Developing my first roll of colour film
Matthew Martin shares with us his experience developing colour film at home and how it changed the way he looks at photography. Check it out.

Hi I’m Matt. I’m a documentary photographer and blogger based in Chester, UK. I recently made the decision to move all of my photography over to film. 

I was born in the 80’s, and grew up around film cameras. My dad taught me how to use an SLR when I was around 10 years old on a family holiday. All of our family snaps were taken on film cameras and printed as 6x4s. I experimented with film a couple of times during my teens, but I was a paperboy at the time and my weekly wage of £8 didn’t go very far. It was mostly spent on cigarettes, cheap cider and public transport. Anyway, needless to say I wasn’t shooting film for long. 

It’s been a couple of years since I got back into photography and started taking it more seriously, mostly shooting day-to-day stuff as a kind of photo journal/documentary project with some street thrown in to pass the time. I’ve been shooting digital the whole time, but I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get my photos to look like film. I guess I have some nostalgia for the days spent using my dad’s SLR and flicking through piles of 6x4s. 

After a friend challenged me to use a disposable camera to take some photos I had a bit of an epiphany. I’d spent so much time perfecting the ‘look’ of my photos, and I’d spent a lot of money buying different digital cameras trying to find one that would get me closest to the look I wanted (for the record, the closest I got was this camera), I have two of them, one cost £10 and the other £25). When I saw this shot from the disposable camera, I just knew I would be making the switch to film.

Why waste all that time and money on trying to make my digital photos look like film, when I could just shoot film? It seemed pretty obvious really. 

So I picked up a compact camera and started shooting. At first, I was getting my film processed at Max Speilman, a high street lab here in the UK. The first time I went in they didn’t know what I wanted when I asked them to scan the negatives – which gives you an idea of their competence level when it comes to film. Asking for ‘CD only’ from their menu seemed to get a better response. The results were ok I guess, but the files were very small jpegs and left a lot to be desired. They shove the roll in the machine and you get what you’re given. I wanted more control.

So I started researching developing film at home and scanning my own negatives. After a lot of time spent reading reviews and tutorials, I bought everything I needed to get the job done. Chemicals, developing tank and a scanner. I’d been told that developing colour film was a royal pain in the arse, but after watching some video tutorials and speaking to some friends I was ready to take the plunge.

I’ve just finished developing my first roll of film. It was shot in an untested camera with a fixed aperture of f5.6 – a Minolta AF101R that cost me £1 on ebay. I used Vista 200 film but I hacked the DX code to make the camera think it was 400 in an effort to get more benefit from the flash in low light. Untested camera, hacked film and my first attempt at developing. What could possibly go wrong?!

I wont go into the process of actually developing the film, because Horatio Carney wrote a great guide on that already. I pretty much followed that guide to the letter, the only difference was I added an extra 30 seconds to the development stage because I’d under exposed the film by one stop.

I have half a dozen rolls I need to process, but I chose to use a roll from testing the £1 eBay camera. I shot the whole roll in less than 12 hours so I wasn’t too worried about losing anything good if things went wrong. I can process up to 5 rolls at a time in my tank, but I figured I’d do one at a time to begin with; in case I screwed things up. I followed the procedure as best as I could, and paid close attention to the temperature of the chemicals. I was pretty apprehensive about doing it for the first time, but aside from not accounting for how long it would take to pour the chemicals in and out of the tank it went fairly smoothly. It was way easier than I’d imagined.

When I’d finished, I opened the developing tank for the first time and marvelled at what I had created. In the imaginary movie of my life, this scene cuts to flickering black and white and I cackle an evil laugh whilst lightening strikes. I am Dr Frankenstein and the negatives are my monster.

Seriously though, I like to think of myself as a pretty rational person (I’m an engineer by day, it comes with the territory) but I was instantly won over by the process. Before I opened that tank, I just saw developing my own film as a means to an end. A necessary evil to get the look I wanted. I totally didn’t expect it, but as I pulled the negatives from the reel and hung them up, something just felt right about the whole thing. I was kind of blindsided by it if I’m honest. I didn’t think I would care. It felt so personal doing it all myself from start to finish. Creating pictures with nothing but my own hands and a few bottles of chemicals was so much more rewarding than handing a roll of film over the counter, or sitting in front of a computer post-processing digital images. It felt much more tangible and real.

The negatives look pretty good. I was kind of expecting a calamity on my first attempt but I’m pleasantly surprised. About two-thirds of them are nice and dense, the other third look underexposed – but I kind of expected that since the camera I used is basically one step above a disposable and by hacking the DX code I encouraged underexposure. I’ve just hung up the roll on the shower rail to dry before I scan it. I seriously cannot wait to look at the results. It’s taking all of my willpower to not break out my fiancee’s hair dryer to dry them off faster. 

Developing your own film is a magical experience and I’d recommend it to anyone. I’m already hooked. Now please excuse me while I go and list all my digital cameras on eBay.

The Next Day: After scanning the negs from the AF101R it was pretty plain to see the camera is borked. Weird colours and the focus leaves a lot to be desired. Oh well, I’ll chalk that one up to experience – it only cost £1. Maybe I’ll sell it to a lomography fan. The main thing is that I know it wasn’t my developing (a roll of Vista 200 pushed to 400 from an MJU-ii came out fine using the same method).




Matthew Martin

Thanks for sharing your experience with us, Matthew. It sounds like you had a lot of fun trying this out.