A Simple Guide to Setting Up Your Own Photographic Darkroom
Every two weeks, we revisit some of our reader favorite posts from throughout the history of Phototuts+. This tutorial was first published in November of 2009.
It takes a lot of ambition, interest, and curiosity to have the drive to go back to the traditional roots of photography and get stuck into manual photographic printing and processing. For me, however, I find this to be an utterly rewarding process in my constant exploration of the medium.
In this tutorial, I will go through the basics of what is needed to set up your very own black and white photographic darkroom.
Manual processing is very fickle in the sense that every element, no matter how minute, can have a profound effect on the final image produced. All variables (i.e. water temperature, exposure duration, etc.) need to be taken into account when producing an image as the slightest variation in these elements can cause a completely different result (sometime rewarding, but sometimes frustrating).
In this tutorial, I will go through the basics of what is needed to set up your very own black and white photographic darkroom. Please keep in mind that what I am about to teach you only covers black and white photographic printing and processing, not colour printing and processing. This is because both consist of entirely different processes of setup and development.
What happens in a dark room can be divided into two phases: exposure and development. Exposure is the phase where you get your image onto a print by essentially using light to burn the image details onto a piece of photographic paper. However, after photographic paper is exposed, the detail is still invisible to the naked eye and bringing it out takes place in the second phase - development. Manual photography is achieved through chemical reactions and the development phase is where these reactions are initiated and controlled. Think of this phase as an assembly line where different parts or stations complete a unique aspect of the process.
Black and white photographic development is a 4-step process.
A print needs to be run through developer (to reveal the image detail), stop bath (to stop the effects of the active development), fixer (to finalise or "fix" the image in its current state) and finally rinsed in water (to remove any final traces of chemicals that may further alter your image). Don't worry if you are confused - I will go into these steps in more detail as the tutorial progresses.
It doesn't take much to set up your own darkroom. A room that is light tight is essential, because photographic paper and film are light sensitive. If they are prematurely exposed to light your images will be sacrificed to over exposure.
To make sure your room is light tight close the door and turn off the lights to check for any sign of outside light creeping through. If there is, use a towel, black garbage bag or duct tape to block the intruding brightness.
Easy access to running water is a must for chemistry mixing and print washing. This is because you will need to change your rinsing water frequently to avoid any contamination of your paper or chemicals, as the fixer that is washed off in the final tray can become slightly concentrated to the point of ruining your freshly developed images.
The materials that you will need for your dark room are as follows:
Depending on the dimensions of the images you are wanting to print, at least four photographic chemistry trays will be needed. Each tray will contain a different chemical to aid in the development process.
The safelight is used in the darkroom when handling unexposed or undeveloped black and white images and photographic paper. It creates either a brown or red glow so that you are able to do your thing in the darkroom and still be able to see.
If you are new to this, it may take a little bit of time for your eyes to adjust. The safe light can be put in any lamp and should be placed somewhere that is easily reachable.
Thirdly, you will need four tongs for each tray to be able to turn over your prints and move them from tray to tray. It is best to avoid your skin coming into contact with the chemicals to prevent any future health problems.
Finally you will want to consider getting a photographic enlarger.
This device is used for creating an enlarged image from your negatives, to be exposed to your desired size onto photographic paper. If you are able to get a hold of one for an affordable price, by all means grab it. If not, it's not the end of the world. Having a photographic enlarger is a plus but is not essential for printing and exposing images. It is still possible to create visually appealing images without an enlarger (see our forthcoming articles on photograms and contact printing).
The chemicals you will need are black and white paper developer, stop bath, and fixer.
The paper developer is responsible for developing the image on the exposed paper. While in the developer, you are able to see the image slowly emerge from a blank piece of paper. It's quite amazing to watch.
Stop bath is a chemical solution responsible for bringing the developing of the image to a halt. If the image stays in developer for too long, the image can get too dark to the point of blackness thus stop is responsible for 'stopping' and rinsing the image from developer.
There are several choices for stop bath. One option is to buy acetic acid which is like a form of concentrated vinegar.
For a cheaper option purchase a jug of pickling vinegar at your local grocer - about 1/8 of a cup mixed with approximately 950ml of water should do the job.
As a final option, you could always purchase a premixed bottle of stop bath, which is usually very affordable.
Lastly, fixer, which is essential to the developing process as it "fixes" your image in it's final state, allowing the image to be exposed to light as a finished product. If the image is exposed to light without fixer, even after the developing and stopping process, the image can still get fogged or turn completely black. You can purchase fixer at any photographic specialty store. Please refer to the label for solution mixing ratios and measurements.
Get yourself three large glass jars to store your chemistry in after you have completed your printing session, as the solutions can be stored and reused on several sessions.
Last, but most certainly not least is black and white photographic paper (also available at any photographic specialty store or online).
It comes in a variety of sizes and brands, and you also have the option of purchasing it in warm tone for sepia-style colouring (an old style photo look, with a brown-like tint).
Make sure to mark the trays and tongs according to which chemicals they were used with, as you don't want to contaminate your chemistry or paper.
If contamination does occur, your paper will get brown or yellow blotches similar to the following:
These are certainly not visually pleasing, and pose the risk of compromising image longevity. The order to place your chemistry trays is as follows; developer, stop, fix and rinse. Some people like to have a fifth tray for either a second stop tray, or a second fixing tray. This is really a matter of personal preference and neither are essential.
Most, if not all darkroom equipment can be found at a photographic specialty store. Since digital photography has taken the world by storm, you may find it a little challenging to find what you are looking for, however, there is no secret as to where to find everything you need.
I would always give Goodwill, Salvation Army, eBay or Craigslist a shot. You will be surprised at how people are literally giving away their equipment. As for photographic chemistry and paper, again, any photographic specialty store should have what you are looking for. For solution mixing utensils, all you will need are two funnels (one marked for developer and one marked for fixer), a water jug with measurements on the side (strictly used only for water), and three measuring beakers for measuring the chemicals. These are best to have in large sizes that go up to one litre.
Finally, you will need a timer so that you can keep track of your developing time of each image in each tray. Now you're good to go!
If, like me, you have successfully managed to turn your tiny bathroom into a fully functioning darkroom, the best thing would be to place the three chemistry trays in your bath tub. Otherwise, somewhere fairly spacious and flat will suffice. Make sure to keep your photographic paper and not-yet-developed images in a dry area, at a distance from your chemistry trays. The safelight should be placed in an area that is easily accessible and dry, and the same goes for the enlarger.
Common Problems and Obstacles
If you are unable to find a room that has running water, don't worry. As long as you do have access to running water within a close proximity of your darkroom, then it is still very possible to continue with your printing endeavours.
Remember to frequently change your rinsing tray water and always wash your hands if you come into contact with the chemistry. This will prevent chemistry contamination marks on your prints, as well as the prevention of any future health problems. Keep everything as clean and dry as possible and wash your trays and tongs thoroughly after every printing session.
Experiment, have fun, and soon you will begin to establish your own rhythm and order in darkroom developing. You'll be hooked in no time!