A Really Simple Guide to Developing Film at Home

I couldn’t find a really simple guide to developing film when I needed a refresher, so this post is to fill that gap.

If you want to give film a try don’t be put off by not having a darkroom. You don’t need a darkroom to develop film and you don’t need a darkroom to print your film images. Just scan your film and print with an inkjet printer.

There are three main stages to developing a film and when you get used to it you’ll be able to do all this really quickly:

  • Mix up your chemicals.
  • Load your film into the developing tank.
  • Develop, stop, fix and rinse the film.

The Things You’ll Need

There are things that you have to have, and things that are useful but not essential.

Essentials:

  • Access to water and a sink / drain
  • Measuring cylinders that you won’t ever use for food; 3 that measure at least 300ml would be a good start
  • Chemicals
    • Film developer – I use Ilfosol 3
    • Stop – I use Ilfostop
    • Fix – I use Ilford Rapid Fixer
  • Developing tank
  • Thermometer
  • Scissors
  • Bottle opener
  • Light-tight changing bag
  • Timer or stopwatch (I use my phone)
  • Disposable gloves
  • About half an hour in time

Things that might be useful:

  • Accordion bottles to store chemicals for reuse.
  • Sous Vide for temperature control.
  • Funnel.
  • Film hanging clip (useful to hang film up but a peg will do for that).
  • Negative sleeves to store your films when they’re dry.
  • A copy of The Darkroom Handbook by Michael Langford.
  • Wetting agent if you live in a hard water area.

If you’re just starting out it’s worth buying a film developing kit that comes with  most of the things you’ll need rather than getting all the bits separately. Just be aware that if you get the more expensive kit to develop paper and film, the trays you get for prints are quite small – about A4 size (or 8×10 inch). If you’re going to go on to make enlargements in a darkroom then think about what size prints you’ll want to make before you invest.

Now You Need to Find Out About Your Film

You need to know what the ISO of your film is and what type of film it is before you can work out development times. The film name and ISO information should be on the film canister itself. When used with a film processing chart this gives you times for development, stop and fixing of your film. The chart also shows the ratio of water to chemical you need to mix up.

The Darkroom Handbook by Michael Langford gives a lot of information about the different types of developer/ fixer combinations you can use for various films if you want to experiment. However, keep in mind that much of this is just trial and error, and there are still new film emulsions and new photographic developers being released – including pre-mixed pouches – that you might like to try. I use Ilford films and chemicals so I’m going to stick to Ilford for simplicity.

An Example Using the Film Processing Chart

I use a lot of Ilford HP5 Plus at 400 ISO. So, let’s look at the Ilford film processing chart for how to process this. I’ve highlighted the bits I need for my film in yellow.

The chart lists the various Ilford films along the top and the developers on the left hand side. So going along the top line until I find my film – HP5 Plus, gives me options for the different ISO options this film is available in. I’m looking at how to develop ISO 400 film. Next, I look to the column on the left for the developer I’m using which is Ilfosol 3. There are two numbers next to this that indicate how to dilute the developer – the ratio of chemical to water needed develop this film. If this is all sounding a bit mathematical, don’t worry; I’ll show you exactly how to do this maths step-by-step.

Now read horizontally from these developer dilutions until you get to the column for HP5 Plus 400, you’ll see a number; this is the time, in minutes, that developing will take. If I use developer at a ratio of 1 part developer to 9 parts water then it will take 6.5 minutes to develop the film.  If I use developer at a ratio of 1 part developer to 14 parts water it will take 11 minutes.

Obviously using less developer is cheaper, but I tend to go with the shorter time. In the top left, notice I’ve highlighted the temperature of 20 degrees. It is important to note that this process is temperature dependent. Also notice the highlighted areas at the bottom of the page. These give you times for your stop (which halts the development process) and fix (fixes the whole thing in place). There’s also information about agitation – the chemicals need to flow over the surface of the film; you need to make sure that happens by physically moving the developing tank.

The Developing Tank

The next question is how much liquid do we actually need to mix up? To answer this you’ll need to check your developing tank.

On the bottom of my tank it says ‘1x35mm = 290ml’ i.e. One 35mm film needs 290ml of liquid. I round this up to 300ml to make the maths simpler. If you’re developing two films or a medium format film it will need more liquid, but the example here is for one 35mm film.

