Film Photography

Lessons learned so far in home film development

I’m finally achieving consistent results when I develop black-and-white film at home. This is in large part thanks to several of you. Thank you for commenting encouragement and valuable tips every time I share my results here.

I put off developing my own film for years for a whole bunch of reasons. One of them was that I wasn’t looking forward to the learning process. Some people intuitively understand physical things: mechanical, manual, chemical. I’ve never been one of them. I always struggle to learn. It takes me an enormous amount of time to build the habits and muscle memory for it to be automatic. I don’t enjoy the process.

I’ve developed about 20 rolls of film over the last ten months or so and finally have it down. I can do it without much thinking. This is exactly where I want to be.

I thought I’d share my process. Maybe you have further tips that will help me make it more efficient and effective.

I do everything in our master bedroom and its attached bathroom. I spread my dark bag out on the bed and put the tank, reel, and film inside. For 35mm film I also include a bottle opener and a scissors. I use Paterson Super System 4 developing tanks (graciously gifted to me after the original owner stopped using them). I have a 290ml tank for 35mm and a 500ml tank for medium format. For 35mm, I use the bottle opener to pry the end off the film canister. Then I use the scissors to cut the leader off the film and cut the end of the film off the spool. For medium format I just peel off the tape at the end of the film off the spool. I load the film onto the developing reel, put the reel in the tank, and snap the inner lid into place.

I take the tank out of the bag and into the bathroom where my big plastic tub of developing gear and chemicals awaits.

I’m still sold on one-shot developers with long shelf lives. I don’t want to hassle with replenishment or worry about developer going bad. I started with Rodinal (R09, actually; it’s the same thing) and soon added a Kodak HC-110 clone, LegacyPro L110. Both are equally easy to use. The Rodinal gives me sharper results at the cost of more noticeable grain. L110 gives me smoother but softer results. (HC-110/L110 is reusable, by the way; I just treat it as a one-shot developer.) Later I added Adox HR-DEV specifically to develop a roll of Adox HR-50 film.

Right now, I prefer Rodinal. I dilute it 1+50. Rodinal gives great apparent sharpness. I scan on a flatbed Canon CanoScan 9000F Mark II. Typical of flatbed scans I always need to sharpen them with unsharp mask in Photoshop. I can always sharpen my Rodinal scans to my satisfaction, but sometimes not my L110 scans.

Conventional wisdom is that Rodinal isn’t a good choice for films ISO 400 or faster. Yet I’ve gotten acceptable-to-me results on T-grained Kodak T-Max 400.

I use L110 for fast traditionally grained films like Kodak Tri-X. I also reach for it on any film when Rodinal 1+50 leads to a development time of under five minutes. I’ve had poor luck with development times shorter than five minutes — there’s just no room for timing error. L110 diluted 1+63 leads to long enough development times on all of the films I use.

L110 1+63 leads me to use the 500ml tank for 35mm, however. The quantity of L110 1+63 in my 290ml tank is is insufficient, risking developer exhaustion before developing completes.

If I wanted to stick with Rodinal in this case I could try a 1+100 dilution in stand or semi-stand development. But so far I haven’t wanted to wait the 30 to 60 minutes that takes.

I also use L110 is with expired film. I love Kodak Verichrome Pan, which hasn’t been made since the 90s. It’s a hardy film, but it’s still subject to base fog after so many years expired. L110 cuts right through and gives me great images.

The L110 isn’t in its original bottle, by the way, because I read somewhere that air is this developer’s enemy and it is best to divide the developer into smaller, very full bottles so air touches a smaller quantity of it as you use it. But Mike Eckman of mike eckman dot com uses HC-110 exclusively and tells me this actually isn’t necessary; HC-110 and its clones are hardy. So I won’t do it again.

The HR-DEV gave me stunning results on Adox HR-50 film — Adox intended this film and developer to work together. I have one more roll of HR-DEV to shoot, but I’ll still have a lot of this developer left. I’ll probably experiment with this developer on other films to see how it behaves and use this bottle up.

Whenever I break out the developing chemicals I light a scented candle. My wife is super sensitive to odors and many chemical odors interfere with her breathing. The candle helps.

I mix the developer first and start developing. Between agitation periods, I mix the stop bath, fixer, and wetting agent. I use Kodak Indicator Stop Bath, Kodak Kodafix fixer, and Kodak Photo-Flo wetting agent. At first I used a graduated cylinder to measure these chemicals, but later I bought some 10ml syringes, which are easier to use. I use distilled water to dilute my chemicals.

I reuse my fixer about five times before discarding it. So most of the time I’m not actually mixing fixer, but rather pouring it out of a storage bottle. I’ve gotten advice that I can use my fixer far more than five times. But fixer does eventually exhaust, and I don’t want to learn when the hard way. Fixer isn’t all that expensive, really. It’s just needlessly wasteful to use it only once.

