Fumbling Around in the Dark
a contemporary guide to DIY film development for the chronically clumsy
a contemporary guide to DIY film development for the chronically clumsy
First, let me start at the end by recommending what I think is probably the best book for up-and-coming shutterbugs. It's simply titled Photography by Barbara London and John Upton and is the book that my dad got for me when he handed over his old Minolta. The illustrations are excellent, and drive home concepts like "depth of field" and how aperture and shutter speed work together to get a certain type of image on film. There are tons of books out there, but this is the one I always turn to, in no small part because of the clear illustrations and step-by-step photos. The edition I have is now hopelessly out of date with regard to modern camera technology, but the science hasn't changed. As such, I have cribbed mercilessly from them. Hey! I bet your library has a copy. Mine's the fourth edition, looks like they're up to the ninth edition now.
Also, a disclaimer. I have not tried -- nor desire to start -- at-home color film processing. Color is a more persnickety mistress than black-and-white: the chemicals are a bit more involved, the temperatures are higher, and the timing is far more exact. If you like sorting your sock drawer by style then size then color then fiber, color processing is for you, and this post is not. Sorry. I think the best place to get color done is at your local mega-mart, where a pimply teenager will be happy to give you a strip of machine-processed negatives in an hour for under $3, and maybe even scan them onto a CD for about $5 more. You can't beat that kind of a deal, folks.
To develop your own film, you need:
- A roll of exposed black and white film. And already, we have our first "gotcha." True black and white film is almost unobtanium these days. Those places that still sell film may offer a "faux" black and white, which is called "chromogenic"film. It says black and white on the box, it prints in black and white, but it's not actual-factual black-and-white film. It's actually just color film with no color layers. How do you know? If it says Process C-41 on the film canister or box, then this is color film, so prepare to hand this to our pimply teen friend. Kodak Tri-X and T-MAX, Ilford HP4 and HP5 are all "true" b/w films, and are what you should be looking for. See below for "shopping advice" when you realize you can't find it locally.
- Chemistry. There's surprisingly little involved here: a "developer" and a "fixer"are all you need, though there are other optional chemicals you can involve to make the process faster or easier. More on those when we get there.
- Total darkness (for a little while). This one is crucial, and I mean complete, can't-see-my-fingers-in-front-of-my-face darkness. You'll be handling film in the dark for the first bit of development, and any light at all will "fog" the film (aka, leave blotches on it or dim the image.) Blocking up the window and cracks around the door in a bathroom is typical, or stepping into a similarly blocked up closet. Personally, I use something called a changing bag for this step, since I have no easy access to a light-free room these days.
- Other stuff. No matter how low-tech you go, I think these are essential:
- Old clothes and an old towel or two, because nothing stains like film chemistry. Wear anything that will be enhanced by nasty brown splatters.
- Bottle opener: the old "church key" kind, not a cork remover. You need this to open the film canister in the dark.
- Clean jars to hold your chemistry (Mason jars are good and sturdy) and a liquid measuring cup, or some fancy graduated cylinders like you used in chem class all those years ago.
- A thermometer clearly readable around the 68 degree F/20 degree C mark.
- Something to hold your film in as it gets blended with the chemicals. If you're a real purist, you can do this in a plastic tub or old bowl, but why? Get yourself a decent daylight processing tank and a spool to hold the film. These are brilliantly simple: once you have wrangled the film onto the spool (in the dark!) put the spool in the tank, pop on the cover, and then pour the chemicals in through a special light-proof hole. See the shopping section below again for tips.
- A pair of binder clips or clothespins and a place to hang wet film overnight (showers are great for this.)
- A clock with a second hand that's readable from where you're developing.
The instructor of the adult-ed classes that I took was pretty much the example of your wild-eyed greybeard photographer, and could charitably be called particular in his preferences. One thing he did stress is you'll get a lot more mileage out of stainless steel than plastic reels and tanks, aka, "the thing that holds the film" and "the thing that the film and chemistry slosh around in." Plastic reels are supposedly easier to load, though he swore that they also made it easier to mangle film if you did it wrong. Stainless requires a bit more effort, but clean-up is a breeze. I inherited stainless from my grandfather, that's what I learned on, and that's what I use. Your mileage, as always, may vary.
Back now? OK, here's what you need to do:
(1) Igor, prepare the lab! If you're using anything that's going to be shared between chemicals (like a measuring cup) be sure to clean it out well between chemicals.
According to the directions that came with your chemicals, you're going to mix up a batch of developer, usually diluting a liquid or a powder by some ratio of developer:water.
"Stop bath" is generally not necessary, it's just the stuff you dump in after developing to make the developer stop doing its thing. Running water from the tap is fine here, and pretty common. If you're made of money, though, hey... stop bath away, my friend. I've read that acetic acid can be used here in a dilution, and have heard of some people using a vinegar bath here.
