Setting Up A Makeshift Darkroom

By Ron Medeiros
© 2010

                                                  makeshift, n. a temporary expedient or
                                                  substitute. - syn. contrivance, jury-rig,



There is, perhaps, no greater experience in photography than making your own photographs in your own home darkroom. Setting up your own makeshift darkroom is not that difficult. Once established, your darkroom will provide you with a means to explore the world of silver emulsion photography in full measure.

Both color and black and white processing are possible in home darkrooms but if you are beginning you should first start with the simple black and white darkroom. The processes will be easier, more affordable, and less temperature critical and will serve as a good introduction to darkroom work. You can upgrade later to certain color processes if you decide that is what you want.

In order to make true black and white “fine prints” on real photo paper you really have to have your own darkroom. Prints from black and white negatives must be custom hand printed in order to render or control the tonal values in a proper manner. Black and white machine prints from a pro lab are flat and characterless and most sadly of all, lack your own creative touch.

This article is for those who are new or relatively new to the photographic darkroom. It will serve as a basic guide to setting up and outfitting a makeshift darkroom with the necessary equipment for processing your own black and white film and prints.



By “makeshift darkroom” I mean a simple, affordable, and functional work place set up to facilitate necessary photographic processes. Nearly all home darkrooms are “makeshift” darkrooms. Most creative photographers put what little money they have into camera gear and photographic supplies. It is simply not expedient to invest a lot of money in the “underground” aspect of your photography. As long as your darkroom is set up in a manner that enables you to work comfortably and effectively there is no need to design anything too extravagant - After all, the light will be "off" most of the time anyway. Besides all of this a “makeshift” darkroom is just more fun!



The most important first decision in setting up a darkroom is - Where? To help decide this consider, "how far do I want to go with this?" In other words, "how often will I use my darkroom?" If the answer is, “not very often”, then you can go “really makeshift” and set up just about anywhere temporarily then break it down when finished. A bathroom or laundry room is an adequate location, it has running water and is easily made dark. My first makeshift darkroom was my grandmother's kitchen after dark. I don’t recommend the use of photo chemistry any where that food is prepared but many have done it. If your options are few and you are pressed for space you will have to make do with temporary set ups in one of the above mentioned locals.

If you own your own home or have more space to work with I recommend a location that will allow you to leave the darkroom set up and ready to use. Darkroom work is time consuming and you will quickly become tired of setting up and breaking it down. You will not accomplish nearly as much print making as you would if your darkroom were set up and ready to go. An extra room or space in the house that can be set aside for an extended or even indefinite period of time is ideal. I personally prefer a basement location, if possible, for many reasons:


1) It is out of the way and can be dedicated completely to photography.

2) It’s dark.

3) Necessary plumbing can be installed fairly easy.

4) Not prone to temperature extremes - cooler in the summer warmer in the winter.

5) You can work with fewer disturbances.

6) Usually provides much more work space.

7) Upgradable / Expandable.


It really is a great advantage to have a suitable exclusive location. My darkroom is located in the basement - which is clean, dry, and unfinished. Take a look at the diagram below. This is the basic layout of my basement darkroom. It will serve as a good example of darkroom design. Notice that I have used the dry side wet side design but have incorporated a 3 sided horse shoe layout to maximize usable space and a smoother workflow.




The Makeshift Darkroom


                           I built a simple continuous shelf under the entire dry side mdf counter. Wet storage is
                           under the wet counter. The cement floor is carpeted with thick padding to make work
                           more comfortable. Rubber mats are probably a better idea but carpet was free and I
                           work very neatly w/o spilling much. I use 2 dim amber (OC) safe lights set at an ample
                           distance from key work areas. The OC safelights are safe with the papers I use.



The universal dry side / wet side design, of course, keeps liquids where they belong. Storage space is important so that work area's don't become cluttered - everything in it's place. I have Paneled the walls with dark brown masonite as I prefer a dark appearance. It is a clean look that eliminates reflections and to me just adds to the "darkroom" feeling. An exhaust vent system should be installed above the trays. chemical exposure is a legitimate concern but not the dire health crisis that it is often portrayed as. If you take reasonable common sense steps to prevent over exposure there is no cause for alarm. Here are a few of my own safe handling practices.



1) Use gloves to keep all chemistry off your hands, even if you use tongs. I prefer the thin nitrile gloves - The purple ones are better than the light blue ones which are thinner and prone to leaking. I put gloves on every time I go to the developer tray with a print.

