Image by Christopher Paquette.
Building an analog darkroom at home to print from your negatives and process film is not as common these days as in the past since a computer and Photoshop have enabled photo editing to be done without a special printing space, chemicals, and running water. But if you are dedicated to shooting with film, especially black and white, the feeling of making beautiful large prints on actual photo paper with a chemical process, is a magical experience quite unlike anything that can be done in Photoshop, let alone sending your files off to a lab to be printed for you.
The process of printing your images in a darkroom is sort of like the way painters can manipulate paint on a canvas; it’s a more hands-on and tactile process for adjusting shadows and highlights. Rather than using the burn and dodge tools located in the sidebar on Photoshop, you actually use your hands to block or add light where it is needed on the image by timing the exposure the enlarger makes, giving you a sense of control that is more personal than what is achieved with a computer mouse or tablet pen. This really can make you a better photographer by understanding how light and time affect your image.
The good thing about digital cameras dominating in popularity over film these days is, many photographers have ditched their film equipment, therefore all the items needed can be found for pretty cheap from thrift stores, eBay, Craigslist, and local photo schools. But if you’re itching to get started, you can buy a processing and enlarging kit that contains everything you need to start printing. I’m not going to get into the actual steps of how to print from an enlarger and what each chemical is needed for, but how to set up a darkroom in a small space, in the cheapest way possible enabling you to print whenever you want, without going to school, paying hourly at a public darkroom, or sending your negatives off to a printer. A basic understanding of the analog print process is needed here.
Building a darkroom in your home can be done in many ways, depending on how much space you have and your budget. Here we will focus on a DIY darkroom space that can be removed easily if needed, one that functions in a temporary setting with minimal damage to your actual space. The main criteria for choosing a space is one that has access to running water nearby, a shelf or counter to fit the enlarger and printing trays on and to be able to block out all light entering the space. You will also need an electrical outlet for the print enlarger, timer, and safelight.
Image by Doctor Popular
I have built several black and white darkrooms – as well as for color negative printing in drums in a bathtub – in a variety of spaces from an actual small spare room, to sectioning off a corner of a room or basement, to squeezing in the confines of a bathroom. The more space you have, the more comfortable your printing experience will be, but a basic darkroom space can be made in an area of about 5 x 4 feet or smaller. I am going to offer some tips for building one the cheapest possible way.
To section off part of a room, you can buy cheap plywood from a hardware store, constructing a temporary wall with metal brackets screwed on the adjoining walls and ceiling to create an area similar to a narrow walk in closet. You also need a door space cut out of the wood for entering and exiting the darkroom, using thick black material nailed on that is wider than the actual door space, to prevent any light from spilling in. This might not look pretty, but it’s a way to keep a dedicated printing area set up in a room, and it very easy to build. You will also need a shelf running lengthwise to fit the printing trays side by side; so from the developer, stop, fixer, and water wash, the length of the shelf will be based on the size of your trays. Since the trays are very lightweight, again cheap plywood does the job. A sturdier shelf is needed to support the weight of the enlarger, and a shelf or two underneath for storing unexposed paper and various accessories such as bottles, negative carrier, enlarger easel, thermometers, etc.
Can’t build a wall in your bedroom or living room? Well, this basic darkroom construction can be done without the wall in any sort of space you can make lightproof, such as a bedroom or small closet. I once had a printing area underneath a loft bed, with my desk doubling as the space for setting the printing trays and enlarger on, then storing everything under the bed after a printing session. It really wasn’t that difficult, but having a dedicated block of time for a long printing session was key to making it worth bringing everything out. Whatever space you choose, you must be able to completely block out ALL outside light from entering the darkroom space when removing unexposed photo paper for printing.
Image by Stuart Caie
One way is to do all of your printing at night, with all nearby house lights off. I have worked like this when housemates were asleep, but soon wanted the option to print during daylight hours, so making the darkroom space light tight offered a lot more freedom. To do this, you need to sit for a few minutes inside the darkroom space you made with the plywood wall and curtain door (or the room you are using) allowing your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Any light from sunlight or room lights entering the space will be apparent. You can take heavy black plastic garbage bags or black material and black Gaffer’s Tape to essentially just plug up all the spaces where light is entering through cracks under the door, windows, or around the plywood wall.
Next, you need to test this. Using a sheet of unexposed photo paper, place the paper emulsion side up with a coin on top with the safelight on. Allow it to sit for a few minutes, then run the paper thru the same chemical steps for developing a print. After it passes thru the fixer, take the paper out into a room with light and observe where you placed the coin. If you see a circle outline on the paper as lighter than the rest of the sheet, you have light leaking in the dark room to fix. Repeat this process until the developed paper comes out entirely white, meaning your darkroom is completely light free.
Image by Hunter Desportes
Perhaps most critical in any darkroom is meticulously keeping dry and wet areas separated. While most of the printing process is done under a red safelight, keeping everything systematically organized greatly helps when having to navigate the space in total darkness. Also labeling and dating each chemical and habitually keeping the space clean will make your printing experience a lot easier.
If you don’t have running water or a sink in your space, you can carry the prints to a bathroom for washing in the tub or sink, and squeegee the paper dry on a mirror or shower wall. A drying area for the prints can be made with (cleaned) window screens or dried with a hair dryer on low heat.
Also, an important issue to not overlook is proper ventilation in the darkroom from the chemicals. You can get fancy with things from a hardware store, or cut out a hole in the plywood wall and point a fan running out of it. But during long printing sessions, it is good for your health to take breaks and get fresh air. You are working with chemicals. If you need to take a break and go back to printing hours later, you can lay a sheet of plastic wrap on top of the chemicals in the tray to prevent air from reaching them, without having to put it all away.