Developing (B&W) Film
Note: This guide shows a cheap(er) and relatively easy way to develop black and white film, the procedures that this guide goes though are not the optimum way to develop film, but it’s plenty close enough and will get the job done with some pretty great results.
Taken a shine to film? Want to develop your own? A few years ago I wanted to get into traditional black and white photography, none of that digital stuff that I had grown up with, but most importantly I wanted to do-it-myself when it came to developing the film. Why though? Why would I want to when I could just pay someone to do it for me? A few reasons actually; I wanted to be involved with the whole process, and quite frankly, I was just really curious about how it was done. And as such I spent a good time searching the internet for a resource or two that explained things for the beginner, as I wanted to know exactly what I needed and had to do before I bought one piece of equipment.
The initial cost of the equipment isn’t terribly expensive for developing black and white film, most of the stuff you’ll need is pretty cheap, and after you have it the only thing you’ll need to buy repeatedly are the chemicals which are decently inexpensive themselves. There’s a popular myth that it’s less expensive to develop your own film yourself, if you just develop one roll of film every month or two it isn’t really worth it to do it yourself.
What You’ll Need:
- 2x 1-gallon storage jugs for your chemistry.
- 1-liter storage bottle for more chemistry.
- 600ml graduated beaker for measuring chemicals.
- A funnel for easy pouring.
- A processing tank, metal or plastic (I own both but use the plastic variety).
- A thermometer that can measure the proper temperature range we need.
- Film clips to hang your developed film.
- Developer for black and white film.
- Fixer for black and white film.
- Photoflo to keep your film clean and streak-free when drying.
- A bottle opener to pop open your rolls of film.
- A absolutely dark (not just dim) room, or a changing bag (which cost money).
- Something to store developed your film in.
Total cost: About $75.00 depending on what you may already own.
Mixing Your Chemicals
The second step to developing your film, is to mix your chemicals. Just follow the directions on your chemistry. In my case I use Kodak chemicals, and the D-76 Developer requires you to use water that is 122 – 131°F. The water in my tap gets up to that temperature so no worries there. The Kodak fixer needs the water to be around room temperature (64 – 78°F) for mixing. Here one might use bucket to mix their chemicals in, stir, then put into the storage containers. I find it easy enough to add some water to the storage container, pour in some of the chemicals, mix, and repeat until the container is full. Just a few precautions though, while the chemicals aren’t dangerous, don’t eat them, breathe them, or rub them in your eyes. Just saying. Also, mark the date on the containers that the chemicals were mixed. Working solution D-76 developer has a shelf life of about two months (with air in the jug, 4 or so without), and fixer is about the same. Also to note, fixer will stain your clothes permanently if you happen to spill some on yourself. When mixing fixer or developing film, wear some old clothes you wouldn’t cry over getting stained or get yourself a sexy lab coat.
Also you’ll need to mix up some photoflo into the smaller liter bottle. Fill the liter bottle almost all the way up to the top, measure out some photoflo (one part photoflo to 200 parts water, or half way up the threads in the cap per 1 liter of water) and pour it into the liter bottle. If you pour in the photoflo first and then add water you’ll find yourself dealing a a mass of bubbles. After pouring in the photoflo, cap the bottle and then turn upside down a few times to ensure that it mixed well enough.
Though it may seem a waste, if you’ve never spooled up a roll of film onto a processing tank spool you might want to open up an extra roll of film you may have lying around and take a dry run in the light at getting the film onto the spool, it can be tricky your first few times. I didn’t try it in the light my first time and it took myself a frustrating 20 minutes to get things all solved in the dark, now it only takes me a minute or so from lights out to finish. A roll of film is worth the trouble.
With the plastic style of processor, everything inside (your film) is sealed off from the light by way of the design of the processor itself. You can take the little cap off the top and not expose your film to light, which is good because it needs to come off so you can get chemicals in and out when processing the film. With the spools themselves, there are two halves to each spool, where one half rotates a quarter turn in the other; this action winds the film onto the spool. To get the film on the spool you’ll have to cut off the extra little flange of film (the flange you feed into your camera’s winder mechanism) so it’s squared off, then just nip a bit off the two corners. This part is where you’ll need the practice: Feed the lose end of the film into the spool then just “walk” the film into and around the spool by rotating the one half back and forth. When you get to the end of the film, cut off the plastic spool the film was originally wound around. Now you should be able to do it in the dark without much difficulty. If you wonder why this whole spooling of the film is necessary, it’s to keep the film from touching itself while developing and get even coverage of the chemicals.
