How to Develop Your Own Film

by Guest Contributor Anna Gay

Several months ago, I wrote a post about the benefits of shooting film. Through conversations with some of my photographer friends, I have found that one of their reservations on shooting film is that they are put off by the cost of having it developed, which is a valid point – getting your film developed can get pricey over time! So, I have put together this post to show you how easy (and extremely fun!) developing your own film really is. You do not need a darkroom, and you do not need a bunch of expensive equipment. For years, I was under the impression that developing film was an expensive, complicated process, akin to rocket science. Not so! It is ridiculously easy, and a rewarding experiment that will help you become an even better photographer.

Like I said, developing your film at home is so much easier than you realize. If you can cook an easy dinner, you can develop film!  Now, this post deals exclusively with developing 35mm black and white film. Color film is a complicated process, so let’s stick with classic, beautiful, black and white.  First, let’s talk about what supplies you will need. Then, I will walk you through the process with a video explaining how to remove the film from its canister, and written directions on how to use the developing chemicals.  You will need:

Household Items

* 1 can opener

* Scissors

* 1 clean sponge, cut in half

* 1 hanger

* 2 clothes clips, or clothespins

* 1 Measuring cup (2 cups)

* Dosing syringe, in milliliters

* White Vinegar

* At least 2 gallons of filtered (I repeat, filtered) room temperature water

Developing Supplies

* R09 Developer

* Ilford Rapid Fixer

* Kodak Photo Flo

* Paterson Developing Tank, with Reel (these can be purchased new, or used for a great price on eBay. Mine was around $10)

Before we go any further, I need to stress to you an extremely important point. So important, that it requires bold and all caps: YOU MUST HAVE A LIGHT TIGHT ROOM!  I do not have an official “darkroom” in my house, so I use the one room that doesn’t have a window – the upstairs bathroom (so glamorous). I also seal the door by stuffing dark towels around the edges of the door frame. This may sound extreme, but any light at all can, and will, destroy your undeveloped film.  If you do not have a light tight room, you will want to invest in a changing bag, which is a completely safe, light tight alternative  Now that we are clear on the importance of a light tight room, let’s get started.

Step 1: Loading Your Film into Your Developing Tank

You’ll be happy to know that this is the only tricky part of developing your film at home, and honestly, it just takes a little bit of practice. You need to be able to focus, relax, and do this in the dark. Here is a video that demonstrates how to load your film onto the reel, and then install it in the developing tank.

This is the only step that you have to do in your light tight room. Once you get the film onto the reel and in your developing tank, you can do everything else in the daylight, because the developing tank is light tight.

Again, Step 1 has to be done in total darkness!

Step 2: Mixing the Chemicals

Here are the measurements for each of your chemicals, in the order in which you will use them:

1) Presoak – 500ml (2 cups) water

2) Rodinal (developer) – 5ml (use dosing syringe) developer, 500ml water

3) Stop – 1 capful white vinegar, 500ml water

4) Ilford (fixer) – 100ml fixer, 400ml water

5) Rinse – 1500ml water

6) Photo Flo (wetting agent) – 500ml water, 2-3 drops wetting agent

Step 3: Applying the Chemicals, Cook Times

You are now ready to rock and roll! Here is the process:

* Pour presoak into the developing tank. Leave presoak in for 5 minutes, gently agitating for the first 30 seconds. When 5 minutes have elapsed, pour out presoak. When you agitate, gently rock the tank back-and-forth. A quick demonstration of agitation:

* While your presoak is working, mix your developer (5ml Rodinal, 500ml of water). It is important to wait as long as possible before mixing the developer, as it begins working the minute it comes in contact with water.

* Pour in developer. Leave developer in for 15 minutes, agitating 10 seconds for the first 2 minutes. It will go like this: Pour in developer, agitate 10 seconds, let stand for 50 seconds, agitate 10 seconds, let stand for 13:50 minutes.

* When the first 15 minutes have elapsed, repeat the above process, for a total development time of 30 minutes. Pour out developer.

* Pour in stop (vinegar). Agitate constantly for 1 minute. Pour out stop.

* Pour in fixer (Ilford). Agitate constantly for 2 minutes. Pour out fixer.

* Rinse – Pour in 500ml water, agitate for 5 seconds, pour out water. Do this two more times, agitating 10 seconds, and then 20.

* Remove film from tank.

* Wetting Agent (Photo Flo) – Leaving film on reel, gently bob and circle film in wetting agent for 30 seconds.

* Gently unwind film from reel. Using your clothes clips and hanger, clip one end of the film to the hanger, and add one clip to the bottom of your film in order to anchor it. You want your film to dry straight.

* Using your clean sponge, (very) gently dry each side of the film. You may want to dampen the sponge a tiny bit so as to not scratch the film.

* Let dry for several hours.

Now that your film has been developed, you have a couple of options. You can make your own prints, which is a separate post entirely! If you are new to developing, however, you may want to either have your film scanned to a disc at either your local photo lab, or, if your scanner is capable of scanning negatives, you can always scan your own.

Last, but certainly not least, let’s talk about how to dispose of your chemicals. There is a lot of debate out there about how to dispose of the chemicals, mainly the fixer, because of the silver content. Most fixers nowadays are ammonium thiosulphate based, so they are fairly benign compared to the fixers of the good old days. Your best bet will be to save your used fixer, and either take it to a landfill, or a photo lab so they can run it through their filters. Sure, people pour much worse down their drains (ammonia, for example) but playing it safe when disposing of heavy metals is always a good habit.

Best of luck to you, and also, if you have questions, feel free to post them here!

Anna Gay is a portrait photographer based in Athens, GA and the author of the dPS ebook The Art of Self-Portraiture. She also designs actions and textures for Photoshop. When she is not shooting or writing, she enjoys spending time with her husband, and their two cats, Elphie and Fat Cat.

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Stephanie - June 4, 2012 - 11:28 am

Changing bags are a great option and they’re super easy to use. In my first photography class, we practiced developing film in the changing bags so we wouldn’t spend the entire class waiting for the light-tight room to be available! If you use the changing bags, you can develop your film while watching tv if you wanted!

Trena - June 4, 2012 - 11:42 am

I found the reel tricky to use..I would always have one spot of film touching another. I preferred a developing tube.

Kate - June 4, 2012 - 1:52 pm

I developed probably several hundred of rolls of film back when I was starting out as a photographer, though now the benefit of digital is I no longer have to deal with the horrible allergic reaction I’d get breathing in the photo chemicals, but I really do miss film!

Angie P - June 9, 2012 - 8:31 pm

Thank you for sharing such incredibly useful information! Hopefully I get a chance (soon) to put it to use.

[...] I’m assuming if you are about to try developing color, that you already know how to load film into your tank. If you don’t, be sure to check out the video in the B&W post on Rock the Shot, here [...]

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