Dark Room Photography Guide to Getting Started

These days, developing film and making prints in a darkroom seems a little outdated. Why would we want to spend hours in a dark, smelly room, sweating over our images and struggling for the perfect print when we can just upload them to our computers, fire up Photoshop, and have a hot chocolate? There’s no arguing that digital is more convenient and is growing increasingly flexible as camera capabilities and software options improve, but sometimes it’s fun to break it down to the basics and spend a little time in the dark. If you’ve never ventured into the darkroom before, this is your guide to getting started.
We’ll skip developing your film and getting supplies for now and just talk about the actual process.

Printing With an Enlarger

An enlarger is exactly what it sounds like – a machine that makes your tiny squares of film into large, printed  photographs. It does this by projecting light through your film and on to the surface of your photo paper where the light sensitive chemicals are exposed.

In order to print a photo, you’ll need to line the frame up with your enlarger’s light source, project it onto the blank mat, and ensure it is correctly focused (usually by adjusting a knob on the side). Make sure you can clearly see the grain of your image otherwise get a magnifiying glass to check. You need to play with the exposure timing to make sure the image turns out okay, then you should be just fine.

The Chemicals

Once you’ve decided on the correct timing and exposed a full photograph, it’s time to get your hands dirty. Darkroom chemicals have a smelly and distinct odor and will ruin any clothing they come in contact with so make sure to wear an apron or wear old ratty clothes.  The chemical process can be broken down into four steps:

1.     Developer – Soak your paper, which will still be completely white, in the developer. This chemical will activate the photo paper and allow your image to come through on the paper. If you’re unhappy with the contrast or exposure levels, head back to the enlarger and adjust your timing. Once you have an image you like and it has fully developed, it’s time to move over to the stop bath.

2.     Stop Bath – The stop bath will prevent your image from developing any further by neutralizing the chemicals found in the developer. If you’ve ever been in a darkroom, the smell you remember is the stop bath. Feel your image to see if you can move on; paper that has been properly stopped will squeak when you rub your fingers on it. This should only take a few short minutes.

3.    Fixer – While the stop bath will stop the effects of the developer chemicals, your paper will still be sensitive to light exposure. Fixer is the final chemical in the process and once your photograph has been soaked with this chemical the paper can be exposed to light without ruining the image. You don’t need to soak your images in fixer for too long, but 5-10 minutes depending on the chemicals and paper is usually a safe bet.

4.    Rinse – Naturally you’ll want to rinse your photos of all the harsh chemicals you’ve soaked in them. Most dark rooms have a sink and a rinsing tub with a continuous flow of water so you can leave your print there as long as it takes to remove all of the chemicals. While waiting, this is a great time to print other pictures from your negatives!

Once you’ve enlarged, developed, stopped, fixed, and rinsed your images, set them out to dry in a safe place and come get them the next day. Don't forget to rinse your prints well because if you don't, your photographs will turn brown over time from the chemical residue left on the print. Pick up your dry prints and put them in a heavy book or photo press to straighten them out. After that, your prints are ready to put in a picture frame. Although choosing a frame for your print could be a separate article altogether, you want to choose a frame that complements your picture. This could be anything from a choosing a black picture frame that highlights the contrasting colors in your black and white print to using an antique gold picture frame that accents the tones in your sepia print. Now, back to the darkroom…

The dark room can seem a little intimidating at first but once you understand the process it's a lot of fun. It's a wonderful creative outlet and gives you a lot more control over your final images then having someone else print them. Just remember to check before turning on the lights or you may just ruin someone's photograph!