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Return to Film – Development

This post is only going to be about B/W development in a tank and not colour film.

Living as I do in Hong Kong with a full family (wife, daughter, son, two cats and a French Bulldog) where space is a premium and travelling for work an extraordinary amount; I neither have the space nor the time to consider colour rotary processing at the moment and definitely am not about to convert a bedroom to a dark room for anything more complex.

What had always put me off the idea of developing my own film in the past was the idea that I had to have a dark room to do it and I think this remains a common misconception.

The process of home developing requires little specialist kit and also when you get into the swing of it, you don’t need that much time (apart from scanning films).

In this post I am not going to write a guide on how to develop film – especially as a quick search on the internet is going to give you many much better written explanations of the process and also videos on you tube that will prove invaluable to the first time developer.

Also if feels as if this topic is becoming the favourite of photo bloggers at the moment – which hopefully means there is growing interest in both film photography and in home developing.

What I am going to cover are the basics of processing at home, the lessons I have learnt in starting the process for myself and hopefully show anyone that reads this and wants to try B/W developing that it is something they should definitely do – and not just for economic reasons.

So this post is going to be broken down into the following areas;

– Basic Kit Requirements

– Development Timing and what this really means

– Chemicals and my experiences with them

Basic Kit Requirements

So as mentioned above, I am going to only talk about tank processing and so for me this is either the plastic Patterson Tank or a Stainless Steel Tank.

Tanks come with reels that take 35mm or 120 negatives. For the stainless steel type the reels are fixed to take one or the other film size, whereas the Patterson system has reels that can be expanded or contracted to take either film type.

Both types of tank are light proof – so once the film is inside of them you will not get any fogging of your negatives during processing.

Putting the film onto the reels has to be done in complete darkness. Some people have a bathroom in their house that is completely light proof but if you are like the majority of us that don’t have that option – you will need a dark bag. I would suggest you get the largest size you can – as you are going to not only need room for your film, scissors, a can opener if you have 35mm film but also the tank with the light proof lid and all parts.

For the developing side you will need a couple of graduated beakers (one small and one large), a thermometer, perhaps clips to hang the film up if you don’t want to use house hold pegs and a squeegee to take excess water off the film before drying.

You can add to this list by buying a stopwatch if your phone doesn’t have one, a drying cabinet if hanging film in your bathroom isn’t going to work for you, some surgical gloves to wear whilst processing (if you are clumsy and are going to poor chemicals over yourself) and many other odds and sods that you really don’t need to be able to develop film.

Once you have bought the kit – which shouldn’t be a heavy outlay, you need to also buy a Negative Scanner to put the images onto your computer (as I am assuming that because you will also have no darkroom that you will not have an enlarger and be printing from negatives).

The negative scanner is the most expensive part of the kit and so make sure you get a scanner that is up to date so that it works well with your computer and that it comes with holders for 35mm, slide and 120 film types.

I have a Canoscan 9000F and although there are cheaper and more expensive options – but I bought this one as it works well with Apple and was available in Hong Kong.

Finally you need to go on line at this point and watch some of the instructional videos about loading film onto reels as well as basic methods for developing.

The most difficult part of developing is going to be learning to put film onto reels when you have everything inside a dark bag. Watch how to do it on the videos and practice again and again both outside of the bag and then inside the bag using old sacrificial films. Doing this before you destroy a film you want is essential.

Putting film onto a reel isn’t that hard – but you need to learn it as a new skill.

There are a few things I have learnt about putting film onto a reel that are worth passing on.

With Patterson reels it is critical that you make sure that the ball bearings are moving freely before you start and that the reel is dry every time you use it and directly after you use it.

I keep strips of 35mm film to hand that I run through the reel to free up the bearings before I start every time. If you do not dry your reels completely before you put them away – then they will be stuck when you use them next. If you don’t free them up – you will damage or rip your film.

I have posted this image before – but it shows the typical damage to the film from a stuck bearing and I learnt this lesson the hard way. You can also see that forcing a film will bend it and cause uneven developing.

The other trick I have learnt is to cut the end of the film with rounded corners and with the left hand side higher than the right hand side. This will make sense to you if you have Patterson reels – because they load with the left hand side into the bearings first.

If you have stainless reels than just round the corners equally on both sides to help load the roll onto the central clip – but this isn’t essential.

If you have never used a reel before – then prepare yourself for some considerable frustration in learning how to load in the dark. The only thing to do is remain calm and don’t force anything. Loading a reel is frustratingly simple but only once you have done it quite a few times.

My wife will attest to the fact that I still get odd films (and generally 120) that won’t play nice and I can be found at the table with arms stuck in a big nylon black bag swearing under my breath – claiming that I have managed to kill another film. Apart from odd images with damage – I haven’t killed any films as B/W white processing is actually remarkably forgiving.

Having said that it is forgiving I should also tell you that doing it well and consistently is incredibly hard and requires much time and practice and understanding of what you are doing.

– Development Timing and what this really means

It takes time to work out what happens to film with variations in protocol and the effect of changes in Development Time and Temperature? There are loads of articles written about this and books ranging from incredibly technical to overly trite and at the same time the choices of films and chemicals can also make this appear to be more complex than it really is.

The language of developing films is different to that you will be used to and this for me added to the complications of understanding what I was doing. For that reason I am going to try and simplify this in terms of iPhoto and the level controls in editing.

So let’s set the scene with a fairly typical description of what happens –

First off we have to consider for a moment what happens to negative density when we change developing time. As developing time is increased, negative densities increase.

Highlight densities will increase the fastest. Therefore, contrast also increases with increased developing time.

Shadow density is controlled predominately by exposure. Highlight density is controlled predominately by developing time.

