Although digital photography became the common medium used by millions today, photography is still based on the same old principles, and learning to use a film camera and developing your own images is not only a fun hobby but also a great way to understand how an image is made, whether on film or in digital format.
The first problem however, is the limited availability of a darkroom within one’s immediate reach, as photography is best learned by practice. In the past I have used darkrooms in universities, but having a small darkroom in my house always seemed to be the best approach in terms of practicality. Yet for long, I wished for a darkroom that was either too complex or too expensive to build. Last year I decided that I should have a darkroom nonetheless, and settled on the idea of having the simplest possible darkroom in the smallest available space, yet with sufficient hardware to enlarge 8 by 11 in prints or possibly larger. Having accepted the idea of simplicity, I found out that one can indeed have a darkroom in a small space, yet continue this hobby at home.
Below, is the description of procedures and materials needed to help you build your own darkroom in a small closet.
Planning your workspace
For a moment, forget about having a super efficient darkroom filled with gadgets of the latest technology, and think of what you would minimally need to start making prints. A darkroom can be any space, wide and large enough to accommodate an enlarger and 1 person. Look at these 2 plans:
A minimalist darkroom is any closed space that is isolated from light and has 5 basic equipment and tools:
- A sturdy table with shelves
- An enlarger
- Plastic trays for developing the prints
- A safelight
- An enlarger timer
In an average North American house, one can find a food locker or a closet, that can be sealed to prevent light leaks, and an addition of an electrical outlet will suffice to keep the enlarger and safelight running. While the optimal darkroom should have a sink and running water for practicality, it is not a necessity. An optimal darkroom has a dry and a wet space, usually separated but side by side. The dry workspace is for the enlarger, the wet workspace is for film development. In our simple darkroom scheme, we will only be building the dry space. I installed my darkroom in the food locker in the kitchen, and the kitchen sink is just about 4 feet away, so I can use it whenever I am done with printing and wash the chemical residues off the paper. Once a print is fixed with the 3rd bath, you can safely expose it to light.
The first thing, and an important one, is a stable, sturdy workspace; a table which will support the weight of the enlarger and which has shelves to accommodate the development trays. Although there are 3 baths in black and white printing, you can skip the 2nd (stop) bath and use the 3rd (fixer) bath alone to both stop and fix the print, reducing your space requirement for 2 trays only. But as a seasoned photographer I suggest you still use the stop bath for proper results.
Building your own enlarger table using good quality wood is the best idea, as it will fit precisely and you will be optimizing the use of your available space. I had an old TV stand, which fit perfectly in my food locker, so feel free to use any means, just remember that an enlarger may weigh between 10 to 30 pounds.
Sealing the room
After you have decided on the space, next thing you will need to do is sealing the workspace to prevent light leaks, and when I mean leaks, take it literally. Any small leak of daylight or artificial light will cause fogging on your papers. If you develop your film yourself as well and use the darkroom to load the film in the development tank prior to development, you must be extra careful with light leaks, because a panchromatic black and white film has no tolerance to light at all in the visible spectrum.
If there is a window in the space, either remove the glass and seal it completely with another material like wood, or paint the windows with a matte black spray paint, let dry and repaint one or two more layers so the paint will be thick enough to prevent light leaks. Do not count on the painted windows alone, so go ahead and cover it with a thick black curtain completely as well, this will insure that the window is now, light-tight.
Next thing to do is sealing the entrance of your darkroom. Buy a roll of black isolating foam made for isolating the edges of doors and windows. You can easily find this material even in the dollar stores. Get the widest and thickest one available. They are self adhesive, line the edges of the door all around so that the foam will make a closed loop and prevent stray light leaking from the edges. Again, do not count on it alone, and cover the door on the inside with a thick, completely opaque matte black curtain. Be sure that it covers the door in excess of 2 inches more on every direction, this way, you will be sure to block all leaks. A thick corduroy type curtain is a good material and costs little. You can use any tissue that is dark and thick enough. To check, hold the tissue against direct sunlight and try to look through it. If you can not see the sun, it is a solid sealer.
A reminder though; sealing your work space against stray light leaks does not mean you are now safe to go, as the safelight you use defines a lot of this safety. Painting the walls of your darkroom to a darker color can help reduce the bouncing of light and protect your papers a bit more when they are exposed to the safelight. But don’t forget that you can also use this bouncing to soften the exposure which might otherwise fog your papers. More on safelights below.
