A guide to developing your own E6 film – by Kikie Wilkins
Before I jump into the guide, allow me a few moments to tell you the story of how I began shooting and developing slide film.
Many years ago, while working as an employee of a transport and delivery company, I came into possession of a large quantity of Kodak EKTACHROME slide film. One of the transportation contracts that my company held was with a medical facility here in Arizona. In the lab area that we picked up at, I noticed a large quantity of slide film stored in a freezer.
There were at least three different kinds of slide film in there ranging from daylight to tungsten balanced. All of it was expired but had been kept frozen. I think this film had been placed there and forgotten by everyone except for the few people who went to that area of the lab.
One day, while making a pickup at the lab, I noticed all of the film was gone from the freezer. I wondered where it had gone until I was about to depart. Almost missing it completely, as I headed out the door I saw all of the film had been thrown in a trashcan. Stopping, I asked the lab worker who was escorting me if it was really going to be thrown away and he said as far as he knew, yes. I then asked if I could have it since it was headed for the trash compactor anyway, and he agreed.
I rescued as much as I could from the trash but I’m sure I didn’t get it all. Within the next few days, perfectly good film would be buried unceremoniously in a landfill to bake for the next million years in the Arizona sun.
Prior to that point, I had never used slide film of any type. I knew what it was, but it was something exotic to me. At that time in my photographic journey I was shooting primarily Kodak color negative films and having them developed and printed at a Costco film lab. Every now and then, I would take black and white film to a local lab. I shot a few rolls of the EKTACHROME 200 and had the same lab develop it. Once I saw the prints made from it, I fell in love with slide film.
However, even though I loved it, it was expensive to have local labs develop and scan/print it. Not only that, I would have to drive to the other side of town to drop it off and then pick it up a few days later. I was working full time and attending university full time, so spare time was precious to me and I didn’t want to spend it driving all over town.
Sending my slide film via mail to labs across the country was another option but in most cases, whatever I was saving by mailing it off was eaten up by the price of postage and the cost of higher-resolution scans. In short, I decided to do it myself in order to save money.
On average, it would cost me about $10 dollars a roll (not including shipping, scans/prints) to send it off to a lab. So far, I have reduced my developing costs to around $3-$4 dollars a roll by developing at home. Additionally, I shoot it more often because it’s so much more accessible to do so. This doesn’t include the great feeling of self-fulfillment in shooting, processing, and scanning one’s own film. It’s a labor of love, for sure.
Fast-forward a few years. As my confidence grew, I began developing my own black and white film at home and “scanning” it with a DSLR setup. It wasn’t long after that when I transitioned into developing my own color negative film. From there, it was a small step to begin developing my own slide film.
I hope sharing my method for processing E6 films at home will be an encouragement to photographers who are eager but undecided on whether to do it themselves or send it off. Knowing exactly what is involved may help others to make informed decisions.
In the context of this guide, the terms color slide, color reversal, and E6 (among others) are used fairly interchangeably. They all refer to the same concept, a color-positive film and its corresponding developing process.
The method and chemistry that I use are one way of developing slide film but there are other ways to achieve the same or superior results. Shooting slide film requires being more precise with your exposures as there is less of a margin for error in these narrow-latitude films. Not only that, but slide film can be considerably more expensive than black and white and color negative films. The adage of practice making perfect certainly applies here, both in capturing the images and in developing them.
I have only used the Arista Rapid E6 liquid concentrate kit in the one-quart size, which is available in the $30-$40 dollar range from retailers like Freestyle Photographic Supplies. Similar kits can also be ordered from a number of places, like the Film Photography Project, B&H Photo, and even your local photo lab if you’re fortunate to have a well-stocked one nearby.
Other kits will use greater or fewer developing steps and at higher or lower temperatures than the Arista Rapid E6 kit. Depending on what you want to achieve, these other kits may be better suited to you. I like the Arista Rapid E6 kit because it is inexpensive and easy to use. This guide is specific to the Arista kit.
Officially, the manufacturers of my kit only recommend developing a total of eight 36-exposure rolls of 35mm or eight rolls of 120 slide film before starting again with fresh chemistry. You can, of course, develop more than this amount (as I have done), but certain variables begin to creep in that become a larger and larger factor until your chemistry is completely exhausted or begins to produce results that you no longer find acceptable.
Make sure that you refer to the instructions that come with your kit on how to compensate for these variables.
Above all, what is important when processing your own film, whatever process it may be, is to have fun and enjoy yourself! You will probably feel trepidation doing it for the first few times but once you get the hang of it, it will be difficult to go back to having someone else do your processing for you.
Expect that you will make a few mistakes while learning how to do something new.
Ready? Here we go.
Things you will need
- Exposed color reversal film (or color negative film, if you wish to cross-process it)
- Properly mixed E6 chemistry
- Darkroom timer
- A developing tank and reels
- Film changing bag or a darkroom to load your film into the developing tank
- A thermometer
- Chemical resistant gloves
- Container or bucket large enough to hold your chemistry and developing tank
- Access to hot and cold running water and somewhere to drain it
- A well-ventilated room to perform your processing
- A place to hang and dry your film
- (Optional) A device for heating and maintaining the temperature of your water bath
I will assume that you have already mixed your chemicals correctly according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
First, set aside a large enough workspace near your source of running water to accommodate the container or bucket for the water bath.
Fill the container with water hotter than what is called for the developing temperature. Place your bottles of chemistry (1st Developer, Color Developer, and Blix) into the water bath so it can begin to warm up to the appropriate temperature.
