my Paterson lens

How to Build a Darkroom for £100 or Less – Darkroom Technique Part 1 – by Sroyon Mukherjee

I’ve been shooting film since the late 90s; my father bought me a quirky little National 35 when I was thirteen. But I started darkroom printing just a year and a half ago, in autumn 2018. What took me so long? Two misconceptions, mainly – that it’s expensive, and that it’s difficult.

In fact, it turns out that setting up a basic darkroom need not be expensive. In this, the first of a five-part series on printing black-and-white photographs in a darkroom, I want to illustrate just how cheap it can be – how, through a combination of eBay deals and some dubious hacks, I built a makeshift but fully-functional darkroom in a small flat for a grand total of £92.50… and how you can too (clickbaity but true!)

In Part 2, I’ll try to show that basic printing is not difficult either, and so much fun that it should probably be illegal. Finally, in Parts 3, 4 and 5, I’ll cover some intermediate techniques including geometric timing, localised test strips, split grade printing and local manipulations (dodging and burning). All five parts focus on traditional black-and-white printing on silver gelatine paper; I won’t go into colour printing or alternative processes. And I’ll focus on 35mm, although some of what I say here also applies to medium- and large-format.

But first, we need a darkroom. So let’s get started on Part 1, also known as…

Printing for millennials

I use millennials as shorthand, of course. What I mean is printing for people like me, that is, people who are willing to spend a little money on the hobby, but not a lot. People with limited space, living in rented flats. People, perhaps, with lifestyle and career choices which entail frequently moving flats, or even countries. In short, Part 1 is mostly for people in the two blue areas of this Venn diagram:

I suppose Printing for people with limited resources who may or may not be millennials but who have an interest in analogue printing would be more accurate, but somehow it’s less catchy as a title.


Why I wrote this piece

When I was starting out, I read a lot of books and articles on how to set up a darkroom. I found them informative, but also intimidating. Author after author described elaborate and expansive layouts, with floorplans to match – a ‘wet side’ and a ‘dry side’, expensive light-proofing, dedicated plumbing and ventilation, equipment lists running to several pages. Others were openly discouraging. A Guardian article advised:

Don’t bother with home wet printing unless you have the space to create a ‘proper’ darkroom … Any attempt to produce photographs in your bathroom or kitchen is sure to end in domestic disharmony.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. In The Education of a Photographer, Leo Rubinfien describes visiting Garry Winogrand in the 1970s:

I went to Garry’s apartment, which was small and dark, and I was astonished to find his enlarger crammed into an alcove in the second bedroom, between the bed and the wall. He would darken the room, and stand there and expose a big stack of prints, then take them down to the darkroom in the art department at the university and develop them in the communal trays, in which lots of students were doing their work at the same time.

Nadar élevant la Photographie à la hauteur de l’Art (Nadar elevating Photography to Art). Honoré Daumier (1863)
Nadar élevant la Photographie à la hauteur de l’Art (Nadar elevating Photography to Art). Honoré Daumier (1863, Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The further back you go, the crazier it gets. In the early 1900s, Frank Hurley, official photographer for the Shackleton expedition, set up a darkroom in an Antarctic hut. And in the 1850s, Nadar, satirically portrayed in the lithograph above, developed collodion wet-plates in mid-air while soaring above Paris in a hot-air balloon. By comparison, a 21st-century flat sounds like a cakewalk. We’ve got this!

A darkroom is like a gas

A darkroom is like a gas – it expands to fill the space available. In the 1970s and 80s, many darkrooms were built in garages and basements, but that’s a luxury which those of us who live in small, rented flats can rarely afford. But the good news is, like a gas, a darkroom can also be compressed. My enlarger takes up just 0.2 m² on a sideboard, and is a nice conversation piece to boot. All my other stuff fits into the small cupboard below; I just take it out for printing.

Layout sketch. For a photo of the space, see below.

Also like a gas, a darkroom expands to fill the budget available (largely thanks to that other kind of GAS). The budget can also be compressed – but up to a point, and with some compromises.

Three disclaimers

First, my £92.50 figure is my total set-up cost for darkroom printing. It does include shipping costs, but does not include (a) consumables (photographic paper and chemistry), (b) common household items which I already had (scissors, cardboard, empty wine bottles…) and (c) costs of developing equipment (since we’re talking about printing, not development). My developing equipment cost just £16.50, all of it new, but maybe that’s a story for a future article.

Second, unless you get very lucky, a makeshift £92.50 darkroom won’t be a perfect darkroom. If you’re the kind of person who winces at the thought of drying prints with clothes pegs or using a 3-element enlarging lens, look away now.

I’ll be the first to admit that my set-up comes with certain inconveniences. I’m sure I’d print even more regularly if I could just waltz into a custom-built darkroom and get to work, rather than having to spend ten minutes before each session light-proofing the room, taking out trays from storage and so on. But then again, if printing required a spare garage and several hundred pounds worth of equipment, I wouldn’t have started at all.

Third, I am not an expert! I’ve been printing for about eighteen months, so I’m an enthusiastic novice – at best. But I read a lot, practise as much as time allows and try to learn from other printers. In fact, I’m writing this series not just to share my experience and approach, but also because I hope to get feedback from other printers – beginners as well as experts – and thus learn some new things.


But what if you’re not interested in darkroom printing? Skip the rest, if you will, but I can promise you that the Inspiration section at least will be worth your while. We may not all be darkroom enthusiasts, but we can all marvel at human ingenuity.

If printing ever does pique your interest – on reading Part 2, for example – the TL;DR from this part is that you can most likely set up to print for under £100, in a small flat with no dedicated darkroom space.

