Developing colour film is not as hard as you think
Horatio Carney has been kind enough to put together a guest post for us about how to develop colour film. Admittedly the thought of doing this puts most of us in jitters. I have done it once in college and I messed it up. But Horatio insists it is not as hard as you might think. And to show us he has put together a very informative step by step process on how to develop colour yourself.
Color negative development, or C-41, isn’t hard. That’s right; so don’t let the naysayers tell you otherwise. Sure, the process can be a bit finicky but I will go so far as to say that the C-41 process is well within the capabilities of any photographer who has even the most basic knowledge of black and white film development.
Truth be told, in many ways color negative development is actually easier than that of black and white. You see, with the black and white process, there are any number of film/chemical/time/agitation combinations that can be utilized to achieve a vast array of results. This is not the case for color print film. There is one basic method with one set of chemicals and one set of times. If that doesn’t make it simple enough, the process only takes about 15 minutes from start to finish. Not too bad, eh?
So why the bum rap? That’s easy, too. For the C-41 process to work, you need to carefully monitor the developer’s temperature to the degree, and stick with the prescribed methods of timing and agitation. Failing that, you will get odd color shifts and poor contrast. In the days of old, getting these conditions wrong caused big problems since photographers needed a solid baseline from which to color-balance their enlargements. Working with digital scanners today, this is not nearly so much of an issue.
Now, I’m not saying that you can’t get consistent results; indeed if you follow my method, your negatives should be VERY consistent. But what I am saying is that developing color negative film has greater tolerances if you are planning to scan your negatives as any colorcasts can be easily corrected via Photoshop. At any rate, don’t let the process frighten you; I stand by my earlier words of encouragement.
The most common chemical kit out there is the Tetenal C-41 Press Kit. This kit is also sold under the names Jobo and Unicolor, but they’re all the same. It will include four easy-to-mix powdered chemicals and according to the box, should develop 12-15 rolls of 35mm film (online reports have put this number closer to 25-30).
Mixing the Tetenol kit is simple enough. The developer goes into one liter of hot water, blix A and blix B are mixed together in another liter, and the stabilizer gets yet another. Make sure not to breathe in the powder while mixing, as this stuff is far from benign. When finished, store each chemical in a lightproof plastic container.
We’re almost ready to get started, but first I need to say just a few words on my setup. The most important thing to note is that I use two water baths. The first is a heating bath filled with extremely hot water. I use this to bring the chemicals quickly up to temperature. The second bath is a holding bath kept at 39°C and that keeps the chemicals at just the right temperature once they have been heated. I have both of these baths set below a faucet so that I can inject hot and cold water when needed and I use two thermometers, one to monitor the holding bath and the other to keep an eye on the developer as it is heating.
Getting to work:
I’m assuming that you already know how to load your film onto reels and then place them into a developing tank, but just in case you do not, you can learn here.
Start by placing the chemical bottles into the heating bath. Insert a thermometer into the developer bottle and wait for it to reach 39.5°C. This is actually half a degree too hot, but I find that in pouring the chemicals into the developing tank the chemicals will cool enough to place you right on target.
While you are waiting for the chemicals to warm, go ahead and fill the holding bath using hot and cold taps until you reach exactly 39°C. Once this temperature is reached, you will need to maintain it for the rest of the process. Keeping the correct temperature usually means injecting a blast of hot water whenever you see the thermometer reading start to drop; it’s pretty simple.
This is also a good time to give your film its first rinse. This will allow water to saturate the emulsion so that the chemicals will have a more efficient effect. This rinse also serves to warm the tank and get rid of your film’s ant-halation backing. Pour some water from the holding bath into your development tank and then set the filled tank into the holding bath while your chemicals finish heating.
When the developer hits the 39.5°C mark, dump the water in the developing tank and pour in the developer. Once the tank is full, cap it then start your time. Agitate the tank by completely inverting then righting it for the first ten seconds. Then, do the same for four inversions every half-minute thereafter. Make certain to place the developing tank back into the holding bath when you are not agitating, otherwise your chemicals will start to cool.
After starting the development step, I quit filling the heating bath with hot water. The developer is the most temperature-critical chemical as the blix has a tolerance of 3°C in either direction and the stabilizer can simply cool until needed. You will do fine to leave the remaining chemicals in the heating tank for now.
