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Thread: Traditional or digital darkroom?

  1. #1

    Traditional or digital darkroom?

    I would like to get some advice/opinions. I need to be able to make my own prints as one of the two local pro labs has gone digital and the other cannot guarantee how long they will continue to print 4x5 negatives. I am semi-retired, I only work 2 days per week, and I intend to spend more time with my favorite hobby/passion. I am neither a professional nor an artist; I shoot COLOR exclusively (usually landscapes and gardens, rare portraits for friends & family) and I shoot only for my own pleasure, I don't care what anyone else thinks of my efforts. My current equipment consists of a 20 year old Toyo 45G in excellent condition with new bellows, Schneider 150/5.6 XL, Schneider 210/5.6 APO and Nikon 300/5.6 W. What I would like to know is whether I would be better served by setting up a traditional darkroom or go digital. My intent is to make the sharpest, most realistic prints possible. I have read a number of related topics (reasons for going digital (special thanks to Paul Butzi) and equipment reviews). So, here are some of my thoughts. Going digital, the pros are: it is only going to get better; the cons: cost (I would need to purchase everything: new Apple G6, top-of-the-line monitor and printer), how quickly computer equipment becomes obsolete, the current inferiority of digital vs film (noise vs grain and digital PPI vs "continuous tone" prints, and my needs prohibit the ability of aking multiple scans), having to learn Photoshop (Yikes!), and spending considerable time sitting in front of a computer screen. As for setting up a traditional darkroom, the pros are: less initial cost (I would buy used at considerable savings and my newly built house came with all the necessary plumbing already included in the basement, although the builder anticipated it would be used as a wet bar), superior (IMHO) prints, and less time required to get a print I will be satisified with. The cons: continuing availability of chemicals and color printing papers. So, keeping in mind that my budget is limited to $6K, I would like everyone brave enough to respond to gaze into their crystal balls and predict my future. Any and all comments/opinions will be greatly appreciated!

  2. #2

    Traditional or digital darkroom?

    James, I just posted a response to Paul on another thread. If you read it you will see I am firmly planted in the "traditional" camp. But I have to say that if I was doing color I would seriously consider going digital. The "obsolecense" is a non issue, buy what you need and use it as long as it produces what you want, you really dont need to upgrade printers and computers every time they come out with a new gizmo, as long as what you buy is giving you the prints you want, all you need to do is refuse the temptation of getting on the hamster wheel digital manufacturers want you to be trapped on.

  3. #3

    Traditional or digital darkroom?

    I don't know how brave I am but I'm sure willing to throw in my two cents

    I am a newbie to LF, having shot with digital for years prior to buying my Horseman LE. I knew from the get-go that I wanted a marriage of old and new technology and space requirements dictated that I forget about a traditional darkroom for anything other than processing my black & white films.

    Ok, so I work with an Apple G5 1.8 SP which I purchased refurbished. Saved me a ton of money and I would suggest you take a look at what Apple has to offer on their refurb page. Yes, people will tell you that you need the fastest processor and gazillions of RAM. Lots of RAM is a good idea but unless you're a pro chomping on huge gigabytes of information all the time then a scaled down machine will serve you well. I bought an Epson 4870 to scan my films with; Again people will tell you that you'll need a drum scanner or some equally expensive piece of equipment. BS! You can outsource drum scans for killer shots and/or shots that you want to have huge enlargements made from. An Epson 2200 will do a good job for most of your printing needs and again, should you need larger prints then you can outsource for those two. I use White House Custom Colour for those occasions and have been completely happy with their service and product. As for learning Photoshop, that can be daunting but just take it a step at a time and you'll do fine. A class would be a wise investment as you'll have the opportunity to learn AND ask questions about those PS quirks, tips, and shortcuts to success.

    So, that's my quick and dirty answer to your question and I'm sure the other helpful on this site will chime in too with their sage advice. Just remember to buy what you need to do the job and don't let yourself become swayed by fancy bells and whistles that are nice to have but unneccesary for someone doing what you want to do. And lastly, good luck

  4. #4

    Join Date
    Jan 2001

    Traditional or digital darkroom?

    I've printed color for nearly 60 years, using virtually every commercial process from Dye Transfer to Ilfochrome. I'm here to shout that DIGITAL IS BETTER right now, and is going to get even more so in the future. (Even master color printer C'tein has switched -- see If you have not already developed the necessary skills for wet color printing, NOW is NOT the time to start. Digital B&W printing is still a developing process (pun intended).
    Wilhelm (Sarasota)

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Jan 2001

    Traditional or digital darkroom?

