January 26, 2017

Behind the Print: Darkroom Magic

Nowadays, most photographic prints are born in a machine—metal whirring, gears turning, roll of paper spinning. But there is a place, a magical place, where the slow and thoughtful touch of human hands shapes a photograph into a whole new existence that appears on paper right before your eyes.

That place is the darkroom.


In the digital age, the art of the darkroom is a rare and unfamiliar one to many photographers. But the darkroom is where photography was born! The term camera obscura, which refers to pinhole imagery, literally means “dark room” in latin—and when pinhole devices were combined with light sensitive materials in the early 1800s, photography truly came to be. George Eastman spearheaded the use/manufacturing of film for photography in the late 1800s, and darkroom printing as it's used today arrived!

Learn more about how the darkroom process works here.

Si Moore of Bayly & Moore says, “If you're in love with analogue photography, then making a great darkroom print from a negative is the image-making equivalent of seeing your favorite band live after getting all of their records on vinyl.” We couldn’t agree more, which is why Richard is all about preserving this mind-blowing art form! The integrity of the prints is all part of the magic, so we always hand process, archival wash, air dry, press flat, and hand spot them to remedy dust spots.


And when we call it art, we mean art...

Meet Ruth, our master darkroom printer! “I took my first darkroom course in 1984 and was immediately hooked,” says Ruth. “So even though my BA was in English literature, I pursued jobs in photography studios and labs.” Since then, she’s spent over 25 years working at professional labs as a printer, putting her nose to the grindstone and perfecting her craft.

“I just love being under the safe lights and watching the image come up on the paper. That never gets old for me,” Ruth raves. She’s also a fan of adding flair by changing the color of black & white darkroom prints. “I love toning the prints. It's important to use toning thoughtfully, as it doesn't always improve the image.”

Ruth, spotting prints to conceal flaws caused by dust.

You don’t become a master without meeting challenges, though. “The hardest thing to do in the darkroom is to learn how to keep an image looking natural when it needs a lot of burning and dodging,” she explains. “It's so easy to over burn or dodge, and you can waste a lot of paper and time, so experience is important in that regard.”

Another often forgotten challenge of the darkroom: the exposures are done blind. Ruth can’t see the image changing as she exposes the paper to light. Imagine taking your digital image into Photoshop but not being able to see the changes you've made as you do them! To get the perfect print, Ruth tests all the variables over and over to reveal the ideal combo of exposure time, contrast filters, and burning and dodging.

Some of Ruth's darkroom notes on test prints.

In the darkroom, each piece of unexposed paper is a fresh start, and the results are a 100% unique print every time. And for Ruth, all that work is worth it. “The reward is a print with a natural grain and the subtle luminescence of the silver emulsion—there is nothing as beautiful as the silver grains on a fiber silver gelatin print.”

For photographers, that ‘extra special something’ that comes from darkroom prints is palpable. “Analogue photography, at its heart, is a human craft. There's nothing more remarkable than knowing that a pair of skilled hands has taken a physical negative you exposed somewhere on the planet and carefully worked some magic to make the very best out of it,” says Si. “When you open the box and see that handmade print staring back at you, you're looking at some light you captured come back full circle and hit you right in the feels.”

And he’s not the only one who feels it. Si explains, “We have a bunch of large format printed work in our studio, but it's the darkroom prints from Richard that stop people dead in their tracks—they're unexplainable magic."


Beyond the romance of the art, its old-school roots mean darkroom prints have proven their lasting power over time. “The photos I have of my grandparents’ wedding in 1902 look as perfect today as the day they were printed,” says Ruth. “The silver prints you make today will look just as great 100 years from now—it is a truly archival process. It gives your photos a timeless feel and an importance that your best images deserve.”

Richard has its own long history in the darkroom, too. Richard Photo Lab started in the 1970s as just one man in a tiny darkroom developing film and making prints by hand for Hollywood's photographers. Photographer Henry Diltz has seen that history unfold from the start. While Henry's renowned photos have appeared on hundred album covers and publications, it's the darkroom that he has depended on for decades to bring his images of famed music legends to life.

Darkroom prints of photos by Henry Diltz.

“I've been having my black and white prints made in Richard's darkroom for the past 40 years,” he says. The premium quality and timelessness of darkroom prints are the ideal fit for rock n' roll and fine art collectors alike, which Henry offers exclusively through the Morrison Hotel Gallery. “I think silver gelatin prints look much more like vintage photographs have over the years. They just look more… real.”

When it comes to that indescribable darkroom magic, seeing is truly believing. It's the absolute best black and white printing you can get, and nothing compares to the meticulous precision and detail you'll witness when you get your hands on one.

"When I started there was no digital photography, so the darkroom was the only way to make enlargements," Ruth remarks. "I think the time and care that is demanded in traditional film techniques really makes you slow down and pay attention to details."

So, grab your black & white film and send it to Richard's darkroom! Our black and white prints are available in sizes 5x7, 8x10,11x14,16x20,and 20x24. Final prints are created on Ilford Multigrade Fiber with a semi-gloss finish, the best availble for working with various film types. Proof sheets are printed on Ilford multigrade Resin-Coated paper in either pearl and glossy. Let's capture the magic in the darkroom!

“For me, the printing process is part of the magic of photography. It’s that magic that can be exciting, disappointing, rewarding and frustrating all in the same few moments in the darkroom.”
– John Sexton, Fine Art Photographer