Part of pushing yourself to improve as a darkroom printer is to have your own darkroom. In this post I set out the key decisions that I took …
I have really enjoyed being part of a community darkroom. Indeed without access to one I would never have got any printing off the ground. So I am very thankful to have had access to one a few miles from where live.
However there were some compromises that had to be made. Each time that I visited I had set up everything from scratch, which took time. I had to travel to the darkroom and had to book a slot there. This meant that you could not just pop in and carry on from where you left off last time. And so on.
I have set myself the goal of becoming a good printer. It’s going to take a lot of time (years, assuming I have enough left 🙂 ) and many mistakes and frustrations – like anything else that is worthwhile. So building my own darkroom, with some help from a builder, seemed an essential part of achieving my goal.
I was fortunate to have had a ready space for the darkroom. I own an adjoining barn part of which had been converted to a small house. Now that the house is unoccupied, I decided to use the living room and adjoining kitchen as a studio and adjoining darkroom. So the conversion started with a kitchen which had plumbing and electrical points and, importantly, a level floor. The work needed was to rip out the kitchen furniture, replace the sink with a much larger one, build an internal partition to make the area light-proof and make some work-tops for prep area and for the enlargers.
So what kind of printing do I want to do? An important question because the size and configuration of the darkroom can put some constraints on what you can do.
I want to be able to experiment in several different directions, straight printing up to large format and also alternative techniques. So, although much of my work is 35mm and 120 format, the darkroom needed to be able to house a large format enlarger (5×4 and 7×5) and the wet area needed to be big enough to work up to 5 large trays simultaneously.
I may get a DeVere 507 enlarger 1 , which is heavy and tall so I planned into the darkroom design a strengthened floor and sufficient headroom (ceiling height) for it.
The size of the prep area is important and if anything I would prefer to have had a larger area. However there is still some void space at the entrance to the darkroom where an additional prep area can be built.
Choice of enlarger
I wanted one enlarger to handle 35mm and 120 and another enlarger to handle 5×4 and 7×5. I think the best enlarger for up to 6×9 is the DeVere 203. However it is pretty large for the format that it covers and also quite expensive for one that is in good nick.
So I opted for an LPL C6700 Colour. This came with 35mm, 6×6, 6×7 and 6×9 negative carriers as well as two lenses and a timer for £200.
I quite like it! Black and white contrast is altered through the usual magenta and yellow filter dials. Alternatively, there is a white light option that allows you to use Ilford multigrade below the lens filters. This white light option is useful for Lith printing to keep the exposures short, which will be handy as I aim to do a lot of Lith experimentation.
It comes with a below-the-lens red safelight filter which I have tested. The timer is very accurate too. The only adjustment that I have had to make is that the contrast prints a little softer than I am used to. So instead of dialling in the filters for grade 2 (my ‘normal’), I use the filters for grade 2.5 or 3.
If I need to make much larger prints, there is the option to unscrew the column from the base-board and reverse the mounting for a floor projection. But I don’t envisage the need for this.
Enlarger for flashing
Pre-flashing the photographic paper forms an important part of my practise as many of my images are in high-contrast situations. I had an old 35mm Dunco enlarger which I bought 25 years ago and has remained unused all these years. I had thought I would dispose or sell it but actually it makes a good enlarger for flashing paper.
For me, this is a crucial area, particularly if thinking about alternative processes. So I hunted about for a specialist darkroom sink. I eventually found one on eBay for about £60 and in good condition. New ones cost about £400.
The sink has a deep well and a work area that has a separate draining point (plug). It butts up to a working area where I can have extra trays in tandem. The trays in the picture are 12 x 16. To go larger I would just align them lengthways and use the adjoining work top.
The darkroom has a door and also a black ceiling to floor curtain screen to head-off light that comes under the door. The roof light has been blocked off with a false ceiling and the walls have been painted grey. I have sat in the darkroom with lights switched off and after 5 minutes I am still unable to see my hands in front of my face. So I am confident that the darkroom is safe for developing film in trays.
I found an Ilford wall safe-light on eBay which I have safe-tested – No fogging at 10 minute exposure. This is important for me as Lith printing often takes up to 20 minutes. I will need to extend this safe-light test.
Ventilation and Heating
The previous kitchen came with an extractor fan and chimney. All I had to do was to replace the extractor with a more powerful model and make the area light-proof.
There is a heating radiator in the darkroom.
It’s amazing how many bottles of chemicals one acquires over the years. So storage room is important if you are to have a tidy and hazard-free area.
I keep the dry chemicals in a separate cupboard well away from water.
I will spend long hours in here so comfort and entertainment are important. A facebook friend told me about stress-relieving mats. It really works! My legs do not tire as quickly.
I have yet to sort out a chair and some music.
Storage for paper and film
I am starting to acquire quite a lot of new and old (some time-expired) paper. Some of it is stored on the shelves below the enlarger. Some, with film, is in a freezer next to the darkroom.
Adjoining the darkroom is a sitting room. I am going to convert this into a studio with photographs on the wall and a working table for spotting and so on.
I am fortunate that the room has lovely sunlight gushing in through large windows and a sky-light. So I aim to do some still-life work here.
- The jury is still out on this as I may go down the digital negative route ↩