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There’s no arguing that film photography has experienced somewhat of a Renaissance in the past few years. More and more photographers have been turning to non-digital means of making photographs. The reasons for this analog resurgence varies depending on who you ask but the fact of the matter is that film photography is slowly but surely creeping its way back into the photographic mainstream. Going further, many photographers are not only discovering just how easy it can be to shoot with film but also how simple (and budget friendly) it is to develop their own film at home.
You very well might have some misconceptions about developing your own film at home. Likely, you’ve got it in your head that film processing requires a highly specialised home film developing machine and a dank, creepy darkroom full of all sorts of noxious chemicals that cost an absolute fortune to acquire.
Nothing could be farther from the truth!
There are few things more wholly satisfying for a photographer than the enjoyment of witnessing images magically appear on a piece of film which they have personally loaded into a camera, shot and then developed with their own hands. Processing your own film at home is easy, relatively inexpensive and extremely rewarding, both in terms of creative achievement and technical nuance.
Film photography is extremely rewarding. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
With only a small upfront investment and very little space, you can easily develop virtually any type of 35mm, medium format and even large format film stocks. Today, I’m going to show you how you can begin processing your very own black and white and colour film right inside your own home.
WARNING! Always perform your home development in a well ventilated area and away from your pets food and water sources. Take precautions to protect your skin and eyes by wearing appropriate personal protective equipment.
You’re about to learn how to develop the three major types of modern photographic film processes: black and white negative, colour-negative (CN-16/C-41) and colour-positive (CR-56/E-6). Before we get started, there are a few basic tools you will need for developing your own film at home regardless of its size and type. The great thing is that all of the equipment and concepts we’re about to talk about can be used for all of your home film processing adventures. Here are a few things you’ll need to know.
Even though we aren't able to make photographs without light, when it comes to developing your film, light is very much your mortal enemy. Even a small amount of stray light can literally ruin your film. This is why all of your home film development must be performed in complete darkness. Oftentimes, this is the biggest hurdle to overcome when you begin developing your film at home. It’s actually extremely difficult to find a room in your home that is totally devoid of all ambient light. Fortunately, there is an easy solution to this problem.
Film Changing Bags
A film changing bag, sometimes referred to as a “dark bag”, is an incredibly simple yet wholly indispensable piece of gear when it comes to developing your own film at home. A dark bag allows you to transfer your film from your camera and into the development tank (more on this in just a second) in complete darkness, no matter where you are.
A film changing bag. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
Kind of unassuming, right? Even though a dark bag is just a light-proof cloth bag with two arm holes, it makes home film processing possible without the need for an actual darkroom. This is an area where you want quality over a reduced price. Most dark bags can be purchased new for around $30 USD. Trust me, a quality changing bag will pay for itself over time.
Pro tip: Place an open cardboard box on its side inside your changing bag to help hold the fabric up off your hands while you transfer your film.
Development Tanks and Reels / Holders
Along with the film changing bag, one of the other essential tools you’ll need for developing any type of film yourself will be your development tank and film reels or holders. Fortunately, there are many options for these but for home film development, you will need what is known as a “daylight tank.” As the name suggests, a daylight developing tank allows you complete the entire film development process in full daylight.
A daylight developing tank allows you complete the entire film development process in full daylight. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
Of course, you will need a way to hold your film inside the tank for proper development. For this, you will need development reels or holders specific to the size of film you will be developing.
From front to back: 35mm format reel, medium format (120/220) reel, large format 4x5 development holder. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
If you are processing 35mm or medium format film (120/220), there are many “convertible” film reels which expand or retract to accommodate both film sizes. Furthermore, many of these reels feature an “autoloading” mechanism which ratchets the film into the grooves of the reel making loading the film much easier.
A test roll of medium format film loaded onto a convertible/autoloading reel. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
No matter what type of film you happen to be processing, you can use the same tank and reel or holder system for each – regardless of the process – as long as it can hold the adequate amount of solution. A brand new 500ml daylight developing tank capable of processing two rolls of 35mm film at once can be had for as low as $25 USD, including two convertible autoloading film reels.
