Category Archives: Darkroom

Testing the darkroom again

A while ago I tested my darkroom’s light tightness by sitting in it for a while with all the lights off, noting some leakage around the door and my blackout blind. I made a few adjustments at the door, creating a skirt out of blackout material that can quickly be velcroed to the bottom of the door and used some more of the material plus some more duct tape to improve the existing light trap around the top and sides. The door skirt takes seconds to install or remove and rolls up small enough to keep in a drawer when not in use.

I also discovered that with the window open a little, the door closed and the central fan system running, my blackout blind is pushed inward into the window opening slightly, forming a better seal. Good enough to block all outside light at night and in daytime covering most of the window with my big cardboard mat cutting sheet kills enough light to allow the blind to block the remainder of light in this way.

Indeed I was able to load a roll of Tri-X into my developing tank with early evening daylight outside with this setup a few days ago. I may still pick up another length of the blackout material or some kind of heavy felt cut to the exact size of the window interior and use velcro to allow it to be quickly installed; or cut a larger sheet of cardboard to the right size and simply insert it into the window opening. But I’ll be wanting the fan on and window opened a little for ventilation anyway, so I may not even need to do that for a while.

With those changes in place, I re-tested the room. The verdict?

It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

Oh dear. I hope that safelight arrives soon or I’m in trouble. Now…uh…where was the door again…?

Darkroom setup part 3: it pays to be handy

One of the things you find when working to a tight budget is that cheap yet effective and resourceful solutions can gain you a lot of mileage.

Homemade Negative Holders

Homemade negative holders, cut from sturdy illustration board, hinged using linen hinging tape and black ink applied.

For one thing, my enlarger came without negative holders or the filter holder which fits in the drawer above the condenser. Luckily, the Beseler 23C series have a simple style of negative holder. Using some sturdy illustration board in the darkest color I could find (dark blue) I made a couple of holders for 35mm and 6×6. The holes are cut using a regular bevel matboard cutter. Placed in the enlarger’s negative stage, they’re held quite flat. The filter holder is less of a concern since I scored a cheap set of under the lens Kodak polycontrast filters in excellent condition. Eventually I’d like to replace them with above the lens Ilford Multigrade filters, but this solution will work fine. However, with no filter holder in the drawer, there is a lot of light leakage. To solve this problem I cut a suitable frame out of heavy cardboard (the box the enlarger was delivered in). I should probably black it out or paint it white but it works very well as-is, blocking the light leaks up there. Heat hasn’t been a problem; the lamphouse does get warm but it’s nowhere close to hot enough to burn this material.

Filter drawer insert

Filter drawer insert. Heavy cardboard from the box the enlarger arrived in, cut to size.

Finally, a frame for making contact sheets from my negatives. This is a simple device, a flat board which the paper and negatives can sit on, with some glass pressing them down flat. I hit on the idea of finding a cheap frame, 11×14 or larger, and using existing materials to make a back which it would hinge to. In the event, I found a large frame with glass in it, but no back, for a steal at Goodwill. After cleaning it thoroughly I bent down the metal tabs which usually hold the back on the frame so that they would hold the glass securely in place and removed the hanger from the back. A base was made by sandwiching layers of heavy cardboard (more of the enlarger’s delivery box) together, followed by a layer of black posterboard. This was hinged to the frame using duct tape. A pair of securing clasps was made from more duct tape. Some craft foam on the bottom helps keep it in place on the enlarger’s baseboard. I marked an 8×10 area in the dead center of the base to make it easier to set up. I can place the frame on the baseboard, set the elevation to a standard height, put my 35mm holder in and adjust the lens focus until the lit area is a little larger than the marked area. Under safelight, place the paper in the marked area with the negatives on top, close the frame and secure it down, then expose.

It’s large enough to place two sheets of 8×10 side by side if I really wanted to. If I need to contact print on larger paper (for 6×7, perhaps, if I should ever end up with something like a Mamiya RB) I have more than enough room to do that. I could even use it for contact printing negatives up to 11×14. Total cost to me: about $2, some stuff I already had lying around the office and 30 minutes of free time. Not everything can be jury-rigged in this manner though. I investigated options for cheap developing trays but the truth is, a new set of 3 can be had for under $10 (8×10) or $17 (11×14). I might be able to cobble something together to work with 8×10, but it’s going to cost close to what I’d pay for the proper tools anyway. Most of the ones showing up on Ebay aren’t any cheaper than new ones either. A magnifying glass of good enough quality to use for focus checking is no cheaper than a used grain focuser, if you’re patient enough and watch the auction site for one.

But for the things which can be fabricated out of “junk”, it can be worthwhile.

Darkroom setup part 2: the dark room

The most obvious requirement for darkroom work is a dark room, but this isn’t as simple as closing the curtains and shutting the door. “Dark” in this context doesn’t mean “pretty dark, like at night with the lights out and the blinds closed”; it means “totally dark, like an unlit coal mine”.

