« Darkroom as Recreation | Main | Photo Mook »

Wednesday, 03 June 2009


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

A dedicated darkroom as America downsizes is definitely a luxury for the few. In my case I've sacrificed being able to park my truck in the garage for a provisional darkroom and studio space made possible thru darkout cloth. It includes separate wet & dry areas. I've built the structure (eg, benches) and relied on eBay for most of the equipment. My total cost is less than what I've spent on a Mac, software, etc.; and my upgrade/operational costs are minimal compared to the computer. My prints might not be as perfect as a digital (alot of wabi sabi) and I may spend all of a session on one final print; but the end results are an added reward for the pleasure of working in a hand-crafted process.

I wrote this before: in 1967, when I was 15, I borrowed the library's Time-Life additions book, and built a framed, wired darkroom in my basement. I had a Vivitar 66, and splurged on an EL 2.8 Nikkor.

I donated all of it years ago. Digital has been a renaissance. I have kept all my film cameras, collected since childhood - including my father's Kodak Dualflex III. I have it on a shelf with a press 25 daylight bulb in the flash. Ah Kodak, with planned obsolescence: take 120 film, change the spool, and call it 620. Or take the Retina Reflex, as good as anything from Zeiss, change it to an Instamatic, and then kill it off. And you wonder why Fuji is adjusting to digital better than Kodak.

My wife is pretty supportive (resigned) over my evolving photography hobby, and has watched with some fascination (alarm) as I've progressed over the years, from "hey, this sony digicam thing is really fun" to developing my own medium format rolls.

She has actually pointed out (possibly to forestall any suggestions of wholesale apartment remodeling) that there's not only blackout curtains available to seal off a bathroom or similar, but even portable "curtain rooms" that will create a pitch-black tent or room-in-a-room for darkroom work. Shouldn't be surprised I guess; many Japanese are passionate about photography but not many live in places large enough to devote a whole room for darkroom work.

My roundabout way of saying that yes, a post or two about darkroom setup and work on a small scale would be very, very interesting indeed.

A nice, thoughtful piece of writing, Mike.

For me, the real advantage to printing with a computer is that it doesn't tie me down for extended periods -- I can stop and start as I feel like it. In a conventional darkroom, once started it has to go to the finish, and then (usually at 4 AM) pour the chemicals back into their jugs and wash the trays, and be ready for work at 7 AM.

I remember developing slide film in a hotel bathroom in order to send it out to a magazine the next morning. Last time I ever developed my own film (1989). Even so, I'd rather scan my own b&w, after someone else did the developing, and do the small changes in PS and then print myself.

Strangely, since I got a dSLR for event work, I am pulling more and more back to B&W film for my personal stuff. And with everyone leaving film for digital, while some gears are still not at bargain levels, it certainly is much cheaper to get into film than even just a few years ago.

So I took delivery of a Mamiya 7II with 80 and 150 lens last week, and today just ordered a 43mm from keh, and just having a great time with it. The cost of the body + 2 lens is just a little over the cost of the body of a D300, and lighter!

You souped the film and these giant negatives just stare back at you having all these details:


and even street photos!

The tonality and details are just so much richer than 35mm. I think I can improve on the TXP-320/Xtol 1+2 combo I am using to get even finer grain and sharper pictures.

Since I already have a LS-8000 scanner, the usage cost is fairly low, about 50 cents per neg. Developing cost is just pennies.

I am now considering a 6x7 enlarger. Any good recommendations :-)?

Mike - find the time man, find the time...

(long term intending-to-build-a-darkroom-ist)

Another factor is that environmental regulations have been tightened quite a bit and you can't just pour chemicals like spent fixer (that contains potentially toxic heavy-metal silver) down the drain any more. This makes disposing of hobbyist chemicals difficult, and even individual darkrooms could be regulated.

That's why the best option is cooperative darkrooms like Rayko Photo in San Francisco.

