our darkroom(s)

Building a traditional 'wet' darkroom is a lot easier than most people imagine. You don't need running water; you don't need much space; and with the Gadarene rush to digital, there are endless quantities of darkroom equipment on the market at rock-bottom prices -- often, indeed, free for the asking. We hope that this module will help you design your darkroom and help you avoid some of the mistakes we have made over the years. It's also an unashamed plug for the Nova darkroom tent, which we have now used in three houses, in three countries, and for Nova deep-slot tanks.

We process both colour (C41 and E6) and black and white film in our darkroom, and print black and white: we can print colour, but mostly we don't any more because we normally do it digitally. The Tibetan reportage shot on the left dates from the early 80s; the cross and elephant grass from the late 90s; the troglodyte house from the mid-90s; and the colour shot of Pecs from 2001. Click here or on the book cover for further information on our book 'Darkroom Basics'.

Roger had his first full-time darkroom in 1966; he was on to his fourth by the time he met Frances, so 'his' darkroom became 'ours'. Since then the darkroom has become increasingly Frances's: she refers to our current one (seventh, eighth or ninth, depending on how you count) as hers.The point of this rather long-winded anecdote is that for the best part of the last 40 years, Roger has had access to a more-or-less permanent darkroom -- in other words, one that didn't have to be set up and taken down each time he wanted to use it -- and Frances has had one ever since she got serious about photography. As a result we have learned a bit about darkroom design. But there is always more to learn. Even our present darkroom is some way from perfect.

The first was in Roger's parents' Royal Navy married quarters in Bermuda. It was nominally a second 'half bath' (loo, shower, handbasin), but when he was home from boarding school in England it was pretty much a full-time darkroom.

The second was in a steel-walled bomb shelter under a Georgian granite house belonging to his girlfriend's parents (her father was a very generous man). No drain or running water, though.

The third was combined with a laundry and store room in Scotland, again at his parents' married quarters. Drain and running water.

The fourth was in his own first house in Bristol from 1974 to 1987, which was where Frances learned to print. This was the first of our darkrooms, as distinct from Roger's. No drain or running water.

The fifth, 1987-1992, was in the garage of his parents-in-law in Guadalupe, California. At first we blacked out the whole garage but then we installed a Nova tent. No drain or running water.

The Nova tent is amazing: just 110cm (42 inches) square and about 2 metres (6 feet 6 inches) high. A fan keeps the air fresh, and everything pretty much has to be within reach. On the left it is in Birchington with a roughly-built table; in the centre, at La Buttière in France with an internal skeleton built of shelving angle. On the right, courtesy Nova, is an external view of the whole thing.

The sixth (or possibly still the fifth, but in a different place) was back in the Nova tent again while we built the seventh (or sixth). In 1992 we bought a huge Victorian terraced house in Birchington, Kent. The Nova Tent moved from room to room as we carried out renovations, including building the darkroom in the former dining room. The house had been half-converted to flats so we had running water and drainage (including a toilet, which was soon removed) in the dining room when we bought the house. We sold it a decade later.

Our darkroom in Birchington was too big. Frances spent a lot of time walking from one side to the other. Perhaps surprisingly, the gas fire that we used to heat the room never caused any problems with monochrome safelighting. It also helped to ventilate the room (it had a proper chimney, of course)

The eighth (or possibly back to the fifth) was the Nova Tent again, now somewhat modified with an internal skeleton, in a little house that we borrowed for six months while we were looking for somewhere to buy in France. Once again, no running water or drainage.

The ninth (or possibly seventh), the present version, is in the former wine cellar of our house in France, which we bought in March 2003. By now, the darkroom is not so much 'Roger's' or even 'ours': Frances refers to it quite automatically as 'mine'.

Our darkroom in Moncontour is actually a little too small: we over-reacted to the one in Birchington, and reckoned that a darkroom five or six times the size of the Nova tent would be big enough. It isn't, quite. Above left is the dry side, with two Meopta Magnifaxes, each with Multigrade heads. Above right is the wet side; you can also see the Novatank sunk in the bench, just to the left of the sink. This was taken with a 14mm Sigma lens on a Nikon F, which makes it look rather bigger than it is.

