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Developing your first black & white film

Peter Bargh provides an all-inclusive guide to developing your first black and white film.

|  Film Developing
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The gear you need and how to use it to process your first film.
Words & images Peter Bargh

The experience of developing your first film can be described as nothing short of an emotional roller coaster. Within the space of 30 minutes you may experienced excitement as you gather all the tools necessary to process the film; wariness as you place the film, developing tank and scissors in the changing bag; frustration as you fumble to find the film in the changing bag; anger when the film won't load into the spiral; satisfaction when it does; calmness as you invert the tank every thirty seconds; trepidation when removing the tank lid; achievement on seeing the images on the film and pride while hanging up the film to dry.

The truth is, if you prepare beforehand you won't get flummoxed loading the film and the whole process can be a pleasant and rewarding experience, so follow this guide to ensure your processing is a rocket launching experience rather than a roller coaster ride.

This guide is to help you process your first 35mm film. Most of the procedures are same for roll-film, but vary for sheet film. It is broken up into steps to make it easier to follow.

First let's look at the shopping list:

What you need
Before you process a film you need the following items:

Exposed film

Changing bag
About 15
Why you need it:
A changing bag is a bit like a T-shirt with a zip across the waist and elasticated sleeves. It is made out of light tight material and has a second inner compartment also with a zip.
Film needs to be loaded into the light tight developing tank in complete darkness. The changing bag offers a convenient and portable option to do this.
You can produce a makeshift changing bag using a heavy coat or dive under bed sheets providing, in both cases, that the materials are thick enough to prevent light seeping through. Alternatively find a room in the house that can be blacked out easily. In each case test for lightproofness by allowing about 15 minutes for your eyes to adjust. If it's still pitch black it's safe enough to load the film.

Developing tank with a reel
About 10
Why you need it:
This is a water and light type tank designed to hold films that are preloaded on spiral reels ready for processing. The lid is specially designed to allow chemicals to be poured in without light reaching the films and when the lid is refitted the tank can be inverted without chemicals spilling out. An essential part of the developing kit that ensures a film receives even development in complete darkness.
You could develop the film in any light tight container, but you'd have to lift off the lid in complete darkness to pour in chemicals. You could also develop the film in a container in the darkroom, but in both cases ensuring even development can be tricky. Stick with the developing tank.

About 7
Why you need it:
To ensure the chemicals are at the correct temperature it's vital that the developer is measured accurately otherwise you may produce thin or dense negatives that are unprintable.
Some people are very good at guesstimating temperature but for 7 it's better to be safe than sorry.

About 5
Why you need them:
Film is attached to its spool with strong tape. It's easier to cut the film off rather than try to unpeel the tape. It also helps loading the film into the spiral if the tapered part of the film leader is cut off.
You can use any household scissors providing they are sharp. Some film emulsions are soft enough that you can rip the film off the spool. You can also usually peel off the tape if, of course, you have fingernails.

About 10
Why you need it:
It's important that the time the film is immersed in developer is measured accurately to ensure the film is correctly processed. You should use a timer that measures in seconds preferably with a minute counter too so you can keep track of the overall processing as well as the agitation within each stage.
If your clock or watch has a seconds finger you can use that. Even the timer on your mobile phone could be used.

About 3
Why you need it:
A developer reacts with the exposed areas of silver in the film turning these parts black to form an image. Areas that receive more light become blacker when developed. Areas that receive no light stay clear. You have to use a developer to produce a result.
You could make up your own developer. See the article 'mixing your own chemicals'

Stop Bath
About 2
Why you need it:
An acid solution that quickly counteracts the developer to prevent over development of the film.
You can use water but it doesn't stop the developer as quick. As it's acetic acid some people use vinegar, but it's not recommended.