So if this makes no sense to you – go to your iPhoto (or similar) and open an image and the edit button. Then select the Adjust tab and you will see a host of sliders and a histogram.

When you develop for longer, you increase the highlight densities.

So take the Highlight slider in iPhoto from left to right and see the differences. First you will see that definition pops out of the bright areas of the image but also the contrast of the overall image will increase. This in really simple terms is what happens with more developing time (or higher temperatures).

Go back to the original image and this time move the Shadow slider from left to right and this approximates what happens when you over expose an image on the camera. Simply put you can’t really do this in developing.

Therefore, expose for the Shadows and develop for the Highlights (this is a direct quote from Ansel Adams I believe).

This means pointing your camera at more than one area of the picture you are taking, thinking about the differences in reading and consciously thinking where you want to meter so that the Shadows retain some definition. (If you want to go a step further you need to start reading into the Zone system and again Ansel Adams and his book “The Negative” is where you need to go).

I apologise if the above is too simple for most people who have been taking photographs and developing for a while or had the benefit of a photography education. This is meant as a starting point and really just to motivate people to try developing out.

If after reading this you are thinking there is just too much to do here when taking and developing an image – it is good advice to buy a camera with an automatic function and not go down the fully manual film route. Most people into film do tend however to have a host of cameras and often will use the best tool for the job (which can mean a digital P&S or DSLR in many cases).

If like me you get more excited the more tricky it becomes then do read on as Chemistry is what this is all about and it is here that you can start to make some small but fundamental differences to your processing.

– Chemicals and my experiences with them

Most books and videos on the subject will tell you the basics involve the following steps;

– Reel the film.

– Add Developing Chemicals and agitate .

– Drain and add Stop Chemicals to halt Developing.

– Drain and add Fixing Chemicals to remove the undeveloped parts of the image and fix the developed parts.

– Rinse and dry.


Some places will tell you to use a pre-rinse to ensure even developing and others say this makes even development impossible.

Others will tell you that using an Acid to Stop the Development is too harsh and can lead to clumping or graininess and that Water Stops are the way to go.

Hypo clearing agent is commonly used after fixing as this reduces the running water/ final wash time.

Photo flow is used after rinsing and causes water to drain off the film without leaving small droplets behind causing water spots. It also prevents mineral deposits if using tap water.

Neither of these is required for processing but cut water usage and negative cleaning or retouching of the final print.


I would however suggest that you start with a basic protocol and follow this for a few films and get to a point where you are getting the same result on your films every time.

Take one camera and one type of film, expose to the box ISO, use the same developer and other chemicals and the same time from the Massive Development Chart and follow the same protocol.

Make sure you control temperature for every film as a few degrees will make a difference on short development times.

I would suggest that Kodak TriX 400 is a good film to start using for development as it is very forgiving if you aren’t getting you process exactly the same every time.

Start also with a developer like D-76 as this is both cheap and is used by many film companies when they develop their emulsions.

Use a fixer that you pre-mix and use for 15 to 20 films. Test the fix solution using the end of a film and time how long it takes to become completely clear. Your fix time is around 3 x this basic time.

If you chose a film like TMax to start on – beware that you need to fix it for longer and rinse for longer to remove the pink Anti Halation chemical on the film.

And finally – use the internet to search about your specific questions on any part of the process. You will find views and forums that will answer your questions for you.


And finally, here is my opinion on what I do when I develop for what it is worth;

– I choose Kodak and Fuji films before Ilford. Especially TriX 400, Acros Neopan 100 and TMax 100. I have never found Ilford and especially HP5 to be a consistent film in my developing.

– I use a Patterson Tank as I find reeling much easier than Stainless Reels.

– I use TMax Developer and Ilfotec DD-X both at 1:4 and try and stay away from HC-110 (as it just isn’t consistent). I agitate very slowly and carefully and always tap the tank to keep bubbles off the film.

– I always develop at 20 degrees and use cold water and sometimes ice baths to get the developer to a consistent temperature.

– I don’t use an Acid Stop – but use water with 6 x ten second rinses with agitation. When the air temp is warmer I drop the development time slightly to accommodate the slower stop with water than with Acid.

– I use Rapid Fix from Ilford and keep a liter bottle of solution for around 20 films. At the end of using the fix – you should not put this down the drain as it contains silver. Look on the net for alternatives and make your choice.

– I rinse using the Ilford Protocol and then put the film in Kodak PhotoFlo for one minute before removing the excess water between my fingers and hanging it with a weighted clip at the base to stop it curling.

– I try to leave the film drying for a minimum of 3 hours (but can be impatient and have been known to scan films that are still tacky to touch).

– I always use a can of compressed air to clean the film when it is in the holder when I am scanning to reduce the photoshop touch up work.

– I use Photoshop Elements for simple touch up as this is sufficient and iPhoto for simple level corrections – but try to keep the photos as I have developed them.

– I make sure the water, fix and developer are at the same sort of temperature as I do not want to thermally shock the film.

– I always develop at times greater than 5 minutes and generally try for a time of around 7 minutes.

– I keep a book of notes that is split into films, chemicals and cameras so that I remember the tricks I learn as I try different combinations.

– I try to remember that developing films is a hobby and so if it isn’t fun any more then I need to have a break and perhaps use a lab for a while. Developing itself is fun and scanning sucks as it takes so long and it is this that makes me think about sharing the workload with a lab at times.

And as a last word – remember that this blog is only an opinion. Everyone that develops has their own way of doing it and most are no more right than others.

If you use film and have never developed – then take one thing from this overly long article – it isn’t that hard to do and can be fun and is not expensive.


Posted by simon on January 25, 2011

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