I am occasionally asked how one goes about processing black & white film at home. After answering the question multiple times, I decided it might be helpful to put together some simplified instructions for getting started. I should emphasize that my methodology is not infallible, nor is it the only way one can achieve the desired results. It's just how I do things and what I find has worked well for me.
As you gain experience, you will no doubt want to tailor the process to best match your own workflow. I am confident in stating that while my approach may not be the end-all, be-all of film processing, if you follow these basic steps you should get usable results. If you find a better way to do things, please feel free to add to the conversation in the comments section.
This two-part blog article provides an overview of the materials and the process of developing black & white film. There are some excellent online articles and YouTube videos that can help you flesh out specific steps, but what I found lacking when I started back into processing film was a general guide that spelled out explicitly what I needed to get started. I had last developed film way back in high school, and had forgotten most of what I knew.
After lots of Googling, asking around and pulling from multiple sources I was able to piece that information together into a useful workflow. I hope these articles will save you some time and answer your questions so that you feel confident getting started. I have covered some of these issues, such as scanning negatives, in prior posts.
Let me begin by dispelling a myth: You do not need a darkroom in order to process film. (If you want to make traditional paper prints with an enlarger, you will need a light proof work area which might be a formal darkroom or a bathroom with tape sealing any light leaks. But that's another topic altogether and beyond the scope of this article.) You can easily process film in your kitchen with minimal gear, and then scan it digitally with your computer. If you're been interested in working with film, rest assured that you don't need a dedicated room or expensive equipment.
Why process your own instead of just sending it out to a lab? Some people enjoy DIY projects, and processing your own film can be enormously satisfying. In my case, the major factors that pushed me into it were cost and convenience. I was driving nearly 30 minutes to get to the nearest pro lab that can handle black & white film. On top of the drive was the waiting (up to a week), and the cost. By "souping" my own film at home, I can shoot a roll and have it developed and hanging to dry in about 30 minutes.
In order to get started, you will have to spend some money on basic supplies. Initially, expect to spend around $150-200 buying all the "hardware" and chemistry needed to get started. Most of this cost represents a one time investment, since chemicals are the only ongoing expense (apart from the film itself, of course). Depending on what chemistry you buy, and how you use it, you can process individual rolls of film for literally pennies apiece, and certainly well under a dollar at the "expensive" end.
Let's start with the reusable supplies you'll need to process your film. These can all be sourced through various online retailers, and some of them you're likely to already own, although you may want to reserve some items strictly for developing as you don't want to contaminate kitchen supplies with potentially toxic chemistry. I bought most of my supplies from Freestyle Photographic Supplies. Here's what you'll need at the start:
- Film changing bag
- Daylight developing tank
- Film reels
- Can opener
- Measuring cylinders
- Jugs (various sizes) for storing chemistry
- Weighted film clips
Freestyle carries a few changing bags. You can also find film changing bags on eBay, sold by a variety of vendors in different sizes. Prices currently vary from about $13-$30. I would advise against buying the very smallest bags since you want to allow plenty of room for loading your film. Changing bags let you work in the light while your hands and film stay in the dark. This is the only step in the developing process when absolute darkness is required while handling your undeveloped film. I'll explain this in further detail in the second installment.
A daylight developing tank, as the name suggests, is a device that lets you pour chemistry or water in and out under normal lighting, while keeping stray light from reaching the contents. There are various designs and price points, but I recommend a simple plastic model (with plastic reels) that let you process 2 - 35mm rolls (or 1 - 1 20 roll) at a time. The film will spend the rest of the process in this tank before you hang it to dry at the end. Your tank may come with a reel or two, but it's not a bad idea to order a couple of extra reels when you buy your tank. Some people swear by metal tanks and reels, although I've been happy with my plastic kit.
A handheld can opener (like the kind you use to puncture cans of juice) is useful for removing the ends of 35mm film cassettes in the changing bag. Scissors let you trim the ends of the film for easier loading onto the reels. If you only want to process medium format (120) film, you won't need either of these items since there's no cassette to pop open or rough edges to trim.
You'll need at least 2 measuring cylinders for measuring quantities of chemistry. I would also suggest buying a small cylinder for measuring certain developers (like Rodinal) or other chemistry that you need to measure precisely in smaller quantities. You will want to buy an eyedropper and funnel that you reserve for photographic use. Both are inexpensive but very important items you'll regret skimping on (really).
You can get by with a cheap, basic thermometer for black & white photography. However, if you're considering delving into color or slide film processing in the future, I'd suggest buying a $10-20 digital thermometer at the outset for fast, accurate readings. There's no sense in shopping twice for the same item, like I did before I knew better. Digital thermometers are readily available online or in the kitchen section of your local Walmart. Black & white film is very forgiving when it comes to temperature variations (I developed a number rolls at the start without even using one), but other film types require tight temperature control for good results. If you want consistent results with your black and white film, get a thermometer.
