Photo by Ron Lach
Developing Film at Home
Developing your own film at home sounds intimidating. Here you are, having just invested your time and creative energy into all 12, 24, or 36 exposures on your roll of film, and now you have to face chemistry!?! Fear not. The science needed to develop your own film at home is fairly easy (in fact many of the products you’ll need to do this will have the math part already spelled out for you on the packaging).
And developing black and white film is easy enough, why not own this part of your creative process right? Learning to develop color film at home is a more complex process and can be a bit trickier since there are more chemicals needed and these chemicals are much more sensitive to temperature shifts during the process. There are special products to help keep this from being an issue, but for simplicity’s sake, in this article we will be focusing on developing your own black and white negatives.
Developing your own black and white negatives can save you quite a bit of money if you are a prolific photographer. Everything needed to get started can be found for under $150 (thanks in part to the ILFORD & PATERSON FILM STARTER KIT). Once you made the initial investment on the equipment, just paying a lab to scan your film or learning to scan your own film will continue the long term savings.
Not only can this hands-on experience save you money and connect you closer to all parts of your photographic craft, but maybe you don’t have a lab near you, or maybe you're shooting on location somewhere and need to see what you’ve shot without waiting to get your negatives back from the lab. Developing your own film will allow you independence to control the timeline and feasibility of your projects as well as the expense.
Here’s a list of the equipment you need to start developing your own black & white film at home. The necessities:
- Developing tank: There are few different kinds of these, but they all serve the same function: a light proof container where your film will be processed by the chemicals during development. A few different companies make film developing tanks and reels and there are both metal and plastic tanks and reels. Generally, the plastic reels are a lot easier to load than the metal ones. Paterson makes the easiest to load reels as their reels have ball bearings that help push your film through the tracks on the reel.
- Film reels: These keep your film evenly spaced around the core of the developing tank, allowing the chemicals to touch the entirety of your film's surface area.
Tip: Plastic film reels are easiest for beginners to learn on since metal reels are typically much harder to load your film onto.
- Measuring vessels: Remember those beakers or graduated cylinders from your childhood science classes? They’re back! Two or more of these measuring vessels will be needed to measure and mix your chemicals. One larger vessel and one smaller vessel will be helpful to cover all your needs, and if you plan to develop as little as one roll of 35MM, make sure it can measure as little as 15 ml!
- Chemicals: There are going to be three main chemicals: developer, stop bath, and fixer. Also, an optional wetting agent to prevent water marks from forming on your film as it dries is recommended, especially for beginners, but not an absolute necessity. The developer, stop, and fixer all come in both liquid and powdered forms and are made by a few different manufacturers with slight nuances and differences between them. Typically speaking, the liquid concentrate versions are easier to work with and maybe a bit safer since there won’t be any chance of inhaling the particulate as you mix your own chemistry.
- Storage bottles: You’ll want opaque bottles (safe for storing chemicals) for any leftover mixed or reusable chemistry you plan to use in the future. The classics are relatively cheap opaque plastic bottles specifically made for storing photography chemicals. Be sure to label your bottles so as not to confuse what chemicals are inside the next time you go to use them.
- Thermometer: Any basic thermometer to measure liquid temperatures will do.
- Scissors: Scissors so you can cut your film from the spool or backing paper.
- Changing bag: Should you have a light tight closet or room in your living space, a changing bag isn’t an absolute necessity, but it will make your life a lot easier. Plus who knows how light-tight that closet really is and with a changing bag you’ll be able to load your film anywhere!
- Film clips: These secure your negatives while they hang dry. You’ll need something to hang your negatives with, but specific film clips aren’t necessary. They’re just nice to have and less likely to scratch your negatives than a DIY solution.
- Bottle opener: If your hands are strong enough, you might be able to use your fingers, but a bottle opener makes it easier to pop the top off of your 35mm film canisters and take the film out of them.
- Distilled water: If your tap water has high mineral levels (these can leave spots on your negatives), then you’ll want to use distilled water. This will give you the best chance at nice clean negatives to work with later!
Now that you have everything you’ll need, let’s dive into the process. Every step of this process should probably be practiced in the light first, since at some point you will be doing the majority of the unloading of the canisters and the loading of the reels in the changing bag where you won’t be able to see what you’re doing. You’ll need to sacrifice a roll of cheap or damaged film to practice, but you’ll be glad you did once you're not able to watch your hands’ actions.
Here are the steps to unloading your film from the canisters, loading it onto the reels, and getting it securely in the developing tank. (This is specifically for the Paterson Universal plastic tanks, but the operations are generally the same on all developing tanks, minus the Lab Box).
1. Open up the bottom of your changing bag and put your film canister(s), developing tank (including the center column and funnel lid), scissors, and bottle opener into the changing bag.
