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Wednesday, 16 June 2010


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Just finishing up my darkroom. Basement bathroom. Picked up a Delta sink (fancy one, with faucets, etc) which is just over 2 feet x 4 feet. Enlarger is on a re-castored filing cabinet; to enlarge, one pulls the enlarger back, steps over the "throne" and starts enlarging. Ventilation works; 2 Gralab timers on wall; best darkroom I have ever had. (old Omega C760 XL or whatever it is) is mine purchased new.

Go for it!

Congratulations JohnS. You are way ahead of me. But hopefully not for long.

Good negs,


Be careful with that urge to make this darkroom just a little better! That's why I never got a darkroom built in the previous house (1985-1995). Man, I was going to build the PERFECT darkroom.

THIS house, I thought I was heading towards building a darkroom, but I was already having my film scanned and had started doing digital printing, and I lost interest in getting a darkroom built. So I'm going to have a bathroom on the same floor as my bedroom instead.

My first one was black plastic stapled over 2x4 framing, in my parents' basement. The 2x4s are still there, in my sister's basement now.

Nice, Mike. I'm envious, and look forward to the 'after' photo. The punching bag will be useful, something to do during the rinse cycle.

Didn´t Edward Weston expose his contact prints with a bare light bulb? Just shows what one´s desire is capable of!
I wouldn´t get too fancy, just get down to printing.
I´m just sayin´.

I can smell the stop bath all the way to New Mexico---you lucky dude! Happy chemicals! I miss the magic....


I never thought of it as a darkroom accessory, but I can see how a punching bag could come in handy, at least for people with as high a screw-up ratio as mine. Less risk of forehead impressions in the drywall, with its attendant dust and other issues. Not that you'd have that problem, Mike, I'm sure yours is there for other reasons. I notice that it's conveniently black, though. Maybe I should pitch this to my local community darkroom.

Just yesterday, I came across one of those brilliant ideas that should have been so obvious: phosphorescent dots to mark locations of stuff (for those total darkness situations). Which really suggests that maybe if I bother reading one of the many available guides to setting up darkrooms, I might learn some things. Well, maybe when the TOP pamphlet comes out...

My darkroom is the upstairs bathroom, about 5 feet wide (so, 3' of space on the floor) with about $300 worth of eBayed gear (an Omega C-700 enlarger, cunningly aligned with a complicated series of cardboard shims). Trays go in the tub. When my knees give up entirely, I may have to go digital ;)

I've settled on 8x10 prints as what I want to do, from 35mm and 6x7 negatives, and am having a wonderful time making them in my superbly primitive cave!

Anyways, this is a GREAT time to build a darkroom. Excellent glass is going for nothing on eBay -- I have two Rogonar-S lenses for with I paid $10 and $30 respectively.

Ach, a darkroom in a basement. What a magical place. I also made one a year ago when I finally moved into my hugely overpriced flat in Cracow :-) Anyway, it's the cheapest darkroom ever. With a Meopta Opemus 6 (probably made in Czecho-Slovakia), a primitive Polish timer (also made before '89), a Kaiser tank, some unidentified $3 safelight (which looks a bit like a ... toaster - well, also made in Poland before '89) and cheap meopta multigrade filters. What a joy! :-)

I'm looking for a Durst M-301 to replace my Durst Reporter that is a little too compact and can barely reach 8X10 on the baseboard. Setting up in out tiny apt bathroom is a chore but I'm slowly developing some shortcuts to help out. Finally found a way to keep chems neat. I use those square plastic buckets with hinged lids that are intended for hanging 81/2 X 11 office files. If the bottles leak a little it doesn't get on the floor in the closet.

Good negs indeed and a little nose grease for those with fine scratches on the base side.

Nice shot! I like the way you anchored the lower right corner and the use of negative space.....oh wait, this isn't flickr, never mind. ;-)

"Just yesterday, I came across one of those brilliant ideas that should have been so obvious: phosphorescent dots to mark locations of stuff (for those total darkness situations)."

