« Photo Mook | Main | Twenty Years Ago This Day »

Friday, 05 June 2009


With many commercial labs switching to digital workflows there is a great opportunity to pick up darkroom fixtures and gear pretty cheap, even free. I snagged the above said SS sink for carrying it away along with numerous film holders and a really sweet new Saunders 20x24 easel for naught. Sometimes you just get lucky.

Oh, and for water management Mike, it would be nice if you address the issues of how to manage wash water effluent for those of us on septic. Thx.

Mike, I've spend lots of time in darkrooms and while it was fun while it lasted, the main reason I'd never really want to do much of it again is the personal exposure to potentially harmful chemicals both through skin contact and through vapors.

Nevertheless the time I've spent in the darkroom has certainly given me a better concept of what I'm looking for when I manipulate my digital photos on the computer now.

But I'm not sure I'd really recommend anyone to make a practice of darkroom usage these days.

I was with you all the way until you bypassed the sink. A modestly priced sink can be built from dimension lumber and plywood and then coated with marine expoxy. An idiot can do it. I know 'cause I did it. The nice thing is you can make it exactly the size and shape you want. Mine's taken a tremendous amount of use with every type of B&W and color chemistry except Ilfochrome.

Hi Mike - love this post! I would like to throw out the idea that a darkroom can be even more basic than an Weston one, if you are willing to do digital negatives, and contact print Cyanotypes, VanDyke Brown, and Printing out Paper prints.

The problem with smaller darkrooms, which most people (like me) are forced to have, is all the space needed for the trays and sinks you mention. Vertical print processors and washers are the answer. They're not cheap, but they have allowed me to have a functioning darkroom in a small bathroom (about 5' X 8') -- one that. moreover, is easily disassembled when we have guests staying in the adjoining bedroom. Great darkroom series so far!

I agree with most of your logic, most of the time. But you lose me on the dry room/ flat counter approach. I think that water is often wasted in a conventional setup with long sink, but on the other hand filtration, easy replacement and controlled temperature and flow I think are very good things to have, and rarely established out of a bath tub. With a little thought and testing, water flow minimums and methods can be established to both save the planet from the forces of evil and give you prints that aren't going to splotch in 10 years. I've worked in closets and commercial dark rooms over the past 30 years, and amazingly I prefer the latter. My last setup is a V35/splitgrade controller, filtered mixers,flow regulated holding box and print washer, good drying cabinets and a decent stereo. Also, one film and one paper, which saves an an amazing amount of time and resources. It doesn't have to be hard, messy or time consuming, and when you factor the cost of overpriced inks and Giclee (doesn't that word sound just precious?), the cost of darkroom is a specious argument.

It takes concentration and good technique to print 35mm negs well. Good 4x5 negs are more of a pleasure to print, and often much more gratifying because they make much higher quality prints more readily. Medium format splits that difference.

I apologize for asking a question not directly related to the darkroom, but I thought 4x5 is a medium format film. If "medium format" splits the difference between 35mm and 4x5, does that make 4x5 large format? Am I reading the above incorrectly?

Back on topic, after three years of self-taught digital photography, I'll finally begin taking classes for my minor in photocommunications. The 101 course beginning in July has the following description: "Students learn about film, light, basic camera operation, and are introduced to black and white processes. No prior experience is necessary. Significant time in lab required on weekly basis. Students should plan to spend approximately $300 on materials over the course of the semester."

I'm looking forward to what appears to be my first time in the darkroom. :)

Yes, 4x5" sheetfilm is large format. Medium format uses 120 and 220 rollfilm for the most part.


So why don't you use the same care and planning in your virtual darkroom? All the time you spent learning and mastering the darkroom arts, why don't you devote that same effort to your computer skills?

Isn't trying to do digital photography with a laptop a lot like the darkroom in a tiny dorm closet, with the $69 Durst enlarger and no running water?

Here and elsewhere I've been reading people's complaints about today's virtual darkroom, and glowing remembrances of the old darkroom, and I am having a hard time understanding why.

I spent 40 years in the darkroom, 20 years with computers, then ten years now with digital cameras (and no more darkroom). I couldn't be happier.

But I have a room exclusively for my computer. The older Mac desktop machine isn't the fastest but I have three calibrated 24" CRT monitors, a RAID array to handle backups, and a very good work surface and chair (and lighting). Also a nice little printer that does exactly what I want.

Best of all, I have control over my images that I never even dared dream possible in those darkroom days. Damn sweet it is!!

"If you have a tendency to slosh solution out of the trays when agitating, just buy trays with higher sides."

Mike, kitty-litter trays have higher sides than regular print trays, and they cost far less money. They don't have the ribbed bottoms of some brands of print trays, but then neither did my 16x20" well-known-brand print trays.