But for that, we need to work, as far as possible, with what we have. We have to be creative, and source equipment as cheaply as we can. We need, perhaps, to make do without certain things, and improvise the rest. In short, we need to focus on…

The essentials

Printing is fundamentally simple. An enlarger shines light through a negative, projecting an enlarged image onto photo-sensitive paper. After a controlled exposure, that paper is immersed in a sequence of chemicals – developer, stop bath and fixer – which reveals a positive image.

My Paterson enlarger
My Paterson enlarger

Paper and chemistry

My set-up cost, as noted earlier, excludes consumables, i.e. photographic paper and chemistry. I won’t talk much about paper and chemistry in general, mainly because I haven’t tested enough types to form an informed opinion. But just for completeness, this is what I use:

  • Paper: Ilford Multigrade Resin-Coated (Pearl 8×10″) and Fomaspeed Variant 311 (4×6″)
  • Developer: Ilford Multigrade (more recently Adox Adotol Konstant, but the jury is still out on that one)
  • Stop bath: Ilford Ilfostop
  • Fixer: Adox Adofix Plus

I’m happy with these, but as I say my experience is limited. I chose them mostly because they are popular and easily available.



Other than paper, chemistry, and a few common household items (see below), this is all you really need to print black-and-white photographs:

  • A dark room (which need not be a dedicated space, see below)
  • An enlarger
  • A timer (which can be improvised, see below)
  • A safelight (which can also be improvised, see below)
  • A graduated vessel
  • Three trays to hold chemicals
  • Tongs to manipulate the paper while processing

You also need some form of ventilation in the darkroom (even if it’s just opening the door and stepping out for fresh air at regular intervals). And you need another tray or basin, ideally close to running water, to wash the prints – but this need not be inside the darkroom itself.

The darkroom

The good news is that, because photographic paper has relatively low sensitivity, a darkroom for printing need not be truly dark. (A darkroom for film developing is a different story, but that’s why changing bags were invented.) What this means is you don’t necessarily have to invest in blackout curtains, paint the walls black or construct an underground bunker deep inside a secret mountain, as some sources recommend (OK I made the last one up).

Zero-cost light-proofing

A windowless space, like a hallway, bathroom or large closet, can be light-proofed in minutes. I’ve also printed in my friend’s room which has a large window, hanging a thick bedsheet over the curtain-rod and taping the edges to the wall (though we were limited to printing at night because the arrangement did not satisfactorily block daylight). Other useful light-proofing materials include bin-bags, rugs (for light leaks under doors), cardboard and newspaper (several sheets taped together are surprisingly good at blocking light).

These are just general principles; without knowing your circumstances, it’s hard to make more specific light-proofing recommendations. Just do your best, and then…

Do a test

When setting up a darkroom, I don’t aim for perfect light-proofing. The key is to make the space as light-proof as you can, and then test.

With only the safelight on, take out a small piece of photographic paper. Put it on the table, immediately place a coin on it, and leave it for 20 minutes. Listen to music, meditate or take a nap (light from your phone-screen will, of course, ruin the test). W Eugene Smith used to watch television, covering the screen with a safelight filter. But I digress.

After 20 minutes, process the paper as usual, but covering each tray to make sure the paper is protected. If the room is light-proof, the piece will be pure white. Otherwise, the outline of the coin will show up as a white circle against a grey background.

A failed coin test
A failed coin test

In that case, turn off the safelight and try again. If the new test paper is white, your safelight is the culprit (see below). If it’s still grey, keep trying until you find the leak. It’s better to find out at the start. Otherwise you spend time and paper making your first print, only to find out your efforts were all in vain (I speak from bitter experience).

Strictly speaking, the coin test is not 100% reliable. Nevertheless, being lazy, this is what I use, and it works for me. If you want to do it by the book, the Ilford website has a more rigorous test.

My darkroom

I can’t tell you how exactly to set up because I don’t know your situation. What I can do is show you the darkroom I set up in the hallway of my girlfriend’s flat.

My darkroom

The chemicals, paper, trays and other accessories live in the cupboard under the enlarger; I just take them out for printing. The IKEA frames behind the enlarger display some of my prints. There is a bathroom just off to the left, where I can wash my prints in the basin.

A few months back I posted this photo to my Facebook darkroom group, and other members suggested keeping the trays on newspaper to protect the floor, or on an ironing-board to raise them to a more convenient height – both good ideas. (I went with newspaper; I quite like agitating the trays as I sit on the floor, like a prospector panning for gold.) Someone else commented, “Where there is a hall, there is a way,” which is now my official hallway-darkroom motto.

The enlarger

At this point in the proceedings, it is customary to take a deep dive into the merits of condenser versus diffusion enlargers, uncovered versus glass negative-carriers, and other such minutiae. I won’t. First off, these have been discussed to death in innumerable books and forum threads, whereas our focus here is to get up and running (printing!) as simply and inexpensively as possible, not spend hours wrestling with the paradox of choice. (However, if you do want to research enlargers, James Ollinger’s Beginner’s Guide to Enlargers is a good place to start.)

Second, choice is often illusory. In the January 1981 issue of Popular Photography, David Vestal did a painstaking scientific comparison of condenser and diffusion enlargers – a polarising if not inflammatory issue among darkroom printers (yes, we need to get out more). Vestal’s conclusion?

The prints looked so much alike that neither I nor Popular Photography’s editors could tell by looking at them which print came from which enlarger head. We had to look up my notes to find out.

My advice, unless you’re printing professionally (in which case why are you reading about £100 darkrooms?!) is to get a cheap working enlarger. Or even a scrap enlarger, if you think you can get it working again; they are simple machines. Sell it and upgrade later if you want to, and when you have a better sense of what you want.

