Getting started with developing your own film is a liberating experience. All of the sudden, the limitations of film disappear. Need a higher ISO and all you’ve got is HP5? Push it to ISO 1600 or further, and develop in Rodinal (Blazinol in Canada). Developing film is easy, and so much fun.
After developing my own film at home for the last two years, I don’t think it’s possible for me to give my film to lab again. Unless it’s a very precious, or valuable roll from a wedding photoshoot, I’m most likely going to develop it at home. At the lab, you don’t have control over the chemicals they use, which can be a major factor in how good a film photograph looks. For example, I will always use Ilford’s DD-X to develop any kind of T-Grain film — it’s the best developer I’ve ever found for these kinds of films.What if I want some classic extra coarse grains and a sharp image, but the lab is only using a fine-grain developer like XTol?
Color film is different. The C-41 chemical formula and process is the same for every roll of film. So there’s not as much flexibility — unless you’re looking to create red or blue shifts. But C-41 chemicals are also fairly delicate. If they’re improperly stored or overused, the process may not turn out as nicely as doing it yourself.
Here’s what you’ll need to start developing your own film
- A developing tank
- A developer, stop bath, and fixer for B&W, or a C41 kit for color film.
- 50ml Graduated cylinder and 500ml beaker
- Thermometer (needs to measure between 20°c and 40°c.
- A pitch-black space to load film onto the reels
- A way to hang negatives to dry
- Something to archive negatives in
- Some way to scan and publish your images (jump to scanning section)
For a minimalist setup, or a first time developing, these are the basic items that are necessary. A 2-reel Patterson tank uses 500ml of working solution, and a 50ml graduated cylinder will allow you to accurately measure every developer, as some require as little as 5ml of solution, while others require 50-100mls.
I recommend using Paterson developing tanks. They come with plastic reels, and the two-reel tank can develop 1 roll of 120 film, or 2 rolls of 35mm film. When you’re first starting out, these reels are easy to use, but they can also cause some problems. I suggest buying the cheapest possible roll of film and taking it out of its canister before exposing it to practice in the light. If you have an uncut roll developed by a lab that you don’t care about, this can also be a good way to practice loading and unloading the reel.
Once you’re able to load the roll in the light, try doing it in the darkness. Go into your bathroom, and turn off the lights. After a minute, any cracks in the door should start showing outside light. If there’s a large crack at the bottom, put down a towel to block it out. Small cracks on the side shouldn’t pose much of an issue. If they do, you can wait until nighttime, or purchase a dark film-changing bag to load the film without risking exposing it to light.
Choosing the right film developing chemicals
This is the part that’s hardest for most people, because there is a surprisingly large amount of selection — at least for B&W.
If you want to develop color out of the gate, any C41 kit will do. These kits contain the three chemicals that you need: Developer, Blix (bleach+fix), and the Wash/Hardener. They’re all essentially the same, with the exception that liquid kits are much easier to mix than powder kits. If the liquid is $5 or $10 more, it’s 100% worth the extra cost.
For B&W developing, the fixer and stop bath are simple — Kodak, or Ilford. Both do exactly the same thing with probably slightly different chemical formulas. Kodak and Ilford stop baths both contain an indicator that’ll change color when the acid is depleted. Both fixers require 2-5 minutes fixing time — in fact, the only real difference is in the processing capacity. The Kodak solution is rated to 31.5 rolls of film per liter, while Ilford is rated to 120 rolls for the same amount of solution.
Typically I go with Ilford, because I love their Technical Data Sheets. The fact that their solution lasts longer is a big bonus, but this only happens if the chemicals are stored properly. More on that in the sections below. As well, if you’re a developer who suffers from eczema, or you have sensitive skin, there are other options that might work better for you.
I also wrote an article on the top sharpness enhancing film developers here.
Powdered developers or Liquid developers?
Choosing a B&W developer is much harder than fixer and stop bath. The first choice is again between powder developers and liquid concentrate developers. A developer can last a generation in its packaging as a powder form. But most liquids in their unopened state will go bad over time as oxygen leaches through the plastic bottles.
Powders need to be mixed completely when they’re opened, often requiring a 3.8L bottle to store them. This is because there’s no guarantee that the developing chemicals will be spread evenly through the powder. Liquids, on the other hand, can be mixed for single use, or for batches. I typically mix fixer in 1L glass bottles that get reused over a 6-month period, with some top ups over time. Liquid developers, I mix for a single use for each roll of 120 film, or 2 rolls of 35mm. So I almost exclusively use liquid development chemicals because of their ease of use in my tiny apartment.
