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Wendy Monahan: Building a Darkroom

December 2, 2012

Approximately one year ago, I enthusiastically decided to return to shooting film again after becoming increasingly dissatisfied with digital imagery for my personal work. When an increasing number of untrained digital photographers entered the marketplace, it became glaringly obvious that I needed to distinguish myself as a knowledgable professional with a clear comprehension of photographic principles. I knew that digital was the right choice for commercial photography, but it no longer felt authentic to me as a fine art medium. This was a happy revelation for me as I really missed working in a darkroom and making my own prints. The magic of film and darkroom is what attracted me to photography before the digital revolution and now that I have returned to film I recognize the inherent value of the handmade print. Although my darkroom is still a work in progress, I hope sharing my "experiences" will aid other film enthusiasts.

My information sources to research and relearn have mainly been books and the internet. Unfortunately, the local camera store only carries overpriced old film equipment and a few packages of Kodak chemistry and none of the sales staff there seem to care or know anything about traditional photography. Online organizations with social forums such as APUG and other photography websites have been very helpful. There are many strong opinions on forums and erroneous information everywhere, but I find that reading over differing opinions and researching varying processing styles gives me a starting point that I could never get anywhere else. YouTube is another great source for information and how-to videos. I learned how to tray process large format sheet film by watching Tom Johnston Photography's YouTube videos. Tom is very generous and will share his knowledge and experience freely to anyone interested in learning (Tom Johnston photography on YouTube). He has really helped me understand exposure and the processing of black and white film and I am so grateful to him.

My main sources for most equipment are Ebay, Craig's List,, and local hardware and discount stores. In the year that I have been putting this equipment together, the prices on second-hand items have gone up and new items are becoming more difficult to find. Unfortunately, reputable used sellers like are carrying less and less analog equipment. In my opinion Ebay is the best source for equipment, although some patience is required. There are a lot of sellers with "buy it now" prices that are sometimes two or three times what the item is worth and more than what the item can be bought for new. While it seems easier to just click the "Buy It Now" icon and be done with it, do some research and try a few auctions first to find better deals. I have had nothing but bad experiences with the overpriced items. Sift through all the junk and you will find what you need. Most of the good stuff is sold by photographers that are honest and sometimes even helpful.

When buying photographic equipment I usually research an item online first. When I have not done this and taken a seller at their word, or worse let my romantic notions of the item's value affect my judgement, I have usually regretted it. I first look at the item's price new (if possible), and used. If the new item is rated by other buyers, such as on Amazon or B&H, I read through those. I also do a general search of the item to see what information is available, and specifically do searches in online forums to read what other photographers have to say. I try to decide if I really NEED the item, and if so, what future uses it might have.

Beginning with an eight section "parts" list, I have broken down each section of the darkroom process to my specific equipment and how I went about acquiring it. I have had an advantage on this quest, as I already had some important pieces of equipment left over from my original darkroom. I assume that the reader has some knowledge of traditional photographic processes. Anything that is unfamiliar can be easily identified with a quick internet search. Not all of the sections deal directly with the darkroom but they are essential to the finished product, which is of course a photograph! Processing and printing are done in my smallish second bathroom, fiber prints are washed in a separate bathtub housing an archival washer, and prints are flattened and toned in my garage. While I dream of having a big room maintained at 68°F with long metal sinks and large work areas, it is not necessary to the photographic process and print making.

PROCESSING 35mm or 120
  • tanks and reels
  • chemistry & film
  • distilled water
  • measuring cups
  • gloves, towels, apron
  • thermometer
  • timer or stopwatch
  • bucket and ice
  • wash-aid & container
  • roll film washer & nozzle adapter
  • film clips or clothes pins
  • plastic neg holder sheets
  • binder
  • dichroic head or contrast filters
  • film carriers
  • lenses
  • timer & safelight
  • extension cords
  • table
  • tray for specific toner
  • tongs for specific toner
  • trays for holding & rinsing
  • timer
  • chemistry & hypo-clear
  • measuring cups
  • funnels
  • gloves & glasses
  • apron & long sleeves preferably
  • running water (hose & sprayer)
  • fan & open area to work
  • print washer
  • hose & nozzle adapter
  • tray with distilled water & wash-aid
  • squeegee
  • drying screens
  • minimum 6 trays (5x7 for 4x5)
  • timer
  • chemistry
  • distilled water
  • measuring cups
  • thermometer
  • towels & apron
  • film hangers & container
  • wash-aid
  • film clips or clothes pins
  • plastic neg holder sheets
  • binder
  • easel
  • sheet of glass (for contacts)
  • grain focuser
  • canned air
  • anti-static brush
  • apron & towels
  • trays & tongs
  • chemistry & paper
  • tub w/tray siphon (print washer)
  • scissors & black tape
  • pencils & paper
  • assorted cardboard pieces & wire
  • buckets & spoons
  • funnels & containers
  • thermometer
  • gloves & apron
  • glasses & mask
  • small scale & calibration weight
  • markers & labels
  • storage & safety information
  • flattening and mounting
  • retouching supplies
  • photo oils & pencils
PROCESSING 35mm or 120

In the beginning, the only equipment I had to process roll film was a medium-sized tank and a few reels. I wanted the ability to process multiple 120 reels at once. I bought one tank and reel from Ebay but could not seem to get what I wanted from the piecemeal auctions. I decided to buy a large lot of dirty tanks and reels for a much cheaper price. I picked out what was needed, resold the rest and ended up making a small profit. This tactic works better if you have more time than money!

I spent a few days going through the local discount and hardware stores looking for measuring cups, buckets, towels, apron, funnels and gloves. I've been using the five liter container of Ilford Rapid Fixer. The fixer is tough to pour, so I use a turkey baster and squirt it into a measuring cup to avoid spills. I bought a digital thermometer, but it has already stopped working. I had an old Delta mercury thermometer in a drawer so I'm using that while considering the coveted Kodak type 3 thermometer on Ebay. A bucket and ice kept at 68 degrees works well as a water bath for the tanks during processing. For the wash aid, a cheap wide-mouth juice container easily holds both reel sizes and clothes pins work well for film hangers. There are some new film washers still available online, but I found an older, more well-made vacuum/gravity washer on Ebay for under $30 with shipping.


There are a number of ways to process sheet film. I had used a Jobo in school, but did not want to deal with the space, upkeep, and cost of that. I decided to try tray processing since it only requires trays and chemicals. I am still a bit awkward with it, but six 5x7 trays work great for 4x5 (I have more to say about trays in the printing section). I bought a shallow plastic automotive tray approximately 16x24 that I found at the 99¢ store and it lays over the sink in my bathroom when I'm processing. I have an old Gra-Lab timer with the big luminous dial and I block the light from the side near the trays. The drawback of this method is that the temperature of the chemistry cannot be regulated during processing, since I am in complete darkness. My usual approach is to cool my developer in a refrigerator and then maintain that temperature during processing by partially submerging the tank in a water bath. Having bigger sinks and a circulating water bath is not feasible, so I am still figuring this part out. I haven't necessarily been unhappy with my negatives, but ultimately I want more precision. The "drift" method has been suggested to me, but I haven't experimented with that yet. Sheet film hangers from Ebay and a cheap plastic container serve as my film washer and clothes pins on a line in my shower serve as clips while my film dries.


Thus far, I have been using Ilford and Kodak products for my chemistry with the exception of hypo-clearing agent. I purchased a small digital scale and weight for calibration from Amazon to weigh those chemicals and follow the directions from I have bought buckets, funnels, spoons, etc for the different chemicals I mix and keep everything properly marked and sequestered. On a side note, I find automotive funnels the most useful.


I had a Saunders/LPL 670 DXL dichroic* enlarger packed away with a good Nikon enlarging lens for medium format. Unfortunately I previously sold all of the film carriers and had to repurchase one for my medium format 6x7 negatives. At one time I had a universal glass carrier and super sharp Rodenstock lens for this enlarger. Oh, how I wish I had not sold these two items now! I bought the film carrier as "new" old stock from a company in Canada. Items specific to a brand and model of enlarger are more difficult to locate and sometimes more expensive.

