There are all sorts of methods out there for developing black and white film. Today I’m going to share the process I use to develop medium format, black and white film in my kitchen!
Developing film at home carries an initial investment, but it is just a matter of several completed rolls before the investment is recouped. Plus, it is just so darn gratifying to control the process from start to finish. Lately I’ve been using Kodak D-76 for developer, but there are many others out there. Some photographers have had success using coffee!
Here are the supplies that I have on hand for developing b&w film at home:
Paterson Universal Developing Tank with reel
plastic graduate or measuring glass
clamps for hanging film to dry
Kodak D-76 developer
container to store mixed D-76
flatbed film scanner and scanning software (I have a refurbished Epson V500 and use the software that came with it)
To achieve the deep shadows in these images, I metered off of the illuminated side of my older son’s face while he was positioned at a 90 degree angle to the window, bulb out. I loaded a roll of Kodak Tri-X 400 in my Mamiya c330 and rated the roll at ISO 400.
There are several steps to get to a finished negative: developing, rinsing, fixing, rinsing, final soak, and drying. Some methods employ a ‘stop bath’ immediately after developing, which involves an additional chemical to halt the development process. I skip this and use a water rinse before fixing the film.
The first thing I do is to make sure all chemicals are mixed, measured, and as close to 20 degrees Celsius as possible. My film of choice is Tri-X, which I usually rate at 400 or 800. Massive Development Chart has a great iPhone app which indicates development times for film stocks at different ISO ratings with various developers—and includes a handy timer. I pretty much always use a 1:1 dilution of D-76—which means I fill my graduate with 250ml of D-76 stock solution, then another 250ml of distilled (or if I don’t have it on hand—filtered) water for a total of 500ml of diluted developer to develop a single roll. I store my D-76 in a cool closet, and dilute with slightly cooler water to get it close to 20 degrees Celsius. If it ends up a little on the cold side and I don’t want to wait for it to warm up, I’ll add extra time onto the development time—the opposite if it is a touch on the warm side. My process is somewhat flexible.
To prepare the film, lay the darkroom bag on a table, unzip the bottom, and insert all parts of the Paterson reel, the roll of film, and a pair of scissors. Zip the bag closed and insert your arms into the arm holes. Then, proceed to blindly remove the film from the spool. The film will naturally roll itself into a little tube while it is separated from the paper. When the end has been reached, firmly pull the film from the paper and fold the tape down over the edge of the film. Use the scissors to remove the part of the film where the tape remains, and proceed to guide the film onto the reel. This can be the hardest part. Some rolls are inevitably ‘curlier’ than others, and require several attempts to catch the reel. Just try not to touch the film too much, using light pressure on just the ends and sides. I would highly recommend practicing with a sacrificial roll in full daylight so you can see how the film catches on to the reel—and get the hang of doing it with your eyes closed.
Once the film is on the reel, insert it into the tank, and secure the light-trapping funnel. At this point it is safe to remove everything from the bag and work in the light.
Next, add the prepared developer, put the lid on, and invert the tank continuously for 10 seconds each minute. 9 minutes and 45 seconds later (give or take 15-60 seconds, depending on how close to 20 degrees Celsius the developer is), pour it down the drain, and thoroughly rinse with tap water that is also approximately 20 degrees Celsius. To rinse, fill up the tank, invert/agitate it, and dump it out. Repeat 4-5 times.
You are now ready to fix your film. Fixing helps to ‘set’ your negatives, helping to maintain their integrity over time. Ilford fixer is prepared in a 1:4 dilution; 100ml of stock fixer combined with 400ml of distilled water will result in 500ml of diluted fixer. Something that saved me a ton of frustrations was the incorporation of a Chemex coffee maker into my routine. This alluring piece of glass is perfect for filtering the leftover silver out of previously-used fixer. I make it a habit to run my diluted fixer through a coffee filter and into the Chemex before adding to the developing tank. It allows for much cleaner negatives. Before I did this, I would get a ton of ‘dust’ spots on the negatives—which were actually silver deposits—and they took forever and a day to edit out after scanning. Trust me on this and get a Chemex—your coffee habit will also thank you!
Once the fixer has been added, invert for 5 seconds every 30 seconds for 5-6 minutes. Then, pour the used fixer into a glass container (I use a large Mason jar with a plastic lid). You can use this diluted fixer multiple times—I prepare a new batch every 10 rolls or so.
Rinse again in the sink, filling the tank and inverting it several times. If you want, you can remove the funnel at this time—the film is now safe to expose to light. Before you remove it from the tank, soak the roll in a bit of Photo-Flo. Photo-Flo supposedly helps prevent water spots and/or mineral deposits to adhere to the film while drying. Just 3-4 drops per 500ml of distilled water goes a long way. Add the solution to the tank, agitate for 5-10 seconds, and let sit for about a minute. You are now ready to remove the film! Wet your index and middle finger in the tank water and gently run them down the length of the film one or two times. Then, hang the film to dry using your clamps and a hanger. The bathroom is a great place to dry film. While developing, consider running a hot shower for a few minutes to clean the dust out of the air, and hang the film from your shower rod once it is out of the tank.
Once dry, scan the negatives according to your scanner’s instructions. In low humidity, the film is typically ready to be scanned within a couple of hours. I personally like the Epson software since I can make small adjustments to the histogram before scanning—deepening shadows, toning down highlights, etc. I scan at 2400 dpi.
This might all sound scary, but it is so very rewarding and incredibly easy once you’ve done it a few times. I’ve only messed up one roll to date, and it was due to camera error—not from developing. The process is very similar for 35mm film, though I find the scanning part to be more difficult because the film tends to curl more.
Do you develop your own film at home? Share your tips in the comments!
Megan Dill is a film and digital photographer based in the lower Hudson Valley of New York.