How to Construct Your Own Darkroom

Film photography came to my life after knowing several of the nuts and bolts of digital photography, at least at a serious level. When I was a kid I remember going with my parents to the lab and waiting for a couple of days in order to actually see the photos. I also remember their warnings (mostly yellings) about being careful of not leaving any fingerprint in the photos, so I always handled them with extreme care.

Even when living in the digital imagery age, film photography can still give us a lot of valuable experiences. Personally speaking, it has taught me to think more about my frames in a sort of “image economy” sense with this simple formula:

Quality > Quantity

Shooting the frames is one thing, and is basically just like doing it with a digital camera with a broken screen. As long as you know how light gets captured by a camera, you can use pretty much any photographic gear in the world. That is why I consider film photography to be just another format rather than a genre.

Processing film is a magnificent experience and is something every photographer should try at least once, it is almost like magic. There are two main stages when it comes to developing film. The first one relates to actually being able to see something in the emulsion, this is called the “film development” stage, and the other big one in the workflow is the “printing process”.

Today we'll talk about the minimal items you need to have so you can develop your own film and prints at home.

Here Is What You Need For Developing Film

1. Development Tank

Photo by By The original uploader was Smial at German Wikipedia. – Transferred from de.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2958330

First thing's first, this is perhaps the quintessential thing that you need to have in order to develop film. Forget about investing in all the gadgets if you don't have this, to begin with. Here is where all the magic happens, no matter the place. Literally, you can develop film anywhere as long as you have this tool.

There are two types of development tanks, the stainless steel tanks (which requires more practice to use) and the plastic tanks. The last ones are easier to use thanks to a spooling mechanism they have. These tanks work safely thanks to a design that allows them to be filled with liquid without allowing any particle of light hitting the film during the filling process.

Even though the guy in this video uses a coffee based developer, you can still have a very clear idea about how development is achieved.

2. Chemicals

Photo by Hans Reniers

Developing film requires a series of chemicals that vary among Black and White and Color film. There are many brands out there and that is perhaps one of the best parts of film photography, there are huge creative possibilities.

Black and White:

  • Developer (the most popular and easier to find are any D-76 variant and Rodinal)
  • Stop Bath (you can use water from the faucet too)
  • Fixer
  • Finishing Bath (you can use water with a drop of dishwashing soap)

Chemicals can be found in powdered and liquid versions.

Color:

  • Developer
  • Bleach/fix (also known as blix)
  • Stabilizer

Color film photography has two main types of development processes:

  • C-41 (which is for color negatives)
  • E-6 (which is for slides)

3. A List Of Tools That Will Make Developing Your Film Easier

Photo by Markus Spiske

  • Measuring Cups or Beakers
  • Film Can opener (or your bare hands)
  • Scissors
  • Needleless Syringes
  • Thermometers
  • Silicone Spatulas
  • Film Clips (or Clothes Pins)
  • Film Squeegee (or a microfiber soft cloth)
  • Funnel
  • Stirrers
  • Negative plastic sleeves
  • Chemical jugs (amber ones tend to protect more the chemicals from the light)
  • Storage box

My own setup

All these stuff literally can fit in a regular plastic box and there are several places that sell complete kits, but I think is way more fun to buy stuff separately.

Here's What You Need For Printing

Photo by Автор: Inkaroad – собственная работа, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16991285

Printing is the next stage of film photography. Does the red safelight from movies depicting darkrooms ring a bell to you? Well, here is where you actually use the red safelight. Unlike the film development stage, which has to be done in complete darkness (but only the taking the film out of the camera and mounting it into the reels that go inside the development tank task).

Printing requires three basic things besides paper and chemicals. These are the red safelight mentioned above, the trays, and the enlarger.

1. Red Safe Light

Unlike undeveloped film, photographic paper isn't sensitive to a specific light, the red light (film is prone to expose itself towards any light). Please, whenever you buy a new pack of paper just don't open it under regular lighting conditions, trust me, it happens…

The printing process is why so many say that photography is indeed an art, and there is no exact recipe, each photograph requires a specific development time while printing. You'll waste a lot of paper here; but trust me, it is absolutely worthy. Seeing your photograph appearing in the sunk paper in a positive (and understandable) format is simply priceless.

2. Trays

Film printing trays aren't regular plastic trays. They are resistant to chemicals and they have a beaked corner for enabling you to reuse chemicals without missing a drop. You can have as much as you which but basically, you need three, one for developing the exposed paper, another for stopping the process and a last one for rinsing the paper.

3. Enlargers

Photo by By imotor – imotor, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7729502

Enlargers are a whole world, they are like cameras, but for exposing the paper with your film. You can make large prints with these bad boys, and they also have lenses (with apertures) for sharpening purposes.

4. A List Of Items That Will Make The Printing Process Easier

  • Timer
  • Print boxes
  • Print Squeegee
  • Print Tongs
  • Weighing scale
  • Dusters
  • Gloves
  • Aprons
  • Drying racks (or strings with clothespins)
  • A completely dark room
  • Water hoses

Some Stores

As you can see, setting up a dark room is quite fun and isn't obviously something you set up in no time. It will evolve with time as you add items that work best for you. There are several places that sell specialized film photography equipment, and these are a few:

We apologize if we skipped something that you think is crucial since there are infinite possibilities for setting up a dark room. For me, the ideal dark room would be the one that Alexey Titarenko has, and I'm really sure that he has invested quite some years and money in it.

If you've got any thoughts, then please leave us a comment below.

Further Reading


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About the author

Federico Alegria

Federico is one of our staff writers and has 10 years of experience in making documentary photography, he is currently working in long-term photo essays and you can see more of his work here. He is also a professor at a design-focused University, and is currently pursuing his PhD (and of course, his thesis is around Photography). His work has been featured in museums, newspapers and magazines. He is currently based in El Salvador.

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