I’ve been developing my own film for a year and half now and I’ve got to the point where I can feel as confident that I will end up with a usable image as I feel when shooting digitally.
In other words, I don’t screw up any more. (This, of course, does not preclude future screw ups – but these are likely to be as infrequent as my digital screwups, such as formatting a memory card without making a backup first.)
It’s been a learning process. Not one from complete scratch as I had learned how to develop film in a laboratory setting sometime ago, but I had never developed at home before.
So I had to start with both my own equipment and my own chemicals.
Initially, I developed only black and white film, so I Googled for directions and videos and found a number of useful resources. The best is a website called, somewhat ironically, ‘Digital Truth Photo‘. This is a retail outlet that also archives and links to a massive amount of film developing related information relevant to both beginners and experts.
I bought my equipment online from B&H. I needed developer, stop, fix, film washing detergent, a developing tank, 35mm film holder reels, hanging hooks, a tool to open film cannisters, measuring cups and a thermometer. I also bought a light-tight changing bag that proved unnecessary once I dark-proofed a room in my basement.
For no particular reason except that I was likely to use Ilford black and white film, I bought Ilford reagents. Ilfosol 3 developer (500 ml), Ilford Rapid Fix (1 liter), Ilfostop stopping solution (500 ml), and Ilfotol Wetting Agent (1 liter). Eighteen months and about 150 35mm films later, the only reagent that has not been used up and replaced is the Ilfotol Wetting Agent.
After I finished with the Ilfosol 3, I switched to Ilfotec HC as a general developer, supplementing that with Microphen and Perceptol developers for specific film types. I also switched to making my own citric acid stop solution from citric acid and sodium citrate.
Provided I paid close attention to the temperature of my developing solution and followed recommended developing times, found either in the Ilford literature or from the Massive Developing Chart on the Digital Truth website, I had no trouble whatsoever producing properly developed negatives, consistent in appearance and quality. Experience taught me that a very lengthy wash in tap water following fixing (45 minutes or more), a rinse in Ilfotol plus distilled water, and thorough drying of the negative (overnight preferably) produced negatives with no to minimal chemical blemishes that were well hardened to resist scratches.
In this way, I developed a wide variety of films. Ilford FP4 Plus, Ilford HP5 Plus, Ilford Pan F, Ilford Delta 400, Kentmere 100, Kentmere 400, Kodak Tri-X, Kodak T-Max 100 and 400, Bergger BRF 400, Arista EDu Ultra 100, 200 and 400, Fomapan 100, 200 and 400, Rollei Retro 80S, Rollei Retro 400S, Rollei Infrared 400, Agfa Blackbird, and Agfa APX 100. Other makes are sitting in my fridge waiting to be used.
Some people recommend sticking with one film until you have become completely familiar with its characteristics. There is merit in this argument. Of the above films, the most used are Ilford HP5 Plus, Ilford FP4 Plus, Kentmere 100 and the Arista EDU Ultra series. I know what to expect from those films. But there is also a lot of pleasure to be had from experimenting with unfamiliar films, some of whom produce effects that differ from what is commonly found. So I have always added something new into my regular mix of film types, sometimes finding a film, Rollei Retro 80S for example, that is particularly effective under certain conditions – high contrast scenes in this particular case. Mixing it up adds a little randomness to what you might get, and that, I find, is also very pleasing.
Once developed, I cut up and store negatives in archival film strip sheet holders and keep them in a ring binder. I have learned to label and date my sheets, but beyond that, I scan all my negatives and store the images digitally. This means I can share my pictures and print them too. For I do not as yet have an enlarger or a properly equipped darkroom that would let me wet print my images. Thus at the moment I am best described as a hybrid film photographer, one half chemical, one half digital.
To some, doing this strange split in photographic technique might seem pointless, but I really like two aspects of the film process. Firstly, having a tangible artifact in your image as captured on a negative. Secondly, the unique look of a scanned film image, grainy and lacking in the sharpness characteristic of digital photographs. Certainly, there are emulation programs that quite closely alter digitally captured images to resemble film pictures, close enough that a casual observer would not notice a difference. But none of them are precise – they can’t be, because each negative is a unique record of a chemical reaction. That difference might not matter to the casual observer but it matters to me.
That’s the overview. I may go into more specific detail in future. What I can say, and I’ve said it before and I’m likely to say it again, is that using film has completely reinvigorated my pleasure in taking photographs.