Developing your own film isn’t as intimidating as it sounds. With a bit of basic equipment, you can master the film photographic process and have complete creative control over your film images from start to finish.
Words and Photography by Urth HQ
There are a number of reasons why you should learn how to develop film at home. The first being simple economics. Film photography is an expensive endeavour.
A roll of film is now retailing around the $14 mark. Your local film lab may charge you somewhere near to $19 for development and scanning, bringing the total to $33 per roll. For 35mm film with 36 exposures per roll, this equates to 91c a shot. For medium format (120 film) with 10 exposures per roll, this equates to $3.30 per shot.
Although there may be an initial expense in purchasing tanks and other developing equipment, the overall cost of developing your own film is significantly less than what you pay at the lab. And, it’s fun!
Another benefit is that it allows you to speed up the overall process. Don’t wait two weeks to see what you’re doing right or wrong. For example, you could be photographing on location in the morning, developing and scanning at lunchtime, and then revisiting the location in the afternoon (if need be) to capture things you missed. Developing your own film provides you with a pace that means your work, and the review of your work, are more immediate.
Now that we’ve outlined some of the pros, let’s take a look at the nuts and bolts of how to develop film at home.
How to Develop Film at Home
Developing film at home is far easier than you may think. Maybe you’ve thought about it before but were intimidated because you never paid much attention in science class? Honestly, just give it a go. You don’t need a darkroom. You don’t need to be a chemistry major. It’s just easy-to-use equipment, a simple formula and a stopwatch.
FILM DEVELOPING EQUIPMENT NEEDED
Before we begin with the method, in true science report fashion, let’s take a look at the equipment needed to develop film at home:
1. Chemicals: Developer, Fixer and Stop Bath*
2. A developing tank & reels
3. A film change bag which will allow you complete and portable darkness in order to load film onto reels and place in the developing tank (this is your darkroom!)
4. A thermometer to ensure your chemicals are at the correct temperature for optimal development
5. Large measuring cylinders x 3
6. Small measuring cylinder
7. Cassette end cap remover
9. A sink with running water
10. A timer to ensure accurate development times
11. Film squeegee
13. Film clips (or pegs will do!)
14. Rubber gloves
15. Safety glasses
You should be able to find a complete starter kit or at least all the required equipment from an online retailer such as B&H Photo. We used the Ilford Paterson starter kit. There are some shortcuts you can take to save money too. The timer, for example; there are plenty of fantastic film development timer apps you can download which will prefill all times based on the film type you’re developing. Check out the Dev it – darkroom timer app.
*Note: Developing chemistry comes in both liquid and powder form. There isn’t much difference in terms of performance, other than the fact that powder developers will store longer. More on recommended chemistry below.
GETTING THE MEASUREMENTS RIGHT
For the purposes of this demonstration, we’re using all Ilford products to develop Ilford HP5 black and white 35mm film.
How’s your maths? All developers and other chemicals require dilution at different ratios and calculating accurate measurements is probably the trickiest part of the whole process, but lucky we all have calculators.
You need to first find out how much mixture (whether using powder or liquid) you need to cover your film in the developing tank. This will depend on the type of tank you use also, and how many rolls of film you’re placing in it.
For example, we’re using a small Paterson tank that can fit two reels of film inside it. But we’re only going to develop one. We know that we need 300ml of liquid to cover the one roll of film. Therefore, all ratios (such as 1+4) need to equate to 300.
Below you’ll see measurements such as this: 300ml of diluted developer solution at 1+4 = 60ml developer + 240ml water @ 20C or 68F. It’s important to note that the ratio of 1+4 and what the numbers mean. Let’s break it down quickly.
1 (developer) + 4 (water) = 5 (or 300ml of solution).
300 divided by 5 is 60.
Therefore, 1 = 60 and 4 (4 x 60) = 240. Easy, right?
If you were developing two rolls of film in this tank, you would need 600ml of solution at all times. You can work out the same volumes by dividing the total solution by 5 (1 + 4), which equals 120. Therefore, 1 (120ml of developer) + 4 (480ml of water) = 600ml of solution. PS: You need to ensure the chemistry is at a balmy 20 degrees celsius, or 68 degrees fahrenheit.
