Prints hanging up to dry
Learning Journeys

Building a Darkroom From the Ground Up – By Katie Cooper

January 26, 2022

Lockdown 2020 was a blessing in (a very big) disguise, as it gave me the opportunity to research, build and begin work on creating a darkroom.

My passion for analogue photography stemmed from my final major project at university, in which I spent pretty much a full year in the dark! I fell in love with the process of creating work that I was able to manipulate at every stage, I wasn’t a slave to digital buttons or options on a screen. The more tactile, physical approach to creating an image was incredibly exciting to me. Therefore, it became a dream of mine to one day have my own darkroom.

Darkroom recordings - Noting down all findings from temperatures to test strips results

I hadn’t considered this possible until far into the future as I knew the work it would take, the financial cost and I wanted to wait for a permanent home. But lockdown gave a new perspective on achieving this goal. I realised many things but mainly that eBay was a great friend and the costs weren’t as high as I’d anticipated! Lockdown gave me the opportunity to achieve a dream and go for it!

I found a space on the farm I grew up on, in the back of a barn, which was temperature controlled, almost light tight and dust-free. It couldn’t have been more perfect so I got to work. I used any resources I could find on the farm, for example, black pond liner came in handy to cover any potential light leaks, tables, a large plastic tray (which I use for the bath), cupboard space, lamps and chairs.

You’d be correct in thinking that this doesn’t sound glamourous, my darkroom is still far from a professional lab, I just needed it to work and to be practical! The rest I found second-hand on eBay, which did not come without any risks. My enlarger was what I was most worried about as this could easily be unusable, but the owner ensured me that he and his son had used it for years. Eventually, the setup was coming together, I separated two sections of the room, one the wet section and the other the dry. The enlarger being in the dry section with plenty of working and cupboard space, the other side for the open baths and drying racks below. Long story short, everything was setup and ready to test.

Darkroom Baths

Darkroom open baths -bleach flix and colour developer

It worked! It all went to plan at first – I achieved my first print which I cannot begin to explain the feeling of turning the lights on for the first time and seeing the results! I still had a challenge remaining though, to keep the chemicals in the open baths warm enough for a full darkroom sesh! All in all, this was definitely the biggest challenge I faced.

I originally started by bringing in warm buckets of water from the tap, this did not warm the chemicals to the temperature I needed. Next, I bought in my kitchen kettle to add boiling water to what was already in the bath. This worked but not for long as the room was so cold (it was getting on for winter now) I could only print for about an hour before the results were inconsistent. I then found a device on Amazon that boils the water for you, which essentially works the same as the inside of the kettle. At the time this was a eureka moment!

Having waited patiently for it to arrive, I excitedly took it to the darkroom, to be almost instantly disappointed as I realised that this idea was not practical as I would have to stand there holding it into the bath and it would take an hour for the water in the bath to even reach lukewarm temperatures. I should probably mention I needed the temperature to be at least 23 Degrees Celsius or 74 Fahrenheit.

I was starting to seriously worry that I’d not be able to find a practical solution, but eventually I stumbled across a comment on YouTube, to use a fish tank heater. For months I struggled with battling the temperature of the bath to heat the chemicals but this meant I could leave it on pretty much always, as it uses a tiny amount of power, and it would keep the water at a constant temperature. All I needed for the bath was a lid to keep in the heat and a room heater so when working the temperature would remain the same. All of this could have been saved if I’d had invested in a print processing tank, but these cost around £200 and having already spent so much, I was adamant I could find a practical solution instead. It all paid off in the end and I still use the fish tank heater today!

Having tackled the main obstacle, all that was left was to get to know my enlarger, perfect the timings of the chemicals and learn how to navigate the room in the pitch black. An example of a small upgrade that went a long way was attaching two timers to the side of the bath, one for the colour developer and the other for the bleach fix. This meant in the pitch black I was able to time how long the paper needed to be in each bath perfectly at a touch of a button. Before this, I was using a darkroom clock, probably more useful for black and white printing, as you could just about see the hand moving which proved very temperamental as occasionally I would be unable to actually find the clock!

first darkroom print

First successful Darkroom Print

My fondest print would be an image I took during a lockdown walk. Perhaps this is because it was an image I didn’t think much of until I printed it. I was just so impressed with the details and the colours of the shot. I remember turning on the lights and instantly feeling a sense of shock as I had not anticipated it would be so beautiful to me. It was one of the first prints I made in my darkroom so I think it will always be an important one to me. Another print I am proud of today is one I am currently working on, I haven’t thought of a formal title yet so I call it Jessops Flowers.

