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Building a Darkroom

When you grow up in a house full of cameras and electronic equipment as I did, something is bound to rub off. Having an engineer for a father and a pharmacist for a mother exposed me to all the toys of a scientist; oscilloscopes, reel-to-reel tape decks, microphone stands, camera equipment, enlargers, graph paper! We even had to do our math homework on graph paper! My father was always recording, photographing or testing something. And as a child I always got to help him carry his equipment.

By the time I was in high school he had let me try several different cameras and light meters. I had earned a little money and wanted to buy one like his, a black Nikon F2 Photomic. Well, what I didn’t realize then was how expensive they were. So between the guy at the camera store and my father, I ended up with a Nikkormat and a 35mm lens. This was the first of my SLRs.

After twenty five years of using a Nikkormat I finally had the opportunity to use a ‘real’ camera. I had taken my Nikkormat in for cleaning and needed to borrow one temporarily. My father let me use his Nikon F2 and I became hooked. I bought my first zoom lens and took my first good sunset pictures. I quickly became hooked on Kodachrome and started chasing sunsets. After a few years of shooting sunsets and lighthouses, I got bored. I wanted more. I loved the photographs I saw and wanted to make my own. I started reading about Ansel Adams and some of the other great photographers. I joined the local camera club and saw what other people were doing in black and white. I quickly learned that if you want to shoot in black and white, you have to process your own film and make your own prints. I found out why all my black and white pictures that I had taken over the years always looked flat and gray. All those years I just thought it was because I was doing something wrong. I learned that if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself. So I took my first class in darkroom techniques and was really excited about it. I wanted my own darkroom! For the first time I saw what was possible if you know what you are doing and have a reasonable amount of control over the outcome. When my parents decided to move to a retirement community, my father offered me his darkroom equipment. There wasn’t room in their new house so I agreed. In all the years growing up and being surrounded by camera and darkroom equipment, I never dreamed of having my own.

Determining Layout
I knew I wanted a darkroom. Now all I had to do is figure out how to go about doing it with the least amount of help. I knew from reading books that I needed to have a wet-side, a dry-side, running water, electrical outlets, and ventilation. I also knew that I had a limited amount of space due to the layout of my basement. So I made a list of everything that I would need; a table for the enlargers, a sink for the trays, space between the two and running water.

Determining Size
Having a basic layout in my mind, I had to determine the actual amount of space available, the equipment that would be used and the need for convenience. This would include actual measurements of work benches, tables, sinks and cabinets, a sink for running water etc. The resulting location/placement was then determined by the placement of permanent structures such as the water heater, support columns, chimneys, furnace, washer & dryer, sink etc. To simplify the setup, I decided not to have running water inside the darkroom.

Basic Materials & Assembly
With the layout and dimensions now on paper, the actual building could begin. Because standard ‘pressboard’ comes in 4×8 sheets, the studs needed to be 4’ apart. I assembled the frame on the floor, securing the header & footer to the vertical studs. Assembled and secured with nails, I raised it and attached it to the ceiling (beams), then anchored the footer to the floor with 3/8” x 3” lag-screws. For drilling into concrete, I used a “hammer-drill” and a carbide drill bit.

After the frame was up, the door and the 4×8 pressboard (or plywood) sheets could be hung. Hanging a door by yourself isn’t hard if you use shims underneath while installing the hinges. Rather than trying to install the typical door hardware, I used an eyebolt & hammock hook placed on the inside of the door which would prevent it from accidentally opening.

I did not attempt to do any wiring. For that I hired an electrician who also converted my fuse box to an updated system and put the darkroom on its own breaker. I had enough outlets that I could put in safe lights 4’ from my enlarger or sink. I wish I had asked for more pull cords on the lights, but that can always be done later.

To make sure there were no light leaks, I used caulking for the seams between the studs and the pressboard, and quilt batting (stuffing) to fill the gaps where any holes for wiring were made. I then stapled black fabric over top of the batting for extra protection and to keep the batting from falling out. For the door frame I used self-adhesive foam weather stripping. I then checked the room by turning off all the lights and stood there for five minutes or so to see if there were any leaks.

Now that the walls were up and the electrical outlets and light sockets installed, I could think about where to put the enlarger and sink for trays.

For this particular setup the layout was fairly simple, being limited only by the size and physical properties of the room. For the “dry side”, a 6’ x 30” solid folding table was adequate for two 4×5 enlargers, two timers, an Ohm Meter and a paper safe, plus a small area for hanging negatives to dry.

