Jerome Arfouche with another article about film
Guest writer Jerome Arfouche is back with another piece, part 3 of The Medium. This time Jerome tells us why we should be developing our own film. Please comment and tell us what you think.

The medium part 3 – why you should develop your own film

Hopefully the last article would have at least tempted you to try out film, or if you are already familiar with it perhaps convinced you to stick with it. In either case it’s now time to take another step forward, developing your own film !

Sometimes I see photographers taking up film and that’s always a nice thing thing to see, but often I wonder why is it they still send them to the lab to have them developed. It is known that some of the best photographers didn’t develop their own. Indeed HCB for example focused only on shooting, and we all know what happened to Capa’s pictures from D-Day, so why should we choose to do so ourselves ? It is true that development is yet another technique to understand, to know and to master, that takes time and practice.

The most simple reason surely will appeal to most. I won’t dwell too long on the economics of film, but consider my chemistry expenses as a simple example: my local lab charges me 7.5$ to develop one roll of film, 4$ extra if pushed. One bottle of fixer: 8$, one bag of 5L Xtol, 10$.
With the fixer I can mix 2.5L of the stuff at 1+4 and reuse it at least 4 times, so let’s assume I have 10L of fixer and 10L of developer (at 1+1). Each roll of film requires 290mL of developer and 290mL of fixer (in a Paterson tank system), so with 18$ I just developed 34 rolls of film, at the lab that would cost me 255$, 391$ if they were all pushed (which I do often).
Think of all the extra film you could buy with that, or the cash you could put towards the next lens purchase.

You now have more room for error and experimentation which don’t come cheap when developing at the lab. You get to try that weird new technique you read about on a forum, push or pull the film any way you like, you get to sample the different combinations of developers, concentrations etc.

That first point speaks for itself, now onto more subjective and interesting things.
First up, style.
Developing your own film will go a long way in helping you find a consistent coherent style of your own, simply because every development technique translates into a given look. Over time you will want to converge towards one or two formulas rather than have twenty ways of doing it, and that is a natural progress as we find what works and what doesn’t. For example after a while I found I preferred medium development times with less agitation (involving yet not too tiring), this results in evenly developed midtones and a nice contrast that isn’t too exaggerated.

Development will also make you more involved and aware of how your creative choices turn into photographs. Sending the film to the lab somehow feels strangely disconnecting from the analog procedure. I strongly believe that creating a photograph doesn’t end at exposure, development is also part of it and so it printing (but that’s another story) and so carrying it out all the way is immensely more satisfying than sending the film to a lab where someone you don’t know will take care of it for you. It is also a much more personal approach.

Pace and methodology
I may have mentioned this already but I am an impatient person by nature, developing film has really taught me some patience. If shooting film hasn’t slowed you down yet, developing surely will ! The fact that, after having shot some film, you have to find time to go through that pile and develop it all will surely add some considerations when you burn through the stuff on the street or elsewhere.

Developing allows me to pace myself. I generally wait till I have about 10-16 rolls before I develop them, that’s enough time for a small series, a couple of weeks in a city somewhere, or about a month of shooting the street at home. I will start to think in periods, or chapters if you will. It’s like an experiment batch, I know it will take me about a month until my next development, I will adjust my rhythm accordingly until then.

Just as walking outside for hours shooting helps many of us clear our minds, I find there is something almost therapeutic about the process of developing. Maybe it’s being in the dark, maybe it’s the precision of it all, I don’t know. The repetitive actions (agitate every minute, empty bath, pour fixer, agitate every minute) give a sort of soothing rhythm to that process that I find very pleasant. One has to pay attention to the water temperature, agitate in the same way throughout, at regular intervals, be careful with the solution concentrations…strangely this near mathematical precision isn’t worrisome at all, it’s even liberating in some aspects, just trust the science :)

Developing yourself will give you complete creative control over what you choose to do with your output. This isn’t only for mildly OCD individuals such as myself, but it is a true advantage to consider. When I still sent my film to the lab, often certain shots would be disappointing because the way they turned out didn’t adhere to my original impression, by developing myself I ensure that what I get in the end is exactly what I intended, not what a lab assistant thought was best to do, despite their best intentions.
Labs will tend to give you a neutral development aimed to suit most people, but that’s no good to the discerning photographer. This is like restaurants that serve you bland food, but will give you salt, pepper and hot sauce on the side. And there’s always the small but very real possibility they will ruin your film, scratches, too much dust, excessive heat in drying… Why take the chance of having someone else ruin your film ? Ruin it yourself !

It’s fun. What more can I say. I’ve been developing for almost two years, I’ve done well over a hundred rolls yet every time I take the wet negatives off the reels I still get the same excitement I felt the very first time I saw those small images unravel off the spiral. The simple preparation of the ingredients, that smell of fixer that permeates my clothes afterwards, there is nothing like it (mad scientist chuckle)
The best part is, it isn’t nearly as difficult as people picture it to be. BW is the easiest to develop, the emulsion is fairly forgiving and will accommodate errors and slips, the chemistry is widely available and the temperatures involved aren’t too difficult to maintain, but even color is not very difficult provided you can find the chemicals.

Learn more about Jerome: