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.


Home Processing Black & White Film: Gathering Supplies


My friend, Chryseis, developing a roll of film in our kitchen.

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.

Acquiring Supplies

A snap of some of my supplies on the kitchen counter.

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
  • Scissors
  • Measuring cylinders
  • Eyedropper
  • Funnel
  • Thermometer
  • 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.

The Chemistry

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!