How to develop film at home

How to develop film at home

Negative image scan of photo of The Cox Family.

Negative image scan of photo of The Cox Family. ( photo page )

Developing your own film at home is actually quite easy. It’s not as an exact a science as you might think, and you don’t need to be an expert chemist or anything. I like to say “if you can bake a cake, you can develop film.” Actually, baking is pretty similar. You mix stuff up, pour it together, and wait. That’s about all you do to develop film too.

You need a small assortment of supplies and chemicals, all of which are perfectly safe and easy to obtain. Film is an incredible sensor, an extremely stable storage device, and it looks pretty cool too. It’s lots of fun to develop it yourself, so here is a simple guide to get you started.

What kind of film can I develop at home?

You can develop just about any kind of film you like at home if you are willing to try. Color film and color reversal film ( slides! ) gets a bit more complex, and requires some more knowledge and equipment. But, black and white films are pretty easy to manage and so that’s where most people start. For the purposes of this tutorial, we’ll stick to talking about Black & White Films.

What do I need to develop my own film?

First of all, if all you are trying to do is develop the film itself, and not make prints, you don’t need an elaborate darkroom. In fact, you can get away with a blacked out closet or bathroom for the first step of loading the film, and the rest can be done in daylight. I prefer a changing bag or this cool tent I have been using for a while.

My home darkroom supplies.

My home darkroom supplies. ( photo page )

Once you have a way to load the film in complete darkness, you will need something to load it on to. This is usually in the form of a cylindrical tank and a spool to hold the film. The spools go inside the tank, and the tank provides a light-tight vessel to hold the film and chemistry while the film develops. There are many kinds of tank systems. Most commonly you’ll see the Preston plastic tank systems which are easy to come by, inexpensive and easy to use. I prefer the older stainless steel Nikor tank and spool systems as they last forever and I’ve gotten used to working with them over the years. But to be honest, I’d recommend the Preston system for a beginner.

Once you have your tank system worked out, all you need are the chemicals and the accessories to mix them and store them with. I’ll include a list of what my set up consists of at the end of this article.

Lastly, you’ll need a place to hang your film while it dries. Currently I use a coat hanger and these neato film clips. I just hang the whole thing from the shower curtain rod in my bathroom. It works!

Ok, so how do I process film?

The first real step in film development is to mix up your chemistry. There are actually only three chemicals you must have to develop film. Everything else is sort of optional.

  • Developer – The developer turns the latent image on your film into an image that the eye can see. There’s quite a few options to consider when picking out your developer. I’ll get into more on that later.
  • Fixer – Fixer stops the development process. Once the film is in the fixer, it can be exposed to light.
  • Water – Water cleans the fixer off the film.

 Optionally you can add the following

  • Stop – Stop is an acid that quickly “stops” the development process and neutralizes the developer chemical so it won’t ruin the fixer. Personally I don’t use it. Instead I just rinse the film in water between the development and fixer steps for about 30 seconds. Depending on the developer and fixer you choose, you may want to try a stop bath as well.
  • Hypo-Clearing Agent – This is something I in fact do use. A Hypo-Clearing agent is a chemical you soak the film in after its finished fixing. The neutralizes the fixer and “clears” it off, so you can ensure a very stable and fixer-free clean film. It will reduce the time it takes to wash the film as well. The idea here is to clean off any residual fixer from the film so it doesn’t destroy your film over time.
  • Photoflo – This is actually an extremely useful chemical as it will help clear off any water marks during the drying process. It’s basically a highly concentrated soapy solution. One drop is enough for a roll of film.

Mixing the chemistry is pretty easy if you follow instructions. Each packet or bottle of chemistry solution will have detailed instructions on how to mix the chemicals, what temperature to mix them and how to store them so they will last a while. If you follow these instructions you can’t go wrong. I’ve also got a growing list of resources so these things are easy to find.

Here is what I do. Your set-up may vary a bit if you choose different products.

For developer I prefer to work with Kodak D-76 diluted at 1:1. It’s a great classic developer that is pretty easy to work with. There are dozens of other options, but for processing Kodak Tri-X and a pretty wide variety of other films, D-76 is great place to start.

D-76 comes in a powder form. You mix it according to the instructions with hot water to make 1 Gallon of stock solution. This means you’ll need a one gallon jug to hold it in. I like these plastic brown chemical jugs. I also like to heat up the water I’m using to mix it with as D-76 needs a little heat to dissolve. To help this process along I use a 1 Liter graduated cylinder and mix it in parts. Usually once I’ve mixed a new batch of D-76, I’ll need to let it cool overnight as the mixing temp and the developing temps are drastically different.

For fixer, I use the standard Kodak Fixer in powder form. It’s also easy to deal with. You mix it up into a 1 Gallon working solution and store it in the same kind of jug as the developer. The fixer dissolves a little easier and won’t need as much heat to help it along. Be sure to use separate graduated cylinders and funnels and everything for fixer and developer so they don’t contaminate each other. Kodak also sells a “Rapid Fixer” which comes in a liquid form. It’s designed to shorten fixing times and includes a hardener. I think for a bigger production set up this might be really useful, but I just prefer the ease of working with the powder packets for my home setup.

If you are going to use Hypo-clearing agent, I would recommend Kodak’s powder mix as well. It makes a 1 gallon concentrate solution ( you’ll need another jug ) which can then be mixed into a working solution at 1:4 with water. This means you get a total of 5 gallons out of one packet which should last you quite a lot of development runs.

Photoflo doesn’t need any mixing or jugs. It comes in a liquid form and you just add a drop or so at the end of the wash cycle.

Ok, but how do I actually develop the film?

