Suggestions for a 21st Century Darkroom

January 28, 2016  •  7 Comments
Pt/Pd Workspace in a DimroomPt/Pd Workspace in a DimroomConsider the alternatives before you jump into creating your own darkroom

Now I know everyone out there in analog film world has an opinion on the subject of darkrooms, but having come to this party after the digital revolution I think much of the advice offered on forums is out of date. I've recently gone through the process of setting up my darkroom and I think sharing my though process will be helpful for the next person coming down the same path. I know I would have liked to have read this post a few years ago!

First off, can I dissuade you from creating a darkroom at all? There are simply much more compelling alternatives available to be considered:

(a) Go ADD: Analog Input - Digital Post Process - Digital Output

By which I mean shoot and develop your analog film, but then scan the result into a digital workflow for post processing, and then output the results again digitally on a high end Inkjet printer. If you use a dark bag and tanks to develop your film you don't need a darkroom at all and limited amounts of chemicals to develop the film. Think no space / little mess. Scanning the results into a computer is quick and easy, digital post-process is much easier and more versatile than anything that can be done in the "dodging and burning" analog world, and then talk about simplicity of outputting multiple copies of the same image on a inkjet printer! The quality of a high end Inkjet is really breathtaking and very similar to Silver-Gelatin.

See Table 1. for my recommendations for a set-up like this.

 

(b) Go ADA: Analog Input - Digital Post Process - Analog Output through Platinum Process in a Dimroom

By which I mean shoot and develop your analog film, scan the result into a digital workflow for post processing, output the results as a digital negative on plastic sheets using a high end inkjet printer, and then contact print the "negative" with chemicals. But I'd go one step further in my recommendations - don't print using the silver gelatin process because then you will need a darkroom. Instead print in the beautiful Platinum/Paladium process which only needs a dimroom. Now I'm sure many people reading this will think I've gone off my meds, they will be saying isn't Platinum printing expensive, complicated, time consuming, and just plain arcane? The answer is no because:

  • Platinum is printed on cotton paper that you apply chemicals to in order to make it light sensitive - so you don't every need to buy photo paper, so you don't every have to worry about accidentally exposing the same stock of photo paper to light and fogging it, and you don't have to worry about expiration dates.
  • With Platinum printing you can easily produce an archival image that will last the ages, which is not so easy with Silver-Gelatin with the need for Selenium toning and incredibly long washing cycles for Fiber paper.
  • As mentioned above, Platinum printing only needs a dim room with a low wattage tungsten bulb. So you can see what you are doing in white light! No need for a light tight darkroom and red safelights at all!
  • Yes, the Platinum sensitizing chemicals are expensive but you don't use much and even with the fixing and washing chemicals, they take up almost no room and don't smell bad like Silver-Gelatin.

See Table 2. for my recommendations for a set-up like this.

 

(c) Go ADA with a Jobo

If you don't want to give up on Silver-Gelatin printing, but also don't want a large darkroom because of space or cost considerations, the Jobo Rotary Processor may be just the thing. Not only can you develop your film in a dark tank or drum but you can also develop your Silver-Gelatin prints in larger purpose sized tanks. You just need to find a way to contact print the paper and get it into the drum all in the dark. This may be doable in a well darkened bathroom used at night.

 

(d) Rent a Darkroom

It's never been easier to find a darkroom for rent now that we have Ilford's Find Darkroom website. Generally you just bring your photo paper and the rest is all set-out ready to use. No clean-up, no need to worry about what to do with your chemicals like your fixer or selenium toner, no investment in a darkroom or enlarger. No need for a dedicated space in your house or apartment. In fact, you may not have the ceiling height necessary to house an analog optical enlarger for 4x5 or 8x10 film anyway. In San Francisco we are lucky enough to have two excellent public darkrooms, The Harvey Milk Photo Center and The Rayko Photo Center. But even if no public darkrooms are available may private ones may be just an introduction away through a local analog photo group - just check Meetup.com in your local area. 

 


 

So I couldn't dissuade you? You must have a full on darkroom for Silver-Gelatin printing? In that case I say be a circling vulture on the look out. Old professional photographers are still dying leaving fully equipped darkrooms to be dealt with by their families. Photolabs are getting rid of old analog equipment. Schools are closing their analog darkrooms. Craigslist and to a lesser extent Ebay can be a treasure trove of information. Here are some pointers to help you stretch your dollars and get the right equipment for the long run:

