Introduction: How to Print B&W Photographs in a Darkroom

About: I enjoy photography, horticulture and carpentry, and am almost always doing something relating to of those things.
I'm going to teach you the basics of printing in a darkroom, discuss the basic terms and processes, and explain the workings of the the equipment you'll be using.

Developing a picture in a darkroom for the first time is a timeless experience that everyone should experience at least once in their life. The feeling that you get when you first see an image appear on a once blank sheet of paper is almost magical. The first time I printed a photo in a darkroom, I instantly forgot about the horrid smell of the chemicals (For the record, I now enjoy that smell), and just watched as my photograph appeared out of thin air.

For any general photography questions you have (terminology, mostly) that are not covered in this instructable, Check Here first, and if your question is still not answered, feel free to leave a comment here, or PM me with it.

  • Note - Make sure to read the warnings in step 14, as well as all warnings on the supplies that you use before attempting any dark room work.

I hope you enjoy my entry to the Photojojo Photography Contest!

Step 1: Supplies

  • A negative to print
  • 100% Cotton cosmetic pad
  • Rubbing Alcohol
  • A light tight room (Must be well ventilated) (Bathrooms with towels shoved under the door can work well)
  • Running water
  • Safe light
  • 4 Trays for chemicals
  • Enlarger with a condenser head (and bulb)
  • Paper easel (holds the paper in place under the enlarger)
  • Timer
  • Squeegee (Technically optional, but highly recommended)
  • Drying rack/clothes line and pins
  • Grain enlarger (optional)
  • Emulsion paper - doesn't matter much what you use. I prefer fiber paper.
  • Gloves and apron are optional.
  • Chemical storage bottles


  • Developer - I use Kodak Dektol
  • Stop bath - I use Kodak Indicator stop bath
  • Fixer - I use Kodak Fixer
  • Hypo clear - I use Kodak Hypo Clearing Agent is an excellent source for all photography related supplies, I use them heavily, and they have a pretty complete darkroom kit for new photographers:

You can also get used equipment from Ebay for a lot less.

Step 2: Let's Set It Up!

Most things are self explanatory, plug in your safe light. Plug your enlarger into the timer, and the timer into the socket. Follow all the instructions for making chemicals, and set them up in the following order, left to right:

Developer, Stop bath, Fixer, Hypo Clear

You also want your running water source to be nearby the chemicals.

Make sure you can get your entire print through fixer before going outside the darkroom, or else your print will be ruined. In other words, set up the dark room somewhere that the door can stay shut.

Step 3: The Chemicals - What Do They Do?

Developer activates the light sensitive crystals that make up the emulsion on your paper. When the crystals come into contact with developer, any parts of the paper exposed to light will become some shade of black.

Stop Bath
The Stop Bath is an acid that deactivates the developer. As you put a print into the stop bath, it stops turning black. Water and lemon juice can both be used instead of stop bath, but are not nearly as effective.

Fixer removes the unexposed crystals on the emulsion, making the paper light safe. Paper that has been through fixer can then be taken into open light without worries of turning black. Insufficient fixing will turn a picture yellow over time.

Hypo Clear
Hypo is not always used, but it helps insure uniform drying, so that you won't have any drying marks later on.

Step 4: Parts of the Enlarger

Before you do anything, scope out the enlarger. You're going to have a few different knobs and levers, and you'll need to know what each one does. Because all enlargers are different, I'll just tell you a few different parts there will be, and leave it to you to figure what each one does. This will help you feel much more comfortable when actually printing.

  • Focusing knob - this will move the bellows (and lens) up and down (closer and farther) from the negative to focus it.
  • Head knob - This knob will either loosen the head so you can slide it up or down (changes how large the picture is), or it will mechanically move the head up and down.
  • Aperture Ring - This ring should be located on the lens, and changes the aperture. If the enlarger is turned on, you will notice the light get dimmer and brighter as you turn it.
  • There may also be a lever to raise or lower part of the head to give you access to the negative carrier. Some enlargers don't require anything to be done before you can remove the carrier.
  • Negative Carrier - This goes between the lens and bulb, it's what carries your negative. Not much more to it than that.

