My First Ever Darkroom Print – From Failure to Success

posted in: Darkroom, Film Photography | 6

I was keen to get my feet wet (hopefully not literally) in a darkroom to validate my desire to pursue silver gelatin printing, especially before going to too much effort building the partitioned area in our garage. Fortunately during the dark evenings our garage is pitch black – after waiting 10 minutes for my eyes to adjust to the darkness I was able to punch myself in the face and not see it coming!!

Here’s how the darkroom looks so far – kind like the corner of a messy garage at the moment!

Darkroom Progress

So I finally found the courage to open the lovely sealed box of 100 sheets of Ilford Mutigrade IV RC 10×8 (Pearl) without the fear of ruining the whole box.

Ilford Paper

I decanted some into my newly acquired paper safe. I’ve read plenty about paper safes but I was never really aware of how they are useful. Using one certainly gives me the confidence that I can print away without the risk of ruining a whole box by a freak accident. I have also realised the other benefit, which is the ease of access to the paper – especially important when feeling around with just a safelight glowing over your shoulder. They seem hard to come by on the used market so I was glad when this one appeared.

Paper Safe

I think I overdo my mantra “it’s all in the preparation”, which leads me to obsessively potter around moving things, adjusting things, testing, practising, etc before actually just getting on with it. I actually had two evenings when I intended to start some printing, but instead I got prepared for the actual event. Washing the trays, mixing the chemicals, practising with the enlarger (not enough practice with the easel as it turned out!)

Finally I ran out of excuses to not take the plunge and just get on with it. The only thing fighting against me was the weather – just above zero degrees C outside and around 7 degrees C in the garage! And that’s after running a heater for an hour! The partitioned area and insulated roof can’t be built quickly enough.

I cut a sheet of 10×8 into three strips. Cutting straight is really hard at first under safe light but I think I’ll get the hang of it. I think I’ll be cutting the sheet into more thinner strips in future but I wanted to make sure I had quite a large area to start with for my first test strip. I followed the Ilford guide on “Making Your First B&W Print”, which recommended exposing the paper for 2, 2, 4 and 8s. The first 2s you expose the whole sheet and then you cover the sheet by 1/4, 1/2 and 3/4 for the subsequent exposures. This results in test patches with 16, 8, 4 and 2s exposures. But despite my “preparation” mantra I managed to pay little attention to this method and I started by exposing the whole sheet for 2s and then covering 3/4, 1/2 and 1/4 of the sheet resulting in test patches with 16, 14, 10 and 2s exposures. I developed the test strip – success, it looked pretty good!


The biggest mistake was me not realising that I hadn’t followed the procedure correctly. I read the 2nd brightest test area as 4s instead of what was actually 10s. I went ahead with the my first whole sheet print exposed for 4s. I checked the temperature of the developer and it had rapidly dropped from >20 degrees to around 13 degrees C! I couldn’t believe it – damn you cold weather. I was too tired to warm it up again so I just went ahead and developed the sheet in cold developer, I reckoned I could just leave it in there for a bit longer. The image took quite a while to appear, much longer than the test strip, but it appeared. It didn’t look right, it looked very bright. Usually under safe light a properly exposed print will look too dark if anything. I left it in for much longer than the recommended 60s but it was having no effect. It was late so I stopped for the night.

Here is a scan of the very underexposed print:
Underexposed Print

I was sure it was due to the cold developer. I looked everywhere for a good but cheap solution to keep the trays warm. The proper tool for the job – a ‘dishwarmer’ – is silly expensive and there was no way I could justify one. I found a good sized heat mat used to keep reptile enclosures warm and a plugin thermostat with remote probe that would let me control the temperature to 20 degrees by dipping it into a tray, but I wasn’t convinced I was doing the right thing in buying it.

A few days later and it was feeling a bit more mild, so I decided to give it another shot; quickly before the chemicals dropped in temperature. I hesitated right before exposing the first test strip – “should I be covering or uncovering the strip!?” I did it the same way as before and developed the strip. The change between what I thought was 2s and 4s was so dramatic, I suddenly realised I was doing something wrong.

Bad Test Strip

I read the Ilford guide again and saw that I was indeed uncovering the sheet instead of covering it. I scribbled out the exposures that my test strip actually received and saw the error of my ways – “ah ha, maybe THIS is why the first print was a failure!” I created a new test strip and made sure to gradually cover it rather than uncover it. The target exposure time looked to be around 10s at f/8.

Good Test Strip

I checked the developer temperature and it had dropped to 13 degrees so I warmed it up to around 18 degrees and developed the print – success!! It’s far from perfect but it worked. I was so pleased. I can already tell that darkroom printing is amazing and it’s only going to get better. I’m excited to learn and practise more and more as I slowly try to master it. I’m looking forward to trying some dodging and burning too!


6 Responses

  1. simon

    Great read James! The setup looks really great though albeit a tad cold but that should change soon (hopefully!).

    I know Iain and I chatted about the exposing of the test strips and I must say I’m still not certain about the difference between covering/uncovering but as long as it works for you that’s the main thing.

    Looking forward to more!


    • James

      Thanks Si! I can not WAIT for it to get warmer, the weather is just getting silly now.

      The covering/uncovering makes no difference IF you stick to the same exposure time for each segment. For example, 3s will give a strip with 12 | 9 | 6 | 3 exposures regardless of the covering or uncovering!

      BUT – study this for a minute, write it out on a back on an envelope… if you follow the Ilford guide that is NOT linear (remember that exposure is not linear) and you expose the whole sheet for 2s and then cover/uncover for 2s, 4s and finally 8s you get very different results depending if you cover or uncover.

      Uncover gives you: 16 | 14 | 10 |2
      Covering gives you: 16 | 8 | 4 | 2 (which is the correct one to do and gives you 1 stop difference at each segment).

      Mix them up, i.e. do one method and think you’ve done the other when you’re reading the results will lead to problems!! I (mistakenly) did the ‘uncover’ method and read the times for the ‘cover’ method. 4s does not equal 10s and will lead to massive underexposure!

      I hope this makes sense and you can believe me that it really does make a difference if you cover or uncover when you don’t expose for the same time for each segment.

  2. Iain Kendall

    Interestingly I have always exposed the test strips in 3 sec increments but found recently that I could do with bigger steps in the exposure times. I tried five seconds and that helped. I might try the Ilford method – being an Ilford man to the core and all.

    A great read – you’re inspiring me to post to my blog a little more.

    • James

      Thanks Iain! Blogging is hard work, but I do find it rewarding if only to give me a personal journal that I can look back on. If others enjoy it too then that’s a huge bonus! Looking forward to more posts from you too! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *