Experimenting with a darkroom

During the height of studying over the Christmas holidays, finding new ways to procrastinate was key. And, obviously, I wanted to integrate photography into whatever I was doing. I read an article about darkrooms and the effect they can have on a photo and I thought, I want to try that for myself. Here’s what I did – so you can do it, too!

What is a darkroom?
In the nineteenth century, when photography was a new concept, a darkroom was used to change the image from a film to an actual photograph. A darkroom is a room that needs to be completely dark throughout the developing process – for example a bathroom without windows. It also needs to be big enough to work in (around 20-25 square feet) and it must have a plug socket. In the digital age, where phones and digital cameras are used as the mainstream, a darkroom produces photos from film negatives: this may mean that you need to rifle through old family photo sleeves or find yourself an old camera in one of your parents’ drawers. The product of using a darkroom is a black and white image and, partly because you’ve spent time in creating it, the image feels a little bit magical.

What do you need?
Most negatives you find would be 35mm. This means that the main piece of equipment you will need is an enlarger (otherwise known as a transparent projector) with a 50mm lens. Whilst these are difficult to get a hold of, when snooping through charity shops I managed to find one for a reasonably cheap price. If you don’t have any luck when thrift-shopping, eBay is your best bet and with your loan burning a hole in your bank account, it’s perfect timing.

After you have the enlarger you will also need: a red or orange light, 3 trays, masking frame, 2 sets of plastic tongs, multi-grade paper and filters, multi-grade paper developer, stop bath and fix, and plastic bottles. To people who don’t know much about photography, this may seem like a foreign language, but I can assure you that Amazon, along with shops like Jessops, supply all of these things.

The setup
Once all the equipment is in the darkroom, you’re ready to go – huzzah!
Make sure that when you plug in the enlarger the wires are taped down – in a darkroom you won’t be able to see them, and you don’t want to trip over. After this, make sure you have your three trays set up: the developing solution needs to be in the tray closest to the enlarger followed by the stop bath and then the fix.

Old wood birdhouse

Now here’s how to do it!
Before you start, make sure there is no stray light in your room; the paper is extremely sensitive to any light, so this could destroy the image. Make sure the red or orange light is on from this point onwards. It may take some time for your eyes to adjust and then you can open the paper.

When you place your negative into the enlarger, make sure the shiny side is upwards and the numbers are facing away from you. When the projected image appears, make sure that it’s the right size for your paper. Ensure that the image is in focus – otherwise it may come out blurry!

Place the exposed paper into the tray of developer and gently move it around – make sure that the entire sheet is submerged all at the same time. It needs to be submerged fully for about 90 seconds, or a little bit longer in the winter. Try not to touch it with tongs until the 90 seconds is up.

Drain the paper of developer after this time is up, then submerge it in the stop bath solution for 10 seconds.

Remove it from the stop bath solution, drain again and place it into the fixer for two minutes.

After this, wash the print off for 5-10 minutes and hang the fully washed print to dry in the darkroom to see the full effects!

You now have a finished print and it hopefully looks amazing!

I know that, as a student, this may seem like a fair bit of money to waste on photos that you could just print cheaply from your phone, but once you have the equipment you’re set for life. Also, giving a parent or loved one a photo of them which you uncovered from a negative would make their day.

If you wish to contribute to Waterfront’s Photography Section, or show us what you produced in your own darkroom, please contact the editor at waterfrontphotography@swanseastudentmedia.com

by Charlotte Husbands


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