Darkroom Equipment

Although digital photography has enjoyed the spotlight for some time now, there will always be a place in the world for good old analogue photography. Certain people like the qualities of film better, and others feel more satisfaction when using something solid they can hold in their hands. Certainly, no one can deny the excitement of seeing that image appear, shrouded in darkness with red light glowing above.  Think you're ready to set up your home darkroom?  Read on!


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Building Your Home Darkroom

Building a darkroom in your home need not be a daunting task.  However, it does take careful preparation and consideration. First, you will need to choose a space for your darkroom. Using a room without windows saves trouble in preparing the space. However, if you don't have such a space, do not be deterred.  Make sure you use something to block out all outside light.

Next, the room should be large enough for making prints on your enlarger  as well as doing one-step colour 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. The WC or laundry room is the ideal conversion space, as it's best to have a water source nearby.  You will also need good ventilation for dealing with chemicals. For especially small set-ups, 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 black fabric, a rug, or towel for the crack under the door. Paint the room black for optimal conditions if you have the option.

How do you know that your 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 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.  Here are some popular texts to lend some direction.

Darkroom Books

Kodak's Building a Home Darkroom  may be an older text, but its information is just as useful for the hobbyist or professional trying to take their development home. It's been a standard in darkroom libraries for years.

The Darkroom Cookbook  is a great easy-to-read guide that come in handy for beginners and experts. The book has received positive reviews.

The New Darkroom Handbook  is well written and intuitively organized. Illustrations and pictures help make heavy conceptual material come to life. The handbook is full of novel ideas and takes a human interest slant.


Tools and Equipment

Enlargers

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 hands-on alternative. However, if you've so far as 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.
    • Colour Head : These enlargers are generally just other head types with room for filters associated with colors.

Lenses

Your enlarging 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. You'll find it's a worthwhile investment.  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; 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.

Negative Size
Recommended Focal Length
35mm50mm to 75mm
6x6cm75mm to 90mm
6x9cm90mm to 105mm
4x5in135mm to 150mm

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.

Film Processing Tanks and Reels

Film processing tanks, also called development tanks, allow you to do your work with the lights on.  Film is spiralled 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  two main 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 is used to manually stir the chemicals.
  • Motorized: The tank is placed sideways and then a motor rotates it, effectively stirring the chemicals.

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 film developers include Kodak HC-110 ,Tetenal ULTRAFIN  and Ilford ID-11 . Different developers give different results, so 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
    • 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 Lights

Darkroom lighting is okay when using paper, but not film. Even with photo paper, you must be careful about 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 colour 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.

Other Darkroom Equipment


In the Light Room

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.

Light room Equipment