Hey guys, I’m back! Sorry for the long gap between this and my last post – it’s been a while, I know – but thanks to all my fantastic guest posters, it hasn’t been too quiet up here, has it? Anyway, here I am and today I’ll be talking about the process of developing color negative (C-41) film! Ok, I mentioned negative and C-41 in there because the process of developing color slide (E6) film, while similar to C-41, involves different chemistry etc. which makes it a whole new thing altogether
Alright, developing C-41 is pretty similar to the black and white process. The equipment is the same, so just check out my previous post on developing equipment to know what you will need. All of it applies – developing tank, beakers, thermometer, timer – all that. The chemistry is different but again, there’s developer, there’s fixer, and there’s something afterwards. The process, while different in order and times, is also very similar to the black and white process, so if you’ve worked black and white before, you should have no trouble with C-41. In fact, the entire system and process is so similar that I really recommend you read the entire three-part series I did on developing black and white film before coming to this point of the C-41 process. I went through a lot of little details in there that I will probably not cover again here, so it might make a lot more sense if you start from there and then get back here!
Anyway, the biggest difference for me comparing the two types of film is the working temperature of your chemistry. In black and white, your ideal working temperature is a fairly cool 20°C, and while that is ideal, it really isn’t that strict. I always recommend using a thermometer to get your chemistry, especially your developer, to exactly 20° or within +/- 1° of that, but I’ve known people who develop at room temperature and still get great black and white results. However, with C-41 film, your chemicals are a bit more fussy. How? Well, first of all, they need to be warmed, usually t o 38°C – and in addition, C-41 requires you to maintain this exact temperature for all the main chemicals during the entire process
It is this last bit that gets new film users worried when thinking of processing their own color film. How on earth do I maintain this temperature throughout an entire developing process? Using a warm water bath and a thermometer? No way. You need a professional film processor, don’t you? One of those automated ones that maintain the perfect temperature, using a heating element and a thermostat, one of those that do the rotating and agitating of your developing tank for you – you need one of these expensive gadgets, right? No. Not necessarily. I have got successful C-41 results using my most basic black and white film processing equipment, and nothing more, and I’m sure you can do the same too
Ok, as the equipment necessary is the same as what I went through before, I’ll skip to the chemistry that is required for C-41 as well as the process that I follow when developing color negatives. Alright, here we go
Similar to developing black and white, the chemicals required in the C-41 process include developer and fixer too, but instead of the optional stop bath and wetting agent that we discussed previously, for C-41 film you require a bleach, and a stabilizer. So in order of processing, the chemicals required for C-41 are:
You know what the developer and fixer does – and I’m not really sure what the bleach and stabilizer does – so I’ll not try explaining each of them. Just know that these are what you need. And none are optional. You need ‘em all!
You can buy each of these chemicals individually, in powder or liquid form, but if you’re just doing this as a hobby, I suggest you get your hands on a C-41 Press Kit, made by Jobo, Tetenal, Unicolor, or whatever you can find. They all do a good job, and some of them are identical and just rebranded. You can get yours at B&H Photo here: Tetenal C-41 Press Kit for Color Negative Film (Powder)
These kits include all the chemicals necessary to develop C-41 film and come in either 3-part or 4-part kits. The 4-part kit, obviously, includes all four of the above chemicals listed, while the 3-part kit combines the bleach and fixer into one, commonly known as “Blix”. Most pros recommend using bleach and fixer separately, and I agree with this, but most C-41 press kits come in 3 parts, so if you can only find one of these, go ahead – I’ve used many of these – I guarantee it does a pretty good job overall
These kits come in both liquid and powder form too. I recommend liquid chemicals as always, as it’s always easier: just take out a bit of liquid concentrate each time you want to process, dilute in water, and use that working strength solution for your days work. Once done, dump it. Easy to use, easy to store
