Film is wonderful. Aside from being a technological miracle in which millions upon millions of microscopic silver halide crystals somehow capture a latent image, it’s a medium that will often dramatically improve the way you take photos. There are few more rewarding things for a photographer than eagerly receiving your work back from the lab or the drug store, only to find that your shots are exactly as you intended them. Few things, that is, other than the pleasure of developing film yourself.
The resurgent popularity of film is undeniable at this point. We’ve had announcements from Kodak of a reintroduction of classic stocks like T-Max 3200 and Ektachrome. For photographers already working with film or those looking to take the leap, one of the biggest drawbacks has been dwindling film development resources worldwide. Development equipment, however, is cheap and easily available online; while there is a learning curve to developing your own film, it’s easy once you’ve mastered it. Moreover, learning how to develop film yourself will give you a better understanding of the process behind shooting analog photos.
There are three main forms of development process you’ll find yourself dealing with: black and white negative (black and white development process), color negative (C-41 process) and color reversal or slide film (E6 process), where the finished products are slides or diapositives. In this article, we’ll mostly be exploring the black and white process. I strongly recommend beginning home developing with black and white film, especially 35mm, as it is dramatically less complicated for beginners and requires less equipment.
The equipment you’ll need for development
- Black and white developer, fixer and (optional) stop bath.
- A changing bag, to facilitate removing the film from its canister (35mm film) or spool (120 film) to your developing tank.
- A developing tank and reels. This is where the actual developing of the film takes place after you’ve placed your film in the reel.
- A digital thermometer, to ensure your chemistry is at the right temperature.
- A timer, to ensure correct development times.
- A bottle opener, scissors. These are both solely used for 35mm to remove the film from its canister.
- Beakers/Containers, for measuring the requisite amount of chemistry correctly.
- Bottles, for storing your chemistry.
- Film clips, and a bathroom for drying your film after development.
- A sink, bath, or anywhere with access to a water supply. This is where the developing will ideally take place.
1. Choose your developer
Unlike with color developing (both C41 and E6), in which essentially all color developers work largely the same way, there are a myriad of developers for black and white film, and it can be difficult to decipher which one will work best for you.
There are both liquid and power developers available, as well as “solvent” (fine-grain) and “non-solvent” (high-acutance) developers. There are minimal differences between liquid and powder; powder can be stored for longer periods and you can mix only part of the chemistry together for only as much developer as required. Deciding on which developer you use is largely a matter of personal taste and dependent on what you want out of your photographs.
Solvent developers such as ID-11, D76, Perceptol, Microphen and XTOL, when mixed at stock or a weak dilution, provide fine grain and are forgiving enough to cover a wide range of exposures on a single roll of film. Non-solvent developers such as Rodinal, HC-110, FX-1 and PMK (Pyro), meanwhile, give increased grain but an increase in sharpness.
To complicate things further, most fine-grain developers can be diluted at various strengths to increase sharpness, although this often comes at the cost of grain. Again, this is likely down to personal taste. Diluting provides more working solution for more film, but stock can usually be re-used up to ten times with increased development time.
Personally, I largely use ID-11 or D76 (they are mostly accepted as identical developers) diluted to 1+1 with Kodak Tri-X film for a trade off between grain and acutance, and use Ilford Perceptol and Microphen at stock for slow (ISO100 or under) films or fast (ISO 800+) films, respectively. Other recommended developers for beginners are Ilfotec DD-X, Ilfosol 3, or Diafine. Both ID-11 and D76 are widely regarded as industry standards and are the most accepting of a wide variety of development times and temperatures.
From my own experience, most different types of fixer and stop bath will work similarly. I generally use Ilford Rapid Fixer as instructed on the packaging and have had no problems with this.
2. Mix the chemistry
There are a few safety precautions you need to take before starting your film development process. Ensure that you wear rubber gloves at all times, and that you’re carrying out the developing in a well-ventilated area. If you feel faint, dizzy or otherwise unwell, make sure to take a break or leave the room. The liquids used in these photographs are for demonstrative purposes, but you should always make sure to use rubber gloves when handling potentially hazardous chemicals.
To start, you’re going to need to mix your chemistry. For powder developers, you’ll need to prepare the developer according to the instructions, likely involving filling a beaker to a set level (eg. 800ml) before pouring in developer parts A and B and filling it up with water to the level of solution you need. As mentioned, if you’re planning on using dilute solution, you’ll need to take that into account too. If you’re using powder, you’ll need to wait for your working solution to come back down to room temperature, usually 20°C/68°F or as close as possible, which is generally the working temperature for most black and white film. Measure this using your digital thermometer.