Reminds me of one of my favorite stories. My high school students of course used to have to roll their own film on to the developing reels, of course in total darkness. And obviously I couldn't go in there to help when someone got into trouble. So to encourage them, I wrote a sign on the wall of the film-loading room in glow-in-the-dark tape.

One day I could hear a girl in there just getting more and more stressed out, swearing and moaning. Finally she stormed out, saying, "WHAT is that word?!? Why did you put that there? PAT-EYE-ENTS. I could NOT figure out what that meant. What in the @#$# does PAT-EYE-ENTS mean?!?"

The word on wall, of course, was "Patience."

She did feel appropriately chagrined at herself when I told her. [g]


It's funny, I've spent most of my adult life avoiding the darkroom. A dark-bag and Jobo processor certainly helps. I've even gone to the extent of taking up the Van Dyke and Platinum process just so I can use the abundant Southern California sun. Recently though I've been dabbling in the Tintype process and that requires a dark box to make things happen. So it seems I may be loosening up a bit.

There were photographs of darkrooms in Aperture a few years ago. The collection had an introduction by Martin Parr, if I remember correctly.

Gosh, you seem to build flimsy houses in the US. The walls seem terribly thin, looking at the width of the 2 window frames. No criticism at all, but it's a bit of a shock! I'm currently living in a 420 year old stone-built house in the UK, and even the brick houses I've lived in before have had serious foundations and wall thicknesses of at least 3 courses of brick. Many years ago I lived in Germany and the cellar of our house was designed as a bomb-shelter, with thick concrete cladding on the brick. Perhaps I'm just used to that sort of house? My brother in law lives in Dallas and he believes that his new-built house has a life expectancy of about the length of his mortgage: he's not very impressed. Is that normal in the US?

Oh, BTW, best wishes on the new darkroom!

They had a replica of Edward Weston's darkroom as part of a big show of his at the Boston MFA about 15 years ago. There was, let's see - a notebook, an old gram scale, and some beakers and trays on a wooden plank, over which dangled a bare lightbulb. A clothespin held the bulb's wire in a loop, and this was the mechanism for raising and lowering it over the contact negative holders. I'll never forget it. Good luck with the darkroom, I am this close to going back myself....

Super exciting for you, Mike. Love to hear about folks doing this for the love, cause it sure aint very popular these digi-days.

I have two darkrooms: one, a cubbyhole in the garage that has a 2'x2' sink so all trays are on a table, as you mentioned. Not too messy yet. Nice Beseler 23CIII XL enlarger, etc. Problem is, the garage is in Texas and not air conditioned which makes it about 95 degrees F in there at dark (when it gets dark enough to work).

So, I'm also a member of a darkroom coop near the Univ. of Texas, a darkroom that has been in operation for decades. Nice and air conditioned, has two big D5 4x5 enlargers and a separate film processing room and another light table room. Only problem is that . . . it's a coop. And all that entails. I'm not complaining though, I feel very lucky.

Some day I'll combine them into one nice air conditioned darkroom that other people use only with my permission. Until then, I've still got some reverse snobbery credits.

Good luck. Much more fun putting a dark room together than, say, trying to figure out whether to by a new Photoshop Version.

My advice: keep it SIMPLE!

No, not at all--my basement walls are poured concrete and about 6-8" thick. It was nothing fancy when it was built in 1957, but it's good solid virtuous middle American construction.

Nowadays construction in many price-conscious houses has indeed gotten quite shoddy, as a general rule. The problem is that everyone wants "luxury," and interprets luxury to be the cues of status that can be seen--space, mainly (houses now are huge); hardwood flooring, granite counters, lots of appliances, electronic controls for everything, etc.

A peculiar manifestation of this is a TV show called "Extreme Home Makeover." Originally meant to be a show to encourage people to do some remodeling, it's now become an extravaganza where a suitably pathetic recipient is found (usually a family with an ill child, a saintly public servant in dire straits, that sort of thing) and the "remodeling" now usually consists of tearing the old house down and, in a single week, racing against the clock, building a palatial monument to excess with all sorts of over-the-top customizations as a replacement. The thing that makes it telling is that a number of the recipients of this largesse have complained later on about features breaking down, things falling apart, all the hallmarks of shoddy building practice. Art imitating life?


