkroom

It’s a lot of work for one print, especially if it doesn’t look exactly right! If that’s the case, you have no choice but to keep making prints until you’re satisfied. Here, I thought that the sky was a bit too dark – a symptom of using too strong of a graduated ND filter in the field. I ultimately dodged the sky a bit for my next attempt, which I did by waving a sheet of cardboard over that portion of the photo during the exposure. Again, I run a very high-tech operation here.

After a few tries, I was happy with the final print. After an archival wash, the paper curled substantially while drying, which is normal for high-quality fiber paper like Adox Lupex. The final step of the process was to flatten the paper with a dry-mount press that I keep in my garage. I don’t have a scanner that fits such a big print, so I put it behind glass and did my best to photograph it for this article.

Here’s that result, uncropped to show the film holder lines. (I also made variations with a white border and a completely black border.) The size of the print – like the size of the film – is 12 x 20 inches / 30 x 50 cm:

Mono Lake 12x20 Print

The level of detail is quite high, proving that even f/180 (as I discussed last week) has a place when dealing with such a large film size:

Print Close Up Sharpness Darkroom
A close-up of the above print

It’s hard to convey online – and it’s also a bit of a cliché – but the print has a nice three-dimensional quality to it. I don’t know exactly why that is, but I think that the contrast, shadow detail, grain/organic imperfections, and paper texture all contribute to this feeling. Here’s my best attempt to show it in a photo, with some help from a shallow depth of field:

Three Dimensionality 12x20 Film Contact Print
There’s a good three-dimensional feel to the print, as if I can see behind the rocks.

And that’s the process! Still, the result isn’t perfect to me – the print has some dust, scratches, and unevenness due to issues with the negative and my development technique. I’ve improved over the past year, but there’s always room to do better.

Here are a few other highlights from my trip, which I also shot on large and ultra-large format film. The first one is an 8×10″ print from a sunny morning in Yosemite Valley, taken with a 600mm lens! (Although that’s only an 85mm full-frame equivalent 🙂

Yosemite Valley Tree 8x10 Darkroom Print

Next is a spot – also in Yosemite Valley – where I had noticed sunbeams on a morning walk, but I didn’t have my film camera. I returned the next day, set up the 12×20 monster, and waited for the sunbeams to return. They eventually did, right in the spot I had marked. It shows the importance of scouting!

Sun rays in Yosemite Valley 12x20 Print Darkroom

Finally, I was waiting in a prolonged rainstorm for good light on El Capitan. It was a beautiful but miserable wait of several hours in the storm. The clouds eventually parted just enough, and some magnificent light fell on the monolith. (I also took two color photos here that I have yet to develop, but I have high hopes for them.)

El Capitan Under a Storm

I’m looking forward to learning and experimenting more with large format and darkroom work this year. It’s a slow process that requires the photographer to spend time mastering each step, from visualization to printing. But I can tell that it’s improving my photography, including with digital, so it’s worth it.

I hope you enjoyed this short interlude of articles. Next week, I’ll post the reviews of some Nikon gear that you’ve been waiting for. Let me know if you have any questions about the analog process, and I’d be happy to answer!

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