17 Film Photography Developing Problems (and how to solve them)

Over the years I’ve been developing film, I must have run into every problem in the book at least once. Whether it’s caused by an old camera slowly breaking down, or me not being able to get the lid of my Paterson tank on in time, I’ve learned how to overcome it. 

This list isn’t completely exhaustive, but it’s a great learning tool for anyone looking to either overcome the problems they’re currently seeing or how to avoid running into problems in the future. If you run into a problem that you can’t find a solution for, feel free to ask us in the comments below or make a post about it on the Official Learn Film Photography Facebook group!

A blank roll with the frame markings on the side is a sign that proper development occurred, but the film was not exposed.

No images on the film, but showing frame numbers?

Development was okay, but the camera didn’t expose the film. The numbering on the frames is a latent image placed on the outside frame by the film manufacturer. That means that these lines will only show up if proper development took place on the film.

If you see this, it’s most likely that the shutter got stuck, or the roll didn’t move through the camera. Test the camera again without the film, and if it’s working, then it’s likely that the roll wasn’t placed inside correctly. 

If you’re not sure if the camera is loaded properly, the easiest way to check is to advance the film by one of two frames. The rewind knob on the film should rotate as you advance the film — if it’s moving, the film is correctly on the spool. But if it’s in the beginning of the roll, there may not be enough tension on the center column on the roll to see movement. So sometimes it’ll be necessary to advance the film more than once to see some action here.

No images or frame numbers on the film

The film was fixed before it was developed, or the developer was completely exhausted. The frame numbers are latent images added to the film by the manufacturer. So if these numbers don’t show on your film, then you know for certain that the problem comes from developing, and not from your camera.

How to fix this problem: The best way to solve this problem is to add labels to your bottles. I personally use paper tape on my glass bottles with notes written in sharpie when the solution was mixed, and how many rolls it has developed.

If you’re using an older bottle of developer, try conducting a film leader test to see if the developer is still active. The leader is the thinner strip at the beginning of every roll of 35mm film that you insert into the camera. Since you cut this piece off either way when loading the film onto reels, it might as well be used to test if the developer is still strong enough. 

Place the leader in the developer solution, and watch to see if it turns black over the next 3-5 minutes. If it stays orange or grey, the developer is dead and shouldn’t be used. 

These leaders are also useful for testing if your fixer is still working. I usually cut my leaders in two pieces, one for the developer, and one for the fixer. If the leader in the fixer doesn’t become completely clear within 5 minutes, I’ll whip up a fresh batch of fixer before developing.

A blue light leak is much harder to fix than a red light leak.

Blue light leaking onto the film

Blue light leaks mean the light is coming from the front of the camera. These type of light leaks are less common, but when they happen, it can be very hard to diagnose the exact issue.

The easiest way is to take the camera into a dark room, like the bathroom, and shine a light around the front of the camera. If you’re able to see where the light is coming from, try to patch it up as best as possible. Otherwise, it may be better to take the camera to a technician to have it serviced.

Red light leaking onto the film

The camera has some light leaks from the back of the camera and will need a light seal replacement. The reason the light leaks are red is that they’re coming through the base on the back of the film instead of through the emulsion first. The film emulsion is designed with three layers that each capture different wavelengths of light. But if it goes through the orange back first, then the light will skew to the reds — just like when using red scale films.

Luckily, fixing light leaks from the back of the camera is a cheap fix. With a bit of patience, it can be done at home. But if you want it done perfectly and also have some time, take the camera to a local technician and have a CLA done on the camera for good measure. 

Halations on 35mm film
Halation on 35mm film. The longer the exposure, the worse the halations will be. Stopping down the lens does moderately improve the results, but does not eliminate the problem.

Lights are turning into bright orbs on the film

If you were out shooting long exposures at night, one of the weirdest effects is that the street lights can get washed out, and the light can spread across the negative in a bad way. This effect is called halation, and it is usually only seen on 35mm C41 or B&W film that has been used for a long exposure.

The reason halation happens on 35mm film is because there is no remjet, backing paper, or a dye layer to stop the light from leaking through and bouncing back onto the film. Cine film and medium format don’t usually suffer from these halations because of the backing paper, remjet, and other dyes that are added to the film specifically to stop this effect.

