The darkroom. Just thinking of it brings out the most nostalgic of feelings from all photographers, even if you learned in the digital age, and even if you’ve never even set foot in a traditional chemical darkroom. There is something so gratifying about the idea of hand-crafting your photographs from a physical negative, printing on real paper, and watching your images come to life in baths of chemistry. Without waxing too romantic about the whole idea, it is safe to say that even the most cutting-edge digital photographers would still experience a sense of glee to see photography transpire in its most historical and, arguably, authentic means. While traditional darkroom processes and spaces are certainly rarer now than ever before, it needs to be stated that the art of darkroom-based photography is not dead.
"...darkroom printing can be experienced by anyone with a keen interest, some spare room, and the desire to produce photographs in a manner that is unrivaled... to the current state of digital imaging."
Darkroom printing and processing is intimidating, it is amazing, and it is a viable practice for contemporary photographers. Analog enthusiasts, students, and fine art photographers are the most common practitioners of a wet process; however, this is not to say that darkroom printing cannot be experienced by anyone with a keen interest, some spare room, and the desire to produce photographs in a manner that is unrivaled in many regards to the current state of digital imaging. If you’re just delving into film-based photography, setting up a darkroom to make your own prints can be as simple or as complex as you would like it to be. Working darkrooms can be built out of a small closet, a spare room, a basement, or nearly any other free space you might find in your home. They can be permanent fixtures or assembled when needed. They can be large or small, complex or simple. Much in the same way every photographer configures his or her computers, cameras, and other photographic means to suit a personal workflow, a darkroom can be designed around one’s needs, tastes, and space.
This buying guide will provide an introduction to the essential tools you will need to begin setting up your darkroom, including film development, chemistry, printing and processing, and some other considerations for the whole process.
Before we can dive into printing and the other aspects of a darkroom you may begin to think of initially, we should first take a look at the film-processing end of the traditional-process spectrum. Without well-developed negatives, you will not be making the fine art prints you are imagining. You can very easily develop your film in your bathroom or at your kitchen sink. If you’re planning on setting up a space for a darkroom, those can be ideal places for processing film due to the availability of a sink, access to water, and a dedicated space for working with chemicals.
Here’s a quick shopping list of everything you need: tanks, reels, graduated cylinders, chemistry storage bottles, chemistry, and film clips or another method for drying—all in all, not too bad. Now, delving a bit deeper, let’s look at tanks and reels.
Tanks and Reels
Dedicated instruments for processing your film, tanks and reels are vessels and coils or frames that allow you to immerse your film—either rolls or sheets—in the chemistry necessary to develop it. Split between two categories, there are daylight tanks and open tanks (or not-daylight tanks). As its name would suggest, a daylight tank allows you to develop your film safely in ambient light. On the other hand, an open tank, which is generally reserved for sheet film development, forces you to work in total darkness.
Daylight tanks are much more common and, outside of a professional lab, are the de facto standard for processing roll film. They are split between two categories—steel and plastic—and comprise a cylindrical tank, some form of a light baffle, and a lid that permits pouring chemistry in and out with the room lights on. Inside the tank, during development, are reels, around which your film is securely wound. The reels prevent the film from sticking to itself and ensure even development. Like the tanks can be constructed from plastic and steel, reels are also available in plastic or steel and must be matched to the tank material. Plastic reels go in plastic tanks; steel reels go in steel tanks. Plastic reels are typically easier for the novice to load since they incorporate a ratcheting mechanism that is often called an “autoloader.” Steel reels, on the other hand, are a bit trickier to load at first and require a bit more dexterity in the way of slightly arching the film width-wise, and manually spooling it around the reel. Plastic tanks have the advantage of simplicity, ease of use, and reels often can accommodate various sizes of roll film; steel tanks have the advantage of being more durable, require less chemistry for processing, and have better temperature stability.
For large format photographers, you can either develop your film in a daylight tank or in open tanks. Open tanks require you to work in total darkness, require multiple tanks for each chemical, and allow you to develop each individual exposure separately as opposed to “en masse” as you would with rolls of film that contain numerous exposures. Daylight tanks for sheet film are a bit easier to work with, since you can work in the light; however, they are a bit trickier to load than their roll-film counterparts. Additionally, sheet film can also be processed in developing trays, but we’ll cover those in the printing section.