Worried about ventilation?

I read an essay in our local paper - very humorous - about man's ability to dream big. To make plans. To craft the most wondrous of things in our minds. And how these things are inevitably better left in our minds, as they never seem quite so good if implemented. We plan amazing landscapes, gardens, home improvements ... thinking of it in the context of your blog reminds me of your recent post on the magic of a single lottery ticket. I'm sure your darkroom will be all you need it to be and more, but enjoy it right now when it can be something amazing.

The first darkroom I worked in was in a cedar lined walk-in closet in my parents home. Film/Print washing was done across the hall in the bathroom. Between the aromas of stop, fixer and cedar its a wonder I can smell anything today.

Hope yours turns out better than mine.

I'm just so really, really jealous! I haven't had a darkroom for nearly two years and I miss it, the sound of running water and the peace and quiet. All mothballed now; I will, I truly will use the Durst 1200 again. It is the nicest enlarger I ever owned. Would stay in focus anything up to 2 days. Imagine saying that about an inkjet printer.....Ho hum!


This is great because I want to have a darkroom one day and I'd love to see how someone goes about setting it up. Plus I also would like it to be as bare bones as possible so it will be interesting to see what choices you make and what tools are necessary and which aren't. I'm very eager to see how this comes together! I also bought a Durst M601 at an estate auction but I think mine is missing the bellows. I guess that's what I get for $15. That Kaiser sure looks nice but it will be a long time before I have $1100 to spend on an enlarger.

As for reverse snobbery, just call it what I do- contrarianism. I love having different likes and dislikes from the mainstream. If "everyone" likes it then I have no desire for it. Also, anytime someone says you are a reverse snob just reply, "That is impossible, I have an ivy league education," and look down your nose at them!

Do you mean a Focomat II enlarger? A Focotar is an enlarging lens. The Leica Focomat IIc is definitely among the most overbuilt enlargers. Everything was thicker and heavier than it needed to be. I guess in the days of newspaper darkrooms they could be counted on for decades and millions of prints. No-one works like that anymore, but anyone who has one has something they can keep until the sun goes cold.


Well, John and I might be the only two humans in the Western Hemisphere building a darkroom on this day, but building one I am. That you're doing so and will (probably) be posting about the process is just a godsend to me (and John S, I would presume). I am installing a Beseler 23CII I bought on Craigslist from the son of a wedding photographer who had passed away. I also bought her trays, etc. While I wish I had the cash to buy a brand-new enlarger (just like I would like to buy a new M7 and Summilux as well if I had the cash) the allure and price of used film equipment and darkroom supplies is too good a deal to pass up, I'm afraid.



I'm making a darkroom in a water heater closet/pantry, just off the kitchen. It's making me claustrophobic to think about it. Oh well, Stieglitz wrote that he once made prints under a table.

You have a basement, or at least half a basement. Lucky fellow. Basements are a rarity where I live.

Do you have running water and drainage down there? Do basements in the US usually have such facilities? If not, how do you plan to handle those little details?

I ask because I have a shed/workshop that currently has PFD status. It has electricity, but no plumbing. I was thinking that rather than going the all-out plumbing route I might put in a reservoir tank with electric heating that would provide source water at precisely the right temperature (this is mostly for developing film), and then have a second tank under the sink for temporary collection of the used water and solutions. The waste water/solutions could then be transferred to the drain in the garden after each session.

Still thinking ... but as you say, that in itself is hard work!

