Your ultimate guide to developing your own 35mm or 120 film photos at home. No darkroom or photo lab needed.
Film is a somewhat obscure medium to take pictures with, at least by today’s standards. Much of the tradition and know-how of analog photography has lost its mainstream appeal, but thanks to the wonder of the internet and a passionate film community, not all is lost. I’ve been shooting film for 12 years now, and I have to say that the experience couldn’t be more different than digital photography. Granted, the learning curve is steeper and the cost of buying and developing film might deter new users, but the feeling you get from framing an image and being surprised by the result a couple of days/weeks later is something special. If you’re looking to take the experience to another level, then developing your own film at home is the next logical step.
This step by step guide will focus only on Black and White development since it’s the most forgiving and simple. Other types of development, such as C-41 (color negative) and E-6 (color reversal or slide film) require more equipment and need a very specific working temperature for the results to resemble those of photography lab. B&W development is also cheaper, and the chemicals tend to have a much longer shelve life.
The equipment you’ll need for Development
- Chemicals: B&W developer, stop bath and fixer.
- A changing bag (think of it as lightproof bag to spool your film into the film reels)
- A developing tank and film reel.
- A thermometer (optional, but highly recommended).
- A timer
- A film leader retriever.
- Containers, for measuring the volume of chemistry correctly.
- Bottles, for storing your chemistry.
- Film Clips
- A sink, bath or anywhere with access to water supply.
Choosing your chemicals
When it comes to choosing your B&W chemicals, the range of product and the sheer amount of information can be intimidating. Don’t worry, I’ll explain the differences as simply as possible.
First things first, the Developer. There are both liquid and powder developers available, the difference being powder can be stored for longer and liquid is easier to mix in smaller batches.
The more important difference is “solvent” (fine grain) and “non-solvent” (high acutance) developers. Deciding between these two types of developers is a matter of taste.
In a nutshell, solvent developers provide fine grain and are more forgiving when comes to exposure, meaning your negatives can be slightly over- or underexposed and the result will still look pleasing. ID-11, D76, Perceptol, Microphen, and XTOL are examples of solvent developers.
Non-solvent developers give sharper results at the cost of a more pronounced grain structure. Rodinal, HC-110, FX-1, and PMK are some examples of solvent developers
Personally, I use Rodinal, since it can be diluted at different strengths and works with virtually every film out there. I´ve used other developers, but they tend to be less flexible than Rodinal when it comes to trying different brands of film and pushing and pulling them.
The second chemical is the stop bath which, as its name implies, stops the development process, giving you more control over development time. Using a stop bath is not necessary, but I highly recommend it. When it comes to which one to buy, I just recommend Acetic Acid which is just good old white vinegar. If you just hate the smell of vinegar, citric acid is also an option.
The third and last chemical needed is the fixer, which fixes the image and makes the negative lightproof. The fixers you can buy differ mainly on how fast they are and how strong they smell. Any which one you pick will be fine. I haven´t had any problems with any of the brands I’ve used.
The last chemical I recommend using is a wetting agent. Depending on where you live, water can have chloride, limestone, chalk, and can leave a spot on your negatives. I use Photo-flow to avoid these imperfections.
Mixing the Chemicals
Before you can develop your priceless pictures, you first need to mix your chemicals. Depending on what specific brands and type of developer you bought, follow the instructions to get a working solution. Some liquid developers are one-shot solutions, meaning they’re meant to be used once and then discarded. So, do yourself a favor and read the instructions carefully. Measurements for chemistry required for different film types are usually located on the bottom of the developing tank.
Loading the film for development
Once all working solutions are mixed and measured, you’ll need to load the film to the reels and place them in the tank.
First, use the film leader retriever and cut the end of the film as shown. These cuts help the film slide smoothly into the reel. Spool the film into the reel, cut the end of the film to separate the empty film canister and place the reel in the tank. These steps all take place within the changing bag. Take your time and make sure the film is properly loaded.
Develop your film
Make sure the chemicals are roughly at the same temperature and compensate for the development times by measuring the temperature of the developer. I recommend using either the massive Development chart app or their website, where most film development information is accessible and easy to use. The App also doubles as a timer, so it saves you time and streamlines the process.
First, pour the developer into the tank and agitate. I recommend agitating constantly for the first minute and then 10 seconds every minute. After agitating lift the tank and tap it down firmly onto a hard surface. This ensures there are no bubbles on the negative surface, giving more consistent results. Pour the developer out and either dispose of it or put it in another container for storage.
Pour the stop bath in and agitate for one minute, then pour it out.
Finally, pour the fixer in. As with the developer, agitate constantly for the first minute, then 10 seconds every minute and tap after each agitation cycle.
By now your film is light-proof, but still has trace chemicals on it so give it a good rinse. Some manuals call for 10 min under running water, but I do it a little differently. I fill the tank with water an agitate constantly for at least a minute and dump the water out, then I repeat the cycle for a total of three.
As the last step, I dunk the film in a wetting agent solution. Personally, I use Kodak photo-flow, it cheap and a bottle lasts for ages. After a 30 sec immersion, the films are ready for hanging and drying.
After drying your negatives are ready for storage, scanning or darkroom work. Hope you have fun developing and don´t forget that film photography is supposed to be fun. Don´t sweat the details, just enjoy the process!