Do It Yourself
The Advantage Of Developing Your Own Black and White Photos, And How to Get Started
Minilabs have taken the fun (if there ever was any) out of color printing. If you only shoot in color, it may make more sense to find a reliable lab and let them do the hard work. But Black-and-white is a different story. Black and white, because of its relative ease of processing, is easier to control; as a result, many darkroom enthusiasts are able to make interpretive prints that say more than any machine print can say.
Choices of paper, developer, toner and darkroom exposure and processing time decisions can change the mood and feel of an image while still faithfully reproducing the information on the negative. There are a few experienced printers (who proudly call themselves "darkroom technicians"), but they are exhorbitantly expensive and not easy to find.
Part I: Building a Darkroom
A basic darkroom requires three things: running water, sturdy work surfaces and total light blockage. A basement room, a kitchen or spare bathroom can be easily converted into darkroom space. Ideally, you should dedicate one room (which can be as small as 8x10 feet).
Items you'll need for the Dry Side are:
The stuff you need in the darkroom can cost as little as a few hundred dollars or well above a thousand. If you live near a specialty camera shop that sells darkroom equipment, ask them to help you select a the appropriate tools. Some inexpensive pre-packaged kits are available, although if you stick with it, you will find your needs will quickly outpace these kits' capabilities.
When designing a darkroom, be sure to block all light sources. If there is a window, use black masking tape and heavy gauge aluminum foil over the window, plus blackout shades. For doors, hang a blackout shade in front of the door that hangs to the floor and beyond the door's sides. If this is difficult, try to do most of your work at night, with lights out outside the door to the darkroom. If this is still impossible, buy a changing bag so you can load film even in daylight (film is more sensitive to ambient light than paper, so be really paranoid about light).
Ventilation is also important. An air vent that doesn't let in light is essential, because the chemicals do give off fumes that are not especially healthy if subjected to prolonged exposure. (On the other hand, many photographers have unusually long life spans, yet they spend hours a day in poorly ventilated darkrooms. Go figure.)
Since there are a number electricity-driven devices in the darkroom (enlarger, timers, safe lights and dryers, as well as a radio for entertainment), you'll want to have ample electrical outlets and enough current to handle the load.
Make sure there is enough space to store everything, including a space to keep prints and extra paper. The best place for chemical storage is under the sink and tray area. A small refrigerator will help you prolong the life of your paper and chemicals, so that too is a good, though optional, investment.
Work space should be a comfortable height for standing (around waist height--kitchen cabinets and counters, which can be purchased at home improvement stores, are ideal), and a comfortable raised chair will come in handy during long sessions. Also, a rubberized floor will make it easier on your feet when you're moving around.
Finally, if you have the space, leave room for finishing tasks: matting, framing, mounting.