Fortunately, our darkroom opens off another room that was very easy to black out; we call it 'the stone flag room' because of its floor. A lot of our storage is out here, as is the drying cabinet. The big 5x7 enlarger also lives out here, as we very seldom enlarge bigger formats than 6x9cm. This doubles as a storage room: the freezer and one of the refrigerators are here, along with the root vegetables (well away from the chemicals!) and some of the wine.


We make no apology for starting here. Many photographers develop horrible hacking smokers' coughs without ever having smoked in their lives. Only a few photographic chemicals are noticeably irritating to the lungs, and quite a lot are harmless, but there are still plenty that are low-grade irritants. We generally prefer positive-pressure ventilation from a light-trapped fan blowing into the darkroom -- that way, less dust is sucked in -- but in our present darkroom we have both an impeller (from a light-trapped plenum open to the outside) and an extractor (into the roof-space beneath the floor above). We normally use both, except in very cold weather, when we use only the extractor instead of blowing in icy air from the exterior.

Left, the extractor fan at the wet end. With both of these fans in action there is a good draught through the room. Note also the big wall-mounted stop-clock, which makes life very much easier. It is fully mechanical: if batteries die, it takes a lot longer to find new batteries than to pull the clock off the wall and give the key a couple of twists.

Above, the impeller fan at the dry end (you can only see the vent). Note also the paper towel dispenser.

running water and sink

Running water is by no means essential; of the nine darkrooms listed above, five didn't have it (counting the three generations of the Nova tent as three darkrooms). But it does make life an awful lot easier if you don't have to leave the darkroom to wash your pictures. What we did in the Nova tent was used a big cooker -- one of those insulated ice-bucket things designed for picnics -- as a holding tank for fixed prints, washing them in batches. The print washers we use or have used are a Paterson vertical tank (tricky to set up but economical), a Nova vertical tank (archival excellence) and a Paterson flat-bed (quite wasteful of water but highly convenient).

In the Birchington darkroom, the sink was too small (an ordinary stainless steel kitchen sink) and the taps were too low: we couldn't get tall graduates under them, or wash trays conveniently. Also, having only one cold tap is limiting: you have to disconnect the washer to wash off the Nova clips, and so forth. This is why in our current darkroom we have two cold taps and one hot, all with Hozelock quick-connectors on them.

This is the first darkroom where we have a proper darkroom sink (De Ville), and we did not install it quite right: there is no fall. The corner farthest from the drain should really be about 3 or 4cm (an inch and a half) higher than the drain corner. Otherwise water puddles in it.

film processing equipment

For hand processing of black and white we use small stainless steel tanks (Kindermann) with Hewes reels or (sometimes) Paterson plastic tanks; both are illustrated on the left. If we want to process in bulk we use a Jobo CPE-2: in it we can do up to 5 rolls at a time in less than 600ml of chemicals. There are advantages to hand processing as discussed in the paid module 'Monochrome film processing' but they are not always decisive. The CPE-2 also gives far better temperature control at the high temperatures (38C, 100F) needed for colour film processing.

safe lighting

If you don't mind working under red lighting instead of amber, Paterson's low-cost safelights are totally safe with all conventional (non-panchromatic) black and white papers that we have tried. This is true even for half an hour at a hand's span away. For information on testing safelights, look at The Black and White Handbook and Successful Black and White. In colour, Nova's 5-star LED safelights are hard to beat (they work for monochrome too); otherwise, there are sodium vapour lights, but we have to confess that we have never tried them.

storage space

It's hard to have too much storage space. We underestimated what we would need in our latest darkroom and have had to resort to extra shelves and cupboards in the auxiliary darkroom (the stone flag room) outside.

equipment drying space

As with storage space, so with drying space. We have only just enough room on a drying rack over the sink, partly because the water heater takes up a lot of space. If we were doing it again, we'd fit the water heater under the bench, not above the sink. Because of the way we made the walls -- hollow plastic tongue and groove, as described below -- we can only fasten shelves in a few places, where there are battens. We should have thought of this beforehand.

