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Black & White Film Developing

Courtesy of Chris Groenhout

Processing your own B&W film is not only easy but quick and simple as well! In addition, doing it yourself allows you a degree of control over the development, unavailable from most commercial labs. In recent years, boutique film labs have surfaced offering hand processing and printing, but there's nothing they can do that you can't do yourself in the privacy of your home...

Assuming you already have a light tight room, preferably with a supply of filtered water - the only other equipment you need to lay your hands on is:-

Film processing tank - I personally prefer Paterson plastic tanks - they're cheap and simple to use and it's a modular system with a multitude of tank sizes and reels adjustable for both 35mm and 120 film. Some photographers prefer stainless steel tanks with metal reels but I've seen too many beginners' films wrecked by poor loading and lids slipping off mid process. In addition, plastic tanks allow you to monitor the developer temperature during processing by inserting a thermometer into the centre hole - not possible with a metal tank.

Thermometer - A long alcohol one is a good start (should be less than $10). Mercury thermometers reek havoc when they're snapped and short thermometers can get lost in a large tank if you're not careful! Digital thermometers are often incorrect though very accurate in a linear sense (so long as you know how far off they are, you should be OK). Most importantly, always use the same thermometer, it reduces the number of unpredictable variables when trouble-shooting.

Clock/Timer - A wall clock with a second-hand is quite adequate for the purposes of timing processing times. If you're a little vague, a digital timer is handy and need not be expensive. The lack of a seconds counter on kitchen timers makes them less practical.

Film pickerFilm picker - This curious gadget extracts the 'tongue' of the film if it's been wound into the canister. Few modern auto-wind cameras leave the end out, so you can either break open the canister in the dark or use a film picker to get access to the film. Some purists say that dragging the film through the felt light trap again causes static and scratches - something that I've never come across. If you're concerned about static, don't pull the film out too fast when loading.

Scissors - Nothing special here so long as they're easy to find in the dark. Maybe chain them to the wall or bench and they won't go missing every time a school assignment is due!

Measuring Jugs - There are some really cheap options, but they're rarely accurate enough for photographic purposes. Get yourself a couple of 600ml or 1 litre cylinders with easy to read graduations and maybe a 50 or 100ml cylinder as well for measuring Photo-Flo or liquid developers such as Rodinol. For very small quantities, a 2ml syringe is also useful - just keep it out of the reach of children!

Developer - There are three main types of developer for film processing - each with their own strengths and weaknesses. To keep things simple I'll stick to Ilford, Kodak and Agfa chemistry :-

  1. Fine grain developers - Ilford Perceptol, Kodak Microdol-X etc... These powder based developers will give you very fine grain results with a slight loss in sharpness and film speed.

  2. 'Normal' developers - Ilford ID11 / Kodak D76 - Also powder based, this is the most commonly used film developer in the world and has been in use for the best part of the 20th century. Produces fine grain results of good sharpness with generally no loss of film speed. It is cheap and keeps well in concentrate form (up to 6 months). To mix up a 5 litre kit, firstly calibrate an empty 5 litre chemical bottle (pour in exactly 5 litres of water and draw a line). Fill the bottle half full of hot water and pour in part A, mixing it in thoroughly. Part B is much larger and takes a while to fully dissolve after which you can fill the bottle to the mark with cold water and leave to cool down before use.

  3. High activity developers - Ilford Microphen, Kodak HC110, Agfa Rodinol etc... These developers are ideal when push processing and when maximum sharpness is desired. A slight increase in film speed is to be expected as is an increase in apparent grain. For maximum grain, try something like Kodak DK50.
Note: For the sake of consistency, don't re-use your developer - it's a false economy! Film developer is probably one of the cheapest chemicals you'll buy (ID11 @ 1:1 is about 25 cents per film). Also keep away from pre-mixed and multi-use chemicals, they may seem easier at first but the results may reflect this as well.

Stop Bath - The purpose of the stop bath is to halt the films' development and neutralise the alkaline of the developer before the film goes into the fix solution. There has been a move away from the traditional use of acetic acid with most photographers simply replacing it with running water. Few development times are so critical that an instant stop is necessary and the health and safety aspects of mixing/using acid make the use of running water as a stop more and more attractive.

Fixer - Not one to skimp on! Though powder fixer may seem a little cheaper, nothing beats 'rapid fix' which can be used for both film and paper fixing. Generally diluted 1:4, the working solution can be used a number of times and then discarded. As concentrated rapid fixer keeps indefinitely, I suggest buying a 5 litre bottle and mixing the working solution up 5 litres at a time (1 litre concentrate to 4 litres water). This solution can be used for both film and paper fixing - just be careful to avoid contamination and check it's strength from time to time. This is easily achieved by submerging a film offcut (unprocessed) into the fixer and timing how long it takes to clear. For safest fixing, double this time and then add some! As a final note, I don't recommend the use of hardener in your fixer unless you're having problems with the water quality in your area. If you must use it, you may also need to extend your washing time and/or use a product such as Ilford Ridfix to completely remove traces of fix from your film.

Wetting Agent - More commonly referred to as Photo-Flo (the Kodak brand product), it's simply a detergent which reduces the surface tension on your film to aid even drying. Frequently over or under-used, it is an essential part of film processing and makes redundant the use of a film squeegee and the inevitable scratches that result.

Let's Get Started!
Load your film. It's probably better to do this before preparing your chemistry as your hands will be dry and perfectly clean as will the bench top.

