Hello, and welcome to this new mini-series of sorts that I’ve been wanting to do for a while now. I’ve spoken plenty about using (and loving) film cameras and the very fun process of developing my own film…and so I decided to write a few posts (three separate ones, I think) on developing black and white negative film. Most of this would apply to color negative (C-41) film as well, with the exception of the chemicals, which are similar but then again different. In fact, I’ve now added a separate post for those of you interested in doing your own C-41 film – so read through this first, and then check that out too!
Developing black and white film is very easy, really. Get the right stuff, form a proper workflow, follow the instructions (to the letter) and you should end up with very good results most of the time. I always prefer to do my own film – it is always faster, and more importantly, you get all the control you want over your results – just as I prefer to always do my own scanning. Getting your film developed (and scanned) at the lab means you’re basically at the mercy of the lab guy and his idea of what your photographs should look like, not to mention how his screen is calibrated, and that’s not a good place to be in
And that’s right – I scan my film. Scanning is a far easier process than making prints from negatives, which is a fun but complicated exercise, and is cheaper too. I recommend you follow this process if you’re into serious film photography: get a good flatbed scanner, like my Epson V600 (or the V750 if you can afford it) or the Canon 9000F, then develop your own film, and use this scanner to digitize your negatives for sharing and even achiving…although you should always store your negatives safely too. But yeah, do not leave it to the lab unless you’re a very casual film shooter. Process and scan yourself
Ok, so…to develop film, you will need a few things. A very few things, really. A set of chemicals, and a set of utensils to work with. That’s it. I’ll go through the utensils necessary in this post, the chemicals in the next post, and finally I’ll go through my rather customized (?!) process of developing film in the last
Film Developing Gear
Alright, to develop film – black and white or color – you will need some of the following gear:
- A developing tank
- A changing bag (or a completely dark room)
- A thermometer (a darkroom-specific one will be idea)
- A timer (a mobile phone or an actual countdown timer)
- Measuring beakers
- Film canister opener (optional – I use a bottle opener)
- Film clips (optional – any clips that can hold up a strip of film will do)
- A large basin that can hold a bath of water plus two or three of your beakers
Let me go through these items one by one, describe them to you, and what they are used for, so you get a better idea of what they do and why you need them
Aside from the chemicals, this is the only VITAL piece of equipment you will need to buy. Everything else can probably be substituted with something else with a bit of creativity – but I doubt you could use anything else instead of a developing tank
As you know, film should be kept in complete darkness at all times, until developed. The tiniest bit of light could completely ruin it. So how do you pour your chemicals into your film without light? Do it in complete darkness? No, that would be awkward. Difficult. Impossible, probably! No, you use a developing tank. You remove the film from the canister, in complete darkness (or in a changing bag, see the next item), and load it into the developing tank. A developing tank comes with one or two reels – you simply load the film onto one of these reels, and then pop it in the tank. Once you close the tank’s lid, you can turn the lights back on, as the tank keeps the film inside it in complete darkness. The tank has a small opening on top, which allows you to pour your chemicals inside it, so that’s that. And no, light does not enter the tank and affect your film through that opening – the tank is designed smartly!
Look at the pictures to get a better understanding of how this tank works. Mine is an AP Compact Developing Tank, but you can also look at the very popular Paterson Universal Tank and Reel
– you can buy them directly from these links (and help pixelogist gain a bit of money!)
Changing Bag (Optional)
Not necessary if you got a completely lightproof room, such as a bathroom with no windows, however, I highly recommend getting one of these. I have a bathroom which can be sealed pretty easily, but its rather awkward to work in complete darkness. And some people might not have such a room. So yeah, get a changing bag. Brands don’t matter, models don’t exist (apart from different sizes), and you can look on eBay, or Amazon, to get one – the linked one will be fine
Again, look at the picture for a better idea of what this does – it is basically a large bag, with two holes on the sides where you slip your arms through. It also has a large opening on the other end, where you pop in your film, your developing tank, and any other items you’d need (bottle opener/scissors, keep reading to find out why). This opening zips up, and usually has another flap that folds over, to completely seal out any light. Once this is done, your film/tank/tools are in complete darkness, along with your hands. You just feel around, and do the work – it’s the same as doing it in the dark, but just seeing the light around you makes it feel much easier! Trust me
Ok this one is pretty important too. When developing, the temperature of your chemicals is quite important…more on that in subsequent posts…but yeah, a thermometer can be very helpful
In black and white film, you need to keep your chemicals at around 20° C – however, unlike color film, which can go pretty wrong if you get the temperature even slightly wrong, black and white film is more forgiving, meaning you might get away with a few degrees off the recommended 20°. However, I’ve always developed my black and white film using a thermometer and keeping it at 20° C, so try to stick to that. Like I said, it’s all about following instructions and maintaining a consistent workflow. A Delta 1 Precision darkroom thermometer is what I use, and costs like $10. Get one. I also recently acquired a digital one, which cost a bit more (around $25) and that makes things a LOT easier. Get one of those if you can find one!
