How We Got Here: Analog Photoshop

There is nothing about flash in this post, except for "pre-flashing," and that is not what you think.

Every time I adjust the exposure slider in a raw converter or tweak the tonal curve into a subtle S-shape, I think back to how we used to do some pretty insane stuff—very improbably—with film, little tweaks of light and a witches-brew of chemistry.

If you are under 40, most of this is gonna be brand new. If you are older than that and used to shoot night sports for a newspaper, see how your experience matches up...

Short version: At every step of the film and chemical process we used to "cheat" to create photos that, by all rights, should not exist.

How You Were Supposed to Do it

The whole expose-develop-print process was pretty straightforward. You load film into your camera. You expose it. You develop it in a tank. You get negatives.

You load those negs into an enlarger, which was basically a vertical projector. Then you repeat the exposure-development process onto a projected piece of light-sensitive paper instead of film. This produced a negative of a negative, or, a positive.

Sounds simple enough, right? And it worked great, as long as there was enough light to expose your film. But what about when you had to shoot very high-contrast subjects, at night, with shutter speeds fast enough to stop action? And your fastest film was rated at ISO 400?

Then, you needed Photoshop. But in the early '80s it was still years away from being invented. So we invented Analog Photoshop to hold us over while we waited. And if you are wondering why we would start to experiment with lighting high school basketball, for instance, you'll totally understand after reading the process behind the available light alternative.

Even Before You Shoot, Alter Your Film

Yep, you heard right. We are going to change the film before we even take the first photo.

The film is Tri-X, rated at ISO (actually, ASA back then) 400. And we are going to "push process" it later, to increase the ISO. But doing that only really overdevelops the highlights. Which makes super-contrasty film, not a truly shifted ISO. So before we even shoot, we are going to mess with the film.

Because of the way film reacts to extended development, or push processing, the highlights (and, to a lesser extent, the mid-tones) get all of the benefit. The shadows get no love at all. They stay dark. Which is a problem when they are the most important part of your image. Say, a dark-skinned face under a football helmet in a poorly lit night game.

Say you were going to push-process your film four stops, from ISO 400 to ISO 6400(!). Yes, there will be grain and lots of it. But you can live with grain. What you really need is shadow detail, which pushing the film will largely destroy.

So, we'll pre-expose (or, pre-flash) the film to where the next photon of light that hits it will leave some information in the shadows. And because of the logarithmic relationship between film and light, this will have very little effect on the highlights which we will sadly blow out by push processing.

Pre-Exposing Film

How, exactly, does one pre-expose a roll of film?

First, you need to know exactly how much light you'll need to get the film super-sensitized to shadow detail at a given push-ISO. You do this by shooting a blank wall, out of focus at medium gray exposure (i.e., zero out the meter.)

Then you shoot a frame at minus one-third stop. Then minus another third, and another third, etc. Then push develop the film exactly as you will later and look at the tonal scale of differently exposed frames.

Being a negative, the frames will get lighter and lighter—clearer and clearer. The first image in which you cannot tell the difference between the frame and and the clear area between the frames is the exposure you want. You can't see it yet, but at that exposure your Tri-X had been presensitized so that the next tiny bit of light would create some detail.

So you run four rolls of film (you'll be shooting ~144 frames at tonight's game) through the camera, pre-exposing a blank wall at your chosen level. You'll need ensure the frames line up when you run the film through to actually shoot the game. So you remove the lens for the first frame, shoot it on bulb and stick a Sharpie right through your camera and outline the film during the bulb exposure.

Now repeat the process for each roll of film in this manner. (That'll kill a frame on each roll, of course. So now you are down to 140 shots for the night—with manual focus, natch. Pray.)

Line up your Sharpied film correctly every time you load a roll, checking with another no-lens bulb exposure. Or reload it until you get it aligned correctly. Try not to have to do this during a critical moment in the game.

Develop With Your Witches Brew

One hundred forty frames later, you are back at the paper. You are anxious, but eating pizza so there's that. You have no idea what you have gotten, because digital displays on the backs of cameras are still many years away. Let's develop our film, and do some more analog Photoshopping.

Rather than use the normal D-76 film developer, we'll use a special developer designed for pushing film. I liked Edwal FG-7, with an added film can full of sodium sulfite mixed in. FG-7 was designed for pushing film and was thus less contrasty. The sodium sulfite kicker I heard about from a guy.

Normally when you develop film you "agitate" (or, invert and swish around) the developer tank every thirty seconds or so throughout the 7-minute process. But we're not gonna do that tonight. By not agitating, our theory will be that the developer that is right next to the highlights area of the exposed frames will wear itself out somewhat. By not agitating, we sacrifice a little evenness and hopefully get non-nuclear pushed highlights.

A quick run through the stop bath (neutralizes the developer) and fixer (makes the film no long light sensitive) and a wash and dry and we are ready to make a print.

And for some more analog Photoshop.