A topic worthy of an entire encyclopedia itself, chemistry for developing your film is nearly as crucial as film itself. Especially in regard to developers, numerous options allow you to refine the look of your imagery by choosing specific chemicals and adjusting developing time, temperature, dilution, and agitation. Simply put, you should never underestimate the importance of film development. In the most general terms, black-and-white film developers are split between powder and liquid formulas. Both will become a liquid working solution at some point, though—it just depends on your preference for shelf life versus mixing protocol. Liquid developers are much easier to mix, can usually be mixed in smaller amounts, but tend to have somewhat shorter shelf lives. Powdered developers must be mixed with water in a certain manner, often requiring mixing with hot water and then waiting for your solution to cool before use, but they do have a nearly infinite shelf life when the package of powder is unopened.
Moving beyond this difference in preference, different film developers are available to achieve distinct effects and some are well-suited for certain films, certain processing techniques, or for certain printing methods. Some key examples include:
- Kodak D-76, which is almost like the Tri-X of developers due to its incredible flexibility, long history, and general application for use on nearly any black-and-white film. Just like Tri-X, this developer will almost always give you usable results, if not to the point of a drawback. Its lack of specialness is its specialness; it is the most popular film developer simply because it works.
- Kodak XTOL, which is essentially the T-Max of developers if D-76 is the Tri-X (yes, there is an actual T-Max developer; however, it is not nearly as versatile as XTOL nor comparative to D-76). XTOL is known for its fine-grain qualities and ability to provide extended shadow details.
- Adox Adonal, which is the new name for one of the most historic film developers of all time, Rodinal—a chemical that equally as many people love as others hate, Adonal/Rodinal is known for giving a crisply prominent grain structure, high sharpness, and being ideal for very long development times. Even though this is a liquid developer, it is known for having a nearly indefinite shelf life, even after the bottle has been opened.
- PMK Pyro, which is one of the best known of a class of pyrocatechol developers that “stain” the negatives during development and yield an extremely long tonal scale with high edge sharpness and film speed.
This is by no means a comprehensive list. One of the most exciting aspects of developing your film at home is the chance to experiment with so many film-and-developer combinations.
In addition to a film developer, the other essential chemical needed for processing your film is fixer. Fixer, as its name would suggest, stabilizes your film after development and removes the unexposed silver halide to create a permanent image. Other chemicals commonly used during film development, which are optional but often highly recommended depending on your film type, include stop bath, to immediately terminate the process of development prior to fixing; hardeners, which are sometimes added to fixers if working with films with a softer emulsion; washing aids, or hypo clearing agent, which help to expedite the process of washing fixer from film prior to the final water rinse; and wetting agents, which help to minimize water spots or streaks forming on your film as it dries.
Moving beyond the essentials for film development, a stable of odds, ends, and other helpful accessories can make the task of processing your film exponentially easier. Since most chemicals need to be diluted prior to use, and it is unlikely you will use all of your mixture at once, storage bottles are a convenient way to keep your working and stock solutions. Graduates are available in a wide variety of sizes and help with mixing certain quantities of chemicals to ensure consistent, accurate results. Film clips, which honestly do work better than clothespins, hang your film securely when air drying. A second clip is attached to the bottom of the roll holds it taut to prevent curling or clinging. Last, but not least, a proper thermometer is indispensable and will help you achieve that perfect 68°F during development, for consistent results.
With your film developed, you can now move on to the heart of traditional wet processing: printing. In a basic sense, printing mirrors the entire process of film photography up to this point; you are now taking what you have photographed and developed, and creating a recognizable image. The process of printing, just like shooting, involves a light source, a lens, focusing, exposure adjustments, recording to a light-sensitive material, and processing the latent image into a light-stable photograph. This entire series of events takes place in a darkroom. Darkrooms in old movies conjure images of a dim, red-lit room in which photographers manipulate wet pieces of paper with tongs and hang them on twine adorned with clothespins to dry. While possible, this is usually pretty far from the truth of the darkroom, which is more akin to a science lab engulfed in amber lighting, where you constantly oscillate between bright “white light” and the darkroom in order to evaluate your prints, load your negatives, wash prints, and perform finishing tasks. While still romantic, it is not nearly the sight one might expect.