Though not wholly unforgiving, you will need to keep a careful watch on both the temperature of your developing chemicals as well as the duration for each step in the process. Temperature and development times are important in all types of film processing but become increasingly crucial when working with colour film. You’ll need to be as accurate as possible in both cases but this does not mean that you need highly specialised equipment, either.
I keep track of my temperatures during development using a simple, incredibly cheap, yet reliable cooking thermometer. This would be considered a “bare bones” approach but it also happens to work extremely well.
A cooking thermometer is great for keeping track of your developing temperatures. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
Also to be considered are more expensive digital thermometers. Of course, there are dedicated photography thermometers which can be had as well. The take away here is that as long as your thermometer is accurate, you will be in good shape.
Time is another crucial aspect of home film development. Each step in the film development process must last for an established duration, depending on the film type being used and for the particular results anticipated. Luckily for us, you likely need to look no further than your smartphone for a reliable film developing timer.
Much like your thermometer, any accurate timer capable of timing durations down to the second will work perfectly. However, if you would like a true film development timer, there are many apps available (some free) for your smartphone which will allow you to selectively program the time needed for each stage of your development process.
A timer on your smartphone is enough to help you time your film development process. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
I use a free development timer app called Dev It! on my Android phone for the majority of my film development.
Pro tip: Keep your chemicals at a constant temperature by placing them in a sink or tub filled with water slightly warmer than desired temperature of the chemicals. Add more hot or cold water to easily control the temperature.
Virtually all of your film development chemicals, whether black and white or colour, will be used in varying proportions along with water. While being far from difficult, you will need to make sure you are accurately measuring the amount of each chemical used during your home film developing. Generally, the more accurate that your measure is, the better. For the most part, standard household measuring cups work perfectly fine.
Standard home measuring cups work well for measuring your chemicals. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
Ideally, whatever you use should be easily capable of displaying readings down to at least 10 millimetres. Fortunately, graduated cylinders and other types of precision volume measuring tools can be had quite cheaply from photographic supply stores and even from home brewing supply stores.
We’re about to start going into specifics about the precise chemicals and processing procedures needed for home-developing both black and white and colour film. While you could easily proceed from here using only the tools we’ve already mentioned, here are few other things that will make the entire procedure decidedly easier. Luckily, you probably already have all of these things at home right now.
Household items that you'll need for the film developing process. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
Scissors: A pair of small scissors are great snipping the end from 35mm film prior to loading it onto the film reel, which makes for easier loading. They also make separating the film from it’s spool inside the film canister much easier.
Bottle Opener: 35mm film canisters can be tough to pry open with your fingers. A small bottle opener makes quick work of this.
Paperclips: Once you’ve finished developing your film you’ll need to allow it to dry. While not entirely essential, it’s best to hang your developed film to dry. Spring loaded paper clips are great for hanging your film.
Without a doubt, if you’re just starting out with developing your own film at home, then the best place to start is with black and white negative film. Not only is black and white film a timeless mainstay of the photography world but it is also one of the most simple, forgiving and cheapest ways to begin learning how to process your own film.
Photo from a roll of 35mm Kodak Tri-X 400, a black and white negative film which was lovingly developed in my bathroom. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
To process your own black and white film, regardless of its format, you will need the following chemicals:
Even today, there are many black and white film developers available, both in liquid and powdered forms. Just like falling in love, most photographers have a particular developer they prefer for a particular film. Personally, I use Kodak XTOL for most of my black and white film development because it offers excellent sharpness and makes film grain appear less noticeable, which is great when developing 35mm film. Another benefit is that its chemical makeup is relatively non-toxic compared to some other developers.
Kodak XTOL is relatively non-toxic compared to some other developers. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
Experiment with different developers until you find one you like best.
