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Craig Pindell Photographer

My Darkroom

 

      When people find out I am a photographer, and that I shoot film, the first question they ask is usually "can you still buy film?" The second question is usually "Do you have your own black room?" I know they mean dark room, but it is worth a chuckle.

Something about darkrooms seems to be mysterious or magical to most people. I shouldn't be surprised, because working in the darkroom is still magical to me. I made my first darkroom print in 1978, in a friend's apartment in Scottsbluff Nebraska. He an I had photographed a total eclipse in Roundup Montana, and as usual, the local drugstore processed the film.  When I look at those old negatives now, I realize how poorly developed they are, but then I blamed all of the short comings on my lack of skill.

     My friend did not have a darkroom in his apartment. We used a walk in closet to set up an enlarger that someone in his family had given him. We put the trays on the floor, and used the very out of date paper that came with the gift enlarger. Neither of us knew what we were doing, but we had read an article in a photography magazine, and it didn't sound so hard! I wish I had saved that article, because it gave us everything we needed to make prints.  They certainly were not very good prints, but seeing the images appear on the paper in the developer was life changing, literally.

My very first darkroom print.  The old paper was fogged around the edge, but there was an image!

 

      My friend and I spent our entire day off work making two prints, one from my negative and one from his negative.  The next day off I had, I drove to the nearest photography store (85 miles away) and bought an enlarger, negative carrier, enlarging lens,  trays, paper, chemicals, and tongs. I was fortunate that the gentleman who worked at the photography store was knowledgeable about darkrooms, and steered me in the right direction. He also had a couple of books about darkroom work, and suggested I buy them, but I passed (and then went back in two weeks and bought both books).

     Back then, I lived in a two bedroom trailer house, so it made sense to me that the second bedroom should become a darkroom. I disassembled the bed and stood the parts against the wall. I used the two night stands to support a piece of plywood I had found that was big enough to hold the enlarger and three 8x10 trays.  I mixed chemistry in the kitchen sink, and washed prints in the bathroom.  I had forgotten to buy a timer for the enlarger, so I would count seconds (one Ansel Adams, 2 Ansel Adams, 3 Ansel Adams........) for exposure. It wasn't accurate, but I was able to make prints.

     I printed as much as I could after that, especially during the Wyoming winters, from when I got off work until late night, every night.  I went through a lot of paper and chemistry, and eventually saw some improvement in my results. Eventually, I ventured into printing color negatives, and even made some Cibachrome prints.  I depended on the advice from my friend at the camera store and my own adventurous experimentation. It was a slow and expensive way to learn, but I had a great time doing it, and the makeshift darkroom was perfect.

     I eventually sold the trailer and moved into an apartment. the only space in the apartment for a darkroom was under a stairway. It was a small room, only about 5 foot by 6 foot. I built a shelf for the enlarger and trays, and was back in business.  I still mixed the chemistry in the kitchen, and washed prints in the shower. I would load film into the developing tanks in the darkroom, then develop the film in the kitchen. It wasn't perfect, but it was working for me.  My darkroom skills continued to improve and I was more proud of the prints I was making. When I opened my first portrait studio, and when I worked for a small weekly newspaper, this was the darkroom I used.

     Eventually I moved from that town, and for a couple of years I did not have a darkroom.  I missed it the entire time. At one point I stayed with my parents for a while, and I set up a temporary darkroom in their basement, under the stairs, in a space even smaller than my apartment darkroom. One of the prints I made in this darkroom, was chosen to be in the permanent collection of the Nicholayson Museum in Casper Wyoming. A large darkroom is not necessary for quality printmaking! 

     When I got married, my wife Katie and I moved into a small apartment, and the only place for a darkroom was in the closet of the guest bedroom.  In order to use this darkroom, I had to remove the clothes that were hanging there, and move a kitchen chair into the closet to hold the trays. the chair was only large enough for two trays, so I only used developer and fixer - no stop bath.  This caused the fixer to exhaust very quickly, but I did not have any other option.