Laying out the infrastructure
Now that the darkroom is sealed, it is time to solve the issue of energy. The enlarger, enlarger timer and the safelight needs electricity. Although you could pay for a professional to lay out a complicated electrical grid inside your tiny darkroom, there is really no need to do so. Find the nearest plug outside of the darkroom, get an extension cable with 3 outlets, and using crochet and nails, line it along the bottom corner of the door. Since our darkroom only has the dry workspace, there is no danger of using an extension. Use a saw to cut a tiny opening for the cable to pass, so the door will close properly.
Once you have electricity, you can start installing your enlarger table and other equipment. On the right you can see the setup I use for development trays. I use the upper tray for development only, so I can have enough light to see the image coming and sufficient space so I can manipulate the development manually if necessary. The 2nd and 3rd baths are on the lower shelf, as you don’t need to see the image at these stages, so you can just drop the paper in the tray and count.
An enlarger, after all, is the major equipment to have. What you need to know before you buy an enlarger is, how much space you have. For an area of, let’s say about 45 in. deep, 28 in. wide and 8 ft. high food locker, you can accommodate a 6-7 in. or 6-9 in. enlarger. For a closet space of 38 in. deep, 22 in. wide and a height of 6 ft. you will only be able to accommodate a 35 mm enlarger. Having said that, the choice of the enlarger depends a lot on your budget, but investing in a color enlarger head will push your darkroom experience to wider limits, as not only you can use color filters for multigrade paper prints but you can start making color prints whenever you are ready to invest in a color print developer kit in the future.
Although darkroom photography is simply, light exposing a paper and chemicals developing the exposed image on the paper, an enlarger timer saves you all the troubles of manually exposing your prints. There are the older analogue models as well as the digital ones, any one of those is good enough and your choice will depend mostly on your budget and personal preferences. An enlarger timer simply gives the current to the enlarger head so the lamp turns on for the amount of time adjusted on the timer, then shuts it off when the count down is over. An analogue timer is much like an egg timer in this sense, it doesn’t perform any tricks and simply counts down and stops. A basic digital timer has several gadgets, like making a metronome sound, signalling countdown end, showing millisecond digits etc. but if you ever consider investing in a digital timer, opt for one that has a foot pedal connection as a foot pedal becomes indispensable when you start learning manipulating techniques during exposure and you will appreciate having both hands free.
An easel is not a must, but a great necessity to improve the optical quality of your prints. As the film is a flat surface and it is projected on another flat surface, it is important tho have both planes as flat (and as parallel to each other) as possible. Instead of an easel, you can use a window glass larger than the size of the paper you use, but adding a glass in between the film and the paper, may cause refractions as well as optical aberrations. An easel has no glass, but keeps the paper flat by putting weight on the edges. It adds not only a technical improvement for good image clarity but also creates nice borders, which complement your compositions and adds to your artistic expression.
When you buy an easel, be sure to get a sturdy one, which weigh seriously more. This will keep the paper as flat as possible and more practical to use in small spaces. Prefer the one with 4 blades over those which have only 2. And get the largest size that your little darkroom can accommodate. Just like the enlarger, it is a one time buy, but a future investment.
Although photographic films must be handled in total darkness once they are taken out of their protective packages, standard B&W photographic papers are manufactured to be sensitive to blue light only, and most general use papers can be used under a “safe light“, which has an ordinary light bulb inside, and a special filter or housing of a specific color that does not expose the blue-sensitive emulsion on the paper. Apart from specialty papers from certain manufacturers, a red safelight can be used with all single grade and most variable contrast papers. Light/Dark amber (OC) filters are used with some multigrade paper brands, or special panchromatic papers for B&W printing purposes. Standard single grade papers can be used under a yellow safelight. As the color spectrum goes, amber, red, orange and yellow can be listed as from safest to least safe. Usually red light is the most practical to use as it is safer than yellow light and gives more visible illumination than the amber light. If you are not sure about the type of safelight filter to use with a particular B&W photographic paper, consult the documentation that comes inside the package.
Under normal circumstances, one small safelight will be enough for the closet darkroom. Remember that the paper should not be exposed to safelights for an extended period, and the light must be at least 4 feet away from the enlarger. However, using a tilt head safelight, you can bounce the light on the wall or ceiling of the closet, this way the light will travel more distance as it is scattered on surfaces and will further diminish the problem of fogging.
Materials and accessories
Apart from those mentioned above, you will need some other materials which you will need for getting started. Some of these on the list are requisites like chemical solutions, but some others might be substituted, like trays and containers.
