Despite the current renaissance of film photography, one of the biggest issues facing celluloid fans is getting it processed and printed. Long gone are the days of mini-labs in every small town, today you are more likely to have to send it off to another location to get the processing done. Even more tricky is to find places that will process and print black and white film, so, with that in mind, why not have a go yourself. Back in the analogue days, one of the most popular ways of doing this was to have a bathroom darkroom. This simple set up negated the need for a dedicated room and permanent set up, and allowed for the photographer to develop as and when he needed to.
So How Do We Set Up a Bathroom Darkroom?
Well, first and most importantly, we need to black out the bathroom. There are several ways of doing this, but one of the best ways is to make wooden frame covered in blackout cloth or plastic that fits snugly into the window’s alcove. To seal any further light leakage use a roll of duct tape to seal around the window and the doors. The advantages of using duct tape is that it is easily removed when finished and cheap. Once sealed, stand in the bathroom for ten minutes (and let your eyes adjust) to see where, if at all, light is leaking.
Next up we need a work bench. This is where the bath comes into play, by fitting a piece of plywood over the top of the bath, you have an instant bench. For some people this might be a little low to work from, so if you have carpentry skills you can add detachable legs to the plywood to add some height. Make sure the legs are strong enough to take the weight of an enlarger and full developing trays. We now need to make one end of the bench as the wet end, i.e. where the processing takes place and the other end should be dry, where the enlarger and photo paper are kept. If possible, keep the wet section near to the bathroom sink.
What Darkroom Equipment Do You Need?
So with the bathroom sealed, we need to source the equipment we will need. Here eBay is going to be your friend.
Starting with the film processing, we are going to need a processing drum. Look for one that has an autoload reel, stainless steel manual reels can be very tricky to load film onto if you are a beginner. Patterson and Jobo are good makes and you should be able to pick one up for a few dollars. A little care must be taken when sourcing the developing chemicals, private sales on eBay may be very old and out of date, look for a trade buyer or looking online for a professional photographic retailer may be a better option. This applies to both negative and print chemicals.
To dry the film you will need a film squeegee, some film clips and a nylon line to hang them from. This can be a simple bathroom washing line. Make sure you have enough clips for the top and bottom of the film otherwise you will get film curling.
Lastly invest in a decent photographic thermometer and a black and white safe light.
For the printing side, the big expense will be an enlarger. These are not so common on eBay so look for a second hand photographic retailer or even at photographic fairs. Another source may be your local camera club. Some good names to look for are Durst, De Vere and Leitz. Check that the enlarger comes with a lens, as not all of them will and also make sure that it includes a decent print easel to keep your photographic paper flat.
You will need three print trays for the chemicals, one for developer, one for fix and one for the stop bath. Always use the same tray for each chemical and as mentioned above.
Be careful in sourcing your chemicals. One of the great wonders of printing black and white is the wide range of different papers and one of the most exciting aspects of this is the different looks you get from different papers. To find one you like, buy a range of different papers in small sizes, perhaps 5×7 and experiment with them. Once decided you can invest in the larger size of your preferred choice.
So this is a very basic set up for a darkroom, but it is one that will allow you to experiment with the wonders of black and white film photography, without a huge investment and without dedicating an entire room of your house to it.
Printing your own black and white is an incredibly rewarding aspect of photography. Whilst the dark arts of the darkroom may seem difficult and distant, the truth is, that they are not and once you have learnt the basics the rewards will be immense.
What We Recommend to Improve Your Photography Fast
It's possible to get some pretty large improvements in your photography skills very fast be learning some fundamentals. Consider this the 80:20 rule of photography where 80% of the improvements will come from 20% of the learnable skills. Those fundamentals include camera craft, composition, understanding light and mastering post-production. Here are the premium guides we recommend.