About 3
Why you need it:
This dissolves any unused silver halides that were not developed and stops the film from being light sensitive.
You have to use a fixer otherwise the negative will eventually turn black. You can make up your own fixer. See the article 'mixing your own chemicals'

Measuring cylinders
About 2 each
Why you need them:
Most chemicals need diluting before use. The dilution rate can be difficult to measure without an accurate measuring cylinder, especially when the chemical to water ratio is large.
Any household measuring jug can be used providing it has the necessary measuring scales. You must not then reuse the measure for food because the chemicals used for processing are harmful.

Running water
Local water rates.
Why you need it:
To ensure all traces of fixer are removed before the film is hung up to dry.
It's possible to wash a film with just a bucket of water. Some photographers use just enough water to fill the tank ten times, but the more you use the less likely you'll leave any traces of fixer.

Film clips
About 4 per pair
Why you need them:
A clip is attached to each side of the film to hang it up to dry. The one at the bottom is weighted to stretch the film and ensure it dries evenly.
Clothes pegs can be used and are just as effective. Use two pegs at the bottom to add weight and pull the film.

Film retriever
About 10
Why you need it:
A film retriever is a gadget that you use to pull out the film's leader when it has been wound into the cassette You slide the metal strip of the retriever into the film's light trap and a grip hooks on to the sprockets of the film so it can be extracted from the cassette.
If you have a camera with a manual rewind it's easy to leave the leader out when you rewind the film. Cameras with auto rewind can often be prevented from fully winding the leader into the canister by listening for the film clicking off the take up spool and opening the back as you hear this. In an emergency it's also possible to retrieve a leader by wetting the leader from another film pushing it in and waiting a few minutes for the films to stick together, then if you're really careful you can pull both out together.

Cotton gloves
About 5.
Why you need them:
Wear gloves to avoid finger marks or scratches when handling the film.
If you don't want to wear gloves wash your hands and thoroughly dry them before handling the film to prevent grease or dust.

Film Squeegees
About 4.
Why you need them:
To remove most of the water off the film surface so that it can dry quickly without marks.
You can use a cloth or two fingers. I prefer the finger approach out of the two. In all three case make sure there are no traces of dust or grit on the surface of the drying implement as it will create a long unrecoverable scratch as you run down the length of film.

1 Practice
Loading a film onto a spiral reel is the most difficult part of film processing because you have to do it in complete darkness. Developing tank manufacturers have improved the reels used so many now have auto feed systems, but it's still a good idea to practice loading a dummy film in daylight.

Use an old out of date film to save wasting a quality roll.

Two types of reel are common - stainless steel, where you attach the film to the centre of the reel and wind outwards; or plastic, where you start the film at the outside of the reel and push it inwards. If you're going to use a stainless steel variety practice loading the dummy film to avoid buckling it. A kink in the film may make the film surfaces touch which could result in uneven development. If you use a plastic reel you can gently push the film around the spiral, but again be careful of making the film buckle and try to handle it by the edges to avoid finger marks.

Tip: Trim off the tapered part of the film and cut the corners off at 45 degrees to help the film load into the spiral better.

Practice a few times and when you feel confident try again with your eyes closed. If the film loads smoothly it's time to move to the real thing.

2 Prepare
Gather all the items you're going to use. Make sure the tank's spiral is clean and dry. Either use a hairdryer on a warm setting or place the spiral on a shelf over a radiator about an hour before you load the film. (avoid bringing the reel in contact with anything that's too hot as it could warp the plastic).
Look for a suitable location to hang the film when it's processed. A shower rail in the bathroom or washing line in the kitchen is fine. The main consideration is that the film needs to hang vertically without contact in a fairly dust free environment.


Now extract the film leader if it's wound back into the cassette. Cut off the leader and taper the edges.

Unzip the changing bag and put the scissors and developing tank into the bag and zip up. Now take the film in one hand and push your arms through the sleeves, making sure the sleeves are tight around your arms and fully extended to prevent light straying into the bag.

3 Load the film onto the spiral

From inside the changing bag open the tank and remove the spiral. Attach the film like you did in the practice runs.

Modern tanks, from the likes of Paterson, have two tiny ball bearings in the spiral reel that automatically pull the film in as you twist it.

