Darkroom Hotel

Developing Film in a Hotel Room

Recently, I went on a short stint to Edmonton to take some photos of my old stomping grounds: Whyte Avenue. I knew I wanted to shoot film and I did bring digital but didn’t end up taking it out of the bag. My tripod also didn’t budge but last time I did need it, and like hell I was leaving it at home this time.

Anyway, I had with me a Canon EOS Elan 7 that I had not tested, and a much loved Nikon FE with the humble 50mm f1.8. Lately I had been shooting Tri-X at 1600 and getting great results. I loved everything but the developing time, which was 16 minutes.

I wanted to shoot a bunch of rolls, to let loose when I normally would be conservative, but I had to see the results as well. First I wanted to make sure everything was going smoothly, rather than head back to Calgary and realize every roll had an otherwise easy to fix problem.

That when I decided to bring a portable darkroom.

I didn’t need everything. I wasn’t going to scan or make prints, my only concern was making sure that my negatives were solid. It seemed like a good idea too, go out and shoot, come back and watch some cable TV while I soup everything. I managed to catch Predator 2 during my first test roll actually. Classic.

More about my initial test roll, and then I’ll tell you what I brought with me and how I transported it.

I needed to test the Elan 7, as well as the “darkroom” itself. So I snapped some shots of my cats and other randomness just so I’d have a roll with me when I arrived.

Before you think about supplies, you need to make sure you have a light tight situation. If you have a changing bag, you’re done, next step. However, if you don’t, you’ll need to figure out something elaborate and NON PERMANENT.

There is a third option, which is do nothing. The room may already be naturally light tight, and the way hotels are laid out, you have a good chance of that. That’s what happened to me.

During my light tight test, all I had to do was draw the curtains, turn off the lights and shut the door. I waited 5 minutes for my eyes to adjust and was still in total darkness. Many hotels will have black out curtains, and a bathroom by the front door, opposite the windows. I knew if this failed I still had time to go buy a changing bag, or wait until night time.

I set everything up, developed my test roll and it came out peachy! If you want to do it like I did, here’s what you’ll need.

First. I used a Coleman 45L Chest Cooler to hold everything and i zip locked anything usually reserved for a wet table situation. If something busted or burst during transport, it would have to escape the bag and the cooler.

I also recommend waiting till you arrive at your destination before buying water. Or use tap. Whatever. I prefer distilled and was super lucky to have a convenience store with it (and French crème cookies) in the plaza. Keep your empties for bringing back exhausted fixer and stop.

You’ll also need the following.

  • Two developing tanks.
  • Two extra spools
  • Temp / Humidity Gauge
  • Funnel
  • Nitrile gloves
  • One Roll of Paper Towel
  • Clips for hanging film
  • Green Painters Tape
  • Measuring Cups. I brought: 1x 1000ml 1x 500ml 1x 400ml 1x 100ml 2x 30ml
  • Two Thermometers.
  • Developer Stop Bath and Fixer. In my case I brought Blazinal (Rodinal) and Kodak HC-110 for developers.
  • Stop Bath and Fixer Working Solution
  • Hypo Check
  • Syringes
  • Darkroom Logbook
  • Scissors
  • Can opener. (I actually didn’t bring one but I know a lot of people use them. I just rip it open bare handed, like a boss.)
  • A binder with film sleeves

Now here are two simple rules.

  1. Don’t pour anything down the drain you wouldn’t at home. Even if you are in some sketchy motel, probably more so actually. Those pipes can’t take it.
  2. Take everything with you. Every used paper towel sheet, every clip of film. Don’t leave it for the cleaning staff. We all know the slightest whiff of stop bath is like being punched in the nose from the inside out.

I highly recommend a Darkroom Logbook if you don’t already have one. I don’t use it every single time but it’s good for reference to have. Here’s an example from when I did the test roll.

On Location: REDACTED Hotel, September 20th, 2019 @ 2:30PM
Water: 4 Liters @ 72.9F
Room Temp 23C @ 52% Humidity
Developing Test roll for EOS 7
Finished at 4:10PM (success)

One of my previous sessions at home was colder and more humid. Coming in at 18C @ 66% humidity and rising to 20C at 73% in just 55 minutes.

From here you should be able to do everything as normal and the last challenge is hanging up your film to dry, and there are two methods I used.

Method One: use clips or wood clothes pins attached to clothing hangers (provided by the hotel) and hang the film in the closet. The issue with this is it wont hang high enough and you’ll have to split your roll in two before placing on hangers.

Method Two: Use painter’s tape to hang them. Pretty barbaric I know, but using two strip of painter’s tape at the closet opening so the film doesn’t stick to a wall, over the exposed lead (the black part at the beginning) was the easiest, best and most non destructive way to get it done.

The only thing that was frustrating about this experience is that the hotel room turned out to be more dust free than my actual darkroom. Better counters too. So while I wanted to say “you’ll make due” you might come back felling like your home base needs an upgrade.

A few other things to keep in mind.

My distilled water was too hot, by almost 5F. I put some in the fridge to offset the final temp to 68F but you can also grab a bucket of ice from down the hall and cradle your mixed solution in ice until it reaches the temprature you need.

It’s best to clean everything immediately, and put it away in the cooler after each session.

Even though this is totally safe, I would advice against drawing attention to the idea of what you are doing, which is essentially renting a room and turning it into a lab. While this isn’t the biggest deal because WE know it’s safe, it’s hard explaining that to someone who may have never seen film before or know how it works.

Ensure there’s a Do Not Disturb tag on your door so your drying film is not disturbed.

Depending on how far you are driving (that’s right, don’t fly with this) you may want to check city bylaws for photo lab waste rules. It might be easier to bring it to a Fire Station, then all the way home.