However, powder press kits are easier to buy and easier to ship; the only negative being they are a bit of a hassle to store. You see, powder chemicals need to be mixed all in one go. You need to dilute the entire packet of powder into a large quantity of water (depending on how large your press kit is), and then use that diluted chemical for your work, reusing it as many times as the brand recommends. A bit messy. The storage problem arises because you need to keep the mixed chemicals in full airtight bottles if you want it to last. Full? Yes. You need to store it such that each chemical absolutely fills an airtight plastic bottle, as any air that is left inside the top of the bottle will cause your chemical to spoil fast. Mineral water bottles or plastic soda bottles usually do a great job, as they are usually airtight, and are of high quality plastic, that will keep your chemicals safe. And being rather flexible, you can actually squeeze out any remaining bit of air from the top of your bottle before capping it. Perfect
When mixing powder chemicals (individual or press kit), you need to be careful and follow the directions that come with it. First of all, the instructions require you to have your water ready at an exact (warm) temperature. If I recall right, the last press kit I used (Tetenal) required water to be at around 35°C. Next, check the quantity of water. This one’s rather straightforward, actually: if you bought a 1 liter kit, each individual packet of powder will make 1L of working solution. However, the point you need to look at is that this 1L includes the powder itself, so don’t dump the powder into one liter of water – this will make more than 1L of working solution, at a wrong dilution. Instead, have your water warmed in a large container, and dump your powder into another empty measuring container. Then, once the water is warmed just right, pour it into the container that has the powder, and top it up to the 1L mark. This makes a total working solution of 1L at the right dilution
Do this for each chemical your press kit comes with. You should end up with three or four bottles, depending on your kit. If you bought powder chemicals individually, do the same. If you got liquid concentrate, mix the right amount of concentrate with water just before developing, following the instructions on the bottle for dilution and so on
Alright, now that you have your equipment and chemistry ready – it’s time for the process itself!
C-41 Developing Process
In my black and white developing process, I mentioned the preparation: getting the necessary equipment ready, washing out your beakers and drying them, preparing your chemicals, checking developing times, loading your film to the developing tank, and all that – which has to be done in this process too, so again – please read up those posts before getting here!
Alright, so your equipment and chemistry is now ready – film is loaded in your developing tank, and your chemicals, be it powder or liquid, are mixed, diluted, and in their own, labeled beakers, and ready to go – you have your protective gear, your thermometer, you timer, and all that as well – now what?
Get the chemicals to working temperature!
Alright. Check the directions that came with your chemicals. For this example, I am using the 3-part Tetenal press kit, which requires me to warm developer and blix to 38°C, while keeping the third chemical, the stabilizer, at room temperature. Ok then
If you went through the previous (black and white) part, you know how this works. Just get a large water basin, fill it with hot water, and place your developer/blix beakers inside it. Give each an occasional stir to warm them evenly – using separate stirrers for each chemical – and monitor the temperature of each. As the developer is what will be used first, keep your thermometer in this beaker
If the temperature of the water bath is not hot enough, simply add more hot (boiling) water, carefully. That should do the trick. Ok, while these are warming up, you can get stared on the actual process itself!
The C-41 Developing Process
Pre-soak: Just like in black and white film, start by pre-soaking the film for a minute. 60 seconds. However, in black and white, this is an optional step – while in this Tetenal press kit, it’s an included step in the instructions, so I assume it’s mandatory! Simple step though. Just pour working temperature (38°C) water into the tank, let it soak for a minute, and pour it out. I usually don’t bother getting the temperature exact for this step: I find that adding a 1/3 hot water (hottest from my tap) and 2/3 cold (coldest from my tap!) gives me approximately 38°C, so I just use that without measuring. This is just to get everything nice and ready for the warm process that C-41 is, so it’s not necessary to be spot-on for this step. It is for the next one though!
Developer: Once your pre-soak is done, wait for your developer to hit the right temperature, which in this case is 38°C. Ideally, this should be done within a minute of the pre-soak being complete. Ok, once it’s at working temperature, pour it in!
