Film Photography

Developing 35mm black-and-white film and why you should keep your film in a cool place

I’ve built enough skill developing black-and-white film that I finally made the move from 120 to 35mm. I started with 120 because I could shoot the eight or 12 frames quickly and get to the developing tank. While I was learning I didn’t want to spend the time to shoot 24 or 36 exposures of 35mm film only to bugger up the developing.

I loaded a roll of Arista EDU 200 into my Nikon F2AS, mounted my 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor lens, and took it around with me for a couple days while I was on vacation last week. The film went onto the developing reel with great ease. I used my 290 ml tank instead of the 500 ml tank I had been using for 120 film. I calculated my ratios of developer, fixer, etc., and mixed them all up. I don’t think I’ll ever think of developing as anything other than tedious, but it went without a hitch. But the negatives were mighty thin, and when I scanned them most of them looked like this.

Hobnob Corner, Nashville

I’ve seen results like this only with very expired film with an unknown storage history, such as this roll of Tri-X. I wondered at first if my chemicals were to blame. I used fresh fixer. My Rodinal is less than a year old and has always been capped tightly, so it should be fine.

I used 6 ml Rodinal and 294 ml water for a 1+49 dilution. That’s 300 ml in a 290 ml tank but I chose to do it for easier calculating of the ratio. I developed for the 1+50 time as per the Massive Dev Chart, but that slight difference shouldn’t have mattered. I even researched online whether I’d used too little Rodinal and it exhausted before the film was fully developed. I found plenty of people using an amount of Rodinal similar to mine and getting fine results.

Then it hit me. The space heater.

The fridge in our garage died last summer. I kept my shoot-soon film in the fridge and the rest in the freezer. The kitchen fridge was mighty full, but I did find room in the freezer for my already frozen film. The shoot-soon film went into a plastic box and then onto the floor under my desk. Until a few years ago I always stored my film at room temperature, sometimes for years at a time. I wasn’t worried about my film.

But it’s cold at my desk in the winter. I got out my space heater in January and turned it on every time I sat at my desk until the weather warmed up the first of March. I didn’t notice it at the time, but that heater was less than two feet from my film.

I probably cooked the whole box of film. Here’s what’s in the box. In 120, three rolls of T-Max 100, a roll of Pan-F Plus 50, two rolls of Tri-X expired since 1981, and (most upsettingly) a roll of Verichrome Pan expired since 1983. In 35mm, one roll each of T-Max P3200, T-Max 400, Double-X 5222, Arista Premium 100, Lomography Red Scale, Lomography Purple, and Adox HR-50. There were also two rolls of 35mm Kodak Gold 400 and two Fujifilm single-use cameras in there, all very expired.

I feel 90% sure I’ve found the root cause. But I’ll test this theory anyway with some fresh film. I found a roll of Kosmo Foto Mono and my last roll of Ferrania P30 Alpha in the freezer, both 35mm. I’ll shoot and develop them soon and then we’ll know for sure.

But back to this roll of film. While none of the images looked as good as Arista EDU 200 normally does, many of them looked okay enough to share. Here’s my favorite shot on the roll, of a little statue in a shop window in Nashville, Indiana.

Blow your horn

I shot more than half the roll around Nashville and, later in the day, in Bloomington. But most of those images looked terrible. I finished the roll in Zionsville later that week on a lovely sunny day. Many of those images turned out okay.

Window
Sale

The Zionsville skies all looked post-apocalyptic, though.

House
Houseq

The film’s qualities look pretty good on this tight shot of an old Chevy that parks every day in front of a particular Zionsville house. It’s not a look I strive for, but it’s interesting.

Citation
Citation

Overall I’m disappointed that this roll turned out this way. I was so looking forward to excellent results.

Chairs

I also shot and developed a roll of Ferrania P30 that was in the ill-fated box. It turned out somewhat better. I’ll share those images soon.

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30 thoughts on “Developing 35mm black-and-white film and why you should keep your film in a cool place

  1. I actually love that top shot. But for the cars in the background, it could have been taken during the Civil War. Maybe shoot the rest on antique subjects? That’s a lot of film, though.

    I hate learning lessons the hard way.

  2. P says:

    Oh no, Jim! Sorry things didn’t go well. I’m sure they’ll go better next time.

    You’re already aware things are underdeveloped. However, it’s possible they’re also incompletely fixed. Do the negatives look milky, especially in a non-uniform way? If so, and assuming you fixed for an adequate time, your fixer is probably dead. The only reason I ask is because of how the scans look in continuous tone areas, like the sky. Things look rather mottled. This could just be because your scanner is having difficulties with the lack of density, but I’ve also seen similar things with improperly fixed film.

    It really would surprise me if any of your chemicals had died though, especially the Rodinal. It sounds like you may be onto something with the heater. If that’s what caused the issue, I’d expect there to be a very heavy amount of fog uniformly across the film. Do you see that? If not, and the negatives in the rebates, between the frames, and the totally black parts of frames (i.e. clear in negatives), are actually very clear and not fogged then you may want to do some tests with your Rodinal to make sure it hasn’t gone bad. It would be nearly unheard of if it had died in less than a year when you’ve kept it tightly capped. But if your heater did this it must have been putting out an extreme amount of heat.

    Anyways, sorry again this round didn’t turn out the best for you. I hope all of that box of film isn’t damaged. That would be a shame.

    Best of luck!

