This article appeared in the readers’ views column at the back of Amateur Photographer, 30 October 1999, p.106, under the title ‘Course works’. The darkroom references give it an air of nostalgia, and I still recall fondly messing around with tests strips and the magic, which never palled, of putting the paper in the developer and seeing an image emerge. It’s a sensation you just don’t get with Photoshop. Alas when I tried to book up for the next module I found the course full, then I moved, then digital came along. It is good though that there is still an interest in old processes. I recently decided to part with my film cameras (including the Pentax Super-A referred to in the article) and lenses, and donated them to my local charity shop. A lady picked them up eagerly for her daughter, telling me that the students at the village college had a darkroom and were avid users of film cameras. It’s nice to think that old techniques survive alongside new ones, and that future generations will experience the pleasure of the real – as opposed to the digital – darkroom.
For years I, like many other amateur snappers, did not particularly consider what went on between pressing the button on the top of my automatic camera and getting the packet of photos through the post. The most technical thing I ever did was press '+2' when there was a lot of sky in the frame. I enjoyed taking pictures, and tried to improve my composition - I even asked for a roll of black and white film one birthday so that I could try some arty shots - but something was lacking, as I realised when I compared my efforts to work in magazines.
Help was needed if I wanted to create something more than a record of family life. There was nothing for it but to enrol in an evening class, and I discovered that my local FE college had a decent photographic department. Armed with a second-hand Pentax Super-A, I enrolled on a City and Guilds course, where I knew that I would be mixing with other mature students. My original aim was to pick up a few tips about technique, and the theoretical sessions went a long way towards giving me the confidence to take more than random snaps. We were also able to try out the well-equipped studio, which was interesting, and not something I would have done otherwise.
After a term we moved into the darkroom to do black and white processing and printing. What a revelation that was. For the first time I could control the sequence from raw material (bulk film for economy) through to final image. I was no longer reliant on a machine and an anonymous operator. If I mucked it up (which I frequently did) I had nobody else to blame.
Perhaps it was something in the chemicals, but I found the process addictive, as I suspect many of my colleagues did, judging by the number that came in early, worked like demons, and left as late as possible. People did drop out: some decided that a camera club would be more suitable for their level of aspiration, others lacked patience and could not get the hang of the technical aspects. But most stuck with it, and we learned together. Well before the end of the year I knew I wanted to do the other modules.
What have I learned so far? For a start, the considerations involved in taking good photographs, and in the darkroom how to try variations on a theme to obtain the best effect. There is something incredibly satisfying about manipulating an image for optimum impact, and I never tire of seeing the picture magically appear in the developer, faint at first, then stronger and stronger. The materials are fairly cheap, so if an idea does not work, not much has been lost, and the syllabus provides a framework so that the experimentation has a goal.
OK, I'm not an expert by any means, but there is a sense of satisfaction in having a go which is denied to those who send off their films in an envelope or drop them off at a high street processor. So if you haven't previously considered it, find out about a class. The mix of the teaching staff's expertise, mutual assistance (and friendly rivalry) with the other students, and access to facilities denied to the average amateur, will give you confidence to take better pictures. It's definitely a worthwhile investment.