How Photos Were Edited in the Darkroom Days

How Photos Were Edited in the Darkroom Days

Years ago the only way to print a photo was to make test strips, make a test print, go back and dodge and burn details, make more test strips, another test print and so on and so on until you got the result you were after. In these photos released by Magnum Photos in New York, you can get a closer look at the process followed by their master printer, Pablo Inirio.

Magnum photos before and after muhammed ali fstoppers

As shown in the photos, Pablo makes his test prints, makes his decisions about how the final print should look, and then makes himself notes on the photo for how he'll make the final print. Kinda makes you re-think getting it right in camera no?

Magnum Photos before and after audrey hepburn fstoppers

Magnum Before and After James Dean Fstoppers

Magnum photos before and after pablo inirio fstoppers

Pablo Inirio in his lab.

[Via Gizmodo]

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I have respect for these pro's

It's cool, but I thought "a closer look" would at least imply that I could click on these thumbs and read the notes.

hit the Gizmodo link at the end of the article here :)

I'll assume that's an old photo of Pablo "back in the day". I used to do professional darkroom work as well, only I worked with Ektachrome duplicating film, making of course duplicate transparencies, but also photo-composites. I worked with 4x5, 8x10, and even 11x14 enlargers(!). I can't quite pin down that light head on his Omega enlargers, I used standard "Chromega" dichroic heads, as well as a filtered condenser head for high contrast duplication/compositing. Quite a different world working with a tangible medium. Ah, the analog days:

I think he is their master printer now? He's just younger than you might assume given his work.

OK, I thought this was a historical article.

Looking at the phone on the wall I don't think so. This is fairly recent.

The photo of Pablo is dated Jun 4, 2009

I thought this was about an old school printer, being as this fellow is fairly young, I thought it had to be an old shot of him.

that´s the way to work ;) ... <3 it

I am so thankful for digital. My back hurts just remembering the hours hunched over an enlarger.

Thank You for this. I'm really starting to change my opinion about modern post processing. I still won't go to Photoshop but I feel ok about most of what I do in Lightroom. That's my personal "bar" I guess. shrug..

Both Lightroom and Photoshop are photo editing systems that do much the same thing. I don't see where you are drawing your line.

I think that superduckz refers to the heavy retouching that is sometimes applied in PS.

Compositing, layers of adjustments, Layers with blend modes, layers with opacity, masking, many more filters than Lightroom for starters. Photoshop is much more powerful than Lightroom is today. Lightroom offers a little more than ACR, and with plugins from Nik and On One. I have both an rarely use Lightroom, to me Lightroom is more asset management, with some simple post processing capabilities. If you're a purist, i.e. one who believes that everything should take place at the time of capture with filters, lights, light modifiers. Then Lightroom is perfect for you. If you want freedom to be as creative as you want then Photoshop is more likely the way to go to get every last bit of detail, tonality, and even to venture into compositing, manual blending of brackets instead of having to use HDR software like Photomatix or HDR Efex Pro. Not that there's anything wrong with the purist approach, its just limiting in my mind. I personally do understand why you'd want to limit your options, but like I just said if that's for you totally cool, enjoy.

So really nothing has changed. Talent is required and the right tools are needed.


you've never printed on paper. yes? try it. try producing just one perfect print that requires dodging and/or burning.

then do another exactly the same. until you have the 10 or 20 needed.

after a few days see if you haven't changed your opinion

I have. Thanks.

That is brilliant!

Not a single one bastardized with HDR. Marvelous.

Let us not forget that using Photoshop to digitally edit photography didn't really happen until after the millennium. So almost everything was still done in the dark room until you could shoot a photo digitally. Otherwise you would have to scan an already printed photo and edit it...which didn't make sense. So YES...this photo of him is not that old, but only because photography was still done this way until only recently. That phone was most certainly around "back then".

Not true, I did scan negs & slides before the millennium to edit in PS. There were digital scanners for slides and negs from the likes of Nikon, UMAX etc.

True...but that was rare probably for a good portion of the population. My point is that people are trying to say that the photo taken of Inirio is not old enough to be accurate.

Not /that/ recent. I was playing with Photoshop alternatives in the mid-90's doing exactly that - digitally manipulating photos that, I would imagine, originated from film. If you do a 'net search for the file name "cloner.lha" it has some playing I did back in the day with Corel PhotoCD images :)

Cool. Again...probably a fairly rare thing except for those starting to get into the computer end of things. I guess I was getting too particular in my words. Basically what I was trying to say is that many on here are probably of the younger generation and think that the photo of the man above is current when it could have been taken in the mid-to-late 90s or just after the millennium when traditional processing was still the norm for photographers who weren't into digital programs yet.

