Building a Darkroom From Scratch on a Budget
Updated: May 11
including: common darkroom problems and how to solve them
"Where do you develop the pictures?" Is usually one of the first questions that people ask when film photography is brought up. Let’s be real, long gone are the days when developing services were easily available at every pharmacy, along with those cheap fees. For this reason, nowadays it is common for many film photographers to develop their own film at home. Nonetheless, the idea of starting to develop pictures at home can be intimidating. The developing process involves not only chemicals, but also a darkroom, or does it?
A darkroom is essentially a light proof room for working with light-sensitive photographic materials. However, contrary to popular belief, developing film does not necessarily require a darkroom, unlike processes such as wet-collodion or regular darkroom printing which do require so. However, having a darkroom has its perks. First of all, it makes the film developing process much more comfortable, and our favorite at AP: it allows for experimentation with alternative processes!
So, how to upgrade from the humble changing bag to a darkroom without going bankrupt in the process?
Selecting the space
Converting domestic spaces into darkrooms might sound challenging but the key is in finding the appropriate space to be turned into a place safe enough for vampires to sleep. It should be a room preferably with a small window or no windows at all. It might be tempting to use a closet, however access to running water and a sink is ideal for most developing and printing techniques since it will allow for all the process to happen smoothly inside the room without opening the door. For this reason, many photographers choose bathrooms, which can be ideal! (I discourage everyone to use a kitchen because of the combo chemicals / things you eat isn't great)
I personally converted part of my garage into a darkroom by simply purchasing some black curtains off amazon and isolating the square meter needed to contain my enlarger and tools. Make sure to do your measuring before buying anything! The curtains need to cover from ceiling to floor. If you have a bathtub, you could use a tray rack to place your trays and put the enlarger on the toilet. If you have a room that's good enough but doesn't have running water you could simply set up your wet area there, then do the wash somewhere else (be careful with fogging!).
In a world of real estate speculation, landlords, and roommates, many domestic darkrooms have to be pop-ups: they must be easy to install, and put away and leave no mark behind. For light proofing the room is best to use solid and thick materials such as cardboard as opposed to paper or light fabrics. Cardboard is a personal favorite because it is easily accessible anywhere in the world, customizable, easy to install and store, and it is recyclable. To cover any windows in the room, cut the cardboard a few inches bigger than the area of the lightsource and paste it using painters tape… generously. It is also important to remember to cover door cracks. For this, tape can be used as well as a towel for the bottom of the door. Once all light sources have been covered, it is advisable to turn off the light and allow the eyes to adjust to the darkness and check if any spaces need further proofing. If you’re pretty damn serious about having a darkroom and are looking for a more permanent solution, I have a friend who used this grow tent box, with a few adjustments, and swears by it.
Of course, you will find all sorts of things online: the first image here below is what you should never do. Everything is wrong about that storage solution (chemicals are exposed to light, air and it looks very easy to spill and make a mess. Also, how would one agitate them?) The second two images look very practical!
Aside from C41, or any other chemicals and materials that might be used, some accessories can go a long way to enhance the darkroom experience. These features are all optional and they can be as DIY or state-of-the-art as wished, and depend on the needs of the photographic technique in use.
Since most humans are not made to see in the dark, it is important to have some considerations for safety and comfort. For example, stomping around in the dark can be prevented with a safelight (please, note that the wattage of the bulb should be no greater than 15). In summer and tropical weathers, all the light proofing can heat things up quite quickly, so adding a small portable fan might not be a bad idea and it could be helpful for faster drying. I have also heard of portable rechargeable safe lights, in case you don’t have a source of light easily accessible.
To develop smoothly in such small and dark spaces it is ideal to prepare a minimal but multipurpose workstation. In case the room does not have a table or counter, a small table should do the trick. In addition, most developing processes involve some rinsing and drying. For rinsing, flat plastic containers with low walls that fits on the sink or working surface will do wonders; for drying purposes, a rack, string, hangers, and/or a shower rod, and clothespins or paperclip binders are quite helpful. If you’re serious about film photography, want to experiment with different processes and are used to having a fully equipped darkroom like I did in Uni, a more comprehensive B&W kit like this one is probably needed. Or a more minimal one for printing, like this one.
Lastly, do not forget to add a small sign outside the door to keep accidental walk-ins away ;)
Once you've build your darkroom, you need to learn how to use it. Inside our Alternative Processes Academy we've included a module that is a full introduction to darkroom tools, the space and how to make your first print (even if you're starting from zero). See the full curriculum here.
Author: Anasofia Camarga