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Do It Yourself Home Darkroom

Courtesy of Chris Groenhout

It seems, in this age of high quality digital scanning and output, that the days of the chemical darkroom are over. I'll admit, it's five years since I've shot a B&W roll of film for a client - there's just no demand anymore. Yet now, more than ever, the traditional darkroom has found its niche as the true photographic artists' sanctuary. Nothing can replace the excitement of watching your first print appear in the developer tray, or the control offered by ones' choice of developer, dilution and time when processing film. And while digital methods (even cameras) can approximate a black and white photograph (and offer some definite advantages in terms of retouching and tonal control), there is no substitute for the intangible and subtle quality offered by the conventional silver gelatin B&W print.

Processing and printing your own black and white photographs is not only easy, but also very satisfying. While it is possible to set up a temporary darkroom in a bathroom or even kitchen, for reasons of health and safety, I don't recommend this. No matter how fastidious you are will chemical spillages, you can never be sure that you've cleaned it all up and around food, you have to be especially careful! Black and white chemicals are not as dangerous as some colour chemicals, but this should not be a justification for carelessness. Years ago, Ilford published a warning to users of Ilfospeed developer that it could affect the sperm-count of male users - whether or not this decreased or indeed increased sales of the product is not known! But as a general rule, treat all chemicals as if they're poison, clean up spills, wash hands and always mix powdered chemistry outside or in a well ventilated place.


Now that I've scared you, here's a step by step rundown of the making of a simple home darkroom...

(1) Find a suitable space. As previously mentioned, bathrooms are not recommended, but at a stretch and with care, can be used as a temporary darkroom. My current darkroom is housed in a small laundry situated outside my apartment. Unused for years, I emptied, cleaned and painted the room and it serves the purpose quite nicely. Sheds are also a good option though making them light-tight can be tricky if their roof has no ceiling. Look for a space preferably with running water, electricity and a minimum of natural light. This may seem obvious, but I've seen friends try to set up darkrooms with none of the above and the frustration of it all made their life hell!


(2) Light-proof the room. Start by blocking out any window(s) with two layers of heavy black garden plastic. In situations where the room is multi-purpose, stretch the plastic over a wooden frame which hooks over the window while the darkroom is in use. With the window darkened, close the door and have a look where light leaks around it. Felt draught exclusion strips are great for small cracks, but larger gaps need either a strip of wood nailed around or a flap of black card which overlaps the edge of the door to prevent stray light. A plastic or fabric curtain covering the door is another option but can be more of a nuisance when moving in and out of the room with trays or equipment. The inevitable light leak along the bottom of the door could be more difficult to solve - try a pivoting draught exclusion strip or as a temporary measure, a carpet snake! To test for effectiveness, go in on a bright sunny day, close the door and wait 5 minutes. This will give you an idea of the smaller cracks and crevices which need attention. Attend to this now, and you won't stress out in situations like you're loading high-speed film into the processing tank and you can actually see what you're hands are doing! If it's all too impossible, maybe you've got a darkroom that can only be used at night, and if that's when you're most likely to have the time to process and print, this might be fine.


(3) Clean and paint the room. Using a brush or sandpaper, remove all loose material from the walls and seal with an appropriate paint. Despite anything you've heard - white is the best colour for a darkroom. If you're worried about light bouncing around - eliminate the source as the benefits from having white walls outweighs any time spent blocking light spills. Another coat of sealant which can be wiped clean is worth consideration as chemical spills will generally dry brown and be quite visible. Also clean everything thoroughly - it can't hurt!
(4) Allocate 'Wet' and 'Dry' areas. Obvious as it seems, this is one of the earliest and most important decisions you can make. Chemical contamination of unexposed paper and splashes from the print washer reaching mains electricity can not only be frustrating but dangerous. If possible, make your 'wet' area near your supply of running water and the 'dry' area near the electricity outlet (though not as essential as the location of your plumbing). Your 'wet' area is for all storing and mixing of chemicals, tank and tray processing and the washing of equipment. The 'dry' area is for your enlarger, storage of photographic paper and equipment ready for use such as developing tanks. Maybe also hang a couple of old towels on the back of the door so you always have dry hands when loading film into reels and printing.
(5) Provide some ventilation. This is a difficult one but worthy of some consideration. Ideally, a light-proof extraction fan above the 'wet' area should be installed, but this is expensive and often impractical. One suggestion is to utilise a range-hood extraction fan to remove any chemical fumes. These can be obtained quite cheaply from a building supply warehouse and are simple to install as well as easy to light-proof. Conventional extraction fans (such as used in bathrooms) are even cheaper and can be installed into a ceiling above your 'wet' area so long as there's no stray light from skylights etc. Be careful when dealing with chemical fumes - nasty symptoms can creep up on you, sometimes days after a printing session!

