has what you need!!!

Film & Darkroom | Digital B&W | Forums | Videos | Store
B&W Photography Newsfeed | Our Blog


Brilliant Mistakes, Part 3
Here's the epic tale of what happened when someone who thought he could easily build a pro darkroom actually did it
(Read to the end--there are plenty of resources here!)

Darron Spohn

Deciding on an Enlarger

I purchased a Beseler for several reasons, but the most important is because it was the right enlarger at the right price. I was also looking at Durst, Omega and Saunders, and would have purchased one of those if I had run across the right one. Keeble & Schuchat had an excellent Saunders 4x5 with Dichroic head for $1,200 when I bought the Beseler. Because I intend to print only black-and-white, the Saunders was not the right enlarger, especially considering the price difference. They sold the Saunders the next Saturday when I was buying my Jobo, and I spent a few minutes talking with the man who bought it. He planned to print color, and for him it was the right enlarger at the right price.

I also like the Negatrans, as mentioned above. With this tool I can make more prints per hour, thus making more money. This device had the Beseler 45 at the top of my list beginning the hunt, and finding an excellent one for such a low price sealed the deal.

The third reason is Beseler's girder backbone chassis just looks sturdier than the single-column designs of other enlargers. I doubt if it makes any difference in this class of enlarger, as I have used Durst, Omega and Saunders enlargers in the past and been extremely impressed with them even in smaller, less-rigid medium format versions.

Whether you buy new or used, shop at a store that will let you run through a mock printing session. Load some negatives and focus the enlarger, or at least act like it. Try out the ergonomics and make sure the designers built an enlarger that works the way you want, not one that forces you to work the way the enlarger works. What is right for one person may not be right for another. You'll know your enlarger when you feel it.

The last reason is sentimental. This enlarger looks like the one I learned on in college.

Light Source

This is, for some unfathomable reason, still a controversial subject. Some people insist condenser heads are as good as cold light heads. Others advocate dichroic color heads for black-and-white printing. If someone can name an excellent photographer who uses a condenser head, I'd like to hear about it. Think of the great names in black-and-white photography, and they all use (or used) diffusion heads. Condenser heads have gone the way of bias ply tires and tube stereo gear. A few anachronistic diehards till use them, but their numbers are dwindling.

Twenty years ago a cold light head and graded fiber paper were the best choices. Modern dichroic heads will yield prints identical to cold light heads. The advantage to a cold light head is low maintenance. I replaced my Phillips PCS 150 enlarger in the late 1980s when a lamp burned out and it cost almost $20 to replace. As a small-town photojournalist I couldn't afford to stock extra lamps in all three colors, so I traded the Phillips to a friend and received a Beseler 23cXL with a 35mm and a 120 Negatrans in exchange. After one printing session I found the dichroic head too dim, so I sold that and bought a used Aristo cold light head.

Some dichroic head users have also complained about negatives popping from the heat of the halogen bulbs. Cold lights avoid this problem. Of course, if you plan to print color, you will need a color head. Just be prepared to pay more.


You'll need at least one print washer, and a variety of enlarging lenses. I found a nice 11x14 print washer at Seawood Photo in San Rafeal, CA, for $225 plus shipping. A few days after that arrived my one of our customers brought in a 4x5 negative to reprint, so I called Seawood and bought a 150/9 enlarging lens. The salesman described it as a single-coated Schneider over the phone, and it was only $100. I was mildly disappointed when it arrived, as it doesn't say Schneider anywhere on the lens. However, it does have Schneider's logo, and is stamped "Made in Germany" in the same font Schneider uses. It is also in excellent condition and built very well.

The lenses are the most important components of your enlarging system, just as lenses are the most important components of a camera system. Choose yours carefully. Nikkor, Rodenstock and Schneider are all excellent. You will need at least three, and four will be better. The first is a 50mm lens, as most people use 35mm film. I quickly found the 80mm lens is too long for 8x10s from 35mm film, and bought a Beslar 50/3.5 to get me by until I get a better lens. The Beslar is sharp when stopped down to f/8, but don't try using one of these wide open.

