Quick Guide to Developing Film at Home

Last updated on January 26, 2012

Contents
Introduction
What is Needed
Phase One - Dry Side
Phase Two - Wet Side
Conclusion

Introduction

So you're thinking about developing your own film at home. This article will be your guide to getting equipped and off to the races! It doesn't require a lot of space nor a large investment to start developing your own film, especially black and white - and what we'll concentrate on here. As you can see, even a small bathroom will suffice and most of the space required is for the storage of the components and chemicals. A sink with running water is important however. Unlike printing, developing film does not even require a darkroom.

What is Needed

You can obtain these supplies at a variety of sources. Your local brick and mortar camera store is always best, but shops online such as Freestyle Photo and B&H are great choices also and both are highly recommended.

What follows is a list of the basic requirements for developing your own black and white film at home, which we'll explain below. It's really not a lot of stuff and most of it can be stuffed into a box for storage if space is really at a premium. However we strongly recommend keeping chemicals away from everything else to avoid contamination.

  • Large changing bag
  • "Church key" bottle opener
  • Pair of scissors
  • Thermometer
  • Clock/timer (with seconds)
  • Graduates of varying sizes
  • Tank and reel (plastic or metal)
  • Hanging clips (or clothespins)
  • Several dark plastic jugs, 1g size
  • Chemicals (see below)

Most of the items are fairly explanatory. If you've never seen a changing bag before, it looks like a big T-shirt that's closed up on the bottom by a zipper with elastic bands in the sleeves. Comprised of two layers, it's light-tight and will allow you to load your film up in normal room lighting. A "church key" bottle opener is one of those cheap metal ones you can find on a hook at the convenience store, basically. Though any will do. Your thermometer doesn't need to cover everything from freezing to 300Fº - 68Fº (20Cº) is the most important and it must be accurate and reliable. For timing, you can use a regular wall clock, wristwatch or special app for your iPhone (we highly recommend the Massive Dev App). As long as you can see seconds counting up/down as timing (for development) is critical and consistency is the key to getting the best results.

As for graduates, you'll ideally want at least two. A large one for measuring larger quantities and a small one for accurate measurements of small quantities that the larger graduate won't show on its scales. A 2oz. (50ml) and 16oz. (500ml) graduate for example, are good sizes and should be made of plastic. Glass graduates are an accident waiting to happen with wet hands. Hanging clips, preferably weighted on one end - or clothespins are necessary to hang your film up to dry. You'll need a wire, string or similar too clip them to - a quiet bathroom, especially with a shower is an ideal location. You can run a hot shower for a minute or so to remove dust from the air and close the door to let your film dry undisturbed.

Jugs and bottles to store your chemicals need not be fancy, though many use "Datatainers" - basically opaque brown plastic containers with a measuring scale and an imprinted form for filling in information about the chemical it contains. The important thing is to have a dedicated container for each chemical. You don't want to mix them up or use a developer bottle to later hold fixer. Write (or initial) each bottle and cap for each chemical respectively so you can keep them together - and tell them apart. Dark, opaque containers are best as they block light and UV rays from reaching your chemicals, which can quickly degrade them - and should be kept in a cool location.

The series of chemicals you'll need are fairly standard, but things like developer can be a highly personal matter. We suggest reading our article, "Choosing a B&W Film Developer" to give you some insight into the selection process. When it comes to developing film (and unlike making prints) most people opt not to use a true stop bath. Since the film doesn't absorb developer to a great degree, unlike fiber-based papers for example - a thirty second rinse with water is enough. Fixer is typically of the "normal" or "rapid" type and basically specifies how long you need to fix your film. Either type can have a (often optional) hardening agent, which for film is recommended most of the time. Some films should be developed without the hardener and you'll need to read up on the specifics for your film in the appropriate data sheet.

Next up is another optional chemical but one that's highly recommended - and known as "hypo-clear." If you prefer simplicity in your routine you don't need it, but you will have to wash your film for a much longer period of time. Finally comes the wetting agent. Kodak's Photo-Flo is an old standby but we recommend Edwal's LFN. Therefore, your chemical shopping list will look something like this:

  • Developer (depends on film and personal preferences)
  • Fixer (normal/rapid, with or without hardener)
  • Hypo-clear (optional, but recommended)
  • Wetting agent (to reduce/eliminate water spots on film)

A more product-specific list of the above might look something like the following, and is what we use:

  • Kodak Xtol or HC-110 (for example)
  • Kodak Rapid Fixer with Hardener
  • Heico Perma-Wash
  • Edwal LFN Wetting Agent

Phase One - Dry Side

Developing film, much like making prints - can be thought of as having two sides. The "dry side" and the "wet side." The dry side is the first step in both, and doesn't involve any chemicals yet. In developing film this consists of tossing the essentials into the changing bag and getting your film loaded up onto the reel and secured in the light-tight tank before proceeding to the wet side. While you could do this on your lap, often a large (e.g. kitchen) table or desk works best.

