Minimalist darkroom: An enlarger using a 4x5 camera

The creator of the Intrepid 4x5 camera announced he was working on an attachment to use the camera as an enlarger. What a brilliant idea. 

I'll be the first to sign up when the enlarger is released - but in the mean time I wanted to see if I could make my own contraption and get printing right away. Here's how I did it...

The enlarging attachment

The idea is simple - use a LED light source (large, even illumination and low heat production) to shine through a negative in the film holder location on the camera. I designed an adapter out of layered thin plywood  to hold a DIY foam negative holder on one side, with a multigrade filter and the LED source on the other. The entire thing is encased in a lid, using black silicone caulk to make it light-tight and painted it all black. This all sits on the back of a 4x5 camera and can be height-adjusted on a tripod (in this case, a 3 legged thing Albert). The Intrepid version looks like it will use the graflok system to securely attach the box to the camera. My version is loose, so there is a danger of it being knocked off.

DIY enlarger using an Intrepid 4x5

Film formats

The foam negative holder is removable so it can be swapped out with another to mask different sized film. Different lenses are required for different film formats, too. They should be close the normal focal length associated with that format:  I use a 65mm for 35mm film (the shortest focal length my camera can handle), a 90mm for medium format and a 150mm for 4x5 large format negatives. 

Additional enlarging equipment

Rather than get an enlarger timer, I took Ansel's advice to use a simple metronome. I use a Seiko DM110 which has red indicator lights. The enlarger LED has a physical on-off switch so it can be left in the 'on' position and activated remotely with a simple foot switch.

The only other equipment needed are 4 trays for chemicals and water, tongs, paper easels and a safe-light (I use a junior bulb in a light-stand socket).  The final critical item is a black-out screen for my bathroom window. I made it using layers of cardboard to act as a light-trap when inserted into the window frame.

All of this darkroom kit (bar the cardboard screen and the camera/tripod) can fit into a 32 quart storage container. Most of the chemicals used are part of my negative-developing kit. The only difference is the use of Ilford's multigrade developer for the prints.

This is a darkroom in a bucket. The world's most compact darkroom? It would be tough to beat this setup.

Using the minimalist darkroom

The first test of the darkroom was a success. I expected the LED was lower powered than a regular enlarger bulb, leading to very long exposure times, but in reality I was getting correctly exposed prints in the ballpark of 16 seconds at f22.

The main disadvantage was that the enlarger casing had to be removed to change the negative or the filter, whereas these items would be quickly switched out on a traditional enlarger. I also found that the honeycomb pattern of the LEDs was noticeable on the projection - this was addressed by placing a sheet of tracing paper behind the filter to act as a diffuser.

While not as convenient as a permanent darkroom, this compact setup might be what you are looking for if you have limited space.


Camera Kit: Large format 4x5

Large format seems like an extinct branch of photography to the uninitiated, but the format never went away. Actually, it is finding a new wave of appreciation among film photographers. There are a few reasons for the resurgence - there is no digital equivalent sensor size, nor is there a digital camera body capable of tilts, shifts, swings, rises and falls (with the exception of some specialty lenses). Used equipment is found online in abundance, and some entrepreneurs are even making new cameras such as the Intrepid Camera Company, Stenopeika and others. 

Intrepid 4x5 large format camera kit

The jump to large format

As for major changes in your photography workflow, the jump from digital to film is the biggest. You need to find a lab or learn to develop film yourself and then either scan the negative  or darkroom print your images. Most people will start with either 35mm cameras (because they are the most similar to consumer digital cameras) or medium format systems such as the Hasselblad 500 (because the cameras work in the same way as 35mm ones). 

The jump from small to large format film is a little easier. With large format, a few things change. Firstly you no longer need to get emotionally attached to a single manufacturer. You can pair anyone's lenses with anyone's bodies and choose any film holders for the negative size you have chosen. For bodies, you can choose between studio monorail systems which are the cheapest way to get going down the rabbit hole, or fold-able field cameras that have more restricted movements, but can fit in a backpack.

There are also a few extra pieces of kit your smaller camera systems may not have needed - lens boards, sheet film holders, a focus loupe and a dark cloth. Tripods and cable releases are no longer optional - you are going to need them to get even basic shots.

What is it good for?

  • Taking one photograph really well. This process is the antithesis of 'spray and pray'. A lot of time is spent picking and tinkering with the composition. It takes so long to set the camera up that you don't want to waste that time on a mediocre image.

  • Tilts and shifts by design. And rises and falls, too. The cameras are made to move the lens around for perspective control and plane of focus manipulation. 

  • MASSIVE negatives. They dwarf the grain even in 400 speed film.

What's the compromise?

  • Large format is not small. No way are these cameras going to fit in your pocket. Or small bag. Not even a medium bag. With a monorail camera, even a large bag is often insufficient. The compact Intrepid camera, on the other hand, easily fits in a backpack with a couple of lenses.

  • Forget about a quick snapshot. By the time the camera is set up, focused, shutter cocked and film holder inserted, a good deal of time will have passed. If you have a human subject, you have to keep their attention during setup and focusing or else there will be some long silences.

  • Lots of lens research required. You need to figure out which lenses cover your negative, and if you want extra coverage to accommodate small or large movements on the camera. Fast lenses allow for easier focusing via a bright image, but slower lenses are siginificantly smaller and lighter.  You also need to make sure your body can cope with ultra-wide angles (75mm or less) or very long lenses (300mm or more) or if it needs special bellows or lens boards to cope with them. A great list of lens stats to get you going can be found  at

What's in my camera bag?

  • Cameras: Intrepid 4x5 folding field camera

  • Lenses: Schnider 65mm f5.6, Schnider 90mm f5.6, Calumet 150mm f5.6, Rodenstock 210mm f5.6, Rodenstock 300mm f9

  • Accessories: Lens board for each lens, film holders (9), focusing cloth, cable release