Another thing I had to consider was the height needed for the enlargers when fully extended. By placing the enlargers between the beams in the ceiling, the full 50” of the enlarger could be utilized, making it possible to make very large prints.

For the “wet side”, I found a stainless steel sink 6 ½’ x 32” x 3”. To support the sink I put two horizontal cross pieces on each wall where a platform could rest.

This particular sink was long enough and wide enough to hold five 11×14 trays for paper, or six 4×5 tanks for developing sheet film. Since there was no running water inside the darkroom, I decided to use one of the trays as a ‘holding tray’ until it was time to wash the prints.

The final wash is then done outside the darkroom in the sink between the washing machine and dryer. I was lucky enough to inherit a temperature control system from my father. This is mounted on the wall with a hose connected to a siphon which goes into the tray.

The final additions (electrical and ventilation) are made after the room is finished. Electrical outlets, switches and light bulb sockets, as well as ventilation, are a very important part of the darkroom layout. Besides the enlarger, benches, sink, shelves, cabinets etc., safelights need to be installed. The standard distance for safelights is about 4’ away from trays and enlarging easels. Outlets for the enlarger/s and overhead lights are all essential parts of the layout. Having an overhead light that can be turned on and off using a pull chain is very handy, especially in the dark. Implementing switches at the entrance also alleviates the need to walk back and forth to turn off the lights. If possible, have your darkroom on a separate circuit breaker. This will reduce the chance of your enlarger light dimming when the furnace or refrigerator kicks on. Since all darkrooms are different the number and placement of these receptacles will vary. But having more than you need is always better.

Future Considerations
If I had it to do over I think I would start by…

…putting in a better ventilation system. My mistake was putting the fan above the trays. It should be below, near the feet. I’d also put in a vent to bring in fresh air. At the moment, any time I want to use ‘smelly’ chemicals such as toners, I have to go outside the darkroom where there is more air circulation.

I’d install a switch that turns off all the lights in the basement (other than in the darkroom) as a precaution against any light leaks. Also, I’d have more pull-cords on the lights.

And finally, I’d put in cabinets or shelves for storing trays under the sink.

Materials List
The list of materials could go on forever, depending on your needs. Here are the basic materials for the room and to get started.

Ortho’s Home Improvement Encyclopedia

Solid Table for Enlarger

2x4s (studs for walls)


4×8 sheets of pressboard or plywood for walls


Lag-Screws to secure frame to floor



Safe Lights

Paint for walls

Sink for Trays



Solid Table for enlarger


Sink or platform for trays

Sink for final wash

Cabinet or Shelves for storage



Drying Rack (can use nylon screen in frame)



Having a home darkroom can be as simple or as high-tech as you want it to be. Many people get along fine with just using their bathroom or kitchen. Some people use a basement and just darken the windows. I wanted to have mine enclosed. Building it wasn’t difficult. I had never done anything like this before in my life but having the desire was half the battle. With a few good books for guidance, knowing the essentials, putting a plan on paper and having the proper tools are all that were needed to build a successful darkroom. It’s not very fancy or state-of-the-art, but it does have certain key elements; i.e., it’s light-tight, it has a designated wet-side and dry-side, and proper lighting. I hope you are inspired by reading this and will have the desire to fulfill your dreams and carry on the tradition.

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Light Matters

My purpose for introducing these concise articles on the subject of light is to encourage the emerging or established photographer to use the adaptable natural tool that is light in order to obtain a desired effect with confidence.

Initially, I have purposely avoided delving deeply into the complexities of optical physics hopefully, without detriment to the value of the information. Also, I have omitted using lighting set up diagrams frequently featured in books which are, in the writers’ opinion of questionable good use.

More importantly, I hope to stimulate enthusiasm to develop the art of seeing a subject in an artistic light and consequently appreciate and enjoy the varied possibilities offered.

Section One – Ambient Light
All light, visual or not travels in waves of varying length. Ambient light, in relation to the artist is that light that is natural – around. This as with all light, can be refracted or broken up, reflected or bent and comprises any colour of the spectrum.

Size of Light Matters
The most important decision when determining the lighting for a photograph is the effective size of the light source. It affects highlights, shadow, modeling and often the type of reflection. is an important characteristic, a light source rays that strikes the subject matter at or near the same angle will give a high contrast; whereas, a low contrast light is that which is scattered from a variety of angles. A bright sunny day is an example of an apparent small high contrast light; an overcast day will produce an apparent large low contrast light. The easiest way to determine the light contrast is by shadows; clearly defined shadows are of high contrast from an apparent small light source, an apparent large light source has less defined shadow detail with low contrast.