Well. Get a cheap enlarger, but not just any enlarger. There are two main considerations.

Negative size

First, the enlarger must suit the negative size you want to print. I print 35mm, so I got one with a 35mm negative-carrier and a 50mm lens (rule of thumb: the lens should have a focal length longer than the diagonal of the film).

my Paterson lens

My enlarger came with a basic Paterson 50mm f3.5 lens. I’ve also printed with my friend’s Leitz Focotar 40mm f2.8, and seen prints made by a professional printer with an El-Nikkor 50mm f2.8. These are both very highly-regarded lenses and almost certainly better than my Paterson, but I haven’t done a direct comparison. I’m happy with the Paterson for now, but I may upgrade someday if I’m convinced that it will produce an obvious improvement in 8×10″ prints (by ‘obvious’ I mean ‘obvious to a normal person’, not ‘obvious if you scrutinise corner-sharpness with a 5x loupe’).


Second, I recommend some form of filtration. I go into this in more detail in Part 2, but by using filters in combination with variable contrast paper, you can print at different contrast grades on the same type of paper. (The alternative is to buy a different pack of paper for each contrast grade… or relinquish contrast control altogether.)

Mine is a colour enlarger. It has colour filters (technically a ‘dichroic filter head’) which, conveniently, can also be used for contrast control in black-and-white printing. Yellow filters reduce contrast and magenta filters increase it.

colour filters

My enlarger also has a highly convenient red filter, which lets you view the projected image on the paper without exposing the paper (which is insensitive to red light). This makes it a cinch to position the paper accurately.

Some black-and-white enlargers have multigrade filters for variable contrast. If not, a basic set of Ilford multigrade filters can be bought new for less than £10 – but check first for compatibility with your enlarger.

Sourcing equipment

When I decided to try darkroom printing, I did some research and ultimately got myself a Paterson Colour Darkroom kit off eBay. It cost £71 including postage, and came in its original albeit slightly weathered box. It was missing a few of the original items, but it did have an enlarger (the most crucial component!), graduated vessel, trays and tongs. The only essentials it didn’t include are the timer and safelight (more on that below).

Paterson box
My darkroom kit from eBay
original brochure
Original advert from 1981 (from, used by kind permission of the author). The website says the kits sold new for around £125 (over £500 in today’s money)

I see these Paterson kits come up about once a month on eBay UK, and they sell for around the same price as I paid for mine. So I’d say I got a decent deal, but not a once-in-a-lifetime deal… which means you can, too.

The Paterson is an entry-level kit from the early 1980s, targeted at the amateur market. I’ve also used my friend’s top-of-the-line Leitz Focomat V35, which is superior in every way.

Using my friend Saha’s Leitz Focomat
Using my friend Saha’s Leitz Focomat

Still, the Paterson works for me – and costs a fraction of the Leitz. Most other brands (Durst, Beseler, Omega, Meopta…) are equally good if not better. Gumtree, Facebook marketplace, workplace message-boards, flea markets, thrift stores and older relatives’ attics are all good hunting-grounds (of course, the usual used-equipment-buying warnings apply). I’ve also heard many stories of people getting enlargers for free, from retired photographers or (sadly) college darkrooms being closed down.

If you come across a good deal on an enlarger but are unsure if it fits your needs, just Google it, or post a question on one of the many darkroom-related online forums or Facebook groups. And if your enlarger doesn’t come with trays, tongs, etc., those are available on eBay too, at very reasonable prices.

Improvising the rest

As I said, my Paterson kit did not include two items which are in my ‘essentials’ list (see above), namely a timer and a safelight.


Dedicated darkroom timers can be connected to the enlarger. You pre-set the time you want to expose for, and the enlarger switches off automatically.

Timer from the 1800s (Darkroom Photography magazine, 1979)

You can buy a used timer, or even make one, which I might try someday. Or if you’re lucky, your enlarger may already come with a timer. Mine didn’t. Instead I just use an ordinary analogue clock with a second hand. My enlarging times are seldom longer than 30 seconds, so I mentally count the seconds as I enlarge. Listening for the ticks is easier than watching the second hand, especially if I’m making test strips (see Part 2) or dodging/burning (see Part 5). If you don’t have a ticking clock, you can even use a simple metronome app on your phone – just keep the screen facing down.

Initially, counting seconds seemed a bit daunting on top of everything else, but I found it soon became second nature (though I am bad at multi-tasking in general). It may not be as precise as using a dedicated timer, but the difference between, say, 15 seconds and 15.5 seconds is 0.05 stops, which is imperceptible to the naked eye. Besides, I recently learned that counting seconds is what Ansel Adams used to do – and what’s good enough for him is good enough for me.


Black-and-white photo papers are insensitive to amber and red light, but not all safelights are ‘safe’. Faulty safelights may leak yellow or white light which fog the paper. On the other hand, many light sources are effective safelights although they are not marketed as such.

Luckily, safeness is easy to test, using the ‘coin test’ described above. You can use any amber or red light, so long as you test it this way. My first safelight was a phone flashlight covered by the red filter from a pair of 3D glasses, propped up on a shelf.

Safelight v1

When I posted this photo to my Facebook darkroom group, it generated a good deal of amusement. Some kind people even offered to send me a spare safelight for free. I had to explain that I was not in dire need; I just wanted to see what I could get away with.

The phone light was however quite dim. A safelight need not shine with the power of a thousand suns, but it does need to be bright enough to let me read and write notes (see Part 3). So next, I switched to red LED bicycle lights.