Cramped and primitive sometimes didn't matter. As a bored teen visiting Cape Cod in the 60's, I was finally so desperate to do some darkroom work that I used our outdoor pump house as a darkroom at night. I took my Retina IIIc camera, a light bulb and fixture, box and 3 pieces of wood, taped the fixture and opened-back camera in the box, and experimented as perhaps only single-minded teens do, with test strips and standard chemicals and paper bought in Falmouth. I found I could make successful prints! Can you believe they were passably sharp, lasted to the present day, and...I still like them. Go figure.

Thanks for evoking the memories.

My first darkroom was a small bathroom in the basement of a house my family moved into in 1960. There were 9 of us in a 4 bedroom house, soon to be 5 bedrooms when my father and I built a bedroom for me in what was otherwise the unfinished part of the basement.

Anyway, the bathroom was too small, so my father and I cut a wall loose and relocated it about 2 feet into the unfinished area. We then filled the space with a kitchen-like counter, with cabinets below. Space enough for an enlarger, trays, a timer, and not much else. I washed prints in the small bathroom sink, letting the water run through the overflow holes at the top. (I'm sure lots of people did the exact same thing.)

I was only 13 at the time.

While the darkroom offered peace and quiet from a house full of 8 other people, it also kept me from lots of other activities that young teenagers maybe ought to be doing instead. Hanging out. Trying to date girls. Joining a sports team.

I only ever used two other darkrooms. The one in high school where we did the photography for the school paper and yearbook, and one at the Washington Daily News which I got to use briefly as part of a project they had using high school photographers to shoot high school sports. I think I was there only twice.

Oh yeah... almost forgot. My daughter and I developed that pinhole-camera image in a makeshift darkroom in our basement only a couple of weeks ago.

Mike's recent posts reminded me of my darkroom days, which I don't miss at all. Today I spent about 15 min. in Lightroom to work up some pictures I shot today at lunchtime (go to basepath.com to see them).

I'm 61 now, but I'll take Lightroom over my enlarged bathroom, no question.


I'm really enjoying these darkroom posts. I come from the demographic of learning in the darkroom out of necessity, using the darkroom professionally out of necessity, and hating it the whole time.
Now that I'm no longer professional, I find myself pining after a darkroom as an escape from the ever-present computer. As a recent first-time home owner I'm finally in a position to make it a reality so I can't wait for your next posts!
On colour - I fully agree that digital is superior to 35mm colour negative film for making large prints. But nothing equals a well-exposed slide projected in my Leitz Pradovit!

I'd be interested in hearing about a simple darkroom. I have some darkroom equipment now for doing B&W, but it's not in a dedicated space. Plus I'm getting interested in Ilfochrome.

Mike, I fully agree -- color is the realm of digital for me, too. Although in my case, digital means shooting color film (e6 or c41) and then scanning after the lab has done their job. There's just something about the look of Portra NC 160 or Kodachrome 64 that I just have never seen duplicated with pixels.

Then again, I don't shoot that much color.

Now, the day they make a digital b/w that is as good as 6x7 PanF+ souped in Rodinal, I will give up wetprinting for life.

I think darkroom skills are great to have and I have had a few unorthodox darkrooms in my time too. I once converted quite a large office in an apartment building where I lived into a nice darkroom and later when I moved into my current bungalow home, one of the bedrooms made for a dandy darkroom after covering up one of the windows, it had no plumbing. That darkroom, the former bedroom, has now been converted into my "light room" or digital print room, I can see out the window now, its where my computer, scanner and ink-jet printer now sit. I still have a place to develop black and white film, which is in my laundry room. I like my new digs, but for nostalgia sake, I can always cover up the window and hang a safe light in one corner of my digital print room for that old time "darkroom" feel !

I feel like some of the most exciting work being done in todays photography scene is an amalgam of digital and analog technique. When I see some of the hybrid type work by people like Dick Arentz, Mark Nelson and others with digital negatives made for alt process printing I am stunned at the elegant results. I have also seen some fabulous shows of prints captured on film and printed it the digital environment. These are absolutely the good old days.