An apparent small light source produces hard contrast whereas; an apparent large light source produces a soft contrast.

Light Matters – Group Angles
The effectiveness of the ambient, as with all other lighting, is determined by the angle, we can alter the reflections, contrast and modeling to suite by changing the angles of light, reflector or camera. These angles I refer to as the group angles. It is these groups that will determine where we should place our camera light or reflector. The angle group principle is the basis of lighting in fine art and photography; and is based on the law of physics that artists have followed through history; they cannot be changed by fad or fashion. Well crafted work comes with meticulous preparation, attention to detail and fine tuning.

The type of tools available to the artist or photographer is of some consequence. It is essential that they are adequate, well maintained in good working order. It is equally important that the artist or photographer is familiar with his equipment. Naturally, a seasoned photographer would choose a camera that is best suited to the work in hand. Hence; an architectural photographer would opt for a camera with full movements to make corrections to the screen image before making the exposure.

Light Matters – Filters
Should it be necessary we are able to control the light reaching the film by the use of colour correction filters. We can correct or alter colour by using sheets of cellulose acetate by projection or reflection so placed to intercept the light source. Additionally, we can use filters to compensate, with precision for any colour correction to film necessary by using filters on the camera in various ways. They are manufactured in optical glass or acetate in the three additive and three subtractive primary colours: subtractive primaries: cyan, magenta and yellow; or additive primary colours: red, green and blue. It is a matter of preference which you use. They are available in variable densities and need an increase of exposure from a third to two thirds.

Polarizing filters are very useful tools and made for use on or off the camera. Light waves vibrate in all directions perpendicular to the path of light. On reaching such as glass water or other reflecting surfaces at an angle of 30 and 40 degrees the light will become polarized which cannot be detected by our eyes without a polarizing filter. Such filter will not have any effect on light that is not polarized.

We can test for polarization by rotating the filter on or off the camera. The filter has no effect when photographing towards or directly away from the sun. There are times when we desire the effects of reflected light on surfaces, but only too often the polarized reflection cause problems with colour, density and definition. Again, this filter requires an increase of exposure of about one stop regardless of the filter rotation, they also very slightly change colour rendition.

It is worth experimenting with such filters effects as some cameras with built in metering will not give correct exposures and can also effect auto focusing.

Advantages of Ambient Light
Should I be given a choice of light to use for a particular project, given that it is one that will suite the subject, I would choose ambient even with all its complexity.

Natural light can suite any subject given the correct handling. Often the landscape artist or photographer has a limited choice, being obliged to use the existing light conditions or wait for hours, perhaps days for the suitable light. For these artist or photographers patience is a primary requisite if they are to satisfactorily complete their project.

Problems With Ambient Light
It would not be practical nor desirable for any photographer to rely on ambient light alone. Although it is the much preferred light for many subjects it does have limitations.

Through the ages artist have worked with the restriction of having to complete their work while the light was correct for the subject. The ambient light photographer is in a similar situation; he is constrained to use a shutter speed that will capture movement whilst matching it with an aperture setting that will provide the necessary depth of field.

Nevertheless, due to the recent advances in technology the ambient photographers of today are more able to overcome many of the restriction of their predecessors.

Matters of Colour Cast
Many an otherwise good picture had been ruined by a cast of an unwanted colour.

This problem can be avoided mostly by paying particular attention to surrounds that are likely to cause such reflections. These unwanted casts can be from any source nearby with bright strong colours being the most intrusive. I am now in the habit of donning a white boiler suite to prevent any cast from my clothing ruining my picture.

Matters – Subjective
In recent years it has become the de rigueur to render false over saturated colour in photography. It is now considered acceptable or even encouraged in the commercial advertising and fashion business which, has always relied on fashion or fads, but it quite often has little merit as art.

Over saturated pictures which bear little resemblance to reality are often considered tacky by the more discerning, but nevertheless sell well satisfying the whims of the plebby.

A well crafted black and white film image has maintained the artistic slot that it has held from the days of the early pioneers. It is encouraging for film enthusiast to discover that the digital geeks are now able to program their work to look like their images were captured on film!

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I became interested in this process when the illness I suffer from took a turn for the worse for a while which meant I was rather lacking in energy so that hours spent in the darkroom wasn’t really on the cards.

It’s a relatively simple process and I don’t pretend to be an expert in any way. My experience is limited and work by Jim Read and others is what I aspire to. Having said all that it is fun and lovely to be really engaged in the whole process.