After using a bathroom setup as a teen and then a monster college darkroom (took several courses just to get unlimited access), followed by roughly 24/25 years of using labs, I finally built a darkroom in my house, in 1987. I built it the year that my daughter started college;knowing that she would be studying art & photography became my rationale for finally getting around to it. Over thought it long and hard, but ended up with a first class facility. As soon as I finished it, my job responsibilities changed and I ended up traveling around the world a great deal of the time and was too tired when I was home, to hang around in a dark, smelly space. My daughter loved using it on vacations and then really gave it a workout while getting an MFA in photography and living at home. A couple of years ago I dismantled it, boxed everything up and moved it her house to await the next incarnation. My back had gone bad by the time that I had the time to use it and decided once again that I wasn't going to stand for long periods in a dark, smelly room. Now I mostly shoot digital, have gotten pretty good at printing and although I am not infatuated with sitting in front of a computer, find the digital darkroom's comfort level more to my liking.

That said, I'm starting to shoot some film again and have had several conversations with my daughter about maybe doing some developing. One of the reasons for cycling back to film is that I like the process and the feel of the cameras. Now I have to come up with a hybrid workflow (don't enjoy scanning), but don't ever really expect to be back in a darkroom again.

Here's a blog about building a darkroom: http://newdr.blogspot.com/ If this doesn't make you jealous, then you're a better man than I (and I don't really - I think - want one any more).

I am thinking getting one small darkroom up instead continue to use my toilet as a make-shift one. May I ask what is the basic consideration here.

I always think first about the sink design, the length of it, how many hot/cold water .... where to put the Jobo and print washer or tray etc. Never past that stage even now. It seems you do the enlarger placement first. ...

Any good books to suggest, btw. Or, it is just a simple - do it and fit yourself in sort of thing. Like other photography done so far in the last decade, never saw any darkroom other than in high school in 1970s. Any pointer?

The irony of the digital revolution is there has never been a better time to set up a black and white darkroom. Lots of good used equipment around for little money.

Try not to be too quiescent.


So Mike, you don't need any advice from me on enlargers, but someone else might be able to use this tip, so I'll just say that an old Omega D5 (built like the proverbial tank) bought years ago from a university de-accession for $250, with the (much later) addition of an Ilford 500 Multigrade head bought through eBay for $400 is a very, very fine setup, covering 35mm through 4x5 and simply being a joy to work with.

You dial in time and contrast on the controller, it has a separate button for "focus" that gives you a brighter light for that purpose, and it has a button for "burn" that just keeps beeping off seconds of exposure until you hit the big control bar. And it's a diffusion head which cuts down on the spotting. Very nice.

Enjoy Mike. That basement is one of the benefits of midwest living. They just don't dig them here in CA, which is just too bad because my old darkroom is now my kids' bathroom.

I have very blunt elbows and I keep them to myself. Just pointing out that a Focotar is small, while a Focomat can be huge.

We're all grateful for what you write Mike, and know that you work without an editor, which means mistakes do occur occasionally. Even when work is edited, things slip through - I remember an Ektaflex/Ektapress mix-up in PT, back in prehistory (well, pre-TOP).


Hi Mike,

Notwithstanding I have an 8x10 twin-column Saltzman enlarger in mothballs, and two durst 5x7 Laborators in the attic, plus a stainless still sink with temperature controls in the basement (not yet plumbed in as we moved to our present location about 3 years ago and digital has ruled), my aspirations are still a bit more modest than yours. I simply want to be able to start shooting color negative again with my two Mamiya 6's and processing the film myself for subsequent scanning to digital. Geez, I don't think Kodak makes the C-41 one gallon kit any more, and trying to find a decent and affordable used rotary processor is like seeking the Holy Grail!

Good luck on your quest to to resurrect an ancient craft! It may be easier to make daguerreotypes and ambrotypes than some silver-halide processes which are more contemporary.

I'm excited to see the result! I entered the photography scene just as film was on its way out of mainstream vogue and digital entered. I've always wanted to learn but the lack of facilities has always been a big barrier to entry.

On an unrelated note, TOP is now even better due to the fantastical Safari Reader function in Safari 5. Very cool.

Hope this works out. Maybe a devoted reader or two would rather see their wet gear find a good home in your basement rather than the local land fill. Sorry, mine's long gone. You could put up a wish list.
PS I still can't figure out how the punching bag fits in.

Ah, so to misquote that great historical statement as a question : Does this mean that from today digital photography is dead ?