2) Use a darkroom apron to protect your clothes - you might as well dress the part.

3) Discard clothing if it should become significantly contaminated - especially with selenium toner.

4) Work with powdered chemistry out doors with a respirator to avoid breathing dust.

Many people have handled photo chemicals all their life without such protection and have lived long healthy lives. Some people are overly sensitive to certain chemicals such as metol a chemical found in many developers but this is usually an exception to the rule. Use care and common sense.





There is certain darkroom equipment you must have to process film and make prints. One of your most important investments would be a good enlarger. New enlargers can be quite expensive especially the higher end models. There are often times good deals to be found on used models. If you are on a budget there are very adequate lower end models such as an Omega C700 enlarger. My first enlarger was a C700. If you are going to print 35mm negatives it is really all you need. Some may not realize it but the C700 is capable of printing 6x7cm medium format negatives. I know because I have done it. You can also fit it with an Omega C760 Dichroic color head. I bought one of these color heads used on ebay several years ago for $50. and used it on my C700 to print on black and white variable contrast papers. The only problem with the color head is that it sits a little crooked on the enlarger. My "makeshift" remedy was to simply set a brick on top of it as a counter weight. It worked great!

Enlarger Lens

Unless your enlarger comes with a lens at the time of purchase you will, of course, need to buy one designed specifically for use on an enlarger. "Enlarger" lenses are designed to yield a flatter field of view for rendering images correctly on paper. Purchase a good lens for your enlarger. It doesn't make sense to use a good camera lens and then print your pictures with a cheap or damaged lens. Lenses such as an EL- Nikkor, Rodenstock Rodagon, or Schneider Companon S are all excellent lenses, all of which can be purchased new or used. You will need the correct enlarger lens with a focal length appropriate to the film format you will be printing. A basic guide is provided for you below.


                   35mm Small Format                6X6 - 6x7cm Medium Format                4x5 Large Format
                  –––––––––––––––––            –––––––––––––––––––––––––           –––––––––––––––
                           50mm Lens                              75 - 80 - 90mm Lens                      135 - 150mm Lens


An Easel

An easel is a required component in the printing procedure. It holds your photo paper flat and in perfect position under the enlarger when exposure is made. I recommend the Ganz speed Ez-EL. It is simple, fast, affordable, and requires no adjustment. You can eventually get one for each print size that you plan to print. If you plan to make a large variety of print sizes, including non- standard sizes you might want an adjustable easel.


Tank And Reels

Just as important as a decent enlarger is a quality set of tank and reels to process roll film. Why? Because if you botch your negatives in processing you're finished before you start. The first rule in your darkroom should be good clean negatives - this is of paramount importance. Get a good set made of stainless steel. You should sacrifice a roll of film to practice spooling it onto the reels. practice this technique, which can be a little tricky at first, until you are confident you can do it consistently in complete darkness.

Print Trays

You will also need a set of at least 3 trays for print developing. The basic 3 bath procedure is Developer - Stop Bath - Fixer then wash for an hour in a sink or fourth tray with several repeated water changes. I recommend using 6 or 7 trays if you are going to use an archival procedure as I do. Archival means permanence - processing film or prints in a manner that stablizes the image emulsion and thoroughly removes chemical residues that may cause discoloration years down the road. My archival procedure uses 7 trays and is as follows:

1) Developer
2) Stop Bath
3) Fixer ( non-hardening hypo )
4) Selenium Toner - converts the emulsion to silver selenide.
5) Hypo Clearing Agent
6) First Short Wash
Final Washes

A Darkroom Thermometer

Very Important and absolutely necessary for film processing. Buy a quality thermometer with a long metal probe. I use a digital one accurate to one tenth of a degree which is good for detecting gradual temperature changes.

A Darkroom Timer

Everything done in the darkroom is based on time and temperature. You will need a timer to process film and also to make accurate exposures with your enlarger. I use two timers one for each purpose. I use a "Gra-Lab" timer for processing film and tray developing prints. My enlarger timer is actually a modular component to my enlarger's system. If you start will a lower end enlarger you will need to get a separate timer for it. I recommend the "Time O Lite" timer. It is an accurate and very rugged unit that will work for years to come. If you buy a used enlarger it will usually come with all or most of it's needed modular components.

Variable Contrast Filter Set

A set of colored filters used with variable contrast photo paper to control the contrast of your prints. Not needed if you use graded paper but I strongly recommend the use of variable contrast papers for the greater amount of control it will give you. I use it exclusively. If you get an enlarger with a dichroic color head you won't need a set of filters as the color head contains it's own full range of adjustable filtration.


