Bill Pierce
Nuts & Bolts

Printing Wet vs.
Printing Dry

I used to be all wet, but I'm drying out.

A while back, I said that as the permanence problem receded, computers would become the preferred tool for printing color because of the ease and the controls available. But, black-and-white printing, where a long-lasting computer print is already available, would be done both in a wet darkroom and on the desktop until conventional photographic paper became so expensive it didn't make sense to work in a darkroom.

Needless to say, a lot of email arrived of both the "How dare you" and the "Please, explain" variety. The explanation is pretty obvious to those who do both and not at all obvious to those who don't. Here's are a few of the useful and/or significant differences and similarities.

Black-and-white computer printing is done in your well-lighted office. You can do a single scan or print and call it a day. Or, you can work all day while also phoning friends, paying bills and all those other things you do in an office. On the other hand, in a darkroom, you have to pour out chemicals, lock yourself in, print, wash and dry any prints you make and then clean up the mess. It doesn't make sense to set up a darkroom to make one or two prints.

On the other hand, when you have a lot of prints to make from a lot of negatives, the conventional darkroom is much faster. I don't care whether you are making high quality proofs, a selection of prints for consideration by an editor or the best possible prints for a book or exhibition; for now, the old way is the fast way. Reprints? Quantity prints? That's another thing. Once you have a top quality scan, you can stick a stack of paper in the computer's printer and go to lunch while it turns out a stack of identical prints.

What about controls, manipulation? With a computer it's easier to make changes in small areas of the print. Ease of large area dodging and burning is probably a tie. Initially, big changes in contrast and density are probably easier in the darkroom. Let me explain.

People with a background in conventional darkroom see the "contrast" and "brightness" controls on their scanner or printer programs. Those are concepts they deal with in that dark room in the basement. On the other hand, when they see the terms "levels" and "curves," that's foreign territory. The only problem is the computer brightness control isn't the same as changing print exposure in a darkroom and contrast isn't the same as changing paper grade or filter in the darkroom. More important, these controls can eliminate some of the information in your original scan. A lot of experienced computer printers avoid these controls.

Level and curve controls are probably a much better way to change the overall appearance of the computer print. They simply alter the appearance of what is between two end points, what you have chosen as the blackest black and the whitest white. It takes a little experimentation and practice to become familiar with these tools. To the extent that you allow a scanning program or a program like Photoshop to automate these controls, your computer prints will have a sameness that can produce really dull images. To the extent you learn these controls, your prints can become highly interpretive, so much so as to be melodramatic hogwash. Just like the wet darkroom, it takes both craft skill and good taste to turn out a good print.

Interestingly enough, good computer printers often borrow one technique from the darkroom printers. A lot of "wet" printers will make a range of prints from a single negative - perhaps light, medium, dark or flat, normal and contrasty. In part they do this because the wet print in the hypo tray doesn't have the same tone and contrast as the dried print. But, as they learn to evaluate the wet print, they still make a range of prints.

Sometimes they want to give themselves a little time to decide what is the best print. Sometimes they just want to have prints that will look good under different levels of illumination. A print for my bedroom has to be a lot lighter than one for my office.

In Photoshop or a similar program, you can store those variations as separate layers in a single Photoshop file, printing out the one you like the best on any given day. Unlike the wet darkroomers, on days of total indecision you can print out an image that is a mix of your individual variations.

Having said that it takes skill to turn out either a good computer print or darkroom print, let me point out that it also takes very good equipment if you want top results.

A top flight professional enlarger, like a big Durst, and a set of top of the line enlarging lenses plus sink, trays, drying and flattening facilities is going to set you back a lot of money. But you are buying industry standards. They're proven, and they are not going to change much if a new model is introduced.

My scanner, an Imacon that scans 6x18cm with 3200 dpi true optical resolution, cost me about the same as my basic darkroom gear. If I ever wanted to upgrade to the Imacon with 5760 dpi resolution, I would pay twice as much (I would also gain the ability to scan a larger negative.) I may well do that someday. But in all probability, by the time that piggy bank is full, both of those scanners may be outdated. Digital darkrooms are just like digital cameras. The best you own now will be the second best next year. Fortunately, the change may be most obvious in your wallet rather than your pictures.

One last item: I am constantly told that a scanned 35-mm negative can not produce as high a quality large computer print as a larger scanned negative. We don't use a 35-mm camera, hand-held, loaded with fast film, and the lens near wide open because we want the sharpest possible picture. We want the most exciting, interesting picture of an event that we couldn't predict and which didn't hold still when it did arrive. Just on an empiric basis, I would say that once you move away from the Tech Pan and tripod school of 35-mm work, most modern consumer scanners can deliver a computer print of comparable quality to a silver print in 11x14 or a little larger. If the viewer doesn't insist on resting their nose on the surface of the print, it can be larger still. That's a vague statement, but we are talking about esthetic impressions, not fixed, measurable criteria. And if I am totally wrong, you can take that negative into a conventional darkroom and make a print. Try that with your flash and media cards.

Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer

Write a Letter to the Editor
Join our Mailing List
© The Digital Journalist