Why print?

When you can get excellent prints from your black & white negatives by sending them off to commercial processing laboratories, why make your own?

For many photographers, making a photographic print is as much a part of the process as shooting the image itself. For a start, it is a creative process that is both enjoyable and fulfilling and, much like the role of a post processing tools such as Photoshop or Lightroom in any digital workflow, (although much more fun) a darkroom provides film photographers with the ability to turn their negatives into enlarged prints that match their original vision.

Producing your own prints allows you to custom the print and enlarge it to almost any size and shape desired. The choice of papers complement this creative output (see our guide to choosing papers) with many options available covering tone, surface finish, base material and paper grade.

Processes such as ‘dodging’ and ‘burning’, familiar to many digital users, are just a couple of the Photoshop tools that originated as darkroom techniques. The key difference is that in your darkroom you are using your hands or pieces of card to dodge and burn (hold back light from or give extra light to selected areas of your print which allows you to emphasize key elements of the picture).

Other simple techniques can be used to great effect such as using different contrasts for different areas of the print or using two or more negatives to produce one print. Developing your skills as a printer will allow you to make outstanding, individual prints that give you great satisfaction and pleasure.

Making a darkroom

You do not need a purpose-built darkroom. Any room that can be light sealed will work perfectly. Our customers regularly turn their spare bedrooms, bathrooms, attics, basements, cupboards under the stairs and even their garden sheds into temporary darkrooms. As long as you can stop light from entering and have enough space to work, you can start making prints.

Tips to help you get started

  • For windows use thick card cut to shape and hold it in place with black canvas tape. For doors use tape or black cloth or canvas to seal the edges.
  • To ensure that the space is sufficiently light-tight, sit in the room in darkness for around ten minutes. Any significant light leakage will become clear.
  • You do not need running water. The washing stage of print-making takes place in daylight so can be done in another room such as a bathroom.
  • Whatever room you choose for your print workspace should be divided into two areas. A dry area for the enlarger, print composition, negative handling etc. and a wet area for mixing solutions and print processing.
  • If possible, create a physical divide between them such as having separate work benches set apart from one another. If the same bench must be used try to erect a splash barrier.
  • For black & white prints your wet work area will need to be flat and large enough to hold three or four developing trays slightly larger than the largest prints you plan to make.

What kit will you need?

  • You need an enlarger, but it need not be expensive. Even the simplest is capable of making prints on most photographic papers. There are also some good second hand enlargers available as well as new models still being made.
  • It is important that the enlarger is supported on a firm base as any vibrations can cause unsharp prints.
  • To control the exposure time, it will be necessary to have a dedicated timer wired into the enlarger circuit.
  • You will need a safelight that can be operated separately from the normal room light. Ideally this should be one into which you can fit different filters for use with different materials. However, a general-purpose filter such as an ILFORD 902 would be fine for most applications.
  • You will need a stopwatch or similar timer for timing the dish processing stages and a thermometer for temperature control.
  • It's really important to keep your darkroom clean. All trays and wet equipment should be rinsed and dried after each session.
  • When making a permanent darkroom, careful planning will ensure that all processes can be carried out in a logical sequence.

We have also created a few handy animations on essential darkroom kit, darkroom safety tips and working with photographic enlargers.