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The Magic of Developing Film at Home: A Step-by-Step Guide

Photography can be magical in simply the capturing of images, but there a certain kind of marvelling that can only be experienced by developing your own film at home. It transforms the possibility of an image into an actual, tangible picture - the unseen into the seen if you will. This is where the captured moments on a roll of film come to life, right before your eyes.


And developing black and white film at home is more than simply a technical process: it’s an art form in itself. There's the good, the bad and the plain ugly - unexpected outcomes - but it's a great way to learn to let go and appreciate the imperfections, finding joy in the process. The anticipation as you wait for the film to develop, and the satisfaction of holding a photograph that you developed yourself are difficult to find in any other hobby.


In this guide, we’ll dive into how you can get started with film development at home. Whether you’re a seasoned photographer or a beginner just starting out, developing film at home has a unique appeal that’s hard to resist.


A picture of a dark room with red safelight switched on.
You'll require a room you can darken completely (red safelight on for illustration purposes only, normally this would be a black square!)

The Basics of Film Development

Film development is a fascinating process that transforms the latent images captured on your film into visible ones. It’s a journey that takes you from the moment of exposure to the final print, revealing the hidden stories within each frame.


At its core, film development involves a series of chemical reactions. When you press the shutter button on your camera, light hits the film and creates a latent image. This image is invisible to the naked eye and needs to be developed to become visible.


The development process begins with the developer. The developer reacts with the silver halides in the film that have been exposed to light, reducing them to metallic silver. This forms the dark areas in a negative. The longer the film is in the developer, the darker these areas become.


After development, the film is rinsed and then placed in a stop bath (which could be as simple as running tap water), which halts the development process. The film is then fixed, which removes the unexposed silver halides and makes the image permanent. Finally, the film is washed to remove any remaining chemicals and then dried.


Developing film at home requires some basic equipment. Here’s what you’ll need:

  1. Film Developer: This is the chemical that reacts with the exposed film to create the image. There are many different types of developers, each giving slightly different results.

  2. Stop Bath and Fixer: These chemicals are used to stop the development process and make the image permanent.

  3. A Darkroom or Changing Bag: You’ll need a completely dark space to load the film onto a reel and into a developing tank. This can be a darkroom or a changing bag. Your darkroom can be a room that has no windows, where you can stop up the gaps in the door sufficiently.

  4. Developing Tank and Reels: The tank holds the chemicals and the film, while the reel holds the film in place inside the tank.

  5. Thermometer and Timer: Temperature and time are crucial in film development. A thermometer ensures your chemicals are at the right temperature, and a timer ensures you develop for the correct amount of time.

  6. Measuring Jug and Funnel: These are used for measuring and mixing your chemicals.

  7. Film Clips and Hanging Line: These are used to hang the film to dry after it’s been developed.


Developing film at home might seem difficult at first, but with practice, it becomes a rewarding and enjoyable part of the process. It gives you control over every aspect of the image-making process in an analog-digital hybrid process (in a fully analog process, you would then need to print the negative in the darkroom as well, but we won't go into that today) and opens up a world of creative possibilities.


A picture showing 35mm film loaded on to reels
Load your films onto the reels (standard Paterson plastic reels shown) - again, safelight on for illustration purposes only!

 

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Step-by-Step Guide: Developing Film at Home

Developing film at home is a rewarding process that allows you to be fully involved in the creation of your photographs. Here’s a detailed, step-by-step guide to get you through the process:


1. Preparing the Darkroom

Before you begin, ensure you have a dark space to work in. This could be a bathroom, a closet, or a specially designed darkroom. The room needs to be completely light-tight to prevent the film from being exposed. Gather all your equipment and materials, including your film, developer, stop bath, fixer, and a developing tank and reel.


2. Loading the Film

In complete darkness, remove the film from its canister and load it onto the reel. This can be a bit tricky at first, but with practice, it becomes easier. Once the film is loaded onto the reel, place it in the developing tank. The tank is light-tight, so once the film is inside and the tank is correctly sealed, you can turn the lights back on.


