Developing Black-and-White Film at Home (Part 3)

The Process

You’re now ready to develop your first roll of film. I typically follow the procedure outlined below. To some extent, the fine details of the process will be influenced by the format, speed and brand of film you’re developing, but the basic steps will be reasonably constant over all these parameters. Developing is also something of a “black art,” and you’ll find many differing, sometimes contradictory, pieces of advice scattered about the web. My advice is to start with this, or another, recipe, then experiment — modify the process to suit your tastes and your way of working. Film is quite forgiving, and you’ll find that you are able to coax it into giving you reasonable images even if you screw up dramatically.

(1) The first thing to do is to ready your chemicals. If you’ve bought powder-based chemicals, dissolve them in water according to the instructions on the packages. If you’ve bought liquids, you may have to dilute them. I use regular tap water for this and have never had problems, though some people recommend deionized water. The best containers are air- and light-tight plastic bottles — you’ll typically need ones that can hold 4 L (approximately 1 gallon). LABEL the containers carefully with a permanent marker, and store them at room temperature — the closer to 20 C (68 F), the better. If you’re using powder-based chemicals, it’s best to mix them at least a day before you use them: you may need hot water to aid dissolving, and the final solutions may be too warm to use immediately. If, after a day of standing, there’s undissolved sediment in your containers, it’s a good idea to remove it by filtration. A coffee filter works just fine for this.

(2) Next, you need to load the film into your developing tank. You don’t need a proper darkroom to do this, but you do need (near) total darkness; the faster the film, the more absolute the darkness. I use the closet in my bedroom. By stuffing towels under the door, I can get near perfect darkness, even in the daytime.

Disassemble the developing tank and carefully lay out all the pieces within arm’s reach before turning out the light. The Patterson tank I use has 6 pieces: bottom, centre post, reel, cone, agitation rod, and lid. Make sure that all of these are clean and dry before beginning. The plastic reels that come with this tank have three settings: “compressed” for 135 film, “partly expanded” for 127 film (who shoots 127 these days?) and “expanded” for 120/220 film. Set the reel to the appropriate size for the film you’re developing. Put your film, scissors and can opener (if necessary — see below) where you can find them quickly in the dark. Make a mental note of where everything is. You may like to practice putting your hands to all of your tools with your eyes closed. If you always stick to the same layout, this will become second nature after you’ve been through the process a few times.

Turn out the lights. Before doing anything else, let your eyes become accustomed to the dark. If you don’t wait, you won’t be able to see weak sources of light. If necessary, plug these up before continuing, or wait until night. You should not be able to see your hand in front of your face.

Be careful to handle the film as little as possible, and only by the edges. It’s also a good idea to wash your hands thoroughly with soap before beginning. This will minimize the transfer of finger grease to the film. 

— If you’re developing film in 135 format, use a can opener to remove one end of the film canister and take the spooled film out. Carefully cut the leader from the rest of the film with scissors. Some people also like to round the corners of the film after removing the leader. This makes it easier to thread the film onto the reel, but it’s a little tricky to do in complete darkness — all without manipulating the film or cutting into your first frame. Insert the film under the tongues on both edges of the reel. While holding one edge fixed, rock the other back and forth; this action will wind the film smoothly onto the reel. When you get to the end of the film, cut off the spool.

— If you’re developing 120 format film, remove the adhesive tape that holds the roll tight, then carefully pull on the free end of the paper backing until you come to the film itself. I like to tear off the backing at this point. Insert the film under the tongues on the edges of the reel and wind the film onto the reel as you would 135 film. When you reach the spool, you’ll find that it’s taped to the end of the film. You need to remove the tape carefully to free the film. It is possible to tear the film at this point (I’ve done it!), so proceed with caution. Once you’ve removed the spool, continue winding so that the film is completely transferred onto the reel.

The centre post of the developing tank can accommodate either a single “expanded” reel (set for 120 film), or two stacked “compressed” reels (set for 135 film). Thread the reel(s) onto the post and place the post into the bottom of the tank. Reassemble the tank and ensure that it is properly closed before switching on the light. Once you’ve loaded the film into the tank, you can stop. The tank is light-tight, so you don’t have to worry about putting off developing until tomorrow, or next week. As long as you don’t open the tank, and the tank is assembled properly, the film should keep just fine in there.

(3) Pre-soak. Remove the lid of your tank, and add the volume of water appropriate to the format and number of reels. (This should be listed on the underside of the tank). For, 135 format film, wait 1 minute before pouring this water out; for 120 format, wait 5 minutes. If the water comes out coloured, don’t worry.

(4) Now we begin the chemistry of developing. This is a three step process: develop, stop, and fix.

Using your measuring cylinder, prepare the appropriate volume of developer. Remember, the total volume of each of the solutions you’ll need should be listed on the bottom of your tank. I typically use Kodak D76 at 1:1 dilution. For one roll of 120 format film, I need a total of 500 mL of developer in my Patterson tank, i.e., 250 of stock solution diluted by addition of another 250 mL of water. Be sure to get this right for your tank/developer/film format combination. It’s wasteful, but not otherwise detrimental, to use too much developer; using too little is a catastrophe, however, as the film needs to be fully submerged in the tank — and you can’t open the tank to check! That’s why you need to measure.

