What is a Darkroom?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A darkroom is a specialized light free environment designed for artists who work in the medium of photography. In order to develop film and prints, artists need to work in darkness to avoid exposing the light sensitive emulsions which cover photographic paper and film before they are developed. A darkroom can vary widely in size and design, depending on the type of materials being worked with in the darkroom and the number of artists sharing it. Often, artists work together in the same darkroom to share the costs of photography.

A darkroom used to print black and white photographs may be lit with red or orange light.
A darkroom used to print black and white photographs may be lit with red or orange light.

Typically, a darkroom is reached through a series of doors and curtains to prevent any kind of light pollution. This is very important in a shared darkroom, where different people may be performing different tasks with varying levels of light sensitivity. Switches to operate overhead lights in a darkroom are usually made difficult to access, so that someone does not accidentally turn them on.

Darkrooms are used when developing film to ensure light doesn't ruin unprocessed film.
Darkrooms are used when developing film to ensure light doesn't ruin unprocessed film.

A very basic darkroom usually has an enlarger for making prints, along with an assortment of developing chemicals in separate tubs. To develop prints, the artist exposes photo-sensitive enlarging paper to light through an enlarger, and then dunks the photograph in a series of developing chemicals to bring out the latent image, stop the action of the developing bath, fix the photograph, and rinse the developing chemicals off. Once this process is completed in the darkroom, the paper is safe to expose to light, and it can be dried and used.

Black and white photographers can work in a darkroom with what is known as “safe lighting,” usually in the form of orange or red lighting. Since black and white enlarging paper is sensitized to the blue-green end of the spectrum, red light in the darkroom will not have an impact on the finished print. This safe lighting allows photographers to see what they are doing in the darkroom.

Color photographers and film developers are not so fortunate. Film is extremely sensitive to light, so it has to be processed in complete darkness. Color enlarging paper is also sensitive to light on many parts of the spectrum, meaning that the photographer needs to work in the dark to avoid fogging or clouding the finished print.

People who are just starting to learn photography usually use a rented darkroom, since the costs of setting up a darkroom can get high. Professional photographers may use a pooled darkroom, as is the case at many newspapers which use film photography, or they may have private darkrooms. Artists tend to prefer private darkrooms for their work, as the quiet allows them to focus.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


@hidingplace - Digital and film both have their advantages and disadvantages. Film continues to get more expensive as supplies diminish and less people use it, but for serious photographers you can get a much higher quality print with darkroom printing than you ever could with digital. There are Digital SLRs that could come close to producing the equivalent quality but they'd be extremely expensive, whereas film cameras continue to get cheaper especially if you're buying second hand. So it really comes down to the needs of the photographer.


When I was in high school our darkroom was almost completely dark, it must have had some kind of safe lighting that wasn't orange or red because it was pretty dim. It was daunting at first but your eyes eventually adjust to it and once you know your way around the place it becomes easy. Putting the film on the canister in complete darkness was extremely frustrating though. All in all it was pretty fun - I've always kind of wanted to set up my own darkroom but using film is just so much more expensive than digital.

Post your comments
Forgot password?