With time I got tired of having to go down and take lights off my bike every time I wanted to print, and finally I bought a 15W red bulb for £2 (bringing the total to £73). When I want to print, I simply swap out the regular lightbulb for my red bulb.

red bulb
Safelight v3


The list of nice-to-haves is longer than the list of essentials – as in the darkroom, so also in life.

I’ve limited myself to three, but there’s all kinds of other stuff you could buy. Some, like squeegees and compressed-air blowers, are cheap. Others, like drying cabinets and densitometers, can be quite expensive.


My enlarger came with a baseboard, but not an easel. For a couple of weeks, I was printing on paper placed directly on the baseboard, covering the margins with rulers or books to make borders, but then I tired of it. A proper easel lets you position paper more accurately and securely, and the easel blades help a lot with borders (I’d say this is a nice-to-have bordering on an essential). I got my easel on eBay for £9.50 including shipping (bringing the total to £82.50).


Grain focuser

My Paterson kit came with a grain focuser. It helps with precise focusing, but I don’t consider it essential if you have good near vision.

grain focuser

Contact-sheet printer

A few months after I set up my darkroom, I sold my first print: a long-exposure of Victorian-era gasworks in Greenwich, London.

my first print sale

I had priced the print at only £10, but I thought I should use the proceeds to buy myself a darkroom indulgence. I finally settled on a contact-sheet printer from eBay, which was exactly £10 including shipping (bringing the total to £92.50).

A contact sheet is a sequence of negatives printed directly on a sheet of paper (in fact, one of my favourite photography books is a compilation of Magnum contact sheets). The negatives are not enlarged but placed directly on – in ‘contact’ with – the paper itself. Contact sheets let you see a whole roll at a glance and identify the keepers. Since the whole roll is printed at the same enlarger setting, it also shows the exposure and contrast of individual photos, which informs how we might print it. In practice, I usually look at digital scans to decide which ones to print, but I sometimes print contact sheets anyway because I think they look extremely cool.

contact sheet
Part of a contact sheet, from a roll shot at a climate change march in Copenhagen

I used to print contact sheets using just a clear piece of glass to hold the negatives flat against the paper, but a contact-sheet printer is more convenient, and a nice memento of my first print sale.



My enlarger column, unfortunately, has a small crack at its base, so it doesn’t stand rigid: the weight of the enlarger head gives it a slight forward tilt. This is not good. If the negative and lens planes are not parallel to the easel, the print will not be sharp all over and may even be distorted. This effect can be exploited for creative purposes (as Nigel Henderson did with his Stressed Photographs), but is clearly not ideal for regular printing. I fix this by the low-tech but effective means of tying the enlarger column to a bookshelf behind it; the tension keeps it level.

As with light-proofing (see above), my approach is to do a quick-and-dirty fix (with rope, in this case), and then test. To check that your enlarger is correctly aligned – which I recommend even if you don’t have an obvious issue like mine – there’s the time-honoured negative scratch method. For a quick check, you can even use a bubble-level phone app.

bubble level

A smaller modification was to tape a card to the enlarger head, as a reminder of the filter settings for various contrast grades (I got this idea from Way Beyond Monochrome by Lambrecht and Woodhouse). Manufacturers of variable contrast paper, like Ilford, publish tables with such information, but it helps to have a ready reference while printing.

filter settings

Household items

Everything else I need, I had at home – and you probably do too. Wine bottles to store chemicals, a plastic spoon for a stirring-rod, dodging and burning tools made from cardboard and wire (see Part 5), clothes pegs for drying prints, basic stationery like ruler, scissors, marker pens and so on. As I said, I haven’t counted these costs in my total.


In summary, my total set-up cost, including shipping, was:
£71 (Paterson kit including enlarger, graduated vessel, trays and tongs)
£2 (red bulb)
£9.50 (easel)
£10 (contact-sheet printer)
Total: £92.50

Perhaps even more importantly, I didn’t need a dedicated darkroom space – just an easily light-proofable hallway and a sideboard.

But what if you do have space, or if you’re not on a shoestring budget? Well, congratulations on getting this far, but you’ve been reading the wrong article! Fritz Nordengren over on Emulsive talks about how to set up a darkroom for under $500 (note that he had a dedicated darkroom space already). Elsewhere on this site, Dan Castelli describes how he renovated and outfitted his (enviably well-equipped) darkroom. Or perhaps, you could set up a low-cost darkroom anyway, and spend the spare cash on more paper and chemistry.

I don’t mean to suggest there’s something morally superior about a low-cost darkroom – far from it. If I had the space, I’d build a dedicated darkroom. If I won the lottery, I’d buy more and better equipment. But building a darkroom on a small budget is not just about saving money. Along the way, it taught me the value of trying to get the best possible results with minimal gear, creative problem-solving, and to some extent accepting, perhaps even embracing, small inconveniences and imperfections.


But a lot of photographers recoil from inconveniences and imperfections, and most of us love buying gear. Perhaps for that reason, many books and websites make darkroom set-up seem more elaborate and expensive than it needs to be. In this article I’ve tried to counter this with the example of my functional but cheap darkroom, and reflections on my general approach. Of course, that is not to encourage others to replicate my set-up. It’s more about an attitude – or a philosophy, if you will: being frugal, flexible and resourceful, but without compromising the quality of the final print. The idea is to start with that approach, and adapt it to your unique circumstances.

So in addition to my darkroom, I thought it would be fun to reach out to other people who share the same philosophy, and take a glimpse into their darkrooms. To that end, I posted on my Facebook darkroom group, asking for examples of creative use of space. The thread garnered 99 comments(!) including some real gems. I present four examples below, with the contributors’ permission of course.

