Do you need a darkroom?

There are frequent discussions on various internet forums about how to manage shooting film without a darkroom.  (Obviously, if one shoots digital, or sends all of their film to a lab, this is moot.) I understand the arguments, and goodness knows I’ve done my share of processing in bathrooms, kitchens and laundry rooms.  It can and is done!  The economics of not having a darkroom is often a matter of real estate – and no small consideration.  No one is more aware than I of the difficulty of dedicating space and facilities to a full-time darkroom.  But I’m here to tell you: having your own darkroom will make you think you’ve died and gone to photo heaven!

If one wishes to make film photography a serious hobby, especially if one prints optically/chemically, then there are certain “facilities”, as well as tools, that are required.  This is not much different than other gear intensive hobbies or avocations.  Musicians have to have instruments, and at least some place to practice and play.  Woodworkers have to have a shop, even if it means leaving the cars out of the garage.

Artists have studios.  Someone takes up painting, and they will carve out a corner of a room, if not a whole room to create a “studio”.  Once they get serious, it then will be a whole room, and will evolve to require proper lighting, storage areas, and maybe even a sink for cleanup.  Painters are messy!

Digital photographers will have a computer and printer, and some post processing software; no small investment.

I can see some casual 35mm shooter not having a darkroom.  But medium or large format?  I often read these discussions and think there are some misplaced priorities, if not just outright false economies going on.  One has already acquiesced to the expense of the camera, lenses, holders, film, etc., but can’t justify even a makeshift darkroom?  Or, how about the folks that demand the best lenses (for the cameras) but want to know which off-brand paper and chemicals they can use to “save money”.  Or, what can one buy at Home Depot to use for print trays, when real print trays aren’t that expensive and certainly are not used (if not free).  

Let’s face it: “photography is not for the faint of wallet”!  However, it doesn’t have to be financially prohibitive.  One needs to examine their priorities when deciding to make photography a serious hobby.  There is more to it than the right camera and the perfect lens.

Once the space and any physical alterations to the room have been acquired, a darkroom can be equipped for the equivalent cost of an entry level dslr.  (Or the latest iPhone) 

To that end, here are my recommendations about what is needed in a proper darkroom:

Plumbing

If the first obstacle to anyone building a darkroom is the space itself, a close second is plumbing.  Often the availability of plumbing is a determining factor in the selection and ultimate utility of the space.

It is my opinion that a dedicated darkroom needs to have running water.  I don’t see how one can say they truly have a proper darkroom without that.  Or, certainly, not a “dedicated” darkroom; i.e., the space is used for nothing else.  If one is using a spare bath, or the laundry room, etc., then perhaps this doesn’t apply.

There are a lot of film workers who operate in areas without running water, but this is a major compromise, at best.  Sometimes, one must use whatever space is able to be made dark, and that’s where film loading and printing (exposing the paper) takes place.   While trays require a darkened room, actual processing of both film and paper can be done in light-proof containers.  That can happen anywhere.  I have done this myself.  

However, once the film or paper is processed in the dry, dark room, it has to be taken to the someplace with plumbing to be washed.  Workable, but not ideal.  Regardless of the circumstances, running water is preferable for washing.  Maybe not absolutely necessary, but it makes washing much easier and possibly more efficient.  (This is arguable, and there are those who have the arguments.)  I just think that a sink with a faucet and a drain beats multiple jugs and buckets in a closet. 

Electricity

Having electricity in a darkroom would seem self evident.  But, let’s cover the exception first.  For instance, the wet plate guys go out into the wilderness (or their backyards) and take their port-o-darkroom with them.  It may be a tent or a camper, is often “dry”, and has a red window for light.

However, if you have an enlarger, or a contact printer that uses artificial light, and plan to have safelights that aren’t illuminated by candles, then electricity is a must. I address this because one solution often considered and implemented for a darkroom is to build a small shed type building. that can be great, but not if one simply plans to run an extension cord from the house!

But how much?  This is the real question and where planning is needed.  Aside from heating and cooling (and an optional refrigerator) not much requires a lot of power in amps in a darkroom.  However, I’ve almost never been in one where there were enough outlets, or outlets in all the right places.  Besides the obvious: the enlarger, etc.; one needs to think of all that might be needed to be powered.  The enlarger and its timer.  Safelights.  Other timers for film processing, or whatever.  White work lights, or a print inspection light.  Maybe a light table for inspecting negatives.   A sound system – obviously optional, but almost ubiquitous.  Is your film fridge in the darkroom?  How about that heat and cooling?  

Ventilation and temperature control

I know of some darkrooms that aren’t properly ventilated, much less heated and/or cooled if necessary.  Most darkrooms are small spaces, and the air can get very stale very quickly.  I won’t get into the issues of the chemicals and the need for ventilation.  It should be enough that one would not want to breath the same air in any small, closed space for hours on end. 

If one lives in Hawaii or San Diego, then perhaps the temperatures are such most of the time that only ventilation is necessary.  A small fan might add just enough air movement to keep one comfortable.  Or, one lives in a part of the country where the darkroom is in a basement that stays in the 60s all of time.  (I’ve heard legends.)  But, if you are like me, in blistering Texas, or you live somewhere much closer to one of the Earth’s Poles, you might experience variations and/or extremes in temperatures.  My advice is this: whatever you require for comfort in your house – is not too much to ask in a darkroom.  

There are two factors here: comfort and efficiency.  If a darkroom is not comfortable, one will not do their best work, or may not even want to work at all.  But, it goes beyond that.  I know a few folks for whom 50F/10C degrees is fine in a still room (there’s that ventilation thing again) while wearing a sweater.  I have to admit that even I can work in those conditions.  What can’t work at 50F/10C degrees is developer!   Granted, there’s ways to heat chemicals to the right range without heating up the whole room.  But, I would ask a potential darkroom builder to take all of that in consideration against the marginal difference it would take to heat or cool the small room to a comfortable temperature for both the photographer and the chemistry.

So, my necessary list is: 

  • plumbing, 
  • electricity, and 
  • ventilation/temperature control. 

There is another – seems obvious – but you can’t imagine the discussions I’ve read and/or been a part of.

Darkness

Even more amusing to me than the false economy discussions are the ones that detail just how dark a darkroom needs to be.  What part of “total darkness” is not clear?  Film is sensitive to light.  We often expose film through a small opening in a lens for a mere fraction of a second, yet there are questions about whether the light coming under the door – enough to read by once one’s eyes adjust – will “be enough” to fog the film while we’re spending the several minutes to load reels or film holders.  I don’t know.  Maybe?

Even people who understand that total darkness is needed for film are deluded into thinking that some light is OK for paper (it’s “slower”) usually because they can work under a safelight so they can see anyway.  The light from a safelight – even one tested and determined to actually be “safe” – will mask any stray light leaks from your eyes, but maybe not from the paper.  If your darkroom is dark enough for film, it will be dark enough for paper.  Go for dark.

Optional, but recommended if one can do it: Proper sinks

These are for printing.  Trays can be placed on a table or countertop, but inside a darkroom sink they are spill-proof, as it were.  Sinks are large, and have historically been expensive.  They still are if bought new.  But, like other darkroom items, sinks can often be found used for quite cheap.  There are also many photographers who have built their own; essentially a wooden box coated with epoxy marine paint.  In years past, I would have put a sink in the luxury category, but because they are available for less money now, I would consider giving one serious consideration.

I do know of one photographer that is even more serious about this, and built his latest darkroom “around” the sink.  He decided how large a sink was needed for the print sizes he makes, and then sized the darkroom accordingly.