3. Developing the Film

Mix your developer according to the instructions on the bottle. The temperature of the developer is crucial, so use a thermometer to ensure it’s at the correct temperature. Ordinarily you will develop black and white film at 20ºC/68ºF Pour the developer into the tank and start your timer. Agitate the tank gently for the first 30s or 1 minute to ensure the developer covers the film evenly, then 5s every 30s or 10s every 1 minute. Follow the developing times recommended for your film and developer. Pour out the developer (most B&W developers should be used as "one-shot" solutions, rather than reused, however stock solutions of e.g. D19, D23, D76, can be reused until exhaustion, so you should pour these back into a storage bottle).


You can achieve different effects here by reducing agitation and extending development time (minimal agitation pattern) or by increasing the vigour with which you agitate the tank (to increase contrast).


The creative impact of the actual development stage of the process is the most interesting to look at in terms of variables:


  1. Temperature: Higher temperature causes greater developer activity, conversely lower temperature reduces developer activity. You can use this to reduce the development time, or increase the density or contrast without increasing the development time

  2. Time: The longer the developer solution is in contact with the exposed grains, the more it will reduce them into metallic silver, resulting in denser highlights and producing a (possibly) harder negative to print. Less time in the developer will result in a thinner, lower contrast negative, but be warned that if you don't have the film in the developer for long enough, you risk losing the shadows.

  3. Concentration: The concentration of the solution has an equal impact on how the image forms on the film in development. A higher concentration will mean the developer exhausts more slowly, and result in faster developing highlights, while potentially not giving the shadows enough time to develop. It's a great way to compensate for really low contrast shooting conditions. The reverse, of course, is that the lower the concentration, the more easily the developer will exhaust, and the highlights will develop slower, giving the shadows a chance to catch up. A lower concentration development compensated for by a longer time in the developer is a great method for recovering shadows in a high contrast shooting situation.

  4. Agitation: the vigour with which you agitate the tank, and the amount of agitation you give during the development cycle, impacts the amount of fresh developer that gets distributed across the film. More vigorous agitation, or more frequent agitation, will result in the exhausted developer in the highlights to be replaced quicker and afford more time in fresh developer to the highlights, resulting in higher contrast as the highlights develop more fully than the shadows. Conversely, a lesser agitation, or fewer agitations in the development cycle, results in a lowered contrast as the developer is allowed to exhaust more fully in the highlights, giving the shadows a chance to catch up.


My favourite development pattern is to use a half standard strength developer (e.g. HC-110 dilution H as opposed to the more standard dilution B - or, if I'm really looking for a heavily compensating developer, D23 1+3 rather than 1+1 or stock) for twice the duration, using a minimal agitation pattern of 10 seconds every three minutes, and extending the development time by 50%. Generally speaking, this gives good density and tonality throughout the negative, good acutance and doesn't impact on grain.


The minimal agitation pattern is described in Anchell and Troop's Darkroom Cookbook (page 38 in the third edition).


A picture showing chemicals being mixed into a beaker.
Mixing your chemistry can be quite fun!

4. Stopping the Development

Once the developing time is up, pour out the developer and immediately pour in the stop bath. This halts the development process. Agitate the tank for about a minute, then pour out the stop bath into a container (stop bath can be reused for a long time). Alternatively, place the tank with the cap off under running water at the same temperature (+/- 2 or 3ºC) for 60s.


5. Fixing the Film

Next, pour in the fixer. This makes the image on the film permanent and insensitive to light. Agitate the tank for the first minute, then every minute after that. The fixing time can vary, but it’s usually around 4 minutes for most films in standard rapid fixer (e.g. Ilford Rapid Fix).


6. Washing the Film

After fixing, the film needs to be washed to remove any remaining chemicals. There are two methods for this, and varying times, depending on the fixer used:


  1. Running water wash: Place the tank with the cap off under running water at the same temperature (+/- 2 or 3ºC) for 15 minutes for rapid (acid-based) fixers, or around 5-6 minutes for neutral or alkaline fixers. Rapid fixers take longer to wash out than alkaline or neutral fixers. If using Kodak Rapid fix with its hardener solution (which you really only need to for a very few older emulsions that aren't pre-hardened) then you should wash for around 25 minutes, as the hardener causes the fix to be very difficult to wash out.

  2. Ilford "economy" wash: Fill the tank with water at the same temperature (+/- 2 or 3ºC). Agitate 5 times, then dump the water. Refill, repeat the agitation 10 times, then dump. Refill, repeat the agitation 20 times, then dump. I find this more difficult as you have to get the water temperature close to 20ºC each time you turn the taps on and off, so leaving it running makes more sense to me.