We’re quite lucky here in Cardiff South Wales UK, as we still have a number of community darkrooms. Llanover Hall, where some 25years ago I gained my first experience of darkroom work, Howardian Community Education Centre and the Ffotogallery based at Chapter Arts Centre, which offers a range of photography courses including the Black & White photography Courses I teach and also has a fully equipped darkroom for the Colour Photography courses taught by a colleague and fellow graduate from University of Wales College, Newport, Richard Page.

My personal preference is still for film; simple Ilford FP4 in my Mamiya RB67 and have recently installed a purpose built and fully plumbed in darkroom of my own. This is after too many years of “primitive” trestle tables and carrying the prints down a short corridor to the bathroom to be washed, followed by a number of years without one whilst the house was being renovated.

I like the fact the RB67 is slow and has a viewfinder image I can actually see; it feels like I’m actually inside the camera and not outside looking in. I’ve never got on with the incredibly shrinking viewfinders of my 35mm and now digital SLRs (how small can they go?) and don’t mention digital compacts but I agree with your comments on digital and colour. The adoption of digital does give easy access to colour photography in a domestic environment and to my mind there is little difference between a traditional colour print, dye on resin coated paper and a digital one, pigment on resin coated paper. Using fibre papers it could even be argued that digital prints are superior to analogue but as for the fine silver gelatine print, I’m still not convinced digital will fully replace it.

I've always been amused (and a little frustrated) by the obsession many camera-forum visitors seem to have with equipment being "pro" or not. It's not completely unique to photography (woodworking has the same thing) but it does seem to be almost accepted as common wisdom: "pro" means "the best". But really, pro means "must be repeatedly okay, with minimum fuss" — which is not automatically the most desirable for someone with a different goal than making a living.

I mean no insult to all of you actual pros, of course. Many of you are fine craftspeople and also artists, both in your commercial and personal work. I just don't need my gear to be targeted at you, because we have different needs.

I constructed my first darkroom in 1979. I was 14 years old and my parents let me build the darkroom in a storage closet in our carport. I connected HVAC (a necessity in a carport in Phoenix)from my brothers bedroom, and power and water were obtained from an adjacent bathroom. Since I wasn't doing photography professionally then, it was all just for fun. I fondly recall countless hours spent in that darkroom. The solitude and the singular purpose were intoxicating to me. I had never been so focused on one task.

Just last week I was making plans with my wife about finishing part of our attic into a darkroom. The space will be tight with a low ceiling and not much room side to side, but if I can recapture even a fraction of the tranquility that I experienced while in high school I think I will be in heaven. Isn't nostalgia great. When I am done it may not fully achieve my goal, but with my three kids in high school right now I need a little "me time," and I think the darkroom is just the ticket I've been looking for.

When we designed and built our home 6 years ago I set aside in my basement space for an office as well as a nice sized darkroom. I had been without a darkroom for 7 years so was forced to learn the digital side. I still consider myself to be of the Darkside but now I can work both sides of the fence. It depends on what the subject and intent of the art is that determines what process steps I take. I can work in digital for both my color and B&W prints. I work with film and paper negs for my pinhole and regular images, but my process is a hybrid. I make an 8x10 neg with my pinhole adapted Korona camera or a paper neg with my homemade can cameras and then scan and work it up in Photoshop. From there I can either make the inkjet print or print a negative and make the silver print. Or I make a digital image and convert it to B&W for either type of print. For me it’s the art that drives the decision. I think having the flexibility to carry either type of camera and still produce either type of print is extremely valuable and I am thrilled to have both options. But I do love the stink of fix on my fingers…..

