Due to the current pandemic situation and resultant lock-down rules, I’ve decided now would be a good time to learn how to develop film at home. Since I got back into shooting film a few years ago, the thought of developing my own photos at home has crossed my mind on more than one occasion. I’ve usually pushed these thoughts to one side though, partly because I’m happy with the service and results I get from my local lab, and partly because of concerns that I would ruin rolls of otherwise nice photographs with my oaf-like clumsiness.
However, things have now changed. My local lab is currently closed due to the coronavirus lock-down (although the lab I use for colour stuff is still open for mail-order processing) which means I would either need to sit on any rolls of black and white film I manage to shoot during the pandemic (likely to be reduced from normal due to the limits on where I can roam) until they re-open or, to take the plunge and try to self-develop my film at home.
Because I don’t know how long the lockdown is likely to last (at least 8 weeks is my current estimate though), and because I like to try and keep a flow of fresh images coming for my blog, I decided to give home developing a go. The film was ILFORD HP5 PLUS and was shot on my Minolta SRT 101b using an MD Rokkor 50mm f/1.7. I developed the film in ILFORD ILFOTEC DD-X for 9 minutes at 20°C. All photos were taken in late March / Early April 2020.
While developing my own film should prove cost-effective in the longer term because I’ve had to buy most of the chems and equipment to get me started, it’s been a significant investment – I could have had a dozen or more rolls lab-processed at least for the outlay – so I’m keen to make it work.
I decided to go for ILFORD chemicals for my first foray: stop-bath; fixer; wetting agent; and developer – I chose ILFOTEC DD-X. The DD-X was quite low-cost for the bottle and I was keen to keep my initial outlay down as much as possible. DD-X is supposed to be a very good developer, but it’s probably not the most economical to use – while the 1L bottle was much cheaper than something like Kodak HC-110, it will also develop far fewer rolls.
Once I’d acquired all the equipment and chemicals, it was then just a case of finishing off a roll of film. As my movements are much restricted due to the UK lockdown, most of the photos on the roll are from around the house, or pictures I’ve been able to take while out for a walk to get to exercise and fresh air.
I decided that it would be a good idea to practice things as much as possible before having a go with my “live” roll of film, so I used a roll of Agfa Vista Plus that I use to test cameras sometimes. The roll has been exposed to light when a camera back was opened at some point, so it could be safely sacrificed.
My first tests were in daylight, extracting the film onto the spiral from the canister itself (without removing the cap and taking the film out altogether). After understanding the process, I then attempted it again inside the changing bag. This was trickier and a few attempts failed, but after a while I was successful. Then, given that the roll of film I would be developing for real had had its leader completely retracted into the canister (I tried to retrieve it but without success), I had a further attempt inside the changing bag, this time opening the canister with a can opener and loading it onto the spirals while loose. This was trickier as my efforts again failed on the first two attempts, by which time the film had become a twisty un-spooled mess inside the bag. I forced myself to persevere though as, when it came to my proper roll of film, removing my arms from the changing bag wouldn’t be an option. After a while, I loaded it ok. Practising in this way was a valuable experience and I’m really glad I did it.
The next day, it was time to do it for real. I double and triple-checked that I had everything I needed and then carefully placed everything into the changing bag: The developing tank, lid and spiral; the film; a pair of scissors to cut off the leader and chamfer the corners; and a small bottle opener to crack open the film canister.
I soon ran into a problem when I found that the bottle opener was failing to open the canister. In my test, I’d used a larger bottle-opener (a corkscrew) but had thought the smaller one would be easier to handle in the changing bag. Now I was in a situation where the canister was still sealed, but might be in a condition that made it no longer light-tight. In order to prevent any light-leaks, I placed the still closed canister in the bottom of the developing tank and fitted the light-tight funnel. This allowed me to safely remove my arms and go and get the corkscrew. Because the corkscrew has a pointy end that might conceivably piece the changing bag if I wasn’t careful, I taped the sharp bit up with some masking tape before putting it in the changing bag. Once that was done I was able to take the film canister back out of the tank and this time remove the cap successfully.
The next job was to cut off the leader and chamfer the edges to allow easier attachment to the spiral. Making a neat cut across the film and then taking off small triangles from each corner is tricky when you can’t see what you’re doing and I was a little concerned about taking a piece of my finger-tip off in the process! Thankfully this didn’t happen though and I was now ready to attach the film to the spiral.
Attaching the film was straightforward and I began winding it on. And winding. And winding. And wind… Something had gone amiss. I now had to take the spiral apart in the bag, take off the section of film already wound on, and start again. As with my earlier practice runs, the film was now forming into a big coiled heap in the bag, making this more difficult than before.
The same thing happened again on the second attempt, winding on for a while but then stopping, requiring the spiral to be opened and the film removed once more. Thankfully, the third attempt worked ok, which was a big relief. The only issue was right at the end of the roll where the film popped out of the tracks, but I was able to gently re-afix with my thumbs it and, after cutting off the reel, winding it the rest of the way onto the spiral. I then inserted the centre column onto the reel and placed everything into the tank and fitted the lid, making everything light-tight. I was certainly glad that this part was done!
Now the film was safely in the tank I decided to take a break before starting the actual developing process. Plus I wanted to give everyone a chance to use the bathroom before I barred them from entry when it was time to dry the negatives when they were ready.