This was, you guessed it, some flowers shot on Jessops expired film. After home developing the roll it looked like I’d done something wrong. The film looked dark, colourless and slightly faded. I panicked and reached out to many film fanatics who helped determine the issue. It was my first experience of expired film so everything actually was fine and when scanned all the colours were almost correct. I say almost as the mistake I made was that I’d left a skylight filter on the lens. I had imagined the images would be warm, as they were shot in the peak of golden summer sunlight in a meadow. The expired film along with the filter added so much more to the images, creating an emphasis on the shapes and shadows on the plants. I loved it! Therefore, the print I am working on now looks slightly unusual as the background is purple. The stranger the better in my opinion!

Darkroom test strips

Test strips of Jessops Flowers – Print One

Darkroom print

Jessops Flowers Darkroom print

In many ways my darkroom journey is still just beginning, I decided that I wanted to perfect the darkroom process so I know exactly how it all works inside and out before I begin working on other things. Now that this has been achieved I would like to become more experimental with the process and upgrade my enlarger lens in order to print 120mm and therefore print on a larger scale. As mentioned earlier, manipulation at every stage means I can be more experimental with my current process.

Etsy Prints ready

Etsy Prints ready to go!

I have recently launched an online store on Etsy so I can sell my most successful prints, which is something I am beyond excited about after a year in the making. To those not familiar with analogue photography I’d highly recommend giving it a go. I personally find there is magic in analogue photography, especially printing in a darkroom. If I could do this and only this for the rest of my life, I would love nothing more

Photo of me in the darkroom I built!

Photo of me in the darkroom I built!

To join and follow along my journey check out my Instagram page: @DarkroomKT
And my prints: www.etsy.com/uk/shop/DarkroomKT

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38 Comments

  • Reply
    Safiyyah
    January 26, 2022 at 10:49 am

    Congratulations! How exciting! Everything looks great. Your efforts paid off, and you have exciting years ahead of you!

    • Reply
      Katie Cooper
      January 26, 2022 at 11:04 am

      Thank you! I’m so glad you think so and I’m certainly very excited for many more years of printing!

  • Reply
    Ian Hunter
    January 26, 2022 at 10:53 am

    Hi Katie
    Well done! It’s a tricky process, I haven’t done any for forty years. I have a lot of enlarger lenses, email me at [email protected] if I can help or advise. I’m in sunny Staffordshire.
    All the best
    Ian Hunter

    • Reply
      Katie Cooper
      January 26, 2022 at 11:12 am

      Thank you Ian! Oh wow, that sounds great! I will make sure to drop you an email, I really appreciate it.

  • Reply
    Ken Rowin
    January 26, 2022 at 12:06 pm

    Great job and great perseverance. I tried color printing a couple of times and gave it up because of the need to be in complete darkness and because of the exacting nature of the temperature controls etc. Kudos to you.

    • Reply
      Katie Cooper
      January 26, 2022 at 3:28 pm

      Thank you Ken!
      In a way I love the complete darkness now, I’m able to trust my senses to navigate the room and it can be quite peaceful!

  • Reply
    Ralph Turner
    January 26, 2022 at 1:29 pm

    Great stuff! I wish you every success. Seeing the pic of you stood by the enlarger and easel brought a smile to my face as they look like the same ones I have/had (LPL easel?). You may cringe, though, as my 670 is now converted to a stand for camera-scanning (I’m afraid I’ve forsaken the darkroom for a hybrid process🙄). Anyway, thank you for sharing. All the best 🙂

    • Reply
      Katie Cooper
      January 26, 2022 at 3:35 pm

      Hi Ralph,
      Thank you very much 🙂
      Yes that’s the one!
      Its always good to adapt to change I suppose, I can imagine many people wouldn’t have thought to do that, I think it’s a great idea!
      Thank you for reading and commenting, very much appreciated 🙂

  • Reply
    Tim Bradshaw
    January 26, 2022 at 1:31 pm

    When I saw the title I immediately assumed you would be building a B/W darkroom: then I realised you had built a colour one. That’s amazing as colour is just so much harder than B/W I think (I’ve only ever done B/W): you can’t see what you’re doing for one thing and things like temperature of the chemistry is much fussier. For B/W printing I try and mix the chemistry at 20C but since generally I am reusing stop and fix they’re never at 20C and the dev drifts away from it. I’ve made lovely prints with dev which I have no idea what its temperature was: it just does not really matter that much.