Enlarger Photoshop

Now we can turn on a red safelight so you can see but not mess up your enlarging paper. Or better, since you are gonna be there until 3am, use a B&W portable TV with a red gel taped over it. A red-and-black John Wayne movie with pizza trumps a normal safelight.

As we said earlier, to make a print you project a negative onto a sheet of "negative" paper. Negative of a negative is a positive. Develop, fix, wash and dry. Ready to go.

But that is not a uniform process when you are doing Analog Photoshop. First, much like pre-fogging our film, we are going to pre-fog every sheet of paper before we expose it with our enlarger.

We do this before the main exposure with a very low-wattage light bulb on an arm which swings out over the paper. This bulb is on a timer. We will expose the paper for just long enough to make sure the next photon will leave some detail—but the light itself does not leave any detail other than increased sensitivity.

Since this is a negative process, at this point we are not helping the shadows but instead are taming the highlights that we have stretched the crap out of with our insane 400-to-6400 ISO shift. Same principle as the film pre-fog. Works great.

In both the film and paper pre-fogging steps, you are creating a variable, non-linear tonal response. You are creating S-curves. This process is reproduced (and visually represented as such) when you tweak a curve in Digital Photoshop.

Projecting the image is not a uniform process, either—we use more Analog Photoshop. By shading areas of the paper with your constantly moving hands in different shadow-puppet shapes, you can "dodge" areas into receiving less exposure from the enlarger.

Some people would use home made (or, if they were stupid, store-bought) "dodging wands," which were discs of opaque material taped to a thin wire. Thus the Digital Photoshop icon.

By giving additional exposure to some areas of the frame through a card with a hole cut into it, we can "burn" some areas into being darker if needed. Some people used their hands shaped together to create the holes. Thus the "burn" icon in Digital Photoshop.

Interestingly, the limitations of this physical darkroom process is also what set our ethical limits when Digital Photoshop arrived. If you could have done it with an enlarger (dodging, burning, tonal adjustments, etc.) it was ethical. If not (cloning out a Coke can on a table or a power line behind a head shot) it was not.

And if caught, you would be fired for doing so. This was not a theoretical thing. Many news photographers were publicly sacrificed to the Ethics Gods. Meanwhile, National Geographic Magazine happily moved entire pyramids on their cover photos. Sigh.

Developing the Print: More Analog Photoshop

So, back to analog. The exposed print goes into a tray of developer. Normally you agitate it, just as with the film. But for the same contrast control reasons, we will not agitate it. Or maybe just a tad.

More stop bath, fixer and then wash it. If you have areas of the film you need to bring up selectively, and you will not be "lassoing" the areas to do so. You will use a Q-tip dipped in potassium ferricyanide, AKA photographic bleach.

Do not lick this Q-tip. Because you are using the stuff some sicko put into some Tylenol capsules and killed seven people with in the fall of 1982.

This was right about when I was learning how to bleach prints at 18 years old. This is something you do not mention to your mom while the story dominates the news. This is also why medicine comes in tamper-proof "capules" now.

If you did everything right, and got some decent images onto film to begin with, the black and white picture in the sports section will look awesome tomorrow. If not, you will feel like crap until you redeem yourself on your next assignment.

And one day, it will occur to you that it might be easier to bring a few lights to a basketball game and fix the illumination problem at the source.

But that is another story. And it is still several years away, too.


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Blogger Steve Bryson said...

Analogue photoshop has a long history!

My recently deceased great aunt worked in NYC studio in the '50's. She loved telling this story, as well as one other. Clients, particularly those that had recently come into money would bring their old family photos in to be altered by airbrushing to make them more 'respectable'. One customer asked for hats to be removed from their parents photo to which my aunt said, “I couldn’t possibly. I have no idea what their hair looks like”. The customer replied, “Well when you take off their hats you’ll be able to see!”.

February 26, 2013 6:14 AM  
Blogger Shall we Focus on You? said...

Thanks for that trip down memory lane almost brought the smells and feelings back to me a long lost art for a lot of us!

February 26, 2013 6:40 AM  
Blogger Mark Kalan said...

do you remember that the famous camera repair/customizer built a Nikon F with four time bulbs in it to pre-flash the film?

February 26, 2013 6:52 AM  
Blogger Sugarloaf Images said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you! I am now immersed in happy nostalgia ... I can still smell the acrid scents of my long-gone darkroom. My Beseler 23C still occupies a prominent spot in my storage room, ready to be pressed into service at a moments notice!

February 26, 2013 6:55 AM  
Blogger Neil Gwillym said...

wow, that takes me back. Another technique we astronomers used to help against reciprocity failure was to gas-hypersensitize the film - soaking the film in a gas (hydrogen - eek!) before exposing.

We also used to bake the film in an oven.

February 26, 2013 7:03 AM  
Blogger C. Kurt Holter said...

I was a staffer on a daily newspaper from 1976 until 1987. All of this is exactly why I don't miss film photography one little bit.

When I see the excellent clean, high ISO photos some of my friends who are still staffers are getting from their D4's in some of the same abysmally lit high school stadiums as I shot with insanely pushed Tri-X, I realize once again how much things have improved.