First here’s a list of what you will require:
25 grams of Ferric ammonium citrate (green).
10 grams of Potassium ferricyanide.
Water – preferably distilled or similar.
Protective clothing– this stuff can stain and its important to keep it off your skin, out your nose and eyes and in your lungs.
Smallish brown bottles for storage – eg 100ml.
Brush for coating.
Suitable paper.
Negative; actually, you can do cyanotypes as photograms whereby a leaf or similar can be placed on the coated paper then exposed.
Sun or UV lamp. Sun is quicker if its high in the sky but up here on the Outer Hebrides I require a UV lamp to get reasonable length exposures.

Carefully measure your chemicals in powder form and mix each with 100 ml water. Put into labelled brown bottles.

The Negative
If it’s a photo-image rather than a photogram you would like to make you’ll require a negative. If you have a large format camera then you can make a nice neg with this – just overdeveloping a bit to give the neg some density. If you have a proper darkroom, you could make an enlarged neg using light-sensitive ortho film – but since I don’t know how to do this, you’ll need to look it up on t’internet. I either use a large format film neg or else produce one on an inkjet using translucent inkjet film – or cheap OHP inkjet film – which I find is just as good. You could use thin paper for this too –although it does make for long exposure times. There is loads on the t’internet about making digital negs but it’s possible to do it easily by using something like PS Elements 2 as I do – I lighten the image a bit then invert and print with an orange tone which seems to work just fine.

You can also use photocopy negs too if you have access to this equipment.

The Paper
You can use virtually any paper but one of the cheapest and easiest to use is cartridge paper – available from art shops. Watercolour paper is good – if you like the surface – but I find it needs a quick soak in a weak stop bath and then a wash before drying and coating. I have also found a use for your inkjet paper as this cyanotypes well too.

I tend to coat while the paper is still a bit damp – but that’s just my thing. Not wet mind as this will make the emulsion go blueish before you even expose it.

Coating Paper
My preference is to coat with a brush. This is because I have a brush – an unused paint brush – and don’t have a glass rod – another coating method. Hake brushes are preferred but paint brushes work ok and are cheaper – and available on this island where I live.

Anyway, to prepare your emulsion; no need for the darkroom but do it in a place away from food and where a spill won’t cause havoc as it stains everything. You don’t require a safe-light for this. Tungsten lights are best but fluorescent lights are OK as long as you don’t have the mixed emulsion out too long.

Measure equal parts of each chemical and mix in a glass pot.You should only require a few ml – perhaps 5- to coat a couple of sheets of A4.

Brush along the paper horizontally not using too much emulsion. Then brush vertically across the other brush marks. I prefer the brush edges but if you prefer the straight edges, mark around the edge of your negative and coat up to this point. I do it the first way but then, I don’t like to complicate life.

Let the coated paper dry – keeping away from sunlight, UV and fluorescent light.. Some people coat the paper twice but to begin with once is fine. There seems to be some credence in super-drying the emulsion on the paper with a hair-dryer. Whether this has any real benefits, I’m not sure but it does make me feel I’m doing some good and it warms my hands anyway.

Put the coated paper under the neg and place heavy glass on top to hold flat – or else use a split contact frame. Then sit the set-up in the sun – if you have any or use a UV source. I have a converted scanner box with UV strip bulbs that the nice electrician at the Manchester Velodrome, where I used to work, put together for me and it works just fine. Since the exposures are longish, make a cup of tea and think about the next step. According as to the density of the neg, I find that 30 mins to 1 hour suffices –but exposures usually end when I remember them!

The well-exposed cyanotype shows a hint of brown in the emulsion when it ready but experience is the best way to learn and since it is a cheap process, you can try it many times without breaking the bank.

Slip the exposed paper into plain water and lightly swillaround a bit. Change the water a few times. I find warmer water helps the clearing process. You need to have the yellow clearing from the highlights – the white bits. If the blue comes off too then you may not have exposed long enough. If you wish to make the print deeper blue, put a dash of your Hydrogen Peroxide into the last wash.

Dry the paper. There you have the cyanotype

The Way Forward
The fun does not end there since you can tone and/or stain and generally play about with the print. Tannin is the main chemical to use to tone the blue towards brown/black but tea and coffee work fine. My fav is green tea and mixed herbs straight from the kitchen. Since I live in a place surrounded with lichen I have so far tried one sort of hairy lichen that has longish fronds. After boiling it up and soaking the print in the resulting elixir, it bleached the print back nicely L. I shall have to try some other ones – the ones they used to use to dye the Harris Tweed on the island perhaps.

