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 darkroom.
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 4×5 or 8×10 then you need other specific equipment. There are daylight processing tanks for 4×5 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 reels.
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 dry.
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 enlarger.
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 4×5 enlarger and it was of the diffusion type.
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 seconds.
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 4×5 plastic trays to 20×24 stainless steel trays. Generally 11×14 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 cheap!
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 right.
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 ofon 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.