Advice for New B&W Film Darkroom Printers

November 15, 2015  •  5 Comments

I thought I would share some practical advice that I recently gave to a friend in regards to getting started with black and white film photography in the darkroom. 

I have helped my friend get his Jobo system setup and able to develop black and white negative films, C-41 color negatives, and E-6 positive films.  His true passion is black and white photography, and this is what I will be discussing today.  

I have helped him establish the proper EI (exposure index) for the films that he wanted to try out and then choose a developer for these films.  If you want to learn the process for testing your B&W film, I have an entire video workshop dedicated to this topic.  
Next, we had to establish development times for his films and then proper proof printing times for his contact sheets.  

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If you are new to darkroom printing, then it may not be obvious, but it is a lot of work to test and ultimately establish consistent and repeatable processes that you can trust creatively.

This is one of the key reasons why photographers used one or two films and developers.  There is nothing that can replace the experience of consistently using a film and developer combination.  

My friend has been going out and exploring his local landscape and exposing many rolls of 120 medium format film. He is in the beginning stages of what I talk about quite often (simplifying and minimizing variables).  

He is quickly realizing his love of trying many films is becoming a burden and creates too many variables to master at this time.  

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He recently sent me photos of his proper proof contact sheets and I asked what his proofs are telling him? While, it is more difficult to make adjustments (exposure, development) with roll films, there will be a theme and trends that emerge in your work over time.  

These trends and themes are something that you earn over time and no one else in the world can do this for you.  Do you want to give yourself the best possible chance at creating negatives that you can print in the darkroom that meet your creative vision? Then use one film and one developer until you really get to know it first hand...Why else would you invest so much time, energy and money?  

My advice to new black and white films photographers that want to create high-quality darkroom prints is simple:

  • Minimize the variables in your workflow 
  • Explore a few films and then pick one to use for at least one year
  • Pick one developer and stick with it for your selected film
  • Be very consistent in your development processes
  • Establish your working EI (Exposure Index) of your film and trust this information in the field
  • Establish the proper proof time for your film, developer, and paper 
  • For the more advanced, I highly recommend establishing your development times via proper testing
  • Use the proper proof process as the ultimate feedback system and teacher

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Jim Richards(non-registered)
While I defer to your greater experience and agree that your entire post IS eminent good sense.....I will say that my experience in "playing" with films and developers over around 14 months has been for me to organically and incrementally determine that for each film I use, I prefer a different developer. HP5+ & Tri-X (both @ EI250) I like with HC-110 (Dil. B), FP4+(EI64 dev @ 80) & PanF (EI25) I prefer ID11 1+3. I've gone through DDX, and Diafine, Accufine, D76, and FX-1 in this time....and without doing anything more than shooting my standard material along with a few rolls of evenly lit grey-card compared by eye (against the grey card, etc) I ended up at a place where I have defined "looks" baked in to my film choice (and I've not mentioned development controls).

I wonder, sincerely, have I just "gotten lucky"? My second or third choice in each variable came out to be pleasing to me visually and that happens to match well with the very small and non-technical series of tests I ran on each film/dev.
Rolf Schmolling(non-registered)
right on spot! Personally I am more tempted to explore different Paper/Developer combinations and this seems to have turned much more pricey than say the 90ies.
Enjoy your blog and youtube channel. Keep up the excellent work.
Tim Layton Fine Art
Hi Eric, thanks for sharing and commenting! I appreciate it. Stay in touch.

Consistency is so important, as you point out. People get too hung up on different developers and films. I admit that I like to try new films, but I have a specific film and developer for my serious work, and I don't deviate because I've tested it and I know how to get it to do just what I want.

Great article!
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