February 26, 2013 7:19 AM  
Blogger EatingPaste said...

Potassium cyanide (White, Tylenol murders 1982) and potassium ferricyanide (Red, farmers reducer) are two different things. One will kill you, the other is a mild eye and skin irritant.

February 26, 2013 7:50 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Not what we were told, but probably a good thing,

February 26, 2013 7:59 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

I don't miss film when I take pics, but I do miss the experience of being in a cosy darkroom with the red light, smell of chemicals, shut away from the world in silence, the strange disorientation when you emerged. That was cool. The actual process of shooting and developing, I don't miss at all.

February 26, 2013 8:00 AM  
Blogger Jack Foley said...

I was lucky in that most of the football I covered in the olden days was played on Saturday mornings. When high school stadiums got their first lights, it was so dim that I just shot with on-camera flash, usually a Vivitar 283 set on "yellow". We lived with the black backgrounds and used a Sharpie to correct for "red-eye", which was "white eye" in B/W. It worked great, and I was headed home by 11p.m..

February 26, 2013 8:08 AM  
Blogger Thiago Medeiros said...

Awesome, best thing I've read in ages! I was way late to the analogue game - I learnt to print in 2005, when everybody was waist-deep into digital. I did however learnt some tricks like the ones you just listed, and I developed (heh) a deeper newfound respect for the uncanny control PS offered, and I no longer took it for granted. Even today, I can relate a lot of my Lightroom workflow to that photo alchemy we performed in the darkroom. Man, I totally want to print some BW now...

February 26, 2013 8:16 AM  
Blogger Movies And More said...

"One customer asked for hats to be removed from their parents photo to which my aunt said, “I couldn’t possibly. I have no idea what their hair looks like”. The customer replied, “Well when you take off their hats you’ll be able to see!”.

This is something you still hear today....

February 26, 2013 8:25 AM  
Blogger P Thomas Lambert said...

David, Why did you have to bring back some bad memories for me.
Did you forget about jar of hot water next to the developer tray where you would stick you finger in and then rub your heated finger that needed development on the print paper.
And how about using the contrast filters selectively on parts of the print during exposure under the enlarger to increase or decrease contrast in selected areas of the print.
Also did you forget about the important part of the temperature of the film developer during film processing.
It's been awhile, and I still can remember coming home at 4:00 AM smelling like fixer.
P Thomas Lambert

February 26, 2013 8:36 AM  
Blogger Pogue said...

I loved the smell of the stop bath, but the smell of fixer flavored my meals throughout high school. Never could seem to get that smell off my hands - apparently rubber gloves were several years in the future, too.

February 26, 2013 8:45 AM  
Blogger Craig M. said...

Yeah. Its only us Wet Plate photogs that get to use Potassium Cyanide. No tasting of the crystals allowed though. :-)

February 26, 2013 9:08 AM  
Blogger Vincent de Vries said...

Goosebumbs and great memories of great films, tips through the grapevine, awful smells, eager waits, victory, defeat and musical cd's. Craftmanship at its purest

Thanks Dave

February 26, 2013 9:27 AM  
Blogger John said...

I can't help but to think that this post was spawned by all the recent "critiques" in regards to recent contest winners, like the World Press Association winners. In any case, I see a point here that I think many miss.

I also don't miss smelly, small rooms that ruin my clothes. You remember waaaaay more than I ever learned too. ;)

February 26, 2013 9:27 AM  
Blogger JS said...

It's funny how we all remember the smells... that, and forgetting parts of the alphabet for a couple days afterwards. Loved the darkroom. Nevvvver going back to one.

February 26, 2013 9:33 AM  
Blogger Southern Skies Coffee Roasters said...

Thanks. That brought back memories of being alone in the darkroom when I was on the high school newspaper staff.

I also remember that I ruined the prom photos by loading the film with the red light on. That was the last time I made that mistake!

February 26, 2013 9:37 AM  
Blogger Lorenzo said...

You forgot the insane amount of clothing that was ruined by unsightly brown stains. Photography was a dirty business!.

February 26, 2013 9:39 AM  
Blogger MikeScottPhoto said...

I see you had some time to write on the plane.

I only dabbled in the darkroom, so although I get it I never went to the extent you describe here to push film.

Thanks for jogging the memories though.. I could almost smell the chemistry.

February 26, 2013 10:29 AM  
Blogger glenn kaupert said...

@ the Chicago Tribune I would push Tri-X and learned to use Crone-C additive from the old timers; when that wasn't available, using a couple of drops of rubbing alcohol in the film developer helped bring out some shadow detail.

February 26, 2013 10:40 AM  
Blogger Prelo said...

When I got my first full-time newspaper gig, we did B&W in a darkroom by hand with all the requisite spills and smells... Eventually we moved into a Wing-Lynch and "adjusted" the C-41 processing times to Football Mode. Rather than the 3:20 develop timer, we went for 5:00 and scanned whatever we got...
I also found an outfit called Photographer's Formulary in Montana that offered a bottle of "stuff" that smelled like a litter box which would remove fixer stains...

