How to Build Your Own Darkroom

Photos by Andrew Peters

Film photography went missing for a while, with only a few diehards sticking with the medium.

But, after roughly a decade of the digital world, photographers are getting reacquainted with the traditional way of taking pictures. Products and procedures of the past disappeared permanently. Film companies went out of business left and right, and products dropped off major company lines at a clip. The digital revolution hit photo labs hard, too. They almost became completely extinct. There was no longer an abundance of pro labs to get your film handled, and so extravagant ‘rare service’ prices shot through the roof.

But after a while, the whole digital thing started to make photography lose its mystery and allure. The magic was disappearing for me. I needed to get back to my roots. I pulled my old film cameras out of the closet and dusted them off.

Two rolls of film later I was in love again. And broke.

There had to be a way for me to be able to keep shooting film and bring a bit more passion into my work, without sending me completely bankrupt.

I went to my local film photography specialist store, Freestyle Photographic (I live near Hollywood and they’ve been in this area since forever; you may need to go online, depending where you live) and I got to talking with the staff about developing all my film at home. Like many of you, I’d done my own black and white developing in high school, but I’d never thought about trying the C41 process (colour negative). Freestyle Photographic informed me that after my initial investment into the black bag, tubs and containers, it was going to cost me about three to four dollars per roll of film, which is pretty impressive when you’re used to paying at least twenty dollars a roll with scans that are enough to preview but not enough to have printed at any kind of size. So, you’ll make your money back on the setup cost within ten rolls of film.

I think my school teachers beat it into me that developing colour was super difficult and used very, very dangerous chemicals. After a few conversations with some knowledgeable photo dudes, I was much more confident that this process was not beyond me, or anyone for that matter. It’s kind of like cooking, but easier. The C41 chemicals are a little more dangerous than the B/W chemicals, but put some rubber gloves on and you’ll be just fine.

You need to mix your chemicals as per the dilution suggestions with the product, and in their own containers. I use the Tetenal brand kits for C41, and have found that the chemicals will keep at room temperature for a few months; developing times might get a little longer as your chemicals get more spent. You have to keep the chemicals at a specific temperature, too. Thirty-eight degrees Celsius (100°F) seems to be the most common during the process, and while that sounds like a nightmare, if you keep a basin of luke-warm water handy you’ll be surprised to find that your chemicals will stay at this temperature pretty consistently.

Refresh the warm water in the basin throughout the process so it doesn’t cool off, but the temperature of the chemicals in their tubs shouldn’t jump around much at all. It may help to buy the datatainers (brown chemical storage container) made for this process as they probably help in keeping temps up—I use the Jobo datatainers. The temperature is the thing that people say is difficult, but I can’t stress enough that it really isn’t that hard and you should just give it a go.

Follow the instructions for timing, temperature and dilution that comes with your chemicals. Times will vary depending on your dilution but, unlike B/W films, your processing times will not vary between the film speeds you are processing. The C41 process is more about temperature than timing.

The last ‘big investment’ you’re going to make is a scanner. You can find flatbed scanners, such as the Epson V600, for around two-hundred dollars and they’ll get you through most of your scanning needs for online and even just smaller prints. If you have a job that demands more precise scans, the client should have the budget to get those expensive drum scans to blow up the billboard. I have to warn you, scanning isn’t as fun as processing. Scanning fucking sucks.

Now that you’ve invested in the gear for colour, all you gotta do is buy the chemicals for B/W and you’re good to go. The B/W fixer will last up to six months once mixed but, unlike C41, your developer is probably going to be bad after one session (you can keep reusing the day you mixed, but I’d trash them and make a fresh batch the next processing day).

There are too many variations to the processes to try to run you through a step-by-step, and there are plenty of internet/YouTube tutorials for you to follow anyway. The most important step, though, is to try it out. It’s easy, it’s fun, and saves you lots of money.

Everything you will need for your DIY darkroom:

1. Timing and temperature chart for the film you’re going to develop. It’s nice to have it written out big as a reminder, so you’re not searching for the fine print after dumping chemicals.

2. Bucket for trash chemicals and water washes.

3. Some sort of line and pegs. It isn’t a bad idea to set this up in your shower as there is the least amount of dust in there.

4. Small measuring cylinder for measuring out dilution.

5. Thermometer to check temperatures for C41 process.

6. Large beakers (these are used in the B/W process).

7. Basin with hot water.

8. Black changing bag.

9. Plastic developing reel.

10. Developing tank.

11. C41 developer.

12. C41 stabiliser.

13. C41 fixing bleach.

14. Wet agent for B/W films.

15. B/W fixer (can be reused for up to six months).

16. B/W one shot developer

Side note: Be sure to dispose of your chemicals safely!

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