The Ultimate Guide to Developing Black and White Film

There is a psychological technique which makes it possible to interpret all dreams

I’ve done several videos in the past talking about how to develop black and white film at home. The process is extremely rewarding and its really not that hard to do.

I realized recently that I hadn’t really put together a good guide written out of all the gear and steps you need to get this done. In the following article, I’d like to give the ultimate guide to start developing your own black and white film at home.

Please note that this is geared to beginners. I will be keeping choices simple. I’ll have more articles expanding on this as we go.

What’s Important

Okay so you’re ready to take the plunge into the darkroom and start developing your own film. What do you need to know? First off, you want to get consistent with everything you do. Every darkroom is different, every water is slightly different, and we are humans so our techniques are all a little bit different. Its much like cooking food – you’ll need to learn the recipe yourself and make adjustments to make it your best. When problems or errors come up, they can be difficult to track down if your process is sloppy. So its really important to keep things the same every time. If you need to change things – change them one at a time. If you do this, it makes it easy to figure out where you went wrong when a problem happens.

What needs to be consistent? Your chemicals, any diluting, your technique and the temperature of your chemicals. I’ll get into all of this as we go.

This process works for any format – 35mm, 120, 4×5 – whatever. I’ll note when there are differences below.

I’ll also put together a shopping list below. Just to be upfront – all of the links here are affiliate links. I get a kickback when you order various items (not all, but most). You don’t have to use these, but if you want to help out with the large amount of material I provide free – your patronage is much appreciated ;-)

Tools You Need

For developing at home, you’ll need the following:
1) Changing Bag – this is a light tight bag you’ll use as your film can’t be exposed to any light until the end of the process.
2) 35mm Cassette Opener – for opening 35mm cartridges
3) Scissors – for prepping 35mm
4) Reels – these need to match the film type you’re using
5) Developing Cans – these need to fit your reels
Kalt Stainless Steel Tank with Plastic Lid without Reel for One 120mm Reel
Paterson 35mm Tank with Reel (Super System 4)

6) Hanging Clips – for hanging finished film to dry
7) Measuring Cups – buy these and only use them for developing – never use them with food.
8) Thermometer – again, never use with food. Buy one for keeping your temperatures consistent.
9) Timer for timing your chemical baths.

Materials You Will Need

(I’ll put a shopping list below)

1) Film (fairly obvious – now get out and shoot!)
2) Developer
3) Stop Bath
4) Fixer
5) Distilled Water (just get this at the grocery store – its cheap)
6) LFN (optional – lowers the water density and prevents water spots)
7) Plastic or glass jugs to store all of the above
8) Clear archive sleeves for storage

*** Note to non US photographers – I’ve had people ask me how to get chemicals outside the US. Most of the sellers here are ground delivery only. You can try eBay or research (Google) photo supplies in your country. Find other photographers to ask as well.

The Video

I’m going to include the episode of the Art of Photography on developing film. You can read on, but this will help you see the process.

[videoembed type=”youtube” ratio=”sixteen_by_nine” width=”980″ url=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vKVKOnexIY0″ id=”video-0″]

The Process

Film Prep:

Developing your film is easy. Remember film is light sensitive. You need to keep it in complete darkness until the end. We’ll begin with the changing bag. If this is your first time – you’ll be working in the changing bag so you won’t be able to actually see what you are doing. I recommend you get some used film on eBay and practice without the bag a few times until you can do it with your eyes closed – or in the bag. Its not hard, but get a feel for it.

It might be also important to note that its very possible you’ll mess up the first time. Don’t get discouraged! Practice a bit first then give it a try. Get some cheap film that you can ruin trying to learn. Its okay.

Once you’ve figured out how to get the film on to the reel. You’re ready to go. Put everything you need into the changing bag. Get your film on the reel and get the reel into the developing canister. Then you’re ready to rock.

Finally I’ll go ahead and put either tap water or distilled water into the can to pre-soak the film. This is optional and not critical. I just do it because its part of my process – do it or don’t. Remember though, stay consistent.

Chemical Prep:

Figure out how much chemical you need to develop. In my cans for 35mm and 120 its about 400ml. Fill 3 measuring cups – one for developer, one for stop, and one for fix.