(6) Make some bench space. Firstly you'll need a bench, or ideally a sink to accommodate three or more trays with which to process your exposed photographic paper. If you only intend to produce 8x10 inch prints, something as small as 30x12 inches could suffice, though in practice, a larger area is always preferable. As a general rule, it's best to use trays one size larger than the maximum intended print size (eg. 11x14 trays for 8x10 prints) for reasons of processing consistency and ease of use. If you're careful with spills, a laminated bench is an adequate work area - just don't overfill trays and clean up any spills as they happen.

A 'dry' bench needs to support the enlarger and provide space for the timer, paper and negatives as well. Keep this area as clean and dry as possible and you'll be rewarded with dust-free and predictable results. Often forgotten, but always essential is storage space for paper, scissors, thermometer etc... A couple shelves above the enlarger and a few draws below should suffice.


(7) Organise washing and drying facilities. Water quality can make or break the best of darkrooms, so it's important to maximise what resources you have at hand. While a supply of hot water is not essential, clean, cold water is necessary for mixing chemicals as well as washing film and prints. As a test, put a tray under the tap and run it for 15 minutes. If there are any particles at the bottom of the tray, you need a water filter. Even if there isn't any evidence of residue, a water filter is as useful as a surge filter on a computer system. A cheap solution is a filter used for in-ground garden watering. Wrap a few layers of stocking around the centre element to catch the fine fragments before they get to your precious emulsion. A clip-on tap filter (about $2 from grocers) is also quite effective, though be sure to change it regularly to maintain effectiveness.
Properly washing prints is an art in itself and can require a little forethought. On the simplest level, running water in a tray can work if it enters at one end and exits at the other. Otherwise it just circulates the chemicals and does little or no washing. Sophisticated wash systems are an elaboration on this theme and can be home-made with a length of plastic tubing and a modified processing tray. Patterson water siphons are also quite effective as they clip onto the side of the tray and fill / empty it cyclically to reduce chemical residue. The rule here is - don't spend a lot of money - experiment with what you have and if it doesn't work, use some home-grown ingenuity!


As with washing, drying depends on cleanliness of a different nature. Essentially the longer it takes for the film to dry, the greater the chance of dust settling on the surface. So a cabinet with a filtered supply of warm air is ideal. This also protects the film from chemical splashes and can be used to dry processing reels and warm the darkroom in cold weather. For this purpose I've utilised a vertical clothes drying cabinet ($15 from an op-shop) which has fan-forced air of varying temperatures. It doubles as a print drying cabinet and wet tanks and reels sit on the top after use (they tend to melt inside). An option to this is a fan-heater located inside a home-made cupboard, but make sure there's some vents to allow air in and out or you might have a fire on your hands!


(8) Set up a Safelight. This may appear easier than it really is, as its installation is always a compromise between the potential fogging of paper and darkroom's ease of use. With modern, multigrade papers, the correct colour of safelight is more important than ever, so be sure to check the bulb / filter with the paper you're planning to use. This can be done when your darkroom is up and running by placing a coin on a blank sheet of photographic paper and leaving it illuminated by safelight for 10 minutes or so. If the coin's outline appears once processed, you might have a problem. Bouncing the light off the ceiling will reduce potential harm to paper and evenly spread the light throughout the darkroom. This will also minimise shadows and reduce the need for multiple safelights. If you're still having problems, reduce the globe's wattage to 25W or as a last resort, use a red rather than traditional amber filter in the safelight enclosure.