     Also, mixing chemistry in the kitchen sink was not acceptable to the new Mrs. I had to mix chemistry in the  bathtub and film processing was done in the bathroom as well. I washed the prints in the bathtub, and the agreement was that I had to wash out the bathtub after every printing session. This less than ideal situation was what I used when I started working for Associated Press as a photo-stringer.  I would sell 2 to 8 prints per week to AP, all made in this "darkroom".  It was functional, but not comfortable.

     We eventually purchased our first home, and one of the requirements for the new home was a space for a darkroom with running water. The home we found was small but very nice, and had an apartment in the basement. This apartment had a kitchen, living room, bedroom, and bathroom. The kitchen became the darkroom, and the living room became the studio. I was spoiled with the counter space and the room in my new darkroom. I was in heaven.  I had the space to print up to 16x20 prints! It was a great darkroom to work in.

   A few years later, we moved to a larger and more convenient house. This house did not come with a darkroom, like our last house, but it did have an unfinished basement, which allowed me to create a darkroom layout from scratch. During the 25+ years we have lived in this house, I have changed the darkroom layout 3 times.  I want to explain the current layout, and hopefully explain why I chose to lay things out this way. 

 

Overall Layout

     I have the enlargers on one side of the darkroom, and the large sink (for print trays) on the other side of the darkroom. The smaller sink (used for film processing) is across the end of the darkroom opposite the entry door.  This horseshoe shape is the most effective for me. I installed peg board on as much of the wall space as possible. This allows me to hang reels and tanks, negative carriers, printing tools, notes, etc. all around the darkroom - where ever these things are the handiest.

     Each of the locations with hoses have two valves. the right side, with the red handle is temperature controlled water from the temperature control faucet. On the left side of each location is a hot water valve. Where I live the water supplied by our city can get as low as 46 degrees F in the winter.  In the summer, because our water system is fed from the mountains west of town, the water seldom gets above 65 degrees F. I know some photographers who have a chilled water system for their darkrooms to be able to control water temperature, but here, I only need to heat water.

     I installed a small electric hot water heater in the darkroom.  This prevents any temperature shift should the Mrs. be washing clothes, doing dishes or taking a shower.  Processing color requires very consistent temperatures, and with this water heater and the temperature control faucet, I seldom have any water temperature fluctuation. 

4x5 enlarger, small sink, Jobo processor, and large sink

 

 

      Large sink, temperature control faucet, and Calumet archival print washer.

      The 16×20 archival washer on the right of the image above has its own shut off valve, which has a garden hose timer adapted to limit wash time and save water. This washer is used for sheet film and prints. All my roll film is washed in a Calumet archival washer, sized for the Jobo rolls. This print washer has been an awesome addition to the darkroom. I made some plumbing modifications so that it does not drain when washing is completed.

     I also adapted a timer from the garden store so that I can put prints in the washer and walk away, knowing that when the wash time is complete, the prints will be waiting for me to come back when I can to squeegee them and put them on the drying rack.

      This saves a lot of water and frees me up for other things.

Calumet Archival Print Washer, 16x20 size

     I made a few changes to the plumbing on the print washer so that when the water timer stopped, the print washer does not empty.  This keeps the prints soaking in water if I should be doing something else when washing is complete.

Making prints

      I have two enlargers. My 8×10 enlarger is a Durst Dichroic, which I use for 8×10, 5×7, and 6×17 printing. The timer for the Durst is also a Durst that came with the enlarger. My 4×5 enlarger (below) is a Saunders LPL with a Dichroic color module. The timer for the Saunders is a Jobo digital.

Craig Pindell 8x10 Enlarger

8x10 Durst Dichroic Enlarger

4x5 Saunders LPL enlarger with negative carriers and lenses

 

      The drawer below the enlarger is a light-safe drawer based on a drawing from John Sexton. This has to be one of the most efficiency improving additions to my darkroom. It was not expensive to build and I finished it in an afternoon. 

      Having the negative carriers, lenses, dodging tools and grain focuser close to the work area is a huge improvement for me as well. 

      I can’t talk about printing without talking about paper, specifically how it’s stored. The image below is my paper storage area. Having the paper sorted by size and properly stored helps me to know when I am running short on a particular size of a particular paper.

Paper Storage Area

       I find this set-up really helps if I am not able to print for extended times, due to work or whatever, and want to catch up with marathon printing sessions. Living so far from a source for paper, the lead time can be quite an issue.

