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Darkroom Stuff, Film, Not Digital

Developing Black and White Film Part 2: The Chemicals

Hello. Here’s the second part to my Developing Black and White Film mini-series. In the last post I went through the few and easily accessible bits of equipment that you need to get started developing film…and today, I’ll be talking about the chemicals that you will need to start processing. Getting these might be a bit of a challenge depending on where you live – unless you know of a pretty serious photo gear store, as an ordinary photo store won’t carry film chemistry – but have a look in your area, see if any store carries this stuff; if not, look at buying online. Getting this stuff locally (in Vietnam, where I am at the moment) is quite impossible. I usually get my stuff online.

Amazon has a great collection of stuff in their Darkroom section – chemistry, along with storage bottles, among other stuff you might need – so check it out. B&H Photo has a great selection too

If you’re worried about safety (I always like to be safe) you might want to add a couple of things to the equipment list, such as gloves, protective eyewear, maybe a mask if you’re sensitive to this sort of stuff. Just some basic protection really, as these chemicals are quite safe – most people don’t wear any form of protective gear when using this stuff – but it’s always better to be safe than sorry, right?

If you’re wondering how you should be disposing of your chemicals, all the chemicals except one can be safely disposed of down the drain. The one that is supposedly not safe to dispose down the drain is the one mentioned below called fixer. This will not harm you either, but in large quantities can be harmful to the environment. However, most people agree that if you’re doing it as a hobby, and doing something like 12 rolls a month, the amount of fixer you dispose is negligible to the environment…and you can dump that down the drain as well. If you’re an environment-friendly type of person, you might want to contact some local authorities to find out how they can help you dispose of your chemicals. I dump it all down the drain

My simple setup

Black and White Film Chemicals

Ok, what chemicals do you need to begin with? There are four types of chemicals you can use, out of which only two are necessary. I’ve been using the dead basic method of using just these two chemicals and been getting consistently good results, so I have no hesitation in recommending you do the same. However, if you can find all this stuff locally, they’re pretty cheap, so go ahead and get all you can. Buying online, I didn’t wanna add more to the shipping costs so I skipped the optional two. Here’s what you need:

  • Developer
  • Stop bath (optional)
  • Fixer
  • Wetting agent (optional)

So what do these do? How does it work? Let’s talk


my trusty Ilfosol 3

As the name says, developer is what develops your film. This is obviously a must-have chemical. It comes in both powder and liquid concentrates. I’ve been using Ilford chemicals for all my work – so for the developer, I can highly recommend Ilford Ilfosol 3 liquid concentrate. It is a general-purpose developer for B&W film, and is easy to work with. You dilute this at 1:9 or 1:14…depending on the film…and use this working solution for your process. I have always used 1:14, which helps you really stretch the concentrate out, and it’s been lasting me quite a while. Other brands include Kodak, which make great developers as well…both powder and liquid concentrate…such as HC-110 (liquid) and D76 (powder). Kodak make quite a few more too…Xtol, TMAX to name some. Agfa Rodinal is another popular developer, mainly due to great results and high concentrate – I believe you can dilute it at like 1:100 – and the fact that it seems to stores forever. It can really last a long time – so if you’re looking for an economical option, you might wanna hunt down some Rodinal. Most of these developers are known as one-shot developers, meaning they are used once, and then disposed i.e. not to be reused

Once you’ve developed a lot, and used different brands of developer, you’ll be able to notice the differences between them, and grow your own preferences and opinions and all that. Some developers give you control over contrast and film grain etc. which you control by varying the dilution of the developer, varying the developing times and such i.e. Rodinal diluted at 1:25 will have a different contrast and grain texture when compared to a 1:100 dilution, while other developers, like Ilfosol 3, do not give this extra control. You will start to understand and notice and want these things later…but for now, stick to the recommended stuff… I’d say Ilfosol 3 or Rodinal