February 26, 2013 10:49 AM  
Blogger Jon Uhler said...

Man...not I am pissed. I thought my HS photo teacher knew everything. He never taught me the pre-flash method. Now I need a time machine so I can go back and try it. Had some great memories in the HS and Air Force darkrooms. Great fun indeed.

February 26, 2013 10:54 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

we used Diafine and TRI-X at 1600, often indoor sports were done with a metz fired at the ceiling or back wall... we used FM2's.... that 250th flash sync made the F3 guys jealous.... and a 135mm F2.8 as the fastest affordable tele we had, Plus a vivitar series 1 70-210 F3.5... this was before the age of 80-200 F2.8's....

we thought TMZ (tmax p3200) would be a saviour till we tried it and found the highlights blitzing in every developer we tested...

and yes, there was always a printing marathon..... got pretty good at burning and dodging but I usually guessed print times so I had a hard time repeating the next print to look "just like" the one before it....

February 26, 2013 11:50 AM  
Blogger Matt Haines Photography said...

As someone who shoots weddings and family portraits exclusively on film, this very uncharacteristic post made me smile! I'm one of the rare film-strobists. Thanks for this! (And btw I love the smell of fixer…smells like magic is about to happen.)

February 26, 2013 11:54 AM  
Blogger jason kass said...

5238I am already an addict to this site. Quietly I have watched and read for years. THIS makes me want to come to Dubai and squeeze your brain more. Man the things I have yet to learn from people like you. Thank you.

February 26, 2013 12:21 PM  
Blogger frankey said...

Really enjoyed reading all these comments. Loved the smell of Fixer in the morning.

February 26, 2013 12:29 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

Look at this dude retouching Dean Collin's 8x10 chromes:

His healing brush was actually a brush! And he actually made masks and layers!

And Pete Turner did a lot of amazing stuff in the color darkroom:

February 26, 2013 1:24 PM  
Blogger Clearcon said...

Awesome job as always David! There was always something magical about that image showing up in the developer tray. You really felt like you'd actually created something. You didn't mention doing exposure strips to get the time right. Maybe you were way more advanced than me. :)

February 26, 2013 1:26 PM  
Blogger said...

What great memories, thanks David. One thing we did to bring tone into the highlights in my old college newspaper darkroom was use the glowing end of a cigarette (yes we were smoking in the darkroom). One photog also notoriously made the potassium ferracyanide mix ridiculously strong so the next person to use it was cursing his name at top volume.

February 26, 2013 1:33 PM  
Blogger wraith said...

Sadly, it appears that I, too, was taught only half of the process. For my college paper we routinely pushed Tri-X 400 to 6400 ISO in hopes of getting passable shots of the basketball game at f/2.8. But I NEVER heard about this magic of "pre-flashing" until today! I feel cheated out of 4 years of highlights and shadows! (And brain cells lost to chemistry...)

To bring this back to a quasi-strobist discussion, when did remote strobes come into being? The SI photog next to me at the NCAA tourney had them by at least the mid-90s, but I don't think they were PocketWizards. I always cursed when my otherwise perfect shot was washed out by the pro's lights.

February 26, 2013 1:48 PM  
Blogger Cliff Etzel said...

This took me back to my days David working in newspaper. I had studied intently the Zone System and even when I shot in newspaper, I had my own personal exposure & Development routine that deviated from the "norm" but I was always within 3 seconds of my base print exposure. It took skill to do what you described here. It seems the true craft of photography has been lost to digital technology.

February 26, 2013 2:08 PM  
Blogger Andrew Wisler said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

February 26, 2013 2:29 PM  
Blogger Andrew Wisler said...

Man, you're making me feel old. I haven't worked in a wet darkroom since the 80's, but I still remember this stuff. The one detail that stands out in my memory is cleaning dust off of negatives just prior to printing them using a little facial oil between the thumb and forefinger ("Nose grease," as my father called it. He was an event and wire photog in the 60's and he taught me.) Thanks for sharing with the "kiddos."

February 26, 2013 2:33 PM  
Blogger J. Michael Thurman said...

Thanks for the memories!

Whenever the yearbook photogs on the sidelines complain about lighting and noisy photos, I trot out my high school stories. I had, however, forgotten about pre-flashing the film.

I still do some flm. I like the pace of the process for personal work.

Good times.


February 26, 2013 2:34 PM  
Blogger Diego said...

I've been a long-time reader (probably since 2008 or so) and I don't think I ever left a comment here. But this post reminds me of why I love this blog; I've had no Internet connection for the past 7 days and the first thing I did after checking my email and my facebook was checking And I'm glad I did.
Being well under 40, this post made me want to grab my film camera, shoot a roll or two, just so I have an excuse to get those chemicals out of the shelf.

You've got a really good thing going on here. Keep it up, David.

Greetings from Portugal.

February 26, 2013 2:36 PM  
Blogger Ami Siano said...