Some years back, before my daughter was born (but after we bought the house we're in now) I bought a book on building your own darkroom. I'm not sure what kept me from doing it right away, but in hindsight it was a really good thing. I would have had a couple "good years" before my daughter came along, my time disappeared, and not long after that before I switched to digital and the darkroom would become a big waste of time, money and space. I can easily see the darkroom as a sanctuary and darkroom "work" as an enjoyable hobby for many people. I could enjoy it under the right circumstances. But the "digital darkroom" does it for me right now. I work on computers all day, but when I'm going through pictures in Lightroom, the fact that I'm on a computer is secondary to the fact that I'm working with pictures.

From about 1972 to 2001, my darkroom work was mostly with color film and print processes. Always worked in total darkness without a dark green safelight. Talk about contemplative! There is something very zen-like moving around a darkroom and putting your hand out knowing that it will land on a particular tool or item. The materials were expensive and some of the equipment was awkward (anyone else ever operated a Calumet basket processor with nitrogen burst agitation?) If something went awry, losing your cool was not an option. Again: zen-like. I always thought of it as a kind of slow dance in the dark.

When I was doing darkroom work ten years ago, it was with a medium format enlarger that wasn't the greatest piece of engineering I've ever seen. I always lusted after a Leitz V35 but was using a Mamiya medium format outfit at the time. After switching to digital and picking up a few 35mm SLRs, I decided I'd get the V35 and do some darkroom work at home. I got the enlarger off Ebay about three years ago, stuck it on a bench in the laundry room and it's sat there ever since. I've hardly touched it once. How sad...

I'm one of those who can't imagine a world without darkrooms. Every time I've moved, I've built a new darkroom before even all the boxes are unpacked. But, it is certainly a fact that not every home has the space. One of my favorite photographic quotes was written in 1885 (as proof there are no new problems.)

"It is of course convenient to have a special dark-room adapted for all photographic work, but in some cases, it is impossible, we are well aware. If, however, the amateur will work after dark, there is no reason why a dressing room, a bath room, or any spare room should not answer the purpose without permanently disarranging them." Photography with Emulsions, by William de Wiveleslie Abney.

And, a communtity darkroom is a wonderful resource, although the one nearest you may need rescuing. I've recently been involved in sweeping the mothballs out of the darkroom at my local Visual Arts Center. The response has been incredible. People walking down the hall poke their heads in to find out what's going on and, as inevitable as sunrise, I'll be listening to the most marvelous stories of darkroom memories (including one conception!). Almost everyone has expressed an interest in 'learning darkroom' again.

My suggestion: If you think there is any possibility you'll want to 'learn darkroom' sometime in the future, pick up a few basics now on ebay, because I think the giveaway period is coming to an end.

''One of my darkrooms, but only one, was so cramped and primitive as to be essentially unusable even for me. And I can do good work in pretty primitive conditions''

You just reminded me of the story of Tony Vaccaro, Soldier and Photographer, developing negs during the Second World War. On a moonless night in GI helmets with looted chemicals from a bombed out store, dried the negs by hanging them from a tree. Turned out pretty well apparently but the army censor destroyed them because they contained images of dead GIs.

I've not used a darkroom myself since I had the benefit of my school's facilities but I really enjoyed it and that got me into photography. I'd like a darkroom to use but I probably wouldn't use it enough to justify the effort or expense but then Tony Vaccaro sort of puts it into perspective.

I'll be listening to the most marvelous stories of darkroom memories (including one conception!).

So that's what's meant by developing in the darkroom.

When I first started doing research in Poland in 1987 and 1989, the last years of Communism, I was very impressed by the way that people managed to incorporate darkrooms in their already too small apartments and dorm rooms, and managed to get work done in times of shortages using East European and Soviet cameras, films and materials. I remember once walking into a photo supply shop in Cracow to buy bulk rolls of a high contrast copy film that I think was made by Foton, and was available, because few people really used it, and the clerk said "we have fixer today" because it would likely sell out and not be available again for months.