As mentioned before, a darkroom can take shape in myriad ways, ranging from a temporary setup in your hall closet or bathroom to a full-fledged lab in your basement. Regardless of your configuration, there are a handful of procedures and tools to help you develop the most effective workspace.
Enlargers and Lenses
In most cases, the key component for printing a negative is an enlarger. With the exception of contact printing, an enlarger is the main component that allows you to produce prints of varying sizes from a negative. In the most simple terms, an enlarger contains a light source that illuminates a suspended negative and projects an image through a lens, which is focused on an easel, resting on a baseboard. A piece of light-sensitive paper is held flat in the easel and is exposed to the projected image, and then developed in chemicals to create a photographic print.
Much like a large format bellows camera, an enlarger is a precision tool that performs a very simple function in a very controlled, precise, accurate, and repeatable manner. Enlargers are available in a variety of sizes and with a variety of different features. It is good advice to look for an enlarger that accommodates the largest size film you expect to print, and if you are on the fence about whether you’ll be moving up to a 4 x 5 view camera at some point, it is safe to say that a 4 x 5" enlarger would be the way to go, since it can easily handle any smaller film format, as well. If you’re a dedicated 35mm shooter, then a medium format enlarger will suffice and will allow you to save some space and reduce bulk in your darkroom setup. The size of an enlarger is based on the negative stage, which holds the largest-sized negative it can accommodate.
An enlarger’s head (that contains the light source, condensers, mixing chamber, diffusers, etc.) has a direct bearing on the final look of your prints. There are three primary types of heads currently available.
- Condenser This kind of head incorporates a condensing lens beneath the light source and above the negative stage, which produces direct, collimated light. In turn, this will render a sharper, crisper, and harder look in your prints, at the cost of some forgiveness. Dust and scratches on your film will be more pronounced in the resulting print, and edge sharpness will be somewhat finer than with a diffusion head.
- Diffusion The other main type of enlarging head, the diffusion head allows the light source to be spread omnidirectionally, which results in a softer quality. Diffusion heads are well-suited for negatives with more contrast, and will mute the appearance of dust and scratches compared to a condenser head.
- Dichroic While mainly used for color printing, dichroic heads can be used for black-and-white printing and incorporate dial-in filtration for fine-tuning the color of the light source. For color, RA-4 printing, this lets you adjust your color balance; for black-and-white printing, the yellow and magenta filters can be used to adjust contrast values. Dichroic heads are available in both condenser and diffusion designs.
The next important component of an enlarger is the enlarging lens. Similar to your camera lens, an enlarging lens is used to focus the light projected through the negative onto the easel-ensconced photo paper and subsequent print. Enlarging lenses have different apertures and focal lengths, and are typically paired with the compatible film format being projected onto the photo paper. Based on the same principles of what constitutes a normal lens for a particular film format, based on the format’s diagonal measurement, a 50mm lens is commonly considered ideal for 35mm printing. Around a 75mm is good for 6 x 6cm printing, an 80mm is good for 6 x 7cm, and a 150mm is perfect for 4 x 5". Just like the lenses for your camera, enlarging lenses come in various degrees of quality—some are apochromats, some are sharper than others, and some are designed for lower budgets and feature a simpler optical design. Also like regular camera lenses, when working with an enlarging lens, you usually want to focus using the brightest aperture and then close down to a middle aperture to avoid either wide-open softness or closed-down diffraction. Differentiating themselves from photographic lenses, enlarging lenses are flat field optics designed for consistent edge-to-edge sharpness and illumination; they tend to feature a stepless aperture dial that is illuminated for easier switching in the darkroom; and virtually all have an M39 screw mount to fit into standard lens boards.
