Lately I encounter more and more folks who got into photography via digital cameras, but who’ve become intrigued about shooting film too. Given the laughably inexpensive prices of fine film cameras these days, that makes a lot of sense.
But recent photography magazines and books offer little help at giving these “switchers” an introduction to film basics—one of the reasons I began this blog. So today’s column is a welcome to all those total film beginners out there. Hi!
You’ve probably discovered that getting film developed today can become a headache —whether due to a shortage of local labs, unreliable service, or high prices. That’s particularly true for folks using 120 film (for example, in a Holga or Diana+). So you may have heard the advice, “just develop it yourself!”
But what’s involved in doing that—and is it expensive? This post will talk about the supplies you need for developing film at home. To do your own negatives, all you need is this:
Developing tank, measuring graduate, funnel, thermometer, stirrer. Developer, stopbath, fixer, and Photo-Flo
The good news:
You do not need a darkroom to develop negatives. You only need darkness briefly, to load the film onto the reel of the developing tank. The tank is lightproof, so after loading it you can do the all the other steps in a day-lit kitchen or bathroom. (Darkrooms are for making prints.)
The cost of the chemicals is much cheaper than commercial developing. You don’t need to drive anywhere, and you can control the process to your own tastes. The developing steps are not any harder than following a cooking recipe.
There is a very plentiful supply of used developing gear today, since so many photographers have gone entirely digital. If you start asking around, you might find that an acquaintance or family member has old equipment they’d be happy to give away (don’t trust any old already-mixed solutions, though). Even buying everything new should not cost you more than $50.
And the bad news?
We are talking about developing traditional black & white film here, not color. It is possible for amateurs to develop color at home, but the chemistry is not so beginner-friendly. But black & white has a certain timeless beauty, so you may discover new creative directions if you’ve never tried that before.
Okay, once you have the negatives—what do you do with them? Well today it’s quite common to scan them, then work with the computer file just as you would with any digital-camera shot. For US readers, a great source of inexpensive film scanners is the refurbished “PHOTO” models from Epson’s online store. Schools & universities may have scanners available for their students—or traditional darkrooms too, if you choose to learn that craft.
Photo chemicals are no more toxic than household cleaners; but you’ll want to take care to avoid inhaling any dust if you mix your solutions from powders. And the chemicals can sometimes smell funny.
I’m going to talk about which supplies you’ll need—not give full step-by-step instructions how to develop film. But there are many other descriptions of the steps on the web. (For example here; or with more photos here, or in this 200kB PDF from Ilford.)
As seen above, you’re going to need a few quart/liter bottles, some kind of graduated measuring vessel, and it’s helpful to have a funnel. These don’t need to be “official” photography supplies. But if you improvise using things found around the kitchen, be sure to label them clearly as for photo-chemical use only.
The first piece of dedicated equipment you’ll need is a developing tank. There are several types, each with its own minor advantages and disadvantages. But all will work fine.
The tank shown here is an older style Paterson System 4. These were extremely popular with 1970s/1980s amateurs, inspiring several lookalike imitators. You will still find many of these floating around.
The current Paterson style is similar, but with a redesigned wide-mouth top (if you google for more information, note that the company name has only one “t.”) The reel flanges twist apart to adjust to different film widths—the 35mm spacing is shown above.
Beginners often find the most daunting part of developing film is getting the strip loaded onto the reel (remember this must be done blind in complete darkness, or light would fog the film).
Paterson reels have little ball-bearing widgets which help push the film onto the flanges, using a back-and-forth twisting motion. My experience is that beginners find this style easiest to learn; the minuses of the Paterson-style tank are minor in comparison. (One tip is that the reels must be absolutely dry before loading.)
First-timers often ask for advice in online forums about which developer to buy—then get overwhelmed by all the passionately conflicting suggestions. I think the most important thing say is, don’t worry about it! The difference in image properties between developers is not large; and if you end up scanning your negatives anyway, that stage has a much greater effect on the tonality of the image.
Having said that, Kodak’s D-76 is considered a classic, an excellent all-round developer. It’s a perfectly fine place to start. (Other developers are more “specialists”—e.g. increasing apparent sharpness, but at the cost of greater graininess, etc.)
You mix up 1 liter of D-76 stock solution according to the package directions, but must let it cool before using. I suggest not re-using that same stock solution over and over (allowing it to become exhausted). Instead, use it diluted 1:1 with water—mixing just enough to cover your reel(s) before use, and then discarding after. Note that development times for the 1:1 dilution are longer, and will be listed separately from the “straight” D-76 times.
My personal favorite developer is Kodak’s HC-110, a thick syrup concentrate. HC-110 yields image properties similar to D-76. With HC-110, I also mix up just enough solution for each film right before use. But the syrup is so concentrated that I must use a 12ml syringe to measure it (no needle, though!).
After opening the bottle, the syrup will stay fresh for more than a year. The only downside for the occasional user is that one bottle can develop 50+ rolls; and if it takes you several years to get through that, you might have a problem.
Spec sheets usually specify development times at a temperature of 68°F/20°C . The rate of development increases with temperature, so you will need an accurate thermometer to measure this. The traditional darkroom thermometer has a big glow-in-the-dark dial; but if you have trouble locating one, it’s fine to pick up a cheap digital kitchen thermometer instead.
After the emulsion of your film has been wetted, it’s rather tender; so it’s important not to shock it with any sudden changes in temperature. You also use your thermometer to insure that the successive steps remain within a few degrees of the developer’s temperature. I usually fill the pink plastic tub seen above with tap water at 68°F/20°C, then set the stop and fix bottles in it for an hour or so before starting. Afterwards, that water can be re-used for the first few rinse baths.
“Stop bath” is a weak acid solution. It does not have any effect on the image itself—it’s simply a rinse, which halts the developing action very quickly and uniformly. The traditional stop bath had a distinct vinegar smell (which is essentially what it’s made from); many folks substitute a plain water rinse instead, with (apparently) no ill effects. Stop bath is so cheap that I’ve always used it, however.
It does not matter in the slightest which brand of fixer you use: You can choose entirely based on whichever is available and convenient for you.
I prefer the liquid-concentrate fixers; but my local stores have stopped stocking them, so it’s back to powder for now.
What you do need to understand is that different types of fixers work at different rates; and furthermore different emulsion types fix at different speeds. The general rule is to open the tank lid at 1 minute and observe how long it takes until all the cloudy, milky haze disappears from the film; then continue fixing until twice this time has elapsed.
The final step of developing is rinsing the film and hanging it up to dry. If your tap water temperature is too cold, it won’t be effective at rinsing away the fixer residue (which then could form brown stains). It can take a bit of fiddling with the taps to get them flowing at a constant 68°F/20°C temperature. But don’t blast the film with hot water or the emulsion will go all wrinkly!
If your tap water contains a lot of minerals, drying water droplets can leave white, crusty rings on your negatives. So one optional final step is to end with a rinse of distilled water; or use a wetting agent (such as Kodak’s “Photo Flo”) to help water sheet off the negatives. Shedding water more quickly helps the negatives dry faster, too.
I did not show the weighted metal clips which many people use to hang up their wet film; they aim to minimize curling as the emulsion dries. But that’s something you can easily improvise with clothespins, binder clips, etc.
What is most important is that you find a sheltered location to hang your film, where air currents won’t be wafting dust and lint onto your damp, sticky emulsion. And even though you will certainly be dying to peek at how your first negatives came out, be patient! The tender emulsion needs to dry completely before you start handling it.