Stop Bath

This is the first of the optional stuff. I’ve never used it. I use water instead. Yes, plain tap water. Works slower, but does the same thing. Which is? It stops the developer from working. You don’t want to overdevelop your film, so after the developer has been working for the exact amount of time,  you stop the developer from reacting with the film with the stop bath. I’d stick to Ilford and get their Ilfostop – Kodak’s stop bath also will be fine – but if you’re going with the simple way, water works fine. I’ve read online about people suggesting a bit of vinegar instead of the stop bath. I wouldn’t try this. The stop bath is a form of citric acid, I believe, and vinegar’s acidic…so it makes sense…but many people I spoke to advised against this…and I’ve had zero problems with using plain water, so why bother?


and the Rapid Fixer

This is the other essential chemical. Once the film is developed, and stopped…fixing the film makes it not sensitive to light…so it can be taken out of the darkness that is your developing tank (read part 1 of the post if you haven’t already!). I use Ilford Rapid Fixer, and it’s been working great so far. Fixer can be reused…for around a dozen rolls…some have gone further with it, some stick to less…and I’d say it’s safe to use your fixer for maybe 8 rolls before you get rid of it and mix another batch. It’s not worth screwing up a roll of film just because you tried to be cheap and save on fixer. If you really want to stretch the use of your fixer, there’s a simple test you can do – Google “fixer clearing test” or “used fixer test” and you’ll find out how

Again, once you’re more experienced, you can start to read about the differences between various fixers, and how it affects your film, and join the endless argument of hardening vs. non-hardening fixers etc. but for now, just get yourself some Rapid Fixer from Ilford or Kodak. That’s all

Wetting Agent

Once your film is fixed, it’ll need to be washed a couple of times (wait for my next post for the entire process itself) – and for the final wash, a drop of this wetting agent is suggested. Why? Well, in many places these days, the water is considered ‘hard’, with different minerals and stuff making it impure. How does this affect your film? Well, when your film is washed with this water and is dried, the residue from this hard water will show up as nasty marks on your film, which cannot be removed easily without damaging your film. Wetting agent ‘softens’ the water, allowing it to dry without any marks. It is optional, but if you can find it, get it. If you can’t, you could add a drop of dishwashing liquid into the water and use that for your final wash. Does a simliar job. Me? I use distilled water for the final wash, along with a drop of dishwashing liquid, and I’ve been getting great results consistently. You can get distilled water in most supermarkets I believe (as well as the dishwashing stuff!) and it’s super cheap. Get a gallon jug and use it for your final wash. I’ve never had any marks on my film

If you can get distilled water easily, you could dilute all your chemicals in distilled water too, instead of ordinary tap water…just to be safe. However, that’s not very necessary. Water in my current location (Saigon) is not the best, but I’ve not had any problems using tap water for chemical dilution. However, using a wetting agent, or distilled water + dishwashing liquid is a very important step!

And that’s it, really. That’s all you need in terms of chemistry to develop black and white film. The most important thing is consistency, like I keep saying…a consistent workflow…so if you decide to use distilled water to dilute your chemicals, do it every time you develop…not just when you feel like. If you use a stop bath, make sure you always do. Keep it consistent

Color Negative (C41) Chemicals

Developing color film is pretty much the same, except for different chemicals and a slightly different process…with exactly the same equipment. The chemicals are:

  • Developer
  • Bleach
  • Fixer
  • Stabilizer

UPDATE: You can now read my full post on developing color negative film that I recently added – but if you prefer a shortened version, read on!