In the photo above, you can see my fixer (far left) is yellowing a little, probably thanks to residual stop bath in the tank after having developed four other rolls. After I pour out the stop bath I usually rinse the tank with a swig of tap water to prevent that. It looks like I must have forgotten somewhere along the way.

I use the Massive Dev Chart Timer app on my iPhone to manage the developing process. It cost eight bucks, but the app is worth it. It keeps all the recipes from the Massive Dev Chart and lets me adjust developing time for temperature. The app then leads me through the entire developing sequence with timers that tell me when to agitate and when to pour out a chemical.

When it’s time to agitate the film I use the agitator rod, usually five spins one direction and then five the other, repeating until it’s time to stop agitating. I follow the Massive Dev App’s agitation scheme, which for every recipe I’ve used is continuous for the first minute and then ten seconds every minute thereafter. I tried inversions early on but gave them up. It’s challenging to get the lid on the tank, especially under time pressure. Also, I never figured out how to invert gently enough and thus burned a lot of film. The agitator rod works perfectly for me.

I use the Ilford method to wash my film. Here, I don’t mind putting the lid on the tank because timing isn’t important and the Ilford method saves time and water. I fill the tank from the tap, put on the lid, invert five times, and discard the water. Then I repeat with ten inversions, and then with 20 inversions. I rotate the tank a quarter turn with each inversion to make sure the water distributes over the film evenly. Then I put in the diluted Photo-Flo, let it sit for 30 seconds, and discard.

Then I open the tank and take out the film. I squeegee the film using the Johnny Martyr method. Some people worry about the squeegee scratching the film, but that hasn’t happened to me. When I skip this step I get water spots, despite my use of Photo-Flo. Then I hang the film to dry off the shower curtain rod, using a plastic hanger and a binder clip at each end of the film. Miraculously, I get very little dust on my negatives.

I enjoy trying new-to-me films, but what I’m discovering is that every film has some developers that bring out its best look, and the developers I use might not be among them. Right now I really want predictably good results when I develop and scan at home.

So I will figure out a few films that look good in Rodinal or L110, and stick with them. I want one good film at each of ISO 100/125 and ISO 400. I’d also like an inexpensive film for testing cameras.

I just bought a bunch of Ilford FP4 Plus in hopes it can be my good ISO 125 film; it wowed me when I shot it for the first time recently. I’ve already developed a lot of Kodak T-Max 400 and it’s pretty good in these developers, but I might try a couple other ISO 400 films to see if I can do better.

When I get around to trying inexpensive films, I’ll try Ultrafine and Kentmere. I’ve tried Foma in its ISO 100 and 200 guises and haven’t been thrilled, though I’ve gotten advice that Fomapan 200 delivers best results shot at EI 125 or 160.

That’s it! If you have wisdom to share that might help me refine my technique or get better results, let me know in the comments!

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27 thoughts on “Lessons learned so far in home film development

  1. Andy Umbo says:

    If you’re looking for consistency, Ilford FP4 + is probably the way to go. A great looking film (altho me and a lot of other “pros” I knew at the time, didn’t think it looked as good as regular FP4 when it came out), and about the only game in town now that Agfapan 100 and Verichrome Pan are long gone. That’s an opinion from a “pro” that never liked Plus-X at all, and also didn’t like any of the T-Max films for their “different” tonal reproduction of skin. Didn’t know many that adopted T-Max films at the time anyway, because of the different agitation, chemicals, etc. to get good results, and as “pros”, we were never “chasing grain”. Too grainy, use slower film and more light, or a larger format!

    I’m teaching myself to love Ilford HP-5 plus, but only because they support the film world, and one can ever tell what Kodak will pull next. The Tri-X of my youth was superior, but they “improve” the formula all the time. I’ve seen Kodak “improve” many things until they were unusable! I was also never a fan of Tri-X “Pro” asa 320; never seem to have the sparkle.

    I’ve tested a lot of the “euro” films sold by Freestyle, and consistency wasn’t their strong suits, so when using it for “testing” Beware. Kentmere is, of course, Ilford, but I’ve had emulsion tearing with them (interesting, because I used to have emulsion tearing with the original FP4 Ilfords, but none with the “plus”; is Kentmere the old formula?), as well as the Arista brands. and Foma can be all over the place, so buy up the same emulsion number if you can, for consistency in testing. Foma, BTW, is another film probably dependent on type of developer. Looked fantastic for me in straight D-76 (as most old style films probably would).

    • I just developed/scanned my first roll of FP4+ this week and … it didn’t turn out as sparkling as I hoped. I used my Nikon F2AS and I’m not sure its meter is still right. I also used my 35-105 zoom and the more I use that lens the less I like it. So I’m not sure I gave the FP4+ a fair shake. I’ll try it in a known-good camera with a known-good lens soon.

