Photography Guide: Tips and tricks to film development

We have a guest post for you today. Alex shares with us tips and tricks that he has learned through years of practice. Get comfortable, this is a long one.

A bit about myself

My name is Alex Chan and I live in Malaysia. I’m a software developer who loves film photography.

Like most people I started with digital photography but soon started doing film photography using slides (Fujichrome Fortia SP – a fantastic saturated film by Fujifilm but has long been discontinued since) but have since migrated to C41 and B&W film. It wasn’t long before I started to do my own home development.

Since I started I have been involved in many group collaborations at the print room KL and teaching others how to do their own development.

I decided to offer up this list of tips and tricks so it might help others and I would like to thank Bellamy for giving me the chance to share it.

But before we continue – a disclaimer: These are tricks I have learned over the years since I started doing my own development. Tested many times with no issues, but I will bear no responsibility if something goes wrong when you try them out. I suggest experimenting before incorporating them into your process. You are free to disregard these tips and tricks if you are happy with your process already.

Standard development process

This is the basis of how I develop my own film (of course it more than this but I am only going over the chemical process). Yours will vary accordingly:

  1. Using developer to develop film (The time for this is depending on many factors – film, developer, temperature and if you pushed or pull your film).
  2. Soak 1 minute with stop bath.
  3. Soak 5 minute with fixer.
  4. 15 minutes of washing with running water.

I know some people have their own styles and methods and I would love to hear about them. Please let me know.

Also a note about processing/developing film by yourself

  1. Wear an apron because the chemicals can really stain your clothes unless you are wearing something you don’t care about.
  2. Process in a clean place and away from food and water. Do not use the same utensils with development with the ones use for eating or drinking from.
  3. Clean up any spills are you go along.
  4. Always have an accurate liquid measuring equipment – any supermarket kitchen section should have decent measuring cup. DO NOT USE THE SAME ONE AS YOU USE FOR COOKING. Buy a special dedicated one for film development purpose
  5. A decent or basic thermometer. DO NOT USE THE SAME ONE YOU USE FOR YOURSELF. Buy a special dedicated one for film development purpose.
  6. Keep all your chems, utensils, tanks, reels and tools you use for film development in a container away from the kitchen. That way you won’t accidentally use them for cooking. In fact, do your development in the toilet if possible.

With that said, let’s begin

Foregoing stop bath or substituting it

You can absolutely forego stop bath step. But there is a reason for it. It is needed to stop development since developer is an alkaline solution, the stop bath being acidic will halt the process once the development time has been reached.

But I recommend against it because stop bath is cheap. You would only do this if you ran out of stop bath and/or lazy to get some more right away.

Keep in mind that skipping the stop bath step will exhaust the fixer MUCH faster especially if you are developing medium format film, large format or many rolls of 35mm. As fixer is an acidic solution, the residue developer will exhaust it faster and I rather spend money on getting stop bath than fixer.

But what I can suggest instead if you are in situation without it, substitute it. Especially with something from the kitchen.

If you have a well stocked kitchen, you can use distilled clear vinegar. But the mixture is 1:1 (for example, if you need 500ml of a stop bath then mix up 250ml of distilled clear vinegar and 250 of water.

From my experience this should be good for 10 rolls of 35 or about 5 rolls of 120 film.

Double loading medium film/120

This isn’t common practice to be honest, but you can actually load two rolls of medium format film onto 1 reel.

This is actually a holdover feature from 220 film that gives you twice as much shots per roll as 120. Sadly 220 is VERY hard to find anymore. What this means is that your reels technically can hold 2 rolls of 120 film.

But you need to practice doing this before since film loading has to be done in darkness with little room for error. On any given day just loading a roll of medium format onto any reel is a pain already as they tend to curl a lot (this is the result of poor quality film or poor storage – by not storing it in a cool dry place after shooting, it causes it to curl very badly) so the prospect of loading 2 is even worse.

The only benefit it offers is that it saves you time and effort depending on your point of view. An example say you have 1 regular paterson tank that can process 2 rolls of 35mm which requires at least 600ml to properly submerge the reels (it is actually 290ml per reel but it is better to round it up to 300ml instead).

A roll of medium format requires about 500ml to be submerged. If you process one medium format roll at a time, it will require double the total process time because you would have to develop, stop, fix and then wash 1 roll before moving onto the next roll. Now if you could process 2 rolls of medium format using 1 reel, you essential save yourself the development time of 1 roll since you are doing it at the same time.

The trick is to use some duct tape.

  1. Roll the first roll onto the reel.
  2. With duct tape, connect the end of the first roll to the start of the next roll.
    1. FYI, for some film like ilford, all medium format ends are connected to their paper backing by duct tape. The trick is to peel it off without damaging the film.

(Here is an example – the end of the roll for a Ilford FP4+. Notice the duct tape holding the film to the paper backing, you can reuse this to connect to the start of the next reel and it’s pre-cut!)

  1. Continue to load the reel of the second roll.

It sounds simple but I suggest practicing with 2 spoiled of uncut medium format rolls and a reel. The trick to use feel with your fingers and ensure that the second rolls is align with the end of the first roll before sticking with duct tape. I would strongly suggest doing this in a dark room where you have more room and less worry because doing this in a dark changing back will be very hard and frustrating.