Yes, the chemistry sounds quite similar…except these are all necessary…none are optional. What you could do is buy a C-41 Kit…a sort of hobby kit that includes packs of each of the necessary developers…and use that for your color work. A common kit includes three baths: developer, blix (bleach+fixer combined into one solution) and stabilizer. These commonly come in powder form, but liquid concentrate kits are available too. Check out kits from Tetenal/Unicolor, as well as Fuji…those are pretty popular

The biggest difference when developing color film is that you have maintain a temperature of 38°C for the developer and blix (stabilizer at room temperature) and although even that is similar to the B&W process, this part of the color process is strict! While many people develop black and white film quite a few degrees off the recommended 20° (some even work at room temp!), they say even single degree off 38° with C-41 film and the colors of your negative will be screwed. Black and white film isn’t so fussy. However, some say that they’ve successfully developed color negatives at room temperature too…so no one really knows I guess…but stick to the recommended temperature, or try your best. Consistency is key. I’m not very experienced with developing C41, but again, I just stick to the instructions and maintain the recommended temperature for the developer+blix, and have had no issues

If you’re wondering about Color Slide (E6) chemistry, it’s different again. They also come in kits…a three-bath kit, which contains E6 developer+blix+stabilizer, as well as a six-bath kit which contains first developer, reversal bath, color developer, pre-bleach, bleach, and fixer…so if you can get one of these kits, give a shot with E6. Most experienced users recommend the six bath – however, I’ve not done slide film so I’m not about to comment on that…but it definitely sounds like the six-bath method is better?!

As I already said a couple of times already, I’ve covered the process of developing color negative film already, so check that out – but as I haven’t worked with the E6 process, I probably will not be doing a post on E6…not for a while, at least


  • For any chemical, I’d avoid getting it in powdered form, if you’re only doing small quantities, like I am. When mixing a powder, you have to do the whole pack of powder in one go…and this working solution will not last a long time…it’ll last maybe 2 months max, depending on how well you store it…and if it’s a large quantity (say, 5L), well…I wouldn’t use that much developer in a month or two, no way
  • Do not ever mix part of a pack of powder developer, as it’ll screw up all the ratios of the different compounds in the mix, and your results will not be consistent. Again, consistency is key…as is following the instructions – so if the instructions say mix it all up in one go, that’s what you should do!
  • Developing times (the time to keep the chemical in your tank) for black and white films vary based on chemical used and the film brand/speed used. Unlike color films, where any film brand/speed used will develop in any chemical in exactly the same time (3:15), you will need to check a chart on the manufacturer’s website (the guys who made the chemical your using, that is) to find out the exact time for your black and white film + developer combination – The Massive Dev Chart is another fantastic resource for finding out developing times
  • You should maintain a temperature of 20°C for your chemicals. This is mostly important for your developer. Fixer/stop bath is not so important, but it’s best to try to keep it around 20°C as well. Washing and wetting agent temperature is not important, but it is best to avoid dumping much warmer water into your film, so try to keep your wash/wetting agent solution within a range of +/- 5 of 20°C as well
  • If you’re using a higher temperature, again check out the Massive Dev Chart or the chemical manufacturer’s website for a chart that tells you how much to modify your developing time based on the higher temperature you’re using. But seriously, it’s not hard at all to maintain 20°C , especially for just one chemical. So keep it at 20°C
  • Keep your chemicals completely separate! Mix even a drop of stop bath into your developer, for example, and you might as well throw it away

Storing Film Chemistry

You can find a load of info on each chemical brand on their website. This includes shelf life, storage, different dilutions, developing times, all kinds of other stuff that is really useful. Ok, storage – storage varies on brand to brand. For Ilford’s liquid concentrates, unopened concentrate bottles can be kept for 2 years (or more, I’d say) – opened bottles for up to 6 months (again, more…these guys are being conservative with these stats) – and working solution (diluted) should be used within 24 hours of diluting (this is about right).

