Darkroom Setup!

Darkroom Setup
by Rick Paul

I started developing my own film in the 1970’s. A next door neighbor gave me his old enlarger from the 1940’s, and that gave me my first start at printing. I wish I had pictures to show you of that enlarger! It was a metal beast!

It wasn’t until recently that I had the space and the will to starting developing my own film again! While I don’t have a true darkroom, I have set up a space that is working pretty well for me.

above: Rick's Patterson Tanks

I started with just film developing with Patterson tanks. I have two, with the larger one allowing me to develop three rolls at once, or medium format film. I have tried many combinations of film and developers. I’ve settled on three main film developers, and I choose them based on the film I’m developing at the time. My favorites are:

• FA-1027 (Photographers Forumlary: http://stores.photoformulary.com/fa-1027-film-developer/)
• Tetenal Ultrafin Plus (Freestyle: http://www.freestylephoto.biz/131104-Tetenal-Ultrafin-Plus-Film-Developer-1-Liter)
• Rodinal (Compard R09 from Freestyle: http://www.freestylephoto.biz/9724-Compard-R09-One-Shot-Agfa-Rodinal-Formula-Film-Developer-120ml)

The FA-1027 is my favorite for traditional films (Tri-X, HP5). I generally use the Tetenal for T-grain films (Kodak TMAX, Fuji Neopan Acros, and Ilford Delta). I use the Rodinal when the whim strikes!

At first, I used a hybrid work flow, by scanning my negatives with a Nikon Coolscan V. While this worked at first, my ultimate goal was to start creating my own silver prints.

I started researching enlargers, looking at both new and used. Not satisfied with what I was seeing in the used market, I decided on going with a model I could grow with, and could handle just about anything I would want to do in 35mm or 120.

In 2012 I purchased a new Beseler 23CIII XL VC Variable Contrast Enlarger from Freestyle. I actually drove to the Freestyle warehouse to pick it up! They were very nice, were expecting me and had it already to go!


The 23ciii is available with three options for the print head. Color, Condenser, or Variable Contrast. I went with the variable contrast, which has built in filters for contrast grade 0 thru 5 and are calibrated for various brands of variable contrast papers.

The heart of my Beseler enlarger is a Nikon (of course!) EL-Nikkor f/2.8 enlarger lens. I found it on eBay for a great price. It appeared brand new and never used. It’s a great lens, and I couldn’t ask for anything sharper! I generally use it at f/8.

My darkroom is in my garage. At present, this only allows me to print at night. However, the garage is pretty dark in the daytime, and with a little work, I think I can make it light tight in the daytime.

I also researched work surfaces. While I considered dedicated dark room solutions, I went for a custom built table instead. This table was built for me by RDM Industrial Products in California.


They were very helpful and understood exactly what I needed. They were actually very familiar with darkroom applications and have built darkroom workstations for institutions in the past. For my table, they built it to my dimensions (to handle the enlarger,  and three 16x20 trays), and they also built it to be a comfortable working height for my height. They offer a range of table surface materials, and we decided on the chemical resistant top for my application. This has made darkroom chemical clean up a breeze!

While this custom made table may not be for everyone, it was definitely the right decision for me. Not only was the table make my exact specifications, it’s also rock-solid. No movement or vibration at all!

While my darkroom work surface itself is “dry” (no running water), I have a larger laundry room sink close by to get to water for rinsing the prints.

For chemicals, my primary print develop of choice is BW-65 from Photographer’s Formulary:


This developer is a Phenidone and glycin-based paper developer that produces rich blacks. BW-65 produces results similar to Amidol, but is much safer to use than Amidol.

Among other accessories I’ve picked up for the darkroom, include a darkroom timer. I found on eBay a decent, working Gra-lab timer. I like this style of timer, because it’s large, and easy to see. Very straight forward design.

I also recently picked up a Bestwell Grain Focusing scope. This allows you to precisely focus your image on the paper. If you haven’t tried one of these, you need to get one! You’ll wonder how you every got a sharp, focused print without it!

If you have any questions about my darkroom, or developing techniques, please feel free to contact me!

Rick’s e-mail:

Visit Rick’s website: www.saguaroshadowsphoto.com

Hear Rick chat about recommended Darkroom books on Epiosde 101 of The Film Photography Podcast! http://filmphotographyproject.com/podcast


alex luyckx's picture

Awesome setup! I hope to have a house one that'll allow me to finally setup a fixed darkroom, right now it's just a bathroom that has to be setup each time. But it works!

Rick Paul's picture
Bathroom setup is how I started. When I first got this enlarger it was the laundry room. This is really just extra space in our garage. Right now, I can only print at night, and it gets hot out there in the summer! But making it light tight and air conditioned is in the plans!
Amy Davies's picture
Thanks Rick. I had a darkroom years ago and I need some inspiration to get things set up again! Posts like this get me motivated.
Rick Paul's picture
Jump in Amy! Developing your own film is fun, but making your own prints is magical. Visit Freestyle for everything you would need. Let me know if you have any questions on enlargers. I researched the heck out of those before I picked mine.
Aathaaa From Bawston's picture
Rick and I are friends, albeit virtual ones, from his days as a Nikonian podcaster. I miss the show, but love his appearances on FPP. As a hardcore Nikonian, the line now gets lots of love on FPP. Loved the darkroom segment. Rick, do you also shoot Hasselblad? I think Mat Marrash still does? Now that I am full board into Hassy, that really represents a whole culture of medium format that FPP might like to explore. I know Mike has mentioned before about possibly taking the plunge? Look through that WLF, and you will be enthralled. -Aathaaa
Rick Paul's picture
Aathaaa, So nice of you to remember me from the Nikonians podcast! Yes, I've moved on from those days, because frankly I'm more enamored with film than digital! I'm really enjoying contributing the FPP and hope I'm helping to rekindle the love of film photography and particularly, Nikon film bodies! I don't have a Hasselblad yet, but it's on my short list! Hopefully later this year!
Anonymous's picture
If possible, go wet side dry side at your convenience. Just too many bad thing that can happen when it's all one side or in one corner.

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