While you are waiting for your chemistry to come up to the appropriate temperature, take the time to load your exposed film onto your reels and into your developing tank. With the one-quart kit, I can develop 3 rolls of 35mm or 2 rolls of 120 at a time in a Paterson Multireel 3 tank.
Once you have loaded your film into the developing tank, hopefully your chemistry has reached the appropriate temperature. If it hasn’t, give it some more time. If the water in the container has become too cold, add hot water.
Place your thermometer in the bottle containing the 1st Developer and once it reaches the proper temperature, you can begin.
Special note: You must keep a close eye on the temperature of the water bath. The Arista kit calls for a developing temperature of 105F. Because most of my containers and thermometers use SI measurements, I keep the temperature at 41C. I know that it is not a perfect conversion from degrees Fahrenheit, but I haven’t noticed any appreciable adverse consequences in my finished film. As your water bath inevitably cools off, you will have to add more hot water to bring it back up to temperature.
An alternative to having to continually keep an eye on the water temperature is to use a heating device, such as an aquarium tank heater or sous vide cooker, where you can dial in a specific temperature and let the device maintain it – see mine in the image above.
I want to make it clear; you do not need to buy an expensive temperature regulation device. It all depends on the quantity of film over time that you will develop and whether you want to speed up the process by eliminating a portion of the labor while adding a measure of convenience.
Developing Your Film
Make sure you have your darkroom timer ready. I use an app on my iPhone called Darkroom Lab Timer from Digitaltruth (digitaltruth.com), the same folks behind the Massive Dev Chart. I use this for both my C41 and E6 processing.
Of course, you don’t need to have an app to do this; a simple stopwatch will work just fine.
If you aren’t using an app or multi-stage timer, make sure to have the necessary developing times written down nearby so you can reference them during processing.
Next step: glove up!
- Begin with a one-minute pre-wash with water at 41C. I have figured out how to set the hot and cold water on my bathroom tap to come out pretty close to this, so long as no one else in the house is using the water!
- Fill and dump out the developing tank a few times. It’s okay if the temperature is not precise here, because you’ll have the water bath later on to maintain a more consistent temperature.
- After the minute is up, pour out the water and pour in the amount of 1st Developer necessary for the amount of film you are processing.
- My preferred method of agitation for C41 and E6 is to use the agitation stick that comes with Paterson tanks but you can also put a lid on your brand of tank and invert and twist. Agitate vigorously for the first 15 seconds and then once every 30 seconds. You will use this same method of agitation for all of the steps.
- After agitating the tank, let it sit in the water bath so the temperature of the chemistry is maintained.
Special note: As you re-use the 1st Developer, additional time will need to be added to this step as the chemistry exhausts itself and takes a longer time to work.
In the screenshot of my lab timer above, I’ve already added the additional time. The formula Arista uses adds 4%more time for every re-use of the 1st Developer, cumulative with any times you have used it previously. This is explained more precisely in the instructions that come with the kit. This applies to the 1st Developer only; re-using the Color Developer and Blix does not affect their processing times.
Back to the process:
- After the timer is up for the 1st Developer, pour it back into its bottle and begin a wash of the tank with clean water.
- Quickly fill and empty the tank seven times, making sure to use water at 41C.
- Once the wash is complete, pour in the appropriate amount of Color Developer and agitate the tank in the same manner, being sure to place it into the water bath in between agitation periods.
- When time is up, wash the film as previously done.
- Once this wash is complete, pour in the appropriate amount of Blix and agitate the tank in the same manner as before, still placing it in the water bath between agitation cycles.
- After you have completed the Blix step, pour it back into its bottle and begin a five-minute wash cycle (I like to fill and dump the developing tank several times before letting it sit under running water).
- Once this is complete, remove the excess water using your preferred method, and hang your film to dry!
It is an awesome sight to catch the first glimpse of your film as it comes out of the tank!
Parting thoughts and more results
Make sure to label and your bottles containing your chemistry and keep things organized as you move through your developing steps. You wouldn’t want to ruin your chemistry by accidentally pouring Blix into your bottle of 1st Developer.
Likewise, make sure not to cross-contaminate your workspace with your chemistry. Make super sure to rinse off any thermometers, funnels, bottles, etc. that you will re-use in other steps.
Once mixed, the life of your E6 chemistry will eventually expire with use and storage. Aside from developing film, there will be a number of factors that will affect the usable life of the chemistry you use:
- What kind of water you used to mix it (distilled, filtered, tap, etc.).
- What kind of container you use to store it.
- What environment it is stored in.
- What impurities find their way in during processing.
- How long it sits between processing sessions.
The rate at which the chemistry exhausts itself will show as a gradual decline in what you consider to be acceptable results. Keep on using the chemistry until you decide you aren’t satisfied with what comes out of your developing tank and then replace.
E6 and C41 processes are standardized. As long as I’m not doing any pushing or pulling, I’ve developed fresh Fuji slide film and expired Kodak EKTACHROME of differing ISOs together in the same tank for exactly the same duration and they turn out fine.
Try experimenting with cross processing color negative film in E6 chemistry. If you already have the chemistry mixed, why not give it a shot?
Finally, if you are on the fence as to develop E6 at home, buy a small kit and give it a chance.
Remember that mastering the art of photography sometimes requires us to push out beyond our comfort zone. If you attempt E6 processing and find that it wasn’t really for you, congratulate yourself for being willing to try new things.
Above all, have fun!
~ Kikie Wilkins
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