To give you an idea on using powder chemicals, here are the storage facts for Ilford’s ID-11 powder developer once it’s mixed:

  • 6 months in full, capped bottles
  • 1 month in half-full, capped bottles

Difference between full and half full? The air in the bottle…which oxidizes the chemical…and spoils it. So if you can’t keep your bottle 100% full and without any air, it’ll just about last a month; and unless you develop a lot, I’d say you’re going be wasting a lot of developer this way. That’s why I always recommend finding liquid chemicals. However, if you can’t get access to liquid concentrate, fear not…there are ways to store this mixed-powder-stuff properly so you can make sure it lasts close to 6 months

  • Use a good plastic bottle: Look for the recycling symbol underneath that says PET, PETE, LDPE or HDPE. These bottles work great. Ordinary mineral water bottles are PET/PETE and work fine. Kitchen cleaning solutions come in thicker LDPE/HDPE bottles which are better, I guess…but make sure to wash them out thoroughly before you put your developer in there!
  • Glass bottles are probably best: The idea is to make sure air doesn’t enter through the bottle material or cap, so glass is probably better than plastic. However, glass makes it harder to keep the bottle full – read the next part
  • To keep the bottles full, even after you’ve used it, you could:
    1. Squeeze the air out, if you’re using a plastic bottle
    2. Drop pebbles/marbles, or something similar, into the bottle to increase the volume of content inside, which should reduce the amount of air inside the bottle, effectively making your bottle full
    3. Use an accordian-style bottle that can change size – so you can reduce the size of the bottle to fit the exact amount of chemical solution you have

As you can see, it’s more complicated. Using liquids is far easier, when you’re working with small numbers (or even if you’re working large numbers), so read up a bit on this before you decide if you want to go for powder or liquid…

…and that’s about all I have for you on darkroom chemistry. Any questions, please ask me…comment or contact me…and I’ll get back to you ASAP. But I think you’ll agree that this LONG post covers most of what a beginner would want to know (I hope!) The Amazon link I posted in the beginning contains a lot of usefull stuff that you might want to buy…including chemical storage bottles, as well as the chemicals themselves…have a look. And buy from this link as it helps me out!

Next post will be about the process itself, so keep a look out for that one…that’ll be putting the equipment from Part 1 with these chemicals of Part 2 together. Until then

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By Heshan Jayakody
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17 Responses to “Developing Black and White Film Part 2: The Chemicals”

  1. Great post! Wish I knew this a couple of years ago:)

    One of my first questions when I started developing B/W was how old the chemicals could be allowed be. I now understand that Rodinal lasts for decades(!) and HC-110 many years – IF they are kept in concentrate form (in diluted form only a day or two). I measure with small plastic syringe intended for administering penicillin paste to my rabbits. For both of them I top off the bottle with cigarrette lighter gas before capping.

    Rodinal could be my one-and-only developer with a lovely grainy result specially on Fomapan films and such. I am one of those who use it at 1:100 or above. For HC-110 my favourite film is Fuji Acros – less grain, more detail. But I have come to enjoy the Rodinal/Fomapan look more and more. Haven’t tried Ilford’s chemicals.

    When it comes to C-41 I had loads of trouble with it, but have now pulled my act together: Distilled water when mixing the chemicals for the three bottles (dev/blix/stab) and a better thermometer. I am now within 1 C during the dev-process (start at 39C, finish at 38C). Keeping the recommended 38 +/- 0.15 C is not really feasible. The negs come out good perhaps with a small colour tint which I take care of after scanning.

    I’d say: Don’t Hesitate – Go For It! With B/W at least, failure is not really possible!

    Posted by jabcam | June 8, 2012, 17:06
  2. thanks! some great tips in the above comment too, people…have a look! im rather new at this process myself but i found it quite easy too…i agree with ur last comment! i also find that writing this from a ‘noob’ point of view will help out the other film noobs trying to pick up this developing process! like, writing all the stuff that i found really useful when i first started, while its fresh 🙂

    rodinal and HC-110 are great, indeed. shelf life is very important when we’re not doing many film rolls, coz its a hobby…thats probably the only problem with ilfosol 3 – although a bottle of concentrate will easily last a year and im sure i use 500ml per year, haha

    about C41, yes…if ur not having a C41 processor, a good thermometer is definitely a must. and exactly, color tints these days can easily be corrected once scanned. more about the process itself in my next post – have a look when its up and add ur comments, i’d appreciate that! cheers 🙂

    Posted by pixelogist | June 8, 2012, 17:25
  3. Nice series of posts. One thing I’d mention is that for B&W developing having a thermometer and reading the time/temperature charts is important. As you say, it’s all about consistency, and temperature is a major factor, in addition to dilution. Some developers will actually give you some contrast control depending on whether you do warmer/shorter time or cooler/longer time. This can affect grain structure as well. This is something that you can experiment with — OR — for predictable results, do it the same way each time.