No matter what developer you choose, follow the manufacturer's instructions for mixing the chemicals. After your developer is mixed, it is known as a “stock solution”. This is considered the “full strength” concentration of your developer. This stock solution can then be diluted with water for the sake of longevity and cost effectiveness.
Before use, make sure the temperature of your black and white developer is at 20°C (68°F). The amount of time your film will need to stay in the developer will depend on the type of film, the developer and it’s dilution, actual developer temperature, as well as the look desired for the final negative. More on all this in just a bit.
It’s worth noting that virtually all black and white developers are “one shot” developers. This means that they can only be used once, with each batch of film requiring fresh developer.
A stop bath is used to quickly end the chemical reaction between the developer and the film, which therefore stops development. There are specially formulated stop baths available which are essentially varying dilutions of acetic acid. However, plain water can also be used as a simple stop bath for black and white film. A true stop bath becomes more important when developing prints in the darkroom... but that’s for another article.
A chemical fixer is what makes film light-fast and thus able to be handled in daylight. Much like black and white developers, there are many fixers available on the market today. They all essentially work the same way by converting the remaining silver halides present in the film emulsion to metallic silver.
A chemical fixer converts the remaining silver halides present in the film emulsion to metallic silver. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
Unlike black and white film developers, fixers can be reused multiple times before finally becoming exhausted. The amount of time and dilution required to fix your black and white negative film depends wholly on the fixer being used. Refer to the instructions provided by the manufacturer of your particular fixer for exact instructions. Currently, I use Arista Rapid Fixer for the majority of my film development and printing but this is very much a personal preference.
A special precaution pertaining to the disposal of exhausted photographic fixer: The fixing process leaves toxic silver particles behind in the fixer. Please be a conscientious photographer and make sure to follow all regulations for the disposal of these sorts of chemicals based on the laws and guidelines set forth by your local waste disposal entity.
Once you’ve prepared to correct amounts and dilutions of your chemicals, it’s time for the fun to begin! Consult your film’s container for recommended processing times and also make use of the Massive Development Chart provided free by the good folks at Digital Truth Photo. It’s an indispensable collection of film types and developers which can help you find a base development time. There is also a volume mixer to help you determine the correct volumes needed for different ratios of chemical solutions.
After you’ve loaded your film into your daylight developing tank follow these steps to develop your black and white negative film:
Presoak the film: While opinions on the benefits of presoaking are divided, I personally allow all my black and white film to soak in plain water at 20°C (68°F) for about one minute prior to adding the developer. This brings the film up to the approximate temperature of the developer and in my experience, produces a more uniform development. Empty the water pre-soak prior to the next step.
Developer: Add the in the black and white developer. For normal contrast and development, follow the recommended development time for your particular film and developer being used. The temperature of the developer will also have an effect on the development time required. A general guideline is to lengthen or reduce your development time +- 4% for every degree above or below 20°C (68°F) of developer temperature. The manufacturer of the film developer will also likely have a recommended agitation cycle (movement of the chemical) located alongside the mixing instructions. After each agitation, it is good practice to lightly tap the developing tank on a hard surface to dislodge any air bubbles which could hinder uniform development.
Stop Bath: At the end of the appropriate developing time, empty the developer from the tank and immediately add the plain water stop bath. Allow the film to stand in the stop bath for approximately one minute. If using a formulated stop bath, follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer.
Fixer: Once the film development has been arrested by the stop bath, empty the stop bath solution and immediately add the fixer. Follow the fixing time and agitation cycle recommended by the manufacturer of the fixer being used. When complete, pour the fixer back into its container for reuse.
Rinse: After the appropriate fixing time is complete, pour the fixer back into its container for reuse. Rinse the film with running water for four to five minutes. I recommend filling the developing tank with distilled water after the initial rinse is complete. This helps to avoid water spots on the film once it is dry.
