How the Darkroom Helped my Digital Photography

I’ve always wanted to try my hand at film photography, especially the darkroom side of things. The slow, hands on process really appealed to me and it’s a massive change to my usual digital workflow. So when I found out about Nightlight Darkroom in Salford (UK) I jumped at the chance to do both the Black & White and Colour Darkroom courses. Little did I know how it would improve my digital photography.

The light filled space outside the darkroom. Excellent for checking your final prints!

The darkroom is located in ArtWork Atelier building in Salford — sadly to be demolished in the next few years to make way for more bland flats — and is managed by Helen McGhie. Rough around the edges, it’s home to a plethora of small creative studios and you can feel the vibe of the place as soon as you walk in. That and the smell of coffee being roasted downstairs!

Spread over a weekend, the first course focussed on black and white and there were two others photographers on the day. The small group size was perfect as we all had space to work independently and could share ideas and feedback about each others work. From loading the exposed film in total darkness, through to washing the final print, the whole process was fascinating, exciting and eye opening. My understanding of light and it’s role in photography changed overnight as a result of this course and I could have stayed in the darkroom for days.

A ring around that’s used to determine the correct colour cast of your final print.

The second course focussed on the colour process and although very different to the black and white process with no hands on involvement in the chemical baths, it was no less enjoyable and offered it’s own insights and teachings, especially when it came to colourcasting and producing a ‘ring around’ to use when altering exposures to correct the final print.

The aspect I loved most about the colour darkroom was how the colour casting can be used creatively to produce an image that differs from reality, similar to how you would play with the temperature, white balance and colour controls in Lightroom or Photoshop.

The image below is of a spiral staircase in a car park I stumbled across on a walkabout on the first day of the black and white course. In reality it is white, but I decided to deliberately play with the colourcast to produce an image with a more astrological feel.

A photo with a deliberate blue colour cast.

I really can’t recommend these courses enough. They are affordable and the small group size means you have your own space to work and are able to work closely with Helen and feed off the others in the group. Helen is an excellent teacher and is more than happy to share her knowledge and experience to help you achieve great results in a short space of time. If you are like I was and focussed purely on digital photoraphy and haven’t used a darkroom before, then I strongly recommend you take the time to give film photography a go and produce your own prints in the darkroom. It may just change the way you shoot digitally for the better.

How my Digital Photography has Improved

Although I must admit that I haven’t been in the darkroom since I completed the colour course toward the end of 2017, I believe I have benefitted greatly from both courses and my digital photography has improved as a result.

  1. I Now Shoot Less. I was always trigger happy and would come back from a photo walk with hundreds of photos, which would then take me hours to sort through to find the usable shot. But shooting film has taught me to slow down, formulate my ideas first before leaving the house, and take extra time over the composition, to ensure that I can achieve the result I want in just a couple of shots with as much of the work as possible being done in camera.
  2. I Avoid Processing on the Same Day As Shooting. Before I took the courses I had a few rolls of film that were months old and I’d forgotten what was on them, so it was a pleasant surprise to see the results, especially when developing the negatives myself on the black and white course. The time between shooting and printing meant that when it came to the darkroom, I was purely focussed on the single print I was working on rather than still being in the mindset of shooting. I’ve now applied a delay to my digital workflow and when possible will leave at least a day or two between the shoot and the editing and processing, to allow my mind and most importatly my eyes, time to reset and refocus.
  3. I Experiment More with the Processing. Having played with the colourcasting process in the darkroom and realising the time involved to do this, made me truly appreciate the flexibility of digitally photography. Shooting in RAW gives you endless possibilities and allows your creativity to run wild, safe in the knowledge that you’ll always have the original file to return to, or a simple ctrl-z will undo any action on your software of choice. With this in mind I now regularly experiment with features of Lightroom that I rarely touched before and this has helped me formulate my own style.

Thanks for reading and please check out my website and social media for latest photos and news :)