To create beautiful and personalized analog photographs, there is no substitute for the home studio darkroom. The excitement in seeing that image appear before your eyes, shrouded in darkness with red light glowing above you is irreplaceable. This guide will direct you in darkroom preparation and photo developing at home.
Building Your Darkroom
Building a darkroom in your home is not a difficult task. However, it does take careful preparation and consideration of various aspects. First and foremost, you will need to choose a space for your darkroom. Ideally it should be a room without windows, like a converted bathroom, which saves trouble in preparing the space. However, if you don't have such a space, do not be deterred. Simply make sure that no outside light is allowed into your room.
Next, the room should be large enough for making prints on your enlarger as well as doing one-step color processing or black and white prints. Usually an area of about five feet by four feet will provide ample space for one person, particularly if you don't plan on doing chemical processing, rinsing, or even the finishing steps on site. A bathroom or laundry room is the ideal conversion space, as it's best to have a water source nearby and you will definitely need good ventilation when dealing with chemicals. For especially small setups, a large closet may be an option.
Once you've chosen or created a space, you need to make sure that it is free from all sources of light. Windows should be taped with opaque black tape, then covered with felt and wood. The door jams need to be sealed off completely. Try using fabric, a rug, or towel for the crack under the door. Also, if you can, paint the room black for optimal conditions.
To make sure that the room is dark enough, go inside with a piece of white paper. Stay in there with the lights off for at least 15 minutes. If the paper becomes readily visible, then there is too much light. Your eyes should never "adjust."
You will need an electrical source available in the room so that red lighting and maintenance equipment can be plugged in.
Do Your Homework
It will be very difficult to get your own photo development station up and running without significant research. No one voice is going to have all the answers and studying what the experts say is a pivotal part of finding out what's best for you. Here are some popular texts to lend some direction.
Tools and Equipment
An enlarger is a projector that produces photographic prints from film. Without an enlarger, you will either be forced to deal with tiny photos or giant cameras. Automated print machines offer a less exciting alternative. However, if you've gone far enough to build a darkroom, then you are certainly a devoted enough hobbyist to do your own enlargements. If it is economically feasible, a variable contrast enlarger is a good bet. Make sure your enlarger comes with a baseboard and a column in addition to the head and the bellows. You may need to purchase the negative carrier separately.
* '''Types of Enlarger (determined by the head)'''
** ''Condenser Head'': The standard enlarger type. Light is focused through large lenses prior to passing through film.
** ''Diffusion Head'': Diffusion heads soften light and reduce the Callier effect.
** ''Dichroic Head'': Intended for color use, these enlargers use subtractive filtration to increase color and vibrance.
** ''Cold Light Head'': A fluorescent tube provides the light for these enlargers. They offer more control than other heads.
** ''Color Head'': These enlargers are generally just other head types with room for filters associated with colors.
Your enlarger's lens is one of the most important tools for home photo development and you should be willing to fork out some significant cash to get the best one available. An enlarger lens is not a camera lens, and using a camera lens in its place will give disappointing results. Any lens will work on any enlarger, so if forced to decide between an expensive enlarger and a top quality lens, go with the lens. You can always upgrade your enlarger if a less expensive one fails you and the quality of your work will not suffer. The focal size of lens that is fitted into the enlarger differs depending on the negative format you are using for that particular photo series. Here's a small chart to give you some direction on the matter.
Avoid cloudy or oily lenses and look for something that caters to your needs. You'll also want to test your lens' contrast and fall off towards the edges. As with photographic lenses, certain enlarger lenses have special capabilities that may suit your needs.
* '''Major Lens Manufacturers'''
Film Processing Tanks and Reels
Film processing, or development, tanks allow you to do your work with the lights on without the fear of destroying your photographs. It is where roll film is developed. Film is spiraled onto a reel then placed into the tank, which is then closed. The tank is light-tight. Spiraling the film ensures that chemicals get to every piece of the film's surface. There are essentially two kinds of tanks: steel and plastic.
* '''Steel Tanks'''
** ''Pro'': Durable, good heat conduction, reels and tanks highly interchangeable
** Con: Cap can be difficult to remove, spiraling film onto reels more difficult than with plastic, different reels for different film sizes
* '''Plastic Tanks'''
** ''Pro'': Easy film-loading, easy-to-open caps, reels often work with several film sizes
** ''Con'': Can be expensive, reels and tanks are generally not interchangeable, reels must be dry before loading
There are also three types of agitation methods used by any particular tank. Those methods are ...
* '''Inversion''': Tank is flipped over to mix chemicals.
* '''Spindle''': A spindle attached to the reel stirs the chemicals (with the assistance of your hand).
* '''Motorized''': The tank is placed sideways and then a motor rotates it, effectively stirring the chemicals.
Darkroom chemicals come in both powder and liquid forms. Liquids tend to be more expensive, but less messy and vastly more safe, than powders. Go with a premade liquid unless you're really confident.
* '''Film Developers'''
** Development chemicals are probably the most important and sensitive chemicals you'll be dealing with. Developers are light-sensitive, so using a black jug for storage is a must. Develops also go bad faster than other chemicals when exposed to oxygen. Make sure developers are properly sealed. Developers are produced by a number of companies, most prominently by Kodak. Some popular film developers include Kodak HC-110, Edwal FG7, Edwal Litho-F, and Ilford ID-11. Different developers give different results, choose carefully.
* '''Stop Bath'''
** A stop bath can be any number of chemicals, including water if there is a plentiful source available. A stop bath stops developer from continually working on a film. While water can be used, it is not particularly effective. As such, an acetic acid is a better bet. Stop baths are always added to water, NEVER vice versa. Several companies make specific mixes intended for use as indicator stop baths, meaning that they change color when the bath is no longer effective. Stop baths are sold online and in photography stores in two strengths: 28% and 98%. Go with 28% for home use.
** Fixer stops paper from being light-sensitive. Without fixer, a photo print will eventually turn black. Any normal fixer should be fine for beginners using a one-bath system, but rapid fixers might be a smarter bet for those with experience.
Darkroom lighting is okay when using paper, but not film. Even with photo paper, you must be careful what kind of light you allow in your darkroom. The least expensive and most common option are plain red bulbs. A Kodak Brownie will screw into a regular light fixture, but give you the versatility of both black and white and color filters. Any industrial lamp with proper filters will work, but different lights will certainly affect your final prints in different ways. A lamp that spreads light gradually through the room is best.
The light room may actually be in the same location as the darkroom, but with the lights turned on. The light room is the room in which a photographer initiates the development process and puts on the finishing touches. You can store your finished work here and take care of cropping and spot repair. A light room set up isn't cut and dry. It could be in your bedroom or a dedicated area. Relax, throw on some tunes and finish the job.