I knew I wanted to shoot large format so I started looking for a 4x5 enlarger with a color head. This is probably the item I have had the most difficulty acquiring. The few enlargers capable of printing large format with a color head on ebay are usually too big and heavy to ship with sellers advertising local pick-up only. I had been checking Craig's List fairly regularly and did my best to put the word out to photographer friends that I was looking for an enlarger. After about eight or nine months of looking, I was talking to a fellow participant at our local First Friday art event in Las Vegas. During the conversation, I found out that at one time he ran a commercial darkroom and had several enlargers packed away. Jackpot! I bought a SuperChromega D4 from him for a few hundred dollars.

I cleaned it up a bit, did some research on what lamps to use and set it up. It is an old behemoth (it barely fits in my small space), and the fan is noisy, but the design is very clever and I do not have light leaks all over the place like I do with my more modern Saunders. The quality of the light is very nice. I can enlarge any format with this enlarger and it came with carriers to cover most sizes. I really like my Saunders, so I will probably use this enlarger for 4x5 and 35mm. I do not really shoot 35mm, but I have a mountain of old negs that I would like to go through. The lenses that came with this enlarger are ok, but I am currently looking for sharper lenses. I have made some bids on Ebay, but have not acquired what I want yet.

Previously, I had several timers and sold all but one. Luckily, it is good digital timer, but eventually I want to get a timer for each enlarger. If I want to use one enlarger for paper flashing I have to switch out power cords, which is inconvenient. I also sold all of my safelights, but had a cheap safelight jr, which is just a red light bulb. It works fine with a household lamp minus the shade. I have had no problems with paper fogging.

*I highly recommend an enlarger with a dichroic (color) head to anyone thinking of starting a darkroom. The color head is made for printing color photos, but it can also be used to control contrast in black and white printing. The control of contrast with a color head can be fine tuned to a far greater degree than with black and white contrast filters. I would also recommend buying an enlarger capable of printing negatives from the largest format you think you are interested in.


The bathroom I use is small with limited surface area, so my husband made me a table that fits over the toilet. The table holds both of my enlargers with additional space underneath for storage. Originally, I had my printing trays set up around my sink, but could not fit three 11x14 trays there. I bought a plastic table that fits in the tub/shower area and put a 6 foot metal closet rack over it to increase the surface area. To counter the slope of the bathtub and to level the rack, I cut off a section of 1x1 wood and wired it beneath the rack and on top of the lower sloping end of the table. The closet rack on the table allows me to fit up to three 16x20 trays in this area and then use the sink area to evaluate and rinse prints. The table also has a storage area underneath where I keep buckets and other assorted equipment.

The Beseler 11x14, four-bladed easel that was in the corner of the closet for several years has finally been put to use. It weighs a lot and was quite expensive. I never could sell it locally and it was too heavy and bulky to sell on Ebay. One large easel is much more useful than having multiple easels of different sizes stacked up in your darkroom.

A grain focuser is an important item and I found a decent one on ebay. There are a lot of them around both new and used. I suspect that I will be buying a more powerful focuser with a wider field of view for slow sheet films, something I should have taken into consideration sooner.

Trays, tongs, containers, measuring cups and funnels all had to be repurchased. Buying different sized trays can be a big expense. I have found that buying printing trays in three packs from B and H is the best way to go. There are used groupings on ebay, but the trays look dirty and who knows what chemicals were in them. The sellers are usually asking more than what they cost new anyway. For larger 16x20 trays I took my measuring tape and tried to find cheap alternatives. So far, I have not found anything cheaper with the right dimensions. The closest were concrete mixing trays at Home Depot. They cost about $5 to $7 but they fall short on the 16" side. Thus far, I have not purchased the 16x20 trays. When I feel like I have work warranting that size, I will buy them. I still carry my measuring tape with me just in case I find something that might work. I had a Kodak tray siphon and I use it clipped on the side of a plastic container to wash rc prints and fiber prints that I am evaluating. The other items I use for printing are things most people have in their homes. I like to have on hand an anti-static brush, canned air, pencils, paper, scissors, tape, cardboard, and wire. I also took a piece of glass out of an old picture frame to make contact sheets.


