It’s not fair of me to criticize what Tillman Crane had to say to digital photographers who are thinking about trying the chemical world without saying what I’d say. So here goes, without the space limitations that encumbered Crane. As in the previous post, my assumption is that the digital photographer is already working with a technical or a view camera (that could be an unrealistic starting place; all the people who I know who are doing that have film experience as well, but that could be because I hang out with a bunch of old folks.) Also, I’ll assume store-bought silver B&W film and paper, although I think that many would make the case that alternative processes are a big part of the chemical photography draw.
Before the exposure, you won’t find much difference when you go to film. You don’t have to load CF cards in the dark, but you’ll quickly learn how to load film holders. In the darkroom, it’s easy. In a changing bag, especially if it’s hot, it’s a pain, and dust is a problem with changing bags. Try to avoid them. Dust is no big deal in the digital world, but it’s a headache in the chemical one, especially the dust on the film before the exposure that causes hard-to-spot black dots on the prints. Carrying a lot of film holders is awkward, but you’ll learn to be parsimonious with your exposures. You can dodge most of these problems by using a 120 back and roll film, but you’ll give up negative size.
You’ll need some way to calculate exposure now that there’s no histogram. The classic approach is a spot meter and the Zone System, but you may find an incident meter easier when you’re getting started. You might also consider taking a small manual digital camera along and using it as an exposure meter.
After the exposure, you’ve got to develop the film. If you want the complete vintage experience, you’ll manually interleave the sheets in an open tray, but you’ll scratch most of your negs at first. When I was processing sheet film, I got the best results with the Jobo “Gatling gun” holders. Roll film has to be processed on reels. If you use manual agitation, be prepared for some artifacts in the skies until you get your technique dialed in. Loading Nikor reels takes considerable skill; start (and finish, if you ask me) with the Jobo ones or something similar. Be a good eco-citizen and don’t dump your used fixer down the drain (you do pay for recycling your castoff electronics, don’t you?).
Developing film is mechanical, and the best you can do is not screw it up. Printing is an art, and, as Crane says, you’ll be learning how to print for the rest of your life. In concept, it’s not that different than editing in Photoshop with a severely restricted set of tools, but there are practical issues to consider. The first is that, instead of seeing the results of an experiment immediately, it takes five minutes. Some moves have to be done with alacrity. For example, it’s easy to construct a Photoshop mask to lighten any parts of the image. Without getting into pin registration and film masks, the way to do that in the darkroom is to hold a piece of paper taped to a bicycle spoke between the enlarger and the paper. You’ll only be able to lighten the areas you can get to during the basic exposure. Darkening parts of the image has no such limitation, thankfully.
Darkroom work is done in isolation. Most of it is done standing. There’s a lot of set-up and clean-up. Spotting prints with ink takes a lot of skill. You can walk up to a computer and print out a previously edited image in a few minutes. It will take at least 45 minutes before you have a reasonable facsimile of a previously printed (with the recipe well documented in your notebook) image in the wash tray, and possibly much longer. It will be a day before that image is dry and ready to mount.
Still, the hardest thing about printing either chemically or digitally is the same: figuring out exactly what you want the result to look like. Any such skills you’ve learned in the digital world will be readily transferable. Good luck!
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