Print inspection

       The most important area of my darkroom is my wet print inspection area (see below). Prints have a tendency to appear a bit darker when dry than when wet. To account for this, I need to be able to evaluate a wet print with confidence. To put it another way, I need to know how it will look when dry.

       My inspection area is essentially is a 28×30″ sheet of white Plexiglas on an easel I built, which sits in my film sink. The light for the area is a simple 25-watt bare bulb above the easel (you can just about make out the pull-cord for the light at the top of the picture below).

       In my case it took a bit of trial and error to find the correct wattage bulb for my new arrangement. I settled on 25-watts by following a bit of a process:

      I start off by making the best print I can of a known negative (I usually use my Stairway in the Lighthouse photo) and follow my process for creating that print completely – including selenium toning – using the wattage bulb I think is correct.

      After the print dries, I compare it to my favorite print of that negative in an area that is lighted similar to gallery lighting. If the two prints match, the inspection light wattage is correct. If the test print is too dark, I reduce the wattage of the inspection light. If the print is too light I increase the wattage of the inspection light. I then repeat the test.

       Fortunately, once I have determined the correct wattage, testing is over until I change the configuration!

       In the past, even changing bulbs – as long as the wattage is the same – provides consistent results. I prefer a bare frosted bulb with no shade. In the current darkroom configuration, the inspection light is switched on and off with a pull string, that has a bit of glow in the dark tape on the end.

Timers

    My darkroom has a timer for each enlarger, two Gralab timers over the print sink, and a Zone VI compensating timer for print development. The left Gralab timer above the sink is used to time prints in the second fix bath, and when developing film. The right Gralab timer is for timing prints in the archival washer. It used to be used for timing prints in the developer also, but when I bought the Zone VI compensating timer, I stopped using the Gralab.

compensating timer

     For print development, I use a Zone VI compensating timer. It is a digital timer that beeps every 30 seconds and can adjust the rate for temperature variations of the developer. This time has a foot switch to start the timing process. I have the foot switch on the shelf above the developer tray and I push the switch when I put the print in to the developer. I learned the hard way that developing by time is the only repeatable way to make acceptable prints. When I first started printing black and white prints, I would put the paper in the developer and when the image looked okay, I moved the print to the stop bath.

     Now, I start the timer when I put the print in the developer. I agitate the print continuously for 2 minutes. I then move the print to the stop bath, agitate continuously, and after 30 seconds, move the print to the fixer. I then agitate the print continuously for 1 minute 30 seconds, then turn on the inspection light, move the print to the rinse tray for a few seconds, and then transfer the print to the viewing easel, squeegee, and step back a few feet to examine the print tonal values.  This discipline to be consistent has saved me a lot of wasted paper and has improved the quality of my prints.

Developing Film

Jobo CPE 2 Processor, tanks and reels

     I use a Jobo processor for developing film. This processor and the tanks and reels I have will process all sizes from 35mm to 8x10 inch sheets. The Jobo not only saves me a lot in chemistry costs, it has very accurate temperature control, which is very important for processing color film, it also provides the most even and consistent developing possible.  This particular processor was purchased over 20 years ago, used, and has never caused a moments problem in the entire time I have owned it.

      When I was still making color prints, this processor was excellent.  It fills quickly, it empties quickly, it keeps chemicals at the correct temperature, it requires minimal volumes of chemistry per sheet. Also, this system allows you to work in the light once the film/paper is loaded and the drum is closed.

Building Your Own Darkroom

Several factors should be considered when designing your darkroom:

     What can you afford? If you want, a darkroom can be a very expensive undertaking. Everything new, everything top of the line, everything the best brand name.  Especially these days, there are some terrific bargains for darkroom equipment, if one is a careful shopper. I recently heard to a school that was converting their darkroom into a computer lab and had 6 enlargers and all of the trays, timers, negative carriers, lenses, developing tanks,etc... free to anyone who would take it away. 

     What skills do you have?  Building your own sink is less expensive than buying a sink by far, and you can build exactly the size that fits your space, but if you build a sink that always leaks, or doesn't drain, it is worse than having no sink at all.  Be realistic about your skills. Maybe you can find a used sink that works in your space- but you need to build a stand to support the sink, do you have the skills for that? Or will you need to hire a contractor or a handyman to do these things for you?