In addition to the enlarger, a head, and an enlarging lens, there are additional accessories typically required to get the most out of your printing sessions. First and foremost is a darkroom timer. More than might seem obvious, a darkroom timer is pretty invaluable when it comes to printing. Besides the obvious (keeping time) it automatically shuts off the enlarger’s lamp once the time runs out, allowing you to focus your attention on burning, dodging, and obtaining repeatable results.
The second crucial accessory to printing is an easel, which is used to hold your paper in place—and flat—during printing. Easels are available in three styles—adjustable, borderless, and fixed borders. Adjustable easels are by far the most versatile, and feature individual blades that let you crop your imagery and set varying-width borders on your prints. Borderless and fixed-border easels are more useful for specific tasks. Regardless of which style easel you end up with, make sure it is capable of holding the largest size of paper on which you plan to print (prior to printing mural size).
Third in line of accessories is a unique tool called a grain focuser. Many find this tool difficult to use and others find it indispensable for making perfectly sharp prints, but in short, this mirrored magnifier is used to gain a clear view of the grain structure of your film to achieve sharp focus more objectively, versus viewing a dim image on the easel.
Finally, to round out your kit of printing tools, all black-and-white printers should invest in a set of multigrade printing filters. When working with variable contrast printing papers, these filters allow you to fine-tune the contrast of your print across 12 steps to compensate for overly contrasty or very low contrast negatives.
While we’re on the topic of enlarging, it is pertinent to introduce another technique: contact printing. Rather than making an enlargement of your negative, contact printing involves making a 1:1 print—exactly the same size as your negative. This is accomplished, quite simply, by placing your negative directly on top of the printing paper and exposing this negative-paper open-faced sandwich to light. This process has two common uses: for making contact sheets that give a quick overview of a roll of film, which are easier to judge than looking at the negatives themselves on a light box, and for producing finished prints from large format and ultra-large-format negatives. Photographers working with film sizes larger than 4 x 5" often prefer, or just are not able, to make enlargements from such negatives, and subsequently make contact prints as their finished pieces. One tool to aid either of these situations is a contact printing frame, which holds the negative or negatives securely, tight and flat against the paper, to ensure the sharpest focus across the image.
Designing Your Darkroom Space
Backing up a bit, before you set up your enlarger you will need to configure the space for printing and processing. The essential components of a darkroom are a stable, flat, level place for your enlarger to sit and a platform, preferably a sink, for holding your trays for processing your prints. While a large, deep sink is ideal, a table or countertop is adequate as long as there is nearby access to running water. Another component to setting up a darkroom that cannot be overlooked is proper ventilation. Darkrooms can be set up in the tightest of confines or the most spacious of rooms, but in either instance, without ventilation, they can be among the most unpleasant spaces to spend more than a few minutes, while being potentially hazardous to your health. Consistent airflow to exhaust the fumes of the chemistry in your trays is crucial to
enjoying surviving long printing sessions.
Additionally, in case the name darkroom wasn’t self-referential enough, a darkroom needs to be light-tight. Even though black-and-white printing permits the use of a safelight to see, the room should still be set up in a way that provides total darkness. Special seals and blackout cloth can be used to guard against light entering your darkroom, or for more permanent constructions, a revolving darkroom door allows you to enter and leave the darkroom without having to cover your paper or pack up all light-sensitive materials.
Speaking of permanent installations, for photographers looking to really step up his or her darkroom game, a dedicated sink with special water and temperature controls really adds to the ability to hone one’s craft. Sinks are available in pre-built lengths or can be custom sized to fit nearly any working space, and can be ordered in metal or fiberglass constructions.
Regardless of whether you’re working in a sink, on a countertop, or on a staggered shelving unit, darkroom trays are essential for printing. Usually constructed from plastic, but also available in stainless steel, trays are the containers in which you keep your chemicals for developing and processing your prints after they have been exposed under your enlarger. A few suggestions for choosing trays: look for designs that feature a pouring lip for easy dumping of spent chemistry; grooved bottoms versus flat-bottomed trays, which make it easier to retrieve prints with tongs when moving prints from tray to tray; and select a tray size that is at least one standard size larger, or a couple of inches on each side, than the size prints you expect to be working with (i.e., look for 12 x 16" trays if you will be printing on 11 x 14" paper).