    And your flowers print is really lovely,

    • Reply
      Katie Cooper
      January 26, 2022 at 9:55 pm

      Ah perhaps I should have included colour in the title!
      Yes exactly, and I find the whole process of getting a complete print takes so much longer, especially when adjusting the filters.
      That’s crazy, I didn’t realise with black and white it really doesn’t matter about the temperature!

      Thank you, I appreciate you saying so and giving my article a read.

      • Reply
        Tim Bradshaw
        January 26, 2022 at 11:56 pm

        I think temperature matters a *bit* for B/W printing, especially big differences between stages which give you reticulation. But I have prints hanging in a gallery (small, local gallery…) where I never worried about dev temperature.

        • Reply
          Katie Cooper
          January 27, 2022 at 6:46 pm

          That’s amazing, hopefully one day I’ll get my prints on a gallery wall! No idea how to approach that though…
          I’d love to see your work, do you have any socials?

  • Reply
    Billy Sanford
    January 26, 2022 at 2:02 pm

    Well done! Where there is a will, there is a way. I’m glad you were able to set everything up and it looks like you are getting wonderful results. Thank you for sharing your story and best wishes!

    • Reply
      Katie Cooper
      January 26, 2022 at 9:57 pm

      Thank you for giving the article a read, very much appreciated!

  • Reply
    Daniel J Castelli
    January 26, 2022 at 3:13 pm

    Katie! (the same name as our daughter, who is an artist),
    Welcome to the world of benign darkness. My hat’s off to you for getting into color printing. Working in color brings a different set of challenges to the darkroom. You’ve seemed to have met each challenge and come up with a working solution.
    I wish you good luck and success in your ETSY business.
    I have had a darkroom since I was 19 (I’m now 70.) I’ve set up darkrooms in closets, part of my bedroom, and in outdoor sheds. I had to abandon one back in the mid-1970’s because there was simply no room to pack it up and move the equipment. I built my current darkroom in our basement over 36 years ago. I did a refit a few years ago, and I still use on a weekly basis. For some of us, it’s a necessary part of our creative process, and it’s as important as our cameras and film.
    Wishing you many years of creative solitude in your room of darkness!
    – Dan

    • Reply
      Katie Cooper
      January 26, 2022 at 10:14 pm

      Hi Dan,

      This has to be my favourite comment that I have ever received!
      Thank you for taking the time to read my article 😊 It’s great to hear from experts like yourself!

      That is absolutely incredible and so inspiring that you setup darkrooms in all of those locations, always having one with you. I would hope to take mine with me also where ever I end up! Do you have an Instagram page or post your work online anywhere? I would love to see what you do! My email is [email protected] – be great to keep in touch!

      Thanks again,
      Katie

  • Reply
    Martin Siegel
    January 26, 2022 at 4:24 pm

    Thanks for leading us into the dark (room) . It was a fine thing to virtually join you in your efforts.
    Thanks for sharing and for the great pics!
    Take care
    Martin

    • Reply
      Katie Cooper
      January 27, 2022 at 6:53 pm

      Hi Martin,

      Thank you for virtually joining me in my darkroom! It is very much appreciated 🙂

      Katie.

  • Reply
    Pete
    January 27, 2022 at 10:00 am

    Great article Katie, I need to set up a permanent darkroom, nothing like seeing that first print in the dev!

    Pete

    • Reply
      Katie Cooper
      January 27, 2022 at 6:47 pm

      Hi Pete,

      Thank you for giving it a read 🙂
      Exactly right – the best feeling!

  • Reply
    Bruce P Parker
    January 27, 2022 at 2:52 pm

    Hi, just to be clear, the temperature of your chemicals and materials when doing B&W should be controlled and constrained to guidelines as much as for color processing. This aids in consistency, high quality and perhaps even archival aspects. You are already creating good practice and habits with color, stay with that when you go to black and white, as well.

    Bruce

    • Reply
      Katie Cooper
      January 27, 2022 at 6:50 pm

      Hi Bruce,

      Yes exactly, thank you for taking the time to read my article, very much appreciated!