What’s the difference between developing Color and B&W film?
Color film is easy. The C41 developing process for color film requires the same formula for every film stock regardless of ISO or film brand. It’s fast and so simple that you can buy a C41 kit from any brand and get almost exactly the same results. The one difficult thing that keeps people from developing color film is temperature regulation. Unlike B&W, color film needs to be developed at a constant 38.9°c (104°F). This kind of precision requires a good thermometer if you like stressing about temperatures constantly rising or falling. When you move beyond simply experimenting, it will require some method of keeping a water bath consistently warm without sporadic intervention. I’ve personally started using a Sous Vide, which has made developing color an absolute breeze.
B&W film, on the other hand, is much more forgiving. All of the processes can be done at room temperature. And minor temp changes aren’t going to show on your film the way they will on color stocks. And B&W has a lot more choice when it comes to developers, stop baths, and fixers, giving film aficionados a lot of room to experiment. If you want simplicity, there are B&W developing kits available. Cinestill even has a single-bottle solution — but these won’t provide the most interesting results.
The temperature factor is one of the main reasons that developers often recommend starting with B&W. It’s simple, and there’s information about it only everywhere. Sure, there are different development times for every single stock and developer combination, but adding or subtracting 30 seconds isn’t going to make a big difference in either direction for new developers.
What are the best B&W developers for new photographers?
I have three favourite liquid developers that I always come back to. Rodinal (Blazinol in Canada), Kodak HC-110, and Ilford DD-X.
Rodinal: The standard developer. It’s cheap, widely available, and will last longer than the shelf it’s stored on in liquid state. Rodinal is a high-acutance developer, meaning it makes sharp images, but also makes grains very apparent. Personally, I love this look, so Rodinal will always be on my shelf. It’s also the most economic developer available, and is my first suggestion for every new film developer.
Kodak HC-110: Medium Acutance, good for pushing. HC-110 is the photojournalist’s favourite developer. It’s quick to process film, and it pushes film very well. This is a good all around developer that also has an insanely long shelf life. It reduces the appearance of grain in low dilutions, and is a high-acutance developer at high dilutions. The bottle can be pricey, usually around $50 each. But the solution is very concentrated, often only requiring 5 to 10ml per 500ml of working solution. So it’s an exceptionally economical solution to work with.
My all time favourite developer
Ilford DD-X: The GOAT of all B&W fine-grain film developers. I love this developer with all my heart for a variety of reasons. It’s the best developer for high-grain films like Ilford Delta 3200 and TMax 3200, because of the silver solvents that reduce the appearance of grains. But it’s also amazing at pushing films like HP5 to higher ISO ratings like 1600 or higher. I will always have a fresh bottle of DD-X on my shelf because of the quality results it produces. The developer produces medium-contrast results, which are fantastic for scanning because it gives you full control over how the image looks when your printing or post-processing.
But this one requires a lot of developer per tank, requiring a 1+4 dilution, or 100ml per 500ml tank. That means a single bottle can only develop 10 tanks if you’re using it one shot. This developer also is quick to go sour, hence why I always need to keep a fresh bottle on hand. For these reasons, I don’t recommend this as the first developer in your kit. Unless you plan to go out and buy some rolls of Delta 3200 off the start, leave this one behind until you really fall in love with developing film.
How do I calculate Film Dilutions?
Looking at film dilutions for the first time can be daunting. Luckily these make for a very simple calculation. Most film dilutions are written as 1+#. The 1 is the amount of developer, and the second number is the amount of water.
To calculate the dilution, take the volume of your developing tank and divide it by 1+#. I use a 2-reel Patterson development tank, which has a volume of 500mL for one roll of 120, or 2 rolls of 35mm. If you’re using Rodinal 1+25 for a very sharp roll of film, divide 500 by 26. Meaning it takes 19.23mL of Rodinal for one set of film.
Another example is HC-110 Dilution B. This is a favourite of film photographers around the world for its versatility. Dilution B is 1+32. So divide 500ml by 33 to get 15.2ml of working solution.