Regardless, it was definitely an art of precision and timing. We are lucky to have a "step backward" or "revert" option, where in the darkroom you might have to start all-over again!

Actually, back in the 90s large dedicated workstations like Quantel
Paintbox, Shima Seikki, Barco Creator (running on SGIs), and other
workstations from Scitex, Hell, and Crossfield were the only way to
retouch high resolution image files. These were all
miniframe-computer-based systems that cost tens to hundreds of thousands
of dollars. Microframe systems (Macs and PCs) were for the most part
incapable of working with hi res files at the early part of the 90s. Images were scanned
on drum scanners and output to 9-track open reel tapes, imported into
and retouched on one these workstations, and output back to tape for
output to transparency film on high resolution film recorders like Kodak
LVTs and Cymbolic Sciences Lightjets. Chances are pretty good most of
you have never heard of most (if any) of this stuff.

As the 90s progressed that changed of course, and by the end of the decade Macs, and especially PCs, were quite capable of handling hi res image files (which
were still scanned from film to hi res tiffs). By that time direct to press printing was becoming the norm.

Motion Film tools have changed but it's still about a great story
Music production tools have changed but it's still about a great song
Photography tools have changed but it's still about a great picture

I've done this, breathed in the toxic fumes, and ruined my clothes, manually, analogue, whatever one calls it and it's fun and educational, but we mustn't get nostalgic and think "Ah the good old days", we live in incredible times and I can guarantee you, that whatever medium artists in the past had worked in, a huge percentage would have RUN to use what we have today.


I'm doing all this now (not to this degree because I suck) in my college film photography class. It's fun enough that I don't consider it a class.

I love this. A lot of old timers like to pretend that photoshoping didn't exist in their day.

Perhaps, but the huge difference is each one in the old days was done by hand and there was no alt-ctrl-z to correct a mistake. Todays ability to make unlimited adjustments and then print thousands of identical prints at the touch of a button has somewhat devalued the art in my opinion.

Over 30 years in photography and most of that I spent working in film, big cameras and darkroom. The darkroom was way too, ummmm, dark :) I was so glad when digital and computers became affordable. I have nothing but pure respect for those who are pros in the darkroom.

Ok I don´t quite get this: Who is he? Is he the photographer? The pictures look like from the 60s or is this just how they are supposed to look? IF they ARE old, what then is HE doing- alternate them, all right, but why?

He's the Master Printer for the Magnum Photo Agency in New York. He makes prints from photographers negatives.

That´s what I understood. What puzzles me is wether or not theese are old photographs from the 60s like they appear to be- this IS Mohammad Ali, right? So obviously Inirio is not the photographer- why then is he altering thoose pictures so drastically? This is a very artistic statement far beyond processing them and hardly his job as a printer, is it?
I am asking, I´m not making a statement here.

Stefan, he isn't "altering" those photos, he is just printing them to bring out what is already in the negative. This is what printers do. Yes, it IS his job to do it. Some film photographers love to print. Some hate it and never do their own printing. Often enough the photographer who doesn't print will convey his desires for the print to the printer and/or work along with the printer giving approval or suggestions. Also often enough photographers use printers who already have an idea of what the photographer is looking for in the final print. Either way, these images are not being "altered" Their intrinsic and latent beauty is being called forth.

And yes, these are old photos from Magnum's collections. That is James Dean in the top photo, you already recognized Ali and the woman is the beautiful actress, Audrey Hepburn.

A lot of photographers in the film era had a printer that they "collaborated" with. This story is illustrating that back in the day photographers would mark up a test print for their main print so that they could bring out what the photographer wanted out of the image. It is a very unique skill and respected photographers had their own main printers that executed that vision very well. Darkroom work was not fun all the time, it was ok somedays but when you were slaving away in a chemical stink, dark, environment it was not, (at least for me). I'd much rather be outside shooting.

Thank you guys!
I wasn´t sure about Hepburn and Dean but I guessed it were them.

Still, Inirio is not the original developer/printer of this photographs. Hence, there are already "approved" print versions (by the original photographer/printer/the public) of theese partly iconic pictures arround- why alternate them again when one`s/his personal taste can bring so much a difference like e.g. with the Dean picture?

Don´t get me wrong; I admire such skill, I just find such things very delicate.

Think about the photographer/printer of those days to be the photographer that shoots on scene (studio, stage, open air, whatever) and the guy that does postprocessing in PS (or LR or some other programm). These can be one and the same person or two different persons. Not every great photographer was a master printer, the same as today not every photographer can do postprocessing. (Or want to learn it or to invest time in this part of the process.)

