How we built a mobile darkroom and a 16”x20” DIY camera

Feb 8, 2018

Natalia Barberis

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

How we built a mobile darkroom and a 16”x20” DIY camera

Feb 8, 2018

Natalia Barberis

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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PART 1 – The Camera

Starting back in May of 2014, I finally put my first foot forward in the making of a 16×20 inch bellows camera. The idea to build a camera was nothing new to me, but I was always hesitant to begin construction since I am the type of person that prefers to work off a set of blue prints and directions. Unfortunately, since my drawing skills aren’t amazing, it was pretty difficult to visualize and plan a solid blueprint of the project – which ultimately forced me to bite the bullet and simply begin construction of the camera and problem solve along the way.

Before building the camera, I did set out to make an outline of what I wanted the camera to achieve and be used for. For example; I knew that it needed to have a full range of motion as most Large Format Cameras (tilt, shift, swing, rise, fall), exceptional bellow draw to allow me to get close to subjects, and utmost, to look professional. With these goals in mind, I would be able to make a camera that can be used for all sorts of subject matter and situations.

From then until now: the construction of the camera is complete, I have run multiple tests in studio with the camera, and have shot a small series of six portraits.

During the process of building the camera all the way to the small series I have created, I have made a point of documenting what I have done in order to create a short visual essay to share the process with you all. Here we go!

Left Image – I needed to have some sort of foundation in order to start construction. I chose to start building the film (paper) back. By starting with the film back, this allowed to make all the proper measurements that I needed in order to complete the rest of the camera.

Right Image – Here you can see where I used a router to make a space large enough to fit a piece of 16″X20″ light sensitive material. Its depth is deep enough to fit everything from paper to film to 3mm tin or glass. What is being clamped down is an 1/8th inch piece of MDF; once the top piece of wood (in the background of the image) is fitted on top of the MDF, there would be enough space for a dark slide to fit in to keep the film safe from light.

Left Image – Clamping the top piece of the film back. The colour of the wood is darker now since I chose to do a quick layer of stain to make sure all the hard to reach (stain) places would have some sort of protective coating.

Right Image – Once the top piece of the back was fitted, I proceeded to add a few strips of pine around the edges to cover up all the layers of wood and MDF, and ultimately give it a cleaner and more professional feel. Once everything was in place, I then sanded down all sides of the film back to make sure there were no protruding edges and to make sure it looked like one unified piece of wood. With the exception of the dark slide and a stain job, the film back is done!

Left Image – Now that the film back is complete, I was able to take all my necessary measurement from it, and start construction on the actual camera. Simply, I needed to start construction of building a light tight box that could hold a film back + ground glass back, and hold a lens to project the images. Here I started building the back of the camera. I needed to build a box that would allow me to slide in and out my film holder, and the ground glass back – once that was built, I could proceed to the next steps.

Three Right Images – With the frame built for the sliding backs, all I had to do was build around it. While doing this, I needed to make sure that I provided sufficient space for my bellows to attach on the inside of the camera (seen in picture 2), and to make sure that I made everything large enough so that the back of the camera could stand and support itself. I provided multiple shots so you can get a better idea.

These are a couple more images showing how the back would function.

Now that the film back and the back of the camera were fully built – the rest of the construction was easy, all I had to do were take all the measurements from the parts that I already built, and re-apply them to make the front of the camera and make the ground glass back. In these two pictures you can see what the front element of the camera is going to look like. Directly in the centre of the front box is where the lens will  be placed.

Left Image – Here you can see me routing the hole in the front of the camera where my lens is going to be mounted.

Right Image – All pieces of the camera are fully finished (including the ground glass back, which I haven’t shown)! With the help of my friends, we added a couple coats of stain to the entirety of the camera, and once dry, varnished the whole thing for a nice finished matt look. All that is now left to do is mount the lens and attach the bellows.

Left Image – After a long search of which lens to use that would have an image circle large enough to cover 16″X20″, I ended up purchasing a vintage 19.75 inch (502mm) F10 Kodak Anastigmat lens.

Right Image – This is a full view of the camera when it is closed.