Wow, genius technics.
I never learned them, I just shot dark black negatives, maybe pushed to 800 ISO.
I miss the dark room, but I can't seem to find the patience these days. I still shoot film (medium format) but scan it later...
do you have some of these images to show ?
that would be awesome !

February 26, 2013 2:56 PM  
Blogger lecycliste said...

Glad I never had to do too much film work. I do remember using Acufine to push Tri-X so my 50mm f/1.5 Summarit would capture something... high school basketball games, concerts where my Leica was small enough to hide in my jacket, whatever.

I also remember fixer smelling like peanut butter. Maybe that's why I turned out so weird, from smelling it so much!

February 26, 2013 3:11 PM  
Blogger Bryan Mitchell said...

Does bring back memories for sure. I started in the late 80's. Have to say I DO NOT miss the darkroom though. I didn't pre-flash film but I loved Kodak 3200 TMAX. The stuff was awesome for nightime football pushed to 6400 and sometimes 12000. I also listened to hard rock music instead of the B&W TV. Of course I was the only one in the office so I turned it up loud! I often wonder how much developer and fixer I ingested while eating pizza as I made prints. Great stuff Dave for us old timers.

February 26, 2013 3:11 PM  
Blogger Eugene Simonalle said...

Ah, the darkroom. I spent many Friday nights in a converted school bathroom, parked in the teacher's parking lot. We had an open, multi-building campus and when we got locked in we had to drive the exterior hallways to get out! Loved that time.
BTW, did you see the Wash Post photog who was disqualified for the WHNPA award?

February 26, 2013 3:18 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

What a great trip down memory lane - thank you so much!!! I can almost smell my dirty fingertips now. :)

I actually really miss the darkroom and would love to get back into another one, fumble my way around getting a roll of film into the canister, then more anticipation just waiting to finish the developing, then the drying, then the cutting on the lightbox. Then the red light, then the final product floating around the final wash.

Photoshop is great but it just can't deliver that type of excitement. I miss it.

February 26, 2013 3:21 PM  
Blogger Girish said...

I never knew what goes into film photography and always wondered how they could do low light photography with film. Very interesting process indeed. Do you have a picture to show these results?

February 26, 2013 3:28 PM  
Blogger Michael Holtby said...

While we are tripping down memory lane, what about being entirely in the dark loading exposed film onto spools before developing. I was a pot head in those days and couldn't do these things stoned - or I'd hallucinate!

February 26, 2013 4:16 PM  
Blogger Mike Mai said...

I'm under 40, but I understand everything you said. I often tell a similar story when, "kids" these days talk about how their images are so great out of camera, that they don't "need" photoshop/lightroom whatever. Well it's all a part of the process, as everything you said above was a process when it was analog.

February 26, 2013 4:17 PM  
Blogger NYSTAN said...

I was lucky enough to pick up a once a week teaching gig at a local four year college. My students were born in the early 90's when many of us were starting to immerse ourselves into digital with baby steps. My students are like sponges. Yesterday, they learned how to make contact sheets from their first roll of hand developed film....the gasps and excitement are much as they were when I began. My students are learning how to SLOW DOWN and look around at the light and think long term about the process. It is all good and still a wonderful way to teach how to pre visualize. If I had a longer semester with them, I would probably have them 'photograph' with a piece of paper and a pencil as an exercise. The darkroom is still a magical space and the music is much easier to deal with now! I cannot recall how many cassette decks I destroyed over the years with fixer, dektol cap it all off yesterday, I took out a folded SX 70 and no one could figure out what it was...other than, 'it must be some sort of camera.' When I pulled up the top and opened it, the room was full of gasps. I personally hope darkroom photography will stay with us forever much the way lithography will never be replaced by an inkjet printer...there is a lot of space in the world for a wonderfully archaic and beautiful medium like silver gelatin.

February 26, 2013 4:57 PM  
Blogger frederick said...


Like others, I didn't learn the pre-flash technique either. But, I did have a soup that worked great at pushing Ilford 400 to 3200. The film/processing combination and a trusty Canon 300 f/2.8 fluorite made Friday nights not the worst of the week. But it took plenty of lab time.

Flash forward to today. Budget cuts have caused lumen-reducing fixture swaps on the football field and in the gym of my local high school. Consequently, because the venues have darkened to save some scrilla, it feels about the same today to be on the sidelines with a camera that shoots natively at the same ISO that took secret sauce to create 35 years ago. [Still shooting with a 1D MKIII, so there is an ISO improvement opportunity. Ed.]

The pre-flash and analog photoshop work that we did back in the day, at least for me, is replaced by tone curve adjustments in post to fill in shadow detail and 'push' the image to compensate for low light.

The more things change, seems like the more they stay the same.

I confess that from time to time, I miss the lab ambience. There was camaraderie in the lab on Friday nights -- all the time, actually -- that doesn't happen today in front of the computer today. Ha! I remember a long-time staffer at the Star in Tucson who used to chew cigars all day long. Lab work was officially done when he popped the last of the stogie into his mouth as a night cap.

February 26, 2013 5:31 PM  
Blogger E Hahn said...