To solve the problem of halations on 35mm film, you will have to take shorter exposures or use cine film, like Kodak 500T. Stopping the film down does moderately improve halations, but it will not remove them completely.

Blue or white spots all over the film

This time, the light leaks are coming from the front of the camera. This one is much harder to diagnose, and will often need the help of a technician to get it right. 

If the camera has a cloth shutter, there could be some small holes in the shutter curtain allowing light through. To check if this is the case, take the camera into a dark room, like the bathroom. Take off the lens, and open the back of the camera. Then carefully raise the mirror and shine your mobile phone light through the back of the camera. If you see little spots of light, you’ll know these holes are the likely culprit. 

If there are holes in the curtain, it’s fairly easy to fix using some liquid electrical tape, which you can find on Amazon. Follow the drying instructions carefully, and use as light of an application as possible to ensure the liquid tape doesn’t catch on anything. 

Scratch on the negative
Please, try to focus on the line through the photo rather than the fact that I desperately need a shave and a haircut.

Solid thin white line across the negative

If you see a line that goes most or the entire way across the negative, it means the roll of film was scratched. Usually, this means that there’s an obstruction inside the camera, like a grain of sand that got caught in the wrong place, or something jutting out on the backing plate where it shouldn’t be. 

The solution for this problem is to take a rocket blower and a microfiber cloth to clean out the inside of your camera. Most times, keeping everything clean will solve your problem. 

Shutter capping usually happens at high shutter speeds, where tiny changes in the shutter speed can make a big impact on the exposure. In this case, it completely ruined the right side of the photograph.

Half the frame is dark, half of it is the proper exposure

This is a problem called Shutter Capping. Shutter capping happens when one of the film shutters is moving faster than the other, causing the image to be darker on one side. The main reason for shutter capping is that there have been some lubricants on the shutter mechanisms that have either gummed up over time, slowing down a curtain, or dried out, causing the curtain to move faster than intended. This problem is typically much worse when you’re using the faster shutter speeds. So if you need a temporary fix, it may be better to stop down the aperture rather than increase the shutter speed.

Fixing shutter capping isn’t too difficult on simple cameras, but the repair often requires disassembly of the camera. If that’s not possible for you to do, the best bet is always to take the camera to a technician to have them do the repair for you. Otherwise, buy a parts camera off eBay to take a stab at it before ruining your own camera. 

A contact sheet showing surge marks on a roll of film.

Dark spots or lines lining up with the sprocket holes on 35mm film

A gif showing how to rotate the development tank when agitating film
Gentle film agitation (like this) will stop surge marks from appearing on the sprocket hole perforations of 35mm film.

This problem is referred to as surge marks. They’re patches of uneven density along the edges of the film near the sprocket hole perforations on 35mm film. These surge marks are created from harsh agitation in the first minute of development. 

Back in the day, I saw a YouTuber simply turn the developing tank end on end, instead of doing gentle inversions the way I was taught. And I figured this would be worth trying out instead of being so meticulous. That method almost ruined an important set of negatives, but I learned a few things in the process. 

It’s important to be gentle in the way you’re agitating the film. Using the swirling stick, or doing consistent, but light inversions by rotating the tank as you turn it end over end. I wrote an entire article on how agitation methods will change the look of your film, including affecting sharpness, here

Negatives have a foggy or milky layer over the images

If you take the negatives out of the developing tank, and see that there’s a slow growing fog that’s taking over your negatives, it means that they were under-fixed. But don’t panic, these negatives aren’t ruined. The best way to fix under-fixed negatives getting milky or foggy is to simply re-insert the film in a new batch of fixer. 

Fixer solutions clear all of the undeveloped silver in a negative so that they’re no longer sensitive to light. So the film will be okay, so long as it isn’t reintroduced to the developer before fixing. 

If the fog or milky appearance happens over 20 or 30 years, though, it may not be so easy to solve by dunking in fixer again. It’s worth a shot, but chances are some of the fog will stay on the film. 

Severely over exposed FP4
A severely overexposed negative. This image looked pure black on the film strip, so it was amazing that the Epson V600 was even able to get this much detail out of the negative.