You will need some sort of timer to…well, to time certain processes when developing. A stopwatch will work if you can’t find anything else, but a programmable countdown timer is best. Your hands will usually be full when you’re developing, and you wouldn’t want to be fiddling with a stopwatch during this time. Get a countdown timer where you can program around 5 different times sequentially i.e. first a timer of 60 seconds, that completes and goes to another countdown that’s set for 8 minutes…then a countdown of 2 minutes…etc. You get the idea. I use a great app for my Android, a free app simply called Darkroom Timer. It’s fantastic. If you use an Android, definitely get this app!
These are very necessary to measure your chemicals accurately. I use liquid concentrate chemicals, where you dilute them at different ratios i.e. 1:14 or 1:4 etc. so some accurate beakers are necessary
Get a set, with different sizes. Most developing tanks hold a max of 700ml so don’t bother about getting anything larger than 1000ml. Get a couple of large ones (700ml or more), a couple of medium sized ones (maybe 500ml), a couple of smaller ones (100ml, 200ml etc.) and importantly, get a couple of measuring tubes: it is often necessary to measure 10ml or such small quantities, which is impossible to measure accurately in larger beakers, and these measuring tubes can be very useful. If you can find one, get a syringe that measures 5-10ml…some chemicals require only such tiny amounts to work with. And note that I said get a couple of each size…you need two basic chemicals to work with when developing (as you will see in the next post), and it’s always easier if you have two beakers of the same size to work with
Film Canister Opener
I can’t think of a better name for it. I think that’s what they are called. It looks like a little bottle opener, and it easily pries off the lid of your film canister/cartridge thing. You do this inside the changing bag (or darkroom) so I guess it’d be easier to use on of these. However, I could never find one, so I just use an ordinary bottle opener. It takes about two or three attempts to open it, which takes probably 5 seconds longer than the specialized film opener. If you can find one, get it by all means. And no, I’m not taking a picture of my bottle opener
Film Clips (Optional)
Once your film is done processing, you need to dry it. Film clips work great – they come in pairs, one to hold your film up, the other a weighted clip to hang your film straight so it doesn’t end up curly. Like I mentioned earlier, I use bulldog clips. Not perfect but they do the job fine – they have weight too, and they hold the film firmly. You could even use clothes pegs. No pictures again
I’m sure you know what scissors do. Well, when removing the film from the film canister (in the changing bag/darkroom) you need to cut off the end of the film from the spool that it is attached to. Yeah, you need scissors for this complex process
Not the coolest sounding piece of gear, but quite necessary to keep your chemicals at the right temperature. I don’t know about how it is where you come from, but over here, water from the tap runs at around 30° (yeah, I know) – so when mixing new chemicals with water, I mix half tap water with half cold water from the fridge to get the temperature close to the required 20°C. This brings it down to around 22° or so. If I’m reusing a chemical, it is probably way up at around 28-30deg when I start. The point I’m trying to make is, I always need to get the temperature down. What I do is, I fill the basin with cold water, load it up with ice cubes…and place my beakers in it, with the thermometer. In a few min, after a bit of stirring etc. it should be down to the perfect 20° mark, at which point I take it out and start the process. If your water is colder than 20°…fill the basin with hot water (obviously)
Well yes…that’s about all you need in terms of equipment if you want to start developing your film. All this stuff can be used for color developing too…the equipment list is all the same, you won’t need anything else…except different chemistry, and a slightly different process. Anyway, look out for the next posts in this series, as well as the post on color developing, which I will be doing very shortly. As usual, buying from the links I’ve attached on this post will help me out a lot…so please do! Cya with the next posts on this darkroom stuff then…leave a comment or contact me for any questions! Goodbye
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By Heshan Jayakody All content in this post is my own
- An Intro to Film Photography (pixelogist.me)
- What Makes a Photograph #5 (pixelogist.me)
- Alternative Photography…or Lomography…for those who don’t know yet (pixelogist.me)