Hunter’s darkroom

Hunter Menzel from Wyoming sets up his enlarger in his bathtub, on a folding table from Costco. He says the hardest part is bringing everything upstairs from the basement. “But once it’s all in place, I can develop and print all day.” Hunter got his whole darkroom from a teacher who was retiring. He had to drive across two states to get it, but it was all free.

Hunter's darkroom

Natalie’s darkroom

Natalie from Pennsylvania has converted a corner of her basement into a darkroom, using a wooden frame covered with black plastic tarp.

Patrick’s darkroom

Patrick Rapps from Arizona has his enlarger on a cart, with shelves for trays and a timer. He keeps his cart in the garage. “For printing, I just roll it up next to washer and dryer, set trays on them and go to work,” he explains – like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

Patrick Rapps

A community darkroom

Finally, Josh O’Sullivan from Lincoln posted a photo of the University of Sheffield PhotoSoc’s darkroom: a great reminder that if you’re lucky enough to have access to a community darkroom, that can be as good as having your own – or perhaps even better!

I’m grateful to everyone who commented on the thread and shared photos. I found them oddly inspiring – a real highlight of writing this piece. I hope you liked them too.

Next up: Part 2!

That’s all for now – see you in Part 2! If there’s anything specific you’d like me to cover, let me know in the comments and I’ll see what I can do. And if you have any low-cost darkroom tips, tricks and experiences to share, I’d love to hear about that too. Thanks for reading!

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About The Author

66 thoughts on “How to Build a Darkroom for £100 or Less – Darkroom Technique Part 1 – by Sroyon Mukherjee”

  1. Well done, Sroyon! After I abandoned printing in the early oos I restarted last year, and preparing my next project for 5 frames (just waiting for the orange filter in the mail ;)) And Natalie is right, of course, some enlargers are a lot like Daleks! Have fun printing!

  2. That was a really good read, thanks Sroyon. I have not printed in a darkroom for about 30 years. At school I did A Level Photography and printing was the highlight. We had a dedicated darkroom with good equipment including a print dryer. When I left school I was lucky enough to be able to join the camera club at my dad’s workplace and they had both a studio and darkroom. It allowed me to complete a City & Guilds course. Sadly, this all disappeared by the early 90s. I still have ambition to starting all up again and your piece is a reminder that I should, and could, do it. Cheers, Rock

    1. I hope you start again (if that’s what you want!) and look forward to reading about it here on 35mmc 😉 I saw on your website that you do cyanotypes, I’ve been toying with the idea of trying that too. Maybe that’s another article idea for you, I don’t think it’s been covered here!

  3. Great article, very inspirational! It just goes to show what can be achieved with a bit of enthusiasm, rooting around and a have-a-go attitude. I would also recommend Freecycle for people looking for equipment in the UK. You may not get everything you want in one go, but if you keep searching little bits and pieces do come along.

  4. Great article, really intersting to read about other who have built a Millenial darkroom. I’ve been printing for about 4 months and built a darkroom for my 1 bed flat. Based on an Ikea Sunnersta kitchen trolley I already had and a Jessops branded LPL 3500 which even came with a timer, easel and contact printer for £40 on ebay! A couple of trays, a safe light and focuser from eBay and I had a functioning darkroom for less than £100. I just wheel my trolley into my windowless corridor and crack on. It’s a great process and I encourage any film shooter to give it a go and you definitely don’t need a shed for it!

    1. That sounds like an amazing deal! The internet says the Jessops came with a 6-element lens. I haven’t tried it myself, but some people who have printed with a variety of lenses and whose opinion I trust say they found prints from 6-element lenses – from the relatively cheap ones to the high-end Schneiders and Rodagons – effectively indistinguishable with the naked eye up to 8×10″.

  5. Bruno Chalifour

    Well done and illustrative. It’s a good starting point but if you are serious about your printing you’ll move away from it. Just a note if you want to keep your girl-friend, move away from her hallway… or buy some paint (not the best solution though compare to choose a different location). Photo chemicals stain, especially the developer… and the fixer stinks sulfur. By the way stop-bath amounts to acetic acid or white vinegar… far cheaper. Also I would not recommend trolleys as stands for enlargers unless you’re in “artistic blur”, it may ruin the quality of your lens and negatives, especially if you do not live alone or in an apartment: any vibration will be a problem easily transmitted by the potential flimsiness of the trolley (I saw a few plastic ones shown as examples).Best.

    1. Thank you. ???? Yes it’s a starting point, but (and I hope to substantiate this in the following parts) there’s still quite a lot one can do with this set-up – contrast control, dodging and burning, split grade… I’m still at the point where my main limitation is my own skill and experience, not my gear.

      I agree about trolleys and the risk of vibration. But equally they may be fine, depending on how people use them and what precautions they take. And I say, better to be printing on a trolley than not be printing at all! But yes it’s good to appraise prints critically (or have others look at them), see what defects there are (e.g. unsharpness from vibration), and if they can be remedied.

      I looked into acetic acid and vinegar when I was starting out, but I calculated that £5 worth Ilfostop makes 10 litres of solution. I only mix 1 litre at a time, and reuse it at least 10 times, so the cost is negligible (5p per session). On the plus side, I feel more confidence in its consistency than that of commercial vinegar. Also, the purple indicator tells me when it’s exhausted; with vinegar I wouldn’t have that assurance and therefore replenish more often. But stop bath is a divisive subject at the best of times (we haven’t even got into the dreaded ‘water question’). ???? So if the substitutes work for you, that’s cool! If nothing else, it’s good to know what’s in our chemistry, so thanks for raising that.

