As I noted in a recent post, I’ve been shooting a lot of film, and while I really enjoy going to Blue Moon to gawk at all the goodies, it’s been gnawing at me that I have all of the equipment to develop film myself and haven’t managed to get off my arse and do it. Point in fact; it’s been more than a decade since I last processed a roll of film in my house. Well, that streak is ending this weekend, so I thought I would take a minute and refresh myself with the process.
I’ve always been particular about the tools and chemicals I use, and I’ve held pretty steadfast to the same process for a long time. I was introduced to Kodak XTol by a close friend while I was in college and have used it almost exclusively since. I have experimented with some other developers like D-76, Dektol, Accufine and some Ilford developers but I have am really fond of the results I get from XTol, plus it’s vitamin C based (ascorbic acid). I really like the fine grain and softer contrast and exposure range I get from it, so I’ve not found any reason to switch. So let’s get started….
Loading the film
Loading the film onto the reels can be a little tricky, and I would definitely recommend practicing with a junk roll before popping the top off the roll. Obviously, you have to be in a completely dark room to load the film onto the reels. I generally do this at night, and I have a couple of bathrooms with no windows, so that’s where I load the film. You can use a bottle opener to remove the top or the bottom from the film, and the remove the film from the reel by cutting it off close to the end. You can also get a film leader tool to pull the film from the canister without prying it open but i find it easier to just pop the top off of the can. Next trim the rounded end of the film off (the leader) and start to load the film by clipping the end of the film to the inner core of the reel. The reels should have a little clip that you use to attach the end of the film to the core of the reel, and then gently wind the film around the reel from the inside out. This can be a little tricky until you get used to it which is why practicing in the light is a good idea. You have to squeeze the film slightly to put a bow in the film to get it to fit in the slot of the reels. Once the film is loaded, place the reel in the canister and set the lid on top. You don’t have to close it up tight, but the less chance to get light leaks on your film the better.
Keep in mind that some lights like fluorescents have an after glow during which the bulb, or tube, still emits enough light to expose your film. Some LEDs may too, so I always wait a minute or too just to make sure.
I still have all of my Jobo 5 liter containers so I mix up 5 liters of developer and a gallon of fixer. I’ve never been particularly careful about temperatures while mixing the chemicals and I pretty much always let them rest overnight after I mix the stock dilution. It probably doesn’t matter much if they sit overnight, but I’m a creature of habit.
I get set up with my 3 large measuring containers, thermometer and reel washer. The temperature of your chemicals should be right around 68 degrees to get the best results, and not muck up the development and fix times. When mixing XTol I always mix it stock (undiluted) in the 5 liter container, and then dilute it 1:1 when I’m measuring it out to use. There are a couple reasons I dilute it. Since I don’t have a way to store the chemicals at temperature, I use the diluting process to get my temperatures right. Diluting it also lengthens the development time which allows me to be more precise while developing, especially while I’m pushing or pulling the film. I stick to Ilford’s (in most cases I am shooting Ilford film) recommended times. Since I have 3 rolls of Ilford HP5 film to process that puts me 11.5 minutes according to their processing chart.
I always make sure I have my water, developer, and fixer at the correct temperature measured and ready before I start, this way I don’t have anything to distract me from timing the process.
To start I always pre-rinse the film before pouring in the developer. This isn’t a absolutely necessary step, in fact Ilford recommends not doing a pre-rinse, but I use it to prep the emulsion to receive the developer and also it allows me to get the container and film to the correct temperature for processing. Like I said, I’m a creature of habit and I tend to stick to doing things that work well, and I have never noticed any uneven processing from doing so.
It’s important to note that you absolutely do not want to open the canister until after the film has been fixed, doing so will expose your film and ruin it. So be sure the cap is on tight. Fill and drain the chemicals from the canister by removing only the fill cap since there is a light trap in the lid. Unless you’re shinning a spotlight in the opening, you won’t expose your film. This may sound like a no-brainer, but I’ve seen it happen a number of times.