  • Don't even think of color film development or color printing. Temperature control is demanding, the chemicals toxic, and the results not worth it given the time and the alternatives processes. Plus the suppliers are starting to fade out - so you may learn a complex process for nothing. Better off sending your color film out to be developed and then you can scan the results into a digital workflow. 
  • Look for an enlarger brand and model that has a large local/national user base with plenty of spare parts on Ebay. 
  • Prices for high-end enlargers tend to be binary - either very expensive or almost free! Shipping an enlarger anywhere is ridiculously expensive and they are quite fragile. If you are willing to drive and pick-up expect a good price! So go for quality and don't grab the first enlarger you come across. Good sinks can also be scavenged locally too - they are also less than portable!
  • Consider getting an analog color head for your enlarger because it makes printing on variable contrast B&W printing easier. Stay away from digital color heads with fancy electronics that will break and leave you stranded.
  • For the DIYers out there you can also make your own head using LEDs. I'd particularly recommend this route if you want to print 8x10 or even 11x14 negatives and enlargements. The power requirements of LEDs is minimal and hence very little heat is generated that might distort your film plane and damage your negative.
  • Consider getting an enlarger designed for the next format size up so you are upward compatible. Medium format instead of 35mm for example, or 4x5 instead of just Medium Format. There will be some size increase in the equipment but usually a jump in quality as well. Once you've set-up your darkroom it's usually almost impossible to bring in another even larger enlarger into the layout. 8x10 enlargers are generally too large for a home darkroom. Even if you have an industrial space 8x10 enlargers are huge and may have special power requirements.
  • Rotary processors like the Jobo CPP2 with Jobo Expert drums are a nice little luxury and allow for easily repeatable results for Large Format. 
  • Stick to one or two film types which are easily found - e.g. Ilford FP4+ (125 ISO i.e. medium speed, forgiving B&W film) and a higher speed film like Ilford HP5+ (ISO 400)

  • Pyrocat-HD in glycol is a staining film developer which can produce a single negative that has two densities for silver (visible light) or platinum (UV light) printing, plus it's quite cheap and lasts forever. Downside is that it is a little toxic so you need to wear gloves. Otherwise, I'd suggest Rodinal for a cheap and long lasting developer.

 


 

Table 1: Analog-Digital-Digital Workflow Equipment
Analog Input: 
Medium Format Scanner: Plustek OpticFilm 120 for up to 6x12cm
Large Format Scanner: Epson Perfection V800 for 4x5 and 8x10 Film 
 
Digital Post-Processing:
Computer: Apple Mini
Software: Vuescan, Photoshop
 
Digital Output:
Printer: Epson Stylus Pro 3880, or the replacement Epson SureColor P800

 

Table 2: Analog-Digital-Analog Workflow Equipment

Analog Input: 
Medium Format Scanner: Plustek OpticFilm 120 for up to 6x12cm
Large Format Scanner: Epson Perfection V800 for 4x5 and 8x10 Film 
 
Digital Post-Processing:
Computer: Apple Mini
Software: VuescanPhotoshop
 
Analog Output:
Printer: Epson Stylus Pro 3880, or the replacement Epson SureColor P800 onto Pictorico OHP Transparency Film
Paper: Bergger Cot 320
Chemicals:  Sensitizer: Palladium Solution #3 Standard - 25ml, Platinum Solution #3 - 10 ml, Tween 20 10% sol - 25ml, Ferric Oxalate Sol. #1 - 100ml / Developer: Potassium Oxalate (1qt) / Wash: EDTA Tetra Sodium - 250gm, Citric acid - 1000 grams, Sodium sulfite (All can be purchased from Bostick & Sullivan)
Brushes: 2" (5cm) Sterling Watercolor Brush,  3" (7.5cm) Sterling Watercolor Brush (Can be purchased from Bostick & Sullivan)
Moisture Meter: General Tool & Instruments MMD4E
Contact Frame: 16x20" and 11x14" Custom Made by Douglas Kennedy
UV Lightsource: Aristo UV Lightsource
Ventilation: Eepjon Hoods and systems are great. Don't skim on ventilation when using chemicals with heavy metals. 
Gloves: Nitrile Gloves, 100 pack - Medium Size
Trays: Cescolite especially  dimpled version which is only available in certain sizes
Sink: Large enough for 5 trays side by side in your largest format size
Print Washer: Versalab are inexpensive but a little bit of a pain to put together, if you can get a 2nd hand premium clear plastic washer for cheap go with that.

Comments

Jason(non-registered)
Angus, thanks for this post, it has cleared some things up for me and I have decided to go down the ADA route and print with an alt. process. Right now I have been just contact printing 4x5 onto enlarger paper in a makeshift darkroom.

Do you think the Espon v800 scanner and Epson P800 printer are good enough to create 8x10 digital negatives from a 4x5 film? what about creating 11x14?
Angus Parker Photography
@FR. Mark: "Don't open that door" might be a reason to do a process for some of us! My darkroom has a lock, but I agree if you want company alt processes make that easier.
Fr. Mark(non-registered)
Angus, I intend to find out just how hard Carbon printing is. Chemicals are less expensive, to be sure. I have one of Jim Fitzgerald's prints (an 8x10) and it's wonderful. If I can get to that print quality, it will be worth it and it is not replicable with an inkjet---the 3D character is part of the effect, whereas to a degree I think Pt/Pd might be simulated with an inkjet. And, with some insets, it may be just as permanent as Pd/Pt or C printing.

Another consideration about darkroom work is family togetherness. In fact, if I didn't like the permanence of film negatives and the control the view camera gives I might stick to the dslr and phone camera. The film to digital print or film to cyanotype or other UV requiring alt process makes someone a lot easier to access than "don't you dare open that door!"
Angus Parker Photography
@ Fr Mark: I was under the impression that Carbon printing was quite the art and a difficult skill to develop.....
Fr. Mark(non-registered)
Or carbon printing in place of Pt/Pd.
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