Friday, March 11, 2011

Processing black & white film

I was going to write up a how-to for developing your own black and white film, but it wouldn't really be any improvement on the one I started with, from Justin Ouellette's It's actually very easy, once you get the hang of putting the film on spools in the dark; you can buy everything you need to do it for about $50, and you do not need an actual darkroom. If you're not into exactitude, the process is pretty forgiving for the most part; you do need to load the film in total darkness, and you should follow the developing time closely.

First, you should understand that this is for turning the film in your camera into a negative; making a print from that negative is a second process, requiring more gear and expertise, and a dedicated darkroom. Usually I scan my negatives with an old Epson Perfection 2450 scanner, and take them to a specialty lab when I need a print. Your neighborhood 1-hour place can also make prints from your B&W negatives.

You'll need to go to Chromogenic to read the whole thing before attempting this, but here is the overview of the process once you have the film in your tanks:

1) Pre-soak. To start, all you have to do here is put some water in the tank and let it sit for a minute, then pour it out. 120 film should be soaked a few minutes longer than 35mm, and when you pour out the water it’ll probably be dark green or blue. I suspect this is because of the paper backing rubbing up against the film because there’s no difference between the emulsion used in different film sizes. Either way, don’t worry about it.
2) Developer. Before you do this step, make sure you know long you’re going to be leaving the developer in the tank because timing is critical. Check the Massive Dev Chart at, which should have your particular film/developer combination (it might also be printed on the developer itself). Once you have it figured out, use the beaker to prepare the appropriate dilution. For instance, if the time has “1+9” next to it, that means one part developer and nine parts water. If the total volume of your tank is 500ml (you can check by filling it with water and pouring it into the beaker and then pouring it out), you need 500/(1+9) = 50ml of developer, so pour that amount into the beaker and then fill it to the 500ml line with room-temperature tap water.
Pour the diluted developer into the tank. Don’t do it slowly, but don’t do it so fast that you cause the tank to overflow. Make sure you have enough to completely submerge the film. Once you’ve finished pouring, start your timer and put the push-cap on the tank. Agitate the tank for ten seconds once every minute while you’re developing. Don’t shake the tank like a can of soda, instead flip it over firmly several times. Once time is up, pour the used developer down the drain (don’t worry, it’s safe) and then immediately proceed to step 3.
3) Stop bath. If you were fancy, your stop bath would be a chemical designed to halt the developing process on contact. For our purposes, water will suffice nicely. Just fill the tank up with water, shake it a little bit, then pour it out. Repeat twice.
4) Fixer. The timing for the fixer isn’t as critical as the developer. In fact, it’s not critical at all. Prepare the dilution first (if you’re using Ilford Rapid Fixer it’s 1+4), then pour it in the same way as the developer. Agitate it for ten seconds, then again for ten seconds every minute. Fix for 5 to 10 minutes, then do another rinse.
5) Wash. After it’s been fixed, the film can be safely exposed to light. Unscrew the top of the tank and set it aside. Pull the reel out and take a look at the film to make sure everything went okay, but resist the temptation to take it off the reel just yet. Don’t worry if your film has a slightly purple tint; this is normal. If it looks excessively purple you might need to fix it a bit longer. Otherwise, you’re ready to wash. Techniques vary widely, but this is how I do it: fill the tank halfway with fresh water, agitate vigorously for half a minute or so, pour the water out, repeat. Do this for 10 minutes. You want it really clean; if there’s any fixer left on the film when it’s drying you’ll be sorry.
6) Wetting agent. This last step before drying prevents water spots and helps speed the process. Dump any remaining water out of the tank. Pour a very small amount of wetting agent into the bottom and then fill with water slowly until the reel is submerged. It may foam a little; if it does, tap the sides of the tank to shake any bubbles off the surface of your film. Leave it for 30 seconds, then pour everything out and take out the reel. Don’t rinse!
7) Dry. Twist the reel apart and lift one half of it off. Carefully pinch one end of the roll (where there’s no exposures) and lift the film off the reel, letting it unfurl. Don’t let it touch the ground or anything else. Anywhere dry and relatively dust-free will work fine, but I recommended hanging it up in your shower since it’s out of the way. The film clips come in a set of two, and one of them has a weight inside. The weighted one goes on the bottom of the roll, the other one goes on the top. Some clips have teeth that are designed to pierce the film in order for a better grip, which is a good thing; just be careful not to puncture one of your exposures. Once it’s up, leave it for 4 to 8 hours so it has time to dry and harden completely.

Ouellette recommends Ilford chemicals, but I use Kodak- D-76 developer, fixer, and wetting agent. Both brands are excellent. You should support your local camera store by buying from them, but you can also buy on line from Freestyle (a highly recommended source for film as well).

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