In this day and age, the dark room almost seems like an outdated inconvenience. Why spend time in a dark, smelly room working to get the perfect print when you can upload them and photoshop® them to perfection? There is no doubt that digitally is more convenient and flexible than film, but sometimes it’s fun to spend a little time working in the dark. If you have never been in a photo dark room before, this is your dark room guide to getting started.
We’ll skip developing your film and getting supplies for now and just talk about the actual process.

Making Prints with an Enlarger

An enlarger is a machine that turns your film into large printed photos. It does this by projecting light through your film and onto the surface of your photo paper, exposing the light-sensitive chemicals buried inside.

To print a photo, you’ll need to line the frame up with your enlarger’s light source, project it onto the white mat, and ensure it is correctly focused (usually by adjusting a knob on the side). Make sure you can clearly see the grain of your image otherwise get a magnifying glass to check. You need to play with the exposure timing to make sure the image turns out okay, then you should be just fine.

The Chemicals

Once you’ve decided on the correct timing and exposed a full photograph, it’s time to get your hands dirty. Dark room chemicals have a foul and distinct odor and will ruin any clothing they come in contact with so make sure to wear an apron or wear ratty old clothes. The chemical process can be broken down into four steps:

1. Developer – Soak your paper, which will still be completely white, with the developer. This chemical will activate the photo paper, and over the course of a few minutes, you’ll start to see your image come through. If you’re unhappy with the contrast or exposure levels, head back to the enlarger and adjust your timing. Once you have an image you like and it has fully developed, it’s time to move over to the stop bath.

2. Stop Bath – The stop bath will prevent your image from developing any further by neutralizing the chemicals found in the developer. If you’ve ever been in a dark room, the smell you remember is the stop bath. Feel your image to see if you can move on; the paper that has been properly stopped will squeak when you rub your fingers on it. This should only take a few short minutes.

3. Fixer – While the stop bath will stop the effects of the developer chemicals, your paper will still be sensitive to light exposure. Fixer is the last chemical in the process so once your print has soaked in this, it can be exposed to light without ruining the image. You don’t need to soak your images in fixed for too long, but 5-10 minutes depending on the chemicals and paper is usually a safe bet.

4. Rinse – Naturally you’ll want to rinse your photos of all the harsh chemicals you’ve soaked in them. Most dark rooms have a sink and a rinsing tub with a continuous flow of water so you can leave your print there as long as it takes to remove all of the chemicals. This is a good time to print some other shots from your roll!

Once you have enlarged, developed, stopped, fixed and rinsed your prints, place them out to dry in a safe place or use a photo dryer. Don’t forget to rinse your prints well because if you don’t, your photographs will turn brown over time from the chemical residue left on the print. Pick up your dry images and put them in a heavy book to straighten them out (a little curling isn’t unusual), then frame and hang them.

The dark room can seem intimidating, but once you have a bearing on the process, you will enjoy printing your images. It’s a great way to get away from the world for a little while and focus on your art (bring a radio if you can) and provides you infinitely more control over your final images than having someone else print them. Just remember to check before turning on the lights or you may just ruin someone’s photograph!

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