The 80/5.6 Nikkor is a definite keeper. No regrets and no replacement plans. The 150/9 lens has been good so far, but it is hard to judge with 30- to 50-year-old negatives that have been stored in shoe boxes. I will know more about this lens when I finish the darkroom and buy a lens for my Crown Graphic. I'd like to compare it side-by-side with a modern enlarging lens some time, but I have higher priorities.

You also need to decide how you will wash your film. I bought a Cachet 4x5 film washer, but haven't been able to get it to refill as the directions say it should. I have not read any posts where someone else complained of this, so I suspect it is a problem with the current spigot set and the sink being unlevel.

What I Have

Beseler 45 MCRX
Zone VI cold light head
Compensating Tik Tok
Six-foot sink
Jobo CPE2 Plus
11x14 print washer
4x5 film washer
Beslar 50/3.5 enlarging lens
Schneider (or excellent copy) 150/9 enlarging lens
Five stainless steel reels
Five 11x14 trays
Five 16x20 trays

What I should have bought Eight-foot sink
tempering box

What I Plan to Buy

Enlarging exposure meter. This is the highest priority on my buy list. The biggest bottleneck in my production is exposing and developing test prints for the first print on each roll, and often on individual negatives within a roll. An exposure meter reads the light at the enlarger's baseboard, and indicates the proper time for your printing paper. They take a little experimenting to find the right settings, but once you get the settings you can either write them on paper and tape it to the wall, or program the settings into more expensive meters. The better meters even suggest an appropriate paper grade. Don't start a production darkroom without one. Do as I say not as I did, OK?

Four-foot sink for the bathroom. This room will be my film developing and print and film washing area. It is absolutely dark with the light out and the door closed, so I will also load film in there. I also plan to build a table in there for my Jobo and print washer, and some shelves for chemistry. I'm going to make sure the sink is level, buy a new spigot set and try the Cachet EcoWash again.

Print drying screens. Cotton towels and print drying racks get old quick. Besides, fiber paper dries better face down on screens.

Film drying cabinet. Just a place to keep dust away from the negatives while they dry. No need for heat, just filtered air flowing through. And I mean flowing, not blowing. I had way too many negatives ruined at newspapers when someone put them in a film drying cabinet, attached a hair dryer and switched on High. Give me a gentle breeze and a clean filter and I'll be happy.

Variable contrast cold light head. The old Zone VI I have works fine, but I need the convenience of variable contrast papers for production work, and would like to use modern VC papers for my own photos. This is another instance of choosing the right tool for the job. I'll be able to make more money per hour with a variable contrast head. Beseler makes an excellent universal diffusion head, but it costs more than the Zone VI VC cold light and needs a controller that costs almost as much as the head.

Jobo CPA2. See discussion above.

16x20 print washer and 16x20 easel.

URLS These are some resources for darkroom builders that I found online.

Photo Source - Developing Charts
Excellent developing chart and other information. Hey, they even have Fomapan instructions. If you plan to process whatever people bring in off the street, you need to bookmark this site.

Andy's Photo Darkroom
Detailed instructions on building a home darkroom.

Darkroom Online
More how-to instructions, including building a darkroom and choosing an enlarger.

Glazer's Camera Supply
Great service and good prices on new equipment.

Seawood Photo
Same as Glazer's but for used equipment.

Jobo USA
All the processing equipment you'll need

RH Designs Darkroom Products
I haven't tried one, but their black-and-white exposure meter/enlarging timer looks intriguing enough to remain on my short list.

Photographer's Formulary
Excellent prices if you buy in large quantities.


By the way, the Seagull paper worked great.

To be continued...

Darron Spohn can be reached at In a few months, we'll have another installment in an ongoing series!

Tell a friend:


About | Original Top Ten Links | Contact
© 2008 Resnick Associates, LLC