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Darkrooms - my perspective

Painting a picture requires concentration, but it’s also very freeing. Painting studios are free and open places. You can have the windows open, music playing, working drawings spread all over the walls or on the floor. When painting, even though your total attention is on the canvas or panel, having lots of stuff around makes you comfortable. Whatever mess there is in the studio surround is fine, if it helps with the painstaking work of getting the picture right. My first painting teacher addressed our class with, “bring an old shirt to wear over your clothes - neatness doesn’t count in here.”


Neatness counts in a darkroom. The experience is very different: a closed space, dim red light or total darkness, with decisions made over slight differences in tone; and where every process and motion must be completely consistent. I believe that a darkroom must (1) be easy and quick to get around in – therefore small, (2) have enough organized space for everything you need, and (3) keep you free of distractions.


My darkroom is about 5 feet by 6-1/2 feet. That’s the perfect size – for me. The sink is 2 by 6 feet, and the dry side work counters are 24” wide except for the enlarger cabinet which juts out another 6 inches or so into the aisle. Why is it the perfect size? Because to get from the dry to the wet side, I need only turn around. To get from one end of the sink to the other is about 2 side steps.


For me, conserving energy is important in a darkroom because there’s such intense concentration required. The more tired you get, the more hazy your judgement becomes. In my setup, taking one print from the enlarger, through the processing, and to the wash tray takes very little physical movement. Physical exertion creates fatigue. In a 4 or 5 hour printing session, a minimum of steps saves considerable energy.


  I don’t like any clutter in a darkroom. I want to see what I’m working on. I don’t want to see books, film holders, or any equipment on the countertops. It’s too distracting. I don’t take my mobile telephone in there either, whether or not it’s even turned on.


Except for the enlarger cabinet, all of the darkroom work surfaces are 40” high. That’s a few inches below my elbows. I don’t like stooping over. That causes fatigue too – and a sore back. Also, at that height, the sink rim is comfortable to lean on.


The wet side of the darkroom has a wash-up faucet, and water lines that connect to a temperature control unit. Separate water lines are at the water bath tray and the wash tray area. I use water as a stop bath. For alkaline fixing, water is required – you can’t use acid. For acid hardening fixing, a water rinse removes the developer easily. What Kodak used to say was true in a limited sense. Acetic acid stop baths are sometimes necessary - in the old newspaper darkrooms, or if you’re doing hundreds of prints in production work – when you’re rifling 12 prints at once through the solutions. Otherwise, for most photographers’ personal needs, a water bath is fine.


There are “Y” connectors on the lines. One hose can go to the water bath tray, and one shortened hose is for filling water pitchers for working solutions. At the wash end, one fitting feeds a hose that refills a temporary wash tray (holding tray), and one goes to film and print washers. On both Y fittings, I’m using either one water feed or the other, seldom both together. A rack holds graduated cylinders, a funnel, and a glass thermometers. Another shelf holds the water pitchers. For drying film, clothespins hang on a wire over the top of the sink. Other chemicals – hypo wash, toner, balanced alkali, and developer concentrates are stored on a shelf at the far wall.


The temperature control unit is a shower-type connection. One lever sets the temperature; the volume is controlled by 2 feed valves. The temperature stays relatively stable for general working solutions. For film developers, I mix the temperature precisely in a water pitcher – adding a little hot or cold to get the temperature to 22 Celsius (70F). I refill the water bath tray every 5 or 6 prints, and the holding tray several times a session. I store prints in the printwasher before toning. A Plexiglas inspection board hangs at the far end of the sink. For mixing stock solutions of fixer, etc, I use a 5 liter bucket and use hot water from the wash-up faucet.


I use glass graduated cylinders for measuring solutions. Glass is much more accurate than plastic. Even in a 250ml graduate, you can tip out slight milliliters of solution accurately. Plastic graduates and pitchers are fine for larger quantities. Glass graduates probably aren’t ideal for schools or community darkrooms.

Darkroom wet side set up for proofing. For printing sessions, an inspection light hangs left of the timer. A heater is nice for wintertime. The picture at left is a small oil painting by Lita Kenyon. Right of that is a photograph by Richard Ritter.


The sink is made of ABS plastic – very strong and durable. I like the black color. Stainless steel sinks are effortless to clean, but I remember the Japanese woodworker who prefers a black steel square because the gleaming stainless one “never gives me calmness.” I like stainless steel trays for some applications though.


Under the sink are vertical holders for tray storage. They’re utterly simple – open box frames with dowels fore and aft. The dowels run through holes on top and into sockets below. The plastic trays weigh very little, so dowels are more than adequate. 