    Oh, yeah — Agfa recommends a minimum of 10 mL Rodinal to develop a roll of film, but as you discovered tons of people have been using far less than that for decades without any issues. I’d be shocked if your 6 mL was insufficient and exhausted prematurely.

    • The film is not at all fogged. The fixer was fresh, so that’s not it. I’m willing to see whether my Rodinal went bad. The bottle’s almost empty and I have an unopened bottle. I can shoot one of my rolls of b/w from the box in one of my cameras this week, develop over the weekend, and see what I get. If that works out, then I didn’t cook the film. Worth a tumble.

      • P says:

        If the film has no elevated base fog, then I think your Rodinal actually was/is dead (or very weak — you did get some development). And that is actually possible if your bottle has been sitting there nearly empty, with only a tiny bit of concentrate left at the bottom of the bottle, which based on your comment sounds like was the case. When you get to that point, you really probably want to either very quickly use up the remainder or just open a new bottle and “waste” that last little bit (it beats wasting film).

        The problem is oxidation. When there is just a thin layer of developer concentrate left and it’s spread thin across the base of the bottle, bad things can happen as too much of the surface area of the remaining volume of developer is in direct contact with air. I bet this was your problem. And as such, I bet the rest of your film from that box next to your heater is actually just fine, or at the most very slightly damaged, so minutely you wouldn’t even know without a densitometer. If legitimate heat damage had occurred, your film would almost certainly be fogged. The base wouldn’t be perfectly clear like it is.

        All that said, I wouldn’t risk using any more of the almost empty bottle. Open the new one.

        Good luck!

        • Easy enough — I’ll shoot the Double-X from my film box this week and develop in fresh Rodinal and see what happens!

        • P says:

          Sounds like a plan! Just a quick word of warning though, Double-X’s grain when developed in Rodinal is very pronounced, but also very, very sharp. Personally, I love the look, but just in case that’s not what you’re looking for from Double-X, I wanted to give you a heads-up. If you think the grain will bother you, you might want to wait until you’ve got a solvent developer on hand to shoot and develop the Double-X (if you ever plan to use other developers, that is — Rodinal is still an excellent choice and could be a person’s one and only developer for life if it fits their needs). Or just go for it, and maybe you’ll love it, grain and all. Like I said, I personally love how Double-X looks in Rodinal and other high-acutance developers.

        • Fresh Rodinal did the trick! My Double-X negs are drying right now and they look good. I’ll scan them tomorrow. Watch my Flickr space!

  3. Andy Umbo says:

    The art school professors will tell you, you now have “artistic” film! Damaged film and bellows holes are the life blood of student photo-artists!

    Even in retirement, I’ve given away a lot of film that I’ve kept in the freezer until the “due” date…still good, but I can’t trust it in case I’m doing a job…old habit….and film with a latent image should be processed as soon as possible, harder and harder to do in this day and age, but it shouldn’t be refrozen after exposure…I have put it in the regular bottom part of the fridge and been OK, but only as a last resort….

    • Except I’m not a fan of that kind of “art”!

      Commenter P above leads me to want to try one more time with film from that box, but with fresh Rodinal. We’ll see what happens.

      I didn’t refrigerate my film for years and years. Just left it in a box in my home office. Some of the stuff was a year or two expired by the time I shot it. It all looked good enough to me when it came back from the procesor. But I’m no pro!

  4. Hi Jim, good morning. Joe Gigli checking in. I am thinking in line with P. My dad (81) and I just started processing b&w again, after a 20 year hiatus. We are using D76 and Tmax developers. Using fresh film, about 20 rolls and 4×5 sheets, and no problems yet. I must confess that I used to leave film in my car trunk all year long, never ran into an issue. With that said, I don’t give that as advice to follow. I do have about 20 expired rolls of different film stocks from back then that I will now shoot. I wanted to wait until my development technique was stable again. It will be interesting to see if anything turns out.

    As far as the fixer goes, I always used a separate tank for that. For roll film I use a stainless 8 roll tank and for sheet film I use a hard rubber (might be heavy plastic) 4×5 dunk tank. I did this so the fixer always remained strong, and uncontaminated. After the developer the film gets washed for 30 seconds in running water before getting its 7 minute bath in the fixer. I have used stop baths but never saw a difference.

  5. A Citation still on the road? Wow. *LOL*
    I remember when I was young and shooting film on a budget I’d always buy the out-of-date stuff which was heavily discounted. Having been stored in the store on a shelf, it often had some unusual qualities to it. I didn’t care as it was 2 rolls of 127 size for 29 cents!
    If only, eh?

  6. I once had a brand new roll of Kentmere Pan 400 fall out of my bag in the car where it sat for a nice warm summer. I finally found it and decided to shoot it and the resulting photos were definitely soft, even though I processed in Ilford chemistry.

    I actually liked how the shots had a dreamy sort of character.

    • When I don’t care about the photos I took I don’t mind if things like that happen. But when I really, really want the photos to turn out as I expect, obviously I’m reaching for film I KNOW has been well stored!

  7. I buy film, it goes straight into my little fridge. There it stays until I need it, if it get short on date which is a rare event, i’ll move to the freezer compartment, although I did find one that had been missed.
    My father passed away recently, and at the very back of the freezer I found some forgotten black & white as well as colour film he had stored, some dated back to 1996. So far no issues with any of this old stock and those I have used developed as per normal times.

    • I’ve thought about buying a bar fridge for my film. Or maybe a used regular fridge to replace the one that died in the garage.

      I’m sorry you lost your father. Great to get to shoot his leftover film!

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