One of the most intimidating aspects of working with film today is accessibility and availability of resources for processing. With professional labs becoming rarer and rarer in most parts of the world, except for major urban centers, one of the remaining options for the photographer pining to shoot film is to develop one’s own. The good news is, however, that developing film at home is incredibly easy, requires few tools and little space, and gives you superior results and control over what many labs could ever offer.
The Tools You Need
Assembling a basic kit of black-and-white film development supplies is easy and should take up about as much room as the proverbial breadbox. For popularity’s sake, we’ll stick with roll film for the bulk of this article, although there are unique options for sheet film photographers, as well.
A tank is the vessel used to hold your film and chemistry in place and prevent light from exposing the film during the developing process. The Paterson tank system is an industry standard for plastic tanks and comes with everything you need besides reels. For purists out there, stainless steel tanks for roll film are also of a standard size and offer increased durability and temperature retention. Whichever way you go, keep in mind that plastic reels must be matched with plastic tanks, and stainless-steel reels must be matched with stainless steel tanks.
The second component for developing your film is a reel, or more than likely, reels. Tanks can be purchased to accommodate multiple reels simultaneously; you develop several rolls of film at once. Plastic reels are, in the author’s opinion, easier to load due to the ratcheting system used to spiral film around them. Stainless steel reels are a bit trickier to master but, when coupled with a steel tank, require less chemistry for processing.
Specialized and accurate graduates, or other measuring vessels, are a must. It is essential to measure the proper amount of chemistry for developing, and equally essential to get your dilutions correct when mixing chemistry. It is recommended to have at least two or more graduates of varying sizes—small ones are more accurate, larger ones obviously hold more chemistry, and multiples are needed so you do not cross-contaminate developer and fixer solutions.
Depending on the number of chemicals you end up using, working and stock solutions should be kept in labeled storage containers for easy access and to prolong their working life. The size of the container is dependent on the chemistry you are using and how often you will be developing film.
Seemingly frivolous, film clips, in my experience, truly do work better than clothespins when air-drying your film.
A thermometer is another essential, and it’s important to get a separate one for your film-developing needs.
Stopwatch or Timer
Dedicated cooking timers, stopwatches, or any clock with a legible second hand will help keep track of developing times, for greater consistency.
With this list in mind, take a look at Paterson and Ilford’s Film Processing Starter Kit for a basic, all-inclusive bundle that includes the necessary tools and chemistry to start developing film at home.
After you’ve acquired everything you need to develop, the fun part begins. Beyond the developing kit itself, there are a few other things you need for processing: a completely dark room (or a changing bag, if necessary), a sink with running water (make sure the faucet is high enough to accommodate your tank underneath), and a clean, dust-free place for your film to dry when you’re finished (I dry my film in the bathroom, hanging from a metal coat hanger that, itself, hangs from the shower-curtain rod). If this is your first time developing film, it is worth sacrificing a roll of unexposed film to practice loading your reels; depending on the type of reels you have, make sure you can load your film comfortably and easily with your eyes closed the entire time.
After spending time familiarizing yourself by loading a practice roll in light and dark, move to your completely dark space and configure your equipment: have your tank and, if applicable, center post, funnel, and lid all laid out, along with your reels. I like to also keep a pair of scissors in my back pocket to trim the film from the spool or remove film leaders, as well as pry open 35mm cartridges if necessary. Once set, turn out the lights and wait a few moments for your eyes to adjust, which will allow you to spot if any light is creeping into your loading space. Go through the process of either ratcheting or rolling your film onto the reels, put them into the tank or onto the center post, attach the lid or funnel, and make sure all of your film is secure before turning on the lights or leaving the light-tight space.
With your tank loaded, move over to the sink you will be using and lay out all of the chemistry you need in premeasured amounts. Depending on the developer you will be using, prepare enough chemistry using the recommended dilution on your developer bottle. The tank you are using will dictate the amount of chemistry needed. One important thing to note during this stage is temperature—most of the time, it is recommended to work with liquids between 68-70°F / 20-21°C. Use your thermometer to ensure the water you are mixing with developer is this temperature, to produce consistent and accurate results. If the water temperature is hotter or colder, the film’s contrast could be greatly affected and developing times will change. If you haven’t already, prepare your fixer according to its specified dilution, and make sure to not have any fixer come into contact with your developing solution—do not mix fixer first and then use the same vessel to mix developer, for instance. Additionally, prior to beginning the process, make sure to note development time for your film. A good starting point will be listed on the box in which your film came, or possibly on the bottle or package of developer you are using. In any case, these times are called “starting times” and can be adjusted as you learn more about how you personally like to expose and print/scan your film.