    • Reply
      Daniel J Castelli
      January 29, 2022 at 3:38 pm

      Hi Bruce,
      You’re spot on with the temperature controls with black & white. Temps can vary about +/- about 5 degrees without any chance of damage to the B&W film. If the temps get too hot you risk the emulsion cracking and/or the emulsion becoming so soft that it can suffer physical damages such as scratching, nicks and in extreme cases, sluffing off the base material.
      I have two gallons of water in a jug that is the room temp with the developing chemicals. My darkroom has no heat; in the winter I use an oil-style space heater to bring the room and the chemicals up to 68 degrees F. I turn on the heater about 2-3 hours before my session. I never leave it on overnight.
      I try and keep chemicals within three degrees of each other.
      After all this is said & done, color requires much tighter temp controls. Katie has found a solution for her needs.

  • Reply
    Milosz Cordes
    January 28, 2022 at 8:50 am

    Hi Katie, great job! My sincere congratulations. I am genuinely in awe of your accomplishments! I still have to stick to the hybrid process (don’t have a barn or even a basement I could use here in the middle of Copenhagen) but I haven’t lost hope things will change for the better. Your persistence is the best proof that if you want something, you can achieve it. Looking forward to seeing more of your works and impressions about the developing process.

    • Reply
      Katie Cooper
      January 28, 2022 at 2:14 pm

      Hi Milosz,

      Thank you, I really appreciate your comments, they’ve made my day!
      Definitely don’t lose hope- I’m sure you will find somewhere 🙂
      I never looked at it like that, so kind of you to say so.

      Thanks again,
      Katie

  • Reply
    Film Friday: How one photographer built a darkroom from scratch in the corner of her barn: Digital Photography Review – TechReviewJournals
    February 4, 2022 at 2:05 pm

    […] installment of Film Friday, we’re sharing an article from Katie-Louise Cooper, originally published on 35mmc, detailing how she built her own color photography darkroom from the ground up on her […]

    • Reply
      Katie Cooper
      February 4, 2022 at 3:08 pm

      Hi there,

      Thank you so much for sharing and featuring my article on your website. It is greatly appreciated and so lovely you felt it worthy enough to share! I very much enjoyed reading your interpretation of the article 🙂

      Where can I find the analogue forum?

      Thanks again,
      Katie.

  • Reply
    Film Friday: How one photographer built a darkroom from scratch in the corner of her barn: Digital Photography Review
    February 4, 2022 at 7:21 pm

    […] installment of Film Friday, we’re sharing an article from Katie-Louise Cooper, originally published on 35mmc, detailing how she built her own color photography darkroom from the ground up on her […]

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  • Reply
    Hans Zeller
    February 6, 2022 at 10:17 pm

    Thanks for sharing your story about your darkroom setup! When I got into developing color film I started using a sous-vide machine (e.g. Anova or Joule), which can keep a water bath at a very stable temperature. The machine works for B+W as well. Since the water bath has to be relatively deep, let’s say 10-15 cm deep, this might not be ideal for tray development, but for tanks it’s great.

    • Reply
      Katie Cooper
      February 7, 2022 at 10:55 am

      Hi Hans,

      Thank you for taking the time to read my story 🙂
      Ah yes I have seen a few people using those, they certainly look very handy!

      Thanks again,
      Katie.

  • Reply
    Film Friday: How one photographer built a darkroom from scratch in the corner of her barn: Digital Photography Review – Earth Chitra
    February 9, 2022 at 6:00 am

    […] installment of Film Friday, we’re sharing an article from Katie-Louise Cooper, originally published on 35mmc, detailing how she built her own color photography darkroom from the ground up on her […]

  • Reply
    Dave Ireland
    February 16, 2022 at 6:39 pm

    Well done for jumping in at the deep end and making a go of it.
    I never got around to doing colour printing back in the day, but I did have a colour Durst M607 iirc, which was a nice bit of kit to use, even if only B&W.
    These days I just develop B&W via changing bags, an old Jobo machine and computer print them on a laser. The results are good three-footers, ie, don’t get toooo close 🙂
    I’ve toyed with the notion of building a darkroom above my workshop, because I need to create a light-tight space to re-spool 2000ft of Kodak cine film. Once I’ve got that built, who knows what will happen next…

    • Reply
      Katie Cooper
      February 16, 2022 at 7:59 pm

      Hi Dave,

      Thank you for taking the time to read my article! Wow 2000ft of Kodak cine film!! Can’t imagine how long that would take!

      If you do make a go of it, I wish you good luck!

      Thanks again,
      Katie.

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