All C-41 developers usually require 3min 15 sec or 3min 30 sec to develop – rarely anything different – but check how long your film needs to ‘stew’ in each chemical. Before you start. Part of your prep, remember? Ok. My Tetenal kit says I should develop for 3:30min, agitating for 10 seconds every 30 seconds, so that’s what I am going to do
Ok, so pour it in. Agitate. Tap. Wait 30 seconds, and repeat. Easy, right? Once the timer hits 3min, do the last agitation and get the lid off your tank. Why? Well, as you probably remember from the black and white process, the developer continues to react with the film even after it’s been poured out, meaning you have to pour in the next chemical just as the timer hits 3:30, to avoid overdeveloping. So, with the lid off, wait until the timer nears 3:15, at which point you should start pouring the developer out, giving yourself 15 seconds to pour it all out, and pour in the next one, which is…
Blix: Yeah, the blix. Be careful when working with this chemical – it feels thick, it stinks a bit, and it looks like it has the power to stain very powerful. Anyway, this is the point it goes into your tank. Hopefully, when you get to this stage, your blix will be at 38°C – remember to monitor it while you’re doing the previous step, but even if it isn’t, you have to pour it in, else your film will overdevelop. Again, you should know your blixing time – Tetenal requires 6:30 for your blix. Alright, so pour in, agitate, and tap. Repeat every 30 seconds
Alright, there’s one extra thing to think about during the blix process, and that is the gas build-up when agitating blix. Blix tends to build up CO2 gas when shaken, resulting in an increase in pressure inside your tank. Let it really get out of hand and your tank’s lid will just pop out, but even if it doesn’t get that bad, it can loosen your lid, causing blix to pour out, really making a mess of things. The easiest thing to do is to ‘burp’ your tank during this process. I’d recommend doing this every minute, after every second agitation. Just lift the lid off, let the gas out, and shut it back. Easy
Once the timer starts nearly 6:15, start pouring out – giving yourself 15 seconds to pour out the blix and start the wash
Wash: The wash should be at working temperature too, so if you can place beakers with plain water into your water bath, and monitor it with your thermometer till it hits 38°C, that’d be great, but if not – just do it like I do – use the 1/3 hot+2/3 cold thing here too. It should get you approximately 38°C water and that’s good enough
Your instructions should say how long you should wash your film for. Mine says 2:30. Continuous agitation. It can be a bit of a pain, inverting the tank in your hand for 150 seconds, but you really need to clean up your film after all this. In fact, I think it’s best you do this for the recommended 150 seconds, throw it out, and pour in a second wash – do this for another minute at least, and you can be sure your film is clean
Stabilizer: This is the easy part. Room temperature. No worries about the temperature and thermometer and water bath and all that. Just pour in the stabilizer once your wash is done – for 60 seconds – and agitate continuously. Pour it out and you’re done. Oh, and remember: DO NOT WASH AFTER STABILIZING. The stabilizer is the final step in your process, and should be the last thing that touches your film before drying. Stabilize, and then take the film out. Remember that!
IMPORTANT: If you used powder chemicals, remember that you will be reusing the solution – for all 3 (or 4) chemicals. Some liquid chemicals might allow you to reuse too – the fixer, perhaps? So don’t forget that if you’re reusing the chemicals, pour them back into your plastic bottles and store them in a dark place. Don’t dump them!
Drying: The final step of the process is to dry your film. Maybe you can consider this the first step after the process, when you think about it. Anyway, open up the tank, take out the reels, open them up, and gently take out the film. Grip by the edges. Don’t touch the film surface. Using film clips, clothes pegs, or bulldog clips, whatever you use to clip your film, hang them to dry in a damp shower (dust-free) environment and wait a couple of hours
Once it’s dry, cut ‘em up into 6-frame strips, and scan! Or print. Your call
And that’s the C-41 process. Pretty similar to the black and white method, isn’t it? Maybe slightly more complicated due to the fact that you need to be very strict about the working temperature of your chemical solutions, but seriously, it’s not that hard. It’s a lot of fun, give it a shot
If you’re using E6 slide film, note that this process is not what you want. E6 chemicals can be bought individually, and in press kits, as well – so if you can get one of these kits, and follow the instructions, it will be near-identical to the C-41 process. Unfortunately, E6 kits (or even individual chemicals) can be a bit hard to find these days, due to the fact that (correct me if I’m wrong) some E6 chemicals contain elements that are not considered safe
However, if you have some exposed E6 film and you have your C-41 press kit, you CAN try cross-processing film i.e. processing E6 film in C-41 chemicals, which can result in those wacky, weird Lomo-style colors and all that. I’ve tried it on film I’ve shot with my Lomo camera, and here are some results, but you might not want this all the time, of course
Ok, time to go. Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this post, and have any thoughts, comments, or questions, leave them below – I’ll get back to you as I always do! In the meanwhile, go get yourself some C-41 chemistry, shoot a couple of color negative rolls, and try it out…it’s a lot of fun! Easy too. And follow @pixelogist_me on Twitter too! Until next time
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By Heshan Jayakody All content is my own except where noted
- Developing Black and White Film Part 3: The Process (pixelogist.me)
- How to Process Your C-41 Film at Home (petapixel.com)