Developing Black and White Film, Part 1

I’d like to preface this series of posts by saying, I’m not an expert. I’m self taught, through books, the internet and by making many, many mistakes. If I get something wrong, I’m happy to be corrected. I wanted to create something that a young me would have found helpful, which could also help someone just starting out.

The first step is quite simple and very complicated. You need to settle on a film and developer. When I first started developing my own, I wanted to try every film and every developer. The problem with this is, you don’t learn what works. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting, it just helps to focus down for a bit and find what gives you the results you’re after.

So, how do you choose a film and developer? There are many places that can explain this better than I. I would highly recommend “The Film Developing Cookbook”, which, while a bit out of date, is very helpful. To start off with, it may be worth sticking with a film and developer of the same brand, which are designed to work with each other. Don’t get me wrong, you can use most developers with most films, you can even mix your own developer, but as I said, sometimes focusing in is a good way to start and will remove unwanted variables.

Price may be an issue, especially if you shoot a lot. but budget options aren’t necessarily bad. Foma film is very usable and a hell of a lot cheaper than some of the other big brands. I shoot Ilford, but am moving to Foma for cost reasons.

What you need…

So, we’re now getting closer to the actual process of developing a film. There are yet more options: Steel tanks and reels for your film, or Paterson (or JOBO) plastic ones? Film extractor or bottle opener? This or that? I’m going to go with what I use.

  1. The changing bag. It’s worth getting a good quality one, so you don’t risk exposing your film to the light. This is a large Paterson one.
  2. The developing tank, where all the magic happens. Your film goes in on a reel and you pour the chemicals in. This is also a Paterson tank. You can get tanks of differing sizes. This tank takes 2 x 35mm films or 1 x 120 film.
  3. This is a Mod 54, for developing 4×5 film.
  4. This is a Paterson reel. Your film spools on here.
  5. This is another Paterson reel, extended to develop 120 film. This is an advantage of the plastic reels over the steel ones.
  6. Your 35mm film!
  7. A bog standard bottle opener. You can buy special openers or things that retrieve the end of the film from the canister, but to be honest, this is cheaper and works just fine.
  8. Scissors. Handy.

This is all the dry side kit you’ll need. The tank and changing bag are light tight, so you don’t need a darkroom to develop your film.

I highly recommend practising the process of loading the film on the reel, with an expired unexposed film, or film you don’t care about! Firstly with eyes open, secondly with your eyes closed. If you use the following instructions, you shouldn’t have too much trouble loading the film .

Step 1, use the bottle opener to take the bottom off the film canister.

Step 2, snip the end of the film leader off.

Step 3, snip the corners off the end of the leader. This makes it easier to load the film onto the reel.

Step 4, locate the guide notches (red) on the reel and slide the film between them. Then pull the film round until it passes the ball-bearing (yellow).

Step 5, where things get interesting. You need to hold each side of the reel and turn them in the opposite direction to each other and then back again. This will pull the film onto the reel. Keep doing this until you reach the end of the film.

Step 6, Snip the end of the film off the reel.

Step 7, Put the centre column from the developing tank through the reel and place the reel in the tank. Put the light-tight top into the tank and turn it clockwise to lock it in place. Then finally push the lid on.

That’s it! You’re ready to develop your film, which is covered in part 2.

Why Film?

Firstly, it’s where I started. It was several years before I tried a digital camera and even then, I kept using film. But nowadays, digital is so easy to access. I’ve been guilty of trying to decide whether I shoot one of the other that day and going for the digital camera for ease of use. After all, I just download the photos and edit them in Exposure X4.5. Easy, right?

But here’s the thing. There’s magic in shooting film. I love opening the developing tank to see if I have got images. Not whether they’re any good… whether I’ve cocked up and not developed them properly (and I’ve been doing it long enough to not mess up). There’s a rush when I take the film off the reel and see negatives. After that, it’s all gravy!

OK, so once the magic of getting some negative is out of the way, what makes film so appealing? For one, it’s tactile. Holding your negatives and looking at them on a light table feels good. A print, made on good quality paper, has weight… has presence. There’s the process itself too and creativity.

It also leads to my love of lith printing, where I feel I can be creative. Where I can build and trust my instincts to get a certain type of print. I can’t do that with digital. I can edit an image, get it how I want it, but I don’t “feel it”.

Maybe all these reasons are superficial, maybe not. It all boils down to “because I like it”!