Thanks for the memories. In the 60's,I worked in an industrial in-plant lab and we had to turn out 30-35 copies of each negative. No special print development, just dodging and burning. Had my hands in 7 gallon rocker tanks (for agitation),took pre-exposed paper out of box ,one sheet at a time until they where all in the soup, then took the first print in (the one on the bottom), placed it on top and did that for each print until development time was up,then each print,bottom one first, went into the stop path and on to the fixer. Had my bare hands in chemicals 5-6 hrs a day. Can't believe I haven't got some chronic disease. But Oh, I miss the smell of those chemicals!

February 26, 2013 5:32 PM  
Blogger marcus said...

I honestly love this piece. Favourite out of all the ones on this site. I remember all these steps while studying photography back in the day, besides the red gel over the television which makes me want to go back there. I always had a thing for photography but film and the darkroom made me fall in love with it. Thanks for the reminder!!!

February 26, 2013 5:46 PM  
Blogger Brian J said...

After getting through my flashbacks I found my F1 and my Bessler down in the basement. Oh what fun we had. Thanks for the memories.

February 26, 2013 5:57 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Great post! Ditto all the previous comments about nostalgia for the smells, sounds and (barely) sights in the darkroom late at night. You didn't mention my favorite part of the film developing process - the moment the film was sufficiently washed so you could take out the reel, unspool the 36 exp. roll and search the dripping negatives to see if you got the shot! Everything else was secondary to seeing that great pic reversed in a tiny frame in focus and meaty enough to print.

February 26, 2013 6:07 PM  
Blogger Will Brenner Photography said...

I used to shoot dancers in theaters with Fujicolor 800 Press from MPX and push process to 1600 ASA. Gotta love grain.

February 26, 2013 7:04 PM  
Blogger frederick said...

@Eugene Simonalle

Pretty sure that the old-school version would have had a (heavy) burn on the ref. But, it is also likely that it would have been possible to still see part of his arm.

Can't help but wonder if the digital version were burned the same way (i.e. the ref can still be detected), would the image have been disqualified?


February 26, 2013 7:43 PM  
Blogger NBPhoto said...

Although I'm also under 40 and only dabbled in film photography for a semester in highschool, I think I have a large amount of respect reserved for the 'old-school' ways and have actually bought some film cameras and kit to develop my own film at home using Caffenol-C, which has a remarkable ability to push with good clarity and definition from ASA100 film to Ei6400.

I find shooting film to be wonderful in its entire process which other kids and their iphones (i.e. instagram) will probably never appreciate. It's probably just the tech-head in me that loves hearing the whirr as it winds on another frame and the heavy, solid build (or light-weight if you count my Recesky).

However, I think the gem in my home production though is using a light bed and a 5Dmk2 to "Scan" the neg (and the ability to create a pseudo-HDR from the positive I create in Adobe Camera Raw if needed) which means I can get home, develop and scan a roll or two in under 2 hours with 20mp files at the end of it!

Film has/is coming back but only in fashion (lomo/lowfi etc..), but I don't think darkrooms will make it in the resurgence, check out the kickstarter for the iphone film scanner, great idea in theory, terrible camera with no 'archival quality' scans in the flesh.. Just another accessory for the instagram-kids.

February 26, 2013 10:14 PM  
Blogger RexGRP said...

I learned so much from former Time Magazine photographer,the great Bill Pierce, who wrote his Nuts and Bolts column in Popular Photography Magazine.
His Tour de Force was "The Zone System for 35mm Photography." It changed my life. it was brilliant.

For newspaper work I often had to process and print on the road with a darkroom set up in hotel bathrooms. The enlarger was often placed on the toilet.
The transmitting equipment was really heavy and so damn slow. These days my digital files are transmitted before the President is done with his speech or the final points of the football game are scored.
I loved the challenge of making really great Tri-X negatives, and quickly began teaching myself off-camera flash to get maximum quality in all situations.
Autofocus, 6400 ISO, PocketWizards, MacBook Pro's.
Young shooters today have no idea....ah, the old days !

February 26, 2013 10:18 PM  
Blogger Chris Diehl said...

The memories of pushing film, I had a darkroom in an uninsulated garage that required chilling the developer-went too far one day and
"shattered" the emulson a most cool pavement effect resulted.

February 27, 2013 12:25 AM  
Blogger Tom Hoover said...

Wow... fond memories brought back to life!

Remember Kodak Recording Film? It had a EI of 1000 to 4000. I shot it for the high school newspaper back in early 80's. Had to special order it from the local photo store... I also had to convince them I wasn't going to use it to spy on the neighbors. Fun times!

February 27, 2013 7:51 AM  
Blogger Ed Buice said...

I too am tripping down memory lane and am amazed that the smell of stop bath has somehow wafted into my cubicle today. It's just virtual of course but wow it sure seems real!

I was glad to see someone else remembers using nose grease to hide scratches on negatives. How about removing spots from prints with the Kodak BW paint wheel? Lick the tiny brush, dab the paint, dab the print. Repeat. Tunes and pie were included in that process too, of course.

