Part 2: How to process your own black and white film

Shot with Olympus XA2 on Kentmere 400 film. Developed in HC-100 dilution E at 68F for 7.5 minutes.  Digitized with Epson V500 scanner.

Last week, we discussed supplies needed and preparation of the various chemistry required to develop your own black and white film (click here for Part 1).  This week, we’ll go over the process itself.

Here’s a big picture overview of all the steps:

  1. Developer
  2. Water rinse (or optional Stop Bath)
  3. Fixer
  4. Water rinse
  5. Optional Wetting Agent
  6. Hang film to dry

But before all this, step one is to get your film from the roll to the developing tank without exposing it to any light.  If you have a room in your house that is completely light tight, that is ideal; otherwise you can buy a changing bag and use that instead.

Before you try this on a real roll of film with important pictures on it, you’ll want to practice it several times in the light so you can directly visualize what you’re doing.  I bought some of the cheapest film I could find online and used that for my practice runs.

If you’re using 35 mm film, pop the film canister open using your cassette opener.  Pull the film strip out and feed it into the white plastic spool that came with your Paterson tank.  There are instructions accompanying the developing tank that tell you how to do this; basically you feed the film into the guide and ratchet the spool back and forth until all of the film is wrapped around the inside of the spool.  Once you see it done once, you’ll understand.

If you’re using medium format film, then you do not need a cassette opener.  Just unwrap the spool and get your film out.  Very easy.  Feeding this larger film into the spool is the same process as described above.

Do this several times until you know what’s going on.  Then try it with your eyes closed.  When we do the real thing, you’ll be in complete darkness, so you want to be very comfortable with the film transfer procedure using touch as your only guiding sense.

So now we’ve got our film inside the tank and ready to develop.  Set it aside while we prepare our chemicals.

Get out your big plastic cup.  Using a measuring syringe, add 12 mL of HC-110 syrup to the bottom of the cup.  Measure out 600 mL of water (measured at 68 degrees F) and add it the the cup.  When adding the first bit of water, swirl the cup around so the developer syrup dissolves into a uniform, light yellow solution.  Keep swirling a bit as you add the rest of the water.  Once the developer solution is ready, set it aside.

Get your second big plastic cup and mix up your fixer.  Set this aside.

Step 1: Developer

Grab your developing tank, pop off the red lid, and start your timer, set for 7 minutes and 30 seconds.  Pour in the developer, then replace the red lid.  Invert the developing tank 4 times to mix up the contents, then set it on the counter.  Every minute that passes, repeat the inversion process.  When there’s about a minute remaining, pop the red lid back off and make sure your fixer is nearby.

Step 2: Water rinse

At 7 minutes and 30 seconds, take your developing tank and pour the developer down the drain.  Once the tank is emptied out, fill the tank with plain water (which ideally should be around a similar temperature as your developer), put the red top on, invert it several times, take the red top off, and pour the water out.  Repeat this a total of three times.  This will wash away the residual chemicals and halt the development process.

Optional step:  instead of using water to stop development, you could use Stop Bath instead.  This is another chemical that’s easy to find and mix up, and it has the advantage of working immediately as soon as it touches the film.  Also, it can be reused like the Fixer.  Stop bath isn’t essential, but it does speed up the process.

Step 3: Fixer

Once your final water rinse (or stop bath) is poured out, set your timer and pour in your fixer.  The Kodak fixer I used requires 3 to 4 minutes, but yours may vary so check the included instructions.  Just like with the developer, you’re going to invert the tank 4 times at the start of each minute.

Once your timer goes off, use your funnel to pour the fixer into the empty peroxide bottle.  This fixer can be used at least half a dozen times before it’s exhausted.

You’re now done with your timer, so set it aside.

The fixer step is not time critical as long as you leave it in long enough, so no need to rush.  If you leave the fixer in for a few extra minutes, it won’t do any harm.

Step 4: Water rinse

The goal here is to rinse away all the fixer from your film, so don’t skimp on this step.  The water temperature for this part doesn’t have to be exactly the same as your developer, but try to keep it within about 5 degrees either above or below.  Tap water is fine, so if you need to, adjust the hot and cold knobs until you have a consistent temperature.  Check with your digital thermometer.

Fill the developing tank with tap water, put the red lid on, and invert it 5 times.  Take the lid off, and pour the water out.

Rinse a second time with 10 inversions.  Pour it out.

Rinse a third time with 20 inversions.  Pour it out.

3 rinses is usually sufficient, but I like to do a quick 4th rinse just to be safe.

Step 5: Optional wetting agent

Wetting Agent is a fluid that prevents water spots from forming on your film as it dries.  It’s really easy to use.  After the water rinse described above, unscrew your developing tank and remove the film spool.  Add a few drops of wetting agent into the empty tank and fill it up with water.  Dunk your film spool back into the tank and swirl it around a little bit in the solution.  Take your film out, shake out all the excess water, and you’re ready to hang your film up!

Step 6: Hang your film

You can buy film clips or cobble together an apparatus to hang your film like I did.  I used two plastic clips – one on either side of the film strip – and hung the film in the shower using a wire coat hanger.  I tied a zippo lighter to the bottom clip to give it a little weight to prevent the film from curling up as it dries.

Leave it like this for a few hours until it’s completely dry.  Then you can cut the negatives into more manageable strips and scan them with a flatbed film scanner to covert them into usable photos.

Clean up:

Using plain tap water, rinse each individual part of your developing tank, including the spool, as well as your mixing cups and funnel.  This step is very important because if there is even a little bit of residual fixer in your tank, it will ruin the next roll of film you attempt to develop, so wash thoroughly.  Once everything is clean, lay out a towel and set out all the parts to dry overnight.  Do not attempt to develop another roll of film while the spool is still wet; you won’t be able to load your film properly.

So those are the basics of B&W film development.  Although I don’t develop my own film anymore, I got a great deal of enjoyment for the many years I did my own processing, and shooting a lot of film helped improve my digital travel photography.


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