I stumbled onto Darkr as one of Apple’s “App of the Day” features, and the AppStore’s description says it all:
The art of developing film in a darkroom may be on the verge of extinction, but Darkr gives you a glimpse of this fascinating process.
Designed to be an all-in-one photography app that mimics the techniques of yesteryear, Darkr includes a camera and finishing tools. As I used the app, I constantly found myself reminiscing about the days I spent in a darkroom so long ago and wishing that I could do so again. That said, Darkr is a free app that does a pretty good job of replicating that process.
Unfortunately, the default (read “free”) camera is underwhelming. Opting to show the entire camera back on the screen, the viewfinder is shrunken to a 1″ rectangle. I hoped that it would somehow utilize the phone’s proximity sensor, enlarging as I brought the “camera” to my eye, but it didn’t. The default camera also has another glaring limitation: lack of controls. To be fair, this camera is identified as a “pocket camera” which is nothing more than a standard point-and-shoot, but for a photography app focused on classic manual photography, I’d have rather seen a traditional SLR option. Or at least a larger viewfinder.
Luckily, the app does offer two additional cameras, covering medium and large formats. Medium format film, also known as 120 film or the longer length 220 film, supports different sizes of images depending on the type of camera. Some medium format cameras shoot 6×4.5 cm negatives, while others shoot 6x8cm images.
|Name||Aspect ratio||Nominal size (mm)||Exposures|
|6 × 4.5||1.35:1||56 × 41.5||15 or 16||30–32|
|6 × 6||1:1||56 × 56||12 or 13||24–27|
|6 × 7||1.20:1||56 × 67||10||21|
|6 × 8||1.37:1||56 × 77||9||19|
|6 × 9||1.50:1||56 × 84||8||18|
|6 × 12||2.1:1||56 × 118||6||12|
|6 × 17||3:1||56 × 168||4||9|
|6 × 24||4:1||56 × 224||3||6|
The Darkr medium format camera has chosen the square 6×6 frame size for its images. Considering that most of these images will end up on one of the social media sites instead of in print, it’s a solid choice although I would have liked the ability to choose that myself.
Medium format cameras traditionally have a waist-level viewfinder, meaning that the image is composed with the camera around your waist. Through the joy of optical physics, this flips the viewfinder’s image left-to-right and is something copied in the Darkr version. It’s a nice addition.
The large format camera uses a 4×5 frame and has the viewfinder both inverted and flipped, much like the real version.
Unlike the point-and-shoot, both the medium and large format cameras have sliders to control timing, ISO, and focus, and each provides live updates to the image. Just below the image is a light meter, changing from red to green as you adjust the exposure. These two cameras also allow the use of contrast adjusting red, yellow, and green filters.
Of course taking a photograph is only half of what this app, or any photography, is about. The image also has to be processed. There’s a common misconception today that using post-production tools, whether Photoshop, Lightroom, or some other program, is a sign that the image itself wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. Photographers have been doing post-production of photography since its invention, manipulating chemicals to get a result they liked.
More recently, with traditional film based photography, the photographer had to figure out how much light to expose the paper to for each image they developed. The photographer would make a test strip, covering part of an image with a thick sheet of paper, and uncovering more and more of the image every second or two.
Darkr does the same thing, presenting test strips to determine the level of exposure for your image. Additionally, the app uses Ilford’s multigrade filters for more contrast control. In a real darkroom these would be inserted into the enlarger, adjusting the light that would interact with the paper. They were numbered 0 – 5, with higher numbers offering higher contrast.
An Ilford contrast filter set.
After the base settings are selected, you can go on to cropping the image, dodging and burning portions for fine-tuning exposure, and choosing a film emulsion type.
The film type can be set either in the darkroom or in the camera, though it had more effect here. Seeing the classic film boxes brought back memories, and while other people may experiment more, I found myself never leaving the 400 ISO Illford HP5, as it was always my “go to” option in the old days.
In a real darkroom, these would all be done at once. Or broken into small subsets of total time. It could take hours to develop a single image, using several sheets of paper along the way. To create a duplicate the image required substantial notes and still wouldn’t be 100% identical as dodging and burning was a very manual process. Not so in Darkr, as the final digital image is saved to your camera roll for easy sharing.
As someone who grew up in the world of film photography, this is a rare app that\’s both useful and filled with nostalgia. The free camera might be limited, but the darkroom is fully functional, using existing photos from your library as well as those taken from within the app. If you have an existing manual camera app, Darkr can fit well into your current workflow. If you don’t, the medium and large format cameras provide a good amount of manual control and are worthy in-app purchases. The usefulness of the other add-ons are dependent on how often you’d use them, but considering the two cameras are $0.99 each, the “unlock everything” option winds up being a great value at $2.99. This will be an app I’ll be keeping on my phone for some time.