People sometimes wonder how I make wet darkroom prints in my tiny, zero bedroom apartment. So, I thought I’d take a few simple snaps and show you how it’s done. It’s really pretty simple, and works quite well. So, imagine all of this in the dark, with only a dim red safelight to provide illumination.
Dry Side #dry-side
That’s a used Saunders/LPL C6600 condenser enlarger on my coffee table that I move into the bathroom. It’s a pretty decent beginner to novice enlarger and does the trick for me. When I enlarge 6x6 negatives — which is about 99% of the time — I use a Meopta Anaret S 80mm lens. It’s pretty decent too. On the rare occasion I enlarge a 35mm negative I use an LPL 50mm lens that I think came with the enlarger. I also have a nice set of Ilford multigrade filters that go inside the head of the enlarger. They control contrast on multigrade paper. On the baseboard of the enlarger is my nice four-blade Saunders easel. It makes making nice crisp edges a snap.
To the right of the enlarger is a used Gralab 505 digital timer. Both the enlarger and red safelight (on the floor, outside the frame here) are plugged into the timer. There is also a foot switch to control it. The timer is toggled so that when the enlarger is off, the safelight is on and vice-versa. It handles time in tenths of a second. Having a digital timer really makes print making go a lot smoother.
To the left of the enlarger is a stack of different sized paper in their boxes. I mostly use resin coated (RC) paper as it’s just so much more convenient for my process. I do have a few packets of fibre-based paper, but I don’t use it too often. I also put the little dust blower and anti-static cloth on the top. I also have a few stiff pieces of paper and cardboard for making test strips with. There is also a few pieces with holes cut in them in case I need or want to burn and dodge.
Once a piece of paper is exposed, it needs to be run through a few chemical baths.
Wet Side #wet-side
The red tray is developer. In this case — and almost always — it is Kodak Dektol diluted 1+2. Dektol is a good, all-purpose neutral to cold-tone developer that develops an image in two minutes. That’s what I use anyway. It’s cheap to buy and easy to mix. The gray tray placed on the toilet is the stop bath, where the print goes after the developer. Stop bath is needed to instantly stop the development process. It gives a slightly higher level of consistency from print to print and helps to extend the life of the fixer. After 30 seconds in the stop bath, the print goes into the fixer. The fixer is in the white tray on the vanity. I use Ilford Rapid Fixer as it does its job in 30 seconds, is easy to find and mix.
After the print comes out of the fixer, it’s safe to turn the lights on. I take the print into the kitchen and wash it for a few minutes in the steel sink. After that, I put it through a 1+20 selenium toner bath for four minutes. You have to be very careful with this as selenium isn’t the most healthy thing to be subjected to. I use gloves and ventilation. I should also probably be wearing safety goggles, but like I said I am crazy careful with all of this stuff. After the toner, the print gets washed again, then hung to dry. In case you’re wondering, I tone in selenium not for a change in colour — which it does at lower dilutions — I do it because it tends to create nice deep blacks and selenium is a more stable metal than silver, so it’ll last longer. Some say it’ll last a couple of hundred years in decent conditions.
And there it is, a print of this hanging to dry. The test strip is on the right. From that I determined the final print exposure to be twelve seconds at f11. White whites, black blacks and a full range of midtones in between. It really makes printmaking a whole lot easier when the in-camera exposure is spot on. It pays to take your time when exposing the film correctly in-camera. A properly exposed negative can be made into a beautiful, rich print with as little darkroom work as possible. And when you have a small, temporary darkroom like mine, that’s a huge plus.
It’s amazing to think that prints made in my little bathroom are hung on walls from coast to coast.