Left Image – Here is a view of the camera when it is extended. Since the bellows were much to complicated to me to construct by hand, I ended up getting them custom made by a fellow in Hong Kong where he hand made them using reinforced vinyl. Furthermore, I got a local custom leather shop (Odessa Goods) to create simple leather handles for my film and ground glass back – this made it easy to insert and remove the backs as needed.

Right Image – Me talking to Olga Chagaoutdinova about the process of building the camera and what I plan on using it for.

Here is a proper shot featuring the camera, me beside it for scale.

Left Image – The very first negative made with the camera. You can tell by the look on my face I am pretty excited!

Right Image – This is the first negative that I chose to go on and make a contact print with in the darkroom. Below you will see the final product.

Here is the very first print I made using the above negative. I am using RC paper to create paper negatives of my subjects, which I then go on to make a contact print in the darkroom that gives me a positive. In this particular case, I used a 20″X24″ piece of RC paper to make my contact print.

Since the ASA (ISO) of this paper is around 2, during the shoot, I use hot lamps to allow me to focus on my subject, then proceed to use a Profoto D4 pack with one light at full power to provide me enough light for an instant exposure. The results could not have been better.

From left to right, you can see me focusing the camera onto my subject, then loading the film back, and finally lifting up the dark slide in order to make my exposure. Its funny to think sometimes that to operate the camera I must use a table as a tripod, a stool to stand higher than the camera, and an assistant to operate the manual shutter (simply taking the lens cap on and off). If you look closely on the middle shot just to the left of my feet, you can see the ground glass back I use to focus my images.

These particular images taken of me was during a shoot where I photographed 6 people through the course of an entire day. All of my subjects were influential photographers within the photographic industry and have mentored me throughout my own photographic journey. Below is the body of work that I have produced so far.

PART 2 – Making A Mobile Darkroom

In December 2015 Shane Arsenault and I had started talking about a joint photography project with the purpose of using his 16”x20” Bellows Camera on a larger scale, which would give us the freedom to work outside a conventional studio space. The main restriction when using this ultra large format camera, is that you must have a darkroom in order to develop and switch out the film for each shot; since Shane had only constructed a single film back.

With the intention of getting out of the studio and photographing the beautiful Alberta landscape, we set a goal: a fully functioning and easily transportable darkroom to develop the images shot with the camera on location.

We started by creating a list of things that the darkroom would store while keeping in mind the weight limit on the axel. This would include but not be limited to: the camera, photo paper, chemistry, 4 chemistry trays, and water. We also had to consider ourselves when calculating the weight limit, since we would be inside the darkroom while developing.

After much consideration and thoughtful planning, we bought a second-hand trailer for $80 and a pack of beer in February of 2016. It was in bad shape but good enough condition to build on.

The axel was badly dented and had been clearly neglected for many years. We stripped the trailer of any unnecessary material, and set up the foundation with a new Axel and sub-floor.

We then proceeded to build the frame out of aluminum studs for the walls and roofing. Once the framing was secure to the base of the trailer, the OSB walls and roof were bolted on. Since we planned on taking the darkroom on long road trips through all sorts of weather, we worked diligently to make sure the structure was strong, stable, weather resistant and light tight of course.

By mid-March the roof was set in the same way as the walls, lots of glue and bolts to ensure there would be no issues in the future and no cracks for light to leak into our darkroom.

After all the walls were up and the roof set, we focused our efforts on the door and then once completed, started to weather seal the darkroom using a water resistant paint.

Once we were close to the end of the building process (or so we thought!), we began to design what the inside of the darkroom should look like. We started thinking about how the camera would fit, and quickly realized that due to the sheer size of the camera, the entire inside would have to be designed around it.

We figured that by customizing a utility wagon, transportation of the camera inside and outside of the darkroom would be much easier – and also double as our “tripod”. After all, the camera weighs over 30lbs.

We built shelves inside the darkroom in order to fit the camera snug on both sides; these would be perfect for storage and prevent the camera and small objects from rolling around whilst in motion.

In order to be space efficient, we thought of ways to put developing trays inside the darkroom without having to put shelves on the walls. We bought three 16×20” chemistry trays and cut them through the middle horizontally. We then glued cut plexiglass to create a sort of “envelope” for the unexposed prints. The idea was to have the chemistry inside these vertical tanks and to dip the paper in and out of the chemistry. Needless to say, they didn’t work.