"Fixer" is the last real step. This is the stuff that gives the light-sensitive side of the film (the "emulsion") one final scrub before it goes out into the world and gets all fingerprinty. You may be diluting this to use once and then toss out ("one-shot") or just pouring from the bottle into your tank, and then pouring back later. Depends on what you bought, and I don't think one is any better than the other.
Crucial thing with the chemistry is that all your chemicals and waters should be about 68 degrees Fahrenheit/20 Celsius. This is an "about" temperature, and you can go over or under without much trouble. Wild temperature swings between steps will do funky things with your emulsion, as will very high temps. Your developer should have a recommended temperature printed on the bottle or the instruction sheet, follow that.
(2) In the dark, wind up your film. Open your film canister with the bottle opener. If you hold the film in your hand with the little knob bit pointing upwards, you should be able to get the opener on the lip of the bottom piece and pry it off. The film is loosely wrapped on a spool inside the canister, which will now evade your grasp and bounce all over the effing bathroom floor, unwinding as it goes. And now you know why I use a changing bag. This is just pair of black nylon bags, one inside the other, with a pair of elastic-cuffed sleeves sticking out. Imagine a windbreaker without a neck opening and you've got it. The idea is that you put all your "dark stuff" in the bag (spool, canister, film, bottle opener) and zip the bag shut, then pop your hands in the sleeves, and set to work. (Note: after opening the film and effectively locking your arms in the bag, it is required that your nose itch maddeningly for the duration.)
The film will be taped on to the little spool right at the end. You're strong enough to pull this off, the film will be fine (that end isn't exposed anyway.) Some directions have you trim off the tape, or the leader at the start of the roll. I say: they aren't hurting anything, and if you're using stainless steel (ahem) you can load the whole thing, tape, leader and all on the reel. Put the tape end in first, and finish with the leader. Besides, playing with scissors in the dark? Honestly. Doing this little trick does mean that you're going to unwind the whole roll of film to get to the taped end, but film is very curly, and will want to wind back up as it's coming off the spool. Go ahead and let it make a little neat roll in your other hand.
Winding film on a spool is the absolute hardest part of this process. If you can do that, you can do all the rest of this, and that's why I think people gravitate towards plastic. The best way to learn how to wind is to sacrifice some film -- any kind -- and practice loading, loading, loading in broad daylight until you get it. Then try it in daylight, but with your eyes shut. Then under a coat so you can't peek, etc.. You have to be able to do this step totally by feel, ideally by only holding the edges of the film. Once you have this step down pat, you're good to go. And you can do it. With practice.
(3) Place spool in tank, cover, and soak. If you're using a daylight tank, get your spool in there, place the lid on the tank, and turn on the lights or open the bag. Removing only the little light-trap cap, pour some water into the tank, enough that you're covering the film inside. I wait until it starts to splurt back out. Pre-soaking the film isn't required, but again, it's how I learned, so...
When you think about it, film is magical stuff. Teeny tiny little particles of light-sensitive stuff, hanging out in essentially dried Jell-O, waiting for the right chemicals to embiggen them into crystals visible by the naked eye. Pause for a moment here to be dazzled by the coolness of what you're doing. Digital weenies don't get to ponder this sort of thing.
(4) Bath time. Removing only the little light-trap cap, dump out the water from your tank. Pour in your carefully measured and temperature correct developer, noting the time when you do this, replace the cap, and gently agitate the tank. "Agitate" here means "hold the lid and cap on with your fingers as you slowly turn the tank over" not "shake the living hell out of the tank like you're mixing cocktails at your brother's wedding." A few easy inversions back and forth will do it. Some folks like to throw in a lucky tap or two on the counter to knock bubbles off the film at the end of a cycle: go crazy. Just don't make a frothy umbrella drink in your tank.
You'll be doing this agitation dance for a while, for a minute or so straight at the beginning, then a couple of inversions every 30 seconds for anywhere from about 15-20 minutes. Follow your developer's instructions. When I first started processing my own film, I would always panic at this step, since I'd be concentrating so hard on the agitating that I'd forget when I poured in the developer. I've since learned to wait until the minute hand was somewhere easy, and then repeat to myself the time it comes out on every inversion. "The film is done at 1:17... *swish*... the film is done at 1:17... *swish*..." I call it "photography Tourette's."
Not using a spool and tank? What, are you a masochist or something? OK, you can do this in the dark, though you'll have to have all your chemicals mixed up and ready in advance, and in open-air containers like old mixing bowls You can hold both ends of the film, and kind of rock it through the developer, working your way down the length of the film in a "U" shape and then back again. I don't know what you're doing for time, though -- maybe counting? Do the same thing for your bowl of fixer. As soon as you get out of the bathroom, though, get online and order a daylight tank and some reels.
