Portable photographic darkrooms:

Alternative photography processes on the road

By Jo Howell

A travelling photography studio from Google Images

The road to the smartphone revolution was littered with the memories of beasts of burden ladened down with giant glass plates, and huge wooden cameras. The pioneers of photography were intrepid to say the least. Innovative. And, bloody minded. One of the first examples of a traveling darkroom was that of Mathew B. Brady (c. 1822 – January 15, 1896). He was one of the first American photographers. He is famous for taking his darkroom wagon onto the battlefields of the American Civil war, (or sending his assistants instead).He created his traveling darkroom studio out of a wagon. 

I was standing on the shoulders of giants in 2018 when I decided that I was going to create my own for the #wearexperimenting project. In previous projects I would just rock up to the community centre, church hall, or library and make a temporary darkroom in a cupboard or toilet. This was an ok way to work, but it did mean that I had to scout out the rooms first to ensure that I could make them dark enough. It also makes the situation a little bit more nerve wracking, and sometimes uncomfortably close! The smell of the darkroom is already fairly overpowering without having your face stuck in someone else’s armpit.

The hydroponic tent set up for large scale printmaking in my studio

I know that there are quite a few contemporary photographers who have created brilliant versions of the portable darkroom. A few of note that I would recommend further research on are: 

I created my darkroom tent by ordering the largest hydroponic tent that I could get. I found mine on Ebay and it is 2.5m x 2.5m x 2.5m. A hydroponic tent is a tent that is made to be used by people who want to very carefully control the life cycle of plants. (Weed growers mostly). The tent isn’t completely ideal as the interior is a highly reflective surface, but it does have a couple of things in it’s favour. The tent is designed to be completely blacked out from any light penetrating from outside, and it is waterproof inside, which is good for easy clean ups of chemical spills.

I went for this particular tent because I knew that I would have quite a few people in it at any one time, and I knew I would have assistants to help me set it up and take it down. The shiny interior ended up playing to our advantage when we were set up at festivals, because it meant that our tiny camping lights (covered in several layers of red cellophane) were more than enough illumination for the participants to be able to see the process.

The tent travelled all over Sunderland, and was used both indoors and outdoors. When we set up outdoors we took a gazebo to put over the top of the darkroom tent to protect it, and also to give us a nice sheltered workshop space to hang prints out to dry. You will probably agree that all of the examples that I have given to you are fairly over-the-top and quite theatrical. This for me was another vital boon for taking taking the tent across the City.

It made people stop and say “What the hell is that?” or “Why aye. I’ve got one of those tents.” The latter comments being made by local indoor gardeners.

The theatricality of the set up creates a kind of lure for the public. What is this magic? What is this madness?

Intrigue is a great way to destroy social barriers. We are curious creatures. Having a portable darkroom in any guise allows we alternative process photographers to show people the origins of the art. Understanding the fundamentals of a pinhole photograph can be enough to blow someones mind! It can help them to understand the physical properties of light, how our eyes work, history, science, art, observation, discipline; and it can ignite lifelong passions. That’s why these bloody minded cracker jack photographers build these mad mobile temples. 

The physical toll on the people who take these set ups around, is quite a lot. I enjoyed every second of putting up and taking down my tent across my City for my community, but holy crap! It was exhausting! Mind you I could still persuaded to go out again when the sun is shining. Especially if I get paid to do it!

The logistics of creating a darkroom that you can use both indoors, and outdoors, and use over and over again, is worth considering as well. I managed to get all of my gear in the back of a micra, but it took a minimum of two of us working our arses off to set it up and take it down. 

My Kit

My kit consisted of the following:

*Hydroponic tent

*a gazebo tent for outdoors 

*5 red cellophane magnetic camping lights

*5 trays for chemicals and water

*a robust health and safety policy, safe guarding procedure, risk and fire assessments

*first aid kits

*eye wash

*vinyl gloves


*separate chemical storage box

*bottled water and hot water (sourced from either my thermos or a catering van)

*a clothes horse

*loads of pegs

*a changing bag

*pre-made pinhole cameras

*materials to make their own pinhole cameras

*Chemicals and Ilford paper

*folding tables and chairs

*spare tent pegs

*screwdrivers, hammer, gaffer tape, black card, sewing kit, string, rope

*promotional items for the project

*food and drink for me and the assistant

*batteries and spares

Pinhole photograph of Sunderland town centre from #wearexperimenting

We practised setting up and taking down the equipment before we started with the public. We could put one tent up in around 20 min, and both in 45 min. I would always advise that any photographer worth their salt does equipment checks before working with the public to avoid disappointment. When I used the tent again the following year, I did another check and clean down. I did discover a couple of light leaks but these were easily taken care of using the gaffer tape and card. I also discovered that on one of my DIY safe lights the cellophane had split allowing a lot of white light in to the darkroom. None of this was a problem because I checked my gear and fixed it before turning up. 

So, there’s some basic ideas and advice on how I made mine and what I used it for. It cost me around £300 in total, not including the materials that needed to be replaced. You don’t need to buy photography gear for a lot of the things that you will need. Instead of photography trays you can use cat litter trays (obviously not use ones). The red cellophane came from a florist. The clothes horse I found in a skip. The changing bag I bought from eBay, and it is a piece of equipment that I use all the time. The bottled water can be just tap water in bottles, it’s mainly for ease of transport. A lot of the smaller pieces of equipment like the screwdriver, hammer, tape etc you might just have kicking around the house, or you can borrow them off your dad (though maybe not whilst we are still in isolation).

I have made smaller darkrooms out of cardboard boxes that I lined with thick polythene vinyl, but the longevity of those set ups is very limited, and other people can’t see the development process in action.