Developing black and white film: a beginner's guide

I'll start by saying that I will leave the merits (if any) of using film, much less black & white film, for another discussion. It may surprise you to know that in this age of digital there are still people who >gasp< develop their own film. Who knows why they do this? Maybe they like pain. Maybe they like to inhale toxic chemicals in the dark. Maybe they can't afford that shiny silver digicam. Who knows? If you are into the arcane, developing your own film is as close to Voodoo as you can get without killing chickens while you're naked in a bathtub.

The first step is to take a deep breath and acknowledge that developing film is easy and simple. The next step is to stick to 1 film and developer combo at a time. NEVER ask an expert for advice unless you want an extended (by extended, I mean days) oration on developers, agitation, films, dilutions, two-bath developers, staining developers, acutance, contraction, film-shoulders, densitometer readings - you get the idea. Additionally, you do not need a darkroom to process film. Everything can be done in daylight EXCEPT LOADING THE FILM INTO THE LIGHT-TIGHT TANK. For this you will need to block out all light from a room (bathrooms work well) while you load the film (see later).

1. Film - Any one will do; they are all excellent.
2. Take pictures normally.
3. Light-tight developing tank with light-trap and 1 35mm reel. Buy a stainless steel tank preferably instead of plastic, unless you're tight on cash.
4. Cheap thermometer
5. Developer - there are zillions of them. Best to start with the tried and true Kodak D-76.
6. Fixer - Kodak fixer. Note that fixer fumes should not be inhaled while mixing
7. Stop bath - A little vinegar (acetic acid) will do: no need to buy it.
8. Kodak hypo clearing agent - this is not a necessity; it just shortens the time it takes to wash the negatives after fixing.
9. Four measuring beakers (500ml)
10. Containers to store chemicals after mixing.
11. Large tub (I use a wash-basin) - this will be filled with water (and ice) in which the chemicals will sit to come up to the right temperature.

1. Get an old 35mm film that you can use for practise. If the film leader is still poking out, just pull out all the film and cut off the end, separating the film from the canister. Dump the empty canister. If the film has been fully rewound into the canister, proceed to step 2.
2. Get a bottle-cap opener. Use the opener to pry off one end of the film canister. Once the end is off, you will see the film inside wound on a spool. Unwind the film and dump the spool. NOTE THAT THIS STEP WOULD HAVE BEEN DONE IN COMPLETE DARKNESS IF IT WERE FOR REAL.
3. Now for the hard part. Get the 35mm reel. Take one end of the film and push it into the clip at the centre of the reel. Hold the reel in your left hand. Hold the film edges in your right hand between your thumb and index finger. Bow the film slightly between your fingers. At the same time, carefully wind the film around the reel. There are grooves on the reel that the film will slip into. Keep winding until you finish winding on the whole roll. Now, look at the bottom of the reel. You should see the film wound on like a spiral. NO PART OF THE FILM SHOULD BE TOUCHING ANY OTHER PART OF THE FILM. All the circular spirals should be separate. If any parts of the film are touching, unwind the roll and do it all over again. This is because the developer must reach all parts of the film. If two bits of the film are in contact, they will not be developed. Practise this until you can do it easily with your eyes closed. When you do this for real, it will be in complete darkness.

Most of the chemicals will come in powder form. There are instructions on the packet for mixing in water. Follow the instructions and store the chemicals in the storage containers that you got.

Every film has a specific time that it should be in the developer. This differs according to developer type and temperature. Read the developing time for your film in Kodak d-76 developer at 20 degrees celcius. We'll pretend that it is 10 minutes.

1. Haul out that big wash basin or baby tub and fill it quarter or half full of water and ice.
2. Dilute chemicals as necessary in measuring beakers, and fill the beakers with about 300-400mls of chemicals i.e. enough to almost fill the light-tight tank.
3. You should now have: 1 beaker of developer, 1 beaker of fixer, 1 beaker of stop-bath (vinegar diluted to less than 5%), 1 beaker of water, 1 beaker of hypo clearing agent if you got it.
4. Put all 4 or 5 beakers in the tub (otherwise known as a water jacket).
5. Put thermometer in developer. The temp. will drop because of the ice. Add or remove ice until the thermometer stabilises at 20 degrees C. This may take a while.
6. Get the film. Get developing tank and its plastic lid. Place within easy reach (as it'll soon be pitch black). Get the 35mm reel. Say a prayer to the Deity of your choice. SWITCH OFF THE LIGHTS.
7. Remove the film from its canister and load it onto the 35mm reel. If you don't load the reel properly, you will only find out at the end of processing to your eternal grief! If you think you wound it wrong, unwind it and start over. With the film on the reel, place the reel into the light-tight tank. Cover the tank with its lid firmly. SWITCH ON THE LIGHTS.
8. With all solutions at 20 degrees C. Flip off the little cap on the lid of the film tank. This special cap allows you to pour chemicals in and out of the tank in daylight. Pour the beaker of water into the tank until full (water will bubble out of the cap orifice when full). Replace little cap. AGITATE - hold tank in one hand and flip over back and forth repeatedly in a smooth fashion (NOT JERKY). Rotate your arm too to get a good mix. Do this for 30s. Sit tank down in the water tub with ice and leave for 2 minutes. Pick up tank after time expired, flip off little cap, and pour water down the drain. The water may look pink.
9. Pour in the developer. Agitate constantly for first 30 seconds. Place tank in water tub for 1 minute. After 1 minute, remove and agitate for 10 seconds. Replace in water tub for another minute. After 1 minute, remove and agitate for 10 seconds. Keep repeating until the developing time of 10 minutes expires. Pour out the developer.
10. Pour in the stop bath. Agitate for 30s. Pour out the stop bath.
11. Pour in the fixer. Agitate for 30s. Keep tank in water tub for 4 minutes with agitation of 10s every minute, like with the developer. Pour out fixer.
12. Open the tank and remove the film and film reel. At this stage, you can use the hypo clearing agent if you have it. Regardless, put the film reel with film under a tap of running water. Leave for 10 minutes.
13. Remove film from the reel and hang up to dry. Congratulations


All images and text © Copyright protected Dr. Rory Roopnarine / Jo-Ann Sookar 1990 - 2017. All rights reserved.