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Teaser

Here is the current teaser for the first and only analog darkroom simulator for Virtual Reality – currently in development (no pun intended, but appreciated)

Overview

Here are a few more images what it currently looks like. I will keep this updated whenever I make bigger changes.

So how does this all work?

These are the rough steps how to print a black and white picture in the darkroom. I left out some more detailled steps such as printing test strips to determine the right exposure and dodge & burning which is explained in the next chapter, but this should give you a good understanding how this all works. Not so hard to be honest – just takes a bit of practice and love for the medium.

Dodge & Burning

If you use Photoshop, you might be familiar with the dodge and burn tools to selectively brighten or darken areas in your image. Those tools – as many others – originate form the analog darkroom.

You use them to selectively block the light (dodging) from the enlarger head in a certain area to reduce the darkening (= make it brighter) or add more light to areas to enhance the reaction of the silver particles (= make it brighter). Photoshop uses a hand icon but many analog printers tend to use a cardboard with a hole in the middle to achieve the same result as it allows you to see the image projected on the cardboard while burning.

This step is what makes analog printmaking an art form as you don’t really see what you are doing until the print is developed and have to trust your intuition/experience how long you add/subtract light.

You might be familiar with images like the one from Muhammad Ali (&copy by Thomas Hoepker/Magnum) with lots of numbers scribbled on them to mark certain areas that need additional burning (e.g., +3 seconds on his temple = darker/more details) or areas that need to be dodged (e.g., -5 seconds on his stomach = brighter).

Contrast Adjustment

In a traditional darkroom, the paper determines the contrast of the resulting image. There are many different variations with fixed gradations ranging from low contrast to very high contrast images.

What I usually prefer are multigrade papers that have a variable contrast so I can adjust the contrast during the print session by adjusting the color filter dials on the enlarger head.

The paper contains multiple layers of the light sensitive coating that react differently to a specific color spectrum of light and makes it easy to dial in the contrast you like for the image and even mix different contrast levels for specific areas of the image (read more on split grade printing in the excellent ebook on this topic by Tim Layton).

It was important for me to make this as close to reality as possible, rather than just guessing a random contrast level or eyeballing it – in the end, this is supposed to be a serious simulator! ;-).

To do this, I bought a 21-Stouffer Step Wedge with standardized transparency values, printed a lot of test charts with different light settings and measured the resulting prints with a proper densitometer and used those values in Unreal.

Blur & Defocus

Coming from a Visual Effects background, I was aware, that a realtime blur for VR at 90 frames per second could be quite challenging, so I spend a fair amount of R&D time into finding the best and fastest blur method to accurately simulate this in the app.

I ended up choosing with a 2-pass gaussian blur estimation, that scales nicely and was integrated with HLSL into Unreal.

To avoid the need for constant calculation, the blur is only calculated when the focus is adjusted or the the head of the enlarger moved and then written to texture.

Fluids & Chemicals

While I am not quite done exploring this area yet, I am happy to have something, that feels like realistic fluids. When I started with analog darkroom work, this was what I was mostly  looking forward to do: play with chemicals and fluids! – so it had to be possible to splash around in VR too. I looked around for alternative ways to do it, but the Nvidia Flex physics system blew everything else out of the water.

I found this custom gameworks branch for Unreal provided by 0lento on Github that I use at the moment. I will still spend some more time on making the fluids as cool looking as possible and integrate a chemical mixing system soonish that I have been working on recently.