View Full Version : Traditional or digital darkroom?

James Nasuta
23-Apr-2005, 12:16
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!

Jorge Gasteazoro
23-Apr-2005, 12:55
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.

Ellen Stoune Duralia
23-Apr-2005, 12:59
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 :)

23-Apr-2005, 13:51
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 www.luminous-landscape.com.) 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).

Oren Grad
23-Apr-2005, 14:31
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

ctein.com (http://ctein.com)

Andre Noble
23-Apr-2005, 14:33
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.

Dave Moeller
23-Apr-2005, 14:39
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.)

Eric Leppanen
23-Apr-2005, 14:46

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.

Ted Harris
23-Apr-2005, 15:40

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.

Neal Wydra
23-Apr-2005, 16:02
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.

ronald moravec
23-Apr-2005, 16:57
Low volumn color printing is expensive. The chemicals have a limited life span and the paper needs refrigeration. I love it anyway and my wedding lab will not do 4x5.

I am slightly into digital as I have 35mm film scanner, flatbed Epson scanner , and a cheap printer.
the Epson was purchased for scanning 4x5 color neg and it has a back light in the lid. Works absolutely great. Photoshop Elements 2 came with both scanners.

The idea was to be able to make proofs between set ups of the color darkroom and also make prints that are difficult in a traditional darkroom such as texture effects, detailed burn and dodging, various other things. I have been sucessful, but the learning curve is long compared to wet. If you can`t get it to work, there is a lot of money spent for nothing.

Wet printing is much easier to learn, but you can do many manipulations more easily with digital.

Another possibility is to scan the neg, do manipulations, and send the file to a laser printing lab via the internet. They don`t care what size the original neg was.

I would recommend Photoshop Elements 2 or 3 as it will perform all manipulations except some very specialised ones, certainly more than you can do in a darkroom.

Last caution, Epson ink cartriges have a limited 6 mo life too. I `m refering to the pigmented colors.

Shilesh Jani
23-Apr-2005, 17:06
Obsolescence - what a dreaded word. Truth is it works ONLY against people who are driven by gadgets, not by results. I work with MF (Fuji 6x9) scanned with a proper film scanner and LF (4x5) scanned with an Epson 4870. On the average, I get equally good results with either combo. My PC is 3 years old (1.8 GHz + 1G RAM), my monitor is 5 years old. I print most of my b/w on a 3 year old Epson 1280 (with custom quad inks), and recently got an Epson 4000 to print both color and b/w (b/w using a $50 shareware program QTR). I have never felt hampered by my old PC gear, yet I am sure the newer ones would be faster, etc. My gear gives me very good 16x20 and 16x24 color and b/w prints.

Good luck.

Roger Scott
23-Apr-2005, 20:05
Seems like a lot of people are pushing the digital route so although I'm in the minority and going against the trend I'll mention that I prefer the wet darkroom for colour. I tried the digital process with the local pro lab and couldn't get the results I was after. This was however with scans/prints from transparencies and not negatives as you're using. I was finding the Ilfochrome prints I did myself from 645 negatives were much better than those obtained from a 4x5 transparency using the digital process. I gave the lab a couple of chances to fix it and even tried another lab without success so I recently acquired a thirty year old 4x5 enlarger and will be able to do my own colour prints from 4x5 transparencies once a lensboard shows up. The question of Ilfochrome availability is probably more applicable than the RA4 process as the latter is still being used quite extensively. Perhaps the only question with regards to the RA4 process future will be the acquisition of small quantities of chemicals or cut sheets.

For comparison the consumables required for digital inkjet printing will be readily available however you will be forced to upgrade computing equipment. Unfortunately disk drives, memory and electronics in general fail and can not usually be replaced with identical items although the cost of replacement is becoming cheaper. Hardware replacement often requires software upgrades as well - which sometimes requires hardware upgrades... Most computers have a useful lifetime of about five years although I have one Sparcstation at work which is ten years old. It lives to serve licenses for a $30k software package and has had one motherboard and four disks replaced. Power supplies for enlargers suffer the same fate however in the worst case I can build one myself and providing you don't have an all electronics auto everything enlarger the only other thing which can really go wrong is a blown globe.