The Timer

Timers can be different, but their purpose is always the same: to accurately control the exposure time of an enlarger.

There are generally two switches on a timer:

  • If both switches are turned on, the light remains on.
  • If one of the switches (It does matter which one) is turned on, the enlarger will be on for as long as the timer is set to.

Having the light on continually is used for focusing your picture

Step 5: WAIT! Try It Out First

Before you print an actual photo, you may want to try a photogram. Photograms are easy ways to introduce yourself to developing in the chemicals. To make one, follow these steps:

  • Make sure the enlarger's light covers the entire easel
  • Load the easel with paper
  • Arrange some objects in a fun pattern on the paper
  • Expose the paper at your wides f-stop for approximately 10-15 seconds
  • Develop the paper as you normally would (more about this later)

Step 6: Getting Ready

Now that everything is set up, and you know how to use it all, let's get ready to print!

The first step is to clean the negative:

  • Put a little rubbing alcohol on a cosmetic pad and wipe down both sides of your negative.
  • Wave the negative back and forth until completely dry.
  • Last, wipe off any remaining cotton fibers with your clean fingers

Next we're going to load the negative:

  • Take out and open your negative carrier
  • Slightly bend the negative (hot dog style), and put it under the pegs that will hold it in place.
  • You'll need to put the negative in emulsion side down. Your negative should appear backwards, and upside down. (But will look normal when projected)
  • Adjust the negative so that you can see the photo you want to print.
  • Close the negative carrier and insert it back into the enlarger.

Step 7: Bonus Step!

In the previous step, you may have noticed that the negative needs to be put in emulsion side down. But what does that mean?

Film is made of two major components:

  • A plastic strip
  • Emulsion

It's as simple as that; a plastic strip with a thin layer of emulsion on it. The plastic serves as a base for it, when the unused crystals are washed off by the fixer, the plastic remains to give the negative substance.

You can tell which side is emulsion, because the plastic side is shiny and smooth.

Step 8: Focus Your Picture

Alright, so we've got the negative in, since you already know how to focus the enlarger from step 5, this step is mainly for people who purchased grain enlargers.

  • Turn on the enlarger, and open the f-stop to the widest aperture (the light will be brightest)
  • Position the easel underneath your enlarger, and raise/lower the head so that you like how the picture is copped on it.
-If you don't see any picture, but the light is on, check to make sure it's not tremendously unfocused.
  • If you don't have a grain enlarger, this is where the road (or step) ends for you. Just focus the image to the best of your ability (Don't worry, you can usually do pretty well without one) and then turn it off.

If you do have a grain enlarger, follow these steps:

  • Place it under the enlarger (with the light turned on)

*Be careful not to block the light with your head*

  • Find a bright white dot through the eye piece of the grain enlarger - you may only be able to find it by backing up a bit
  • Slowly get closer to it, looking at the white dot, once you're all the way up to it, you'll be able to tell whether or not it is focused. If it is, each and every dot (pixel, for those of you used to digital) will be clearly visible. If you can't see the grain, turn the focusing knob until you can.
  • Voila, you're focused! Go ahead and put the grain enlarger away, and turn off the enlarger.

Step 9: Test Strips

Test strips are used to determine how long to expose your photo for. They are simply strips of your photographic paper that you expose for different amounts of time. Take one sheet of paper, and cut into ~1in strips. To use the test strip:

  • Set your f-stop to the smallest aperture (you'll get the best quality this way)
  • Lay one strip diagonally across the easel.
  • Set your timer to 30 seconds
  • Using a piece of something opaque, expose about a quarter cm every 5 seconds. - You will have bars on the paper when you develop it, one exposed for 5 seconds, one for 10, one for 15, etc. all the way up to 30.
  • Process the test strip as usual through fixer (more on this later)
  • Wash it off
  • Take it out into the light and find which bar looks the best. If the best would be a mix between 5 and 10, go for 7 or 8.
  • The time that you pick will be how long you expose the entire photo for.

If all the bars are too dark, make another test strip that goes from 1 second to 5 seconds in increments of 1. If they're all too light, make a test strip that goes from 60 to 30 in increments of 5.

