In a world where our lives are dominated by screens and we’re accustomed to instant gratification, film photography forces me to slow down, think, and enjoy the process.
The tactile feel of film and film cameras is important to me, and seeing a digital scan can, at times, feel underwhelming.
Printing my film photography in the darkroom is the ultimate reward. It’s where the journey from the click of the shutter ends with the final print. The smell of the chemistry, dialing in the right exposure, seeing an image emerge on the paper: it’s magical.
I grew up in the time when darkrooms were a familiar staple of high school art programs, but, as much as I enjoyed photography, I never printed in the darkroom until seven years ago, when I took a darkroom class in Charlotte at The Light Factory, an arts and education nonprofit. And then I took another class. And another. I was hooked.
After I was comfortable printing, a friend who is an art teacher lent me her enlarger, so I set up a home darkroom for my film photography. Since then, I’ve upgraded my enlarger and set up a second, more permanent darkroom.
Maybe you’ve developed your own film and printed in a darkroom previously or love the analogue process and want to set up your own home darkroom for black and white printing. Below is an overview to help you get started.
Finding the Right Room for Your At-Home Darkroom and Minimizing Light
You need a dark room – one that you can make completely light tight. This is one of the most important considerations, because even the smallest bit of light can fog the printing paper.
Many people choose to set up their darkroom in a room with no windows, such as an interior bathroom or a basement with limited light. I set up my first home darkroom in a spare room with three exterior windows!
After several unsuccessful attempts at blocking light, my husband and I built wood frames to hang over the window frames and covered them with black landscape plastic from a home improvement store.
This was the perfect solution for the room. You can also buy or make your own blackout curtains or craft inserts for the windows with foam board or similar. The key is to ensure that no light is seeping in.
You will also need to block any light coming under the door, which you can do with a rolled-up towel. You can also minimize light entering the room if you turn the lights off outside the darkroom.
It may seem counter intuitive, but it helps if your room has white or light-colored walls – it’ll help reflect your safelight, making it easier to see while you’re working.
Access to Running Water
Another consideration for the room is water. It’s nice, but not necessary, to have running water in your darkroom to rinse your final prints.
If you don’t have a sink in your darkroom, you can rinse your developed and fixed prints in a tray or bucket of water, and then take them to another room for a final rinse under running water.
Next, Gather the Equipment Needed for Your Darkroom
1. An Enlarger
If you want to start by making contact prints, or prints where the negative is placed directly on the paper, then you can skip the enlarger and test the rest of your setup with only a light.
If you want to print images that are bigger than the negative, you’ll need an enlarger (find on eBay). This is one of the most significant upfront costs for your darkroom.
An enlarger has several parts; however, especially in the secondary market, you’ll probably buy everything together and assembled. Read A Beginner’s Guide to Enlargers for an in-depth overview of the types of enlarger light sources and more.
Enlargers come in various sizes, and you should buy one that will support the largest negative size you think you’ll print. For example, if you only shoot 35mm film now and are remotely interested in trying medium format, then buy a medium format enlarger.
There are countless considerations for an enlarger. My advice is to look on a site like Craigslist, eBay, or Facebook Marketplace to find an enlarger in your area that you don’t have to pay to ship.
One hint: when you find an enlarger that you’re considering buying, do some research online before you buy it. Are people posting tips about it on forums? Has anyone written a blog post on how to use it? Do people report any consistent problems with it? Can you find the original manual online?
As with all glass in photography, increasing quality increases the cost. Other than the enlarger, this is the most significant investment you will make.
As with camera lenses, enlarging lenses (find on eBay) with smaller f stops are typically more expensive. A brighter lens (with a smaller f stop) will render a brighter image when you’re focusing and setting up the print. Better quality lenses will also create sharper prints.
There are three major manufacturers of enlarging lenses: Nikon, Rodenstock, and Schneider, although you will also find lenses from many other companies.
In addition to quality, you’ll need to ensure you buy a lens that will accommodate the various image formats that you print. You’ll find plenty of information online; for example, a 50mm lens will work for 35mm negatives and 75-90mm lens for 120 film, and 135-150mm for 4×5.
While you can use a longer lens to print smaller negatives, you will need to raise the enlarger head much more than you would with a 50mm. Conversely, if you use a 50mm lens to print 4×5 negatives, then you’ll get vignetting on the corners.
You’ll need to have darkroom trays or another container to hold your chemistry.
Trays are easy to find on the secondhand market, like eBay. It’s best to have trays for the various paper sizes that you’ll print: one for 8×10, 11×14, and so forth. The largest trays you can buy are usually 20×24.
Photographic papers used to be graded by contrast; now, you print on a multigrade paper and use filters to add or subtract contrast (or to use filters to both add and subtract, which is called split filter, or slit grade, printing).
When I first started printing in the darkroom, I didn’t use contrast filters, but now I consider them integral.
The Ilford Multigrade filter set is easy to find on eBay and works great.
You can buy dodging and burning tools, but you can also make them yourself. A dodging tool is anything that blocks the light in a part of the image to lessen the exposure, and a burn tool is anything that lets extra light hit part of the image to increase the exposure.
You can dodge with your hand, or cut out shapes and tape to a thin piece of wire. To burn, you can use pieces of cardboard.
14. An Apron and a Towel
I wear an apron in the darkroom to keep chemistry off of my clothes, and to have a pocket for a pen or pencil and my phone.
I also use a towel in case I get any chemistry on my hands or need to rinse and dry my hands.
I take notes for each of my prints – writing down the exposure time, f stop of the lens, if I split filter printed, and if I did any dodging and burning.
It’s come in handy for printing the same negative again, or for printing negatives from the same roll.
There are many ways you can configure your darkroom. A few thoughts:
Ideally you will have two separate flat surfaces: one for the enlarger and one for the chemistry, because it’s best to keep the enlarger space separate from the chemistry to keep the enlarger space dry and free from chemistry.
Protect wood or other porous surfaces from the chemistry with thick drop cloths or plastic.
You can set up your chemistry trays left to right or right to left, as long as you always put them in the same order: Developer, Stop, Fix, Wash.
Position your safelight in the area that will provide the most illumination. It’s best to avoid putting the safelight right next to the enlarger.
An ‘L’ shape is a great set up for the darkroom, where the small end of the L has the enlarger and the longer end contains the chemistry.
If that doesn’t work, set up the chemistry directly across from the enlarger, so you simply have to turn to place your paper into the developer.
One Final Note
Even if you don’t print in the darkroom, print your work!
Some ideas: Print a book every year, make prints to give to family and friends, frame prints for your house, or frame your work to submit in a show. You will never regret having prints of your work.
Do you have any questions about darkroom printing at home? Have you set up a darkroom at home? Let me know in the comments!