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Eventually, if you are like me, you will want to explore working in your own
darkroom. The satisfaction that you can derive from processing and printing your
own film and prints is tremendously rewarding. We will spend the next few minutes
discussing what a darkroom is and how to build and supply a well-equipped
Many a photographer has turned a spare bathroom or a corner of their basement
into a darkroom. A spare bathroom is an ideal place for a darkroom if you can
convince the others in your family to let you use it. Generally an interior
bathroom has no windows so making it light tight is a fairly simple matter. If
you are going to work with film it is extremely important that the room is light
tight, this means absolutely no light at all should be allowed to leak into the
room when the lights are off. You can try several methods of creating a light
tight room, weather stripping, Duct tape, and wooden strips attached to the door
are some of the more common ways of achieving this. Once you feel you have
accomplished this task close the door, turn off the lights and wait several
minutes for your eyes to adjust (you would be amazed at how much light you can
see after these few minutes that you would have missed at first). Once your eyes
are adjusted check carefully for any light leaks and seal them off. Since the
bathroom has running water and counter space and electricity you are well on your
way to having a nice little darkroom. If you need additional counter space you
can place a sheet of plywood across from the vanity to the toilet tank top, just
be sure it is stable.
If you are able to create a custom darkroom you are truly one of the fortunate
ones. Below is a diagram of a basic darkroom.
You will notice that the darkroom is split into two sides. This is not
absolutely necessary but it is quite helpful. Usually one refers to the side with
the sink as the wet side. The wet side is where all the chemical mixing, film
processing and paper processing takes place. The dry side on the other hand is
where all printing, cutting and finishing work will take place. This assures that
there are no disasters with liquids such as developer or fixer splashing on paper
or on the cutter or enlarger. Ventilation is very important and you should have
an active vent (one with a fan) to exhaust all of the fumes to the outside of the
building if at all possible. This is another reason that the bathroom makes an
ideal darkroom. Be sure your ventilation system is light tight however.
You can design your counters in a way that will allow you to store al of your
materials underneath or, if you are industrious, in drawers.
There are many variations to this basic darkroom design, and these are only
limited by your imagination and space.
Let's start talking equipment, this equates to money, and you can spend a
small fortune! If you are working with film you will need a minimum of the
following; film reels, processing tanks, process thermometers, and a timer. This
assumes that you are working only with roll film such as 35mm or 120. If you are
working with sheet film such as 4x5 or 8x10 then you need other specific
equipment. There are daylight processing tanks for 4x5 and they work quite well,
normally however you would process in a deep tank system placed in a water bath
or you would process in trays.
Film reels are little stainless steel spirals that you would wind the film on
in the dark and then place these reels in the processing tank. The processing
tank is a stainless steel tank that has a light tight lid that through careful
engineering will allow liquid in and out but not light, these are referred to as
daylight tanks as you can process in normal light once the lid is on. There are
also plastic tanks and reels available. These work quite well cost less money and
are commonly available. However they have one drawback, they can break at the
least convenient moment and if you should drop one of these you will have a real
mess on your hands. Most professionals prefer the Stainless steel tanks and
A good process thermometer is worth its' weight in gold. Go for accuracy and
avoid buying the cheapest thing you can get you will regret it later. I recommend
the beseler process thermometer. Next you need a timer. Many photographers prefer
the Gralab timer it can be set from one second to one hour, has glow in the dark
hands and numbers and is quite accurate, unfortunately it is also quite
expensive. I would recommend for the budget minded to go to the local discount
store such as Wal-Mart and pick up one of the inexpensive digital cooking timers.
They are accurate, easy to use, and cost as little as five bucks. The only real
drawback is they cannot be seen in the dark.