At 3:15, pour the developer back into its bottle and at 3:30, pour in the blix. Blix is a portmanteau of the words bleach and fixer. The bleach removes the three silver emulsions on your film leaving behind only the color dyes while the fixer will desensitize the emulsion to light. Agitate to the same tune as above for 6:30. Also, as the blix gives off gas during this stage, it’s a good idea to leave the chemical port of your tank uncovered so that pressure will not build. When finished, return the blix to its bottle.
Now, you can open the tank lid and wash the negatives for 3:00 beneath a warm, running tap. This will get rid of any remaining blix.
Finally, add the stabilizer and agitate as before for ten seconds. At 1:00, return the stabilizer to its bottle. And that is the final stage of the development process. No final wash, no Photoflo; simply hang your negatives to dry!
Although the negatives may look a bit murky straight out of the tank, after a few minutes, they will begin to clear and in a couple of hours you will have crisp color negatives waiting to be scanned and archived.
As a parting piece of advice, it’s important to note that this is just my process. I played around with it and found something that worked for me. I suggest you use this article as a reference point and do the same. So experiment, have fun, and find what works for you!
Horatio Carney has a site that you should check out www.horatiocarney.com (link is now dead) It is filled with useful stuff. He will also be writing a piece about keeping film economical, so watch out for that.
Do you have experience developing colour? Tell us how it went for you in the comments below.
did this a lot with ektachrome .. never had a problem … but i am still staying with digital now :-)
Wow. I never thought it would be that easy. Great read.
I recommend the Compard C-41 kit that uses fluid chemicals. The first developer is in three parts. they never go bad, as they start to age when they are mixed. Then the bleach and fixer are separate. The bleach is the most expensive componenent of the whole C-41 chemical set, but can be “activated” with by getting air into it. The fixer can be the normal acid film/paper fix. So for a B&W shooter, you actually buy only the three part first developer. It can be bought from Macodirect, Germany.
Final note: When developing in a metal tube, you can fill just the half of the developing tank and roll the tube all the time in the 39 degree water bath, that halves your cost. Good luck, it is actually easier than Black & white just as Horatio said…
It’s been quite a while since you posted your comment but I noticed it only recently :) I have never developed C-41 films myself. Can you, please, tell me what is the process of “activating” the bleach? One just needs to open a bottle with the bleach and keep it that way for some time? Then how much time is needed?
Is there a way one can check the chemicals (whether one of the components went back) before processing a film?
nice article! F295 has a great laminated quick reference card for developing your own color film that really simplifies the process:
C41 was always much easier than B&W for me. Whoever says colour is harder they are lying. All you need is a digital thermometer and you’re set.
I have always wanted to experiment with home processed C-41. I gratefully received a gift of a JOBO kit from by friend and have been building up the courage to try it. So thank you for this article, Horatio, it makes it all seem a lot easier and helps to settle my concerns.
My main concern was the storing what I was told by friends would be a 23 gallon garbage bin that I would need to use as a heated water reservoir! Having read this article, I see I can probably do it in a small tub. Nevertheless, I will probably wait till the summer, as it’ll be easier to maintain a constant temperature in our 35C summer weather. My kitchen water heater is not particularly powerful and the temperature is not very stable in winter. Do I need to be careful about maintaining the temperature of the Blix, or just the Developer?
My second reservation about using this process is the chemicals are a lot more noxious than the black and white chemistry I use at home, and worse for the environment, too. I have read that the stabilizer is formaldehyde. I appreciate that lab C-41 is probably as bad, but I think they’ll get more economy out of their chemicals and I won’t risk exposing my kids to that stuff. I wonder if I can bottle up the chemicals and have my lab dispose of them for me.
My third reservation is that commercial C-41 process is so cheap and quick here in Hong Kong. I can get a roll developed here in half an hour for about US$2. I buy so much film that my local lab will also scan it for free.
This kit was designed for press photographers that had no access to a lab on assignment, but given that I live in convenient Hong Kong and not a war zone, the main reason for wanting to home develop is not to achieve the most consistent process, but rather to _deviate_ from it.
Specifically, I want to be able to do things like bleach bypass. Lab automated C-41 has 4 stages: developer, bleach, fixer, and stabiliser. The Jobo Tetenal Press Kit combines the bleach and fix in one step called Blix (portmanteau of bleach and fix). Blix comprises two powder components “A” and “B”. I am told that Blix A is the fixer (note that it contains Sodium Thiosulfate, a common fixer) and Blix B is the bleach (as it contains Sodium Iron EDTA). However other sources say you can’t just use one part, you absolutely have to mix them. Perhaps I could just use Kodafix? I would be grateful if Horatio or another expert would help me here.