For both liquid developer as well as most forms of fixer, you’ll have to dilute your solution according to instructions. For developing, you’ll need to use only a certain amount of solution, which your developing tank will usually specify. For mine, 375ml for 35mm/590 for 120 film/750ml for 35mm x2 are specified.
3. Load the film for development
Once your working solution is prepared, you’ll need to load the film into the developing tank. First, you’ll need to place your reel and the center of the tank into the tank itself as pictured, before putting the lid on top and ensuring the agitator is locked into the developing tank center. This is so you can twist the agitator, thereby moving the reel (with the film inside) on the inside through the developer and fixer while ensuring that all parts of the film consistently have access to fresh chemicals.
Next, place the tank (with film, center, lid, and agitator included), film, scissors and bottle opener inside the changing bag and ensure that it is fully zipped up and closed. Place your arms inside the designated holes in the changing bag so that at least your arms up to your elbows are within and ensure that there’s no space for light to seep in.
The next steps must take place blind inside the closed changing bag so the film is continuously in complete darkness. At no point until the film is wound on to the reel and then placed into the tank and the tank firmly closed can you open the changing bag. Take the developing tank lid off and the reel out before applying your bottle opener to the top or bottom of your film canister. You use it much the same way you’d open a glass bottle, peeling one side of either end off before removing the spool from the canister. Unfurl the film from the spool before cutting the film at the end attached to the spool (unless you want to accidentally cut into your undeveloped pictures).
Next is the tricky part. Taking one end of the film (fat end without the leader recommended), you need to feed it into the film reel. For most collapsible reels, you’ll need to feed part of the film into the opening of both reel parts together before winding one side of the reel to continue winding the whole of the roll onto the reel. As this is a tricky procedure, it’s worth practicing on either a roll that’s not of much importance or practicing winding on a pre-developed roll in daylight. This counts doubly when using 120 film, which due to its larger size is more prone to bending and friction and is subsequently more difficult to wind.
Once the film is wound, place your reel onto the center, firmly place the lid on the tank and ensure the agitator is placed in the developing tank lid. You can now open the changing bag and remove the tank.
4. Pre-wash or pre-soak your film
The pre-wash step is to prevent air bubbles from forming on the film. These can occur when developer is added to dry film. Pour cold or lukewarm water from the tap into the agitator/hole in the tank and fill it to the brim. It’s vital that you do not pour water into the tank that is too hot or inconsistent in temperature otherwise the film emulsion can melt, whereas adding water of very varied temperature such as cold-hot can cause “lizard-skin” patterns on the film from reticulation. As a rough estimate, soak the film for 2 to 5 minutes.
5. Develop your film
After soaking, pour the water out of the tank. If the water is a weird color or looks murky, don’t worry, this is entirely normal. With the thermometer, test the temperature of your developer to ensure that it’s at 20°C/68°F. If it’s colder, you’ll need to warm the solution. The best way to do this is to fill your sink with warm water, place the beaker within it and wait for the solution to warm. If it’s too warm, you’ll need to cool the solution down. As a recommendation, for every 1°C/1.8°F the solution differs from the norm, increase or decrease your developing time by 10%. For example, if developing at 19°C/66.2°F, add 10% to the overall developing time.
You now need to check the developing times for both your film and developer. Either the technical information included with your developer, data sheets from the company producing the film, or the massive development chart will help with this. For example, for my film, Fomapan 400, I’ll be using Perceptol developer, with a development time of 9-10 minutes, as Fomapan recommend.
Most film developers will specify an agitation routine for developing. (However, some developers, like Rodinal, are usually specified as being for “stand development,” i.e. no agitation at all.) Perceptol’s technical data recommends ten seconds of agitation for every minute of development, which is what I’ll be using. Whatever timing you use, ensure that your agitation times are consistent so that the film is constantly receiving fresh developer. Now that we’ve checked our developing times, chemistry temperature and agitation routine, we can pour the requisite amount of developer (375ml) into the tank and begin our timer.
When we’ve poured all of our developer in, lift the tank and tap it down firmly onto a hard surface a couple of times. This is to ensure bubbles don’t form and potentially ruin development. Repeat this periodically, while agitating to the recommended routine. While some photographers prefer not to do this, I’ve had good results from adding around 30 seconds to one minute of development time to ensure that the negatives aren’t underdeveloped, as negative film is generally more tolerant of overexposure than under.
When the development time is over, either dispose of the chemistry or pour back into the container if you’re reusing it.