Most photo papers require an amber OC safelight although some require a red safelight  ( see packaging. )

Chemistry Beakers

For measuring and mixing chemistry. I have a beautiful set of antique glass beakers ( see photo on my home page. ) You can buy plastic beakers which are inexpensive and shatterproof.

Plastic Chemical Bottles

For holding your mixed stock solutions of photo chemistry. I use brown hydrogen peroxide bottles rather than spending 3-4 times as much for empty bottles from a photo supplier.

Contact Frame

For making contact sheets to preview your negatives as positive images. This will help you to decide which negatives to print. Not necessary but very helpful. A simple 8x10 picture frame from a discount store works fine.

Grain Focuser

Not necessary but very helpful. Allows fast perfect focusing of your image on the easel.

Paper Safe

A light tight box to keep your photo paper easily accessible. Very convenient but not absolutely necessary.

An Artist's Paint Brush

For removing dust from negatives just before to printing.

Dodging and Burning Tools

For print making - I use thin card board, scissors, tape, and thin wire to make my own.

A Print Drying Line, Rack or Screen

For drying wet prints. I use drying racks - the wire shelf available at hardware stores. If you are going to use RC paper use a drying line with clothes pins - prints will dry nice and flat in less than an hour. For fiber base prints use racks or screens. I place prints emulsion up and press them in my dry mount press when completely dry to minimize the curl. Dry mounting fiber base prints on sturdy mount board, of course, eliminates the curl. The quality of fiber base prints is worth the trouble - once you experience it you will not go back to resin coated paper. RC paper was developed for fast turn around in the field of photomechanical reproduction and lithography not for fine art.




Start with a simple set up with the basic equipment needed to develop film and prints. Over time you can upgrade your darkroom with newly acquired equipment and improvements. I have slowly and steadily added certain functional upgrades as cheaply as possible - saving money wherever I can. If you are patient you can affordably build yourself a nice set up and upgrade to better darkroom equipment. My professional Devere 4x5 enlarger was purchased used for next to nothing. I bought it from a one hour photo lab that went digital. It came complete with all necessary accessories including 3 Rodenstock lenses!

When I first built my current darkroom I was given a large brand new L shaped counter top with a twin stainless sink as well as a used faucet. I also freely acquired 3 storage cabinets. I made my own “speed easels” for each print size. Later on, I built my own counter top extension to better accommodate larger trays, I made my own safe light, and our old toaster oven now serves as a test print dryer. A makeshift darkroom indeed!


Enlarger with Lens and a Timer
Printing Easel
Variable Contrast Filter Set
Stainless Tank and Reels
Print Trays
Chemistry Beakers
Chemistry Bottles
Grain Focuser ( optional )
Paper Safe ( optional )
Dust Brush
Dodging and burning Tools
Incidentals - Scissors, Bottle Opener for 35mm cassettes, etc...



There is a great diversity of photo papers and photo chemistry on the market today. When you are starting out, however, it is best to use tried and true general purpose chemical formulas and stick with one brand of photo paper that works well for you. As you grow in your understanding and become more skillful in the darkroom you can begin to experiment with new materials.

Make an easy to read wall chart in your darkroom with the mixing ratios in ounces for all of your chemistry. This will make mixing faster and easier with fewer mistakes. Here are a few safe and basic recommendations that will not disappoint you.

Ilford Multigrade and Adox MCC 110 Papers

I suggest starting with a quality variable contrast photo paper, such as, Ilford Multigrade. It has a bright white base and an excellent range of contrast. I have used it with great success. Another excellent variable contrast paper is Adox MCC 110. Both are fairly similar and perform very well. These are two of my personal favorites so far.

I recommend using 8x10 paper with a glossy surface. Smaller sizes are much more difficult to dodge and burn and larger sizes can be somewhat expensive for beginners. You can make larger prints of your favorite images later when your printing skills improve. You may wish to start with RC photo paper ( resin coated ) in the learning process as it dries very fast and flat and is very convenient and cheaper to work with. The plastic resin seals the paper base so that water and chemistry do not penetrate into the fibers. Fiber base paper has superior image quality by far and has archival keeping qualities that RC paper does not have. You will want to move onto fiber base paper as you progress.

