Black and White Film Developing

This tutorial was written because I discovered that, despite people wanting to learn about film developing, this was the only major darkroom process which didn’t have a tutorial written for it. I’m going to do my best to rectify that now. Comments and suggestions are welcome via the contact page.

1. Get the chemicals ready

Generally, people begin by printing first, then moving on to developing their films too. The two processes are quite similar in many respects, and I recommend doing a bit of printing first rather than going into the darkroom and losing a film’s worth of negatives because you’re not sure what you’re doing! As with printing, it’s important to mix up the chemicals first.

If you’re just going to be doing a 35mm film (which is likely if you’re a beginner) then you will need to use one of the small developing tanks. This means you’ll need about 300ml of developer.

Photosoc generally has a bottle of Ilfotec HC film developer in the darkroom, which can be diluted by different amounts (most commonly 1+31). It is critical to get the right development time for the film you’re using otherwise it will be under-exposed or over-exposed. The Massive Dev Chart is a useful internet resource which pretty much covers every single film and developer in existence, and will tell you the time you need to develop for (If you’re using FP4+ or HP5+ these times should be in the darkroom). Films can also be ‘pushed’ or ‘pulled’ which means they are shot at a speed other than the one the manufacturer intended. For example, I might push a 125 (nominal) iso FP4+ film by setting my camera to shoot it as if it was a 200 iso film. You can compensate for this by developing for longer – the developing chart mentioned above should cover most options (in my example with the FP4+, I would then have to develop it for 9 minutes rather than 8). It is also important here to mention that such information is just a starting point – professional photographers might prefer to develop a film for longer or less time to give it more of the effect they want (grain size is something that can often be affected).

Temperature is also critical! If you’ve looked at the chart I mentioned above you’ll see that almost all the timings are given at 20°C. The PhotoSoc darkroom is generally at about 25°C because of the hot pipes running through it, and this is generally mirrored by the temperature of the water that comes out of the taps. You have two options here: firstly, you can try to cool the water down – there is a fridge in the darkroom for storing paper/films, but generally this can take quite a while and be a bit fiddly. Better is to compensate in the development time. To do this, use a temperature compensation chart – there should be one in the darkroom.

So once we’ve found out all we need to know about the developer, it’s time to mix it! There are charts in the darkroom to tell you how to do this, so I won’t go into much detail. Get the dilution you want (not too important – I’d recommend 1+31 since you should be able to find out times for most films at this dilution) and just mix them together. The film developer tends to be a bit more viscous than paper developer so make sure you get it all out of the measuring cylinder – if you don’t it could affect the developing time. Stick a thermometer in there to start measuring the temperature.

As with paper developing, you also need to use stop bath and fixer on the film, and what makes this really easy is that these are exactly the same chemicals you’d use on paper. Remember, if the stop bath is purple, throw it away and mix up some new stuff. Otherwise, it can be used straight from the bottle and poured back afterwards. Mix up new fixer each time – there are instructions on this up on the wall in the darkroom.

2. Load the film onto the reel and put it in the developing tank.

Once you’ve got the chemicals all ready, you’re ready to start on the most fiddly bit – getting the film out of the canister and onto a reel.

If you’ve done paper developing, you know that you can have a red safelight on while you print. This is because the paper is designed so it only reacts to blue and green light. With black and white printing this is fine since the enlarger is only projecting different shades of grey down onto the paper – it doesn’t matter if the paper doesn’t pick up the red component because it will always be the same as the green and blue anyway. Film, unfortunately, is a bit more difficult.

You want film to react to red light as well as other frequencies – if it didn’t those lovely sunset pictures you took on holiday wouldn’t come out looking too great! You would still see an image, but the red components would be missing. Basically what this means is that you have to have all the lights off when you load a film onto a reel. The darkroom tends to have a few leaks, so do your best to cover up round the door and things like that – there should be cloth and some wooden sticks to do this with.

Getting the film out of the canister can be done in two ways: removing the bottom of the canister, or using a retriever to pull the end of the film out. Taking off the bottom of the canister is quite straightforward; in the darkroom there should be a tool for doing this (it looks rather like a bottle opener). Switch off the lights, lever off the bottom, then you’re ready to load it onto the reel. Using a retriever is slightly more fiddly, but it can be done in with the lights on at first. It’s an off white plastic gadget with a couple of tongues which come out when you move each of the sliders along. Firstly, with the sliders both across at the far end and just a small bit of the tongues protruding, slide the two tongues together into the canister. Move the first slider along, pushing the tongue right inside the canister. Then wind the film round (in the direction which would pull it further into the canister) until you hear a click. After that, slide the 2nd tongue into the canister, then pull the two back out, together. If you’ve done it right you should now have the end of the film sticking out!

Find a completely dry reel – don’t be tempted to wash it or the film is likely to get stuck! Adjust it for 35mm film (most of them will already be like this). Try it out with a bit of old film first of all. You should be able to slide the start of the film in past the ball bearings. Once they have caught, you should be able to wind the whole film onto the reel by rotating the two sides relative to each other.

All this must be done in the dark – so get everything ready first! If you’re using the film retriever, start with the film loaded a little way onto the reel (it is ok to expose the first section of the film – it will have been exposed anyway because that’s where you loaded it onto the camera). You’ll need the developing tank ready as well as a pair of scissors.

The developing tank is a very useful device because it enables you to do all of the developing process with the lights on. Once the film is loaded on the reel and put in it, the lights can be put on and chemicals can be poured in and out with no problem. There are 5 parts to it – the tank itself, the reel which we’ve already discussed, a black tube which runs down the middle of the tube, a funnel which sits above the reel and a lid. Once the tube has been pushed down the centre of the reel and the funnel been fixed on top, the tank is then lightproof.

So switch the lights off, wind the film onto the reel, cut off the end of it and put it in the developing tank. Push the tube down the middle and put the funnel in. Twist the funnel until it clicks, check to make sure it won’t come out, then you can put the light on.

3. Develop the film!

There are details on how to do the next section up in the darkroom, and I have discussed it a bit above as well, so I won’t cover it in as much detail. You basically get the big timer ready, with the appropriate time (remember to check the temperature of the developer and compensate if necessary). Then pour the developer in, start the clock and agitate according to the instructions. It’s important not to over agitate it, otherwise you may end up with areas of the film that are over-exposed. As the clock ticks down to zero, get the stop bath ready. As the clock reaches zero, tip the developer out and put the stop bath in as quickly as possible.

It’s not critical if you leave the stop bath or fixer on for too long, unlike the developer, so generally to be safe make sure the fixer stays on for about 4 minutes, although again it’s temperature dependent. Once the fixer has been on for long enough, tip it away, and wash according to the directions in the darkroom. The film can then be hung up to dry. Take the film out, squeegee it off, then hang it up to dry in the cabinet, which can be set up to heat the film as well as blow air over it. It is possible to dry a film in about 40 minutes if heated enough, but generally this causes the film to curl, so it’s suggested to leave it overnight. If you do leave a film in the darkroom, please remember to come and collect it – we seem to have a habit of accumulating films in there over time!

I hope this tutorial is useful. As I said before, feedback can be left via the contact page. As with all these things, there is plenty of information on the internet.

Tutorial written by Peter Huthwaite, PhotoSoc Secretary, February 2006

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