The procedure below assumes that you have a stainless steel tank and reel - the alternative is plastic. The former is considered by many to be superior in that it's simpler, cheaper and without moving parts. With proper care will last a lifetime or three. The plastic tank and reel is easier for beginners however in that loading the film is accomplished with a gentle back-n-forth motion, ratcheting the film onto the reel. In any event, it is imperative that film be loaded onto the reel carefully and evenly so that it does not touch itself at any point. This will prevent the chemicals from reaching areas of the film - bad things will result.

It's worth pointing out that if you shoot a lot of film you can go from a single reel tank to two, four or even eight - allowing you to process a large amount of film in the same amount of time it takes to develop a single roll. Do yourself a favor though and make sure you're well-practiced before committing to developing more than one roll at a time as an error somewhere can ruin a lot of film in a hurry. As for the timing, you can expect to spend maybe an hour or so the first couple of times you develop your own film. As you get better it will drop to less than half an hour.

Here we go! In order to get your film loaded up and ready you'll need to place your film cartridge, tank and reel, bottle opener and a pair of scissors into the changing bag. Make sure all zippers are closed on the changing bag and slip your arms into the elastic arm holes.

  1. Open the tank, remove the reel and set aside the top
  2. Using the rounded end of the bottle opener, pop the end of cartridge
  3. Remove the spool of film, keeping film wound and not unrolling
  4. Trim the leader off of the end of the film with scissors, do not cut bag!
  5. Tuck the end of the film into clip at the center of the reel
  6. Hold the reel in one hand, palm the film spool in the other
  7. With the film edges between thumb and forefinger, slightly bend/arch film
  8. Carefully and steadily spool film onto the reel - this takes some practice!
  9. When you reach the end, cut or tear the film off of the cartridge spool
  10. Once complete, double-check that the film is cleanly spooled on the reel
  11. Unwind and re-spool film if any unevenness or protrusions are found!
  12. Place loaded reel back in tank and positively replace top

Once your film has been loaded onto the reel and put back into the tank with the cover firmly in place - it's time to pull your arms out, zip open the bag and remove everything. Make sure you gather up everything - including any little pieces of film or tape. Zip your bag back up, fold it and put it aside for the next time, along with the bottle opener.

Phase Two - Wet Side

Now comes the second phase, or wet side where you actually develop your film. While you could do this part in your small bathroom, if you have space in the kitchen to do it - even better. Having a surface to put your chemical containers, the tank, timer, etc. makes life easier.

Most chemicals are mixed ahead of time, stored and reused in their dedicated jugs/bottles. This includes fixer, hypo-clear and wetting agent. Developer is often mixed into a "working solution" for storage but further diluted depending on your needs at time of development. Many developers can even be mixed up straight from the concentrate ("syrup") such as the classics HC-110 and Rodinal. This is rather convenient and the shelf life of the concentrate is often measured in years.

Gather up your loaded tank and reel, clock or timer, thermometer, graduates and developer, fix, hypo-clear (optional) and wetting agent chemicals together. Below is a basic run down of the procedure involved in developing your film. The exact timing for the development step depends on the developer you're using, the dilution, the film (and exposure index it was shot at) and finally, the temperature of the solution... It's best to keep everything at 68Fº (20Cº) to reduce the chance of issues, though it's really only the developer that's critical. The rest of the solutions can be a little warmer or cooler, but do try to keep the temperatures relatively consistent.

  1. Developer (re-use varies, typically one-shot)

    Remove air bubbles after agitations by rapping on tank
    Agitate according to developer, film and "recipe"
    Start pouring out 15 seconds before finish

  2. Stop bath (re-use or water rinse instead)

    30 Seconds; agitating continuously

  3. Fixer (re-use)

    5-10 Minutes; agitate continuously for 30 seconds, then every 30 seconds

  4. Water rinse (optional)

    30 Seconds; agitating continuously

  5. Hypo-clear (optional, re-use)

    1 Minute; agitating continuously

  6. Open developing tank

  7. Wash film

    5-10+ Minutes; continuous and dumping occasionally

  8. Final bath (re-use varies)

    Slowly fill tank according to wetting agent instructions
    1 Minute; no or very slight agitation

  9. Drying

    Unspool your film and hang to dry
    1-1 1/2 hours minimum undisturbed

Conclusion

Once your film is dry, take it down and cut the film into strips of about six frames or so. How many depends on how you plan to store your negatives later on... Many use "Printfile" sleeves or glassine envelopes and six frames works out best. From here you can scan or print your negatives to your heart's content! Congratulations, as you've just "souped" (developed) your own film at home!

Developing your own film at home is relaxing and rewarding. It puts you in full control of the entire photographical process, giving you many more options than just dropping your film off at the lab. In most cases, the quality and consistency of the results are far better than what you can expect from a lab as well, and in the long run save you quite a bit of money especially if you shoot a lot of film. Don't be intimidated by the process, don't shoot that once-in-a-lifetime vacation for your first couple of rolls and practice, practice, practice!