When the film is fully loaded cut off the end that's attached to the cassette and wind a little further to take up the remainder of film.


Place the loaded reel back in the tank and pop the lid back on. Now you can pull your arms out of the changing bag, unzip and take out the tank.

4 Location
We don't all have the luxury of a purpose built darkroom. Often a closet or spare room are used. You can also use the kitchen or bathroom, but avoid the kitchen where possible and definitely don't use chemicals in a food preparation area. Clean up carefully after, and be very careful of splashing chemicals - they stain!
If you use a room without water make sure you have a bucket with fresh water and another container to hold the used chemicals. An old towel to wipe your hands is also worthwhile

5 Prepare the chemicals:
It's important to ensure the developer is correctly mixed and at the right temperature. Most films are processed at 20 C so make up the chemicals at about 22 C to allow for cooling.
If you are using powder developer allow plenty of time to ensure this is mixed correctly. It's a good idea to prepare the stop bath and fixer at this stage too, providing you have spare mixing jugs. If not, you can get the stop bath ready while developing the film using the same jug (washed out ) to mix the stop bath. Tap water is generally okay to use, but watch out for particles that can cause drying marks. If you get marks it may be worth using bottled water to mix with the concentrated chemicals.

6 Developing
Get the timer ready. Check the temperature of the developer. If it's at the necessary 20 C pour the solution into the tank. If it's higher or lower refer to the instructions that came with the developer. They should have a chart that gives longer times for colder developer and shorter times for a warmer stock.
Pour the developer in quickly so that the whole film is covered around the same time. Switch the timer on and then tap the bottom of the tank on the palm of your hand to dislodge any bubbles that may have settled on the film surface.
Air bubbles can produce low-density circles on the film where the development hasn't been even.

The developer will also have instructions on agitation - a process used to ensure the developer circulates around the film. To agitate you can use an inversion method where you turn the tank upside down and then back again or the rotating method where you twirl a spindle from the tank lid. Inversion gives a more thorough agitation. Some instructions suggest using a form of agitation every minute others every 30 seconds. I prefer to use the 30 second method which ensures even processing.

When you are approaching the end of the development time (usually between 5 and 15 minutes depending on the developer used) get ready to pour away the developer. I usually start to pour this out about five seconds before the end time so that it's all out when the alarm sounds.

7 Stop bath
Now pour in the stop bath, again fast and evenly, to ensure the solution covers the film quickly and halt the development. Agitate continuously for about 30 seconds. You can reuse stop bath several times so keep the container nearby ready to pour it back.

Some stop baths have a built in indicator that changes colour from yellow (good) to purple (no good).

8 Fixing
When the stop bath is poured out, add the fixer and again follow the manufacturer's recommended time and agitate methods.

You can open the tank about half way through this stage and have a look at the results. The negatives may still appear slightly milky - a sign that the film isn't properly fixed but it won't do any harm to the images. If you can be patient hold on for the full fix time - usually about two minutes.

9 Wash
Experts may suggest that the washing stage needs to be a continuous flow of fresh water for about 30 minutes, while environmentalists would go spare at the thought! To ensure the fixer is removed I fill the tank and replace ten times then leave the film to stand for about 10 minutes in fresh water before giving one last dump and fill. You can add a drop of wetting agent at this stage to ensure the water runs off the film and it dries without marks.

10 Drying
Carefully wipe the excess water off of the film and hang it up using film clips or clothes pegs. Find a suitable spot to hang the film. If processing in the bathroom a good hanger is the shower rail. Attach the top clip to that and let the film hang vertically with the weighted clip on the bottom.
11 Storing
When the negatives are dry (allow at least 30 minutes) put on the cotton gloves or hold the film along the edges and use your scissors to cut the film into strips. Most negative sleeves hold strips of six, which are easier to handle and can be then be conveniently contact printed onto 10x8in paper.
File them in an album and when you make a contact print store this with the negatives for easy identification.


Next month: Making a contact print.


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