Negatives appear very dark, and scanning reveals unsharp images with lines and blotches

The negatives were left in the developer too long, or were over-exposed in-camera creating overly dense negatives. Although it’s not often talked about, overexposure can ruin the sharpness of an image. 

What’s happening is that so many of the grains get exposed, that it’s hard to differentiate the shadows from the highlights in an image. Color and chromogenic B&W films tend to handle overexposure better than traditional B&W films. But even they do start to lose some sharpness after 2.5 to 3 stops of overexposure. 

Another issue to consider when over-exposing your negatives is that your scanner will have to work harder to reveal an image. If you’re doing this at home with a flatbed like the Epson V600 (used for the scan above), that scanner will have to boost the ISO to get an image. And since these scanners haven’t been changed since they were created in 2007, that ISO noise does not look good. Learn more about the difference between an Epson V600 and DSLR scanning here.

Negatives appear overly grainy

If you’re seeing a set of negatives where the grains are overly large, visible, or pronounced, it’s entirely possible that the film was overexposed.

The images above were way overexposed because I didn’t know that the aperture on my camera wasn’t working. I’d set the aperture on the lens to f/8 or f/11, but only realised when I made it home, that it wouldn’t go past f/4. So these images were overexposed by 2-4 stops and developed normally in Cawanol Professional developer. The developer is based on caffenol, and usually exhibits grain similar in size to Rodinal. But this is still much more grain than should be expected.

These photos were not overexposed as much as the previous example (where there wasn’t much of an image to see at all). But they’re overexposed enough that the highlights are blocking out and the grains are extremely apparent. I tried to fix some of these images by using HDR DSLR scanning, but that was only enough to bring back some of the details, but not to reduce the appearance of grain in the images above.

If you’re seeing overly grainy images, you may be overexposing your film by more than the recommended amount. Take a look at your settings, and test to ensure your camera is working properly.

Negatives have very little detail, are grainy, and shadows cannot be brightened?

If you’re seeing negatives that have very little detail in the darker parts of the image, or appear overwhelmingly grainy, chances are it was underexposed. The first sign that your film was underexposed is that the negatives will appear more clear than normal.

Usually underexposure happens because the photographer didn’t meter their film correctly. But it can also happen if you’re shooting color film at night and forget to set the proper exposure adjustments for tungsten light.

Thin negatives are usually recoverable to a point. Even if film is severely under-exposed, it’ll often produce an image. However, that image will always appear grainier than normal, and may not have any details left over in the darker places.

Learn more about how film grains work, and why under and overexposed film tends to look grainier than properly-exposed film in this detailed article about how film works.

Please ignore how bad this image is. I chose it because it’s a clear example of bromide drag from bag agitation on a color film. Good agitation is especially important with color photography, where bad agitation can affect colors instead of just density. There’s also a patch of light spots in the center of this shot, but that’s just because the filter I placed over the light pad had a ton of scratches. I’ve gotten better since then, I promise.

Dark, or colored patches on the film

Typically this problem is referred to as bromide drag. Bromide drag and surge marks often get confused on Google, but they’re two very different problems that both have to do with agitation. 

Bromide drag occurs when the film developer exhausts in some areas within the first 30 seconds of minute of development, leaving patches along the film. Every error that happens in the first minute will grow over the development process, meaning these patches are especially prevalent if you’re pushing film. 

The way to fix bromide drag is to consistently agitate the film for the first 30 seconds to a minute of the development cycle. Agitating for this long will ensure that the film developer is evenly distributed throughout the process. 

If you’re unable to get the Paterson lid on in time, use the stirring rod and gently spin the solution for the first 30 seconds to a minute. Then put the lid on and do regular inversions from there. 

Fingerprints on the film. In some cases, touching the film emulsion before developing can leave a fingerprint on the developed negative.
If you look closely, you can see finger print patterns on this roll of film.

Finger prints on the film

If you’re using a wet Paterson reel, this has probably happened to you. You’re loading the reel, and somewhere along the line, the film gets caught and doesn’t budge no matter how much you curse. The only solution here is to open the reel and try again. If the process repeats enough times, eventually, you’re going to get your grimy fingerprints on the emulsion, and it’s going to get on the film. 