Having said all that ultimately it all boils down to personal preference. You'll justify cost whichever your decision. Choose whichever one will make you the happiest and give you the result you're after.


Scott Fleming
23-Apr-2005, 20:33

Given your stated parameters ... you're free man! Do only what gives you the most pleasure. I have a digital camera ... it just isn't as fun to shoot. It's like .... not even photography to me. It's something else. I tried medium format. Not enough image real estate. I'm a color man too ... cause I like color. Don't have the room for a darkroom so I farm all that out. I like the output of the digital printers ... Chromira and Lightjet. I like that I have a digital scan and little by little I'm learning photoshop. It's fun ... as long as you don't HAVE to do it.

What I'm trying to get to is ... try it and see if you like it. I'm sure you have a computer. Take a photoshop class. Hire a tutor. Teach yourself ... although it's a tough row to hoe. You can do wonders in the digital darkroom ... but the learning curve is long and steep.

As to the darkroom ... take a class where you can use someone else's darkroom for a while and see if it floats your boat. You may find it more fun than photographing.

One day you may find that you want to sell your work. You say you are not an artist but you could be one and not know it. Once you have a body of work it may just hit you one day that you need to put it on other people's walls. Or others may convince you that your stuff is worth getting out there. At that point all kinds of other considerations come in to play regarding printing. But you probably know that and do not want to let commercial considerations clutter up your life.

neil poulsen
24-Apr-2005, 03:04
I find that some images are best printed digitally and others are best printed traditionally. If you can't do both at home, I suppose go digital. It's a lot of trouble setting up a traditional color darkroom in the home. As for expense for a traditional color lab equipment at home, it's decreasing. (At least for equipment.) I saw a used CPP2 Jobo with a lift today on sale for about $500. Enlargers have also decreased in price. But, then there's the plumbing issue. (Etc.)

For myself, I have a digital color darkroom and a traditional black and white darkroom. For traditional color, we have an excellent u-develop sort of place that's inexpensive and consistent.

Bruce Watson
24-Apr-2005, 08:28
I've tried home processing of color. I found it frustrating and difficult to get to a decent color balance and to maintain it print-to-print. This seemed to be due to chemistry aging (hour-to-hour). When the prints worked, however, the results were very good.

Inkjet printing I find to be easier for me. Then again, I'm an engineer and computer geek, so I feel right at home with computers and printers.

One of the key differences to me is that color wet darkroom printing suffers from reciprocity problems. I've had prints that needed just a little burning in and dodging that resulted in color shifts in these areas. I remember one Cibachrome print (a few years back ;-) that had some ferns in sunlight that I had to burn in a bit - they went from green to cyan. This was, for me, very difficult to deal with. And, it's a problem that is undefined with inkjet printing - just doesn't exist.

Digital printing gives you is the ability to change variables independently. You can change the color balance of the shadows independently of the midtones and highlights. You can change contrast of the colors independently. You can easily build masks and work on parts of the image independently from other parts.

Digital printing also gives you color repeatability. With a good ICC profile for a given printer/paper/ink combination, a given image will print the same every time, day after day. This is very difficult if it's possible at all, to achieve in a home darkroom.

All that aside, you can get excellent results either way. Either way is just a set of tools for you to use to create prints. You'll get better prints using tools with which you are comfortable, I think. And you are the only one who can decide with which set of tools you are most comfortable.

James Nasuta
24-Apr-2005, 12:22
I want to thank everyone for the amazing responses you have given! I began photography in the late 1960s in high school where we did our own processing and I loved watching the image slowly appear on the paper! I just don't think I would get the same "goosebumps" watching an image emerge from a printer. Although I am leaning toward a traditional darkroom because I doubt that I would consider digital to be as much fun, considering the very reasoned responses provided, I will take another look into digital. Since I work for the University of Cincinnati I will pay a visit to the graphics department to see what they are doing and what equipment they have on hand that I may be permitted to play with. Thank you all again for your willingness to help.