Mixing The Chemicals

Mix up the chemicals before you begin. You need them all ready to go before you start developing. You can now buy some of these chemicals ready mixed if that’s easier.

Mixing the Developer

Okay, lets work out how much developer we need:

I’ve already said my tank says 1x35mm = 290ml on the base; that’s the amount of liquid that needs to be sloshing about for the 35mm film to sit in. I round that up to 300ml because the maths and measurements are easier that way.

Working out ratios is just splitting everything into equal parts.

I need 300ml of liquid and the film processing chart says to dilute 1+9, so I need a total of 10 parts.

Each part will be equal to 300ml /10 = 30ml

One part developer to 9 parts water means that I will need (1x 30ml) of developer and (9 x 30ml) of water, so 30ml developer and 270ml of water.

Make a note of your development time. Mine is six and a half minutes.

A Note on Temperature

The water needs to be at a temperature of 20 degrees. I’ve highlighted that on the development chart – it’s in the top left corner. I find it difficult to get water from the tap at the correct temperature, so I usually measure out the water and leave it to stand for a couple of hours. However, if you can’t get water to the correct temperature you can adjust your development time. For warmer water you need less development time, for colder you need more. I wouldn’t go below 18 degrees for your water temperature.

There are instructions for water at 24 degrees on the card of the film pack, and the chart works the same as above. There are helpful charts and instructions on manufacturers websites about adjusting development time for temperature. If you’re planning on doing a lot of developing and printing then it could be worth investing in a sous vide – a simple cooking instrument that heats water to a specific temperature and keeps it there.

Tip: Remember, you can do all of this in the light. The chemicals don’t have to be kept in the dark, just the film.

When you begin to mix these chemicals remember that none of the chemicals for developing film have to be prepared or kept in the dark. However, if you’re not going to use the developer straight away (it keeps for a few days), then don’t leave it in direct sunlight on a windowsill, and don’t shake it. The film has to be kept in the dark, which the development tank should do for you because of it’s design; don’t be tempted to open the tank up until you’re rinsing the film in water at the end of the entire process after the fix.

Mixing the Stop

To stop development, the instructions (rather confusingly listed under ‘Fixation’ at the bottom of the chart) say Ilfostop at a dilution of 1+19 for 10 seconds at 20 degrees. (I’ve highlighted this in yellow). You can just rinse in water, but I’ve not tried it so can’t say what the results would be.

I use 300ml of stop.

This time there are 20 parts (1 + 19), so that’s 300ml/20 = 15ml per part. So that’s 285ml of water at 20 degrees and 15ml of Ilfostop.

The time for this is 10 seconds. Make a note of it.

Mixing the Fix

I use Rapid Fixer. The instructions (under Fixation) say rapid fixer at a dilution of 1+4 for 2 – 5 minutes at 20 degrees. Again, I use 300ml of Rapid Fixer, so, although I’m sure that you’re now bored with the maths bit I’ll do it anyway…

1 + 4 means I need 5 parts, 1 fix and 4 water.

Each part will be 300ml/ 5 = 60ml

That’s (1 x 60ml) part of Rapid Fixer to (4 x 60ml) parts – i.e. 240ml of water.

Honestly, I don’t know what the difference is in fix times; I fix for 5 minutes. I tend to assume 5 minutes is best but 2 is okay if you’re in a rush. I have no evidence for this belief though!

Time 5 minutes. Make a note of it.

Loading the Developing Tank

This is probably the most frustrating part of the whole process, so don’t do it in a rush! Make sure you can sit down somewhere undisturbed, put on some soothing music and steel yourself for a lot of swearing if you don’t have the patience of a saint.

Open the developing tank. Inside it, you’ll see a white cylindrical cage; this is what you load your film onto, the film spirals onto it. To do this you offer the edge of the film up to the notches with the tiny ballbearings and you twist the frame to feed the film onto the spool. This all has to be done in a changing bag or a darkroom without any lights at all.

Sometimes this goes very smoothly. If it does, you’re allowed to feel really smug about that, because usually it’s a total, utter nuisance. This is what happens for me: it goes on part way and then won’t go on any more; it buckles and scratches the film; the film slips out of the notches. My advice is that if you have a film gone wrong (which I do) or a spare film you’re not worried about ruining, then practice with that in the light, then with your eyes closed so you get used to the feel of it all. Also practice taking the developing tank apart and putting it back together again so that you can do it with your eyes closed. Because all of this has to be done in the light-tight changing bag.