     What space is available? Most people have a very small darkroom, at least to start. It is tempting to build a large darkroom, but unless you intend to teach large classes, I would encourage you to not oversize the darkroom. Large spaces lead to too many steps.  It should only be a couple of steps from the enlarger to the developer tray. The closer the wash tray is to the fixer tray, the better it is.  Often the size is decided by what is available, and too small is difficult, but too large is annoying.

     Wet or Dry darkroom? It is not very often that a space with hot and cold water and a drain is blocked off and waiting for you to construct your darkroom.  Sometimes it is as easy as finding a space close to an existing bathroom or kitchen and having a plumber tie into the existing plumbing.  Other times, it requires a massive project to break out concrete and run new plumbing from the main lines. I had one friend that had hot and cold water available, but no drain, so he drained the sink into a 30 gallon garbage can and used a small pump with tubing that went over the wall into the existing shower to drain the garbage can at the end of each printing session. Edward Weston's darkroom had a faucet from the outside water that penetrated the wall above the sink for a water supply. No hot water - just the same water used to water the lawn. I had several dry darkrooms - it is not as convenient, but it is certainly possible to make great prints in a dry darkroom.

     What size negatives will you be working with? Larger negatives require larger enlargers, and larger developing drums or tanks. Bigger film takes more space and more chemistry. Build your darkroom to fit the largest format your expect to use. Don't limit yourself, if you really think you will be using larger formats, build for that, but be realistic.  If the large format work is not in your plans for several years, do not build for it now.

     What is the largest print you expect to make? I don't mean you should build for the largest print you will ever make, what is the largest print you expect to make regularly. I built my current darkroom to print 16x20 prints. I occasionally make 20x24 prints, but not very often. Printing 20x24 is not convenient, but I can do it, while 16x20 is as easy as 8x10 in my darkroom. I have printed up to 30x40 using rain gutter instead of trays, and rolling the prints in the gutter rather that lying prints flat in a tray.  There are ways to print large when you need to, but if you are not making large prints, your darkroom can be a bit smaller and your cost is much less.

     Is color an option? Will you be developing color film or making color prints? If color is something that is interesting to you, make allowance of that early. Remember that temperature is more important with color, not only for your water supply, but also room temperature. Is there a heat register in the room, or is it an unheated space that will require a heater of some sort?  Will you need to add an independent water heater?

     Is there a proper electric source? Enlargers, timers, safelights, heaters, film processors, etc.. all require electricity. Stringing an extension cord from the next room is not the best power source. look ahead and find how you are going to power all of the equipment, and do not hesitate to hire an electrician to make sure your darkroom is safe from the very first day.

     Ergonomics. I seldom have short sessions in the darkroom. Even developing just a roll of film is about an hour. A prints session usually lasts several hours.  Make it comfortable. Be sure there is adequate ventilation. Be sure the lighting is good - not only room lighting, but also the safelights. I use a Thomas Super Safelight, and I really appreciate the additional lighting from it.  Be sure the sink is at a comfortable height. I prefer 38 to 40 inches tall.  I have found that bending over for hours at a time makes my lower back hurt. I like to listen to music while I am working in the darkroom, and I find podcasts or talk radio distracting. Make sure the radio or other device is dark - or covered so that it can not cause fogging.

Most Important Of All

     Remember to have fun and do not put pressure on yourself.  Unless you are developing film from a wedding, making photographs is for enjoyment.  You will make mistakes, learn, laugh and move on.

     Experiment! Some of the most fun images I have made are the result of trying something new. Try techniques that you see other folks trying, but don't give up on what you like.  There are many ways to make photographs. Find yours

     Listen to what others say,  but remember that if you did not hear it directly from Edward Weston or Ansel Adams, it is not gospel. What works for others may not work for you.  Or their suggestions may be a starting place for you.  Photography is a very personal thing, and it is for you to decide what your want to do and what your like.

     Remember there are a couple of hard and fast rules in photography that no one can change -

1 - Developer is always before fixer. Always.

2 - f/8 is always twice as much light as f/16. Always.

Other than that, you make your rules.

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