Kodak D-76 developer

One of the best, "tried and true," general film developers on the market. For classic films like, Kodak Tri X or ILFORD FP4 Plus and HP5 Plus, dilute the stock solution 1:1 ( one part developer one part water ) Note: If you will be developing the newer ultra fine grain film such as Kodak Tmax I strongly recommend that you use the straight undiluted stock solution for the appropriate development times on the packaging. A 1:1 dilution with D-76 will result in a significant reduction of shadow detail (film speed) with Tmax films. (Remember, you will have to develop several rolls of film in order to get the "feel" of the film developer combination and the results you want). Always use D-76 while it is reasonably fresh - the fresher the better. Do not use old D-76. Older D-76 becomes more active and will over develop a negative's highlights. I would discard it after about 2 months. For a developer with a very similar action and with a much longer shelf life use Kodak Xtol - also at a 1:1 working solution. Keep the stock solution in glass canning jars filled to the top and stored in a dark place. Unopened jars of stock solution should keep for a year or more. Note When Xtol goes bad it does it suddenly and without warning. This means it either works or it suddenly stops working. Use stock solutions within 1 year and properly discard older solutions.

Kodak Dektol developer

This is Kodak's legendary print developer, Probably one of the best ever formulated. Mix it 1:2 (one part developer to 2 parts water) and develop prints for 2 minutes. Temperature is not critical. I often use it when tray temps are quite low without any problems. It's reducing power is seemingly endless.


An odor free citric acid stop bath concentrate made by Ilford Harman.

Kodak Kodafix Solution

A hardening fixer well suited for fixing films. The hardener makes the soft emulsion more durable and scratch resistant when dry. However in recent years, I have switched over to a non hardening fixer (plain hypo like Hypam). A non hardening fixer does not make negative emulsions brittle and prone to cracking as they age. You decide - scratch resistance or better flexibility and permanence.

Kodak Photoflo

A wash aid for films. The final step in film washing that very effectively prevents water spots on film as it dries. Very easy to use. I have very hard water in my house and I never have a problem using this wonderful solution.

Ilford Hypam

A non-hardening fixer (hypo) well suited for fixing prints. Non-hardening fixer allows toners to work better on papers and most importantly prevents paper emulsions from becoming brittle and cracking.

Hypo Clearing Agent

A washing aid that effectively removes fixer (hypo) residue from photographic papers resulting in a faster and more thorough washing. Not imperative but strongly recommended.



As enjoyable as darkroom work is let me also say that it can also be very laborious and can cause some physical fatigue. When you immerse yourself in the work of fine print making it will include a long process of making and evaluating test strips and many “working” prints. Altering exposure times, selecting contrast grades, and some complex dodging and burning techniques are common practices that are repeated and refined until the “fine print” is achieved. Standing over an enlarger easel and print trays for several hours can be very tiring work but for me and many others it is a labor of love worth every minute of toil.

When I undertake a printing session I work very diligently but I am never in a hurry. I stay on a print and thoroughly evaluate it until I am absolutely sure I have what I want, then I move on to the next step. I will often work all day or evening on one or two negatives - making several copies of each print once I finally hit it just right. You can take this as far as you want to, everyone is different. You can print with the intensity of a fine art printmaker or you can relax and have fun making your own simple prints that surpass anything that a pro lab can make for you.



I am really thankful to have an established home darkroom set up and dedicated exclusively to the purpose it serves. I may go for weeks at a time and even months without using it but whenever I want to it is always set up and ready to go. The majority of my work these days is digital color photography but it is so good to have the wet darkroom as a ready option for most of my black and white work.

The beauty and “patina” of a fiber base print made from a silver emulsion film image is uniquely different from what the digital age can deliver. I have such a sense of accomplishment whenever I view my collection of black and white prints on display in my gallery - the fruit of many hours in the makeshift darkroom. Though it takes a good deal of work to produce a quality silver gelatin photograph the effort is extremely rewarding. The hands on real world thrill of making photographs with these fine materials in your own darkroom is a very captivating experience. It is one of the many reasons why my makeshift darkroom will always be “in use”.



Before you invest all of the time and money in a wet darkroom be advised that it involves much more work, time and money than digital photography. Unless you are sure that you want to work with film, paper, and chemistry you may want to reconsider. Many fine art photographers who have worked for years in the wet darkroom have traded in their darkroom for digital gear because it is easier faster and offers a hundred times more control. In this article I have made silver emulsion photography sound good, and it is, but only to those who truly enjoy it. Even as much as I enjoy it, I prefer electronic digital imaging for the majority of my work.




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