Toning prints made me nervous after reading about the dangers of the chemicals and the noxious fumes. My only previous experience with toning was the two bath sepia process used mostly with rc paper. I started with selenium toning out in my garage and have been experimenting more recently with polysulfide toning. I have a table and pair of shoes I keep in the garage that I use only for toning and I do my best to follow all of the safety directions involved. Especially with the selenium toner, I wear gloves and have my arms covered while using it. I wear glasses so I do not bother with extra eye protection. Each toner has a tray, tongs, funnel, and container set aside for use with that toner only. A fan is kept running near my work area and the garage door is kept at least partly open. For convenience a hose with a spray nozzle is set up in the driveway for print rinsing.


My husband had been after me to do something with the 16x20 print washer collecting dust in our garage for about ten years. I am finally using it and grateful that I did not sell it. I bought a hose and adapter from the hardware store and I set the washer up in a bathtub. I use a tray with photo-flo and distilled water to soak the prints in after they are washed and then use a squeegee to dry them. I have not printed 16x20 at this point, so I only use it when I have many prints to wash. What I am now looking around for is a smaller washer to use when I am making smaller prints.


I had not worked much with fiber paper when I had my original darkroom. At that time, I was a student and used rc paper for school projects. An unforeseen obstacle was the problem with incredibly curly, stubborn fiber prints that are nearly impossible to dry flat. I have drying screens, but I only use those for prints that I am evaluating and not prints that have been thoroughly washed. Ferrotype dryers are available on Ebay, but most of them are 11x14 and I wanted something larger. I read about this process of using cardboard and fabric interfacing between prints with weight on top, similar to blotter books. I did not find the method to be satisfactory in a desert environment and it took days for the prints to dry. Right now I dry my washed prints between the interfacing without added weight on top. This method appears to allow the paper to dry more evenly with less curl.

Ultimately, I just started looking around for an old heat press. I checked on ebay and there are some good buys there for presses but I was not proactive enough to win an auction. I finally found an old Seal 500T press on Craig's List for a few hundred dollars. The seller and I somehow managed to get it in the trunk of my Honda. It is another behemoth item that barely fits on the workbench I have annexed from my husband in our garage. It still works great and gets my prints pressed out flat (although the Ilford papers still stubbornly curl a bit). The platen has a few scratches and gook, but I have managed to work around that with a few layers of silicone paper. It needs a new pad, so instead of buying one I have built it up with carpet underlay and some mat boards. I have not actually done any dry mounting with it yet because I am still undecided about that process.

The spotting pens I bought many years ago still work well and are not dried out. I like to use them on glossy paper, but prefer colored pencils for matte paper. I printed out a 50% off coupon from Michael's craft store to purchase a tin of Prismacolor pencils. I had a huge set of Marshall's oils and pencils, but of course sold those on Craig's List a few years ago. I found a set of Marshall's oils selling at a good price from Adorama. Online sources claim that any oils can be used, but I haven't experimented much with that yet.


When I started this process I thought it would be relatively easy. I consider myself to be a decently accomplished photographer. The truth is, I forgot how difficult photography is without a screen for instant gratification and photoshop to remove problems and quickly enhance any image. I forgot that the equipment is heavy. I forgot that a roll of film has one ISO. I forgot that I cannot remove unwanted objects from a scene. I forgot about film processing and proofing.

Putting together a darkroom is the easy part. Making a good image takes time, skill, and patience. I have only stepped out of my darkroom a few times in this last year feeling like I made a good image. My obsessive nature keeps sending me back in to keep working. The experience has been humbling, but it has also brought me a feeling of accomplishment. I have come so far, but I still have a long way to go. Isn't that the point?

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