6. Add stop bath and fixer
If you’re using a stop bath to stop development, you’ll now need to pour the required amount of stop bath solution for the recommended time into the tank, before pouring back into its container for reuse. Personally, as development times for negatives isn’t quite as critical as for darkroom prints, I find that running lukewarm water into the tank for 1-2 minutes following development is sufficient to stop development, and this removes the necessity of buying stop bath.
Next, we need to pour the required amount of fixer into the tank to remove the silver halide crystals from the film, or fix the image. Fixer is much less temperature- and time-sensitive than developer, and will prove usable at most temperatures from roughly 10°C/50°F through to 30°C/86°F. For example, Ilford Rapid Fixer recommends a fixing time between 2-5 minutes, though I’ve rarely used below five.
After the recommended time has elapsed, pour the fixer back into its container for reuse, and that’s it! You’ve developed your first roll of film.
7. Do a final rinse
Now all that’s left to do is the final wash, by placing the developing tank underneath the tap. Rinse the tank for a couple of minutes, before opening the lid and rinsing the film directly. After this is done, you can finally view the contents within! If everything has gone well, you should have a roll of perfectly exposed negatives.
The two most common problems beginner film developers are likely to encounter are negatives being “too thin,” or transparent, often caused by underexposure or underdevelopment; or negatives being “too dense” or dark, often caused by overexposure or overdevelopment.
As an optional final step, you can rinse the negatives with Photo-Flo, a film cleaner designed specifically to reduce drying and water marks on the dried-out film.
8. Hang your film up to dry
Take your film clips and attach one to both ends of the film, to ensure that the film doesn’t curl as it dries. For drying, the best setting is a moist, dust-free room, ideally a bathroom or on the inside of your shower while the air is reasonably humid. Usually it takes somewhere between two and five hours for your negatives to dry.
Once your film is dry, you’re done. You can bask in the light of thousands of photographers before you well versed in a practice and an art form that dates back all the way to the early 1800s!
Next steps for your self-developed film
There are a number of things you can do with your negatives! Think of them as the raw files you obtain from your camera. As a start, you can:
- Take your negatives to a photo lab or drug store for scanning to a CD. Thankfully, even most stores and labs which don’t develop black and white film themselves can still scan it.
- Scan your film yourself with a dedicated film scanner. For scanning 35mm film, the Epson Perfection V300 is a good affordable option. The Epson V600 or V550, or something similar may be a better choice if you’re scanning medium format film. I would recommend this step for photographers versed in digital photography or those looking for complete creative control over the finished scan, as well as those who still want to use digital editing software on their images.
- Enlarge your negatives optically in a darkroom using an enlarger. For this, you’ll need access to a darkroom or a light-tight room at home, as well as photographic paper and photo paper developing materials from which to make prints from your negatives.
Notes on push and pull processing film
“Pushing” or “pulling” film refers to a film developing technique that effectively increases or decreases the sensitivity of the photographic film being processed. Push processing involves developing film for more time, or at a higher temperature, than is recommended by the film manufacturer, resulting in effective overdevelopment of the film to compensate for underexposure in the camera or to achieve an overexposed effect. Pushing a film two stops, as an example, would effectively increase the sensitivity of an ISO 400 film to ISO 1600, allowing correct exposure in lower lighting conditions.
Pushing film also alters the visual characteristics of the film, which can be a potential downside. You can expect to see higher contrast, less shadow detail, increased grain, and lower resolution, as well as saturated and distorted colors in color film. Some films, such as Kodak T-Max 3200, are actually nominally ISO 800 , but are designed to be “pushed” up to ISO 3200 as standard. ‘“Pulling” film, whilst less common, decreases contrast (and saturation) and increases grain.
Notes on developing color film
It is certainly possible to develop color negative and color positive film at home, but there are added difficulties to consider. The C41-negative process itself is much more difficult, due to being extremely temperature sensitive, especially without a basis in developing black and white film. The best means of success is to heat all chemistry used (this is usually color developer, bleach, fixer (sometimes combined), and stabilizer) as well as the developing tank and film in a sink or faucet until it reaches 38°C/100°F before pouring and agitating, exactly like with black and white film.
Developing is the most critical point of developing, as dramatic temperature changes can cause wide colour changes in the film. Another important change is the stabilizer, which is used to protect the dyes in the film from fading.
C41 and E6 chemistry are generally considerably more expensive than for black and white film, but most are designed for multiple reuse. Tetenal’s 1litre C41 kit, for example, develops between 12-20 rolls of film, but development times must be adjusted with repeated use.
All photos by the author. Liam Harrison is a photographer and writer based in Glasgow, Scotland.