Nothing new under the sun? The darkroom techniques we apply digitally

When you tell people that image processing and manipulation isn't anything new, but is just about as old as the art of photography itself, you can get some funny looks. Many of the processes that we carry out without a second thought were equally normal for analogue developers. Depending on how proficient you are with Photoshop, compositing might be faster today, but it's not new. Think of Man Ray and his image Le Violon d'Ingres. And beautifying subjects with the help of a brush was a far from alien practice for Cecil Beaton. Yes, really.

The difference is that now the ubiquity of editing suites means that techniques that were once the preserve of skilled darkroom practitioners are accessible to anyone with a computer. The degree of skill required to complete subtle, effective, and credible edits is still high, but the mystery has gone. Or rather, the mystery has assumed a new narrative as the dark arts of the darkroom remain under wraps.

To try to set some of that record straight, here's an extensive, but not necessarily exhaustive, list of the techniques that bridge the analogue and digital divide.


Have you noticed how the crop icon is a variation on a theme, in almost every editing package you encounter? That's because it's based on the tool that would be used to crop and resize images in the darkroom.

[gallery ids="6782,6783,6784"]


The brush icon is another familiar one, whether you're in Photoshop or Pixelmator or Aperture or GIMP. Brushes were used extensively in the darkroom, to define edges or enhance details, to hand colour, to spot correct, to complete just about any task for which you might now use a digital brush.


Dodging and burning

Haje has already written an article that explains why the dodge icon resembles a lollipop and the burn one a fist. Of course, they're techniques that were used in the darkroom to lighten or darken specific areas of an image as required. The dodging 'lollipop'—or piece of black paper on a stick—could protect the photographic paper from too much light during the development process, thereby keeping the areas in question lighter in the final image. The fist would be your hand, controlling how much light got through to darken areas of your photos.


Using red to distinguish masked from unmasked elements in an image wasn't an arbitrary choice by software engineers. That too is a hangover from darkroom days. Mask an area that you don't want developed with red, gel-like rubylith and the light won't be able to penetrate it in the darkroom, so it won't be exposed. If you've ever found yourself irritated when masking a complicated outline in Photoshop, imagine what it would be like doing it with a scalpel!

Photoshop's Quick Mask overlay isn't red arbitrarily


Yes, there's a reason why the sharpening tool in Photoshop is called the Unsharp Mask. Again, Haje has a comprehensive explanation here, but the short answer is that images were sharpened using a not-quite-sharp positive of the image to make a mask (an unsharp mask) combined with the negative. The blurriness of the positive image should work with the negative to create a sharper final image.


Maybe you use the split-toning feature in Lightroom to create cross-processed effects, or to give a golden-hour glow to your photos, or perhaps to correct the white balance in your images. But it was originally a darkroom technique that allowed different tones to be present in the highlights and shadows of an image. Split-toning was something of a dark art, relying on the interplay of different papers and different chemical toners deployed after the standard developing and fixing process to produce different colours in the final image. Getting the balance right with your sliders might be a frustrasting experience now, but I'm sure it beats fiddling with gold-, selenium-, and sodium-based chemicals!

Split-toning isn't a new-fangled Lightroom thing


It might be simple to adjust the contrast in your photos on a slider in a digital darkroom, but you had at least three ways of doing so in an analogue darkroom: with graded papers, with variable contrast paper, or with filters.


Unless you're shooting with a Leica Monochrom, you can choose between colour or black and white for any given photo now, switching back and forth between them as many times as you like in a non-destructive editing package. But in the early days of film it was black and white, maybe sepia, or perhaps the vagueries of split-toning, unless you opted to hand-colour your images. Love or hate selective colouring, for some people that was all that they could afford when hand colouring was a time-consuming art form. It isn't just a Photoshop abomination.


Finally, the much-maligned airbrush. It's not just a new-fangled phenomenon that magically reduces the size of an already-stick-thin model's thighs. The airbrush has been removing undesirables from images since at least Stalin's time and Cecil Beaton was famous for slimming his subjects.

I think you'll find, then, that there is very little that's new between the red light of the darkroom and the digital glow of Photoshop.

Getting back to basics at the Silverhill Darkroom

The Silverhill Darkroom is a community darkroom based in Hastings, East Sussex, that is looking to provide affordable facilities to anyone living its environs. As well as providing members and non-members with the chance to develop their own prints, they'd also like to offer lessons in darkroom techniques, whether to school children or adults. The darkroom is looking to raise £1,000 to put towards renovating its facilities, providing some of the materials that it requires to get its workshop sessions up-and-running, and to establish a portable darkroom that can be used in schools and other off-site learning environments.

silverhill-darkroom-redlight copy

Although the project isn't a charity, it isn't exactly profit-oriented, either. Its goal is sustainability. Mostly, it's about creating an inclusive, affordable, and educational environment, ideally with the support of a part-time staffer.

While they're primarily asking for cash to help make their plans a reality, if you have any serviceable darkroom equipment in need of a good home, do get in touch with them as they might find it useful.

You can read more about the darkroom, what it offers, and about becoming a member on its website; if you're able to contribute something towards its funding goal, you can do that via Sponsume. For a £25 donation you can get a day's printing in the darkroom.

Panorama cameras


horizon-perfekt.jpgPanoramas are an excellent way of seeing the world around you, but it’s not always easy to get them right. Stitching photos together is nearly impossible without decent software, and most decent software costs a metric crapload of money.

There are decent ‘real’ panorama cameras out there, of course, but cameras like the Hasselblad X-pan will set you back as much as a small car.

Luckily, there are other products out there… 


One of these cameras is the Horizon Perfekt. It’s a funny looking little thing, but despite of this, I’ve heard good things about it. It uses a swinging lens which sees a full 120 degrees, on a 58mm long negative – nearly the width of two standard frames, and a far better solution than the wide-angle setting on an APS camera.

The next step up on the ladder is the Widepan Pro 2. Each shot employs a movable swing lens for a 140-degree field of view and all those curved-horizon distortions. Using its included adapter, the Widepan Pro II is also the longest 35mm panoramic machine of all time. Each frame is 110mm wide, which is over three times the length of a normal 35mm frame. Very cool indeed, but also quite expensive.

If you want to go full-out hardcore, you can go medium format. Whereas the Hassy X-Pan will take 36mm film, the Widepan camera will fill 1/4 of a 120 medium format film in a single shot. Amazing resolution, wicked quality, and a heart-stopping price… And then comes the problem of ‘what the hell do I do with a negative that big’ – you could scan it in part by part and piece it together in the computer, but I don’t know of any negative scanner or darkroom copier that will accept a negative that big. And getting panoramas drum-scanned does seem slightly over the top. Mostly a gimmick, then.