I'm not sure about white for a dark---Washing prints--- 5 changes of water over an hour and the use of hypo eliminator is all you really need. Hypo leaves the paper base at a constant rate--more water will not remove the hypo any faster--also the shortest time in the hypo will keep it from really infiltrating the paper base and always use fresh hypo (fixer) old hypo molecules lock on to the fibers better(not good) or 2 trays of hypo. Don't over wash as a lot of papers have brighteners in them and will get wash out if washed to long. Ilford had some good info on Archival washing of prints. If your using RC paper (if they still make it)--Not much of a problem with any of this except over washing.

I've made darkrooms in closets, bathrooms, a spare room in an old office building; I know about printing on my knees, in cramped spaces, fighting dust and light leaks. With my last darkroom (much earlier this century, before the digital wave broke), I got lucky. Our rental house had once contained a basement suite - no longer; we were renting the whole place, but the downstairs kitchen was mostly intact.

So I had nicely finished cupboards and countertops, a linoleum floor, a double stainless steel sink. Where a stove had once been, I slapped in a low shelf for the MF enlarger. The gap nicely divided the wet and dry areas. The long counter on the dry side allowed four 11x14 trays. All very neat and comfortable. I put up a temporary wall (supported by pressure - no nails) with 2x4s and opaque plastic and blacked out the one window around a labyrinthine venting system. The old broom closet became the drying room with stacked racks of nylon mesh.

A luxurious space by my standards. With a radio playing classical music.

But I never seemed to have enough time. There was always money to spend. Trying to keep chemicals out of the sewer system was a messy, complicated affair (I had become eco-conscious). The final straw was the smell. My partner hated it. Even with my ersatz ventilator and despite my fervent denials, an unmistakable industrial odor would permeate the whole house when I was in printing mode. If you're not single, the ideal darkroom also needs a non-residential location.

In 2002, the computer beckoned. I answered the call, the space was dismantled and all the equipment is now packed away in my present basement waiting for an interested party (hint, hint).

Mike, subconciously, you must have figured that the darkroom was your safeplace... anyone who remembered it would, for the most part, agree with your nostalgia, or at least speak constructively; and anyone who hadn't used one might tell you you were crazy, but wouldn't know what they were talkilng about, because they hadn't experienced it. I would guess this is a much nicer experience (reminicing(SP)) than getting misrepresented and bashed every other comment=)
But what fun is not getting bashed for the rest of us? So come out with your initial impressions of the 15mm ltd and give me some fun comments to read=)

PS I'll read whatever you write, just having some fun, because I've never been in a darkroom so I'm sure I'm not getting as much as some others from the last couple of posts. Also, tried to buy a couple of lenses from your links this week, hope it worked. All I have to do is click and use as normal right?

I'm assuming you've seen Tim Gray's article on platinum printing over at LuLa. But if not it is listed here...


There is a forum thread on the subject here ...


The OP can be summed up as "Why bother?" Doesn't seem to have anyone agreeing with him, however.

Probably doesn't belong on this thread but I thought I would mention it since there has been a lot of darkroom talk lately. (Which, to be honest, doesn't interested me all that much outside of my love of history.)

BTW, if you haven't seen the LuLa VJ episode where Clyde Butcher shows his darkroom for making tour bus sized prints you really should.

If I may ask Christian: Where are you getting Printing out Paper? My understanding is that now there are no manufacturers anywhere.


Re: The smaller the largest print you will make, the simpler and more space-efficient the darkroom can be, and the less your related equipment will cost

I have a counter-example. I did some photography in high school, in a dank basement next to a dusty smoky furnace, then nothing until a theater company that I was working with as a getaway from grad school needed some 6'x 3'personality posters for a medieval duke's palace (in Venice, of course). No one else knew where to start, but they had gone to the art department and emerged with 3 1/4" by 4 1/4" negative slides and a projector that could carry across a big classroom. We used a basement dance studio, taped sheets of mural paper (all #2, or maybe Dupont Varigam) to the mirrors on the walls and projected away. After exposure, the sheets were rolled up in the original packing tubes, and taken across the hall to the locker room showers, where our trays were rectangles of 1x2 lumber on edge, covered with stapled-on plastic sheeting. The showers stank for a few days afterwords, but the posters looked great under stage lighting. Afterwards, I found a real darkroom, with yellow Thomas safelights and all that.


I've never put my trays in a sink; always on a table (plastic 6 foot folding table). If you're using a sink, don't you need to be standing up to reach down in at the right angle to rock your trays? I sit at my table in a wheeled office chair, and as I move the print down the line I just roll with it. And I like the angle on my wrists; I just rest the edge of my hand on the surface of the table, hook an index finger under the corner of the tray, and bob it up and down.

"...the larger the negative, the easier a time you will have in the darkroom."

