Shedding Light on the Darkroom
By Kailyn Lamb
Changes in the World of Photography
The industry of photography has changed immensely with the invention of digital photography. In my personal experience, the way I was taught photography changed in a matter of four years in high school. The program went from being all film my freshman year, to all digital my senior year.
I am not the only person who felt this shift. For most professionals, film has slowly filtered out of their dance cards and become more of a creative hobby. Some art programs, such as the one here at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, are designed so that photography majors start with the fundamentals in photography. In “Photography I,” students are introduced to the darkroom and taught how the basics work. In “Photography II: Black and White,” students look more into alternative processing with black and white photography. It is not until later in the semester of “Photography III: Color,” that students are introduced to digital.
But, at other schools, like the Brooks Institute of Photography in California, the focus has gone entirely digital. Personally, I think this is a huge mistake. Working in a darkroom to perfect one’s print is so much more gratifying than the small editing you do in Photoshop.
For people who like to work old-school, like me, there are ways to still get your film fix— like building your own darkroom.
The Initial Steps
First things first. There are a lot of things to consider when building your own darkroom. Probably first, and most important, is the financial factor. A lot of darkroom materials have become incredibly expensive. Quite a few of the mechanical materials that MSU Denver uses in their darkroom are imported from overseas. Even some of the most necessary of items like film and photo sensitive paper can cost a lot. Ilford brand, for example, is imported from England, and can cost up to $100 for 100 sheets of regular, 8” x 10” sized paper.
“It was expensive to maintain paper and chemicals back then so — now, I think it would be even more costly. I remember purchasing paper in the 100 count boxes for a savings. Chemicals need to be refreshed as well,” said Don Eastburn, a self-employed photographer in Colorado, who built his own darkroom in the 1980s for running his own advertising agency.
This does not include all the technical equipment you need like sinks, filters and enlargers. One thing that I would highly recommend if you are building on a tighter budget is to buy your mechanical equipment used off of various websites. Craigslist usually has some darkroom supplies, but you are never 100 percent of the quality. There are also several photography companies, like B&H, that have used equipment for sale online. Their website is http://www.bhphotovideo.com.
It is also good to look into multiple websites, as you may be able to find a good deal on new equipment as well. For example, B&H sells an enlarger, with a lens and developing kit for $289.44.
Choosing a Space that Fits
According to “Build Your Own Home Darkroom,” by Lista Duren and Will McDonald, there are several things to consider when choosing a space for your darkroom. Size is not necessarily one of them. You can use areas such as closets, hallways, garages or spare bedrooms. It is also not uncommon for people to convert their bathrooms or kitchens into darkrooms as necessary when they need to print. A couple of things that you do want to keep in mind though, is that you need access to running water, the entire area needs to be blacked out and with all the hazardous chemicals required in printing, ventilation is key.
Darkroom printing is known as a wet process, meaning you need water to complete it. You start at your enlarger, which controls how much light is allowed on your light-sensitive paper and for how long. After you have exposed your print for the proper amount of time you take it over to the developing solution. This chemical is what makes your image appear. Next is a stop bath, which essentially a watered down acid that stops the developer solution from overdoing your print. Fixer is the last chemical bath and it strips all the silver from your print and helps to make your image permanent. You can always tell when an image has not been left in the fixer long enough because the silver begins to yellow the image. Lastly you place your print into a tub of water that is constantly flowing. This helps to remove all the chemicals from it.
The amount of chemicals described is why it is crucial to have ventilation in your darkroom. When I’m working in the darkroom, I usually spend at least a couple of hours in there printing. You do not want to be breathing in chemicals like that for long periods of time. Ventilation is key. It can be as complex as connecting ventilation to the room via air conditioning, or as simple as putting a fan in for air circulation.
Light-proofing your darkroom is important for the success of your printing. In Latin, the word “photography” basically means drawing with light. The paper you use to create your images are incredibly light sensitive. Any amount of light that gets on them, whether on purpose or not, begins the exposure process.
Deciding Whether to Build or Buy
The last major step in the process is to decide whether or not to build things like cabinets, shelving for enlargers, drying racks for prints or light boxes. In Duren and McDonald’s book “Build Your Own Home Darkroom,” they give you step-by-step instructions on each item. If you’re not so handy, it may be better to buy.
Sometimes you can get lucky like Eastburn did with his darkroom. “We got a deal on the sink from a manufacturer that we were doing some work for. The other costs were for building materials as we custom built our own shelving and benches,” he said. “Darkrooms seem to dictate how they come together as to the area you have. The building materials and the sink were probably around $600.00.”