Get your equipment together: your film, bottle opener, scissors, all parts of the developing tank. Put it all into the light-tight changing bag and zip it all up.

Put your arms into the holes in the changing bag; if you have a long sleeve top then that works well because moving your arms around can cause the bag to slip down your arms. If it does it might let light in, and your film will be ruined. A long sleeve top helps to stop that from happening.

In the bag, open up the developing tank and find the spool the film will go onto. Put the rest out of the way. Using the bottle opener, lever the top of the film canister off and then remove the film; don’t unravel it. Be careful with the film canister – it can be sharp so try and push it to the corner of the bag out of the way with the bottle opener. Now get the scissors and feel for the shaped end of the film; you need to cut this off. Then put the scissors and the cut bit of film out of the way.

Now you need to get the film onto the spool. Feel for the tiny ballbearings with your fingers; there will be notches in the spool at that point. Twist the spool so those notches line up and offer the edge of the film up to the notches and push until it feels like it’s gone past the ballbearings. Then gently twist the spool trying very hard not to touch the film as it unravels. When you get near to the end, the film will still be attached to a small piece of black plastic; you’ll need to cut it off. Then wind on the rest of the film, and reassemble the development tank. Remember to put the spool the right way up; the film needs to sit at the bottom of the tank. Make sure the development tank is totally secure before you remove it from the light-tight changing bag.

That’s all the difficult bit done now.

Developing Your Film

Before you begin you should have your film loaded into the lightproof tank, and all your chemicals ready, at the correct temperature and within easy reach, and a note of the timings. A stopwatch or timer is very helpful too. You’ll need access to the sink and running water now.

Remove the lid from the lightproof tank and quickly but gently pour in the developer, starting your timer when about half of it is in the tank. Gently agitate the tank for a few minutes either using the bar in the centre of it, or by carefully swishing it about or inverting it several times – but don’t shake it. My development time was 6 minutes 30 seconds. I gently agitate the tank for about 2 minutes and then try and agitate it regularly throughout the process – maybe once every minute or so. The aim is to have the liquid moving gently over the surface of the film. The instructions say ‘invert the tank four times during the first ten seconds then invert a further four times during the first ten seconds for each further minute’. But I sometimes lose developer that way and so I prefer my gentle swishing method.

When you are 15 seconds from the end of your development time, begin to tip the developer out of the tank. You don’t need to open it, the liquid will just spill out of the sides. When the developer is out, pour the stop in immediately. Swish it about gently while counting to ten (my stop time is 10 seconds) and tip it out. Then add the fix. Tip the fix into the tank, gently agitate it about for a minute and then keep agitating every minute or so. I do this for about 5 minutes. Then tip it out.

The Rinse

 When you finish the fix and pour it out you can open the tank to rinse the film in water; you don’t need to keep it dark at that point. I tend to leave it in the tank under running water at as close to 20 degrees as I can get for about ten minutes occasionally emptying it all out and letting it fill again.

I live in a hard water area and so at the end of the rinse I use wetting solution. If you’re using it, you only need a few drops. I add it at the end of the rinse with a pipette. By that time I have often become impatient and removed part of the film from the reel to have a peek and see how it looks.

When you’ve finished rinsing, if you’ve not already done so, carefully remove the film from the development reel. If you have wetting solution remaining in the tank then dip a film squeegee or your fingers into the tank and then run down the length of the film to remove excess water droplets. If you skip this step you can end up with marks on the film from droplets of water that have dried.

Use a film clip or peg to hang the film up. If it’s very old film you might find it also helps to put a clip or peg on the bottom too because old film likes to try and roll up again. Try and keep it straight because if it buckles it can scratch.

And that’s it. Let it dry overnight if possible, then you can carefully cut it into strips between the frames. How many frames on each strip will depend on your storage method. At the moment I am using Hama Negative Sleeves for 35mm film which take strips of 6 frames. If you’ve developed medium format film then you’ll probably be looking at cutting into 3 frames.

My next steps in this process are to scan the film and then print on an enlarger. But those are for another post…

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