    At my university, we use Sprint chemicals, they have a whole range, and they are quite inexpensive yet work quite well.

    Posted by Apertome | June 8, 2012, 22:48
    • good points! i think i mentioned the dev time charts somewhere in this post – and about the thermometer, absolutely – i wrote about that being a key part, in my last post (part 1) on the equipment. i’ll add ur tip about varying temp/dev time to achieve different affects, hope u dont mind 🙂 thanks for stopping by!

      Posted by pixelogist | June 9, 2012, 07:05
  4. Living in a temperate country like Vietnam, how do you maintain the 20degC temperature?

    Posted by Ikon | August 14, 2012, 06:51
    • sorry for the late response. i actually find it easy to maintain 20C – when diluting my chemicals, i mix half room temp water, half cold water from my fridge.. and if its still higher than 20 (i usually like it higher than 20), i put the chemical beakers in a cold/ice bath.. works very nicely 🙂

      Posted by pixelogist | August 17, 2012, 15:07
  5. Hi, (just fyi -for your convenience, I sent a copy of this message to your flickr page too)
    Can I use regular tap water to dilute my developer and fixer?
    (I am also using ilfosol 3, ilford rapid fixer, and tap water to stop and wash coincidentally, so it’s great that I found your post on pixelologist.) Thanks for your help!

    Posted by gmechanic | December 15, 2012, 02:55
    • Hi there. Yes, you can definitely use tap water to dilute developer/fixer…and you can use tap water as your stop bath and your wash too. however, just for the final wash, try getting some distilled water and add a drop of dish washing liquid into it. or get a wetting agent

      have you tried developing before, or this your first time? either way, good luck!

      Posted by pixelogist | December 15, 2012, 11:29
      • first time, it’s all done now though. I used filtered drinking water with dish soap for the final wash (next time i will have to make a bowl of distilled water for it). The pictures are here:http://www.flickr.com/photos/gmechanic/sets/72157632297970266/

        Posted by gmechanic | December 21, 2012, 02:53
      • nice work! making distilled water might be a bit of a hassle, but i’m sure you should be able to find some fairly easily – in supermarkets, probably…or at least in a chemistry store. you will need around twice your tank’s capacity.. so if you need 600ml to develop, you will need 1200ml of distilled water. btw, how did you scan your film? the shots look good!

        Posted by pixelogist | December 21, 2012, 09:31
      • I am waiting still to get a scanner. The negatives (120 film) are shot using my 8.2mp Canon Eos 20D and my light table.

        Posted by gmechanic | December 22, 2012, 13:45
      • oh i see. yeah, a digital SLR plus a close-up lens and a light table is probably a far better way of digitizing film compared to a cheap flatbed scanner. if ur going for a scanner, the epson v600 and v700/750 are good flatbed options for a low-ish budget

        Posted by pixelogist | December 22, 2012, 23:50
      • yeah -the photo scanners look so convenient. I was planning on the v700. I hadn’t known there was a 750, thanks! Your blogs by the way have been great to read. Thanks for the advice.

        Posted by gmechanic | December 23, 2012, 01:48
      • you’re most welcome! cheers 🙂

        Posted by pixelogist | December 23, 2012, 09:36
  6. Solid post! I too have developed many times with just developer+fixer and nothing else, and I’ve had great results. A few tips were helpful, though…especially in other parts of your series! Superb

    Posted by Fritz | February 11, 2013, 20:05


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