Darkcloths come in all sort of fancy guises, you can even buy a famous photographer branded one made out of a breathable waterproof material. However, while it is an important piece of the large format set up, it’s one that is really not worth spending money on, you can easily make one yourself, and chances are it will be at least as good as anything you can buy. (There are photographers who do not even use one, you can always use a jacket instead, but I find it’s a false economy, a decent darkcloth makes a big difference, not least because if I bring a jacket, it’s because I need to wear it.)

The basic criteria for a good darkcloth are

  • The fabric needs to be light tight, and black on the inside to eliminated any light reflections,
  • The fabric needs to absorb as little heat as possible from the outside, to reduce not just the photographer’s discomfort, but also to minimise steaming up of the ground glass and focusing loupe,
  • The fabric should be able to cope with the environment it will be used in, notably wind and rain; too thin fabric is impossible to manage in wind, and a fabric that gets immediately soaked through is no good when it’s wet.

As it happens, there is just about the perfect cheap fabric readily available: the material for blackout curtains, which can be picked up by the meter from places like eBay. This is a three-ply fabric, white on the one side, and black on the other, and these two layers are welded together with a thin plastic layer in the middle. The great thing about this fabric is that not only it’s light tight, black one side and white the other, but it has weight that makes it manageable even in strong winds, and the mid plastic layer makes it pretty much rain-proof.

The size required will to some extent come to personal preferences and how big you are. Mine is 1.4m x 1.0, where 1.4m is the dimension that goes around the camera (and is also the standard width of the fabric). The design itself can be quite simple. What I find works very well is to simply hem the long edge, and feed a 3mm thick bungee cord through the hem; the cord is then tensioned using an ordinary toggle. The cord should be longer than the 1.4m, so the cloth can be folded nicely, and the ends can be tied off after the toggle is slid over both of them.

There are some additional improvements that can be made. You can use some velcro along the 1m edge to allow closing the bottom of the cloth; this can be useful on very bright days when there is too much reflection off the ground, as it frees both hands to work the camera, but it gets in the way of a focusing loupe, I find it more bother than is worth (plus velcro catches on all sort of things, not least camera bag inserts).

The other thing you can do is to tie a length of a string to the each of the two remaining corners, which then can be knotted around one’s waist; this can be useful on very windy days.

The darkcloth made of the blackout material is quite heavy, about 450g for the 1.4m x 1m size, but there is nothing stopping us from making a second light weight cloth for the times that might really matter. I have one made from two layers of black polyester kite fabric. It is much lighter, it is also not light tight, so it’s far from ideal on bright days, and it is real pain managing in any sort of a wind, so all in all I use it very rarely.