If that’s what happened, then you know the solution. Buy metal reels, as everyone with a superiority complex on the Internet has apparently done, or make sure those Paterson reels are bone dry next time you load up a roll. If you’re running into problems with your Paterson reels, take a look at this article where I go over the easiest ways to load them.

If you didn’t have reel problems, then chances are you’ll need to change the way you hand film when loading it onto the reels. In every case other than this one, I handle film delicately by the edges are never run into problems. But another solution is to use a pair of rubber, nitrile, or museum-grade cotton gloves. Cheaper, non-museum grade cotton gloves will just leave fibers all over the place, and then you’re going to have a bigger problem on your negatives.

A film negative with a crescent shaped mark from pressure when loading the film onto a wet patterson reel.
An extreme example of a crescent shaped mark from creasing the film.

Crescent shapes appearing on the film

If you’re seeing light or dark crescent-shaped marks on the film after development, it’s most likely because the film got creased either in the camera or when you were loading it onto the reels. This can happen to anyone loading film onto wet Paterson reels. If you have those, once again, make sure they’re dry before loading a roll into them. 

Negatives have started to smell like vinegar

If you open your film drawer, and the negatives have started to smell vinegary, that’s the first sign that they’re breaking down!

At an average temperature and humidity, film will last for approximately 40 years before they start to break down. But they break down faster in hot and humid climates, as well as when they’re stored in air-tight containers. The best method for storing film at home is in a cardboard box in a cool, dry basement. And if one of the negatives starts to have that vinegar smell, then immediately separate it from the bunch, so that it doesn’t hasten the beginning stages of breakdown for the other negatives.

Learn more about film storage, and which films are the most archival on this article.

Ilford 120 film showing white patches, specks, or mottling

Photo supplied by Barry Growden on Facebook.

This is a new problem that has been happening only to some small batches of Ilford medium format film. Usually the problem occurs with low-ISO films, like Ilford Pan F, FP4, and potentially other films like Delta 100.

You can tell that this is the problem you’re facing is you see a number of sharp specs, blotches, or white spaces appearing on the photo. You may not see this issue on the negative itself, but it will appear very clearly on the scanned image.

Ilford released a statement in 2020, where they said the problem is mostly occurring because of humidity, temperature, and film age.

If you experience this problem, which I have a photo of thanks to Barry Growden on Facebook, send the feedback to Ilford Photo using this form, and they will replace the film. There have also been some reports that Ilford will even send a couple extra rolls for you to try out as a gesture of good will.

Personally, I think this is an excellent program on Ilford’s behalf. Because it’s one thing to ruin film yourself, but it’s another completely to receive the film already damaged.

The edges on the left and right side of this image are brighter than in the middle of the negative. This is caused by scanning curly 120 film.

Bright edges on the sides of the negative

This is one that I’ve been coming across more recently since picking up a new medium format camera. What’s happening here is the film is curling, and my film holder is unable to keep the negative perfectly flat. So the sides of the film will scan denser than the middle of the negative, which appears brighter after conversion.

This problem can be fixed by finding a way to flatten the negative before scanning. Some photographers flatten their negatives by using a drying cabinet, or by archiving the negatives in sleeves and flattening them under a pile of books.

Final thoughts

For the most part, if you can keep your temperatures reasonably stable, test your developing chemicals, and store film correctly, it’s unlikely that you’ll run into issues. Film photography is an extremely forgiving and fun artform.

There are so many film developing issues that photographers will face throughout their journey — usually after purchasing a new piece of equipment. And because there are so many factors in the process, it can be extremely difficult to figure out exactly what went wrong.

This article is going to grow over time. If you’ve run into an issue that you don’t see on this list, I’d love to hear about it so we can feature the issue here and help out other film photographers who are running into these same problems every day.

And that’s it! If there are any problems you’ve come across that you’d like to see on this list, let me know down in the comments below! Or join plenty of like-minded film shooters on our official Facebook Group!

By Daren

Daren is a journalist and wedding photographer based in Vancouver, B.C. He’s been taking personal and professional photos on film since 2017 and began developing and printing his own photos after wanting more control than what local labs could offer.

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