Someone else mentioned bare hands in chemicals for hours. I still have ridiculously rough skin on my hands at times that I blame on too much stop bath.

At the end of the gigundous marine varnish covered monstrosity of a plywood sink in the college darkroom was an always-moist, bleached out and slightly crusty section of paneling where many a dripping wet print came straight from the fixer tray and was slapped onto the wall at eye height for impatient inspection.

The school must have had massive water bills from our darkroom all nighters with the rinse water running for hours on end but back in the day we never gave it a second thought. :)

How about all the hours staring through a loupe at slides on a light table? E6 or Cibachrome processing anyone??

February 27, 2013 11:56 AM  
Blogger Ty Mattheu said...

Man, when you read this, you realize how close we came to seeing the Sharpie go the way of the dinosaur. Digital may have killed film, but the super pen lived to fight another day. Thanks, Terrell Owens! :)

February 27, 2013 12:43 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Walk into Calumet Photo on 22nd Street and the smell of developing chemicals they still sell will take you back decades.

Fast forward from the 70s & 80s when I was into Tri-X and Ectachrome, to the '90s when I was selling workstations for Sun Microsystems. It took a $30,000 workstation to run Photoshop back then and the early adopters could not get their hands on them fast enough.

February 27, 2013 2:06 PM  
Blogger michael okimoto said...

"Or better, since you are gonna be there until 3am, use a B&W portable TV with a red gel taped over it. A red-and-black John Wayne movie with pizza trumps a normal safelight."

Wish I would have thought of that for all of the hours I spent in the darkroom. Thanks for reminiscing.

February 27, 2013 2:54 PM  
Blogger Sean von Tagen said...

Would love to see some scans of photos done with this method! Great post. We don't know how good we have it now.

February 27, 2013 5:11 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

Did the high school photo lab in the early 70's thinking we were cool just getting "any" prints to come out. Tri-X pan, my fav.
Was in college evening chemistry class (also 70's) on the east coast, and some dude showed up with a modified Canon with little lights mounted in front of the film plane. It did the pre-expose trick in-camera. I remember taking a good hard look at the handiwork of that mod. If I recall, those in camera bulbs flashed for a couple hundred millisecs. All he said, it was for pushing the exposure...

Ya, ya. All of you that think playing in the darkroom was the good old days... Well, the experience is certainly memorable, but I'll never ever-ever go back. Never! Photoshop/Lightroom and my D7000 are heaven compared to darkroom drudgery. Embrace the current state of the art and savor it. In 10 years (or less), we'll look back at this "junk" we used to fix images. We'll have near infinite ISO, higher res, post process-able focus and DOF, and pretty much able to simulate any lens in SW. Hang on, we're just getting started.


February 27, 2013 7:30 PM  
Blogger Good old Clive said...

Wow, this article generated a lot of interest. Used to shoot film myself, developed at a lab. I never realised how complicated it could get, respect where it's due. We're all spoiled nowadays, instant feedback, presets, actions, filters etc. And it's not about to stop, quite right too. There's a Mamiya 645 on the floor behind my desk, film's loaded and it's winking at me, honest!

February 28, 2013 3:54 AM  
Blogger Peter Lee said...

I've only been dabbling with photography for 3 years and exclusively with film. I usually scan mine but like to play in the darkroom occasionally. I found this post really inspiring. Now I'm after a B&W tv and a big red gel so I can hook up my old Pong machine! Genius.

February 28, 2013 6:28 AM  
Blogger Joel said...

Such a great post...thank you so much.

February 28, 2013 11:32 AM  
Blogger a said...

This is great, what memories. I remember double rolling film - back to back - on the same reel to speed things up - 8 rolls in a four-roll tank - or the drum roller when we went E-6 and then C-41. I didn't see anything about the black wax pencil to "tame" those highlights! Love this thanks for posting!

February 28, 2013 1:56 PM  
Blogger Dave Willis said...

I still force - sorry - teach my students to print in the darkroom with a bunch of my old BW negs...reminds me of when I shot for the Daily Telegraph in the 80's; standard job, picture of Heysham nuclear power station accused of discharging warm water into Morecambe Bay, devestating the shrimp population. Photo needed the power station and some shrimp boats in frame, only problem was thick I shot the shrimp boats in frame 1, the power station in frame 2, dev'ed the negs, double exposed a montage onto a sheet of paper and wired it over. The picture ran half page next day, looked great. Analog photoshop indeed.

February 28, 2013 5:26 PM  
Blogger Addison Geary Photography said...

A lot of photographers like myself, got their start working in commercial labs. You barely made enough to eat and pay your rent but It was a good stepping stone. You got to see how the pros shot. You got to see the entire shoot, both the good and the bad. Learning was strengthened through repetition first evaluating the negatives then making proofs and finally making the prints. If you were in any type of customer service role you met the photographers which often led to assisting work which would lead to hand-me-down assignments. Not sure how I'd get started today.

