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A darkroom in a closet

Film is experiencing a revival. But installing a darkroom in a small home is a challenge. Enlargers and tanks take up space. The good news is that they can be stored away as well as used in a closet.

Installing a darkroom at home is the dream of every film photography enthusiast. But the main obstacle is lack of space. But the cost of equipment remains affordable. Since the early days of film photography, photographers who couldn’t afford the luxury of a permanent location have found all sorts of places and nooks and crannies: toilets, bathrooms, kitchens, basements, and attics.

The book The Darkroom Handbook (Focal Press, 1997) shows all sorts of tricks for setting up a darkroom in places you wouldn’t think of at first. In particular, why not use a closet?

The Darkroom Handbook

The Darkroom Handbook, Focal Press, 1997
Joe DeMaio, Robin Worth, Dennis Curtin

A book full of ideas for setting up your darkroom in any room of your house. Richly illustrated, it can be consulted at archive.org (type in darkroom handbook). It reveals the darkrooms of renowned photographers such as Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Berenice Abbott, and W. Eugene Smith.

Mini space

A wardrobe with sliding doors is a good candidate, even if it is cramped. It is 46 cm deep with the doors closed. Width: 106 cm. Available height: 165 cm. The ideal location for the wardrobe is in a room where neither daylight nor electric light from other rooms can enter. If the cabinet is in a room with a window, it must be made light-tight. Black fabric or black plastic sheeting and tape will do the trick.

The depth of the cabinet determines the size of the enlarger, especially the size of its board. Here, the Leitz Focomat IC should be installed sideways. A Leitz Valoy could be mounted from the front thanks to its short board.

The enlarger, the biggest device

The most cumbersome tool is the enlarger. Its board is often more than 50 cm long, like the Kaiser models. A Leitz Focomat IC, designed for 35 mm format, is 55 cm deep but 40 cm wide. From the side, it fits without making printing too complicated (and that’s good for negatives in portrait orientation). Since the columns of enlargers are always removable, a custom-made board adapted to the available space is conceivable. A Leitz Valoy, also made for 35 mm format, which was very popular with W. Eugene Smith in its day, has a base of 39 x 45 cm. For film sizes up to 4×5, the Intrepid is compact and can be screwed onto any type of column, which in turn can be mounted on a custom-sized board.

Enlarger accessories

The easel must adapt to the space available. Tog, LPL – there are many second-hand models available with two blades. A new 24 x 30 cm model is available from Kaiser. Similarly, the dimensions of a Paterson contact printing frame are suitable. The timeris wall-mounted, ideally with a foot pedal. A grain focuser completes the set. Since the enlarger is close to the wall, the white surface reflects the light leaking from the enlarger. Painting the walls black or gluing paper eliminates the problem.

Kaiser document

Lab timer

Using an application such as Darkroom Clock (iPhone) or Darkroom Lab Timer (iPhone and Android), a smartphone can be used as a timer with a red safe light.

Red light and paper boxes

Mounted under the top shelf, the Heiland LED safelight can be switched from red light to 5000K white light. Beneath the enlarger, a black plastic or ABS photo paper box, such as Papersafe Doran or Arkay, makes it easier to pick up the paper: the sheets are kept in this box without the protection of the black plastic wrapping of the original packaging. The bottom shelf holds test tubes, chemicals, and film processing equipment. Developing film is easier in a bathroom because it can be loaded onto a reel with a changing bag.

Light-tight Paper Safe box for storing photo paper ready for exposure.
Anything that might remain damp is stored underneath the paper boxes: test tubes, the film developing tank, chemicals, etc. If water drops fall on the lower level, the paper will not be spoiled.

Organising the trays

If you don’t have a work surface on which to place the four developer, stop bath, fixer, and rinse trays horizontally, you can arrange them vertically. The developer is placed on a shelf 120-130 cm from the floor. There is a 15-20 cm gap between the lower trays, and the depth of the trays is staggered (the developer tray is the farthest, the rinse tray is closer to you) so that the print can be easily moved from the developer then to the stop bath and then to the other trays. Washing is done in the bathroom. It only takes a few minutes to wash RC papers. Drying is done by stretching a clothesline and hanging the prints on it with pegs.

The order of the trays is important to avoid contamination of the baths. The developer is placed above the stop bath. 15 to 20 cm of space between the shelves makes it easier to introduce the paper into the lower tray.

Below the stop bath is the fixer. Further down, an intermediate rinsing tray precedes the wash. A gradual offset between the upper and lower trays allows drops of product to fall into the lower tray as the print passes from one bath to the other.

Unless a small sink is installed in the closet, the simplest solution for washing prints is to use the bathroom or kitchen. Washing RC papers only takes a few minutes.

Space-saving paper processor

Novadarkroom used to make vertical processors with three or four compartments for chemicals. They take up very little space on a work surface. They can be found second-hand. They are being replaced by Optima Darkroom systems.

Here are a few addresses where you can find lab equipment:

Discover the photography courses at Spéos

Spéos offers various training courses ranging from simple one-week photography courses (initiation and advanced level) to 3-year courses. The long courses to become professional photographers allow you not only to master all the photographic techniques and its vocabulary (blurs, hyperfocus, sharpness zone, depth of field, backlighting, focal length, shutter release, autofocus, wide-angle, rule of thirds, etc.), but also all the stages of shooting and image processing.

Visiting the school allows you to discover the premises, the studios and the equipment, and is undoubtedly the best way to familiarize yourself with your future way of working. This is why, in addition to the open days, Spéos offers throughout the year personalized visits by appointment to come and discover the school with a member of the team.

Text and photos: Philippe Bachelier, teacher of Printing techniques at Spéos

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