Mike B.

Mike B.,
Digital photography doesn't even have the sniffles. [g]

Seriously, I'm aiming for 10% of my photography to be film (the rest digital). (That's to mirror the 10% of my music listening from vinyl records. The rest digital.)

Mainly I'm making the darkroom to make prints from old work, of which I have a lot.


Outstanding, Mike -

I have one myself, now home to my new (to me), and FREE, Beseler 45 MX.

Photographic prints are akin to fine-art printmaking, and this digital thing is more like computer graphics.

Not that there's anything wrong with that - just different.

Yes! Yes! All you need is a cringing hunchbacked assistant to operate that enlarger and you're all set.


Patience (or "PAT-EYE-ENTS"), I have finally learned, is an essential darkroom tool. Most of my screw-ups are the result of trying to save time, which often just results in wasting time before I do it the right way. Not a bad tool to make visible in the dark.

john robinson,

Me too! I found sturdy, thick-walled plastic boxes with handles at Staples for storing and moving the chemicals. Translucent, so I can see the contents without opening them, and they stack nicely.

I sometimes process prints in a very cramped bathroom. When possible, I use a one-tray method, which takes very little space. The print(s) stays in one tray, with chemistry readied in pitchers; each step is poured in, and when done, poured back into its pitcher. You can go all the way through wash this way, though I usually set up a separate wash tray. Learned this from Lloyd Erlick.

Mike..all theses post bring back alot of memories of darkrooms past...and remembering how I could get that $500 revolving darkroom door in the dumpster home after our newpaper went digital. better watch out for newton rings on your prints from that 601....I had that problem with that glass negative carrier. You can get a carrier made with newton glass....I just loved the auto focus on the focomat always sharp as a tack. I still have my travel enlarger kit...old suit cast holding trays,timer, the Durst 301 with the extension arm. Duct tape and lots of black plastic for windows/doors. My favorite memory was at a cold winter NFL football game in St. Louis; its halftime and trying to make print for transmission back to the paper..It was under the stands, the small space was a leaky space with beer and rain dripping from the seats above. I would get a slight buzz of electric shock from the electric coffee cup heaters keeping the chemicals warm in a cooler when I pickup up the metal film cans. The hairdryer to dry prints and film hung on the wall with a coat hanger and a Schneider loupe around your neck." I love the smell of fixer in the morning" You can print anywhere you like as long as its dark. I miss it.

Mike... agree with your sentiments on the Leitz Focomat IIC... but you have to be a bit cranky to really love using one! And the Saunders/LPL 5540 is a good enlarger too... but it overheats badly and pops 5x4 negs during lengthy or quickly repeated exposures - see my review here... http://www.edbuziak.workzsites.com/darkroom_LPL7452_enlarger_p1.html

From my previous 35+ years of home darkroom addiction, the only enlarger I would ever buy again is the Durst L1200 Multigraph... it makes one a tad lazy, but could save enough in otherwise wasted paper to buy, err, perhaps a nice Mercedes! ;-)

But where's the computer?

Hi Mike,

One poster here mentioned that his enlarger is aligned with shims, and another asked whether you're worried about ventilation.

As someone whose setting up a darkroom myself, I'd really like to read your thoughts on alignment: how much difference does it make to sharp prints? Is stopping down enough to mask dodgy alignment? What's the best way to align? Is something like the Zig-Align tool, which costs more than an enlarger itself, going to help a person make better prints?

And on ventilation, how dangerous are the chemical fumes? I've already lost most of sense of smell, but does using an odourless brand help? How much ventilation does one really need to be able to keep doing it in a healthy way, in the long-term? And would any of the air purifying devices on the market actually help?

Lots of questions; some ideas for your book!

Looking forward to reading more about your progress.


Gotta agree with liking the Omega D5. Mine has the original condenser head, never did get it a multigrade head despite using multigrade paper, in fact Multigrade paper, the Ilford brand name, in it extensively.

Bought new at Harvard Camera in 1982. Which seems to still be there, in the same building, across from that neat old graveyard.

and I don't really - I think - want one any more

Yeah, that's about right.

