Film development without darkroom

Introduction to film development

From time to time I get the impression that people are hesitating exploring film photography because of the hassle around it and not having the possibility to create a darkroom at home. The intention of this blog entry is to explain that the development of a film opens up a whole world of possibilities and that you don’t need a darkroom to be able to develop black and white film. Colour film is quite a different story, but often enough you can still have colour film developed the same day at the photo shops in the high streets. Of course it is also possible to have black and white film developed via the photo store, but this often takes one week or longer and more often than not, the negatives are returned with fingerprints or other blemishes. There are exceptions: here in the UK, for instance, Ilford offers a high quality, reasonably priced mail order service to develop and/or print black and white film, even films from different brands.

However, I would like to argue that developing yourself has many benefits: If you start experimenting or your have become more advanced you would like to under- or overexpose your shots to manipulate the contrast, and then, all of a sudden developing yourself makes things easier.

What, no darkroom?

You do need a darkroom if you decide to print your negatives. However, nowadays, a lot of images end up on the web or can be printed from JPEG or TIFF images; this also applies to me and therefore I scan my negatives. If you decide to scan your negatives, you don’t need a darkroom. I use an Paterson change bag to put the exposed film on the reel and in the development tank, and the rest can be done outside the change bag.

Minimum requirements

So what do you need to be able to develop your first film? I started off with the following:

  • Development tank and reel.
  • Change bag.
  • Thermometer.
  • Measures.
  • Clock or timer.
  • Developer and fixer.

I picked up the development tank and change bag at an online store; I bought the Paterson tank as I have used the plastic reels before and find them easy to use if you make sure the reel is completely dry before use by setting a hairdryer on it for a minute. The good thing with Paterson reels is that they can be used for both 135 and 120/220 format film.
For the measures I visited my local supermarket and raided the kitchen department. To be able to measure small amounts of liquids reliably, I bought some disposable syringes without needle in 10 and 20ml sizes via Amazon.
A kitchen timer or even a watch will do to keep time, but there are also dedicated timers on the market that can have up to several stages so you can pre-set the timer for all phases of development prior to starting.
It is important that the thermometer shows the temperature reliably as a single degree difference will give different results.

For my first developer I bought some Rodinal, but, now that I have developed a lot more films, I think the best developer for the novice is probably Kodak’s HC-110 as that gives good results with most films whereas Rodinal and some films will work really well, but it won’t work so well with others. Both Rodinal and HC-110 will keep forever, so you don’t need to worry about the developer going bad once you have bought a bottle. As for the fixer, I would recommend getting the cheapest and use it as a one-shot fixer.

Once you decide that you would like to develop your own films more often, you can consider buying the following:

  • Photo-flo or similar to minimize the water marks on the emulsion
  • Distilled or de-ionized water for the last few washes, especially if the tap water contains a lot of calcium.
  • A 20μ filter to keep any water-borne dirt out of your solutions.
  • A harderner if your fixer doesn’t contain it.
  • A film canister opener (but really a bottle opener will do). I can program my 35mm camera to leave a bit of film out of the canister when it rewinds and that means I don’t need the opener but the greatest benefit is that I can already have the start of the film on the reel, before putting it in the change bag. That does safe me a lot of hassle.

I never had any use for a squeegee nor for a stop bath.

Developing a film

Before shooting a film, I would visit the Massive Dev Chart or the section dedicated to film development on my website and see what data is available about the film, the ISO setting used (in this context this is usually referred to as Exposure Index or EI) and the developer you have at your disposal. You do need to realize that these values listed are just an indication as they are highly dependent of the camera and light meter used, and the quality of the light at the moment of exposure. Once you start to understand the process, it will be easy to adapt the values listed to your own situation.

So now you have an exposed film and you have it on the reel inside the development tank and you have diluted both developer and fixer into the working solutions you have decided upon with help of the charts mentioned above. The last thing to decide upon is the agitation method. If you search APUG or, you’ll discover that there are as many different agitation methods recommended as there are subscribers. With development times of less than 10 minutes, I usually use two inversions per 30 seconds and two inversions per minute for development times longer than 10 minutes. Over-agitation causes several problems but under-agitation causes different problems. It is important to have a system as it is all about reproducibility: if you like the results, you would like to repeat what you used that time. For that reason, I always use the same temperature of 20°C/68°F, even for the water I use for the washing as the emulsion of some of the older type films, like ADOX and Efke can develop problems if the temperature difference is too large and changed to quickly.

I don’t use a stop bath; once the development time has run out, I pour the developer out and pour some water in the tank, shake it violently before pouring the water out again and introducing the fixer. I do two inversions of the tank per minute during the fixing phase and use the manufacturer recommended times for fixing a film.

To wash the film, I use tap water for the first phase after I have poured the fixer out and let the film soak for several minutes before changing the water several times. The last wash I do with de-ionized water as the tap water is pretty calcium rich where I live and I wrap it up with some de-ionized water with a little bit of photo-flo.

Drying the film

The main challenge I had was to dry the developed film without getting too much dust to settle on the soft emulsion. Lots of people will recommend the bath room after having run some hot water from the shower head to fill the room with steam that will take down the dust, but I found the easiest way for me was to buy a cheap Ikea Billy bookcase with a door and without installing the loose shelves. I cut a big hole in the centre shelf and attached a couple of hooks in the top to hang my 120 and 135 format films from. No ventilation or heater was needed to build my own, cheap drying cabinet.

Scanning the film

I use a Nikon Coolscan V ED for my 135 format film and an Epson Perfection V500 PHOTO for my 120 format films. The Nikon scanner is great but difficult to get hold of and I would say that the Epson scanner is fine and quite cheap and it can be used for both 120 and 135 format film. The Epson scan mask is not great, and I would like to recommend the DigitaLISA film scanning mask as released by lomography.
I prefer Vuescan as tool, but I think that there is no problem to get started with the software that comes with your scanner. To change contrast and to be able to play around with some other exposure settings, I use Adobe Lightroom.

As I am a nerd, I like to keep any info I have about the scanned images and add it to the scanned TIFF file as EXIF data with help of the ExifToolGUI tool, but that step is of course completely optional Smile

2 thoughts on “Film development without darkroom”

  1. So I am reading your article, it’s pretty good. I am doing all very much same but using DELTA 100 Pro film and long dev-time in RODINAL. Dilution 1 : 100 and 1 : 200. It comes out with a beautiful “sade of pale” tonality something which digital can’t do.

    Scanner Minoltas IV and now 5400 II models. For large films I have Heilderberg 2450 FW-Model.

    Scanning software I use for all scanners is SilverFast.

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