Measure the temperature of your developer using a thermometer. Once you know this to an accuracy of 1 C, determine how long you need for developing based on your combination of temperature, film speed and brand, and developer. The fine folk at Freestyle Photographic Supplies have prepared a massive developing table just for this purpose: check there first, then come back. The table has been prepared for a temperature of 20 C (68 F). If your developer is cooler, you will have to lengthen the developing time accordingly; if warmer, you’ll have to shorten it. You may use another table to determine the appropriate adjustment to your developing time based on variations in temperature.

If you develop for too long, you will lose detail in the highlights of your final (positive) image — they’ll be “blown out” in digital parlance. If you develop for too short, you will lose shadow detail. Some photographers will intentionally develop for too long (to “push” underexposed film) or too short (to “pull” overexposed film). If you know what you’re doing, great. Go ahead and mess with the developing times. If not, stick to the time given you.

You can also find manufacturer-suggested development times listed in the official data sheets of the film you’re using. For example, see here for Fuji films, and here for Kodak.

Let’s begin:

— Develop. Remove the lid of the tank and smoothly pour in the developer — not so fast that it backflows, but not slowly, either. Start the stopwatch as you begin pouring. Replace the lid. Gently but firmly invert the tank five times, then tap it against a flat surface to dislodge bubbles. Repeat this agitation once a minute during the developing time, or as your film’s manufacturer recommends in its data sheet. The purpose of agitation is to ensure that the film is always in contact with fresh developer. Do not shake the tank like a bottle of ketchup: this will make bubbles which cling to the film and prevent those areas from developing — this will make your film blotchy along the top edge. Along with developing temperature and time, agitation is yet another parameter you can use to affect the “look” of your photos. The more you agitate the film during developing, the higher in contrast it will be and the more evident the grain; the less you agitate, the flatter the contrast and smoother the grain.

— Stop. When the appropriate time has elapsed, pour out the developer, and pour in your stop. Invert the tank continuously for 30 s to 1 min, then pour out the stop. If you’re using a stop with indicator, as I do, you’ll be able to tell whether you can re-use it by its colour: yellow = still good; blue = bad. If you’re on a budget, you may simply use water as stop: after you’ve poured out the developer, pour in water, shake and repeat.

— Fix. Pour in the fixer. The time needed for fixing does not need to be precise. A typical guide is 5 to 10 minutes. Agitate the film during fixing as you would during developing.

(5) Wash. Your film is now no longer sensitive to light, so you may disassemble the tank as you please. Pour out the developer and pour in water. Shake thoroughly, pour out the washings, and repeat. Do this a few times. At this stage, the film base may look slightly pink or purple. Don’t worry, the next step will largely take care of that.

(6) Treat with hypo clearing agent. This step is not essential, but I find it to be beneficial in that it yields negatives with a nearly colourless base. A potential reason for residual colour is insufficient fixing. This may be true in some cases, but I’ve found that a pink or purple cast almost always remains after fixing, regardless of duration. According to Kodak, the official purpose of the clearing agent is to “promote removal of fixer from films … [in order] to shorten wash times and make washing at lower wash-water temperatures practical.” I’ve indeed found this to be true, but I’ve also noticed that used clearing agent is distinctly coloured, while the negative is correspondingly less so. Therefore, it seems also have the beneficial effect of removing colour cast from developed film. Follow the printed instructions for using the clearing agent. Kodak Hypo Clear needs to be 1:4 diluted, and the treatment of the film is 2 minutes with continuous agitation.

(5) Wash with water. As before, but you’re going to want to do this several times. The film must be absolutely clear of residual chemicals before being hung to dry. Hopefully, the hypo clear will make this job easier for you, but you must be thorough. When you feel that you’ve rinsed the film enough, do it one more time. I like to use slightly warm water for this last wash.

(6) De-wet. Pour out the last wash, then add one or two drops of photo-flo to the tank. Add water to fill. Using the centre rod, turn the reels back and forth a couple of times. Let the system stand for a minute, then remove the reel. Don’t rinse further.

(7) Dry. Either slide the film carefully out of the reel, or pull the reel apart to remove the film. Clamp both ends firmly and hang to dry for 4 to 8 hours in a dust-free zone. Many people use the shower for this.

You’re done! You may now cut and sleeve your negatives, and press them flat for scanning. In the near future, I’ll describe my hybrid analog/digital workflow in detail.

I hope that you’ve found this series of articles useful. If you have, I’d love to hear about it. If you notice any errors or omissions in this post, please let me know by email. I’m also happy to include your own tips, tricks and suggestions. If you’re unsure about anything, just ask!

You might also be interested in:

Latest Blog posts

I'd love to know what you think about anything you read here. Get in touch at

You should follow me on Twitter.