      The euro films perform well enough for this amateur. They just aren’t as flexible as the Kodak/Ilford films — less latitude, easier to block up shadows and blow out highlights. They need more accurate metering. But within those limits they’re fine for my purposes. I’ve especially enjoyed Fomapan 200 and Ultrafine Xtreme 100.

      • Andy Umbo says:

        Funny you should mention this Jim…when FP4+ first replaced regular FP4, the main complaint from the pros I knew using it was that the film didn’t seem to have enough “sparkle” in the highlights. The film base was very gray, compared to original FP4, which seem to have a very clear base, like Verichrome Pan! BTW, Agfapan 100 had the same kind of “clear” base too, another reason I favored it in 120, until it’s demise.

        I actually noticed this again last year when I was doing an inventory of my film files from back in the day: the later FP4+ looked to have a dark base compared to the earlier film. Could it account for the less sparkly highlights?

        • It just might. I’ve encountered only a couple of films with a clear base. I should go see what the scans look like and see if there’s a correlation.

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  3. nigelkell says:

    Yes, find a film/developer combination that you like, and stick to it. when you have totally predictable results, you can try another film, confident that if you don’t like it, it’s not your technique at fault.

  4. Greg Clawson says:

    Thanks Jim! My Paterson tank is showing up tomorrow so I can embark on my home development journey. I will use this as a reference as I give it a go and see what happens.

  5. For somebody who claims to not be a mechanic, your approach to all of this – whether choice of camera, film, subject, and now developing – is meticulous. Obviously your skills exceed your expectations, and maybe that’s where the meticulousness originates?

    • I am meticulous by nature. I also deeply enjoy amassing knowledge and building experience. I just wish my brain and my body were more deeply connected.

  6. I use my fixer around 15 times. It’s probably still ok for longer but, as you say, it’s not too expensive and better-safe-than-sorry.

    I test it occasionally with a small piece of exposed film – usually the leader that I removed from the roll, but I’ve also got a few scraps that I’ve kept for this purpose – I dip it partway into the fixer then time how long it takes to clear to see if it’s still good.

  7. SilverFox says:

    Great write up Jim; it’s been something like 30 years since I developed my own film but planning to get back to it soon.
    I am planning to use monobath just for simplicity.

  8. Carl Nygren says:

    Your film development procedures look very good. Consistency is the key to achieving good film results.

    I’ll add a couple thoughts based on my experience. I never pry off caps from the 35mm cartridges any longer. I just pull the film out and cut it off about a 1/4 inch from the cartridge. I can reuse the cartridge when I spool my bulk film, and prying the cap off just takes extra time. I no longer use acid stop bath. It has a strong odor and tap water works just as well. I process about 25 rolls of film with a 1/2 gallon working solution of fixer. After about 10 rolls, the time it takes to completely fix the film starts to take longer. I monitor the time by removing the cover of the developer tank after about 2 minutes. If the film looks clear, I’ll leave it in the fixer 2 more minutes. If it is still foggy, I’ll check it again every minute until it is clear. I then double the total time in the fixer by the time it has taken to clear.

    Good luck with your future film projects!

    • Thanks very much Carl! I think I’ll try the water stop bath. I think it’s the acid stop bath that generates most of the odors that bother my wife anyway.

      I’m not excited about futzing with fixer to the point where I need to check it like that — stuff’s not that expensive, I’ll continue to just use it <10 times.

  9. GJ says:

    Hi Jim, I went through a similar learning curve about 5-6 years ago, and am now settling on HP4+ (I also liked Fuji Neopan 100 Acros, but that film has become very/too expensive).

    Sharing some of my experience:

    As mentioned above, fixer can have a pretty long life. Mine is 4 years old(!), and used for 18 films until now. Like fishyfisharcade above, I do regularly test it using a small strip of exposed film. When this test strip takes too long to fix, it is time to change the fixer (Ilford Rapid Fixer in my case).

    Also, take off your watch before putting your hands in the dark bag, as it might damage your pictures when it emits light (lumen on the hands/dial, or a smart watch activating due to movement or some notification coming in).

    Wrt getting water spots, I do the last rinse with distilled water and a tiny drop of Tetenal mirasol 2000 antistatic (got this as part of my “Tetenal film dev starter kit”, similar to Photo-Flo I presume), and have yet to see water spots.

    For me film development is a bit like cooking, it is has to be close enough but a little bit more or less doesn’t really matter. And adjust to your own taste/preference :)

    • The critical thing I’ve found is to choose recipes with development times more than 5 minutes. Less than that, and any timing errors are very likely to show up adversely on your negatives!

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