2. Now put your arms through the arm holes on the changing bag. Locate your film canister(s) and your bottle opener and use the bottle opener to pop the metal top off of the end of the canister that the center spool sticks out of. It won’t take too much effort, as long as you’ve managed to get your bottle opener under the rim of the top piece.
TIP: You want to be careful not to get fingerprints on your film while loading it onto the reel. Wearing nitrile or latex gloves so that you won’t leave oily fingerprints behind on your negatives that will block the chemistry from developing your film will keep you from ruining your negatives. Plus wearing gloves keeps the smell of fixer and the other chemicals from lingering on your fingers for days.
3. Without completely removing the spool from your film canister, pull the spool out enough that you can spin it around until you find the leader on your roll. Once you locate the leader, while keeping some tension on the film wound around the spool, remove the entire spool from your film canister.
4. Use your scissors to cut off the leader end of your roll of film making a nice straight edge to load onto the reel.
5. Put your spool (with the film still wound around it) back into the canister and set it aside for a second. You want to do this so that while you’re locating you reel and prepping it to receive the film, your film won’t spring loose from the spool and create film spaghetti inside the changing bag.
6. Locate your reel(s) and feel around the outer edge until you find two “knobs” that indicate the entry point for your film. These knobs will need to be aligned with each other to start or your film won’t take up on the spool.
7. Once they are aligned, take your film out of the canister again and begin to feed it onto the reel(s). After pushing it a short distance past those knobs, you should feel your film catch on the bearings. Once you feel that, you’ll be able to twist the top and bottom plates of the reel back and forth while the bearings help take up your film and guide it into the track on the reel(s).
NOTE: If you feel your film catch or it gets stuck while being fed through the tracks, stop and pull your film off of the reel(s) and start over. Be sure that your front straight edge hasn’t become bent as this will make it near impossible to load your film back onto the reel smoothly. If you need to, recut a new straight edge on the front of your roll. Trying to force a jammed roll onto the reel(s) will likely result in the film not loading properly and thus your images won’t develop properly.
8. Once your film is on the reel(s), put the reel onto the center column piece of you developing tank.
9. Repeat steps 2-8 for any remaining rolls of film you plan to develop in the same tank.
10. Once all rolls of film have been loaded onto reels and the center column, put the center column into the tank (you should feel it “lock” into place) and put the funnel lid on. Rotate it clockwise until you hear a click and your tanks should now be light tight.
11. Now you’re ready to mix your chemistry and develop your film!
Mixing Your Chemistry
You won’t need to be a mad scientist to mix your own photo chemistry. It actually requires very little knowledge of chemistry itself, just take care to read the directions for your chemical dilutions that are printed on the packaging of the chemicals themselves. For example, Ilford Ilfotec DDX Developer, requires a 1:4 dilution as noted on the container. This conveniently is the same dilution as the Ilford Rapid Fixer. Again, the concentrated liquid chemicals are easiest and you’ll want some plastic containers (photo chemical safe containers) to store your dilution in once you’ve mixed it.
The amount of chemistry you’ll want to mix will depend on how many rolls of film you are looking to develop. The Paterson Universal tank that fits two 35m rolls will take approximately 22 oz of chemistry (most tanks will tell you how much fluid is required), so if you are doing multiple batches, it may make sense to mix up 2 or 3 times that amount to store in your plastic storage bottles. The chemistry will eventually expire, but even if you pour your diluted chemistry back into their respective storage bottles it will likely take quite a few rolls before the chemistry is expired. Be sure to label your dilution strength, the date you mixed on, and what chemical is in each of your storage bottles so that you don’t have to guess the next time you plan on using them.
Now that your chemistry is prepped and mixed in separate bottles, we can begin the actual developing process!
Develop, stop, fix, wash, repeat.
Chemistry isn’t the only part of the developing process that mystifies most people. Figuring out how long you’ll need to develop your film might seem like some complex math problem from your high school algebra class, but most of the time on the inside of the box there’s development times for at least some of the developers you can choose from (at the very least, Kodak and Ilford have development times for developing with their chemistry printed on the boxes of film). If this information isn’t printed on the box, or you don’t have the box to your roll of film, no worries. The Massive Dev Chart is the home developers best friend as it is a comprehensive list of film stocks developers and the times that they all use together. Don’t forget that the temperature of your chemistry will also affect how long you develop for, so be sure to know the temperature when referencing development times.
Processing your film follows the basic steps listed below:
- Pre-wash: Not a requirement, but always a good step to wash your film and get it wet before introducing your chemistry. Make sure to dump your pre-wash before adding your developer!
- Developing: Use your beaker or graduated cylinder to measure out the amount of developer you’ll need for your tank and find the temperature of your chemistry with the thermometer. 68 degrees is the ideal temperature for you chemistry, but a colder developer will take longer to process your film and a warmer developer will take less time.
