Home Processing Black & White Film: Getting Down To Business

In the first installment of this two part article, we discussed the materials you need to acquire in preparation for processing your black and white film. Now it's time to get down to the nitty-gritty of how to use it all.

Disclaimer: Photo processing chemistry can be toxic. Be careful handling liquids and developer in its powder form. Please read the instructions for each chemical product carefully, and take appropriate precautions for handling. It's also not a bad idea to wear some disposable latex gloves when you're working with developer and fixer to protect your skin. Handled responsibly, typical photo chemistry shouldn't expose you to any serious health risks, but use reasonable caution.

Pictured above is my changing bag with the items you'll be placing inside of it. Top to bottom, these include: film reel, 35mm film cassette, can opener, scissors, clip, center post, developing tank and screw-on lid. On the left in this image are the elastic arm holes. This end will face your body. You'll stick the film and supplies inside through the opposite end, which is then securely closed with a zipper and velcro fasteners to ensure no light enters. It's helpful to place the items strategically inside the same way each time before you begin so you can find and use items easily.

Getting Your Film Into the Developer Tank

The first order of business is getting your film ready to process. Loading the film on the reel is probably the trickiest part for newbies. It's not that the task itself is super difficult, but doing it blindly in a changing bag can be tricky. Here are some pointers to get you started:

  • Always make sure your reels are completely dry before attempting to load film on them. If they are slightly damp, it can make a challenging task nearly impossible. In the same vein, when it comes time to work inside the bag, you may want to turn on a fan to keep yourself cool while you work; this can help reduce sweaty hands that can cause similar snags.
  • If the film does jam while loading it on the reel, don't try to force it. Stop, open up the reel, carefully remove the stuck film, and try it again. Sometimes you may have to do this more than once with a particular roll. Make sure there are no rough edges on the end of the film strip you're trying to insert. Carefully trim the end so that it's smooth and slightly rounded, with no open sprocket holes.
  • Shorter lengths of film are usually easier to load as there's less length to potentially jam. If you're using 35mm film, stick with 24 exposure rolls at the beginning. (120 film rolls come in standard lengths so any roll should load like any other.) Also, you may find that old, expired film is trickier to load on the reel, so start with film that's somewhat fresh.

No, this isn't a really old photo. It's one I shot about 5 years ago, and it came from the first roll of film I processed at home. I got the "film sweats" while trying to load it on the reel and mangled it - badly. It's important to relax and take your time inside the changing bag.

  • Sacrifice a roll of your least valuable film to practice loading in the light. This will give you a chance to see how the film loads when your hands aren't stuffed inside a bag. Start by keeping your eyes open, then see if you can keep them closed through the whole process. If you can master that, moving to the bag will be a cinch. If you don't want to sacrifice a roll for practice, at the very least use a roll with everyday snapshots or still lifes that can be easily recreated. Irreplaceable vacation photos are not a good idea for your first attempt.

For the exact steps on how to load either 35mm or 120 film on a reel, I refer the reader to one of the many online demos available via YouTube. This is easier seen than explained, and you'll want to find a video featuring the general type of reel you own. It's a good idea to use your changing bag in an area with subdued light (turn off overhead lights and any nearby lamps), to prevent strong light from straying in through a weak seam.

Along with scissors and a can opener (for 35mm film only), you'll need to place your film, developing tank, screw-on lid, center post and clip inside the changing bag so you can place the newly loaded reel safely inside the tank. If your tank has a plastic red cap, you don't need to put that in the bag  - it's used to hold your chemistry in place during agitation, not to block light. Once screwed tightly shut, you can remove the tank from the changing bag.

You are now ready to begin developing your film.

Processing Your Film

Now that your film is securely in the developing tank, you can begin the process of developing. I perform the following steps in my kitchen sink. As mentioned in the first part of this post, there are three chemicals (plus water) we'll be using to complete the process: developer (D-76), Ilford Rapid Fixer and Photo-Flo.

Here's a typical scenario of times and sequence you'll use when developing your film using the guidelines I suggest:

  1. Developer (9:30)
  2. Water rinse/ stop (3:00)
  3. Fixer (5:00)
  4. Final rinse (3:00)
  5. Photo-Flo (0:30)

The only step that will normally vary in length is the developer, which is dependent on the specific film and developer. Generally speaking, you can find the developing time listed for D-76 (and other popular developers) inside the cardboard packaging for your film. The manufacturer will list a suggested time for the film, although these are only recommended guidelines. While times for various temperatures are often listed, I recommend sticking with the standard 68°F (20°C) for consistency's sake. You can experiment later, but keep it simple to start.

You'll also note that the manufacturer provides guidelines for agitation during the developing process. Agitating should be done fairly slowly and deliberately, by inverting the tank (flipping it upside down and back = 1 inversion). Avoid vigorous shaking. Typically you'll agitate the tank every 30-60 seconds, for about 5-10 seconds at a time. I normally do 5 inversions in 10 seconds once every minute. This will probably earn me some flack from purists who claim otherwise, but I've never seen any difference in results based on specific agitation intervals.