February 28, 2013 9:55 PM  
Blogger Bob Rossi said...

definitely a trip down memory. I was shooting football on Friday nights and tried to do two games a night if they were no too far across town.
Ilford HP 4 puched with HC110 at about 78 degrees was my brew of choice. Printing was done on low contrast grade 1 paper.

I also remember running along the sidelines and being able to change rolls of film. Now I fumble exchanging flash cards.
Let's not forget wholly jeans and yellow fingers.

Thanks for the memories.

March 01, 2013 12:06 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

Your post makes me miss the smell of fixer.

March 01, 2013 9:01 AM  
Blogger Fr. T. said...

Aw, David! Now you've done it! I'd finally gotten over bulk loading Tri-X and pushing it like crazy and spending hours in my darkroom. I think I'm going to go into a twelve step program.

I really want my darkroom again. Can't you smell the stop bath and fixer? There's just no romance with digital...

March 01, 2013 9:14 AM  
Blogger Cygnus said...

This should be required reading for all new/young photographers. I hear many of them state that using photoshop is just the modern day version of film.

While part of that statement is true, there is a huge difference and this explains it well.

I no longer miss developing film, but I often miss the "Art" in creating the final image. Pushing a slider just isn't the same.

March 01, 2013 12:26 PM  
Blogger Carlos P said...

Are all we strobists "old timers"? Maybe not, I´m sure many newcomers might be thinking what´s the fuzz about chemicals, film, paper and darkrooms?.
Maybe its because of all the effort an d dewe went trough to show/sell those high school pics, that brings all those memories described by our fellow strobists

March 01, 2013 6:00 PM  
Blogger Eyeborg said...

Ha - as a female, I remember being asked gently if I was in an abusive relationship, due to all the nasty bruises on my arms. Totally dark colour darkroom and me banging into the door frame a lot... ouch!

March 02, 2013 9:45 AM  
Blogger Rick DeNatale said...

I'm a couple of decades past 40 myself. I spent a lot of darkroom time in college in the early 1970s and afterwards.

I was a member of the Photopool at UConn in the early 1970s back before the basketball team made people realize that UConn wasn't in Alaska (or Canada really). We were the yearbook photographers and had a pretty luxurious darkroom space, two or three print rooms, a film developing and chemical mixing room, and a print finishing area. The college paper photographers had one combined film developing and printing room in this suite, and shared our print washer and dryer.

My memory of the smells of a darkroom are permanently anchored by the evening when a newpaper photographer was mixing stop bath while his girlfriend visited in their small room, and she managed to knock a 5 gallon glass jug of glacial acetic acid off the enlarger table onto the floor, the place smelled like a bad salad for a month!

March 02, 2013 5:02 PM  
Blogger Kushal Das said...

During the 22-23rd Feb weekend I actually went through this whole process and learned the basics for the first time in my life. is a set showing the outcome. Prints also came good in a paper which was expired in 2002 :)

March 05, 2013 5:27 AM  
Blogger Porfirio said...

Thank you for a great trip down memory lane. I remember eating pizza in the darkroom until the late hours of the night and watching TV with the red gel on it. The smells and the yellow fingers afterwards... Wow! Thank you!

March 05, 2013 11:44 AM  
Blogger lindes said...

Nice post, Hobby! Some nice memory-lane stuff, and I learned some new stuff, too! Thanks! (Hmm, now I want to see what, if anything, pre-flash could do in digital, with the cameras that support multiple exposure. Probably nothing interesting, since it's not logarithmic response, but... still might have to try.)

Anyway, well told; an enjoying read... so thanks!

March 14, 2013 12:04 PM  
Blogger Rich Garcia said...

I started shot if film at about 8-9 yo been shooting digital since about 2001 and was a PS geek for many years. Just 2 months ago I started shooting MF again and had forgotten the quality of film vs digital. To those who say digital is much better I see a trend...sports..low light. To me using studio strobes, backdrops, patient models and some great sunlight I can truly say film takes the cake when shooting models. It gives character! I have long lost my dichroic head enlarger worked great for BW filtering in one of the many moves my parents had over the years but once I find a quality film scanner rest assured I will install a water filter system and go back to processing my own film! I hate having to wait 4-5 days for my stuff to get returned.

March 16, 2013 9:10 AM  
Blogger dougbr said...

ah, this takes me back. all the way to last weekend in fact. I think in a future post you should explain how do make an unsharp mask with lith film.

March 21, 2013 1:15 PM  
Blogger American Flaneur said...

Great post, this took me back to the high school darkroom of the late 1980s.

March 22, 2013 9:43 PM  
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April 16, 2013 3:16 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Photographers Formulary in Missoula, Mt.(Still in business!) sold this great additive we used when we pushed film.

I know you want to know David, I do not miss the darkroom. I actually have been shooting Kodak CN400BW with an old Leica(M2) and it's a gas. No meter, I never set the frame counter. Every time I pick that camera up I assume I've only got one frame left. Take the film to CVS and have them put it on CD! It's all personal work, but at least I get to "play" with film. Thanks for the reminder.

April 10, 2014 5:28 PM  

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