Stuff for film developing

   bullet Lay out the components of your tank so they're easy to find in the dark (it's probably a good idea to 'test' it as well to make sure it all goes together once the light is off). It is important that everything is dry and clean - especially the processing reels.

   bullet Prepare your film for loading. If the 'tongue' is wound in, use a film picker to extract it or have a can opener handy to break open the canister once the light is OFF. If you have the film end handy, trim the leader square with a pair of scissors, being careful to cut between the sprockets. A little rounding of the corners with the scissors can often make the loading even easier. Insert the film between the guides in the reel (just past the ball bearings if you're using a Paterson reel). If you're loading 120 film, you can't do much here except break the paper strip and put the film in your pocket to prevent it unravelling.

   bullet Turn the light off! (this step is really important)

   bullet Reeling the filmLoad the reel. Start by inserting the leader into the guides on the reel if you haven't done so already. Hold the film by the thumb and forefinger to help guide it in evenly.

Reeling the filmI tend to leave the canister on the end until the film is completely wound on as it weighs the film and prevents tangles. Loading 120 can be more difficult than 35mm as the film has the tendency to buckle when going into the reel due to its greater width. Start by unravelling the paper from the film and using a couple of fingers and your thumb, guide the end of the film into the beginning of the reel. From here in, it's a simple matter of turning one side of the reel back and forward until the film is completely wound onto the reel.

It is imperative to have a completely dry reel as any moisture makes loading difficult if not impossible! When you're out of film to load, cut off the canister/reel or in the case of 120, slowly tear the tape to prevent static fogging the emulsion. Turn the processing reel a couple more times to make sure the film is completely on and you're done (well, almost).

  • Assemble the tank. The important bit here is to remember the black spindle which keeps the light out and lets the chemistry in. Slide the reel(s) onto the spindle and if required attach the clip to the top to prevent reel movement during processing. Attach tank lid and check it's secure. You can now turn on the light.

  • Put the tank aside and prepare the chemicals. First of all, determine what quantity of solution(s) you'll need. As a general rule, 300ml per 35mm film and 500ml per 120 film is a safe bet but if you're unsure, check on the base of your tank or in the manufacturers literature for exact quantities. It's better to have a little too much developer than not enough as some leakage is not uncommon. In one jug, make up your developer. In the case of ID11/D76, pour in 1/2 of the overall required quantity and mix in the same quantity of warm water to bring the overall temperature up to 22 degrees C or so. This allows for the developer to drop a couple of degrees once it is poured into the tank. If you're in a warm climate, you might try using stock solution which has the added bonus of being the same temperature as the fixer and wash (if stored in the same room). In a second jug, pour a sufficient quantity of working solution fixer.

  • Pour the developer into the tank and start the timer. Put the lid on and make sure it's sealed properly by applying pressure and letting out excess air. Thump the tank on the bench a couple of times to knock air bubbles off the emulsion and agitate the film for 30 seconds. This is done by inverting the tank and re-inverting it so as to wash used developer from the film's surface and mix it with fresh developer. Agitation technique is a very personal thing, so I'll just suggest one thing - don't under do it! You should be able to feel the chemicals move from one end of the tank to the other and once it's there, turn the tank over again. If the developer just swims around in the middle, it defeats the purpose of agitation. After agitating the film for the initial 30 seconds, thump the tank again on the bench and leave it still.

  • Check the temperature by removing the lid and inserting a thermometer. Wait until the reading stabilises and put the lid back on. This should be done at least a couple of times during development and averaged. Every 30 seconds, agitate the tank for 3 or 4 inversions and re-thump it on the bench to remove air bubbles.

  • Calculate overall development time. Most film development times are quoted for 20 degrees C but can be calculated in a range of 15 to 25 C. For optimum results, the developer should be the same temperature as the wash and fix as large jumps in temperature can cause an increase in grain and at worst, reticulation (see glossary).

  • When the time is up, empty the tank and put it under running water to wash off excess developer. Emptying the tank a couple of times during this helps remove any trace of developer from the tank.

  • Pour in the fixer and agitate for 30 seconds. Leave the tank still for several minutes as excessive agitation is unnecessary and exhausts the fixer. After a few minutes you can safely open tank and check the film is fixed. If there is any evidence of 'milkiness', put the film back in for a few more minutes and check it again. The base might be a little pink but this'll wash out and won't affect the printing.

  • Pour the fixer back into the bottle and put the film under running water to wash for 15 minutes. Emptying the tank every few minutes is advisable to maximise washing efficiency. While the film is washing, measure out some wetting agent (2ml per litre of Photo-Flo 1:200).

  • When washing is complete, don't empty the tank - just remove the lid and reels. Squirt in the wetting agent (a syringe is good for this) and lower the reels into the tank. Swirl the film around a few times to make sure it's all covered evenly and leave for 30 seconds. Remove the film and hang to dry, weighing down the end with a couple of pegs. A heated drying cabinet is ideal, but if this isn't available, a simple line strung across the room is adequate so long as there's not too much dust floating around. Leave the room and be patient - most damage to film is done while it's still wet!

  • Unhang the dry film (this could take several hours in an unheated room) and cut into strips to sleeve. You have now successfully processed your first film!


  • Prepare Equipment - Make sure you have everything you need and know where it is.
  • Turn the light off.
  • Load film onto reel and assemble tank.
  • Turn the light back on.
  • Prepare chemicals.
  • Pour in developer, start timer and agitate for 30 seconds.
  • Check temperature and calculate development time.
  • Agitate 2 or 3 times every 30 seconds until end of development.
  • Pour out developer and run tank under water for 30 seconds.
  • Pour in fixer and agitate for 30 seconds.
  • Check film is fixed after 3 minutes (clear=OK, milky=more fixing needed)
  • Pour fixer back into bottle when fixing is complete.
  • Wash film for 15 minutes, emptying tank every 5 minutes.
  • Dip film into wetting agent for 30 seconds and hang to dry.
  • Cut up and sleeve film for printing.

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