Photographic paper : There are many brands and varieties of paper in the market, but 2 things are important to know as basic info, the material of the paper and the grade. There is basically 2 types of material that the photographic paper is manufactured: Fiber based and resin based papers. Fiber based papers have a smoother tonal gradation and renders more gray tones than its counterpart. However, since it is based on fiber, it will curl when wet and needs more careful handling when you dry them. Resin papers are fast to dry without curling, but they are more contrasty and retain lesser gray tones and a sharper gradation. Both bases come as matte, glossy or in between, depending on each manufacturers product line.
Paper grades are much like film speeds with similar characteristics, and are usually numbered from 00 to 5, lowest number retains a wide range of gray tones and considered “softer” grade, while higher numbers create contrasty images and known as “harder” grade. Single grade papers do not necessitate a color head or filters. However, if you have a color enlarger or multigrade filters, having a pack of multigrade paper at hand can save you a lot of money instead of having to buy several packs of different grade papers. A multigrade paper can be used from 00 to 5 grade, including mid-values, depending on the appropriate color filter used. With only one pack of paper, you can manipulate the contrast of your images.
- Archival sheets : Storing your negatives properly is important once you develop and dry them. Archival quality materials are free from acids that might otherwise stain your negatives over time on extended contact.
- Film development tank : What use of an enlarger when you have no negatives to print? A film development tank is designed in a way that water can be poured in and out, yet light can not. There are different brands, but they all come with similar configurations. As well as you can find one for a single roll film, having a 2 or 3 roll tank can be valuable if you use the same film more often, this way you will spend less on chemicals. If you buy a used tank, be sure there are no cracks and it is still light-tight.
- Graduated beaker : A measuring beaker is a must as the chemicals come in concentration and need to be mixed with water in different ratios. You don’t need to buy a photographic beaker, but they have detailed grades of different measuring units. Having 2 of these will be handy between the stop and fixer baths, as the stop bath is only for about 30 seconds to a minute, and it leaves you little time to wash your beaker and prepare the fixer bath.
- Storage containers : For paper development, the prepared solutions will be good for another 24 hours or maybe a bit more depending on proper storage. If you want to save money on your chemical usage, get some accordion type containers, which can be pressed down to let as little air as possible, extending the time to keep it fresh. If you use regular glass bottles, choose darkest glass you can find and keep it tightly shut and away from light.
- Photographic chemicals : These indispensable items include film developer, paper developer, stop bath, and fixer, as well as optional photo-flu solution (hardening agent).
- Developing trays : You will need at least 3 trays, one for each bath, but better to have more in different sizes for different paper sizes and temperature manipulation.
- Film development reels : When you want to develop your films at home, you will roll your exposed film on these reels before you put them in the film development tank. Tanks are rarely sold with a reel, so you will need to buy them separately. Get as much as needed that your development tank can accommodate, this way you will be able to develop several films of the same type, at the same time.
- Safelight : Safelights come in different varieties, and you may find that a screw-in type safelight can be an option to use in a space with an already installed light fixture.
- Thermometers : Solution temperatures are important for all the chemicals and are optimally 20 °C to 24 °C for B & W development, so reliable thermometers are a must. Have a few around.
- Multigrade paper filters : This optional item is necessary if you want to use multigraded papers with a B&W enlarger. They are either placed in a filter holder or mounted on an adapter on the enlarger lens, depending on the model of the enlarger
- Spare bulbs : Have a spare lamp for your enlarger and a bulb for your safelight, as you never know when they would expire, and you don’t want to get caught up in the dark after you have prepared all your solutions.
- Contact print proofer: This optional item is handy when you prepare contact prints of each roll you develop. Contact prints are the old timers thumbnail preview, helps you to choose which negative to enlarge. It can easily be substituted with a clean window glass.
- Print tongs : Although solutions contain chemicals that might cause a rash on a sensitive skin, the best is using your fingers when you handle the paper, but if you want to play safe, tongs are good helpers. Try to find those with soft rubber tips, which prevent leaving marks or scratches on the papers.
Apart from these, one can find tons of other gadgets and practical tools to add, but having at least these items, will get you started with your new occupation 😉
Where to find? What to look for?
Apart from professional photographic stores and suppliers, Internet is now a great source to find used equipment in good condition, mostly much more economic than buying new. Local personal add sites like Craig’s list and E-Bay are two good places to start with. Check regularly and you are sure to find lot sales, which usually include many materials and equipment at the same time, some including even the enlarger. To keep your budget as affordable as possible, try to substitute some of the tools with basic household items.
On auction sites, try to find sellers that are relatively close to where you live, this way you might be able to pick it up yourself, or lower the shipping cost. Sending an enlarger by post is really not that complicated, and usually the person selling the enlarger knows how to carefully pack the fragile parts of the enlarger, so buying on the Internet is as well a good option you should inquire about.