Developing Your Own B&W Film – Part One
I’ve had several people ask about processing black & white film at home. I’ve made a few promises to show people how to do it, but I also know it helps to have everything written down. This is my attempt (there are many others, including Nathan’s excellent tutorial) at capturing the basics for home developing.
Developing your own B&W film at home is easy and MUCH cheaper than getting it developed by a lab. And once you become proficient, you’ll do a much better job with your negatives than anyone else. No one cares about your shots like you do. You took the time to compose your photographs, you stalked the streets for the perfect shot and angle, you can also develop the negatives and control the whole process.
My B&W photos are mine, no one else’s hands have touched them. I’m in control. If they look like crap, that’s me. If they look good, that’s me too. That’s a great feeling. When you pull those wet negatives off of your reel for the first time and hang them to dry, you’ll know that feeling.
If you think you don’t have room to develop your own film, you’re probably wrong. We live in a tiny 450 sq. ft. studio in downtown Manhattan and I have room. I do it in my tiny, one-person kitchen by the sink. The chemicals are stored in our kitchen cabinet. I pull them out, do my thing, and put them back up. You wouldn’t know that our kitchen doubles as a photo lab.
If you think you don’t have the technical know how to develop your own film, you’re probably also wrong. I’ve never taken a chemistry course. Ever. I was forced to take one biology lab course in high school. I’m a Russian History and Literature major and have never had much of an interest in science. I didn’t know how many milliliters made an ounce or how to mix the chemicals. No one showed me how. I read about it online. And I, the science idiot, can develop film in my sleep.
If you think it’s too expensive, you might be right depending on your situation, but you can get all of your supplies and chemicals for less than $50. You can even do it cheaper, but I wouldn’t recommend it. After you have all the supplies, you just need to buy developer* and fixer** periodically.
Here are the basic supplies you need for home developing B&W film. This is how I do it, others develop with some variation in supplies and materials.
Changing Bag (this is your darkroom)
Spring for the large one, you need room in there and your hands won’t get so sweaty. I use the the Adorama version, just make sure it has the double zippers and of course holes for you to stick your arms in… $23.95
If you have a light tight and dust free bathroom or closet, you could load your film in the dark. Just MAKE SURE it’s dark. It’s usually not. A changing bag is dark.
Get a decent stainless steel reel. Get the best you can afford and it will last for years. I have the Hewes heavy duty version for $23.95. Someone else might tell you differently, but I’ve tried both the plastic and the steel reels. The steel gives me much more consistent loading than the plastic.
I just grabbed an Adorama stainless steel tank that you can use for 120 or 35mm film reels. It’s $16.95, reliable, and super easy to use.
I’m torn here between ease of use and price. I’m going to go with price and then explain how to use the cheap Kodak D-76 powder mix in the next installment. Powder to make a gallon of D-76 will set you back $5.95. If you use it undiluted, you can develop 8 rolls of film with one bag.
Again, someone might tell you to use actual stop bath, but I use water. NYC has the cleanest tap water you’ll find, so I use it straight from the tap at the correct temperature. I would use distilled water in places where the water isn’t as pure though. Still cheaper than Stop Bath and I’ve never noticed a difference.
I don’t think the fixer makes that big of a deal and you actually reuse fixer again and again, so price isn’t quite as important here. I use Ilford Rapid Fixer at $9.95 for a liter bottle.
I just grab whatever scissors I have on hand. It doesn’t matter.
Use one of the old fashioned metal bottle openers. I picked it up at a flea market for $1.
You can get a thermometer at Target or wherever. I like the analog ones and have seen them for as much as $25 and as low as $5.
I have one for developer, one for water (my stop bath), and one for fixer. I got them at Target for a couple bucks each.
I use our microwave timer, it’s free.
So there you have it. $90 will get you everything you need to start developing your own B&W film. Skip the changing bag and your cost goes down to $65.
In the next installment, I’ll go over loading the reel, practicing, and setting up the chemicals.
* I develop 8 rolls of film from one $6 bag of developer, you could develop 16 or more rolls from one bag if you dilute.
**Fixer lasts a really long time. You get multiple batches per liter bottle and can reuse batches for weeks or months depending on how many rolls you develop weekly.