Below the sink is a wire shelf for fixer bottles and buckets. At the far right is where I keep the rollfilm and sheet film washers, and print washer when not in use. Below the shelf is a rack for holding trays. On top of the rack are some less frequently used trays. A spongy fatigue mat is necessary on any darkroom floor.


For the dry side, I have 2 cabinets 24” x 24,” each with (5) 6” deep drawers. This is overkill - not all of them are full. Clean towels, gloves, note paper, as well as proofing and fiber base papers are stored in the right side cabinet. The left side cabinet holds enlarging equipment: contrast filters, dust brush, enlarging lenses, negative carriers; as well as sheet film, and film holders. The center cabinet holds the sizable Beseler 4x5 enlarger. Below the enlarger are adjustable shelves where a proofer, contact print frames, easels, and paper safes are stored. All that stuff is tucked out of sight when I’m not using it.


The cabinets aren’t made of anything fancy – just varnished birch plywood. I didn’t even have the edges finished, just sanded. I remember a very famous woodworker had plywood doors on his kitchen cabinets – with unfinished edges. When I asked him about it, he said “Well, you know it’s plywood anyway, right?”


Darkroom dry side set up for proofing. Paper, negatives, and a black card are on the far counter. A vacuum is tucked away for cleaning film holders before loading. The center cabinet is lower because the ceiling is a bit low for this enlarger. The black button switch left of the enlarger turns the printing light on and off. A black card times the exposures.


For printing, I never use a timer – I count. I guess this is an Ansel Adams idea . . . Enlarging timers are another distraction I don’t want - having to set dials, focus switches, and use push buttons to expose the paper. Plus I was always wary of electronic timers breaking. I like to just count and use a black card to start and stop the exposure.


I set the metronome at 60 beats per minute, I find it best to hold up the card under the lens, then turn on the printing light. I count “beep, beep,” then remove the card at the next beep. The first second is done when you count it, so if the printing exposure is 16 seconds, I block the light at the count of 16. This is accurate and easy to repeat. For enlargements it’s easier to count while I burn in a corner or an edge slightly. I don’t manipulate contact prints ever – that strikes me as ridiculous. I use a Korg metronome, which emits a pleasant, acoustic sounding beep. I can’t bear the harsh buzz of electronic timers.


The Beseler enlarger is fitted with a cold light source. This is a little old fashioned but it works very well; it gives me smooth graduated high values. Without a stabilizer I get no variation in high value density from print to print. I never saw the need for any stabilizers, but I only make about 3 final prints from each negative. The cold light leaks a little light out of the top, and I have a white ceiling, so I mask out the excess light with black paper.


There are LED light sources now for enlargers, and fancy variable contrast heads. I’ve never needed anything like that, but some photographers do, and use them to great effect. If you’re making 300 prints of 1 negative, a more unwavering light source is probably necessary.


The Beseler enlarger then, has 3 power cords: 1 for the light source tube, 1 for the heater, and a third for the motorized column. I feed all 3 cords into an outlet strip on the wall. It stays off until I need it, and when I do, I turn on all 3 at once. As soon as the last print or proof of the day is in the wash, I turn them all off. Otherwise the cold light heater will stay on.


Below the dry side countertops are the drawers for printing equipment and supplies. The enlarging cabinet has movable shelves which hold easels, a proofer, contract print frames, and paper safes. (That’s a 16x20 easel on the lowest shelf. I don’t know why I keep it there – I never use it.)


I also plug all the safelight cords into a single outlet strip on the ceiling. I can turn all of them on and all of them off at once. This prevents one safelight being on when you think you’re in total darkness – then your eyes adjust and you’ve ruined film. Don’t laugh, I’ve done this. Safelights have red filters and are bounced off the white ceiling. When the darkroom was designed, the builder suggested making the ceiling of plywood for easier mounting of fixtures, safelights, and a myriad of other things.


Since the RIT days, I always placed most darkroom plugs either on the ceiling or high up on a wall. This prevents a mess of wires bunching on countertops.


Fresh air comes into the darkroom from a light-trapped intake vent above the far left cabinet. A bathroom ventilator unit diagonally across the room clears out the stale air. I don’t leave the fan on continuously, but turn it on and off during darkroom sessions. The rocker-type switch is next to the ventilator in the ceiling.


All the darkroom light switches are buttons. They’re set flush in their holder so I can’t accidently brush against them in the dark and turn a white light on. I have general (bright) room lighting, and also a secondary room light. The secondary room lights are much less bright; they consist of (2) 30 lumen LED bulbs hung over the sink and dry side cabinets. Each is about as bright as a night light. The dimmer secondaries are easier on my eyes when I’m switching from total darkness or safelight illumination to white light. They also make for easier readjustment back again.


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