OK, so this post has been in my mind for a while as there s quite a bit to say, learned over a period of about 8 months but I also needed to get a few things aligned before I wrote about it for others.
If you’re reading this you are probably either someone who is trying to create a darkroom but has limited space and money to do so, or you are someone who is curious as to how to do it. Either way, you are probably aiming to build a darkroom in your home, and you probably don’t have a 20sq/m space to build one in. I sympathise!
Back in 2008, I got into home darkroom printing. I bought a Ilford Ilfospeed 400H enlarger, and a good friend of mine sold me a Rodenstock Apo-Rodagon 35mm f2.8 lens for doing 35mm prints. A lens which is well regarded as one of the best lens for enlargements, and is now fetching quite a pretty price. Anyway, at that time I lived in a house with a room in the attic. The bathroom was in the floor below. It was a bit of a fiddle, as you might imagine, because of that seperation. So I managed to do some printing, but not much. It was just too much hassle, and soon after my first child arrived and those of you with kids will know how it goes from there.
In 2014, we moved to a new house and my enlarger went with me but it had to go in the garage. There was no attic room for a darkroom this time. No spare bedrooms either. No space in the garage for one either. The only contender was the small box room on the landing which was set up as my study holding my computer, chair, and small desk. I figured my darkroom printing was over, for now at least, and the enlarger stayed in the garage. The Apo-Roadgon lens was kept safe in its plastic enclosure, fortunately.
Fast forward five years to 2019, and I got the printing bug again. I was inspired by stories of others who were able to create some form of darkroom, even with some inconvenience and I was getting frustrated at my love for film photography stopping at the scanning stage and sharing electronically. So I started working out if I could do the same; build a small darkroom for home printing. The only obvious contender was the space in my study. The room obviously has 4 walls and is 2m wide and 1.5m long, so 3m\sq overall. One wall has a window in the middle of it. The other wall is committed to a desk with a computer, monitor, scanner and printer, along with a wall of shelves for books, folders and so on. The third wall has a door using half of it, although it does at least open outwards, rather than inwards. And there is a chair in the middle of it the room of course. It is a functional study, after all.
My Existing Study – 2D Plan
That leaves one ‘free’ wall. So how did I get a functional darkroom with one free wall that is 1.5 long and only about 70cm of free space between that wall and the back of my computer desk chair?? Read on…
The Enlarger Situation
The first thing I needed was a new enlarger. The one I left in the garage was not great anyway, and had since developed faults. Parts of it had rusted and so on. So I began to research that area again. There is too much to say about enlarger options, but suffice to say I determined that a reasonable balance of quality, size, and cost can be achieved using the Meopta Opemus 6 line of enlargers. No longer made, but they have a good reputation as work horses, and they are reasonably sized, unlike the more high end DeVere enlargers. In addition, they can print both 35mm and 120 negatives, which I use increasingly these days.
I followed many of varying quality and cost on the usual auction sites. I bidded on a couple but lost out to others and I was determined not to get stung by one of the many rip-off merchants on eBay. Eventually, one fine day, I got an alert from eBay stating a new listing in Denmark. It had a reasonable Buy It Now of about £150, and to my amazement, it was reported to have been unused! I looked closely at the pictures and there it was – boxed, and still mostly wrapped. I checked the size of the base board to make sure it would fit in the corner of the study, and, at a size of 23″ x 17″, it would indeed fit perfectly, not overlapping the window. The seller was a son of a photographer who bought about 18 years ago but never used it. That was it – I bought it immediately and hoped for the best; I have a full article about that which I wrote in Feb 2019 HERE but I include a picture below just for info:
I then needed a lens to enable medium format printing. When it comes to lenses, all I ever use is www.ffordes.com and true to form, there was an 80mm Roadgon f4 lens for medium format printing at a cost of about £70 with warranty etc. Bought. So, for the best part of just over £200, I now had a mint condition enlarger, and both lenses for 35mm and 120 printing.
OK, next I had to figure out how to store the enlarger for functional use. So I measured the height I needed it to be, and then built a sturdy wooden shelf unit for it to sit on top of. But rather than building just a shelf, I built a box by constructing the timber wood panels vertically, instead of horizontally as a normal shelf. Then I could place the enlarger on top and use the space underneath for storage. Screwed it to the wall, and then used a wooden support leg just for added security. This didn’t cost me anything other than a box of strong, long, high end screws and raw plugs because I had the wood in the garage. Best of all, I now had space below the enlarger for storage!