Papers and Paper Chemistry
Much like film and film developer choice, your selection in printing paper, developer, and toner can add a further layer of character to your final photograph. Also similar to film, the specifics of different paper types and how various developers interact with those papers, plus the techniques involving their use, could be an endless discussion unto itself. But to briefly cover the main points of darkroom-printing consumables, let’s begin with a primer on black-and-white printing papers. Those papers can be divided into two main categories—fiber-based and resin-coated—then further classified as variable contrast and graded, and finally broken down into various surface finishes, including glossy, matte, and several degrees of luster or semi-matte, depending on the manufacturer. The key decision, though, is choosing between fiber-based and resin-coated papers. Fiber-based paper, or FB, is a true paper and is the classic printing medium for fine art photographs and archivability. Resin-coated, on the other hand, is a polymer and is best suited for quick processing, washing, and drying. Fiber-based paper tends to have a longer tonal scale and deeper blacks, but on the downside, it is much more difficult to work with due to its increased washing and drying times, the fact that the paper curls when drying, and that prints are prone to the dreaded dry-down effect where they darken as they dry. Resin-coated papers are durable and very easy to handle, but have a distinctly more plastic-like feeling. RC paper is an ideal medium for learning the craft, whereas FB papers, when handled correctly, will truly make your prints shine.
Beyond the base type, the choice between variable contrast (VC) and graded papers tends to be an easy one: VC papers let you make use of multi-grade filters to control print contrast, whereas graded papers have a fixed contrast value and are a better fit for photographers capable of producing very consistent negatives. Finally, the surface finish is truly a personal preference, and can sometimes be used to suit specific subjects or themes in the images. Glossy papers tend to give the appearance of deeper blacks and cooler whites, while matte papers offer a softer, warmer appearance due to the minimized reflections and flatter contrast range.
Moving on to chemicals, the only differentiating factor between film and paper chemistries is the type of developer. The stop bath and fixer can be shared by the two mediums, albeit at different dilutions in some instances, saving you the trouble of stocking up on more chemistry than necessary. Paper developer, however, is distinctly different from film developer—you should work with the appropriate chemical for the two different processes. It is possible to use one for the other, but the results will always be best when using a specific paper developer for processing your prints. Some key examples include:
- Dektol is akin to D-76 in that it is the standard reference developer to which almost everything is compared. It is a classic formula that provides neutral tonality and is very economical and easy to mix.
- Amidol, available in a handful of further distinctions, is a classic paper developer championed by master photographer Edward Weston. This developer is known for producing immensely deep blacks and cool whites, and is especially well-suited for bromide papers.
- Ilford PQ is distinct due to its tendency to produce warmer image tones and creamier whites, and is especially ideal for maximizing the warmth of warm-tone papers.
You can also affect the look of your prints using a toner. Selenium, sepia, copper, iron, and gold are some of the most popular varieties and add a distinctive coloring to final prints and often increase the archivability of your finished prints. Toners can be diluted to different strengths to alter the amount of coloration, and each also reacts differently to various paper types. Toning is performed after the printing and processing stages, and works by binding with the silver of the emulsion to achieve greater print stability, in addition to a new look. Fiber papers are much more receptive to toners, but RC papers can be used, as well, with a slightly reduced effect.
Until this point, the majority of the article has mainly revolved around black-and-white darkroom practices. This is because it is much more practical to do black-and-white printing at home and, arguably, it is a more creative process during the printing stages. Traditional black-and-white printing materials are still readily available, whereas traditional color chemicals and processing equipment are harder to come by, and often require purchasing in commercial quantities. With this in mind, though, B&H does carry the necessary chemicals for E-6 and C-41 color film processing and RA-4 color negative print processing, as well as RA-4 printing papers.
Unlike black-and-white printing, color printing in a darkroom requires you to work in absolute darkness—no safelights allowed. It is mandatory to work with a dichroic enlarger head to fine-tune your color balance, and you must wait until each print is fully complete before evaluating it to make any changes to your print settings. The RA-4 process, too, is not a creative process like black-and-white print processing, requires stricter temperature control, and is typically performed in dedicated processing machines or motorized drums, as opposed to trays.