You can just about see the three taps here too.

paper and film dryers

>A Nova flat-bed paper dryer speeds RC paper drying; FB is just hung up on a line in the stone flag room. If you can find one used -- or if you can afford one new, for that matter -- a proper film drying cabinet is a boon. They are expensive, even second-hand, but for rapid, dust-free drying of films, they are unbeatable.

Far left, the Nova flat-bed dryer mounted under the bench on the dry side of the darkroom, below the CPE-2. Near left, a simple but surprisingly effective rack-type dryer from Paterson. Both are suitable for RC, not FB.

nova tanks

Left, our 4-slot Nova embedded in the work-top and siliconed in; above, courtesy Nova, a 2-slot processor.

We have used these for years. In effect, they are processing trays stood on end; the paper is held in a special washable clip. The chemicals stay fresh for far longer than in trays, and can be left in situ between sessions: set-up and clean-up are limited to removing the floating lids at the beginning of a session, and mopping up the odd drip (and replacing the lids) at the end. Our Nova 12x16 is set in the work top: we cut a hole and sealed around it with silicone.

Some people don't like Nova tanks because they can't rub the print with their fingertips, breathe on it, and do all the other things that printers used to do years ago. But modern papers are designed to be developed to completion, so partial development of some areas and full development of others isn't a good idea.  Most designs of Nova tank are heated, which makes it easy to work at elevated temperatures (typically 24C, 75F) for faster processing. If you don't like them, and prefer trays, that's one thing. Pretending that it is impossible to make first-class prints in them is something else altogether.

There is more about Nova tanks in The Black and White Handbook, Darkroom Basics

floor, walls and ceiling

When we bought the house, the wine cellar that is now our darkroom was impossibly basic: stone walls, an earth floor, and a ceiling composed partly of wood nailed to the joists of the floor above and partly of cardboard stapled in place.

The floor is now tile over concrete slabs, and the walls and ceiling are hollow plastic tongue-and-groove 'lambris' glued to rot-treated uprights with ventilation spaces between the inner and outer walls. The plastic wall material is waterproof; an excellent insulator in its own right; easy to keep clean; attracts dust, by virtue of a slight static charge (Swiffers or similar cleaning cloths are ideal for cleaning it); and is sealed at all joints with silicone rubber to keep dust at bay, though ventilators were deliberately installed at intervals. The only real drawback, as noted above, was that we didn't allow enough uprights to fix more shelves, which would have been a good idea.

Tile is unforgiving if you drop things, but very easy to clean and of course waterproof.


Obviously, a room in a wine cellar that backs onto a hill is likely to be damp, but quite honestly, most of the darkrooms we have ever encountered are damp. Air circulation is poor (though that can be remedied by good ventilation when you are actually using the darkroom) and you are working with liquids all the time which really bumps up the humidity. Even our darkroom in Birchington, probably the driest we have ever had, could have benefited from a dehumidifier. They are quite expensive but the water they extract from the atmosphere is close to distilled water: very useful for many photographic applications, and offsetting the cost somewhat. They cost very little to run.

You can also see how the Nova 2000 processor control is mounted under the bench to create more space; you can see two taps from the Nova tank on the right.

the bottom line

A darkroom is a luxury, it's true, but it is also a haven from the outside world and the best route to ultimate quality -- and you could even set up a Nova tent in a garage. If you really want the best from silver halide photography, or even from a hybrid set-up where you scan silver halide images, you need to take control of as much of your processing as you can.

manufacturers' web sites

De Vere -- www.odyssey-sales.com

De Ville -- www.argentic.com

Jobo -- www.jobo.com and www.jobo-usa.com

Nova -- www.novadarkroom.com

Paterson -- www.patersonphotographic.com

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© 2009 Roger W. Hicks