The existing "approved" prints also are not necessarily from the photographer. (E.g. AA was maybe even more interested in the printing than the shooting whereas let's say HCB was not interested at all in the darkroom work and relied on the better skills than his own of his master printer.)

It also can be that new prints are necessary to publish them in another media than for what the "approved" prints were made back then. Or it is the same media but in the meantime new tehniques are applied, the magazines/newspapers printing technology evolved a lot from the 60s, so they need new starting images too.

In many cases the prints Inirio makes today are from the original markups. He is reproducing, as close as possible, the original versions that used the same dodging/burning/etc. He makes new prints from the negatives because someone ordered a print of a photo in Magnum's catalog.

One of the most confusing conversations I ever had with my son was when I attempted to walk him through the syllabus for a class I taught on photographic chemistry. The problem was not that he could not get the chem; the problem was that the concept of photography being a chemical process was so far outside of his frame of reference that the discussion of chemistry in relation to photography seemed meaningless, as if we were discussing Thomistic syllogisms in relation to contemporary ethics. Everything I presented lacked relevance.

I loved working in the darkroom, but even apart from an allergy I acquired to color chemicals, I don't think I'd ever go back. Photography, for me, is expressing what I can capture of the amazing world I'm passing through. Technology allows me to do more of that with much finer control than I had in the darkroom. When I go back to the rich tones of the masters Weston, Wynn Bullock, Caponigro, Ray Belcher for example), I see that there's still a long way to go but I'm confident digital photography will get there and beyond.

It looks like Andrew is still comfortable in Bohemia! :-)

Darkroom burning and dodging techniques for printing film only alter tonal values. The connection to the object of the photo, or what people usually call the subject, doesn't change as long as detail is still present in the print. Basically, burning and dodging is just a way to maintain control of exposure over local areas of the photograph rather than being tied to a single exposure for the entire area of the photograph. Also, a lot of digital photographers seem to be unaware that it is possible to create "unsharp masks" in the lab to "sharpen" prints from imperfectly focused negatives too. However, all of this is besides the point. The difference between digital and film is the connection to an existing object. Both mediums can be retouched and edited. But film, unlike digital, is always necessarily connected to an existing object (even if the object is as simple as the light from a lamp of a darkroom enlarger.) Digital can be connected to an object, but it does NOT have to be. So, the real difference between film and digital is one of necessity in terms of connection to an existing object rather than a difference between the ability to manipulate or not.

Photography, whether digital or on film, is Photography. Please deal with it.


The only problem of the aparently "easyness" of correcting a digital picture, is that I have seen pseudophotographers in concert, shooting literaly 6 frames per second, non-stop during several seconds, so they are sure the proper picture will appear among all that amount. I cannot imagine, later, the huge amount of time needed to watch and select a good picture.

When I use to shoot analogic, I needed just a film of 36 b&w negatives during a 90 minutes of a jazz concert.

Analogically or digitally, you will always need a good technique and good sense of composition to produce a good pictures.

Best regards to all the professional people that achieve this. :)

Dodge and burn. I took a film class and we did some of this. It was really fun.... and not a hard as it seems.

The article is good for sensationalism but not for learning. The pictures are to tiny to understand what is going on. If they were big enough we could read the notes we could learn something from them. So it gets only a short "aha" and that it was.

Getting it right out of camera is not possible. You register a higher dynamic range on film than you can reproduce on photographic paper, not to talk about what you can reproduce in magazines pages. So you are forced to dodge and burn the best exposed negative for compressing the dynamic range when possible and when not to decide which less important parts of the picture can be "cut" exposure wise.

It is also not true (as a reader commented) HDR was not used in argentinic days. One tehnique was sandwiching differently exposed negatives, but other methods with the purpose of increasing the dynamic range caputred by using multiple exposure were also used.

What's fascinating also and very revealing about our change of practice is the importance given to the 'Single Killer Shot' over the overall quality of a series. Nowadays, most of us spend much less time editing a single image and end up showing a series of shots.

Look at the pics edited here, the man probably spent a whole day on getting ONE picture right. But these images here are definitely iconic. So iconic it hurts.


when digital came along I thought all the stuff I learned after 25 years in a darkroom was redundant but actually it was more than technique I learned by printing photos, you learn how to interpret a negative and what to apply to it realise a finished image, so now I am doing the same but with a different tool, the aesthetic values I learned over 25 years have become second nature, scanning a negative and processing it in photoshop is just a different tool to achieve the same thing.

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