There are many many other little devices available for the darkroom and while
some are wonderful others are just money eaters. I recommend the following items
if you have the extra cash and want a top-notch darkroom. You can get an archival
film washer that will wash the film much more thoroughly and faster than just
running water from the sink faucet into the processing tank. Buy some good film
clips to hang up your negatives to dry, you can use spring-loaded clothespins for
the same purpose, or you can invest in a roll film dryer, but be aware that a
good roll film dryer can cost up to $500.00. Buy extra film reels and various
sizes of processing tanks.
For printing you will need an entirely different array of equipment. You will
need processing trays, an enlarger a repeatable enlarger timer, a paper cutter, a
paper safe, enlarging lenses, a safelight and a way to hang up the prints to
Let's start with the most important item, the enlarger. The enlarger is
nothing more than a camera in reverse. Instead of having the light source in
front of the lens and the film behind it, you will have the film (or negative in
this case) in front of the light source and behind the lens. Perhaps the
following diagrams will help.
Depending on the size of film you are working with you can spend as much as
$3000.00 on an enlarger. (I recommend seeing my article "The Speed graphic
Enlarger, a New design" for an inexpensive large format enlarger). If you are
working with 35mm exclusively, you can get a decent enlarger for as little as
$160.00. Get the best enlarger you can afford, you will not regret it. Nothing
will discourage you from using your darkroom more that a crappy little el-cheapo
There are two types of enlargers, the diffusion enlarger and the condenser
enlarger. Condenser enlargers use condenser lenses to distribute the light evenly
across the negative and a diffusion enlarger uses a piece of diffusion glass to
achieve this end. Diffusion enlargers generally produce less light through the
negative and also produce less contrast. I will say though that one of the nicest
enlargers I have ever used is a Beseler 4x5 enlarger and it was of the diffusion
Next we will look at the safelight. Just as there are many choices in
enlargers there as many or more choices in safelights. You can spend as little as
$5.00 on a brown bulb that screws into your existing light fixture, or you can
spend as much as $220.00 for a sodium vapor safelight with adjustable doors. I
have one of the latter and it is wonderful! All safelights work on the same
principle. They eliminate the wavelengths of light that B&W photographic
paper is sensitive to and produce a light that will not expose or "fog" the paper
while you are working. Most safelights use a filter and an incandescent lamp to
achieve this goal. The sodium vapor type uses a sodium vapor lamp that is
designed to emit only the wavelengths that will not affect photo paper, thereby
allowing you to have more light in the darkroom and still not fog the paper.
Almost all safelights will fog paper if they are too close or are too bright, so
be sure to follow the manufacturers recommendations for lamp wattage and
distance. Even the Sodium vapor types will fog paper if the doors are open too
far. You can also find sleeves that slip over fluorescent tubes and turn them
into safelights. This brings up an important point about fluorescent lamps in the
darkroom. Fluorescent tubes are filled with gas, when this gas is excited by
electricity it will glow. Once the electricity is removed the gas will stop
glowing, but not immediately it can take as much as two minutes for a fluorescent
tube to stop glowing. If you have fluorescent tubes in your darkroom be sure to
wait until they stop glowing before working with photographic materials. Better
yet, if you can, replace them with incandescent fixtures.
Let's take a look at the enlarger timer. These items have become quite complex
with the advent of large-scale integration in electronic components. Some timers
now seem to have more controls than the space shuttle. All one really needs is a
timer that can offer accurate repeatability. In the Navy we used Time-o-lites and
they worked very well. You can sometimes luck out and find one of these for as
little as $25.00. Try and avoid the little rotary dial style devices that stand
vertically and look like kitchen timers, they aren't accurate enough for
consistent results. The most accurate styles are the digital electronic timers.
Unfortunately there is no real alternative to an enlarger timer as it controls
the on time of the enlarger lamp, and most are adjustable for times from .1 to 60
Next you will want a good high quality paper safe. This is generally a small
light tight box that holds the paper and keeps it convenient while preventing it
from becoming ruined when the room lights are turned on, providing you remember
to close the lid. Some paper safes have multiple compartments to hold several
different grades of graded papers or different sizes.