Another thing I would like to try is colour gamma shifts. I think that a temperature deviation would affect the colour rendition, but it should also affect the degree of development, so I wonder if anyone knows how to adjust to get a certain colour shift?
I suppose I should be experimenting for myself. All that really remains is to build up an inventory of developed and unprocessed colour films and have a go. I am told that mixed developer has an extraordinarily short life. I shoot mostly black and white and I doubt I’d ordinarily end up with 20 rolls of film (that I would be willing to experiment with at least) in a month, as the important shots would go straight to the lab.
Your developer needs to be spot on (within a half degree) but your blix can vary in temperature by about 3 degrees up or down.
Using this method you can get your development costs down to about .50-1.00 USD per roll but that is not factoring in your water bill.
I would not worry too much about chemical toxicity. It’s not nice stuff to be sure, but by exercising regular chemical safety and not touching or breathing the stuff (especially in powdered form) you or your children should not face any health issues. As far as disposal, I would take it to the same place that you would your spent fixer.
Oops, and I forgot to mention that as I understand it you cannot use the blix chemicals separately. Still, I’ve never tried it, so who knows?! Experimenting is definitely your best bet.
I have done work with this JOBO set for about 10 rolls every 2 months. I use a similar process, yet I add some Photo plow in the last part to clean up the water spots. It is also nice that I do not have to run over the the one hour photo store a couple of times at a Walgreens or other OHP. I have had some poor performance with no so technical and non photo people working in the simple labs.
I get bigger RAW files for my films via my own scans.
BTW, use a aquarium heater to keep your water warm in the chemical holding tanks.
I used the Rollei c41 kit from freestyle photo. It comes with the 4 chems with bleach and fixer separate instead of the blix. The chemicals also come as a concetrate instead of spending a long time trying to get the darn crystals to dissolve. It was just as easy for me to use as the black and white process is. I would love to use it again if I had more brown bottles to use.
Also, it seems that most of the chemicals are being made to process at the lower 20C temperatures, obviously with extended time. I think it was like 28 minutes. Have you ever tried processing a roll with the lower temperature?
film rules. I picked up the Tetenal C-41 Press Kit while ago and its easy as pie.
FWIW I’ve been using the Unicolor C-41 powder kit from Freestyle for the last year or so. Great kit, simple to use. I usually split up the kit into 3 batches and weigh the powder out. Definitely recommend the kit for anyone!
Great article, certainly going in my favorites. I just started doing B+W and I’m hooked. I guess it’s time to start trying out color. Thanks again!
It is really fantastic article. C41 i easier for me. I think color study is so much important for chemical using. I think online color readings also can help a man or woman which are responsible in color chemical industry.
That ‘horatiocarney.com’ link is not working, and on the second try redirects to some other very dodgy site.
Does anyone have the instructions online for the Tetenal C-41 Press Kit for Color Negative Film? I lost mine : (
The article was mainly of good help, I just have a few questions!
You said after the time is up for the chemical, to pour back into bottle, how do you know when it is time to get new chemicals?
Also, are the times you have posted in instructions the amount of time to use that chemical and inversions, or how long into the process you are when you do it?
I am looking to start developing my own film while in college and want to do it right!
Aquarium heaters’ top temperature is 93°F. How is that helpful?
I found the same thing with aquarium heaters when I looked into this. None of them seem to go any higher than 35C, which makes sense because I’ve never even heard of fish being kept that warm.
If you really don’t want to faff around with hot and cold water, your best option is probably a lab waterbath, which will do the job perfectly but is perhaps overkill. Also, a heavily used one can still set you back $200.
Alternatively, I found something called a ‘bucket heater’ which seems to be designed for some kind of construction application. It’s a lot cheaper than a waterbath, but I’m not sure how I feel about putting my hands in a bucket of water alongside a high-powered Chinese mains electrical device (the only place these seem to be available is on eBay from China).
I just developed using C-41 for the first time a few months ago. When I read the instructions and people’s concerns about temperature I immediately realized I had a solution.
The answer is a sous vide. It costs less than $150 now and will keep a water bath at precisely any temperature from room temp to to 99 degrees celsius indefinitely.