Developer is the chemical that makes the image appear on the film. Having used a number of different developers before, we recommend Ilford LC29 because of its cost-effectiveness and because the liquid is easier to mix and use for a beginner than powder.
For example, Ilford DD-X developer requires 1+4 ratio of developer to water. But Ilford LC29 can be used at different ratios such as 1+19, which means you save by using less chemicals.
Example measurement: 300ml of diluted developer solution at 1+19 = 15ml developer + 285ml water @ 20C or 68F
Ilfostop and other stop baths bring the development to an end to avoid over-development. Example measurement: 300ml of ILFOSTOP at 1+19 = 15ml ILFOSTOP + 285ml water @ 20C or 68F.
Rapid Fixer and other fixers make the developed image permanent. 300ml of diluted developer solution at 1+4 = 60ml developer + 240ml water @ 20C or 68F.
Sometimes film can dry unevenly and leave chemical streaks across your images. But a wetting agent such as Ilfotol can help the film dry quickly and evenly. Put a couple drops of ILFOTOL in clean water when you’re rinsing your film.
Method: How to Develop Black and White Film
LOADING THE FILM
If possible, we recommend you have a couple practices loading a dud roll of film into the reel, and then placing it in the developing tank to familiarise yourself with the actions before doing the real thing in the film change bag.
Because we’re working with a light-sensitive medium, film development has traditionally taken place in the darkroom to avoid any light fogging or exposure to the film. But a film change bag and the clever development tanks are lightproof, negating the need for an entirely blacked-out room (though it’s always worth working in darker spaces just to be sure). But this does require a certain level of dexterity as you’re effectively blind, loading the film on the sense of touch alone.
Ilford released a very informative visual guide to developing their black and white films which can be viewed here.
MIXING THE CHEMISTRY
Everything you need to know about chemical volume, dilution and even development times can be found on the Ilford website here.
1. Measure 15mL of ILFOTEC LC29 into a measuring cylinder
2. Pour this into a large cylinder
3. Add 285ml of water @ 20C or 68F
4. Repeat this process to prepare stop bath and fixer. Wash measuring cylinders between use to avoid contamination. Be sure to tap tank once solution is poured to remove bubbles.
Development = 06:30
5. Start the development by pouring developer solution in the tank
6. Start timer when finished pouring
7. Fit the sealing cap and agitate by turning tank upside down for 00:10
8. Repeat this process every minute for the duration of the development
Stop Bath = 00:10
9. At 6:15 start to pour the developer out of the tank
10. Pour the stop bath into the tank and fit sealing cap
11. Agitate for 00:10 seconds
12. Pour out the stop bath
Fixer = 03:00
13. Pour in fixer solution and restart timer
14. Agitate for 00:10 and repeat every minute for 03:00
15. Pour the fixer into a storage bottle to reuse
16. Wash film to remove chemical residue
17. Fill the tank with clean water @ 20C or 68F
18. Invert the tank 5 times and empty
19. Refill again and invert the tank 10 times
20. Repeat again and invert 20 times
21. Fill once again and add drop of ILFTOL
22. Do 5 more inversions
23. Pull film out of spiral and attach clip
24. Hang the film so it won’t touch the ground
25. Remove any excess water by running squeegee down the film
26. Add a weighted clip to the bottom of the film with a tray beneath
Below are some of the photos we developed at Urth HQ. Some have light leaks and other inconsistencies, some turned out really well for a first attempt. And therein lies the beauty of developing your own film, it’ll involve some trial and error to get it right, and along the way you might find some mistakes you really like the look of.
See the video showing the full process of how to develop film at home here:
How to Develop Colour Film
Developing colour film is a little more complicated than black and white film and generally requires more precision as the latitude (or room for error) is far less forgiving than black and white. We recommend practicing with black and white for a while first before venturing down this path but you can find out more about How to Process C-41 Color Negative Film at Home, From Start to Finish on the PetaPixel website.
We guarantee that once you begin developing your own film at home, there’ll be no going back. Although it does take a bit of time, you’ll be hooked as soon as you pull that first roll of film from a frothy tank and see the exposed images. It’s nothing short of magic.