Nov 6

The Analog Reset Button

I can always count on working in analog to be like a creative reset button.

I’m amazed how fast the world of digital photography is evolving. As a professional photographer, I’m constantly doing research and learning about the latest camera gear, techniques and software to give our clients the highest quality images.

But sometimes I feel the need to get back to my roots, and will pick up one of my shelved film cameras to run a few rolls of film through it. There’s a special visceral feeling loading the camera with film, listening to the mechanical gears moving the unexposed frames in position for the capture. In analog photography there’s faith involved, relying on years of studying how light falls on a subject and using a hand light meter for the camera settings instead of relying on a digital screen to study like a chimp. 


Recently I’ve been researching to acquire chemicals and paper to start developing photos like I used to years ago. Creating photos has come a long way since Matthew Brady and his assistants trotted out photo wagons documenting the Civil War using glass plate negatives.

Fast forward 120 years.  Encouraged by my high school art teacher, I was captivated by cameras and the process of making photographs. I converted my parents’ half-bath/laundry room into a darkroom, doing my best to seal any light gaps around the window and door with towels and tape. At least the clothes dryer provided auto-agitation for my film and print developing processes. 

The darkroom is where the creativity of the image capture comes to life. After college I spent years in various newsroom darkrooms learning the magic of burning and dodging with contorted hand movements in brief seconds under the enlarger. Then the magic happened, as the exposed paper slid under the surface of the developer to prevent bubbles and I watched the slow-emerging image come up under the dark amber lighting.

I can still smell the acrid aroma of stop bath and fixer that used to linger on my hands hours later after a darkroom session. However, I don’t miss the droplets of chemicals staining my clothes that appeared later while doing laundry. 

The prints were dried using either a ferrotype dryer that left a glossy finish on fiber paper or with RC-coated paper in a quick fan dryer. The finishing touch featured the delicate art of spot toning, wetting a 0000 brush on your tongue because the lampblack spot tone transfers better with saliva as the wetting agent. 

There’s nothing like seeing a finished print on display under glass. The tonal values of a handprint stand out against any digital ink jet print. An added bonus – you can’t lose a negative in a hard-drive crash.

In today’s fast-paced, need everything now/24-hour news cycle, I relish the chance to slow down and appreciate the magic that is created from the technology of the cameras, lenses and computers that help me push out images and video on a daily basis without giving it a second thought. 

Photoshop and Instagram uses algorithms to help everyone be a photographer, mimicking burning and dodging similar to some of the darkroom prints I made two decades ago. The creative process is definitely easier now with these processes for the masses.

I’m not knocking progress with digital photography, since I rely on it now for my profession.  But it’s like listening to an mp3 instead of a vinyl album. There’s nothing like the original.

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