Bill Pierce's
Nuts & Bolts 
"Darkroom on a Desktop"

A friend of mine, the London-based photographer Peter Jordan, was bemoaning the loss of a darkroom. It's not a necessity for Peter, who, like many of us, makes most of his money shooting color slides that rarely exist in print form except on the pages of publications. Nonetheless, it's nice to be able to make a good print, a print with which you decide on the contrast, the tone, the density, even if it's just to tape on your wall or send to a friend. Spending a little time with your own images is quite beneficial for many of us who tend to drift into shoot and ship mode. But, bedrooms for the kids and a home office had taken priority over a darkroom. Even if there were space, would there be free time to step into the darkroom? 

Then Peter showed me a small color portfolio that he was using as a sales tool. He and five other photographers at his agency, Network, had shared the price of a scanner and a printer, and were, for the most part, using it to turn out promotional pieces. Without realizing it, they had begun to create a darkroom on a desktop. The first step is buying the equipment. The second, as it is in all darkrooms, is learning to use it well. 

Digital technology offers a darkroom on a desktop for photographers who don't want to deal with the time or space that a conventional darkroom requires; and it has other, less obvious advantages. 

Color prints from negatives or transparencies in a conventional darkroom are a pain in the butt. They take time and care to produce, and are limited in the controls that can be easily exercised. More and more commercial color labs are turning to digital printing because it can rival the quality of a conventional commercial print without much of the hassle. An increasing number of photographers are turning to it because it is cost effective, done at their convenience, and done to their taste. Certain corrections can be made that you can not make easily in a conventional darkroom. Print costs are, essentially, the cost of a sheet of paper (not only can you print on a paper that mimics photo paper, you can print on any attractive paper you choose.) 

Black-and-white digital prints done with the limited equipment affordable to a working stiff are not as good as the exhibition quality prints possible in a conventional darkroom. Nevertheless, they are amazingly good and getting better all the time. And they are useful. They make great proofs (which you can also send as enclosures on most email programs). Portraits can be easily retouched (saving many close personal relationships). An architect, who had done work on my home, saw some black-and-white scans that I had printed on a good rag stock. He was so impressed with their appearance, he asked me to make some photographs for him and print them that way for inclusion is his portfolio. There is also something quite pleasant about sitting in a well-lit office, watching television and calling friends while you make prints. 

So, what's the catch?  PRINT SIZE!!! 

A 35mm negative is a little miracle. That tiny piece of film is so packed with information that it hardly cares how big a print you make from it. 

The scan that you make from that negative to produce a digital print isn't that cavalier. The bigger the print size, all other things being equal, the bigger the computer file it takes to maintain sharpness and give the impression of continuous tone. Big prints require big files, big memory, big disc storage, big printers, and big bucks. Additionally, big negatives require big scanners with big price tags. 

But, if you are willing to stick to 35mm film, and prints under 8x10, you can produce good prints without breaking the bank. You can get a 1440 x 720 dpi color printer designed with photo printing in mind for under $300. (for under $500 you can get larger printers that could produce an 10x15 inch image from a full frame 35mm, but larger printers may strain the file size limits of 35mm scanners. It all depends on paper, viewing distance, actual print size, and your taste. Portraits will probably be acceptable, spy satellite images may be lacking.) 

So far, we can print digital files, and we aren't broke. But, what about converting our conventional negatives and slides into digital files? 

(1) So many applications come on CD that most computers now incorporate a CD drive, or can accept one as an accessory. This allows you to print out digital images with something as simple and as easily available as the Kodak CD. 

You can have a service shop or color lab transfer approximately 100 35mm b&w negatives, color negatives and color transparencies to CD. The price will be about $25 for the disc and $2 for each transfer. (Approximately 25 images from originals up to 4x5 inches can be transferred to a Pro CD at a higher cost.) The low initial cost is exceptionally appealing, but, remember that the majority of CD producers depend on automation and volume to make a reasonable profit. Just as you would probably do a better job of conventional printing than a volume photofinisher, you will probably do a better job scanning your own film. 

CDs, to me, are great archiving and filing tools. There is an image on the computer screen, not a file number. The CD has great staying power as well. It can be stored somewhere safe away from your computer, and doesn't use up your disc space, built-in or removable. Also, the CD provides a good way to learn about digital imaging. 

(2) I prefer to do my own scanning, just as I prefer to do my own conventional printing. I like being able to do it on my schedule, in my home, to my taste. Unfortunately, this arrogant, self-centered attitude, shared by so many photographers, has a relatively high initial cost. An adequate scanner is probably going to cost you just under $2000 dollars. There are cheaper ones. But, it's more likely you're going to hunger after the more expensive ones. Think of your scanner as 8 to 9 CDs, or the price of an acceptable enlarger (or half the price of a really good enlarger). 

We'll talk about this darkroom on a desktop more in the future.  I've just about used up my kilobyte allotment for the month. 

Two points before we leave: 
1) The software you need will come with the hardware, along with instructions on how to use it. Because the computer shows you your results almost immediately, you become your best teacher. The learning curve has a sharp rise. You should be turning out good prints in a few hours. In a month, you will be turning out very good prints. 
(2) With your desktop darkroom you can print photographs right between the lines of type in your letters. No more having to write lengthy correspondence. Just "Dear So and So, How are you?" THEN A BIG PHOTOGRAPH, and then, "I am well. All the best, Me." 

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