Find yourself a very dark room, preferably one with no windows and with no light leaking in from anywhere; a closet, or a windowless bathroom work really well. I always throw a towel at the bottom of the bathroom door to keep any light from shining under the door. Now get your stuff laid out. You’ll need the film processor, your film, a bottle opener, and scissors. Try an remember where you put all your stuff around you when you turn the lights off, nothing is more frustrating than trying to find your pair of scissors you thought you placed to your left when you can’t see. Flip the light switch, open your film, cut the flange off, nip the edges, wind onto the spool, clip off the end of the film, put the spool back into the processor, and get the processor all assembled again. Now that your film is inside the processor you could develop it now or in a week, whatever tickles your fancy.
Now comes the time to actually do the developing of the film. There are 7 steps to developing film and this is the process and timing for each step I go though:
- Prewash – 1 minute
- Developer – Check your chart.
- Stop Bath – 1-2 minutes
- Fixer – 6 minutes
- Wash – 20 minutes
- Wetting Agent – 1 minute
- Dry – 2-4 hours
The first step to developing your film is to get it wet, so we can ensure that the developer develops the whole surface of the film the same. Just pour some room temperature-ish water in through the cap on the developing tank and agitate for a minute. When I agitate I just flip the tank over on end for about 2 seconds, then I flip it back. After about a minute, remove the cap and drain the water.
Next we have the actual developer, but first we need to know how long to keep our film in the developer. For this you can refer to the inside of the little box your film canister came in, or you can check The Massive Dev Chart. With The Massive Dev Chart you can specify the type of film you’re using and the particular brand of developer and find the best recommended time for development. Keep in mind that when your developer sits on a shelf and ages the development times start to shift a bit and it’ll take a little longer to for the chemical to work it’s magic than when it was fresh. Now we want to measure out enough developer chemical in our graduated beaker to cover our film inside the tank, much more than that is just wasteful. Take a look at the bottom of your tank, it should tell you how many milliliters of liquid you need to cover up one, or both spools. I always over shoot the recommended amount by about 50 mL just to make sure that my film is fully submerged. Now get your time keeping device handy, and add your chemical to the tank. Keep tally of each minute that passes by so you don’t end up under or over developing your film, and with each minute that passes by you should agitate the tank for about 10-15 seconds. After you’ve developed for the recommended time pour out the developer.
Just because you poured out the developer doesn’t mean that the film isn’t continuing to develop, so we need to stop that. You could either use a brand name stop bath but simply washing with water will do. I usually pour some water in and agitate a few times over 30 seconds or so, then repeat once.
Next we just need to fix the film so that it can be safely exposed to light. Measure out some fixer and pour in it. We only need to keep the film in the fixer for around six minutes. Keep track of how long it’s been submerged in the fixer and remember to agitate every minute. And the end of the six minutes, pour out the fixer.
Now we need to wash the film. For this you can now open up the processor and remove the spool with the film. Don’t take the film off the spool just yet, but you can look at the outer layer to see if you successfully developed the film or not. For 35 mm film we should wash if for roughly 20 minutes to half an hour. When I wash my film I just take the extra spool out of the processor, and set it under the faucet with the water running. The water doesn’t need to be on full pressure, just enough to keep water circulating over the film.
After 20-30 minutes, stop washing, pour out the water, and pour in some photoflo, just enough to cover the film. This step helps keep water spots from appearing on the film after it dries. Now just turn the spool in the fluid for a minute then go ahead and remove it from the processor, and then you can disassemble the spool and hang up your film to dry with the film clips and some string. Take a moment to check out your freshly developed pictures. If you happen to drop your film and it gets dust, hair, whatever on it, just simply put in back into the wetting agent for a moment and try to hang it up again.
When you hang your film to dry, try to pick someplace that’s dry, not very humid, and with as little free-floating dust in the air as possible. Now just wait an two to four hours for the film to dry and there you have it.
So now you’ve got yourself a strip of developed film. What are you going to do with it? As I see it you’ve got a few options: Do nothing, scan it, and make prints. Doing nothing is particularly easy, but you don’t get very good returns on nothing. You can scan your film with a standard flatbed scanner, or you could invest in a dedicated film scanner. Perhaps you might even start up your own photoblog. You could also make some traditional prints if you had the equipment. Whatever you do, cut it down into manageable strips, sleeve it and file it away in your archive.