The Dark Side

Curious friends have here an opportunity to better understand the dark side of black & white traditional photography. I will show you around my darkroom and guide you through main processes leading to a fine optical print mounted and ready for presentation. To stay updated with my work and to discover other insights about my photography I invite you as well to follow me on Instagram. The details provided below are not intended to serve as guidelines but they can let one fully appreciate creative freedom allowed by film support. Most of the chemicals used are toxic and handling requires special caution. If you are looking for guidance, the books listed below are a very good start.

The preparation of a new batch of Ansco 130.

After a photograph is taken using a film camera, image is recorded but not yet visible, it is said to be a latent image. Light reflected from a subject induces invisible defects in minuscule silver crystals embedded on a film. The real image is created when the film is immersed in a developer which essentially amplifies minuscule defects by creating metallic silver grains. Many developers are available, from commercial to more peculiar requiring some basic knowledge of chemistry; each impressing a characteristic signature on negatives. I prefer to mix my own developer from raw compounds because it gives me a chance to better understand their influence and eventually adjust the formulation to better suit my need. At the moment my favourite film developer is Pyrocat HD, a stain developer based on pyrocatechol, one of the first developing agents in use since 1880. These developers offer a very clean cut, a marvellous separation of tones and are very economical.

Negatives on a lightbox.

The metallic silver particles embedded in the developed film partially block transmitted light and, since the precipitation of silver is directly related to the initial light exposure, a zone more exposed will show higher silver density (i.e. appear darker). A negative is produced, an image which looks like the subject but with inverted values. The negative is only an intermediate product but is extremely valuable. First, it allows to physically “store” our picture securely for ages and secondly, with little effort, allows to reveal fundamental characteristic of the image such as composition, definition and focus. This is crucial as printing all negatives would be very impractical because of time and money constraint. Besides, it is a very good self-criticism exercise: out of 100 negatives I may end up trying to print only a couple.

Test strips help to understand print exposure.

An optical print is produced using an enlarger that projects the negative image on a photographic paper. Similarly to the film, light transmitted is impressed on the paper coated with silver salts and a latent, invisible image is formed. Currently, as paper developer, I use Ansco 130 mixed from raw compounds, a lovely broth rendering marvellous highlights, deep backs and warmish tints. After development the print is moved to a second tray with a solution stopping the reaction and afterwards to a third bath which removes excess of silver salts. Printing is not a straightforward operation; it is an iterative process involving several test prints, fine adjustments and personal interpretation leading to the desired balance between highlights shadows and contrasts. Once the desired result is achieved, maybe after 4 test strips and a couple of test prints, great care is taken to wash the paper from any residual chemicals which may in time compromise the print quality.

Prints developed, fixed and whased in trays.

After an extensive wash the print is first dried overnight on a glass surface and then inserted in a hot press to make them perfectly flat. Afterwards, to ensure protection of edges and avoid scratching the surface, the print is dry-mounted on a board and finished with a window mat. I mount all my prints using exclusively conservation materials to guarantee that, once framed, the image remains unaltered so that you keep enjoying it at best days after days for at least 80-100 years!

As you can see the making of an optical print is a fascinating process, mixing elements of chemistry, craft and obviously a lot of creativity!


  • Fred Picker, The zone VI Workshop: The Fine Print in Black & White Photography, Amphoto Books, 1974
  • David Vestal, The art of black and white enlarging, Harpercollins, 1984
  • Ansel Adams, Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs, Little Brown & Company, 1985
  • Brett Weston, A Personal Selection, Photography West Graphics, 1986
  • Brett Weston, Master Photographer, Photography West Graphics, 1989
  • Ansel Adams, The Camera, Little Brown & Company, 1995
  • Ansel Adams, The Negative, Little Brown & Company, 1995
  • Ansel Adams, The Print, Little Brown & Company, 1995
  • Phil Davis, Beyond the Zone System (4th Edition), Focal Press, 1999
  • R. Lambrecht and C. Woodhouse, Way Beyond Monochrom (2nd edtion), Focal Press, 2012
  • Steve Anchell, The Darkroom Cookbook (4th edition), Taylor & Francis Ltd, 2016

"Life is in colour, but black and white is more realistic."   Wim Wenders

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