We tried to make them more resistant to leaks by building clamps to hold them together.

Still didn’t work. So we moved on to our next great idea: same concept but metal tanks. We custom ordered steel tanks, but they cracked too. We had put so much time and money into this idea, so we sealed the cracks with a spray-on sealant, wrapped the tanks in duct tape, and built braces to stop the steel from bulging under the weight of the water. This worked… for a little while.

All the while, our good friend and fellow artist Rhys Farrell was kind enough to paint the exterior of our darkroom in his signature flashy and colourful style. This would help highlight our darkroom from the busy landscape and invite people to approach us about our project. We wanted people to reach out to us to ask, “what the heck is that!”

The next task was what to figure out what to do with the prints once washed. Conventionally, photographers would let their prints dry in screened cabinets or suspended from hangers. Neither one of these would work for the sake of space and functionality. Just like everything in our darkroom, we knew we would have to develop a simple and efficient way to dry our prints.

The drying racks shown above would allow us to transport our prints without compromising the image. All that was needed was some window lining screens, particleboards, and duct tape. The end result was 4 book like dry racks that allowed us to sandwich a freshly washed print between two screens.

Shane’s camera had only been used in studio settings before, so we proceeded to sew a massive dark cloth to cover the back of the camera while we were focusing. The enormous size of the dark cloth also ended up doubling as padding inside the camera-wagon-box-thing we built to transport the camera.

Next, the ramp to push the camera wagon into the trailer would be the easiest, but extremely essential to move things in and out of the darkroom efficiently.

We were finally ready to take our darkroom on a trial run on May 1st of 2016. We were so excited to put our darkroom to use that we neglected to check the camera for any light leaks, and there were plenty we tell you.  After 6 hours of trial and error, fixing and unfixing, we finally managed to cover all the light leaks and achieved a beautiful shot of the coolies in Drumheller.

After that day, we realized what was and wasn’t working for us. For starters our steel developing tanks were scratching our prints, the camera needed repair, we didn’t want to tape the light sensitive paper to the back of the camera any longer, and the red light, from a head lamp, was exposing our light-sensitive paper.

The vertical steel-developing tanks would have to go, so we built new shelves in the darkroom and set up traditional developing trays instead. Shane repaired the camera and added metal slips on the film back so we could easily slide the images in and out without having to use tape. And as for the red light – we ditched that too, we found it to be much easier and less worrisome to simply work in the dark.

After a lot of problem solving and hard work, we managed to turn what took 6 hours to shoot one worthy image, down to 2 hours per image. All of these shots have allowed us to grow as a team as well as understand what techniques to use to maximize productivity while shooting.

In only 5 months we managed to plan and design the darkroom and build it with our bare hands. It felt good. Now we had to do something big with it.

PART 3 – Grant Writing

Between August 1st and September 1st we dedicated all of our spare time working on an application for the Alberta Foundation of the Arts Funding. This grant would finance our next project; to travel and document the essence of Alberta in 30 images for a year.

In November, once weather permitted, we decided to shorten the darkroom by a couple feet – we did this because we found the darkroom to be a little top heavy, making travel with it a little uncomfortable. So we cut 2 feet off the top, built and entirely new roof, weather sealed it and gave it a new paint job!

On December 8th 2016, we were notified that our project had been accepted for the AFA grant. We finally had the capital to set a photographic project in motion. This grant would cover the cost for our photosensitive paper, developing chemicals, gas for transportation, printing costs, framing, and marketing costs for our final exhibition.

We took the time to celebrate and congratulate ourselves but had to start preparation for what would be an exciting a photo filled year! Once February came around, we ordered the most important supplies for the project, the positive paper and chemistry – and then proceeded to commence on any other prep work we had for the project.

PART 4 – Alberta Foundation of the Arts Project

On April 7th we stayed in Calgary for our first shot – taking about 2 hours to set up, shoot, and pack up.

On April 8th we shot in Calgary in Ogden Industrial Area, one of our favourite places. Our images all came out foggy and after much searching for light leaks or reasons why this would happen, we came to the conclusion that it was underdeveloped. The prior night was a cold one, and the chemistry was left in the darkroom outdoors.