There are a couple factors to dilutions. The smaller amount of developer, the longer the process will take. But in case of fine-grain developers like HC-110, a lower dilution will create a sharper-grained negative. This is because these developers have a solvent that removes some of the grains, and thus, reduces the image sharpness. If you’re shooting a low-ISO film, then a high dilution (low amount of developer) will produce a more pleasing result. When pushing films with HC-110, dilution A (1+15) will reduce the added grain from the pushing process and reduce the development time significantly.
How do I push and pull film?
Pushing and pulling film is the process of developing for higher or lower ISO ratings than box speed. Pushing is when you expose the film for a higher ISO, and then develop longer to compensate. Pulling is the opposite, over-exposing the film, and under-developing.
All films can be pushed or pulled by at least one stop. Most people love pulling films because it reduces the negative contrast, and makes printing a much easier process. Pushing the film increases the amount of contrast and grain on the negative, and requires longer development times to produce a properly-exposed image.
Because film is a negative image process, film photographers have much more control over the highlights than they do over the shadows on a negative. So by pulling the film, you increase the amount of information to work with. This is the opposite of digital, where blown out highlights are unrecoverable compared to shadows.
In color films, pushing increases the image saturation, while pulling makes the colors appear soft and pastel. The process of pushing color film can introduce some odd coloration. For example, greens appearing in the shadows is a common sign that Kodak Gold has been pushed. Professional color films like Kodak Portra, or Fujifilm Pro400H (RIP) can be pushed or pulled without the same deleterious effects of their cheaper alternatives.
To know dilutions and development times to use for pushing and pulling your film, check out the Massive Dev Chart. This is the best resource for film photographers looking for the development times. It contains almost every known combination out there, and is the most used link in my favorites bar.
How to Maximize Film Chemical shelf life
The main rivals of film chemicals are oxygen, sunlight, heat, and dissolved minerals in water. When you’re mixing film chemistry, it’s important to store them in a well-sealed container in a cold, dark room. Since I live in a tiny studio apartment, I don’t have any space other than under my sink. Even though there’s a lot of hot water running through there on a given day, it hasn’t affected the chemicals in any noticeable way.
When making working solutions like 1L of fixer, use distilled water so that none of the dissolved minerals contaminate the fixer. The fixer is a basic (alkaline) chemical composition, so it is highly reactive and volatile in nature. So to keep it functional long term, you need to ensure there’s as few contamination sources as possible. I also make a working 1L solution of the Acid stop bath. This is much less reactive than the developer and fixer, so normal tap water will do. You can keep reusing the acid stop bath until it changes to a deep blue or purple. You can see what that looks like by mixing a drop of the stop bath with a drop of the fixer.
For storage, I use growlers from local breweries. They cost around $8 ($15 with beer), and seal well when completely full. Make sure there’s a bit of water coming over the top of the bottle — just enough that some drops fall over the edge when screwing the cap back on. Sealing bottles this way, I’ve had a single bottle of fixer last over a year — well beyond the prescribed 6-month maximum.
Since the pandemic has stopped most breweries from selling growlers, these bottles on Amazon will do just as well, with an added, necessary funnel. And if you’d like to learn more about making sure your film developing chemicals last as long as possible, take a look at this article.
Hanging and Storing your film after development
Once you’ve finished developing your first roll of film, you’ll need to hang it to dry. Before doing the final wash, run the film through your index and middle finger to remove excess water, and hang them up! I use a string of jute wire with binder clips and regular-sized clothespins. The small clothespins for hanging polaroids are simply too weak to hole up a 36-exposure roll of 35mm film, so I cannot recommend these.
If you hang them near a window, you can use the light to get a good look at the images on your negatives. If the daylight is bright enough, there is even a certain angle where the image will appear positive! It’s a strange phenomenon, but I love seeing them this way. If you don’t have a window, the light from your phone is a great way to see what’s there.
The film should be dry within an hour or two. Then it’s time to cut and place them in archival sleeves. Leaving them hanging for a long time allows dust to settle into the film, which can be a pain when scanning. A drawing panel makes the cutting process a breeze since you’ll better be able to see the edges of the frame. These aren’t necessary, but they’ll make your life a lot easier. They can also be used to ‘scan’ your negatives by taking a photo with your phone or DSLR camera.