(9) Choose an enlarger. While this choice may be made for you (hand-me-down from a family member or whatever), there are a few things to consider...

   bullet Maximum print size - don't assume you'll only ever print 8x10 inch prints as it'll limit your possibilities if you ever need to enlarge a smaller portion of a negative or print that 'all-important' family photo for Aunty Marge!

   bullet Maximum negative size - 35mm might be OK for now, but if you borrow a medium format camera or offer to print some old family photos, 120 format capability is very useful. Also, 35mm-only enlargers tend to be pretty crappy in both design and construction, so a little extra money spent is often worth it.

   bullet Condenser vs Diffuser. For the uninitiated, most B&W enlargers are of the condenser variety which means that the light is evenly spread across the negative by a large chunk of glass with a big curve in it. Diffuser enlargers tend to be designed for printing colour negatives and transparencies, though they make excellent B&W enlargers as well. It all depends on the type of images you're printing - Condenser is great for graphic, sharp and contrasty images requiring maximum sharpness and definition. This is not to say that Diffuser enlargers are 'soft', but they tend to be more appropriate for printing portraits and images with subtle shadow detail. If you can afford a colour enlarger - I'd recommend it as the colour filtration controls can also be used to adjust the contrast when using multigrade papers and, who knows, maybe one day you'll try a little colour printing as well! To match your negatives to the lower contrast of a Diffuser enlarger, a small increase in your development time might also be necessary.

   bullet Enlarger brand. There are a large number of well designed and manufactured enlargers on the market, so it's no easy task to choose one, even given the options outlined above. As a rough guide - it's got to be common enough to obtain parts and accessories easily and well made so as not to disintegrate on the first print you attempt. Reputable brands include LPL, Durst and Bessler though there are heaps more and the enlarger you end up buying is as personal a choice as buying a car (though hopefully a little cheaper). Check that it's got a standard lens mount, an option for a glassless negative carrier and that globes are affordable and easily obtained in your area. And like a new car, you get what you pay for...

   bullet Enlarger lenses are probably more important than your choice of enlarger as they directly affect the optical quality of the final print. What brand of optic you choose is as much taste as your ability to finance the purchase but you generally can't go wrong with Nikon, Rodenstock and Schneider lenses. Buy a lens that matches the standard lens of the format you'll be printing - eg. 80mm lens for 6x6 or 50mm lens for 35mm. You can always use a longer lens for a smaller format but your prints will be smaller.

   bullet Enlarger timers are neither cheap nor easy to obtain second-hand. Given this, there are a bewildering assortment available for purchase new, and any number of accessories to go with them. Don't waste your money - a simple timer with 0-60 seconds and a provision for focussing the enlarger is fine. Digital accuracy to 0.1 second is rarely necessary (you can always stop-down to increase the exposure time) and gadgets such as meters are generally only necessary in commercial darkrooms.

   bullet Easels and focus-scopes are often forgotten in the rush to buy the enlarger and lens and they are just as important in the production of the final print. In the same way as timers can drain your bank-balance, both easels and focus-scopes can be either expensive or VERY EXPENSIVE! As always, best to buy something well made and easy to use (I use LPL products for both) and upgrade when and if you win the lottery!


(10) Start Processing and Printing! Of course don't forget all the other bits and pieces you're going to need...


   bullet processing tank(s)

   bullet scissors

   bullet wall timer

   bullet thermometer

   bullet trays

   bullet tongs

   bullet measuring jugs

   bullet proofing frames or just glass

   bullet burning in / dodging tools

   bullet towels

   bullet squeegee for fibre prints

   bullet I'm sure you'll think of more stuff as the need arises!


Good luck!


Visit Chris Groenhout's Web site
 

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