Since then, I've always felt that having "enough space" for a darkroom was more about having the desire and the will to do it than having a spare room in the basement. Here's a photo of my tiny dark/bathroom two Manhattan apartments ago in my favorite thread on http://www.apug.org which has portraits of darkrooms of every shape and size--


My current darkroom is in a bedroom that we use as a study with an adjacent bathroom. We live in a three bedroom/two bath apartment that is a floor of a three-story house, about 1400 square feet. The wet side is in the bathroom, with a door that closes, so I can process film without occupying the study. The trays are stacked on Rubbermaid shelves in the shower stall. I've got blackout curtains to darken the study, where the dry side is, so I have a large, roomy area for printing that we can also use for other purposes and I never have to worry about the wet side contaminating the dry side.

Building your own darkroom may also lead to gaining some ancillary skills.
When we built our current home I had them put a rough-in for a bathroom in the basement.
When I framed out the space I made the room much larger (10x12')than a water closet and put in a sink in place of a shower.
In order to seal the deal with my wife I had to add a toilet. Being a cheapskate I got a booklet from Home Depot and installed it myself.
So far no floods or pressurized cascades of raw sewage so I am counting the project a success.
I am 59 and I really didn't want to clog up what's left of my brain with toilet installing skills but sometimes you have to grow for your art.

I am sure Mike is all over it, but what a coinkidink, the Luminous Landscape has an article up on Platinum Printing:

Mike, I just hope that Kodak, Fuji, Ilford, et al., are following your recent posts (and the resulting comments).

Mike, I look forward to your comments on a small working darkroom. These past few articles have been heartening, inspiring, and dispiriting, as I have just put in my first black & white darkroom.

For context, I'm in my mid-thirties, and am passionate about both digital and film photography. I grew up with computers -- our family's first came when I was 5 years old. I have lived through the evolution of computers from interesting distraction to useful tool. I witnessed many dedicated machines and devices migrate onto the computer (thinking of typing, audio work, film and video work, among innumerable others). The result is inevitably that these tools are cheaper and more accessible than when they required sundry electro/mechanical/optical arcana. I feel lucky to have grown up at exactly the right moment to experience both worlds -- the world of the dedicated tool (cameras, film, darkrooms, typewriters) and the world the universal device (the computer.)

My experience with computers is so natural that it is easy for me to experience "flow" with them. Performing innumerable different tasks with the same basic technology is actually very conducive to flow. Imagine how virtuosic you could feel if every task relied on comfort with one basic technology and interface, layered only with the additional tools and understanding required to get to the heart of the subject at hand? That is my experience of using the computer for digital photography.

This does not deny the pure pleasure in handling and using single-purpose machines like the enlarger. Being at the moment we are, where most folks have dumped their darkroom, I was able to assemble a servicable darkroom (35mm and 6x6 with an Omega B600, all the accoutrements and wet-side paraphernalia) for perhaps $250 in expense (including a lovely stainless steel counter and cabinet to hold everything and provide the work surface.) As I slowly practice and learn, I am humbled by the knowledge held by folks like Mike, who experienced flow in the darkroom. I also look to the results achieved with traditional optical methods, and I know that I want to be able to create beautiful prints like that too. It's not that the optical or digital prints are better or worse, just different. I like the look I get from digital c-prints from the lab, but I also long to create and display my own handcrafted silver prints.

I am willing to bet that I am not alone. Those younger than me, whose connection to the specialized ways of the past are even more tenuous, seem to be the most interested and passionate about rediscovering them. I bet there are a lot of those people out there interested to read Mike's next darkroom article.

Don't forget the darkroom-less darkroom! One of my favorite light-capturing devices is a 7" x 17" banquet camera. All I need is a closet for loading the film. With BTZS film developing tubes, I can do all the processing in daylight. Contact prints are made with palladium and/or platinum, which also can be done without a darkroom. Even silver contact prints can be made with minimal dark time and no enlarger needed.

Of course, carrying the beastie has its own challenges. But even 8" x 10" cameras can make some great contact prints. And there are 12" x 20" cameras if you have a porter.

