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Enlarging one’s own photographs is a challenging thing because so few people do it these days, there aren’t too many sources where you can get information.  I bought a bunch of books to get myself up to speed (though I’ve gone through maybe 10% of the content), and used the information contained therein to inform my purchases.  The great thing is, with so many people offloading analogue gear these days, you can get an almost complete set of equipment for under 100 bucks. Here’s a run-down of what I got, and you can also check out apug and photo.net for more darkroom deals.

The most common problem for printing is finding a suitable location for a darkroom.  It is difficult to find an easy-to-lightproof space with sufficient surface area, that is not already used for something else in the household.  A popular choice for most temporary darkrooms is the bathroom, due in large part to the ready access to running water.  However, as noted in the “Focal Guide to the Darkroom” (Focal Press, 1978), the choice is not as logical as it may seem initially.  For one, unless you have more than one large bathroom (or live alone), there is a good chance that you printing process will be interrupted by irate family members.  A camping shower bag can be used in place of running water, though even that may not be necessary.

My little darkroom is in a storage closet, no more than 4-by-6 feet.  It is tiny, but tall, and has several racks that I can use to place the various trays and solutions.  Incidentally, it also contains all my cameras and a small fridge for storing solutions and film.  There is some light-leak when the door is closed, so I velcro a black-out curtain on the inside for additional protection.  Now, the whole set-up is closed, with little ventilation, so I typically develop 1-2 prints before taking them out of the room to wash in the bathroom sink, thus obviating any running water in the darkroom. Some tips for better darkroom planning can be found here.

1. Enlarger
The enlarger is basically a reverse view camera – a small image is projected onto a photosensitive surface using a diffuse light source.  Thinking about it in this way helps us understand why the enlarging lens is of utmost importance to image quality.  Because of the cost of the high quality lenses, a 39mm standard was created to allow photographers to use the same lens for enlargement and for taking pictures.  Other considerations for an enlarger include the column (the sturdier, the less susceptible to vibrations), the light source, baseboard (needs to be large to be stable, and has to be firmly connected to the column), and available negative carriers.  I may write a separate piece on this, since there are many things to consider here.

I got my enlarger (with a Gralab timer) for only 40 bucks locally.  I think the best source of enlargers is you local craigslist, since these are incredibly heavy and large, making shipping costs unreasonable.  I was terribly surprised at the size of the enlarger, so much so that I had no place to keep it in my old apartment and had to store it in my workplace for 3 months.  It sits top a Black and Decker portable workbench now, which is just about the only surface I had that was sturdy enough to hold it.

2. Paper Safe
This is a light-tight box that is used to store opened boxes of paper.  This is extremely important since the paper can turn a dirty gray, or fog if there is even a little light leak.  The box should be larger than your largest commonly used paper.  The boxes the papers come in are also possible, but they are less ideal since, being made of paper, small tears may develop unnoticed.

3. Safelight
A safelight is what give darkrooms the characteristic red color you see in movies.  They don’t have to be red, though.  They just have to be filtered to exclude wavelengths that the paper is sensitive to (this is why they are so dim!).  Do not use regular colored cellophane to achieve this, since you never know what wavelengths are being let through.  Get a proper safelight filter and save yourself some grief.  An easy way to test the compatibility of a safelight with you photographic paper is to place a nickel on the paper with the safelight on for about 5 mins.  After development, you should not see any difference between the coin-covered area and the rest of the paper.  Otherwise, repeat without the safelight – there might be another source of light leak.

4. Timer
A timer is useful for, well, timing.  This is really the difference between a master developer and a mediocre one.  You can use an electronic timer (like I do) such as a Gralab timer, which hooks directly to the enlarger to control the bulb time.  However, I have read that the timing can be too unstable for fine art prints.  I am no expert and I am not at that level of sophistication, but for an excellent piece on this matter, check out Michael A. Smith’s site.  An alternative is a traditional wind-up timer, which produces audible clicks at 1/4 second intervals.  I have one of these from a whole bundle of darkroom items I got for cheap.  They work well and I use them primarily for timing development.  I suppose when I start learning split filtering, contrast management, and even basic dodging and burning, this will also come in handy.

5. Trays and tongs
You need at least 3 trays – developer, stop buffer, and fixer – and probably an additional one for washing prints.  You also need as many tongs, as it is a very bad idea to be sharing tongs (contamination will mess up your chemical capacity estimates).  I use three different colored trays with matching tongs (designed for darkroom use).  A handy feature is that the tongs have a little latch that catches the edge of the tray, so that it can be securely positioned inside the tray without sitting in the tray completely.  The trays should be labeled and are not exchangeable (residual chemicals will wreak havoc).

6. Contact printer (optional)
Contact prints used to be the only way to get a preview of your frames.  I suppose in many ways this has been superseded by digital scanners.  I don’t own a dedicated contact printer, and instead scan my negatives at as high a resolution as is reasonable, to create a digital archive on top of the physical one.  The typical scan is 1200-2400dpi.  This also allows me to process difficult negatives in Adobe Lightroom, which can be much more flexible (not to mention cost-efficient) than enlarging, especially given my poor darkroom skills.  However, since my negatives are stored in PrintFile storage sleeves, they are actually quite suitable for direct contact printing, which I intend to try out some time.  I picked up an old scanner destined for the dumpster, and took apart the glass platen and cover, and realized that they can function just like a contact printer, though I haven’t tried it out yet.

I will attempt to take some pictures of my set up some time, so that this can be better illustrated.  But here’s all the stuff I use for enlarging.  I will write at least one more piece on this subject – the basic techniques for enlarging photographs.