Fill a large bowl or sink with ice. Place your (filled) measuring cups into the ice and put the thermometer into the developer. You’ll want to get the temperature down to 20C. You’ll get a feel for how long this takes – for me its about 10 min.

Once the chemicals are at 20C you are ready to develop.

Take a look at the Massive Dev Chart for the proper time for your film/developer combination. Its not always right, but its usually really close.

Now we are ready to develop.

Development Bath:

Pour out the water we set before. Then pour in your developer. Then start the timer for the determined time.

We’ll now use a process called agitation. Agitation simply involves “turning” the chemicals to keep them fresh. Its very slow. This will keep the grain down. If you have a closed container, just spin it around slowly. This is enough.

I agitate the film slowly for the first minute. Then I agitate for 10 seconds every minute. I know people who do 5 seconds every 30 seconds. They both work – just stick with one. Remember – we’re trying to be consistent.

When you’ve reached the development time, pour out your developer then pour in the stop bath.

I agitate 10 seconds every minute – 3 minutes total. Pour out the stop.

Pour in the fixer. Depending on what fixer – read the directions. For a standard fixer, I agitate 10 seconds every minute for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, pour out your fixer.

Your film is now done! You can go ahead and look at it now – its no longer light sensitive.

You’ll need to rinse your film for 15-30 minutes depending on your fixer type.

Final Rinse and Hang

I always do a final rinse with the distilled water. This is important. Your local tap water quality will vary and down her in Dallas there’s lots of “stuff” in the water that will spot the film. To prevent this I agitate in distilled water for 2-3 minutes constantly agitating. You could add a few drops of LFN to lower the water density and prevent spotting. This is optional, but I ALWAYS do that final rinse.

Hang your film with the clips in a bathroom (you should be working in one already up to this point). Why a bathroom? Because showers give off steam which gets the dust out of the air. Its a great, clean environment to develop your film. I hang my film in the shower. It takes about 45min to 1 hour to dry.

Then – still in the bathroom. Cut your negatives with scissors and put them in plastic sleeves. I sleeve them in the bathroom – if you go walk across your house you’ll get dust on the negatives. Its just easier to keep it all as dust free as you can.

Then you’re done!

Some notes:

As you get this process down – consider which chemicals are re-usable. Developers can be, but if you dilute them with water they are not – you’ll need to pour them out every time. Stop bath comes in an “indicator” stop bath. Its yellow and stinky, but will turn purple when its no longer any good. Otherwise you can pour it back in the jug and keep using. Fixers are reusable too. When they start to loose their odor and get cloudy – its time to replace.

Be careful and consider any local laws about disposal. Developer and stop baths are usually weak enough to pour down the drain. Just leave the tap running for 10-15 minutes after to make sure its rinsed away. Fixer is kind of nasty. I get a bag of cat litter, pour it in and then throw it away – it becomes solid with the liter. Fixer can destroy pipes over time if you’re not careful.

Film

There are many options these days of film types available. There are many special use films. If this is your first try, I’d recommend sticking to either Kodak Tri-X or Ilford HP5+. These are classics and very versatile. Once you get your process down you can try different films. Just remember (I sound like a broken record) we’re going for consistency.

Chemical Setups

If this is your first time at this, I’d recommend the following 2 setups:

1) Basic
Developer: Kodak D76 or Ilford ID11
These are very similar. They come in a powered you’ll mix with water into your storage container. Follow the directions. These are very versatile and highly recommended. They look great too.

Remember – there are many developer types. These are the most versatile and you can use them in different ways. Don’t get the developer bug and buy more types than you can handle. Stay consistent.

Stop Bath: Kodak indicator

Fixer: Kodak Rapid Fixor

2) Minimalist

Photographers Formulary sells an alkaline fixer called TF-4. Its amazing. You can’t use a stop with this so it gets it down to just developer and fixer. It also replaces the need for any optional cleaners like photoflo. This is what I use and I love it. I’ll make another developer recommendation as well. Rodinal is great – it gives some grain, but its amazing. So here’s the minimalist chemical setup:

1) Adox Rodinal
2) Formulary TF-4

That’s it! Just follow all of the above, but skip the stop bath.