What Are the Must-Have Features for Building a Home Photography Darkroom?

In the era of digital images, the age-old craft of developing photos in a darkroom might seem like a relic of the past. But for many photography purists, there is still no substitute for the tangible satisfaction of seeing images emerge onto paper bathed in chemicals. If you’re one of these enthusiasts or aspire to be one, we’re here to guide you through the process of setting up your own home photography darkroom. From essential equipment to the perfect layout, we’ll cover all the key features your darkroom needs to have.

Choosing the Right Space for Your Darkroom

The first step to building a darkroom is finding the right space. It needs to be a room that can be made completely dark, with no light leaks, as the smallest amount of light can ruin your photos. A basement, spare bedroom, or even a large closet can work. The room should be well-ventilated to disperse the fumes from the developing chemicals. Additionally, it should have access to water, as you’ll need it for washing film and print.

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Once you find the right space, you’ll need to make it lightproof. Heavy-duty blackout curtains or blinds can block window light, and weatherstripping can seal door gaps. Check the room in the dark before you start setting up to ensure it’s completely light-free.

Necessary Equipment for Developing and Printing

Next, let’s consider the equipment. The core pieces of equipment you’ll need include an enlarger, trays, tongs, a safelight, and an accurate timer.

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An enlarger is a specialized projector used to create the actual print from a negative. Enlargers come in various formats, fitting different film sizes. The lens’ quality is crucial as it affects the sharpness and contrast of your final print.

The safelight is a special low-intensity light that doesn’t harm light-sensitive photographic paper. Without it, you’d be working in complete darkness, which isn’t practical or safe.

Trays hold the chemicals for developing, stopping, and fixing the print. Tongs are used to move the print between the trays without touching the chemicals.

An accurate timer is essential because developing times are critical. Over or under developing can lead to prints that are too dark or too light.

Understanding the Essential Photography Chemicals

In a darkroom, we chemically process film and paper to create negatives and prints. The chemicals used in this process are the developer, stop bath, and fixer.

The developer is the first chemical bath. It reacts with the light-sensitive silver halides on the film or paper, turning them into metallic silver and creating the image.

The stop bath halts the development process. It’s an acidic solution that neutralizes the alkaline developer.

The fixer makes the image permanent. It removes the remaining silver halides, making the film or paper insensitive to further exposure to light.

Controlling the Light in Your Darkroom

Controlling the light in your darkroom is essential. We’ve already discussed the importance of the room being completely dark when the film or paper is exposed. We’ve also mentioned the safelight, which allows you to see what you’re doing.

But there is another aspect of light control that is just as crucial: the light in the enlarger. The enlarger’s light determines how much exposure the paper gets during printing. Too much light, and your print will be overexposed (too dark). Too little light, and your print will be underexposed (too light).

To control the enlarger’s light, we use a device called an enlarger timer. This device allows you to set the precise amount of time the enlarger light is on, controlling the exposure of the paper.

Building Your Workflow

Finally, the darkroom is all about workflow. You must have a clear process from the moment you step into the darkroom until the moment you leave.

First, you prepare your chemicals and set up your equipment. You then load the film onto a reel in a changing bag (a lightproof bag that allows you to handle the film without exposing it to light). The film then goes into a developing tank, and you add the chemicals in the correct order: developer, stop bath, fixer.

When the film is developed, you can start printing. The negative is placed in the enlarger, and you make a test print to find the correct exposure time. Once you have that, you can print the final photo. The print is then developed, stopped, and fixed, just like the film.

Building a darkroom requires time, effort, and a little bit of a financial investment. But for photography lovers, there is nothing quite like the magic of developing your own photos. It’s a hands-on experience that brings you closer to your craft, and a skill that will make you appreciate the art of photography at a whole new level. Indeed, the darkroom is still a relevant and exciting part of the photography world.

Setting up the Wet and Dry Sides of Your Darkroom

When organizing your darkroom, it’s important to consider the workflow. Specifically, you’ll want to establish separate areas for wet and dry processes.

The dry side of your darkroom is where you’ll handle film and paper before it’s exposed, handle your negatives, and operate your enlarger. It’s crucial that this area remains dry to prevent any premature exposure or damage to your materials. Here, you’ll also use your enlarger timer, and control the amount of white light that hits your photographic paper.

Depending on the type of photography you’re interested in, you might also need space for large format negatives or medium format films on the dry side. Large format and medium format are different types of film sizes, which offer different levels of detail and depth in your final prints. If you’re into black and white film photography, you’ll also need a space to store and handle your black and white film.

On the wet side of your darkroom, you’ll process your prints and film after they’re exposed. This area needs to be near running water, as you’ll be handling chemicals and washing your prints and film here. You’ll need enough space for your trays, which will hold the developer, stop bath, and fixer. To safely maneuver your prints from one bath to another, consider using stainless steel tongs to avoid direct contact with the chemicals.

Making Contact Prints in Your Home Darkroom

For many film photographers, the joy of shooting film is not complete until they’ve made a contact print. A contact print is a photographic image produced by placing the negative directly onto the photo paper and exposing it to light. The result? A positive print that’s the same size as the original negative.

To make a contact print, you’ll first need a contact printing frame. This holds your negative flat against the photo paper during exposure. You’ll place your negative onto the photographic paper, emulsion side down, and then put it in the frame. The frame is then exposed to light from the enlarger.

Like with any other print, getting the exposure right is key. You’ll need to make test strips to find the perfect amount of exposure. Remember, using an enlarger timer will help you control the enlarger’s light for that precise exposure.

Contact printing is a great way to make prints quickly, especially if you shoot film on larger formats. It’s also an excellent way to proof an entire roll of film.


Setting up a home photography darkroom may seem like a challenging task, but with the right guidance and a little patience, you’ll find that it’s an entirely achievable goal. While it may require some initial financial investment and effort to secure the necessary equipment and chemicals, the rewards are worth it.

The tangible satisfaction of watching a photo emerge onto paper you’ve developed yourself is unparalleled. From handling medium format or large format film, deciding between black and white or color, mastering the art of contact printing, or learning how to precisely control light exposure – every step in the process brings you closer to the heart of photography.

Don’t let the digital age deter you from exploring this classic art form. Developing film and making prints in your own darkroom may not only give you a greater appreciation for film photography but could also elevate your photographic skills. The process of creating and running your own darkroom is a beautiful journey into the depths of photography that many don’t have the opportunity to experience. So embrace it, enjoy the process, and make the magic happen.

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