      My girlfriend is the person who basically got me into printing, I think she’s okay with it. At least for now… ????

  6. Andrea Bevacqua

    I loved reading your experience and this is what I need at the moment! Thanks.
    Because, sooner or later, I want to print as well, you experience is very precious. Thanks for sharing it so detailed.
    I might enquire you when I am going to set up my dark room.

    Thank you again,

  7. You’re a great inspiration, Sroyon!
    Many years ago, I did some developing and printing at college.
    Later, I saved a Paterson kit from the recycle shed at the local tip, cost me £5! I am ashamed to say it has languished in my attic so long – which seems a sin – I cannot remember what came with it, whether it has filters nor do I know its operational state.
    I will try to get it set up once we move house. Most houses these days seem to have a rather wastful ‘utility room’…

    1. Thank you! Paterson also had an older BnW kit, but maybe it can be fitted out with filters. Photomemorabilia lists most (all?) of the versions.
      If your enlarger has all the parts (condenser, lamp-house, etc.) it should be easy to get it working! The wiring etc. is super simple, and some parts like bulbs and lenses are cheap and easy to replace. And then you can write an article on how to set up a darkroom for £10 or less ????

  8. This is a great article! Thanks for the shout out about my adventures rebuilding my darkroom. I was in it today processing film.
    I’m impressed with your darkroom journey and your excellent attention to detail. People reading the article will get a real sense of tools and materials. I’m glad you were able to share photos of other darkrooms, this should encourage people that ‘where there is a will, there is a way’ and you can make one almost anywhere. These photographers are really dedicated to work in less than perfect conditions…I love it!
    Your photo of the cart in your girlfriend’s apartment reminded me of the time we build a cart for a fellow college student back in the 1970’s. We were enrolled in a furniture making class and it became a semester long project. He wanted everything in a cabinet that could be rolled from storage to use. It was made from furniture-grade plywood, filled with nooks & crannies to hold everything you would need to process film & make prints. It housed a Beseler 23C; he had to lift it out and bolt it to the cabinet surface. It looked like a mid-century piece of furniture. Lost the photos of it long ago.
    Looking forward to the second part. Keep healthy & safe during these scary times.

    1. Thanks Dan, I really enjoyed your article too. It sounds like you had fun renovating your darkroom! The section on health and safety was a good reminder too, I’m occasionally guilty of not being as careful as I should.

      That cabinet sounds thrilling, what a shame not to have photos – a great loss to the world!

      Hope your processing went well!

  9. Hi Sroyon!
    Great post! You may have read my own on using a shared darkroom (published here on 19th March) where I mentioned that I built a darkroom in my parent’s house attic, but your solution would have saved me a lot of effort! I still can’t believe I sold all my darkroom kit years ago. If I had retained it I might well be tempted to have a home darkroom again in my flat. Maybe I’ll scour eBay and see what’s available!

  10. Thanks Michael, interesting coincidence to have two authors of previous 35mmc darkroom articles commenting one after another! Yes of course, I read your post with interest (here’s the link, for anyone who hasn’t seen it) and liked your photos, especially the boy walking on the stone road. It’s also nice that you talked about some of the reasons why we love darkroom work, because in my post I just take it for granted ????

  11. By chance, does anyone have a PDF of the manual for this Paterson enlarger or know which way the condenser glass should go (flat side up or down)? Sorry if this is a dumb question but I get this extract enlarger second had today, but there is no manual and the glass is out of the body. Thanks for any help or suggestions. Cheers

    1. Hi Matt. No worries, when it arrived I also had some issues figuring out how it’s put together, and couldn’t find a manual. Eventually figured it out through trial and error. The condenser glass goes flat side down (convex side up). I took some photos to show how it’s put together – see link. There’s a lever behind the head which you press forward to lift up the hinged filter head as shown in Pic 1. If the condenser is in its mount, be very careful when lifting the head as it can fall out. Best to do it over a soft surface. Pic 2 shows how the condenser lens fits into the holder. Pic 3 shows how the holder (now with lens) slots in between the filter head and the horizontal surface below. Pic 4 shows how the negative carrier slots in between the condenser and the horizontal surface below (you may have to lift up the condenser with your free hand). Good luck!

  12. Brilliant article Sroyon and so practical. I like your no nonsense approach to the whole thing about gear. I really look forward to the following articles.

  13. Matt Gosselin

    I, too, use my bath tub as part of a makeshift dark room. I wasn’t lucky enough to get any old darkroom trays, but what I’ve used instead to good results were cheap aluminum baking trays that I picked up at the dollar store which I have used to develop direct positive paper and 4×5 sheet film. I got six each in two sizes in the event I inevitably mess one up or to nestle the smaller ones in the larger ones so I don’t stain my tub (again) with chemistry all for about $5 CAD. I keep an eye on local classified ads for enlarging equipment, and have seen some good deals but any time I mention getting some, my partner just sighs in exasperation. So that’s where I’m at now.

    1. Baking trays is a great idea, I hope anyone else who’s setting up and didn’t get trays reads your comment! I’d quite like to try direct positives but it really seems to shine at 4×5 or larger, whereas my largest camera is a 6×9 medium format. I’d be very interested to see you write a piece about that and share some photos if you can.

  14. Hunter’s set up looks completely dangerous. Water and electricity! A transformer on the edge of the bath
    At least empty the bath or place what look like power cables in a safer place

  15. Wow. Takes me back to my first developing and printing times. I used the bathroom in our townhouse. There were no windows so simply not turning on the hall light worked well. I would set the enlarger on the toilet and the trays in the tub. For my knees I had a thick cushioned mat.