I got everything that I needed for the developing out on the work-surface in the utility room, neatly arranged in a logical order. I filled two clean 2-litre milk bottles with water at the correct temperature, thinking it would be easier to keep it at 20 degrees in easily accessible bottles rather than mixing it from the hot and cold taps. I used this water to mix up my developer, stop-bath, and fixer and arranged their jugs in left-to-right order. Also to hand was a clean cloth to mop up any spillages and my phone with the Massive Dev Chart app open and ready. I decided to go with the timings recommended by the app (although these are different to those given on the ILFORD HP5 PLUS data sheet – MDC states a full minute of agitation, followed by 10 seconds at the start of each minute thereafter, whereas ILFORD state 10 seconds at the start of each minute). Everything in place, it was now time to begin…
I poured in the stop-bath first!
Yep, that’s right. I fell at the first hurdle. I put this down to nerves. Kick myself! Doh! Massive facepalm!!! etc.
Cursing my stupidity I quickly poured the stop-bath back out. While my experience is limited, I was fairly confident that stop-bath wouldn’t have too detrimental an effect on the undeveloped film. Thankfully I had loads of water in the two bottles I’d filled earlier, so I rinsed the film in the tank several times until I was confident that I’d washed away the stop-bath. Then, after making a fresh batch of stop-bath, I started again.
This time I poured in the developer first! Clicking start on the MDC app, I began the agitation cycle. I’d decided to wear a pair of plastic gloves during the whole process to avoid getting chems on my skin and, while I’m not sure if it was water or something else on the sides of the tank after the previous mishap, it was quite wet so I was glad to be wearing them. I think I might have been a little too vigorous on the first few inversions, sloshing the tank about a little too much before catching myself and adopting more of a tumbling method throughout the rest of the sequence. After nine minutes I poured out the developer and added the stop-bath (again!), then the fixer for the final stage.
I used ILFORD’s method for washing the negatives: 5 inversions, then empty the tank; 10 inversions, then empty, 20 inversions, then empty (although I also added 15 and 25 inversions stages for good measure). After this I opened the tank, added some fresh water and a few drops of the wetting agent before carrying the tank back to the bathroom to hang the film to dry. At this stage, I still didn’t know if things had worked (or if my stop-bath mishap might have ruined things somehow), so now came the moment of truth as I took out the spiral and saw the results for the first time.
I had negatives!
And they looked to be ok! Being slightly paranoid about getting dust stuck all over the wet negatives, I quickly hung them up inside the shower cubicle, closed the door, and left them to dry for a few hours (although I did crack the door ajar to show off the product of my endeavours to my somewhat uninterested wife and kids). 🙂
When I came to take them down later I was able to get my first proper look at the results. The negatives looked perhaps slightly dense, but nothing over-the-top and had, to my slight dismay, a water mark on many of the frames where it looked like a drip of water had flowed down them during drying. My mistake here was that I didn’t shake off any excess water when I hung them up. Something to remember next time. The negatives had a slight curl, though nothing extreme, and this actually aided me when cutting them into strips for filing. The curl meant they lay on their edge on the desk, so I could cut them without scratching the surface (or attracting any stray dust).
The next step was to scan some frames on my Plustek and see how they looked. I was worried that the drying marks might show on the scans, but was relieved to find that it was only really visible on a single frame – one with a large area of otherwise blank sky – and even that would be easy to remove in Photoshop should I want to. While I didn’t want the drying marks and will take steps to try and avoid them in future, on this occasion they didn’t really cause any issues.
The resulting scans look pretty nice. I’ve had to tweak them a little to get them how I like them – the roll has come out a little bright, something I think is probably down to my agitation technique during development rather than the metering, but nothing too severe and easily fixed during the scanning and post-processing stage. The grain on the negatives is pretty subdued too, possibly more so than those I get back from my local lab (which are processed in Xtol), which is nice – I really don’t mind grain, but some of these photos are especially sharp-looking as a result (though some of that is down to the Rokkor 50mm f/1.7 lens, which I’ve found to be an excellent performer).
On the whole, while it would be hard to say I enjoyed the slightly stressful experience of developing film for the first time, I was very pleased with the results. I think the stress levels will be much lower next time I do this though and am looking forward to my next attempt.
If you’ve not developed your own film before and are thinking of giving it a try, then go for it. If I can manage it (and recover from mistakes to boot) then anyone can!
The photos in this post are all from the roll I developed (the ones I’ve uploaded to Flickr so far, at least). As I’ve been limited in where I can go due to the current lock-down caused by the coronavirus pandemic, these were all grabbed while out for a walk to take some exercise or in my home, so maybe don’t go looking for any prize-winners. 🙂
Share your knowledge, story or project
The transfer of knowledge across the film photography community is the heart of EMULSIVE. You can add your support by contributing your thoughts, work, experiences and ideas to inspire the hundreds of thousands of people who read these pages each month. Check out the submission guide here.
If you like what you're reading you can also help this passion project by heading over to the EMULSIVE Patreon page and contributing as little as a dollar a month. There's also print and apparel over at Society 6, currently showcasing over two dozen t-shirt designs and over a dozen unique photographs available for purchase.