And unless you actually live in a coal mine, that’s not always a straightforward proposition.

There are a few ways to approach this. The first is to have a dedicated, permanent darkroom, built or adapted specifically for that purpose, fully light tight, properly ventilated, with no unnecessary sources of light in the room itself and with everything set up permanently. This is the ideal, but not even remotely possible in a rented apartment.

The second option is a semi-permanent setup, where a room can be readily configured as a darkroom while being used for its other purposes at other times. This implies darkening methods which are easy and quick to put up and tear down, repeatedly. It also implies having the enlarger(s) permanently in place.

The final option is a temporary setup in which everything is moved into a room which can be readily darkened. Commonly, this is a windowless bathroom and often such setups involve setting the enlarger on a toilet, or having it on a sturdy rolling cart, with a temporary bench covering part of the bathtub to act as the “wet side” of the darkroom. This has the advantage of ready access to running water and drainage. It has the major disadvantage of making a bathroom unusable for the duration of a printing session, and a lengthy setup/teardown process.

I’m going with option 2 here. A dedicated room is out of the question just now and we only have one cramped bathroom. Also, going with a temporary setup I know what will happen. I’ll consider printing, decide that the time I need to just set up isn’t worth it, and put it off. We do, however, have a room which is presently my office, camera gear store, general storage and home to the cat litter box. It has a large window (47″ x 47″) facing east into a line of trees and several pieces of electrical equipment which can’t be turned off (the webserver this page came from, our cable modem and WLAN router being the main culprits). The one catch is that all the changes need to be easily reversible, so I’m limited to options which are self adhesive, or which require minimal anchoring to walls.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIronically it seems that blacking out the big window is the least of my problems. I found a budget-priced blackout material normally used for curtain linings at Jo-Ann Fabrics; it’s called Roc-Lon Budget Blackout, it comes in a slightly off-white color which turned out to be a perfect match to the color the walls are painted, and it is very effective at what it does. It was also on half-price sale, so I picked up 2 yards of the stuff for under $8. That, plus the existing window blind, is enough to cut all light after sundown, and it looks like I can block out full daylight just by supplementing it with some cardboard over the window panes. I already have a foldable thick cardboard I use for cutting mats on, which fits across the window and leaves less than a foot open at the top. Initial impressions are this is sufficient to block everything; even in full daylight the blackout blind almost did the job by itself. It’s pinned tight to the wall above the window, has a wide overlap past the window, and the big cardboard roll it came on is taped to the bottom end, which helps weight it down in place when in use and acts as a way to store it the rest of the time. I roll it up to the top of the window and secure it with three straps made of white Duck tape. Not exactly “Better Homes and Gardens” friendly, but nor is it out and out fugly. And it takes maybe a minute to change configuration.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA2013-07-11_09-09-13_738The door, surprisingly, turned out to be a bigger problem. It’s a cheap, slightly warped door which rubs against the frame near the hinge and has a good 1/4 inch gap between it and the doorstop molding at the latch side. Even after running weatherstripping around it, a quick test showed that there was some light leakage (and bear in mind the other side of the door was quite dimly lit). This may not be enough to cause a real problem, but I’d rather not leave that to chance. The bottom of the door can be dealt with either by covering it with a cut strip of the blackout material, or just laying the material down there to cover it up. The other edges I’m shoring up with a “skirt” made of white duct tape.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe final problem is that electrical equipment, all of which has LEDs. Some I can switch off while I print or work in the dark. Some I semi-permanently covered up or positioned where they aren’t a problem. The few which need to be visible most of the time (the cable modem and router) I knocked down in intensity using a blue sharpie marker(!) and made covers from pieces of the blackout material which velcro into place.

Testing for light-tightness is straightforward. Configure the room for “dark”, turn out the lights and wait for a while until my eyes adapt to darkness. At this point, even small incursions of light become quite apparent.

Ventilation, hopefully, won’t be an issue. I can open the sliding window behind my blackout a little, and the central heat/AC vents into the room so by running the central fan, I can get a flow of fresh air into the room, then out through the open window. It’s not perfect but for the relatively short printing sessions I expect to run, with frequent trips out to wash prints and basic black & white chemicals being used it should be sufficient. If not, I’ll need to consider ways to improve airflow.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWorking areas are the next consideration. The computer desk is big and sturdy. The scanner and monitor take up less than half of the surface area and still leave room in front of the display. Keyboard, mouse etc. live under the desk in a drawer designed for that purpose. I’ve been able to clear sufficient space to keep the enlarger and timer permanently set up. This area is the dry side of the darkroom.

At the opposite wall I have some shelving (and room for a little more) and a folding table which is large enough for several trays to sit on. This will be my wet side. I’ll want to be careful about chemical spills here, as trays are very apt to lose some of their contents. The folding table is a wipe-clean surface at least.