Now that you’ve got all your chemistry mixed up, and your developer has cooled to room temperature, you are ready to “soup” the film. I don’t know where that term came from, but it’s what you call it when you develop your film.

The first step is to load your film in complete darkness on to your spools and store it safely in your light-tight tank. There’s lots of videos on YouTube that illustrate this process. I’d suggest wasting an unexposed roll of film to use as a practice roll until you get the moves down. You may also want a pair of scissors and a can opener to help you out in the dark.

Once you’ve got your film loaded and in the tank you work the rest of the process in light. First, you’ll need to mix up a working developer. I like to mix my D-76 at 1:1 with water. This extends the development time a bit and helps build up the shadow detail in my negatives. It also has the added bonus of allowing me to adjust the temperature by running the tap until its just about where I want it. For Tri-X developed with D-76 at 1:1 the development time at 68 degrees is 9 minutes and 45 seconds. There are data sheets available to help you find the right time for the film/developer/dilution/temperature combination you are using.

Once you’ve got your developer ready, it’s time to get souping. I prefer to do a 2 minute pre-soak with water. You just fill up the tank with tap water and let it soak for two minutes. Once two minutes goes by, dump the tank out and fill it with the developer. It takes about 10 seconds to fill a two spool tank, so take that into account and start your timer.

Now you’re developing the film. As soon as the developer is in, give the tank a good bang on the table. This helps release any air bubbles that are stuck to the film. I do this every once in a while.

For most developers, the routine is to agitate the tank every 30 seconds. Agitation with the Nikor or Preston tanks is pretty easy. It means you just flip the tank upside down and then back upright a few times for about 5 seconds. This may be better illustrated by another YouTube video. But, keep in mind, that agitation during the development process is critical. So watch the video and make sure to do it correctly!

When the time is about to run out, start pouring out the developer. D-76 mixed at 1:1 can’t really be reused. So, just dump it down the sink ( it’s safe to do this with developer ). As soon as its out, fill the tank with water and shake it around for about 30 seconds. Then, dump the water and will the tank with Fixer.

Guess what? You’ve just developed film.

You’ll need to leave it in fixer for a while, but your film is now processed inside the tank. If you want you can open her up and have a peak, but I prefer to let it sit in there till the last step. The film has to sit in the fixer for some amount of time according to your fixer’s instructions. With Kodak Fixer, I usually let it sit in there for 10 minutes agitating it once every minute or so.

The fixer eventually will become exhausted after lots of processing and time. I keep the full solution in the jug and just keep reusing it until that time comes. Once the fixer has done it’s magic, I pour it back in the jug using a funnel, and rinse the tank by filling it up with water for and sloshing it around for about 30 seconds. Then I empty the tank and fill it with my 1:4 mixture of the stock Hypo-clearing agent and water. I leave it in the Hypo-clear for two minutes, and then it’s time for the wash.

Washing the film sort of depends on your tank. Since I am using the two-reel Nikor tank, it’s pretty simple. I just take off the lid, empty out the Hypo-clear and run the tank under room temperature water for about 10 minutes.

It’s important during the wash that the water continually replaces itself. In other words, if you have a small tank, it’s really not an issue, but if you have a tank that does 4 reels or more you might want to consider a more sophisticated washer like this one, so that you can be sure the water in the bottom is making its way out of the tank. The Preston tanks take care of this and if you have a simple hose that can connect to your faucet, you’ll be all set.

Once the wash cycle is done, turn off the water, but don’t dump it out. Drop a tiny splash of Photoflo into the tank and let it soak in for about 30 seconds. You’ll see soapy-suds begin to form. After about 30 seconds, drain the tank and remove the reels. You are now ready to hang and dry your film.

Hanging film to dry in our apartment bathroom in Brooklyn, NY.

Hanging film to dry in our apartment bathroom in Brooklyn, NY. ( photo page )

Drying your film is another critical step. I like to use my bathroom because I can close the door and I know they won’t get disturbed. They need to dry for about an hour or so. I use these special clamps to weight the film at one end, and connect to a coat hanger at the other. Once I’ve hung the film up, I run a very clean and damp darkroom sponge down each side to wipe off any water. The Photoflo should do most of the work, and its important to use a very gentle touch. You could also try a squeegee, but I find that they tend to be a little to abrasive. As a last resort you can use your thumb and finger to make kind of a squeegee, but be very careful with this technique as you can easily scratch the film when it’s wet and soft.

Job done.

You’ve now successfully processed, washed and dryed your film. You’ll probably want to have some archival film storage supplies available so you can cut the film into stirps and have some place to store it. Most people use plastic film sheets that go into a binder. I like these folders.

Home Development Shopping List

This is just a list of what I use. Your choices may vary… It’s a good place to get started.

Film tank and loading supplies 

  • Two reel development tank and reels. Preston tanks are the most popular. I like the older Nikor which take more practice but last longer.
  • Changing bag or ( you can substitute blacking out your bathroom )
  • Scissors and can opener for use in the changing bag

Basic Chemistry

Optional Stuff

  • This awesome washer contraption. It works with the Nikor reels.
  • Changing tent. Much more expensive than a standard changing bag, but very nice to use.
  • Kodak Stop Bath or Glacial Acetic Acid ( you’ll need another jug to store the working solution for this as well / also be careful with concentrated Glacial Acetic Acid!!! )
  • GraLab Model 300 dark room timer – Or a fancy iPad darkroom timer app

Drying Supplies

  • Coat hanger
  • Film clips
  • Darkroom sponge or squeegee

2 Comments How to develop film at home

    1. Micah Walter

      Haha, Andy… yes, it does take some practice. I could probably to a whole blog post on that topic alone. Maybe a video would be better…
      -m

      Reply

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