You'll need some jugs for storing the chemicals you need to mix. How many and what sizes you'll need depends somewhat on the specific chemicals you choose, but I would suggest the following as a minimum to get started: one gallon (quantity 1), half gallon (2), 5 liter (1) and one liter (1). Some people improvise by reusing household containers, but I would suggest buying photographic "Datatainer" jugs. They have the advantage of being opaque, have white space for writing out the contents with a Sharpie, and you won't contend with the uncertainty of wondering whether residue from whatever was stored in them previously might contaminate your chemistry. These jugs are not very expensive and pretty much last forever.
Finally, I recommend buying some weighted film clips for drying your film once you're done processing it. If you're handy, you can probably rig up a system of your own. You can even use clothespins in a pinch. Personally, I find clips made for the purpose are easiest to work with. I have two sets, since I frequently process 2 rolls at a time.
I've experimented with a variety of developers - commercial and homemade - but I recommend that if you're just starting out, stick to the tried and true chemicals, and master that before you delve into more exotic concoctions. You'll save on shipping if you order both the items above and your chemistry below at the same time from Freestyle. When it comes time to restock your chemistry, I'd recommend ordering from the Film Photography Project store. They are a non-profit organization, with competitive pricing. Their offerings are more limited, but they charge actual shipping cost - plus, your purchases support their charitable work equipping schools and other organizations with free film cameras.
For basic home developing, I suggest buying the following:
- Kodak D-76
- Ilford Rapid Fixer
- Kodak Photo-Flo 200
Kodak D-76 comes in a packet in powder form. You simply mix it thoroughly with warm water, and this solution becomes your stock solution. I generally use D-76 in a 1:1 ratio for reasons of economy. That simply means you mix equal parts water and stock solution when you are preparing to develop your film. The higher the ratio of water to stock solution, the longer the processing time will be. Some people reuse their developer, pouring it back into the storage jug after each use, but I've never done that since the small cost of developer doesn't merit potential failure of subsequent rolls to me. A packet of D-76 costs around $7-8, and will process many rolls if you use it 1:1. You can use D-76 with practically all varieties of black & white film (including films from Ilford, Fujifilm and others.)
D-76 mixes with a gallon of water (smaller packets for 1-liter quantities are also available), which makes storing the solution in 2 half-gallon bottles convenient. It's a good practice to divide larger quantities of film chemistry into smaller, airtight bottles so that it keeps longer. The more air present inside the container, the more quickly the chemistry is likely to go bad. There are specialty bottles available with an accordion design to minimize air pockets, but I've never personally used them. Fortunately, D-76 gives you some warning and doesn't fail suddenly (as will Kodak X-Tol, another popular developer).
Stored at room temperature in opaque Datatainer jugs, I find that D-76 will last at least a couple of months - sometimes as long as 6 months or more. When it starts to change from clear to yellowish, it has begun going bad and it's time to mix up a fresh batch. (You'll probably still get OK results if it's only a little bit yellow, but you may not want to take the risk if it's an important roll.)
Old school film users will say that you should always use a stop bath following the developer. Stop bath is used to immediately halt the developing process. While I do use stop bath in my darkroom for making prints, I've always just used cool tap water to rinse my film following developer, and never have noticed any problems arising as a result. If you want to do it "correctly," feel free to look into a stop bath that meets your needs. I really don't think it's necessary, especially when you're using a 1:1 developer solution which necessitates longer developing times. A few extra seconds with developer on the emulsion as it rinses isn't likely to have any noticeable impact.
The next chemical you'll need is a fixer. I have always used Ilford Rapid Fixer. It comes in a 1 liter bottle that you mix with 4 liters of water for a total of 5 liters solution. A given quantity of fixer can be used many times before it is exhausted. I keep my current active batch in a 1-liter bottle and store the unused remainder in the 5-liter bottle I used to mix it. You'll know your fixer is exhausted if the film looks milky after fixing is completed, but you can always re-fix for longer or with fresh chemistry.
Your film will not be ruined if the fixer is exhausted and you have to do it again or add more time. Conservatively, you should get at least a dozen uses out of the same quantity of fixer. So don't dump it out after each use - it has a LOT of staying power. I've never actually seen Ilford Rapid Fixer go bad, but I'm sure if it sits long enough in a partly empty container it will eventually fail. I've used fixer that was probably a year old with no ill effects.
The last chemical here is Photo-Flo. It's a soap-like agent that prevents spots from forming on your negatives when drying. The trick is to use only 2-3 drops of it in your developing tank at the end of the process. Don't pour it - use an eyedropper. Use too much, and you may end up with more spotting than you would have otherwise! I'm still using the same bottle I bought 4 or 5 years ago; one 16 ounce bottle will last you literally years. Some people swear by using a tiny amount of dish soap as a cheap alternative, but this stuff is so economical to begin with I don't see any reason to scrimp and improvise.
Our next installment will take a look at the actual steps involved in making those photos magically appear on a strip of exposed film. Until then, go get these supplies and you'll be ready to start!