Kent -- generally basements here have running water and drains, yes. One reason they're common in the midwest and less common in California and Florida is that we need to bring the plumbing in at least 6 feet below ground to avoid it freezing in winter. This may even be WHY basements are the norm in the midwest and not in California and Florida (high water table in Florida probably plays a role also).

A couple of years ago I told my photographer friends that I was building a darkroom after a decade without one (new house, no dough).
Two interesting things happened. First they all asked me if I was nuts and then offered me old darkroom gear for free.
So before I knew it the Durst L1000 and Focomat Ic I already had were joined by a nice figerglass sink, a Besler 23c dual dichro and an Omega B22.
Fortunately my son is also a photographer and loves b&w darkroom work so as soon as he finishes grad school and settles down there will be a couple of enlargers waiting for him.
BTW I believe Robert Frank printed The Americans on a Focomat.

Ahhh... the chemical waste dump. I don't miss film a single millimeter.... a dirty, dirty thing....

Much to the chagrin of my wife, my darkroom is still occupying a spare bedroom/bathroom combination of the house yet it hasn't seen use in several years. But it is up and ready. I really want to go back to using it, maybe something like you intend to, i.e. 10%.

"Negative" people print in a darkroom; "positive" people project in a dark room. :)

I remember my first darkroom(s). Back in the 70s I drove from Alberta up to Whitehorse, Yukon. I'd just got into photography and had bought a complete darkroom in a cardboard box. While traveling north for a couple of weeks, I developed and printed in various motel rooms along the way and in Whitehorse.

Some of the rooms had the bathroom down the hall, so that added another dimension to the printwashing, with other guests coming and going among the prints hanging on the line.

Unfortunately, all of my negatives disappeared a few years ago and all that remains are a couple of small boxes of prints.

@ Dennis, regarding your local paper essay. That is why erotic dreams are better than sex-you get a better class of woman.
Contrarian is good. I am contrarian enough by shooting Sony digital.

"Dunkelkammer", nice. I didn't know you spoke German, Mike.

James, after reading your post about U.K. construction, I finally understand the phrase, "built like a chic Brit-house."

"BTW I believe Robert Frank printed The Americans on a Focomat."

I've seen that very enlarger with my own eyes...as of about 1992 it was in Ralph Gibson's studio darkroom in SoHo, where Ralph was using it regularly. I suggested to him at the time that when he's done with it, it really should go to the Smithsonian. I really should make that suggestion to Ralph again, because I'm dead serious.

BTW it is a Focomat I (not sure which variant), not a II.


"Unfortunately, all of my negatives disappeared a few years ago and all that remains are a couple of small boxes of prints."

Sorry to hear that.

Unfortunately that's very often the fate of negatives. The flip side of the fact I mentioned the other day--that prints used to be an integral part of the process, in the breach of which you had nothing to look at--once the prints were made, negatives became expendable. I'm sure millions of negatives have met their fate with someone, somewhere saying some variant of, "we have the print, what do we need the negative for?"

Not saying that's how yours got lost, just that it's not uncommon for negatives to disappear. In fact, one of the great fears I have in contemplating my current project is wondering whether I can locate all of my prized negatives, and, if some are lost, which ones.


"I suggested to him at the time that when he's done with it, it really should go to the Smithsonian."

and/or the National Gallery? Provided they can handle something like that, they have so many of his prints and contact sheets that it just seems natural.

It's probably too late for this, since you already have the enlargers in place, and probably you already know about it, but just in case, here's an un-asked-for suggestion:
Between the 2x10's that support the floor above, there are often diagonal braces made of 1x2. I think I see one just to the right of the ceiling light. These braces collect a ton of flour-like dust that filters down from upstairs. If you haven't done so already, move the enlargers, put down a dropcloth and sling a wet towel over each of those braces. Makes a big mess, but it's better than having that dust drift down every time a truck drives by.

(I'm doing the same thing -- old negatives -- and I'm almost up to 1974. At my current rate, I'll be 96 when I finish.)

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