Developing black and white film

So, back in October I purchased a Nikon FM2n - a pretty old, but solid, film camera.  More on the camera itself will be in a future post, but needless to say it was a very highly regarded piece of equipment.  But, why?  In the age of megapixels and massive capacity cards, why bother using film?  Well, I'm a big fan of black and white images, and companies such as Ilford and Kodak have been seeing somewhat of a resurgence in demand for decent photographic film.  And, what better way to get your head around exposure and composition than by using a fully manual camera with expensive film in the back.... Hmm, expensive film.  Now, its not ridiculous, but current prices in the UK for, lets say Ilford HP 5+, are hovering around £5-6 per roll.  That's 36 exposures, making it around 15p for a single frame.  Not lots (I'm not likely to be made homeless because of it), but it definitely made me think twice before pressing the shutter!  As I had never shot film before, I decided to buy a couple of different types, to see which look I preferred.  However as I had bought Ilford chemicals, almost all of the films were the same brand.

Does this involve lots of junk equipment?

So, I've mentioned the Ilford chemicals, but obviously there's a lot more stuff needed if you want to develop film at home.  Here's a list of the stuff I got hold of:

  • Ilford DD-X developer - one of the most expensive, but is supposed to help produce very fine grain and decent sharpness.
  • Ilford Ilfostop - a citric acid stop bath.  An attractive orange colour...
  • Ilford Rapid Fixer - standard fixer, matches with the other chemicals.  This is the stuff that makes sure your images don't disappear off the acrylic back.
  • Ilford Ilfotol - a wetting agent (basically soap) which will prevent streaks and water spots.  VERY effective.
  • Paterson developing tank - probably the most widely used developing tank out there.  Mine came with two reels, which could come handy after big photo trips.  One minor complaint:  the rubber lid is pretty awkward to get on quickly once you've added liquid.
  • Pixel Peeper extra large changing bag - ENORMOUS changing bag which took up most of the table!  But for a film noob like me it gave me lots of room to root around in.
  • Kaiser film clips - one is weighted so that the film dries straight.
  • Generic measuring cylinders - as a trained chemist, these had to be bought!  But anything that allows you to measure volumes of liquid (relatively) accurately will do...
  • Digital thermometer - cheap (and possibly a bit naff) but gave me an idea of the relative temperatures of the solutions.  Although I have read in a few places that B&W film is much less sensitive to temperature variation.

Where do you start?

There's loads of places to go for information about developing film.  There are some decent how-to videos on YouTube (Matt Day does some interesting videos on film photography).

There's also a wealth of information on film manufacturer websites, if you're willing to put in the time to search for them.  There are some extremely useful documents on the Ilford site, including their guide to developing for the first time, along with a development chart for all their films and developers.  Here are the links:

Ilford - Developing your first film guide

Ilford Development chart

Can't you just give me the highlights?

  1. After some practice with a dead roll/cheap roll of film, you need to load your film onto the tank spool inside a changing bag.  This is where you realise your coordination is s***, and without your eyes your hands can be pretty useless!  Well, maybe not quite that bad, but the hardest part is getting the end of the film (with the leader cut off) into the start of the spool.  Once its there it is a pretty simple ratcheting motion to load the film.  Just remember to put this loaded spool into your developing tank and lock the light-tight lid.
  2. Measure out your chemicals.  If you have the containers I would measure them all, so you're not faffing around during each step - as with most chemistry each stage needs to smoothly transition into the next.  Use distilled water (the cleaner the better) and don't mix up the measuring cylinders!  There is a guide in the Ilford documents that tell you all the dilutions you need (very useful); otherwise they should be written on the bottles.
  3. Use an app like DevIt! (Android) or Darktimer 2 (iOS) to time each step.  They handily beep when it's time to agitate or pour away the chemicals.
  4. My first roll was HP5+ so my development time was 9 minutes.  That needed me to agitate (by inversion) for 10 seconds every minute.  With 10 seconds to go you need to pour out the developer (which can't be used again) and then add the stop bath.  Timings become less important here, but it doesn't mean you can go and make a cup of tea - your images aren't finished yet.  After the stop bath you need to add fixer for 3 minutes (with the same agitation as before) so that your images will be permanent.
  5. Once you've added all the chemicals and rinsed the film with some rinse aid, now you can unreel the film from the spool.  Clip on a film clip to each end (with the heavier clip at the bottom) and hang somewhere dust-free to dry out (a bathroom is good for this - less dust in the air).

So, did it work?

Taking the film out of the tank and seeing the little frames surrounded by the film information brought out a little squeak of excitement...I can't tell you how satisfying it is to see your images physically there on a roll of plastic!  It was also immediately clear if your frames looked correctly exposed and if there was a good amount of contrast, and that's with the tones reversed.  Plugging a memory card into a computer just couldn't compete, and I can't recommend it enough.  If anyone out there wants to feel like a wizard, or simply loves making things, this is definitely something you should try.

All I have to do now is break out my Epson film scanner (a very generous christmas present) and scan them in.  Images from my first three rolls of film are coming soon...

after develop-0142