    Later I improved by building a table/sink combo out of 1/4 inch plywood and lots of urethane varnish that would span across the lavatory sink, over the toilet and long legs to brace in the tub. With wing nuts on the long legs I could take the entire thing down and store it in the extra bedroom.

    1. Thanks Robert, hearing people reminisce about their old darkrooms in comments has been one of the unexpected ancillary rewards of writing this piece!

    1. “No matter how experienced you may be in printing, this should be a straight print, without burning or dodging”
      Ansel Adams, The Print (1950). One of several dozen instances where he uses “burning” without the “in”. If a usage has been around for seven decades, I think it’s safe to say it’s accepted, no?

  16. Its over 35 years since I did any printing but my kit is still somewhere in the loft. This might tempt me to get it out again.
    When I started (nearly 60 years ago with my father) we had little kit so I can offer a few tips
    1) without an easel cut cardboard masking frames – help to keep the paper flat an gives you white borders.
    2) 1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi…. is good enough for timing if you practice. Exposure timing is not as critical as film. You really would be pushed to see the difference between 9, 10 or 11 seconds
    3) If you can get running water (we used to commandeer the kitchen) then its a great help
    4) I know this is about B&W but colour is possible I used to print an evenings B&W then a couple of colour prints Which I placed in a lightproof tank for developing the next day
    5) Glossy prints really need a glazer We managed with sticking them to a window but its nowhere near as good so stick to matt finish prints

    1. Nice, I hope you do get it out again, and thanks for your tips! Before I got my easel, I was in fact using cardboard frames – just as you say 🙂 Not just for borders, I had also taped an inverted L-shaped piece of cardboard to help me align the top-left corner.

  17. Sroyon, as with a number of people posting here, there are some common threads. Reading your article brought a smile to my face as it brought back memories of my first attempts at enlarging whilst a teenager around 1960. The darkroom was my bedroom and my first “enlarger” was home-made using an old bellows camera and lens. I made a lamphouse out of foil lined balsa wood (really!) and constructed a very rudimentary focusing rail that allowed 1/4 plate (4 1/4 x 3 1/4 inch) enlargements from a 35mm negative. Light diffusion used an opal glass and 75W enlarger bulb. I was really delighted with the results as the 1/4 plate size was larger than the contact prints my parents were content with.
    Fortunately, having a Saturday job enabled me to pretty quickly upgrade to a Gnome Universal Alpha Rangefinder and Wray Supar lens, but my bedroom was still my darkroom. I printed on Saturday evenings as my parents enjoyed a lie-in on Sundays, allowing me to get the prints out of the bath.
    Regarding the crack in the base of your enlarger, without knowing exactly what it is, I wonder if effecting a repair with Milliput will be feasible. This is a putty-like material and comes in tube lengths of two compounds, the one I use are coloured grey and yellow. Using equal amounts of each, you blend them with fingers, folding in regularly until smooth. During this time, you will notice it gets slightly warm. It remains firm but pliable for a few minutes during which time it can be moulded to any shape. Once it has cured it is extremely strong, it sets as hard as rock. Once set it can be filed and painted. This could be a better solution than a piece of string.????

    1. Your first enlarger… now that’s a hack ???? I won’t forget it in a hurry!
      Thanks for the Milliput tip, I’ll look it up but it sounds like it should do the job. I don’t know why I didn’t think of fixing the problem rather than the symptom ????

  18. One issue that home developing and printing raises is what to do with your used chemicals. Where I live in Australia, the local commercial photolab happily takes used up chemicals from photo hobbyists and includes them in their own disposal/recycling system. ask around or check with your local city government/council and see what options are available. And their is always Caffinol. 🙂

    1. Yes! Although even with Caffenol you still have the issue of fixer disposal… Then again, digital photography also has a big environmental footprint, with hazardous e-waste. Not to say one is better than the other, just that whatever medium we use has environmental costs, so it’s worth thinking about how to minimise that.

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  20. Well done! That is really inspiring. I got my full darkroom kit with Meopta enlarger about a year ago and it’s been sitting up the loft since waiting for bigger house with spare room for my own. I got my kit for free and it included everything essential you mentioned plus some other equipment. On top of that i got a bag of chemicals and printing paper. Its already opened and probably pass its life expectancy but I think it’s amazing just to practice accepting that the reaults will not be good. The person i got it from said a year earlier her dad got rid off his equipment by just throwing it to skip…worst part is that he was a professional photographer and his equipment was 100 times better. What a shame
    Great work!

    1. Thanks, free enlarger – you’re lucky! What a shame indeed about the discarded kit. I’ve seen older photographers thinking their stuff is outdated and worthless, people often don’t realise film never really died out and if anything is probably stronger than it was a decade ago. Speaking of expired paper, I read about a fascinating exhibition in New York of assemblages of expired photo paper from the early 20th century – Substance of Density by Alison Rossiter.

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  22. Brought back memories of when I had a darkroom in my bedroom. A wooden frame paneled with hardboard sheets. I had a Jobo C6600 enlarger and Paterson accessories. I processed my own colour and B&W films both 35mm and 120 medium format. With a developing drum I could print up to 20x30inch prints – two of which still hang on my walls. I eventually got married and lost the darkroom. I gave the enlarger etc to the local high school photographic club. The school was demolished a couple of years ago. I wonder what became of the enlarger…

  23. Great read, inspirational even. I started my career in photo in the darkroom in the early 70’s. Spent years mostly in newspaper dark rooms. They were usually well equipped but often trashed by whoever was in the space before you were. This brought a flood of memories back. Like when shooting sports events on deadline back then where we’d take a big trunk with a darkroom packed inside and set up in either a stadium basement or a hotel bathroom, often with the enlarger on the toilet and trays in the tub. We’d sit on the floor with legs wrapped around the toilet to print. There was usually a glass of whiskey involved. So fun! I am lucky to have a big basement with some plumbing outlets and hope one day soon to set up a darkroom again. For now my career is client driven and digital. Best of luck on your journey.