Once you can do this with your eyes closed with confidence, then you can try it out for real.

Developer to use

There are many sort of chemicals to learn about but the main one you should be focused on is the developer because it determines what sort of results (texture, grain and contrast of the film) you will get.

I have used a few since and each has their benefits and weaknesses.

  1. Kodak HC-110 – The old time favorite at least for me. Many can attest that this developer is one of the most versatile since it can be used for any film. One benefit is the long shelf life, if kept in airtight containers in dark places this developer can last for years in its undiluted form (I am still using the 500ml bottle I bought in 2010 and aside from the color of the syrup darkening it continues to work without issue).
  2. Ilford HC – Ilford own version of HC-110. It even has the same standard dilution at 1:31 and almost the same development time for a lot of film. I used this for a while because I was able to get it at discount. This is a very good high volume developer, provided you process a lot of film frequently. Once drawback is that has a short to medium shelf life once opened.
  3. Ilford LC29 – Another developer developer by Ilford. A low cost but effective developer. I suggest to use this developer if you have cost concerns. But it has a short shelf life once opened.
  4. Ilford DD-X – A low grain developer primarily for their Delta film line. If you shoot a lot of Ilford’s Delta B&W film, it is best to use this. Mainly because it has shorter development time when compared to their other developers. The Kodak equivalent is the Kodak T-Max developer that is meant for Kodak’s own T-Max line.

I know by far this is a very small number of developers but it is the only ones I can easily purchase here.

One trick to extend the shelf life is to get a can of compressed gas used as a duster. Once you have finished development, take the can and blast a few spurt into the container and quickly tighten the lid back on. This would have displaced the air in the container extending the shelf life.

Another is to separate out the developer into many small bottles and fill each bottle to the brim hence ensuring no air are in them. This will definitely help extend shelf life.

Paterson and AP reels/tanks

Both the reels for the paterson and AP brand are cross compatible with their respective tank. I would suggest getting the AP reels because they have film guide.

This is especially VERY useful for loading in medium format film (but if you only plan to develop 35mm film, then both are equally good because both brands uses ball bearings to catch onto the sprockets to make loading effortless)

On the Left is the AP reel and on the right is a 3rd party reel that mimics the paterson reel.

Both brands works in either the paterson or AP tanks. But don’t try to get the Jobo reels and use them in either because they won’t fit at all. 

Adjusting development time without affecting development

Once you start to learn about development time for certain film and developers you will notice they will vary greatly some from 5 minutes to even 20 minutes.

This can be quite tedious and nerve wracking especially if you have many rolls to process, but there are ways to speed up development. First looks at the chart below for ilford lines of film.

(You can get a copy file from Ilford Photos website).

The standard development for HP5+ at ISO 400 is 6 minutes and 30 seconds when using Ilford HC at dilution 1:31. This is an acceptable time – short and simple.

But if you are developing Delta 3200 at ISO 3200 it’s 14 minutes and 30 seconds when using HC at dilution 1:31. Usually you would have no choice but to grunt through the long development time especially if you have many roles to process and not enough reels to load. But there are a few ways to shorten this time without affecting the results.

  1. Different developer – If you use Ilford DD-X, it’s only 9 minutes instead. Plus this is the recommended film to develop Delta film.
  2. Different developer ratio – Another way is to use a more concentrated ratio, if you look at the chart you can shorten the time to just 8 minutes by using the dilution ratio of 1:15 when using Ilford HC.
  3. Different temperature – Now here is one of those not often used trick. All of these development times in the chart are based on the assumption the developer would always be at 20 celcius/68 fahrenheit . You can actually develop at a higher temperature and because the developer is more active now, you can shorten the development time. Example if you develop when the temperature of the developer is at 25 celcius/80 fahrenheit, the time for Delta 3200 is just 7 minutes and 45 seconds – a very good time reduction.

Let me elaborate more on the 3rd trick, this isn’t really a secret. Many have been using this trick already but it isn’t usually taught in classes. Ilford even provided a temp chart just for this.

NOTE: Some of you might be tempted to try to mix and match all 3 tricks to drastically reduce development and you can BUT it is strongly advise that a minimum development of at LEAST 5 minutes or else the film might not be properly developed. Also DON’T USE too high (max at 25 celcius/80 fahrenheit) or too low (min at 18 celcius/64 fahrenheit) of a temperature to try and reduce development time, you will end up damaging your film.

Use this trick at your own risk, as always try them out first before hand. This trick has little effect on stop bath and fixer so just stick with the normal temp and time for those 2 chemicals.

I suggest keeping a printed copy of both these charts, laminate them together and keep them with your development kit for easy access.

There so many other tricks but I feel these are the ones that can help a lot of people with their development process the most. I would love to hear and learn from others about their own tips and tricks so please feel free to drop me an email at [email protected]. My twitter account can be at analog in progress.

Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity to share this article.

Alex Chan

Many thanks for sharing your experience with us Alex. Very useful stuff.