7. Drying the Negatives

Finally, remove the film from the tank and gently squeegee off excess water with your gloved fingers - never use a "film squeegee" as they are notoriously difficult to clean and will scratch your negatives if they aren't perfectly clean. Hang the film up to dry in a dust-free environment. Once the film is dry, you can cut it into strips and place it in protective sleeves.


And there you have it! You’ve developed your own film. It’s a process that might seem complex at first, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature. Plus, there’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of seeing your photographs come to life through your own hands.


A picture of a darkroom illuminated by a red safelight with a film squeegee shown in the centre.
Avoid using a film squeegee (depicted in the centre of this image).

Troubleshooting Common Issues

While the process of developing film at home can be incredibly rewarding, it’s not without its challenges. Here are some common issues that might arise during the development process and how to troubleshoot them:


1. Uneven Development

Uneven development can occur if the film isn’t agitated properly during the development process. This can result in streaks or patches on your negatives. To avoid this, ensure you’re following the recommended agitation process for your developer. Typically, this involves continuously agitating the tank for the first minute, and then for 10 seconds every minute after that. It's important to remember that, if you are performing a stand or semi-stand development, you may not be able to control for this.


2. Scratched Film/"Crescent Moon" marks

Scratches on the film can occur if the film is mishandled during the loading process. Always handle the film by the edges and make sure your hands are clean. Also, ensure the reel is clean and free of dust or debris before loading the film. When you find, after development, that there are crescent moon marks on your negative (most likely visible when you scan, but if you look up and down the film strip in the right light, you can see it clearly as well), you have managed to kink the film as you loaded it. Be slow, rhythmical and gentle when loading onto reels, and make sure that the reel is bone dry - even slightly damp reels cause friction that can make the film kink and buckle.


3. Fogged Film

Fogged film can be caused by a number of issues, including accidental exposure to light, overly long development times, overly expired film, or outdated chemicals. Always ensure your darkroom is completely light-tight, follow the recommended development times for your film and developer, check the expiry dates on your chemicals, and if developing heavily expired film, consider using an anti-fog agent.


4. Blank Film

If your film comes out blank, it could mean that the film wasn’t exposed in the camera (if the rebate - the edge markings showing the film type and frame numbers), or the film wasn’t developed properly (if no rebate shows). Always check your camera settings before shooting and ensure you’re following the correct development process - especially making sure to pour the developer in first, and not get it mixed up with the fixer!


5. Dark Negatives

If your negatives are coming out too dark, it could mean that your film is overdeveloped. This could be due to overly long development times or a developer that’s too strong. Always follow the recommended development times for your film and developer, and dilute your developer according to the instructions.


6. Light Negatives

If your negatives are coming out too light, it could mean that your film is underdeveloped. This could be due to short development times or a developer that’s too weak. Again, always follow the recommended development times for your film and developer, and mix your developer according to the instructions.


7. Higher than expected contrast

If you developed your film normally (i.e. with no push or pull factor) and the contrast in your negative is high (that is, the difference between the shadows and the highlights both overall and locally is greater than expected), then you likely overexposed the film in the camera. Check your light meter against a known meter, and make sure that, if using your camera's light meter, that you select the correct ISO and ensure that no exposure compensation is selected.


8. Lower than expected contrast

If you developed your film normally (i.e. with no push or pull factor) and the contrast in your negative is low (that is, the difference between the shadows and the highlights both overall and locally is less than expected), then you likely underexposed the film in the camera. Check your light meter against a known meter, and make sure that, if using your camera's light meter, that you select the correct ISO and ensure that no exposure compensation is selected.


Remember, troubleshooting is an essential part of the learning process in film development. Don’t be discouraged by these issues. Instead, see them as opportunities to learn and improve. With patience and practice, you’ll be able to navigate these challenges and master the art of home film development.


A picture showing a lab tech examining black and white negatives on a light box.
Voilà! You can now inspect your negatives and choose which to print/scan!

 

Developing film at home is a rewarding journey that offers a deeper connection to your photography. From understanding the basics of film development, navigating through the step-by-step process, to troubleshooting common issues, each step brings its own unique charm. It’s a process that requires patience and practice, but the results are truly worth it. So, why wait? Embrace the magic of film development at home and let your creativity shine. Remember, every roll of film is a new adventure waiting to be developed.


 

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