Something I'd forgotten about The Darkroom, I used to go 'in there' for a day at a time, emerging for refuelling only. Now anyone can walk in to The Lightroom, chat, point me at a new thing on U Tube, shout for me to answer the phone, and so on. Wonder Woman recently advised me to 'just shut the door', damn, why didnt I think of that. KG. Cornwall.UK

My first darkroom was the largest I ever had, with the exception of the newspaper darkrooms I've used. At the time, I rented a room ($52.50 a month with water included) in an huge old house that had been renovated from a single family dwelling into four apartments--two upstairs and two down. When my apartment was constructed, the former downstairs hallway became the bathroom. Wide and very long with three doors--but no windows--a tub, a basin and a toilet. It actually worked very well and I learned printing from scratch in that old hallway with two doors taped shut and one door covered with a heavy wool blanket. I developed film in a plastic Yankee tank while sitting on the toilet seat. I printed on my $15 used Vivitar enlarger that was precariously balanced to a shakey folding metal table. It was damned hot in the summer in there but there was a gas space heater that kept things cozy in the winter. While fun to remember, I'm sure this arrangement would drive me nuts today.

These days, I'm content with digital cameras, computer and inkjet printer and the occasional rolls of B&W film that I can load in the bathroom and develop at the kitchen sink. Negatives are then scanned on an Epson V700 and prints made on the HP printer. The quality is actually very good from my once-again amateur viewpoint.

Mike, I once had a magazine/book that I think you edited that had photos of some well known photographer's darkrooms. I remember one was constructed under a stairway but I don't remember the photographer or even when I had this publication.

David W. Scott wrote:

"Those younger than me, whose connection to the specialized ways of the past are even more tenuous, seem to be the most interested and passionate about rediscovering them."

I agree. In amateur radio, there is no longer a requirement to know Morse code in order to progress to a General or Extra license level. It seems that the kids are most interested in Morse code when they visit a Field Day site. (More info: www.arrl.org)

late last month I gave away all of my dark room gear i'd held onto for a very long time. In the mid 90's I started in my early 20s building a dark room. It was the weekend bath room variety putting it up saturday or sunday afternoon and taking it back down late in the evening. My GF grew to hate it because there were a couple of time when she had to go to the 7-11 to potty... I mostly did not because I loved the darkroom time. to me it was a necessary evil, a cost saving in the long run DIY was cheaper then the lab. all of my equipment was garage sale and thrift store specials. I even scored a color kit from a older gent who gave up the hobby due to illness. I wound up moving back into apartments with funky water temps and space issues and eventually ran into funding problems for the chemicals and paper so it all went into storage. a few years back i finally bought a house and briefly relished the idea of a dark room in the garage, but swing sets and cribs became top of the list and I don't want to spend time in the dark room when i could spend taking pictures of the two absolutely most photogenic preschoolers you could ever hope for ... so with the darkroom sill in the boxes i packed them into the last time i use them in some time around 2000 I gave it all away to some 20 something art school photographer ... I finally let go of the dream. I knew i would never in the near future have a dark room. or maybe the dream changed, I'm not sure. But instead of letting it all rot in the garage i gave all of the equipment I accumulated the chance to be used. It's easy for me to go to the digital. I work in video so I've been digital for a long time and the acceptance for me wasnt a big deal. But maybe when the kids are older and i'm tired of the computer thing I'll start to hit the garage sales and thrift stores with one eye open for that enlarger in the corner

As to the albums at Best Buy- I'm shocked they are in a big box store. Did you ask if they had any turntables and did the high school student with acne just look at you funny? It would be fantastic if they sold LPs but not turntables.

I watched about the last month or two of Late Nite with Conan O'Brian and it seemed more often than not, he would hold up a vinyl album when announcing a band rather than a CD case. The first time I remember a rock album coming out on vinyl and it seemed odd was Vitalogy by Pearl Jam (which featured a song called "Spin the Black Circle"). These days you probably aren't a cool "indie" band unless you have a pressing.

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007