    Ctein hasn't "switched" in the sense of abandoning all traditional media. He still does dye transfer, but he has also added inkjet (Epson 2200) prints to his offerings.

    Plenty of information, for anyone who's interested, at

  6. #6
    Beverly Hills, California
    Join Date
    Feb 2000
    Beverly Hills, CA

    Traditional or digital darkroom?

    What's the saying? There's no fool like an old fool...

    If you don't feel the call to open you own wet B&W darkroom to learn the art of silver based B&W printing onto fiber paper then it won't happen. No one here is going to be able to help you to decide.

  7. #7

    Traditional or digital darkroom?

    To say that C'tein has "switched" is a bit of an exaggeration. Although he makes his prints available on his web site as Epson 2200 prints "making my work available to those who cannot afford dye transfer prints", he's still doing dye-transfer prints. (Or if he's stopped, he's not reported it on his web site or anywhere else...the stuff on Luminous Landscape includes a lot of information on his demonstration of the dye transfer process as well as his use of digital output.)

    Having said that, I wouldn't set up a wet darkroom for color work. In fact, I do all of my color work digitally (with analog capture). I find it so easy to get acceptable results in color using a digital workflow that I won't bother doing it in my wet darkroom.

    (For the 90%+ of my work that's B&W, the best results still come from the wet darkroom...I've tried all of the latest solutions including peizography, quadtones, and HP printers, but none of them are as good as a decent fiber print from the darkroom and they're all leagues behind Azo and platinum.)

  8. #8

    Join Date
    Nov 2004
    Orange, CA

    Traditional or digital darkroom?


    For color, digital printing is clearly the best way to go and will only get better (maybe sooner than later, HP and Canon are actively chasing the wide format inkjet market and Epson is rumored to soon be announcing their 7600/9600 replacements). Cost notwithstanding, digital provides clearly superior resolution and control. I tried using R-type prints of my 4x5 transparencies for my portfolio book, but gave up as these analog prints were clearly inferior to digital, even at an 8x10 print size. For small prints a flatbed printer will work fine, for larger prints you can outsource a drum scan.

    Fortunately, the rate of computer obsolescence is slowing, so if you purchase a 64-bit system with lots of addressable memory then you should be in good shape for quite awhile. There are a variety of good photographer-oriented books and classes available re Photoshop. By transitioning to digital printing now, you'll be far better positioned to transition to digital image capture down the road if you so desire.

  9. #9
    Ted Harris's Avatar
    Join Date
    Aug 2000
    New Hampshire

    Traditional or digital darkroom?


    II started gradually making the switch to digital color three years ago and now all my color printing is digital. When you consider that your media costs (whether wet or digital) far outstrip the hardware costs if you are any more than a very casual shooter then you may find that digital is no more expensive than wet printing since a lot of the media costs can be lower.
    One of the major considerations you need to make is how large you want to print. If you are never going to print larger than 8x10 then you can do quite well with a low cost scanner and printer. As for the computer obviously the more horsepower you can afford the better but putting your money into RAM rather than raw processor speed is a wise investment. The latest version of Photoshop, CS2 which is due out the end of this month, is the first version that breaks the 2 Gigabytes of RAM barrier allowing the program to address up to 3.5 GB of RAM (or 4 depending on which Adobe tech you talk to and it is an unpublished specification). In any event if you are working with an older version of Photoshop and a computer that can only handle 2GB of RAM you will still be fine as long as you don’t mind waiting a bit for redraws and you are not working with files larger than 500MB. I say this from experience because that was the position I was in before I switched to a new G5. Also, an inexpensive investment that will save lots of time is an additional hard drive that you can keep dedicated as a ‘scratch disk’ for Photoshop.
    Keep in mind that all of this only adresses printing and you are still well advised to set up a film processing line. You can go from simple tray or manual tube processing (ala BTZS tubes) to any one of a variety of rotary processors from Jobo, Wing Lynch or Phototherm that cover a broad range of capabilities. Today, with a large hunk of the world abandoning film, even some of the most expensive processors can be found used in excellent condition at bargain basement prices.

    I saved the commercial for last ... see my article on tLF scanning in the May-June issue of View Camera Magazine and a future article on strategic planning for the total digital workflow.
    Good luck and enjoy. Don’t look on it as retirement but rather as a second career.

  10. #10

    Join Date
    Oct 2004

    Traditional or digital darkroom?

    Dear James,

    You say this is a hobby for you. Don't worry about hurting the feelings of traditional technology (remember the IKEA lamp commercial<g>) and don't worry about being called a luddite either.

    Do what you want to do and have fun doing it.

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