Hang the Film to Dry: Your shower is a great place to dry your film. First, allow the hot water to run long enough to produce a good amount of steam in the air. This will help to drop dust particles from the air which can cling to the wet film. Next, hang the film using the paper clips we mentioned or use dedicated film clips. It’s a good practice to hang an additional clip to the bottom of 35mm and medium format film to prevent the film from curling as it dries. Allow the film to dry for at least four hours.
Developing colour-negative film at home shouldn’t be a daunting task. Much of the process is extremely similar to black and white negative film development. The difference lies within the film itself and the way it responds to temperature and development times. Whereas black and white film development can be greatly controlled and adjusted using development times, colour-negative film development is much more precise in terms of development time and temperature. Even small deviations can result in drastic shifts in colour and negative density.
Home-developed Kodak Ektar 100, a colour-negative film. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
A colour-negative film is one where the colours of the finished negative are reversed from how we perceive them with our naked eye. Most, if not all colour-negative film produced today is usually developed using a two-bath developer process, along with a stabiliser bath, known as C-41. This is quite different from the E-6 process used for developing colour positive film that we’ll discuss in the next section. It’s essential to know which process your colour film needs prior to development!
On the side of your film canister, you'll find what kind of stabiliser bath is required marked out on the label. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
This could even be written on the box of film. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
It may also be included in paper instructions. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
Check the film canister or container for the appropriate processing required.
Conveniently for us, most home development of colour-negative film is done by using developing kits. These kits come with all the chemicals needed for mixing the required chemical solutions at varying volumes. You can find a C-41 35mm colour film developing kit (they work for other formats as well) priced at around $40 USD.
The C-41 chemicals mixed and ready for action. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
The best part is that colour-negative development chemicals are reusable up to a point (with compensated development time), making them much more cost effective than might otherwise be assumed.
Here are the chemicals needed to develop colour-negative film at home. They come in liquid or powder form and will be accompanied by specific mixing instructions provided by the manufacturer.
C-41 developer is similar to black and white developer in how it develops the silver present in the films emulsion. The difference lies in that it also reacts with “dye couplers” present in the emulsion of colour-negative film, thereby producing different dyes which produce the colour tones in the finished negative.
Blix acts as an oxidiser which aids in the removal of remaining silver from the film emulsion after the first developer has been completed, while also fixing the film so it is light-fast. As with many aspects of film processing, there is some argument as to whether it is preferable to use a single bleach or fix bath (blix) or to separate the bleach and fix stages into two separate baths. Most C-41 developing kits contain chemicals for mixing blix baths but some offer bleach and fixer as individual baths. For most users, especially if you are just beginning to process colour film at home, this debate will be a non-issue.
Colour film stabiliser helps to make your negatives more archival (longer lasting) by helping to prevent fungus and microbial damage. Older colour film emulsions also benefited from the stabilisation bath because, as the name would suggest, the stabiliser helped to rid the film of remaining dye couplers which can degrade the colour quality of the film over time. Many photographers are of the opinion that chemical makeup of modern colour negative film emulsions no longer need the stabilisation bath but it is still included with almost all C-41 developing kits.
Pro Tip: Since the stabiliser solution is intended to dry on the film, it’s a good practice to use distilled water when preparing your stabiliser solution in order to reduce the appearance of water spots.
Depending on which C-41 developing kit you happen to be using, the final developing times and temperature tolerances can vary. This means that you should carefully follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer of your particular developing kit. However, the procedure will look something like this:
Pre-soak the film: Just as with black and white processing, pre-soak your film in plain water at the temperature of your developer for one minute. Discard the pre-soak water prior to the next step.
Developer: Add the developer to your developing take and follow the temperature and agitation recommendations from the manufacturer of the developing kit. Pour the developer back into its container for reuse once development is completed.
Blix: Add the blix bath to the developing tank. Again, follow the kit manufacturer's directions closely for temperature and agitation during this step. Blix is also reusable so empty the chemicals back into their container for next time. After the blix is complete the rest of the steps can be performed in daylight.