Enter a set of plastic self-standing shelves that you can buy for about £10 from any store that caters for kids toys or kids clothing or kids anything, and I now had a set of storage shelves beneath the enlarger large enough to hold even the large developing trays. All this is so far occupying only the space of the enlarger base board and fits behind the chair in the study.
I already had some trays, but I bought some new ones for about £17. And I had a box of Ilford RC papers from my last printing endeavors, which, despite being old, could still be used. All of it fits below the enlarger on the plastic shelves, or in the boxed area directly below the enlarger.
The Shelving Situation
Next, I need a shelf to store at least the 3 trays for developer, stop and fixer. The space left on the previously unused wall, now that the enlarger and stand is using half of it, was about another 32″ (about 0.8m). Just enough for 3 of the large trays needed for 10″ x 8″ prints. But I knew if I built a shelf there, I’d have no room to walk in and out of the darkroom\study! So, enter the collapsible shelving brackets (“Sayayo Folding Shelf Bracket, Heavy Duty Foldable Shelf Support“)! I bought a heavy duty set via Amazon for about £18 total. They are big enough to hold a shelf 13″ wide, which is what I have, and it allows you to raise the shelf into a locked position when needed, and then lower the shelf when not needed. Perfect for any darkroom enthusiast with limited space. After they arrived, 30 minutes later they were bolted into the wall, and my 32” shelf is screwed to the top.
The Light Proofing Situation
I had everything I needed now except for light proofing! This was a tricky thing and one which I, and perhaps others, obsess about. Problem one : “you have to ensure the room is 100% dark”. Well, ideally yes, of course. But my darkroom is a study. It has two routers, one NAS storage server, one monitor, speakers, a scanner and a printer. Half of which I can easily turn off, but not the routers or the NAS box. They blink a bit, and emit some light. But are they enough to be a problem? No. I thought they might be, but they aren’t. So if you’re reading this thinking you need a room that is 100% light tight, stop. The odd blink of an electrical little light is not having any impact on my prints. But then there is the window. How did I deal with that?
I read up on this a lot. All kinds of people use different things. Cardboard cut to size, wooden sheets cut to size. Special foam cut to size. Well I didn’t want a sheet of wood or cardboard 67″ x 30″ placed in my study. I didn’t want my window to be permanently blacked out either. I do computer work in my study so I want the light when I need it! I knew curtains would not be light tight enough, and I also didn’t want to spend £200 on fancy material. So, after much looking around, I stumbled across a company called “Magic Whiteboard“. And one of their products is so painfully suitable and affordable it hurts me that I never found it before. They sell a product called “Magic Blackout Blind“, which is actually designed to black out children’s bedrooms. It comes in a roll of 10+ large sheets (about A2 or A1 size) and each one is perforated to enable easy application. You don’t need any water or other products – it just sticks to your window using a form of static and a box of 10 sheets cost about £33. I needed 4 sheets to cover my entire window, but sure enough – it really does block out the light. There is the odd little bit of light that creeps in round the edge if there is a tiny bump in the union between it and the window, but I’m talking tiny amounts. Again, not enough to be a problem. Best of all, it just peels up, and then peels off and can be folded away until next time. So whenever I need to do some printing, and stick the same 4 sheets back up again (taken all of 5 minutes), and then take them down when I am done, and if\when their static fades, I have another 6 sheets, and when that goes, I’ll just order another roll of 10 sheets.
Final Steps & Takeways
So next I needed some printing developer and a few other bits and pieces which I ordered and then I was done. The only snag is water – I have to carry my trays to the bathroom to mix the chemicals and water, which I then pour into the trays, and I then bring back into the room and place them on the shelf. I have a 4th tray that I load with cold clean water that I place the fixed prints in, and then every 3 or 4 prints I then walk out to the bathroom again to wash them more thoroughly under running water. So a sink and running water are missing, yes. But that alone is not enough to stop me and it shouldn’t you.
Health & Safety is another moderate concern. Obviously liquids and electricity do not mix! I have to be careful with my trays of liquids and ensure I don’t spill any near the electrical sockets. In an ideal world, and with a proper darkroom built from new, obviously you’d make sure the electrical points were the minimum required distance away from where your chemicals, trays and washing area is. In fact you’d have to by law of course.
Anyway, one darkroom, and one study, both squeezed into a space not more than 3m square, both in a room not big enough even for a bed. I feel like I have made fire!