James Nasuta

24-Apr-2005, 12:59
Interesting thought you just gave me, James. It's been more than 50 years, yet I still get a thrill when that B&W print comes up in the developer. It's not the same in color, though. Not only does the entire process take place in the dark and the print comes out of the processor intact, but I gotta wait for hours or maybe the next day before the colors are finalized. No doubt about it -- traditional B&W is just more fun. A lot more.

domenico Foschi
24-Apr-2005, 14:49
The only reason why I still prefer traditional, although I also use digital for commercial purposes, is the sheer process.
When I work on a print using traditional means, I feel the work has more value, the results are truly because of my darkroom skills.
Traditional is a combination of technical knowledge and expensive trials and errors, where in digital, errors are inexpensive( just click the 'step backword' button in the edit menu in your PS.
It is my belief that the forgiving nature of digital would make me a lazier photographer , hence a less skilled one.
In an odd way, digital has confirmed in the right place traditional photography ,which has finally earned the value of a fine craft (when done well).
Digital for me, even though it can reach results that in many instances are superior in details fine tuning , is artificial, there is no contact between the craftsman and physical paper until it comes out of the printer .
Just my opinion.

John Flavell
24-Apr-2005, 15:13
I swore I'd never weigh in on this.............

I'm still in that camp that believes digital DOES NOT replace analog, except in those instances where the photographer has had to pick one over the other--either for economic or "publisher said so" reasons.

I do both. For the landscape photos, nothing would beat the 4x5, scanned then printed on a digital printer. I shoot all black and white large format and nothing I do digitally can give me that Tri-X look I've learned to pre-visualize and work toward. Those little plug ins you can buy to make your digital images look like Tri-X or Kodachrome are a joke and teach you nothing about image selection and image management.

For my job I'm all digital and that's the way it has to be. I can slip a few film images in, but I still have to get them into the digital world.

Also, nothing except my printer is "state of the art", although if it were my workflow would be faster. Soon, I'll have an Epson 4990 for scanning the large format and print those images on a 2200 printer. I'll use a lab if I need something larger.

For large format, I've found that shooting the negs analog and scanning them in is best. It's a hybrid kinda world.

Don Wallace
26-Apr-2005, 08:15
I shoot b&w and colour in MF, 4x5, and 5x7. I shoot b&w in 8x10. For colour, I now use an Epson scanner and printer to "proof" at home. I can only print up to 8x10, but that is good enough to give me an idea of what I am getting, what I need to do. For serious larger colour prints, I go to a specialty shop and they do gigundo scans and incredible prints. For me to get that quality in my home system would cost a pile of money and it would all be outdated in a few years. My home setup, without computer cost, was under $1500 and produces high quality colour 8x10 prints. I do very little in Photoshop and use only Photoshop elements. As usual, if you didn't get it right in the neg or pos, neither Photoshop nor anything else will perform miracles for you. I use it mainly to reproduce what was already there and I consciously try to spend as LITTLE time in front of the computer as possible.

I also scan b&w negs sometimes to get an idea of what I will need to do in the darkroom in terms of dodging, burning, etc. VERY handy.

I use traditional darkroom methods for black and white and will continue to do so. I have no interest at all in doing digital prints for b&w. BTW, darkroom equipment is very inexpensive these days as people are unloading equipment to move to digital.

Digital technology is great but it can be a real ratrace to keep up and unless you actually make decent money from photography (or just have a lot of dough lying around), it is continually expensive. You will ALWAYS be buying new equipment, on a regular basis, as your older equipment becomes outdated or needs repair. Having said that, if I were a commercial pro, I would go completely digital.

However, I am not and I will never shoot digital for a reason that is not often mentioned. I work in high tech. File management, including security and longevity, is a world all of its own. If I shot digital, I would forever be committed to newer technology and a considerable amount of time in file organization and maintenance. Film keeps itself without a lot of intervention. I put it film in sleeves in proper containers and forget about it. If my computer crashed tomorrow and I could not recover any of my scans, my images would be just fine, sitting in their relatively inexpensive, low tech and low maintenance boxes. I will not be updating the boxes when technology changes.