Wash the film: Fill and empty the developing tank with plain water five to seven times to remove the blix from the film.
Stabilise the film: Add the stabiliser solution and follow the manufacturer's instructions. Generally, this step takes about one minute. It’s important that you do not rinse the film after the stabiliser.
Hang the film to dry: Follow the same drying procedure as with black and white processing to help reduce dust adhesion to the film.
Colour-positive film is what we think of as colour reversal, slide or transparency film. Unlike colour-negative film, colour-positive film is true to life, meaning the frames of the film itself look like miniature photographs without the funky, psychedelic appearance present in colour-negatives.
Medium format Fujifilm Provia 100A, a colour-positive film. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
Colour-positive film requires its own particular process. While there once were numerous development methods for this type of film, the majority of labs and home developing kits now use the E-6 process. Yes, just like C-41 processing, E-6 processing kits are readily available with most one litre options being priced around $40 USD.
A one litre E-6 processing kit from Arista. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
E-6 processing is incredibly temperature specific, even more so than C-41. This means that precise temperature control is crucial to success. Make no mistake, processing with E-6 is entirely possible at home but I only recommend doing so once you have become comfortable with other types of film development.
In fact, depending on the manufacturer of your E-6 developing kit, the steps you will take can vary somewhat. I can’t stress enough that you should ultimately rely on the instructions provided with your kit. However, we can still break down the process for E-6 home development a bit so that you have a better understanding of what you can expect should you take the leap.
The procedure itself is quite similar to C-41 processing but with the addition of a second developer.
The first developer in the E-6 process is similar to a black and white negative developer. It is here where the emulsion is developed and where contrast and density is determined.
Known as the “colour developer”. This developer is responsible for reacting with the film's emulsion to create the colours we see in the finished colour-positive. Some E-6 processes make use of a seperate reversal process prior to this step.
For E-6 processing, the blix solution is the same as with the C-41 process. It is responsible for making the film light-fast and for removing the remnants of silver and other leftover particles from the development stage.
Pre-soak the film: Pre-soak your film in plain water at the temperature of your developer for one minute. Discard the pre-soak water prior to the next step.
Add first developer: Add the first developer to your developing take and follow the temperature and agitation recommendations from the manufacturer of the developing kit. Pour the developer back into its container for reuse once development is completed.
Wash: Fill and empty the developing tank with plain water five to seven times.
Add second developer: Add the second developer to your developing take, then follow the temperature and agitation recommendations from the manufacturer of the developing kit. Pour the developer back into its container for reuse once development is completed.
Wash: Fill and empty the developing tank with plain water five to seven times.
Blix: Add the blix bath to the developing tank. Again, follow the kit manufacturer's directions closely for temperature and agitation during this step. Blix is also reusable, so empty the chemicals back into their container for next time. After the blix is complete the rest of the steps can be performed in daylight.
Wash the film: Fill and empty the developing tank with plain water five to seven times to remove the blix from the film. I recommend giving the film a final rinse with distilled water to help avoid water spotting.
Hang the film to dry: Follow the same drying procedure as with black and white and C-41 processing to help reduce dust adhesion to the film.
It’s quite impossible to venture off into extreme detail on any one aspect of home film development within the space we have here. As you can see, there are quite a few variables to take into consideration. All that withstanding, the basic principles of developing your own film at home remain virtually the same and once you understand them, you’ll be able to process many different types of film in the comfort of your own home.
The tools and techniques we’ve outlined here today will be a great starting point for you to begin exploring your own home developing. Don’t become discouraged if you make mistakes. Even seasoned photographers with years of experience in the darkroom still foul up processing now and again. It’s all part of the beauty of film.
About the author: Adam Welch is an adventurer, photographer and author based in the USA. He is not sponsored or compensated by any of the brands mentioned in this article. You can find more of his work on his website or by following him on Facebook and YouTube.
Have you ever tried to develop your own film at home? Do you have your own darkroom? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below!