I would not have believed it, but it is very true. And not just because of the nature of the results obtained. I was amazed at how much less dodging and burning was required when printing from a 4x5 negative than with medium format and 35mm film.

Let me put my "Harrumph" in front here.


Setting aside any arguments or observations about the following: convenience, control, cost,work environment, green... has digital output created a kind of mass myopia about how good silver prints look? Has digital created a kind of mass amnesia about luminance? Or nuance?

Photos of Eugene Smith's darkroom at the bottom of this page


to me exemplifies the "workroom" ethic--not only plenty of exposed 2x4's and plywood, it doubled as his office. A very personalized workspace. Inspiring, even if I have only a bathroom a tenth that size to work in.

I especially like the ingenious two stage waterfall print washer, made from two trays and a siphon.

hmmm my G9 crapped out and is on its third trip to Canon… i've been thinking about my old FTb (i even got it out and clicked the shutter a few times Ilford xp2 special yeah!) and darkrooms myself. Thouh really, a good scanner would be more likely than a darkroom for me.

A plumbing note for those of you building a darkroom.
If you have to move water around and don't care to learn how to sweat pipe take some time to learn about two products that are relatively new and very useful. Pex plastic tubing is a nice replacement for copper and you can use something called shark bites to hook it up.
The shark bites are every bit as good as soldered joints and any fool (I am living proof) can use them.
Check for both at big box home stores like Home Depot.
Some cities do not allow shark bites or Pex but the folks at the store will know if you are going to have any code problems.
Shark Bites avoid the replay of the depth charge attack scene from "Torpedo Run" that always seems to accompany turning the water back on when using compression fittings.


Regarding your point #4... I remember with vivid clarity an interview with Jerry Uelsmann in his workspace at the University of Florida where he said: "What I want Kodak to be working on is a 35mm film that swells to 4x5 when processed." Works for me! And, it would resolve this point wouldn't it? :)

About the word Giclee.... Michael Reichmann says in his Camera to Print tutorial that the word is French for spurt or ejaculate.... Now that is really cute. Guess I will have to change all my labels now....

Sinks are not all that hard or costly to make, and for some of us, an absolute necessity.

I spent all of some amount like a couple of hundred to make a huge, luxurious, and very rugged epoxy/fiberglas on wood sink.

There is a wonderful example of a traditional darkroom at work at "Atelier Fenêtre sur Cour" - www.laboratoire-tirages-argentiques.com/prestation-eng.html.

Nathalie Lopparelli, the owner, was the personal printer for Sebastiao Salgado for many years and has also worked with other Magnum photographers.

Although the video is only in French, it's worth watching as a beautiful example of documentary film-making - and makes complete sense to anyone that has worked in a darkroom, even if you don't understand the commentary.

The web site link given is to the English version of the site, which suffers a little from 'auto-translatitis', but you'll get the idea.

This article focuses on the print darkroom, but for those of us who've gone the hybrid route - shoot film, scan, make inkjet prints - there's still the need for a darkroom with sink and running water. This hyrid-only darkroom underscores your #1 topic: if for developing film only, the whole setup can be very simple. A year ago I did myself the greatest darkroom favour I've ever done. I bought a Jobo ATL 2 Plus automatic film processor from a commercial lab that had gone over to Fujitsu one-hour machines (very very lucky $200 purchase), and now my B&W processing is so easy. Just pop the film in the tank, put some fresh developer in the developer bottle, open up the thermostatic mixing valve, and press the GO button and walk away for 30 minutes. When the machine starts beeping, I come back and hang the film up to dry. Agitating film tanks used to be the only part of darkroom work that drove me bonkers, but no longer.

My best darkroom was a 5' square bathroom in the back of a small music shop I ran for 12 years. Sink, toilet, and an upturned wooden crate that served as a table for the 4x5 enlarger and shelving for paper and supplies. I regularly developed film and made fiber based 11x14s from 6x7 and 4x5 Tri-X negs and it was very comfortable and efficient. The secret to it's success was the 1-tray method. The paper stays in one tray and the three chemicals are poured into it one at a time from large mouth beakers, followed by the washing - all in the same tray. The tray rested on the sink, the three beakers were on the toilet tank. It worked great, and being a bathroom it had an exhaust fan so there were no fumes issues.
If you want to do it bad enough there is a way, and the 1-tray method is surprisingly efficient.

"Storing dust catching stuff that you don't use for printing in the darkroom is a bad idea."

Aw nuts, does this mean that I'll need to rethink my plans for a combined darkroom and woodshop?

A good idea for the darkroom is wire shelving. Less surface area to catch dust.

A couple other thoughts on ad hoc darkrooms.