Now, with your mixed developer at 68°F, and your mixed fixer to the side, you can do an optional, but recommended by the author, pre-wetting stage. Fill the tank loaded with film with 68°F water until it is full, and let the film sit for 1 minute. This step brings the film and tank to the temperature of the developer, can rinse off anti-halation layers, and some say it softens the emulsion layer of the film to be more receptive to the developer—the benefit I’m sure of is the temperature stabilization, but it’s become a habit of mine over the years and has always led to successful results.
After 1 minute, pour the water from your tank down the drain (don’t worry if the water turns a bright blue, dark purple, or some other color—that’s perfectly normal) and quickly, but steadily, pour in your mixed developer solution. As soon as your tank is full of chemistry, start your timer and begin agitating the film. Depending on the tank you are using, various agitation styles can be employed, ranging from total inversion agitation to simply using a spindle to rotate your film—I prefer to use a gentle inversion agitation method. Agitate the film continuously for the first 30 seconds, and then agitate for 10-15 seconds every 30 seconds thereafter. This agitation schedule is pretty standard method; however, it can be changed depending on processing method, developer type, or to alter contrast slightly.
Once you have finished developing, either pour the spent developer down the drain, if you are using one-shot developer, or return the developer to its bottle if it is reusable. Quickly fill your tank with 68°F water, empty it, fill again with water, and agitate continuously for 30 seconds to 1 minute. This step is functioning as a stop bath to halt the developing action, and is an alternative to using proper stop bath chemistry. In my practice, water has almost always been suitable for stopping developing action, and I’ve rarely felt the need to use a true stop bath. If you’re total developing time is 5 minutes or shorter, though, a proper acetic or citric acid stop bath can be used to more quickly stop the developing action to prevent overdevelopment.
After the stop bath step, empty your tank and fill the tank with your mixed fixer solution. Similar to the developer stage, I like to agitate continuously for the first 30 seconds, and then for 10 seconds every 30 seconds thereafter. Fixing typically takes about 5 minutes in total, a minute or so longer won’t hurt, but the total amount of time is not as crucial as the development stage. After fixing your film, make sure to return the solution to your bottle using your fixer-dedicated funnel or graduate, and save.
Now that the fixing is done, you are essentially finished with processing your film, and can now remove the lid from your tank; however, I would recommend keeping your film on the reels for the washing process. Many advocate for the use of a hypo clear or washing aid step to expedite the total washing time needed. Similar to stop bath, I feel this step is completely optional if you don’t mind spending a few extra minutes washing your film. My process for washing is to fill and empty the tank with cool ~68°F water three or four times, then slow the rate of the faucet and let the water continuously fill and overflow in your tank for approximately 10 minutes. After this rinse period, you can perform one more optional step, and this time I recommend it, which is the use of a wetting agent to prevent water marks from forming on your film during drying. After you’ve emptied the tank from the water rinse, refill it with a very dilute mixed solution of water and wetting agent, and let that sit for about 30 seconds or so. Afterward, you can now remove your reels from the tank, remove your film from the reels, and use film clips for hanging your film to dry.
After development, let your film air-dry in a dust-free area for approximately 2 hours or so, until the film is completely dry. If any moisture is still present on the film’s surface, just be patient and wait for it to dry as opposed to trying to wipe it off. Once completely dry, I typically cut the film into strips using a pair of scissors, and file into negative sleeves.
You’re all finished now, ready to scan or print your film. If you go the scanning route, take a look at my Film Scanners Buying Guide for some ideas on the different dedicated scanners available. As an alternative, use your digital camera, macro lens, tripod, and light pad as a very capable means for Scanning without a Scanner. And, for the traditionalists looking to print in the darkroom, take a look at my Top 5 Black-and-White Darkroom Papers article, which, although written for students, is a perfect starting point for any newcomers to the darkroom.
Let us know if you have any questions on film processing, chemistry, or any of the developing tools needed in the Comments section, below.