Developing Film at Home

Developing film at home is really easy but also kind of time consuming and frustrating. Almost everything you need to get started with home developing can be had for about $200, but then scanning or printing or whatever is a whole separate world of expense. I recommend buying as much as you can from Freestyle Photographic Supplies or from a local store. Amazon will have some but not all of these products.

I’m not going to write up a whole step-by-step. If you search on YouTube for “How to Develop Film”, you’ll find lots of great videos, including this very good one.

That said, there are three key steps: 1. Getting the film out of the cassette into your dev tank, 2. pouring liquids into and out of your dev tank, and 3. scanning the developed film into your computer (or maybe darkroom printing it onto photo paper, I guess).

Getting Film into the Dev Tank

This part is kind of fiddly.

Getting the film out of cassette and onto your reel and into your dev tank is actually kind of fiddly because you have to do it completely in the dark. Your dev tank is a big plastic cylinder that is light proof but still allows liquid in and out. Loading the film into the tank must be done in complete darkness, but then after that you’ll be able to turn on the lights and look at what you’re doing.

You can do this in a completely dark room, but I recommend buying a dark bag. It’s a big bag with a large zippered opening on one side and two arm holes on the other side. There’s no light inside the bag, but you can stick your arms through the arm holes to manipulate what’s inside the bag. This means you don’t have to make an entire room lightproof.

Inside the darkness of the dark bag, you’ll pop open the film cassette, unspool the film strip, wind the film onto a reel, and then place the assembled reel into a dev tank. You’ll need scissors for cutting the film free of the spool inside the cassette, and I also recommend cutting the corners off of the leading edge of the film strip before feeding onto the reel.

Everything’s a lot easier once the film is in the dev tank.

What you need to do it:

  • Scissors
  • Bottle opener: This church key style one is really affordable and is good for popping open the film cassette.
  • Dark bag: This one is affordable and works fine.
  • Development tank: I think this Paterson tank is good for starting out with. This is big enough for developing 35mm or medium format film. The single-size tank is not large enough for medium format film. The larger paterson tank is really sized for holding two 35mm reels at once, but it works just fine if you load it with just one reel.
  • Reels: Although some reels are included with the Paterson tank, these nicer reels have much larger flanges, making it easier to feed the film onto the reel. (In the YouTube video I linked above, the teacher agrees that some people find these larger flanges to be helpful.) One note: I think plastic reels are a ton easier to use that stainless steel reels. Reels are cheap, so I don’t really care that plastic reels are less durable.

Developing the Film

This part is really easy.

A little background on black and white negative film: Photographic film is a strip of plastic with a gel covering one side. When light hits the gel, light-sensitive crystals react to the light. “Developers” are a class of chemicals that turn the light-exposed crystals into a black crystals. Then “fixers” will dissolve away the crystals that were not light-exposed but will leave the black ones behind. This leaves black crystals remaining where the film was exposed to light. That’s why the image is a negative image—it’s darkest where the captured scene was lightest. This Wikipedia article has more details.

The basic gist here is you pour developer in the tank, and then you pour the developer down the drain. Then some people would use a “stop” to halt the development process, but I just use water. Then you pour fixer in the tank, and then you’ll pour the fixer back into your storage container because fixer is reusable. Then some people would use a “wash” to make sure all of the fixer gets removed. I mostly cycle water in and out of the tank a few times, but I do like using some “wash” in my last cleaning cycle because the surfactant helps prevent water spots from forming when the film dries.

There are a million developers out there you could use, in different concentrations and with different stirring or shaking techniques. The Massive Dev Chart is a good starting place for seeing what recipes you might like to use for different types of film.

The developer I recommend is Kodak HC-110. For every other chemical, the Freestyle house brand is perfectly fine.

What you need to do it:

Scanning?

Scanning the film is incredibly tedious and should be the step that is most likely to dissuade you from going through with this hobby. I use an Epson V550, which is fine on its own, but is seriously improved by some anti-Newton glass from BetterScanning.com. If your developed film is not sufficiently flat when mounted in the flatbed scanner, distortions called Newton rings will be apparent in your scanned photos. These glass inserts are specifically designed to reduce the incidence of Newton rings and generally make it easier to hold film in place in your scanner’s film holder.

The software that comes with the Epson V550 is basically fine, by the way.

Other Items to Consider

  • When your scissors are rattling around in your dark bag, you may want a set where the blades retract so they can’t poke you. I like using a multitool like this Leatherman Micra, in which all of the sharp edges can fold away.
  • Where are you going to hang up the film to dry? You’ll want to hang the film strips up in a relatively dust-free room. One Top Tip is to run your shower to steam up the bathroom for a few minutes before hanging up your film. Dust gets heavy in a steamy room and is less likely to get blown onto your film. Also think about not running your air conditioner.
  • You don’t have to wear gloves, but I always feel like these cotton darkroom gloves help me avoid getting fingerprints and dust on the film.
  • Fixer can be reused over and over again, so you’re going to want a large container for storing your working solution. I think this may be totally hokum, but I feel like I read somewhere that keeping your fixer in an Air-Evac bottle helps preserves it over time.
  • How are you gonna pour stuff from one container to another? Do you need funnels?
  • I like keeping old negatives in these archival sheets, which can fit into a three-ring binder.