After the last shoot in Inglewood, we still noted two things: we still had a small light leak in the darkroom, which we fixed with by installing a curtain on the inside of the trailer; and also to not leave the chemistry in the darkroom over night in cooler temperatures, always bring inside! At our next location we decided to take a triptych of the windows of the Molson Brewery shooting for just over 6 hours.

On April 28th we ventured out to Banff and photographed Vermillion Lakes.

May 12th we went to Canmore to shoot Ha Ling Peak. On our return to Calgary we stopped at the Abandoned Gas Station along Highway 1 – which has now been turned into a makeshift skate park – and created an image there within the first 45 minutes.

We drove out to Edmonton on May 27th to shoot the Alberta Legislature Building. At this point we were getting a better understanding of how our light meter reads at 1 ASA and were able to get our shot within one hour. After lunch we shot the Knox-Metropolitan United Church right before driving back to Calgary. We felt very creatively challenged while in Edmonton for no particular reason at all, but we left the city with a couple great shots!

On June 23rd we drove out to Drumheller and found a good spot in the Atlas Coal Mine.

On June 25th we shot in Calgary at the Deer Head Cafe.

Due to some health reasons, we took a short break from shooting but got right back to it on August 5th and spent the day photographing at the Pearl Hotel just outside of Greenview.

This is what we see when trying to focus the camera through the glass-back.

On September 5th we drove out to Black Diamond. It was a very windy day since it was Fall at this point. As per usual around this time of year, there were lots of fires in British Columbia and the wind was making our Albertan air smoggy and hazy.

Since the nice weather was close to an end, we planned a four day long trip down to Waterton with stops in Nanton, Pincher Creek and our way back through Lethbridge and Taber. Unfortunately that same weekend, there was a big fire that ended up closing Waterton National Park and enforcing an Alberta wide fire bad. We had to re-route and plan for alternative sleeping arrangement, since our intention was to be camping. We ended up visiting lots of great areas such as the Highwood area, Crowsnest Pass, Frank’s Slide, Pincher Creek, Fort McLeod, Lethbridge and Taber. Being very selective on what we decided to photographs, we finished the trip making a total of 7 new images, 6 of which were keepers.

Prints need to be washed thoroughly after development to make sure that all the chemistry that developed the photograph is out and free the the fibres of the print. This is a step that we will usually do once we get back to the studio in Calgary, but since we were on the road, the motel bathrooms seemed to work fine.

By this time we had shot 28 images. With just a few pictures left to meet our target, we chose a warm day to go out for one last shoot. We asked a close friend and fellow photographer Elyse Bouvier to document us working together. On October 21st we drove to Ramsay. We found a neighborhood, 2213 9st S.E., where there were 5 old buildings closed shut as if ready for tearing down. They looked like they were built in the 50’s. We only planned to shoot two images, but instead ended up shooting four images in three hours since the creative juices were flowing – we were done shooting!

Later that month, we got all our frames made and all the matting cut.

From the end of October to the mid December, we spent our time cleaning all our photographs, flattening them and then ultimately digitalizing all the work we made. Once digitalized, we spent countless hours in photoshop working very diligently to make sure the digital files we were making, were as close to the original as possible. Since the work we make is one of a kind, we use the digitalizing so we can not only share the work on the internet, but to edition and make copies of them as well.

About the Authors

Natalia Barberis is an analog photographer and artist based out of Calgary, creating epic bodies of work photographing and documenting people and places all around the world.

Shane Arsenault is a freelance photographer local to the Calgary area and is the founder of the photography studio collective, Loft 704.

As a team, Shane and Natalia have a considerable amount of credibility to their names, together having over 15 years photographic darkroom experience, 25 solo and group shows and a deep passion for historical and contemporary photographic practices. To see more of their work, check out their website and Instagram. You can also visit their exhibition titled “Alberta”, which will showcase all the work created so far with The Mobile Darkroom. The show is February 16th, 2018 from 6 pm. The exhibition will be at Loft 704 Photo Studio in Calgary, Alberta as part of Exposure Photography Festival.

This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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