Mixing It All Up
My mother has often tried to tempt me to paint ever since I painted a picture she still have hanging at home. I did that 35 years ago and I still hate it! Anyway, Mum recently sent up some water colours so I have set to colouring the cyanotypes with these and rather like the technique even if I have not quite got to exhibition standard yet.

I’m not sure of the archival properties of this process – especially with the toning I use but, I have some I did a few weeks ago and they still look great now – if that helps!

Oh, and I’m feeling much better these days too thank you very much…

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Developing in Coffee

Yes the title is correct, I’m going to show you how to develop an ordinary B&W film with instant coffee granules.

Here is what you need:

1 Jar of instant coffee
1 packet of washing soda crystals
Developing tank, liquid measure and thermometer.

Firstly, when you shoot the film lower the ISO by one stop, in this case I’ll be using APX 100 (Jessops pan) rated at 50 ISO.

Load the film in the developing tank in the normal manner. Next prepare the coffee developer.

5 heaped teaspoons of instant coffee (one per 2fl oz/60ml)
2 level teaspoons of Washing Soda crystals (NOT baking soda)
300ml (10 fl oz) water at roughly 25 deg C

Firstly dissolve the soda crystals in the water, their purpose is to ‘unlock’ the developer ingredient present in the coffee granules.

Next put in your coffee, stirring well to ensure that the coffee has been dissolved fully. You will notice that there are a few bubbles in the mixture and bubbles aren’t good for development, so leave to stand for a few minutes but no longer than 10 as the mix must be used within 30 min’s.

Pour in the mixture and agitate slowly for the first minute, then tap the tank a couple of times to disloge any air bubbles. The process time is 30 mins so its handy to have a watch, pen and paper to note the passing time.

Agitation used was one inversion every 30 seconds. After 30 Minutes, rinse with plain water and fix in the normal manner. Here are the negatives:

Slightly milky looking and brownish (due to staining action of developer) and also quite low contrast but certainly printable. If you need further convincing here are some of the actual images.

Nice tonal detail, good grain and sharpness and although I don’t think it will replace Rodinal as my main ‘brew’ I think you can see for yourselves that coffee is a more than capable developer.

A stimulating thought?

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Making Your Own Tripod

Many years ago as a newly qualified civil engineer I went to my first proper site knowing everything!!. My new boss was much cleverer. I spent 6 months as a chainman helping a proper engineer, I walked miles carrying a huge wooden tripod and a bloody great wooden box containing a theodolite; I really hated them and severely abused them whenever possible, all to no avail as they were still there and working next day.

After starting a degree course in photography and obtaining some very expensive gear I bought a Manfrotto tripod for £150, although I never felt happy with my gear sitting on this on the rocks, or up a mountain in a gale on the west coast of Ireland. The decision was taken to combine the rigidity and strength of the theo legs with a quick release head for my cameras. First you need the legs and I went on to e-bay and found a shop called http://etoolshop.co.uk and bought a lightweight, rigid surveyers aluminium tripod for £25.99 – if you can’t collect its a further £9.95 for delivery. However, if you search through e-bay you’ll undoubtedly come across second-hand ones; but make sure you have the flat top type, just to be awkward some makers have their own designs which will make things difficult for you(Kern is one to avoid). Most surveying insruments have a 5/8inch instrument thread, which is not much use on a camera. I found a badly damaged builders laser at the car boot sale, fortunately for me, the damage was to the legs and I just needed the tribach (this is the top part of the laser or the bottom part of the theodolite). The tribach has 3 adjusting screws and fits nicely to your legs [I’m sure Pat means the tripod legs, rather than your legs – Ed]. Mine cost £2. A surveying instrument repair shop will probably have an old one for a few quid.Now the awkward part as you need to machine a piece of aluminium to fit on top of your tribach to hold a camera mount with a sliding plate. If you go to a machine shop to have this made, they’ll charge £85-£100 an hour. Find a retired engineer, or ask at your local modelmaking club and you will find that you can get it made for a few pounds; failing this join a night class in metalwork and make it yourself!!!

When i decided to try multiple flash I went to the car boot sales and bought 5 cheap tripods (much cheaper than flash stands). When I looked closely I found the 50 pence Miranda one had a Giotto camera mount with a sliding plate an MH652 – I wonder why?. This worked perfectly. If you dont want to carry lots of tripods fit a 3/8 – 1/4inch adaptor to your quick release plate and most pan and tilt tripod heads will fit right on.

All of this happened as I had a college project for panoramics, with perfect control over camera level at 360 degrees it was really good.

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