The important thing is that you do agitate periodically and gently. (You may have heard of a popular technique called stand developing, but I'm skipping that here for the sake of simplicity.) Here are some pointers:

  • After pouring the developer into the tank, applying the cap, and doing your initial agitation, be sure to gently rap the bottom of the tank against a sink or counter to get rid of any air bubbles that might stick to the side of the film. There's no need to repeat this step after the first agitation since the film surface should now be thoroughly wet inside the tank.
  • Make sure you follow the developing tank instructions for the appropriate volume of chemistry. If you have a tank like mine, those values are imprinted on the bottom for easy reference. Using more chemistry than required won't hurt, but too little may result in uneven processing along one edge of the film. Processing 2 reels of 35mm, or 1 reel of 120 film, requires more chemistry than a single roll of 35mm to cover adequately.
  • Use your smartphone to help you develop film. There are a number of film developing apps that feature timers and even a database of films and suggested developer times. I mainly use the Massive Dev Chart, which is available for both Android and iOS devices. It currently runs for $8.99, and it's money well spent. Virtually any kind of film you can buy will have presets listed in the MDC, and these can be modified as needed for your own workflow. When you modify an entry, it is automatically saved as a custom entry, and can be easily exported to a file whenever you move to a new mobile device.
  • If you want a free, simple timer for Android, you can also try Darkroom Timer (by Chicken of the Web), on the Google Play store. It's no longer supported by the developer but it still works fine. I use it now primarily for color film processing, as you have greater flexibility to make custom presets. (One little quirk about Darkroom Timer on newer devices is there's no obvious way to add a new entry. No problem. Press and hold an existing preset, choose duplicate, then edit and rename the duplicate.) Unfortunately, I've never been able to export custom entries successfully so moving to a new smartphone means recreating them.
  • I suggest using 1:1 developing, which does mean that your developing times will be about 50% longer than using stock solution For example, 6:45 in stock solution might translate to 9:30 for 1:1 processing. The Massive Dev Chart normally shows the suggested times for 1:1 and other common dilutions. It's not complicated at all and requires no advanced math skills. If your tank says to use 475ml of solution for one roll of 35mm film, just round that up to the nearest easy number (500ml), then divide that by two. In this case, you'd pour in 250ml of stock D-76 solution and add 250ml of water. Be sure to do this in a graduated cylinder, not the developing tank. 
  • Using 1:1 processing will double the return on your investment without appreciably extending the overall time it takes to develop a roll. Diluting your developer will not adversely impact image quality in the slightest; some people even claim it increases apparent sharpness.

Check to ensure that your developer is at 68°F before you start. If it's higher or lower, you can stick the cylinder in the fridge for a few minutes or immerse it in hot water until it's right where you want it to be. Then start the timer and pour the developer into the top of the tank in one smooth motion. Apply the cap, and begin agitating according to the manufacturer's guidelines or whatever your preferred app suggests.

Once you're done with the developer, you can dispose of the contents and begin your stop bath, or what I like to call "rinsing it out with tap water."* Since you've not applied fixer yet, you'll need to keep the screw-on lid attached. I don't worry about the precise temperature of the rinse water, but try to keep it in the ballpark of 68F based on feel. Let the tank fill, dump it out, and repeat at least a few times right away to remove developer residue. Then you can let the water flow through until you're done. I've seen various suggestions on how long a rinse/ stop bath should be, but I settled on 3 minutes as a reasonable period of time years ago.

After the rinse is complete, pour out the water and gently shake it upside down to get out most of the remaining water. Don't shake too hard or bang it against the sink, or you could dislodge the little clip that holds the film reel down on the center spool inside. (You don't want the reel to float freely inside or your film may not get evenly exposed to the chemistry.) Once you're satisfied it's mostly empty, it's time to apply your fixer. As with the developer, measure the volume needed in a graduated cylinder. When you're ready, pour the fixer into the developing tank. I do a few gentle inversions at the beginning, although it's not really necessary. Then let it sit undisturbed for 5 minutes.

When the time is up, use your funnel to pour the fixer into a 1-liter bottle for the next use. Remember: Don't just dump your fixer after a single use. You should be able to get at least 12-15 uses out of a single batch - likely more than that. If the film is ever milky looking after fixing it, re-do this step with fresh fixer.

At this point the film is insensitive to light ("fixed"), so the lid can come off for the remaining steps. After fixing your film, you'll want to do a final rinse to get rid of the chemical residue. Again, I do this for an arbitrary 3 minutes. If you feel better with a longer rinse, it certainly won't hurt anything. After unscrewing the top, just let tap water fill the tank and spill over the edge. I gently plunge the reel by slowly raising and lowering the center post as the water flows over it, occasionally emptying and refilling the tank to ensure a steady supply of clean water.

The final step is applying Photo-Flo. Fill the tank up almost to the top with fresh tap water. Then, using your eyedropper, squeeze in 2-3 drops of Photo-Flo solution. Resist the temptation to go overboard; more is not better. Then slowly plunge the reel a few times into the tank until you see suds start to appear on the surface. Wait about 30 seconds and then remove the reel from the tank and the center post. You're nearly done!

At this point, I like to shake the reel over the sink with a snap of the wrist a few times before opening it up to remove the film. This is where the magic happens: you'll lift your film gently from the reel and unroll it. If everything went well, you should see negative images unfurling before you! Gently shake any excess moisture from the film strip, being sure not to touch it against anything, and you're ready to hang it up to dry using your weighted clips. I hang mine in my home office area with the ceiling fan turned on low nearby; just be mindful about not stirring up dust while it's drying. Dust sticking to negatives is no fun.

Some people like to use a dedicated film squeegee to wipe the water off prior to hanging the filmstrip, but many photographers have found that anything but the lightest touch tends to produce scratches along the emulsion. It seems some film types are more susceptible than others. Either way, I'd recommend against it.

You'll want to wait at least 45-60 minutes before you take your film down. Don't be alarmed if your film twists and bends in weird ways as it dries; that's perfectly normal. It should be flat (or mostly so) when it finishes drying. An hour is usually enough time, although there's no harm in leaving it overnight or longer. (If you're processing older, expired film, leaving it overnight will help reduce any excess curliness). You're now ready to scan and enjoy your first roll of film!

*Some photographers shy away from using tap water in the developing process, especially if they live in an area with deposits or other water problems. If you encounter any unexplained issues using tap water, it's worth trying some distilled water as an alternative.