It's easy to make big sinks or trays out just about anything including cardboard if you paint it with polyurethane or epoxy. If that's too much bother, a big shallow box lined with a 2 layers of CLEAR plastic dropcloth and duct tape will work for a few months. 2 layers because the first layer will start to leak eventually , and clear so that you'll see when it starts to leak and know it's time to start over.

For a few years I was printing 40"x60" and I don't even know if you can buy trays and sinks that big , but I do know I wouldn't have been able to afford them.

As far as plumbing codes go, you can get away with a lot if you have a washing machine hookup and connect your darkroom stuff with hoses.

The small darkroom talk triggered a memory of my smallest darkroom.
It was a little Durst on the floor of a hall closet. Electricity was provided by an extension cable under the door. Light sealing was a couple of towels stuffed under the door.
I used it to expose Cibachrome and we processed it in the kitchen sink in a tube.
Still have one of those prints on the wall.
If you are only doing film to scan why not buy a changing bag or tent and use any sink you want?

Giclee was just a fancy name that Nash Editions invented for inkjet printing. A way to differentiate Nash Editions product via marketing from others, acc. to the principles elucidated by Geoff Moore in Dealing with Darwin.

Personally, I find all this focus on darkrooms somewhat irrelevant. Digital provides much greater control over the entire tonal range than film, both in processing and printing.

I’m communicating with my materials. It’s different than previsualizing. If you talk to a sculptor about how he looks at his rock or wood, you realize that he has a special relationship to his materials. In music it’s called attack. A concert violinist once told me that if Rubinstein came in and hit concert A, it would sound different than if Horiwitz came in and hit the same note. And a good musician will recognize which one was playing based on the performer’s attack. When you look at de Kooning’s brush stroke you can see the energy of the bristles of the brush right in the stroke of the paint. This is another example of attack. So I’ve applied some of these principals to my relationship to my materials and I think of them with great respect. I think film has more intelligence than I have. I could not make a roll of film. I learned this when I was an assistant to Dorothea Lange, this incredible respect for materials, almost homage. But anyway, the big emphasis in digital photography is how many more million pixels this new model has than the competitor’s model. It’s about resolution, resolution, resolution, as though that were going to provide us with a picture that harbored more content, more emotional power. Well in fact. It’s very good for a certain kind of graphic thing in color but I don’t necessarily do that kind of photograph. So when it comes to digital, I have to say that digital just doesn’t look the way photography looks, it looks like digital. However, I strongly suspect some kid is going to come along with a Photoshop filter called Tri-X, and you just load that, and you’ve got your self something that looks like Photography (laughs). It’s about the same relationship that videotape has to cinema. Digital imaging and photography share similar symbiosis. I think it’s a mutual coexistence situation. I don’t think they even compare.

-Ralph Gibson -


Damn you Mike! Today I bought a M6 with 2/90 but I search a 2/50 for the one-year-project. I found some Tri-X in the freezer and even D76 (not in the freezer) that is two years old but looks fresh. The darkroom is filled with old chairs and other debris. But soon there will be music again and I´ll develop film and make prints.

I´ve spent some years taking a lot of digital pictures. Some good but many just for exploring the visual world. Not a bad topic.

Now I look forward to the slower leica-style. A little more think-before-you-shoot. But also those decide-in-a-second street photos. Exciting anyway.

I just love it when I read sweeping generalizations...

Regarding the Ralph Gibson comment referenced by Karl Knize: I have to respectfully disagree with Mr. Gibson's comment that digital doesn't look the way photography looks (it looks "digital"). My comment now, as it was when Mike made the proclamation a while back that you needed 24 megapixels to print double-truck spreads is: Pish-tosh!

In a article along a similar theme, "Big Stick" (19 Dec. 08), Mike made the point that one can develop expertise with one's tools that defy what conventional wisdom would deem possible. Along those lines, to assume that a digital printmaker cannot produce prints that are every bit as engaging, compelling, and emotionally involving, both technically and artistically, as silver halide based production is akin to throwing down gauntlets.

I have some architectural prints hanging on my wall printed in black and white, and if I didn't tell someone they were digital, there would be *no way* for them to know. They have all of the contrast, dynamic range, texture, tonal qualities and "attack" that the finest silver halide prints have. In fact, they have denser blacks than silver halide can produce. I could send them to Mike for his take on this, but I think both Mike and I already know how this would turn out. As Mike pointed out at the end of the Big Stick article, whether it's a camera or printing: It's not how big a stick you have, it's how hard you swing it that matters.

Stephen Scharf

To those who commented they have gone to digital printing for several years now and just love it I wonder.

How many printers have they purchased? How often have they upgraded their computers? Monitors?

What do they expect as the life cycle of their present hardware?
Is anyone using 10 year old equipment? Five years old?

I guess if one just loves shopping for and buying new stuff all the time then this wonderful new digital world is a photographers dream come true.

The comments to this entry are closed.