Any printing operation will require trays to process the prints in. these come
in a variety of sizes and types from 4x5 plastic trays to 20x24 stainless steel
trays. Generally 11x14 inch trays will work for any of your needs. But be aware
the larger the tray the more chemistry you will be using. You will want to have
three trays, one for developer one for fixer and one for washing, or for holding
the prints in a tray of water until they can be washed.
Finally you will need a way to dry your prints. This too can be as simple as
hanging them up to drip dry, or as complicated as having a huge drum dryer that
can be very expensive and are almost always too large for any personal darkroom.
The best method is to place the prints image up on vinyl screen material
stretched across wooden frames and placed in a rack to keep them up off the
counter and allow air to flow over both surfaces. However a string stretched
over-head and clothespins used to hold the prints works just fine and is
There are so many types and finishes of printing paper I cannot begin to go
into them all in this short space. The two main type of paper are graded and
multi-graded. Graded paper comes in different contrast ratings or grades. A paper
of 1 will have less contrast than a paper of 4, the higher the number the higher
the amount of contrast. Some graded papers actually come in units measured in
tenths. For example Ilford Gallerie comes in grades like 3.2 or 4.1.
Multi-grade papers on the other hand are papers that the contrast is
controlled with a series of magenta or yellow filters, the darker the filter the
higher the contrast. These papers have been a real boon to B&W darkroom
enthusiasts. They eliminate the need to store many different types and grades of
paper in each size. Some photographers, however, prefer graded paper, I have used
both and personally I like the graded Ilford Gallerie papers.
Well since we have mentioned developer and fixer let's talk about them more in
depth. Black and white developer is a chemical solution made up of many different
compounds. Each of these compounds performs a specific function in the developer.
There are the developing agents that actually reduce the exposed silver salts in
the films emulsion to metallic silver. There is the preservative that keeps the
developer from dying a quick death due to changes from the process itself. There
is the accelerator that increases the activity of the developing agent, and there
is the restrainer that helps control the activity of the developer so it can be
used in a consistent and reliable manner.
Many photographers, myself included, mix their own chemistry from scratch.
This method does several things for the photographer that pre-packaged chemistry
cannot do. For instance if I want a little more activity in the developer I can
add a little more accelerator to my developer when I make it. I can make
developers no longer commercially available such as Kodak D-23. I can make
developers that have never been commercially available such as Beers paper
developer. I can also make developer in any quantity I want from 1 ounce to 100
gallons. This type of chemical mixing is very costly initially but it will save
you hundreds if not thousands of dollars in the long run.
The whole process of development can be boiled down to a few things. The
developer is a reducing agent. It acts upon the silver salts that have been
exposed to light and changes, or reduces, those silver salts to metallic silver.
The fixer stops the action of development and clears all of the unchanged silver
halides from the film. That is the process in a nutshell, although it is quite a
bit more involved than this. Many people advocate the use of a stop bath between
the developer and the fixer and while this is important for developers with a
high amount of activity you can generally skip and go straight to the fixer. The
acetic acid in the fixer is an extremely effective stop bath in it's own
Whether you mix your chemistry from scratch or from pre-packaged mixes you
should watch that you follow these guidelines. Do not mix your chemistry so
vigorously that you introduce oxygen into the developer. Oxygen changes the pH of
the developer dramatically and can render it useless in no time. Never mix
chemistry by placing it in a jug and shaking it, again the oxygen thing. Always
mix chemicals in the order given on the package or in the formula and always let
it mix thoroughly before adding the next part. Store your chemistry in brown
plastic photo jugs or amber bottles to avoid degradation by light.
There is so much to cover on this topic that it could literally fill volumes,
and it has. I hope that this will start an influx of other articles on this
topic. I will be contributing to this section of Photo.net on a continuing basis
and in fact I expect my article on the "Speed Graphic Enlarger, A New Design" to
appear on this site in the near future.