As you pour in the developer into your tank, start a timer set for your development time. Once all your developer is in the tank, attach the tank's cap and shake gently for 30 seconds or use the agitating stick if your tank has one. Once the first 30 seconds are up, you’ll only need to agitate you tank for 10 seconds every minute throughout the developing time. Be sure to tap the tank on a table or counter after each agitation to ensure there are no air bubbles blocking the chemistry from fully touching your film. When your developing time is up, dump your chemistry back into the developer storage bottle if you plan to use it again or into a waste container to take somewhere to have it disposed of properly.
3. Stop-bath: Without waiting too long after removing your developer from the tank, pour your stop bath dilution into your developing tank and put the cap back on. Agitate the tank by shaking or using the agitation stick for about ten seconds, tap your tank on the table or counter to release any air bubbles and then let it sit for 30 seconds to fully stop the development process. Pour the stop bath back into the stop bath storage bottle if you plan to use it again or into a waste container to take somewhere to have it disposed of properly.
- Fixer: Now pour your fixer dilution into the developing tank. Much like the development process, you’ll agitate gently for 30 seconds initially and then again for 10 seconds every minute for 4-5 minutes. Once the 4 to 5 mins is up, pour the fixer back into the fixer storage bottle if you plan to use it again or into a waste container to take somewhere to have it disposed of properly. Then you’ll want to fill your tank with fresh water…
Note: Make sure to use your full fixing time. Spending a little too much time in the fixer won't have any real negative impact on your film, but not spending enough time can.
A liter of Ilford Rapid Fixer can be reused to fix over 100 rolls of film. Once it is expired, you’ll need to take it to someone to have it disposed of properly since there will be silver in it that should never get poured down a drain. Most local labs will take the spent fixer and dispose of it for their customers.
- Washing: Once your developing tank is filled with fresh water, secure the lid to the tank and give the tank a good two minutes of agitation by shaking. This should ensure that every part of your negative is being rinsed. After two minutes, pour out the water and repeat the process several times (2-3 times of fully filling the tank and shaking it should suffice). If you feel like your film could use a little more rinsing, you can remove the funnel lid and let water run directly from the faucet into the tank for a few more minutes.
Note: Once the washing process begins, your film is considered fully-developed and light-safe.
- Wetting agent: Dump out your last batch of rinse water, fill the tank back up and add a few drops of a wetting agent to the water. Place the funnel top back on the developing tank and attach the cap and shake for twenty to thirty seconds. Wetting agent is optional, but a really great way to clear any chemicals left and ensure you won’t have water spots on your negatives.
- Prepping your film to dry: Take your reels off of the center column of the tank. Now twist the same direction as you did when loading the film onto them, continuing to do so beyond the initial stopping point. Now you should be able to pull the top and bottom part of the reel(s) apart. Grab one end of the film and run a wet squeegee (once your clean fingers if you’re so inclined)over it once or twice.
Using film clips if you have them, or clothespins, or some other type of clamping clip that won’t scratch your negative, hang your film somewhere it won't be disturbed for about 12 hours so they can dry before cutting into strips and inserting them into plastic film sleeves. Be sure to give your film enough time to dry or it can get stuck in the plastic film sleeves. If there’s a tacky texture to your film, either it hasn’t been rinsed well enough or still too wet to be put into storage sleeves.
The chemicals used to develop your negatives are toxic and should never be dumped down the drain. As noted earlier, they must be disposed of properly either by taking them to a local lab that you frequent or by contacting your city’s waste management and asking how you should dispose of harmful chemicals. Photo fixer presents the most environmental issues out of the chemicals used for film developing. Some places, like possibly a local lab, might be happy to take it off your hands (usually for a small fee) since the fixer contains valuable liquid silver that can be collected by a machine called a Silver Recovery Unit and recycled. Used developer and stop bath, however, should be taken to wherever you take other household hazard waste to be processed.
Past the chemistry part of cleaning up, keeping your workspace clean and tidy is equally important. Be sure to wipe up any spilled chemistry wherever you have decided to work (bathroom, kitchen sink, basement utility room, home darkroom) and always be sure to fully wash your reels, developing tanks, thermometer, and the rest of your equipment so it’s nice and clean for your next developing session.
Though developing your own film at home sounds intimidating, and, as is the case with most DIY processes, there's going to be some degree of trial and error involved, a film photographer shouldn’t be scared to develop their own film at home. No matter if you’ve been shooting film for decades or just recently picked it up, developing one's own negatives is a right of passage for any photographer. As you practice, be sure to make notes on each step of the developing process as it pertains to your chemistry and the film you frequently shoot so that you can reference them every time you develop your film.
The idea of truly possessing all the steps and processes in one’s creative vision is often regarded as the highest form of expertise and proficiency. Plus, as you become proficient at regular development of your own film, the world opens up to other creative processes you can do while developing your film, like film soup!