You have a leftover box of photo paper from Photo 101, and it’s been taunting you from your shelf. You could swear you once heard it wimper into the cold, dark night, “Make photos with me!” But, alas, you have no dark room or chemicals with which to make prints!
Good news: you can still make photos with it. You don’t even need chemicals or an enlarger. It’s the same concept as sun printing with a surprise appearance by analog’s bizzaro world counterpart: digital!
All thanks to our pal Mike Dunckley for sharing his photos and showing us how.
Why It’s Cool
Making photos in the darkroom is endless hours of fun, but building one at home can pose a little bit of a challenge. If you don’t have the space to keep a photo enlarger or aren’t into working with harsh wet chemicals, what’s a photographer to do?
Here’s a way around it! Make photograms using black and white photo paper and the sun. Instead of preserving your exposure with chemicals, you can preserve it by scanning it. The image on your photo paper will eventually fade away, but it’ll be eternally preserved in pixels.
In short photograms are a way of making photos by directly placing objects or negatives onto light-sensitive paper. You might’ve heard of cyanotypes or sun prints — it’s the same concept!
What you need
• The sun or a lamp Any size black & white photo paper
• A dark room (any room where you can completely block out light)
• A light proof box big enough to fit your photo paper – an old photo paper box works well
• A flatbed scanner
• A sheet of glass that fits over your photo paper (optional)
STEP 1: Plan Your Photo
We used leaves, flowers and our hand, but you can pretty much use anything — paper cut-outs, confetti, plastic toys, ribbon… yep, anything!
You can even make tiny prints out of film negatives. The bigger the negative, the bigger the print. You can also add drawings or text to your photogram by using mylar (a clear plastic sheet) or transparency sheets and markers.
Did you know you can make transparencies out of Impossible Project instant film? Yup, those can be turned into photograms, too!
STEP 2: Light Proof Your Paper
Find the darkest room in your house. Closets or bathrooms without windows work best. You can also block out windows with dark fabric.
Just make sure it’s dark enough that you can’t see your hand in front of your face. You’re working with photo paper, and it’s very sensitive to light.
Gather your photo paper (we used 5″ x 7″ Ilford Multigrade RC in Satin, but any kind should work), your photo subjects, and your light-proof box. Take them into your chamber o’ photo-makery aka the dark room you just prepared.
Before you turn out the lights, memorise where you’ve placed everything on your work surface. You’ll be using them in the dark.
STEP 3: Prep Your Paper
Now that it’s pitch-black, it’s safe to open up your box of photo paper. Take out one sheet and place it inside your light proof box.
Compose your photo subjects onto the page. This is what’s going to make up your image! Once you’re done, close your lightproof box again.
Before you turn the lights on again, double check that your box of photo paper is closed, as well as your lightproof box with your single sheet of photo paper in it (so you don’t expose all that paper!).
STEP 4: Prep Your Light
You can choose between exposing your photo with the sun or with a lamp. Your exposure time will vary depending on which you go with, so keep that in mind.
Take your lightproof box with your one photo sheet in it to where you’ll be exposing your photo. If you’re using the sun, you can take it directly outside or you can set it by a window that gets direct sunlight.
If you’re using a lamp, you’ll be placing it right under that lamp where the light evenly hits the entire sheet.
Open your lightproof box, and double check that your composition is just how you want it.
TIP!: You might want to use a sheet of glass to flatten your objects. This makes the edges of your image sharper. An easy way to get a sheet of glass is by using the glass that comes in a photo frame.
STEP 5: Make an Exposure
With a lamp light, it can take 1-4 hours to get the same results. The longer you have it exposed to light the darker the image will be.
Now it’s just a matter of waiting and letting the light do its magic. To pass the time you could make yourself a cup of tea or watch some Downton Abbey … or both.
How do you choose when to stop your exposure? When you see that the photo paper is much darker than its original colour, your image is ready. It might take a couple of test runs to get just what you want, but that’s what’s so fun about making photos in the darkroom.
Here’s an idea of how long Mike exposed these photos for: yellowish plant photo exposed for 1.5 hours under a lamp, the hand exposed for 1.5 hours under a 100W work lamp (the hand was a matboard cutout in case you were wondering!), the orange exposed for two hours in sunlight, the purple coloured plant exposed for three hours in occasional sunlight through a window.
STEP 6: Scan It Before It Disappears!
Since you aren’t using fixing chemicals, you’ll preserve your photo by scanning it.
Set up your scanner, open up your lightproof box, and place the sheet with your exposure on it on the scanner bed.
Scan it. Open up your image in any photo-editing program and invert it. This’ll make it look like a positive image, since photograms make images that look like negatives. If you like how it looks as a negative, you can leave it that way, too!
There you have it! Your creation, in its full glory. Beautiful, isn’t it?
STEP 7: Edit As You Please
You might notice dust or other bits that you don’t want on your image. To get rid of them, use a spot removal tool such as the Spot Healing tool in Photoshop.
At this point, it’s a free-for-all. You might want to up the contrast, play with colour, or saturation.
You might want to save the original scan, so you can experiment with different renditions (think of it as a film negative you can go back to and make lots of different kinds of prints from!).
Your paper exposure won’t last forever since you’re not using any wet chemicals to preserve the image. It’s up to you whether you want to throw it out, keep using it to layer more exposures (save it in the lightproof box, if so), or hang it on the wall and watch it change over time.
More Ideas to Try
• Make one exposure, then layer more objects on top for a second less contrasty image.
• Making a photogram indoors in artificial light gives you more control over your photogram since it’s steady light.
• Use pieces of cardboard as stencils to shape the light as it hits the page. Having trouble getting your composition right?
• Tape your subject(s) onto a piece glass first, then place that on the photographic paper.
Mike Dunckley is a photographer who was born in the UK and is now based in Delaware. All photos were made by Mike with the exception of the one above which was made by his mum.