Darkroom Developing: Is it Still Worth it?

Since the introduction of quality digital cameras, the running debate has been whether or not you should ditch your old, reliable 35mm to a fancy new digital.  There are positives and negatives to both media, and it is really up to the photographer and what he or she plans on getting out of the photographic process that plays the biggest role in this decision.  Well, that and money.

The point that is often made in opposition of digital photography is that the use of photo editing software such as Adobe Photoshop is dishonest.  Indeed, you can do quite a lot to change an image using a computer; you can adjust basic levels, contrast, and colors, crop, over or underexpose certain areas, etc.  The startling truth of the matter is that you can do all of these things in a darkroom, as well.  Moreover, no film photographer would consider his or her work complete unless he or she had done these things.  Indeed, film photographers have no choice but to augment levels, contrast, etc. in the darkroom.  The only difference is that in the darkroom, every time you want to make an adjustment like this, you must use more paper, more time, and more money than if you had done these things on the computer.

Another supposed benefit of digital photography is that when you are finished editing your photograph in Photoshop, you can save it, send it, copy it, and print it, and all of these copies will be identical.  When making copies in the darkroom; however, it is difficult bordering on impossible to get two identical images, especially if you employ burning and dodging.  I tend to see this as a positive.  Instead of turning out identical pieces of art like Andy Warhol, every image you produce in the darkroom is unique, and sometimes this uniqueness comes from mistakes made in the darkroom that cannot be made in Photoshop.  This all comes back to preference.  In deciding what media of photography to use, you must first decide what it is you would like to get out of your photographs.

Next, let’s first talk about cost effectiveness.  It might seem that if you are a low-budget photographer that a 35mm would be the way to go; after all, you can get a quality used camera body and lens on Ebay for about $40, as opposed to $300 for a bottom of the line DSLR and lens, and up to $10,000 for high end professional models.  However, consider the following: film costs about $5 per roll, and photo paper runs about 50 cents per sheet.  If you’re as trigger happy as I am, this could pose a problem.

Time spent in the darkroom is never cheap.  A typical photographer runs anywhere between 5-20 sheets of photo paper in order to enlarge one print (and upwards of 50 for those perfectionists), meaning that it can cost anywhere from $2-10 just to print a single photo.  On the other hand, the purchase of just one camera and one photo editing software (and many cameras come with their own software that you can use) will yield as many images as your camera and computer can hold.

Ultimately, your decision to switch or stay depends on two things: money and preference.  The monetary decision is a relatively straightforward one; however, the preference question is not.  What is it that you plan on getting out of your photography experience?  Is it just the image, or is it the process?  You end up with a more intimate relationship with a darkroom photo, but as in many intimate relationships, you will probably end up spending more cash on it as well.