Because of the kitty toilet, I’ll need to keep the enlarger covered to avoid problems with fine dust. There’s nothing much I can do about that, but it’s not really a huge problem anyway. It just gets a little dustier in there than elsewhere. During printing sessions I’ll move their facilities out into the hallway next to the door.

In the absence of running water or drainage, I’ll use the approach of storing finished prints for a short period in a deep tray or pail of water, then take them to the kitchen or bathroom for washing, before putting them up to dry (this will also help with ventilation as I move in and out of the room).

Finally, I’ll need a safelight. Remember that bit about the room being totally dark? For most film work, yes, the room needs to be perfectly dark, but for black and white printing (and certain types of film) a red or amber light can be used. Now, back in the heyday of darkroom work, this meant a dedicated light unit with filters, or maybe a Yankee/Kodak “bullet” style fitting which screws into a regular light socket and houses a low-wattage bulb behind a filter. These units are widely available on Ebay, but for the same sort of money I can opt for the red LED bulbs I mentioned in part 1. A couple of these in cheap clamp lights or installed temporarily in a floor lamp should offer superior light levels and better paper safety compared to the old-school units.

Oh yes, one more thing to add to the darkroom requirements list: a decent sized, easy to read wall clock. It’s all too easy to completely lose track of time in there…

The darkroom project rolls on.


More to follow…

Darkroom part 1: Pre-requisites

I’ve finally decided to take the next logical (is there anything logical about this?!) step in the pursuit of black and white film photography and start doing wet process contacts and prints. This is, of course, happening on a budget, so I’m trying to do it all as inexpensively as possible, lest it take 6 months to get to where I can make a print.

What are the bare minimums needed to do this? I’ll address some of these in separate posts later, but for now, The List:

  1. A darkroom. My office/den room is the choice here. Yes, blacking out our bathroom would be easy (I already load film into developing tanks there using just a bedsheet to cover the door) but it’s a cramped temporary space and the only bathroom we have. No problem for the 2 minutes needed to load film. Big problem for printing.
  2. Safelight. I’ve seen a 635nm standard-E26-fitting red LED bulb on which is supposedly quite safe for VC papers and is cheaper than the hordes of old school safelights on the ‘bay.
  3. An enlarger. I barely missed a Bogen 22A Special in Goodwill a few months ago, but as Kelli pointed out, “perhaps something else is meant to come along”. She was right of course and I was able to find a Beseler 23C-II via Ebay. The Bogen, while compact and lightweight, would have limited me to 6x6cm medium format (assuming a holder could even be found for that); I have one camera already that does 6x9cm on 120 film. The 23C-II will enlarge from 6×9 and make prints larger than anything I plan to make from all the formats I shoot or plan to. It’s exactly the right amount of enlarger for my needs.
  4. Lenses and holders for the formats I need to enlarge. I have the 50mm I need for 35mm printing, and can find others easily. Holders are also readily available (another reason to opt for the 23C series) and at a pinch can be fabricated using stiff black matboard and gaffers tape for this enlarger.
  5. Timer for the enlarger. I’ll probably try to pick a very basic one up cheaply to get started, but I’m looking at building a custom f-stop timer using an Arduino, which won’t cost much more than the cheapest available timers on Ebay and will be nearly infinitely expandable to fit my specific needs. I can write software and wield a soldering iron, I don’t need to spend more on a used GraLab 300 than I’d spend on making a truly flexible timer.
  6. Grain focuser. I’m quite sure my 10x loupe isn’t the tool for this job. But I’ll make do for now while I’m just practicing.
  7. Multigrade Filters. Ilford is pretty much the only game in town here. The Beseler needs either 6×6 size for the lamphead filter drawer, or under-the-lens types. The 6×6 filters aren’t too expensive brand new, and are my preferred choice. I can get started without these if I need to.
  8. Paper, chemicals and storage. I’ll start cheap and simple (8×10 variable contrast RC paper) while I get a handle on this. Dektol for the developer. I have all the other chemicals I need already.
  9. Trays. I figure a set of 3 11×14 sized trays will serve me well here. Not expensive new. My holding/wash tray can be anything big enough to hold the prints and sturdy enough to carry to the bathroom with water in it. Bigger can wait for a while.
  10. Contact printing setup, for contact sheets. This is easy, I’ll stick a sheet of paper on the enlarger baseboard, put the sleeved negs on top, put a piece of glass from a cheap 11×14 frame on top of that, weight down the edges, and have at it.
  11. Easel. I can initially get away without, or make a mask using matboard cut to the sizes I need. Eventually I’ll want suitable sized easels though.
  12. Dodge and burn tools. I have all I need to make these already.
  13. Spotting ink and brushes. A must have for later, but for getting started I can survive without.
  14. Patience. Lots of it. I don’t expect to make fine prints within an hour of setting this all up. I’m learning a craft and that takes time. My initial “fine prints” may well be scanned from work prints, worked up digitally and sent for print.

More to follow on some of these.