If you shoot film it’s getting harder to find local processors in some areas, and there’s very few that offer same date processing for anything other than C41 films.
For traditional silver halide B&W film – that’s films like Kodak Tri-X or Ilford FP4 & HP5, you really should try processing it yourself. It’s very simple and it’s a satisfying feeling, being responsible for your images from taking them to presenting them.
Unless you want to make traditional wet prints as well, you don’t need a darkroom to process your own film. You can buy a changing bag to load the film into the processing tank and the rest is then done in normal light.
Here’s a list of the minimum equipment you’ll need to start with;
- Changing bag
- Processing tank and reel
- Measuring jug/beaker or graduates for measuring and mixing chemicals
- Empty bottles for storing chemicals (you can buy photo chemical bottles or use old water bottles)
- Timer – you probably have one on your mobile phone
- Film clips – for hanging film to dry
- Negative sleeves – for storing your processed negatives
You will also need the chemicals;
- Stop bath
- Wetting agent
- Large bottle of clean water for washing film
You can get away with just the developer and fixer but I’d recommend buying the others to get the best possible results.
There are other things you can buy such as a film pressure washer, or squeegee tongs to help dry the film but I have some other suggestions later on.
Additionally I would suggest buying 4 graduates so you have one for each of the chemicals you’ll be using, and a washing up bowl to act as a water bath, to help keep all the solutions at the same working temperature (half fill it with water at the required temperature, then stand the graduates full of solution in the water bath). This will help avoid any big changes in temperature between solutions which can have a detrimental effect on the film.
That said, B&W film is very forgiving so don’t worry too much about being spot on with temperatures, a few degrees here or there at first.
Film developing tanks come in two types, plastic and stainless steel. It doesn’t matter which you buy but personally I think that the plastic type (with plastic film reels) are easier to load for beginners. The stainless film reels take a bit of getting used to and you might spoil some films if you don’t load them correctly.
They also come in various sizes so that you can process multiple rolls of film at the same time. To start with I’d suggest you buy a standard 1 or 2 reel tank.
Whichever type you opt for I would suggest getting hold of an outdated roll of film and using it to practice loading the reel with in daylight. Once you can see how it works and are used to doing it you’ll find it much easier then working within the changing bag.
The changing bag is a light tight bag that has a zipped side you put your film, reel and tank and scissors into, zip up then put your arms through the two ‘sleeves’ and you then have to load the reel by feeling where the film should go (so that’s why it’s best to do some practice runs in full sight). Although the changing bag is lightproof I still prefer to use it somewhere that’s not in direct light, just in case any light could get in through the sleeves whilst you’re moving your hands about.
Do remember to make sure you’ve put the reel in the tank and then the lid on the tank before removing your arms from the changing bag or opening it up!!
Rather than go over all steps for processing in detail here, there are many guides already available online – Ilford photo have a particularly good beginners guide on their site, see the link on this page http://www.ilfordphoto.com/applications/page.asp?n=31
The key steps are;
- Load film into the tank
- Develop (most important step which turns your film into a strip of images)
- Stop bath (literally to stop development)
- Fixer (fixes the images on the film)
- Washing (thorough washing in clean water to remove all traces of chemicals – I prefer to do this using the tank and multiple changes of water)
- Final wash with Wetting Agent (added to the final wash this will help avoid water spots as your negatives dry)
- Drying film
My advice is to stick to the instructions on the pack of developer/fixer you buy to start with and use the timings suggested on the pack, or better still there’s an excellent website and phone app called The Massive Dev Chart which has times for pretty much every combination of film and developer and working temperature. See the website here http://www.digitaltruth.com/devchart.php
The phone app is particularly good as it includes a timer function which will tell you when to agitate the tank and change the chemicals.
Most beginners have problems with getting their film onto the reel for processing. Practice with a film in daylight (OK so you have to waste a roll of film to do this but it will save spoiling other films).
The first problem you might face is if you have rewound your film right into the canister. Don’t worry it’s easy to retrieve the film leader. You can buy a special tool or a clever trick is to get another film, with the leader sticking out. Lick the end of the film (yes lick it!) and then slide it into the other canister slowly, then pull it out slowly again and it should pull the other film tip with it. This might take a few attempts but it’s usually successful!
Another option is to use a bottle opener but you’ll have to do this by feel inside the changing bag so it’s less convenient, but if the trick above doesn’t work you might have to resort to doing this.
With the plastic type reels you load the film by feeding the leading edge into the reel then twist the reel back and forth to feed the film into it. They mostly work well but sometimes you might find the film sticks.
A couple of tips to avoid this and make loading easier. Firstly, always make sure the reels are really clean and thoroughly dry. Any moisture will make the film stick.
Before placing the film into the changing bag, cut off the leader so that you have a straight edge, making sure you haven’t cut through the sprocket holes, then cut the very corners of the film edges off so there are two 45 degree edges. This helps with feeding the film on the reel.
Load the tip of the film onto the reel before closing up the changing bag.
Mix up your chemicals with water that’s at room temperature – check the temperature with your thermometer and use this to calculate the development time (according to the instructions or the app I’ve mentioned).
If your ‘room temperature’ is too low or high, then use a water bath to stand your chemicals in, to bring them all to the same temperature. I just use a washing up bowl, half filled with water to the working temperature and then stand the graduates with the correct amount of chemicals in the water bath for 5 or 10 minutes.
As I’ve said, don’t worry about being a little bit out on the temperature, consistency is more important.
Don’t panic! Developing your first film will be a little stressful as you try to remember all the steps and check the timings. Common mistakes include pouring in the wrong chemicals – label the graduates or put them in a row in the order you will use them and don’t put them back into the water bath afterwards. Agitate the tank slowly, you’re not shaking a cocktail, it’s just a matter of picking the tank up (with the lid firmly on!) and turning it upside down a few times in a row, then placing it back on the work surface until the next cycle is due (the app will prompt you to do this).
Once you’ve finished the fixer cycle you can take your film out of the tank but I suggest you don’t. Wash your film first. I just fill the tank with room temperature water, agitate it for about 30 seconds then pour the water out. Repeat this step about 6 times and then do a final wash with a few drops of wetting agent added to the water. This is great stuff and really helps getting nice clean dry negatives.
Once you’re finished the washing cycle remove the reel from the tank and carefully pull the strip of film off the reel. You should now be able to see your negatives for the first time!
Buy proper film clips – one will be weighted and helps stop the film curling up whilst drying. They’re cheap and will be safer to use than clothes pegs! You can hang the upper clip from a clothes hanger.
A good relatively dust free place to hang your film to dry is in the bathroom. Some people say to run the shower for a few minutes first to help keep dust down. Another place is an empty wardrobe or cupboard.
When the film is hung up you can use squeegee tongs to remove the excess water. The problem with tongs is that tiny particles can get stuck on the rubber and it can scratch the film.
A great tip I can share is to use a piece of kitchen paper instead. Fold a square of kitchen paper in half and again etc. until you have a strip about an inch wide. Fold this in half to make a pair of ‘tongs’. Place this around the film at the top end then holding the film gently with the paper tongs (very light touch) run it down the length of film in one smooth quick action.
The kitchen paper will soak up most of the water and you can then leave the film to dry naturally.
One the film is dry cut the negatives into strips and place them in negative sleeves being very careful not to get any fingerprints on them – cotton ‘photo’ gloves or rubber gloves are a good idea.
After that it’s a case of scanning the negatives to process and display or print digitally, or printing traditionally using an enlarger.