Step 10: Print the Photo

Finally - The moment you've been waiting for! You're ready to make your first print.

  • Set your f-stop to the smallest aperture (you'll get the best quality this way)
  • Insert a full piece of paper into the easel
  • Set the timer to the time that you picked from your test strip.
  • Turn on the timer and allow the paper to be exposed
  • Process the paper through the chemicals (more on this in the next step)
  • Don't move anything on the enlarger until you've gone out and seen the picture in normal light (after it's been fixed), just in case there's something about it you don't like.

Step 11: Developing Paper

All of your times will vary based on what chemicals you use. Always follow the instructions given to you on the packaging. The work flow to follow when developing goes as follows:

  • Put paper in developer, agitate (rock the tray back and forth) for the required amount of time.
  • Rinse print in water (isn't your picture neat?)
  • Put paper in stop bath, agitate for the required amount of time.
  • Rinse print in water for ~30 seconds
  • Put paper in fixer, agitate for the required amount of time.
  • Rinse print in water
  • Put paper in hypo clear, agitate for the required amount of time.
  • Rinse print for ~10 minutes to make sure all the chemicals are off the paper
  • Squeegee the paper to get most of the water off
  • Hang the print for drying

Here are a few tips/explanations:

  • Rinsing between each chemical prevents cross contamination of chemicals, making them last longer.
  • Once the chemicals start taking longer to work, they're pretty much spent, and are ready for disposal (more on this later). Indicator stop bath will change colors when it's ready to toss.
  • In a home dark room, you could use the shower to squeegee in.
  • Fixer is the one chemical that it's most important to use for the full amount of time. Prints do turn yellow over time if not properly fixed.

Step 12: Disposal of Chemicals

Developer and Stop bath are generally mixed together and dumped with water down the drain.

Fixer contains silver released from the paper during processing, and therefore needs to either have the silver removed and dumped, or disposed of as hazardous waste. Jephy suggests asking a professional lab (like a one hour developer) to dispose of it for you.

Hypo clear can be dumped down the drain.

Kodak has a decent chemical safety guide located here

Step 13: Burning and Dodging

Sometimes part of your picture is unproportionately lighter or darker than the rest of your picture. This may be a sky that's to bright, or a shadow that's too dark, but whatever it is, you don't want it like that. If this happens, burning and dodging is called for. The concept of burning and dodging is that you allow part of your picture to be exposed longer than the rest of it.

  • If you want part of it to be darker, expose that part longer
  • If you want part of it to be lighter, expose that part for less time

Different implements can be used to accomplish burning and dodging, including your hands, a cut out shape, etc.

  • Use a test strip to figure out the different times needed for different parts of the picture.

Whatever you use to block light from touching part of the paper, make sure to wave it back and forth some, to avoid sharp lines of light. For exacmple, if you cover someone's head with your finger, it will not look natural, but like a finger. If you wave your finger back and forth, there will be a gradient that only lightens and darkens the part of it, without any visible shapes.

It's important to not give up when burning and dodging, it can take a few prints before everything is just right. You also may need to expose multiple areas for multiple times.

Step 14: General Warnings

On Skin Protection
  • The chemicals used in developing can cause dry rashes, warts, etc to some people. You can wear gloves or use tongs, if you want - but be careful not to contaminate the chemicals with each other.
  • Developer can cause brown fingernails...
  • Don't swallow or get any of the chemicals in your eyes

  • Fixer stains clothing. You can either designate clothes for printing, be careful, or wear an apron.
  • Be sure to clean up, if you let chemicals sit on surfaces, they will discolor eventually.

Do not consume food or drink while printing

Paper Warnings
  • Be careful not to bump the easel while the paper is being exposed
  • Always put your paper in the black bag it comes in before taking it out of the dark room
  • Safe lights can eventually expose your paper, so don't leave it out, even in the dark room. Take out paper as you need it. Also, use as weak of a light as possible.

Phew, we're finally finished! I hope you've enjoyed my entry to the Photojojo Photography Contest, and maybe even learned a thing or two. Let me know if you've got any questions or suggestions.
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