Tired of the cold world of pixels and image-editing programs? Wake up and smell the Dektol!
In this age of digital domination, I’ve noticed that there’s a backlash is developing—literally. People are clamoring to get back to the roots of photography…and in many cases, that means building and using a black-and-white darkroom. Black and white, because of its relative ease of processing, is easy to control; as a result, many darkroom enthusiasts are able to make interpretive prints. Even if you can find someone who will do machine prints—a rare find these days—doing it yourself is more creative and rewarding.
But if you’ve never had a darkroom before, where do you begin?
Developing film is a fairly straightforward affair, equipment-wise. All you need is a film tank, a good thermometer, containers to hold developer, stop bath, and fixer, and a room that you can make totally dark.
Printing is a bit more complex. Choices of paper, developer, toner and darkroom exposure and processing time decisions can change the mood and feel of an image while still faithfully reproducing the information on the negative.
We’ll get to actually developing film and prints another time. For now, let’s look at what you need to set up a darkroom and prepare it for developing film and making prints.
Building a darkroom
A basic darkroom requires three things: running water, sturdy work surfaces, and total light blockage. A basement room, a kitchen or spare bathroom can be converted into darkroom space. Ideally, you should dedicate one room.
A darkroom is divided into a Dry Side, where printing, reel loading and other non-chemical tasks take place, and a Wet Side, where the actual chemical processing is done.
Items you'll need for the Dry Side are:
• film tanks and reels which you load film onto for processing; an enlarger OGC700, which is used to project the processed negative onto paper for printing; This is the most important item you'll buy, and will also be the most expensive.
• a light-tight paper safe, where you will store printing paper;
• a safe light, which provides amber-colored light so you can see what you are doing without ruining the paper (since photographic paper is not sensitive to amber light at low levels);
• a timer, to time your exposures;
• an Easel, which holds paper in place under the enlarger as it is being exposed;
• a grain magnifier, which helps you to focus the enlarger;
• a paper cutter (preferably rotary) to trim your paper;
• sufficient storage space for the above.
Items you'll need for the Wet Side are:
• running water, with as much temperature control as you can afford;
• a sink, set in a countertop that's at least 5 feet long. This will give you enough room for trays, chemistry, etc.
• A funnel for pouring chemistry into storage containers
• one deep tray with holes drilled on one side;
• Four smaller trays, preferably 11x14;
• Print Tongs, for handling prints in processing trays;
• Film clips for hanging processed film to dry;
• Small, medium and large graduates, for measuring and mixing chemicals
• About 6-10 large dark bottles for chemical storage;
• Surgical gloves and face masks, for protection while mixing and handling chemicals
In general, you will also need:
• at least two safelights, one near the enlarger on the dry side and one over the trays on the wet side;
• a print dryer or blotter;
• a dust-free area to hang film to dry.
The stuff you need in the darkroom can cost as little as a few hundred dollars or well above a thousand. Some inexpensive pre-packaged kits are available, although if you stick with it, you will find your needs will quickly outpace these kits' capabilities. Ready to get started? Browse around the Adorama Darkroom department and you’ll find everything you’ll need.
When designing a darkroom, be sure to block all light sources. If there is a window, use black masking tape and heavy gauge aluminum foil over the window, plus blackout shades. For doors, hang a blackout shade in front of the door that hangs to the floor and beyond the door's sides. If this is difficult, try to do most of your work at night, with lights out outside the door to the darkroom. If this is still impossible, buy a changing bag so you can load film even in daylight (film is more sensitive to ambient light than paper, so be really paranoid about light).
Ventilation is also important. An air vent that doesn't let in light is essential, because the chemicals do give off fumes that are not especially healthy if subjected to prolonged exposure. (On the other hand, many photographers have unusually long life spans, yet they spend hours a day in poorly ventilated darkrooms. Go figure.)
Since there are a number electricity-driven devices in the darkroom (enlarger, timers, safe lights and dryers, as well as a radio for entertainment), you'll want to have ample electrical outlets and enough current to handle the load.
Make sure there is enough space to store everything, including a space to keep prints and extra paper. The best place for chemical storage is under the sink and tray area. A small refrigerator will help you prolong the life of your paper and chemicals, so that too is a good, though optional, investment.
Work space should be a comfortable height for standing (around waist height--kitchen cabinets and counters, which can be purchased at home improvement stores, are ideal), and a comfortable raised chair will come in handy during long sessions. Also, a rubberized floor will make it easier on your feet when you're moving around.
Finally, if you have the space, leave room for finishing tasks: matting, framing, and mounting.
The above article is an updated version of an article that originally appeared in Black and White World.