    1. What an amazing story (and I’m sure there’s more where that came from). Much as I love printing as a hobby, I’m not sure I’d enjoy shooting and printing sports on a deadline ???? But if you’re a pro in the pre-digital age, I guess you gotta do what it takes!

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  25. Ummm, I wasn’t halfway down the article before checking Marktplaats (our dutch e-bay equivalent) and bidding on an enlarger. Congratulations, you’ve done it.

    1. Yes!!! Thank you! Several people, including Hamish, have told me I “almost persuaded” them to set up a darkroom. Finally some concrete action!

      1. The enlarger’s come in by now and I’ve ordered starter sets for film and paper development. I think I’ve beaten your price. Of course the day after I buy the stuff someone’s literally giving away a more complete darkroom than I have, but you can’t have everything haha. My total price comes to €60 for the enlarger, timer, safelight, and about €40 for other materials. That includes chemistry and paper. So I’m done for under €100 which is a long way below 100 quid 🙂 I’m hyped!

        1. Amazing! One extra reader for Parts 2 to 5 then ???? Last week I found a deal for a friend (enlarger, trays etc. plus developing equipment as well) which was “free to a good home”. It was in her village in Wales, she just went to the seller’s house and picked it all up! Better deals are definitely available, so in a way my £100 figure represents “a deal which almost anyone can get without getting super lucky or even searching too hard”… at least in countries where darkroom printing was once popular. And yeah, getting started is the main thing – as you say, there will always be someone else with a cheaper/better kit, but there’s no point waiting indefinitely for the perfect deal 🙂
          Your chemistry and paper, depending on how old it is and how it’s been stored, may or may not be usable, but it’s worth a try, and I see you’ve ordered more already. What enlarger did you get?

          1. I got a Meopta Opemus 5, which was apparently a rather popular make with enthusiasts in the 80s. The guy who bought it (who turned out to be a super analog nerd in his sixties, he shoots _wet plate uv photographs_ and is building his own large format camera… wow!) told me he bought it used a long time ago but never used it. It does up to 6×6, although I’ll have to make my own glass carriers for that – seller told me he makes his glass carriers from ‘premium’ picture frame glass (i.e., anything over €5), which apparently has pretty good optics. Cheaper glass supposedly results in newton rings on your prints.
            Alignment seems ‘good enough’ so far. I’ll have to give the scratch method a try. I think I have a free strip lying around somewhere…

            Other thoughts that I have no idea how to fit into this essay (you’re clearly a better writer than I am ^^’)
            -I don’t have a car, so i had it shipped… Little did I know it was a massive box, lol! I somehow managed to strap it all to my bike.
            -The seller actually threw in a Philips PDT 022 darkroom clock with a light meter, but I am afraid the CdS cell is busted – the readings it’s giving me with a color negative indicate exposure times of 1 second at f/22 which seems awfully short. Oh well, I’ll just make test strips. 🙂

            My chemistry order should come in tomorrow…

  26. @Richard: You may have seen this already but James Ollinger’s website (which I mentioned in my post) has links to the Opemus 5 manual and also a 1979 review.
    That’s cool that you can print up to 6×6, mine only does 35mm. But I’m lucky to have a (semi-retired) professional darkroom artist in my city, so I sometimes go to him for medium-format.
    I’ve never used an enlarger light meter myself, but many authors seem to think they’re not of great practical use, or at best you get a ballpark figure but for actual printing you still need test strips/human evaluation.

    1. I had indeed found the manual. For some reason, it comes in two pieces with the pages scrambled – I pieced it back together. Maybe I should contact James about it. That review gave me some additional confidence that I’ve bought a good machine 🙂

      The light meter/ timer seems to be a bit of a hassle indeed, but it can switch safelights on and off and does up to 2 minutes of exposure time at the press of a button, so all is not lost on it.

  27. Hiiiii, Sroyon, very well done, Bravo and thank you so much !
    Simply great. You make a great article to help people to enter in the magic of film photography with the darkroom : this is an huge pleasure full of feelings.
    A great article to recommend to everybody.

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  31. Excellent read – clear, concise and enjoyable. Looking forward to reading the other parts.

    My makeshift darkroom is in the corner of a small cellar so I share my space with the freezer, two fridges, old toys and assorted junk! The downside is it takes time to set up and breakdown and of course it’s two flights of steps to the bathroom to wash prints ???? I’d love a permanent darkroom but until that day comes I’m very happy in my corner of the cellar.

  32. Pingback: How to Get Started Developing Black & White Film for £25 (or Less) - by Sroyon Mukherjee - 35mmc

  33. Hi Sroyon,

    Thanks so much for all the hard work you’ve put into this series. With your tips and encouragement I setup a darkroom in a small understairs cupboard and bathroom in my rented house. It was a great project to do during lockdown, and your guide helped me a lot (aswell as a friend who gave me an enlarger!)
    I have since moved to another house, which has a basement!! And have just produced my first contact print!


    1. Wow, congratulations – I hope you get as much enjoyment out of it as I do! Thanks also for coming back to comment, it’s really nice to know if it actually helps someone 🙂

  34. i like the gas comparison – i have had darkrooms in most places i’ve lived – some small & some large. the best rooms are walk-in closets or laundry rooms.

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