Protect your hands and clothing from film development chemicals
Developing film gets messy quick. I have yet to have a single session where I didn’t get some liquid on my hands or clothing. For people like me with eczema or sensitive skin, this can be an absolute nightmare. So protecting yourself is key to long-term success in the darkroom.
For starters, gloves are essential to protecting your skin from harsh, basic chemicals. Because developer and fixer are alkaline in nature, it’s difficult to remove them with just soap. You’ll need to use a lot of water to completely remove them from your skin. The better method is to use nitrile gloves to protect your hands. These are thick, tear-free gloves that doctors and dentists use when working with patients. Nothing gets through, they have good grip, and they are tough. I can’t recommend these enough.
The next piece of PPE that you’ll need is a lab coat. These are cheap, and they’ll protect your clothes through every spill that happens in the darkroom. They have a hole to access your pocket so that you can use the timer functions without having to take the coat off, and a pocket for notebooks, pens, and other tools.
Try to develop in a large space with good ventilation. A bathroom can get clogged up with fixer fumes really fast if the fan isn’t working well enough. A kitchen with an open window, or turning on the hood fan in your kitchen can greatly reduce the fumes you’re exposed to when developing. If you’re having problems with the vapours, take a look at the chemical’s Materials Safety Data Sheets. If something in those chemicals is causing trouble, you can always switch to less noxious alternatives.
Additional Tools that will make developing more enjoyable
Once you’ve got the basic tools for your darkroom, there are hundreds of other supplies that can make your life easier. For example, I recently bought a Sous Vide, which circulates water at a specific, accurate temperature. This is perfect for developing color film, where temperature accuracy is key to developing perfect negatives. The same thing can be done with sporadically running hot tap water into a water bath, as I’ve done for almost a year without any serious issues. But that method isn’t as easy, fun, or accurate as using a sous vide.
Another tool that has changed my developing game is a dark film changing bag. The door to my bathroom is crooked, so it lets in a lot of light during the daytime. This meant that I couldn’t start developing film until after 9 p.m. for most of the summer months — until I bought this bag. It’s a light-proof bag that you fit your arms into so you can safely transfer film onto the reels and into the tank. It does a great job, and I haven’t once found any part of the film improperly exposed because of it. I definitely recommend this to anyone living in an old space without a properly dark room.
Viewing and scanning negatives
The last thing you want to do after developing your own photos is to take it to a lab and ask them to scan it for you. Avoiding labs is exactly the reason we started this whole project to begin with! So there’s a couple of easy ways to start.
The easiest way to start scanning negatives is the Epson v600 scanner. I’ve used this scanner from the beginning to scan 35mm and 120 film, and I’ve gotten some great results from it. It comes with plates to scan 120 and 35mm film, and it can create extremely large resolution images out of your negatives. Using the Epson scanning app, you can create 48-bit color tif files, which will give you a lot of information to work with when editing in Lightroom and Photoshop. The scanner also comes built-in with Epson Digital ICE, a popular way to automatically remove dust and scratches from your negatives.
I’ve scanned more than 1,000 photos with this scanner, and it’s created some really nice results. That said, it’s a bit clumsy. Loading film onto the scanner takes time, and you’ll have to individually select and edit frames if they’re underexposed. The editing controls also haven’t been updated since the late 2000s. They’re powerful — more powerful than the simplified tools in Lightroom, but they take time to get the hang of. That said, the Epson scanner is very user friendly for beginner photographers. It’ll get you the results you’re looking for, but it takes time.
If you just want to post the photos on Instagram, a scanner isn’t always necessary. You can use a simple LED video light with a high CRI, like this one I use on Amazon, and take a photograph with your phone, or DSLR camera. If you want to use your phone, Kodak has a free scanning app that does a great job at converting negatives to positives that’ll look fantastic on Instagram. When you want a bit more control, using a digital camera can create stunning results. Raw files tend to have more dynamic range and are more adjustment-friendly than the Tif files from the Epson Scanner.
But the problem is that most lenses are bad for macro photography. But standard lenses can focus closer using a cheap mechanism called an Extension Tube. This adds space between your lens and the camera to increase the minimum focus distance. But you will lose the ability to focus at infinity. These can provide sharp enough results for most film scanning purposes — just remember to stop down the aperture to f/8 or f/11 to have a large enough focus plane at such a short distance. If this is your preferred scanning method, over time you may need to upgrade to a dedicated macro lens to get the sharpest results.
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.