The Medium Pt 3 – Why you should develop your own film


by Bellamy /

5 min read


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.

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14 comments on “The Medium Pt 3 – Why you should develop your own film”

    Jason Howe February 1, 2012 at 11:37 am / Reply

    Great post. I can relate to so much of this, I’ve been developing B&W for about 6 months now out of necessity. There are only a handful of places still processing B&W in New Zealand believe it or not and nothing within 180km’s of me!!……..what I initially saw as a real problem has become something I thoroughly enjoy and I would probably never have considered doing it myself if it had been available locally. Cheers Jason

      Jerome February 1, 2012 at 11:44 am /

      Hey Jason, thanks for the comment. I heard a lot of things about film availability in Australia and New Zealand, didn’t know it was this difficult, that’s real dedication ! :)

    Kosta February 1, 2012 at 12:21 pm / Reply

    Hey Jerome!

    Great post, I enjoyed your contribution to developing film.
    I love doing my own black and white, and honestly after only ever having one roll done by a lab – would never go back to letting them do it again. (not just for cost, but quality – like you mentioned, Australia isn’t too friendly for film/developing)

    It’s a great process and something all film shooters should try. Then some dark room printing (the best part!).

      Jerome February 3, 2012 at 12:59 am /

      Thanks Kosta, you’re right, printing is my next step !

      Juanjo February 3, 2012 at 8:57 pm /

      You are right Kosta, printing is the best part, the most difficult tho, but the most enjoyable involved in the whole darkroom process. Maybe because it is quite artisan? No idea, but being in a darkroom is like a zen moment of peace and concentration, so try it Jerome, even for fun! Processing in labs is not only painful in money, what about when from a ‘professional’ lab you get sometimes the same or even more scratches in the negative that you get with your “home made” process?

      Again Jerome, great series of post, congrats!

    Pavel February 1, 2012 at 3:03 pm / Reply

    Good article. Developing film is easy – best if done as recommended by film manufacturer. I use cheap self made chemistry and it really saves money

    Daniel Kašaj February 1, 2012 at 3:27 pm / Reply

    I just became much more appreciative of my lab, as they charge me $2 for developing a neg, $4 for b&w

    Marius February 1, 2012 at 3:30 pm / Reply

    I totaly agree, but this applies only to those who shoot often, I myself shoot about 15 rolls of 35mm through the year so the initial investment into chemistry and tools are to hi. Here I pay ~1$ for C41 and 3$ for WB.

      Jerome February 3, 2012 at 1:00 am /

      You’re absolutely right, first year with film I did about 10 rolls ! Last year alone was around 95

    Eric Kim February 1, 2012 at 5:30 pm / Reply

    Fantastic article Jerome- makes me inspired to develop myself too!

      Jerome February 3, 2012 at 1:01 am /

      Thanks Eric, you should try it out ! :)

    Tobias W. February 1, 2012 at 10:24 pm / Reply

    I agree with everything said. My personal problem is that I don’t have a room I can darken 100%. I live in a small apartment with no room to dedicate to a lab. Hopefully that will change.

      Jason Howe February 2, 2012 at 3:38 am /

      You just need a Dark Changing Bag ($30.00 on ebay) I was going to mess around with a darkroom but I gave this a try first. Write off a roll of old film and practice loading on to the reel until you can do it blindfold……which is effectively what you’ll be doing in the bag. Job done…..

    Don Michael Brown February 20, 2016 at 2:54 pm / Reply


    Excellent post… Question? How do you keep your chemicals once you’ve cracked the seal or mixed the developer? 5L of XTOL is A LOT! Love the stuff though… I just worry it may go bad before I finish of the full 5 Litres…


    -DM Brown

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