|Setting Up A Home Darkroom
by Chuck McKern
Even with digital technology becoming more and more popular, there are still a lot of people looking to set up traditional chemical darkrooms at home. There are several things that need to be planned out and decided on before setting up. Careful consideration needs to be given to location, equipment you need and/or want, and what kind of printing and developing you want to do. Most people start with a black and white darkroom since it is the easiest to set up and start with. Learning color techniques is much easier if you've first mastered black and white.
Choosing the Right Spot
You'll need running water. Utility rooms work well as darkrooms provided there is enough space. The water is needed for mixing chemicals, rinsing film, and washing prints, as well as cleaning up. If you don't have a room with running water see if there is a room that shares a common wall with one that does. If you're handy it should be relatively easy to tap into those pipes to put a faucet and drain into your new darkroom. It's worth considering a specially designed darkroom sink. These sinks allow you to have a wet workspace for laying out your trays. These make chemical splashes easy to clean up and prevent spills from ruining a table or counter top.
While you're thinking about darkroom sinks and counter tops, it's a good time to start thinking about what size prints you want to make. If you are going to do tray processing (for black and white), you will need room to spread out at least three trays and a water bath. The trays will need to be big enough to immerse your prints. Most people will only want to do up to 8x10 or 11x14 prints. If you want to do 16x20 or bigger prints, think about using print drums with an agitator base instead of trays. This way you will only need a tray large enough to wash the prints. We will talk about the print drums and agitators a little later.
Your darkroom will need good ventilation. The chemical fumes from basic darkroom chemicals aren't all that bad but once you close the door to the darkroom and you're in there for a while, the air can tend to get a little heavy and the lack of fresh air can give you a slight headache. If the room doesn't have enough air circulation vents and electric fans can be installed in a wall or door to provide better air circulation. Just make sure you look for vent fans designed for darkroom use. They'll have a light damper to prevent stray light from entering the room.
You'll also want to consider the humidity in your dark room. Dry air will make it harder to control dust in your darkroom. If the room is dry a humidifier will keep moisture in the air and dust down.
Next you'll need to check the room for light tightness. If the room with a window don't get out the hammer and plywood just yet! There is a material available from your photo suppliers to black out windows in a darkroom, called simply black out material. It can be removed easily, so you don't have to loose daylight all the time. Check the door(s) to the room. You may need to get some weather seal to line the doorway to make the door light tight. You may also be surprised to find out that the corners of a room are not necessarily light tight. In these cases, it may be as simple as taking black gaffers tape and taping the corners of the room. The easiest way to check for the light tightness of the room, is to go in the room on a sunny day and temporarily block out the window (if there is one), and wait a couple of minutes for your eyes to adjust. If you see any light coming in you'll need to find a way to block it out.
The most common type of developing tank is a plastic tank that can hold two 35mm rolls. The reels for these tanks are usually adjustable so that you're able to use the same reel for 120 film also (if you do that, you will only be able to develop one roll in that tank). After you screw on the lid, there is a tight slip on cap that will allow you access to pour in/out the chemicals. I find plastic tanks work well for black and white developing. If you are doing color film developing, stainless steel tanks are better because its easier to control the temperature of the chemicals in the tank. This is critical for color developers. Unlike most black and white developers, which are used at or near room temperture, color developers are used closer to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Most color developers only have a temperature tolerance of ½ of a degree in either direction and temperatures can drop pretty quickly in a plastic tank.
Chemical storage bottles will be needed for storing your chemicals. Most of the chemicals that you will use will be diluted from a stock solution that you mix from a concentrate. This stock solution should be stored in a bottle that is not transparent. This helps prolong the life of the chemicals. Plastic bottles are fine for most photographic chemicals and I recommend them because they will not shatter like glass if they're dropped. Most chemical bottles designed for darkroom use have special areas on them where you can use a pencil to write the name of the chemical, date it was mixed, dilution ratio, and any other notes needed for that particular chemical.
A good thermometer is important to determine the temperature of your developer prior to immersing your film. This is important because the developing time varies on film based on the developer temperature and when mixing chemicals, some solutions will not dissolve properly unless mixed at the proper temperatures. I recommend a stainless steel dial thermometer. They don't break easily and they usually have a clip to hang from the side of a graduated cylinder.
Graduated cylinders are important to accurately measure the chemicals. I keep one just for use with my developing tank. My tank holds 20 ounces and my graduate is 24 ounces. I use a much larger graduate for mixing my stock solutions. Finally you'll need stirring rods to ensure that chemicals are mixed thoroughly.
When it comes to drying the film, I ran a piece of clothesline across one end of my darkroom to hang film to dry. There are special clips made for use in darkrooms to hang film or prints. I find that clothespins work fine for film.
After the film is dry, it is a good idea to cut the negatives and put them into negative sleeves. I recommend sleeves that will fit in any standard three ring binder. This will provide a good place for storage. After you have cut the negs it's a good idea to make contact sheets, punch them with a three hole punch, and put in the binder with the negatives. This will make it a lot easier to find an individual image later on.
Easels are great for holding your paper flat under the enlarger during exposure. They are available with and without borders and many are adjustable to cover several different print sizes.
Probably the most important piece of equipment is the enlarger. There are several things to consider when deciding on an enlarger. The first is the size prints you want to make and what format films you'll be shooting. Not all enlargers can handle medium and large format negatives. Limiting yourself to 35mm will help keep your cost down. Larger formats usually mean a more expensive enlarger, more negative carriers and lenses. I also recommend getting an enlarger that can handle sizes larger than you intend to print. If you want to print 8x10s an enlarger that can do 11x14 will make life a little easier. An 8x10 enlarger usually only allows for 8x10s with no cropping. If you have the capability to do 11x14, you will have plenty of room to crop those 8x10s to the way you want them. If you see color printing in you future, make sure that your enlarger will be able to add a color head. A color head has all the color filters built into the color head that will allow you to dial in the correct filter pack. Not all black and white enlargers are convertible to color.
You may want to use print tongs for handling the prints while going through the process. Some people prefer to use surgical style gloves for the hands-on touch. These gloves are available in most pharmacies.
There are several ways to dry prints at home. The simplest and least expensive is a blotter book. Blotter books are spiral bound books that have absorbent pages to soak up the water. These books are slow to dry and can leave lint behind. You can also get drying racks to stack prints to air dry. If you are using fiber-based papers, you can buy electric dryers that have a curved aluminum center that heats up and has hinged canvas cover that will hold the print to the metal. These are a little more expensive but can dry fiber-based papers quickly. If you are using resin-coated papers, you can also use film clips to hang them on that clothesline that you use to hang film to dry.
These items represent a basic starting point that will let you start developing and printing. There are plenty of other accessories that can be used in your darkroom for special types of printing that can be added as you want or need them.
In my next darkroom article I'll help you through deciding which developers and chemicals to use as well as the difference between papers and how to decide which papers are right for you.