Developing your own film

Processing your own black & white film is not too difficult and very rewarding, but lots of people don’t know quite where to start. This guide will help you get set up, get the right equipment on a budget, and be well on your way to developing your first film.

Equipment

There are various kits available which provide “everything” you need. Some provide more than you need, and some miss out on one or two key components. This is my “bare minimum” kit list from experience. Wherever possible I use general household items but I’ve also linked to my favourite UK supplier of photographic equipment where relevant.

Film tank & reel This is the only “specialist” piece of equipment you need. Can be purchased new for about £20 or second-hand for less.
Dark place You don’t need a complete darkroom to process film. You need a completely dark place to load the film into the film tank. If you have a windowless bathroom or a cupboard under the stairs, this is fine. You can use a towel to block off the gap under the door. Otherwise, you can buy a lightproof changing bag which allows you to load the film in a normal room.
Bottle opener To open the film canister. Much cheaper than a dedicated film canister opener!
Scissors To cut the film. Paper scissors are fine.
Timer Timing is important but you can use a normal kitchen timer, or the timer on your phone. Even better, use an app called Dev Chart which figures out appropriate timings for each stage.
Clothes pegs To hang up the film to dry, and to peg onto the bottom of the film to stop it from curling.
Somewhere to hang the film A 36-exposure film is about six feet long, so you need some sort of washing line above head height. Or just bang a nail into the top of a doorframe and peg the film to that.
Thermometer Temperature is critical to film processing. There are dedicated photographic thermometers which are most accurate over the useful range of temperatures (10-50°C) but any basic scientific thermometer (-10-110°C) will be fine.
Measuring jugs You need about 300ml of each chemical so the standard one-litre plastic jugs from the supermarket are ideal. You need 3-4 jugs and remember to write on them that they must not be used for food.
Gloves Some of the chemicals are unpleasant to get on your hands and wearing gloves also prevents getting fingerprints on the film when loading. Buy some single-use latex or nitrile gloves and keep them handy.
Notepad & pencil Take careful notes about your temperatures and timings as you learn what works and what doesn’t.

How to do it

Methods of processing black & white film have been discussed millions of times, so I’m not going to cover this in detail. In my opinion the best guide to starting is Ilford’s guide “Processing your first black & white film“. A very basic summary is:

  1. In a dark place, open the film canister, wind the film onto a reel and put the reel in a tank
  2. Measure the temperature of your developer, work out the times, and write them down
  3. Pour the developer in, wait for the right time, pour it out
  4. Pour the stop bath in, wait for the right time, pour it out
  5. Pour the fixer in, wait for the right time, pour it out
  6. Wash the film in tap water
  7. Hang the film to dry

The black & white process is very forgiving and if you get the temperatures or timings wrong you will still get an image – it might be a bit pale or a bit dark. You have to really get something wrong to get a completely blank film.

What next

Once you’ve got the dried negatives, what can you do with them? Traditionally you would make prints in a darkroom. This is more complex and expensive to set up so I recommend getting the hang of film processing first before you move onto printing.

For the time being, I suggest scanning in your negatives, either using a dedicated film scanner or by photographing the negatives with a digital camera on a light box.

Most of all, have fun! Film processing and printing is extremely rewarding, and there’s always something new to learn.

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