Apple’s App of the Day today (28 Dec ‘17) is Darkr. I don’t usually look too closely at the AotD, and sometimes not for days or weeks, but, as a photographer and former large format and darkroom enthusiast, this one certainly caught my eye.
Darkr takes me back to simpler times, at least that’s what my heart is telling me. It is both a large format camera (and medium and “pocket” format camera) and a Darkroom all built into an app. What a thrill it was for me to lie in bed this morning and have an upside-down-and-backwards view camera image on my iPhone (also available for iPad, but my iPad Air has only a 5mp Camera), complete with etched grid lines and a loop for focusing. Anyone who has ever worked with a large format camera would appreciated this view.
When I say “large format, l’m referring to the old-style cameras with a leather bellows in front. For years, I used a beautiful Zone VI cherry wood field camera that made beautiful 4×5″ negatives. Yes, that’s inches – about half the size of the iPad screen I’m writing on right now. But 4×5″ was just the beginning; large format included 5×7″, 8×10″ (one of Angel Adams favourites) and 11×14”. There were even 16x20l versions that shot Polaroids! It was a huge industry through the late 19th century and right through the 20th century. I bought my “old-style” 4×5 camera in the 1990s! Working with negatives and transparencies that large meant the image quality was untouchable.
But alas, that era is behind us. My Nikon D800E captures more detail than my 4×5 could and my Sony RX-10iii isn’t far behind. The methods of working on a tripod may still be there, but the mystique of working under a dark cloth with a loupe around your neck and a pocket full of yellow, orange and red filters is gone, along with developing negatives, making test strips, changing contrast grades, and burning and dodging to make prints. BUT…
Darkr brings it all back again…
…without the dark cloth and tripod, darkroom chemicals and water usage. As I said, as I lay in bed this morning, I set up my large format camera, selected ILFORD HP-5 film, put on a yellow filter, used my loupe to select the focus point, chose my shutter speed, tilted as needed, and “click” made my first exposure.
This first exposure became a beautiful and classic 4×5 negative, complete with cut notches in the top left! From there, I entered the Darkroom where the immersive experience continued sans red light and chemicals. Honestly, I do miss the other-worldly experience of entering a darkroom with the acrid smell of stop bath and the earthy smell of developer (but not the mixing and washing).
In the Darkroom, I was presented with a series of horizontal test-
strips. Swiping up increased the time, swiping down, the opposite. Swiping left and right changed the contrast, just like a multi-contrast head on an enlarger or multi-contrast filters. The filters are even coloured correctly – the level of detail the creators of the app have included is amazing, but not without some need for improvements (see below).
Once you have a basic print, there are a variety of typical darkroom options: Crop, Dodge, Burn, Blur and Tone. The dodge and burn options take a little getting used to, but are great once you do. The best part, though, is how each option you use is stored as a layer. This digital advantage lets you revisit what you’ve done and change things about, although cropping really must be done first.
So, why bother? As one commenter said, “I did darkroom processing for real…and I now realise I don’t miss it at all.” While I, too, am in this category, Darkr seems to retain well the methods and thought behind using film and darkroom processing, without the hassle of chemicals and water use.
Can you make “better” black and whites in other apps? Perhaps, especially with the near-endless sliders and options of apps such as Photos, Polarr and high-end apps like Lightroom. But there’s something about simplifying options that clarifies the process. For example, test strips: rather than constantly “playing” with sliders until things “look good”, going back and forth between whites and blacks and shaows, exposure and contrast, with Darkr, you are using a combination of exposure and contrast – two options – to attain your base print.
From there, you can apply dodging (selective lightening) or burning (selective darkening), just like using adjustments brushes in Lightroom. Lastly, you may (or may not) tone the image – selenium, cyanotype or sepia – in varying degrees.
Perhaps it’s nostalgia speaking more than practicality, but I feel apps don’t always need to be pragmatic and efficient to be useful. If anything, this simplification teaches one to be more observant. To the observant, the varying times of the test strips offer insights 8nto the relationships between light and dark, as does the switching of contrasts.
Perhaps this is my own darkroom experience talking and these nuances are not readily apparent to newbies, but I see this as not only nostalgic fun, but a good training ground of sorts, from the upside-down-backwards view presented by the Large Format option to the selections of time and contrast. The limiting factor is the 12mp camera on the iPhone. If this system could be used with a 20mp+ camera, it would certainly be more enticing. That being said, you can import photos from Photos to work on them in the Darkroom.
The best part, though, is the price: Darkr is only $3.99. Actually, it’s free, but paying the $3.99 does two things: it supports the developers to keep refining the app (I have some improvements I’d like to see, and it unlocks some of the refinements that make Darkr so much fun.
Some of the improvements I would like to see include:
- Spot metering – I would like to read my highlight and shadow areas to allow me to use…
- Zone system placements; shadows with detail on Zone II – the “West Coast, Ansel Adams” way or highlights with detail on Zone VIII as Fred Picker invented on the East Coast;
- Orange filter, for when yellow is too little and red is too much;
- Cold and warm-tone papers options would be nice, even different paper bases;
- Adding a cold-tone selenium effect of slight purple cast would be welcomed;
- Vertical test strips are needed to accommodate checking different parts of a print. Making the print above would have benefitted from seeing the bright white of the duvet in the same strip
- Lastly, the app needs a way to maintain the proportions when cropping (or select an aspect ratio).
I should note that these “improvements” may already be built into the app and I missed them. I’ll be spending more time with Darkr over the next few days and hope to discover more of it’s secrets.