Your developer package will tell you how long you need to soak your film: there's usually a table printed that shows major film brands vs. temperature, and you look up the number of minutes from that. Warmer developer means less time, but often results in grainier negatives. Too cold and the chemistry won't "take" as well. Follow the directions here, but don't panic if you're off by a degree or a minute or two. Black and white film is pretty forgiving.
Agitate every 30 seconds or so, with the last agitation ending in you dumping out the developer, either down the drain, or back into the bottle. If you did any sort of mixing to prepare your developer, then it's done, but if you're using pre-mixed stuff, you can be thrifty and mix it back in to your bottle. This recycling will eventually exhaust the developer and you'll need to get new stuff. (Caffenol is one-shot.)
(5) Stop, Dog, Stop! Development time all done? OK, time for the stop bath. You can use another chemical mix for this, or running water. I place my tank under the tap in the sink with only the little light-trap cap removed, and let water pour in and wash the film, periodically dumping it out to flush out any goodness floating near the bottom.
(6) Get fixed. The last real chemistry-ish step is to pour in the fixer. This takes less time than the developer, directions should be printed on the box/bottle/package about the amount of time, but it's typically on the order of a couple of minutes of occasional agitation. Fixer can generally be saved and reused. The fixer helps to harden the emulsion layer so it's tough enough to handle storage and scanning and the like.
(7) Wash up. If you've done everything in order, you should be able to safely expose your film to light now, and naught but the ravages of time and your own klutziness will harm it. Let your film spools sit under running water for a while now, just to flush any other little bits of fixer or whatever off of it. After it's been flushed for a few minutes, you can add a drop of a "washing agent" to the water, which will help keep spots from forming on your negatives. There is, of course, a commercial product that does this, though you can just as easily use a tiny drop of dishwashing soap or a rinse agent like Jet-Dry. If you buy the commercial stuff, it comes in a wee little bottle. Since you are only using a tiny drop at a time, that bottle will probably last longer than you will.
(8) Hanging out. Now dry those negatives! Fancy dryers and such may have been all the rage back in the heydey of film, but hanging in your shower will work, too. Clip one of your clothespins or binder clips to the end of your film and gently ease it off the spool. Attach the other clip to the other end, and hang it up from one clip to dry. The bottom clip acts as a weight and pulls the film straight while it dries.
I happen to have one of those ceiling hooks in my shower at home (a gift from the previous owners) which works perfectly for hanging film. If you can suspend a plastic coat hanger or run a line, you can use laundry hooks to hold the film while it drips dry. A shower is not required, since all you're after is a place where film can drip undisturbed for a while without being coated in dust and curious hands. Basements, an empty closet with an old tub on the floor, etc..
When they're dry, you can cut between every fifth frame or so and slip them into protective sleeves. Admire the magic! Those tiny little images! You made that.
Celebrate! You're done!
OK, did that seem long? It is, and it isn't. Once you get going, it's a surprisingly fast operation, and most tanks will accommodate multiple reels of 35mm film, so you can get double the results for your time (just be sure to make a big enough batch of chemicals!) The longest part is the standing around agitating the tank and watching the clock, but it's worth the wait.
But now where, you ask, should the budget-minded retro-consumer go to indulge in this whim known as DIY developing?
- Post on Craigslist and Freecycle for developing stuff. Seems like everyone's getting rid of their film stuff these days, and surely there's someone in your area who has "made the switch to digital" (the fools!) and would hand over their stuff on the cheap.
- Scour eBay, for the same reasons as above.
- Web merchants include B&H and Adorama in New York and Freestyle out here on the left coast. At first glance, doing your own black and white may look a bit... spendy. Film isn't cheap, nor chemicals, nor *sigh* shipping, but figure this: to have blank and white done here, it cost me about $15 per roll (develop + print) at the fancy pro lab near my office, and that's the only game in town. Otherwise, it would be sent out... somewhere? And how long will it be away? And how satisfying is that, truly?
- You can always get better equipment later. Mason jars and thrift-store pitchers work fine to hold chemicals. No changing bag? Use two black plastic garbage bags (one inside the other) under a heavy coat. Again, you don't need much, just film, darkness, and chemicals. Everything else is there to make it more convenient. There's all sorts of devices for rotating tanks and drying negatives and the like, but you don't need it right away. Start small.
- Ilford's pamphlet (PDF) biased towards their own products, of course, but with nifty illustrations
- Kodak pamphlet (PDF) showing charts of film vs. developer, and laying out the steps
- flickr user On_Sidewalks' topic about budget b&w developing (nice photos!)
- The flickr group I Shoot Film is a great resource, too. Folks there seem genuinely helpful, and it's not a braggy look-at-my-pics group.