While processing the film, you want to gently agitate the tank. Every 30 seconds I slowly invert the tank and then return it upright while gently banging it on the counter when I set it down. This knocks loose any bubbles that may try and hitch a ride on the film. Gentle agitation is very important during all of the steps. The best way to do it is to slowly invert the canister, this allows the chemicals to remain fresh while contacting the film. Shaking the canister is about as wrong as you can get, so just don’t. This is continued at 30 second intervals during every step in the process which includes the pre-rinse, while developing, while rinsing the film after development, while fixing the film, and while rinsing the film after fixing.
Another thing to note is that while I invert the canister when processing roll film, I rotate the canister while processing sheet film. Sheet film can be prone to popping out of the holders and getting stuck to one of the other sheets, which will ruin both sheets. Another thing I do differently while processing sheet in film is that I gently roll the can back and forth in a print tray that’s full of 68 degree water. Sheets film development times can be quite long at times and I’ve had better results keeping the canister at a stable temperature.
After the development is done, it’s time to pour out the developer and fill the container back up with 68 degree water or a stop bath. The purpose of this rinse is to stop the developer from continuing to process the film beyond the development time, so you really just need to remove the developer from the emulsion. I hardly ever use an actual Stop bath chemical like Ilfostop. I’ve found that a 5 minute wash with just water is adequate enough to rinse the developer from the film and stop the development process, plus it’s just one less thing you have to buy.
Next comes the fixer. The fixer makes it so the film is longer light sensitive; it “fixes” the film. If you’re confused here, ask your dog, I’m sure he’ll tell you all about getting fixed. Depending on the type and the dilution of your fixer, the fix time will vary. I use Ilford Rapid Fixer at a 1:4 dilution and I generally fix for 7.5 minutes. Again, agitation is important, and I use the same 30 second intervals for agitating (inverting) the chemicals in the canister. Unlike the developer, which is a one-shot wonder, the fixer can be reused a number of times, so pour the fixer back into the bottle to use next time. Fixer eventually exhausted by the build up of silver and halides in it and the number of rolls you can fix varies by dilution and fixer brand so be sure to read the data sheets like this one from Ilford. It’s also important to not dump the fixer down the drain. The build up of silver in the fixer is considered to be toxic, and there is likely a place in town that will take the fixer to dispose of our to recycle and extract the silver from it.
After the development and fixing are complete, you need to rinse the film again in water for another 5 – 10 minutes. Here I opt for clean rather than fast, so I just about always rinse my film in water for 10 minutes. This means running water around 70 degrees (it’s not critical anymore, but you don’t want to use temperatures at either extreme). I have an actual film washer than will hold up to 4 rolls of 35mm film or two rolls of 120mm film, but if you don’t have a washer just run water into the top of the canister since it’s safe to open up the canister to light once it’s been fixed.
After the water rinse, soak the film in a Wetting Agent. This step makes sure that your film drys evenly and without water spots. It’s not a very long rinse, in fact it really only needs to be for about 30 seconds, but the key here is to be gentle while doing it. I use the film canister with the film already in it, and slowly fill the canister with the diluted solution. After it’s done, slowly pore out the solution and you’re just about done.
Drying your film is probably the easiest, but one of the most important parts of the whole process. You need to be able to have a place to dry your film that is dust free so that dust doesn’t settle on your film while it’s wet, and then weld itself to the film surface as it drys. It is possible to re-dry your film if it gets dust on it, but it’s best to just get it right the first time. A bathroom is a great spot for this too, since you can get film clips and then use your shower curtain rod and hooks to hang the film. To speed the process and help reduce the possibility of dust getting on your film, you can get a film squeegee which will remove a lot fo the excess moister and wetting agent from the film. If you use one though, again gentle is the key, so don’t squeeze super hard thinking you’ll get more water off, you’ll more than likely just kink your film or pull it off the film clip and get crap all over it when it falls on the floor.
There are also drying tents and dryers that you can buy that will both keep dust off your film and drastically speed up the drying process. I have a canister dryer that you can load up to about 4 reels into and it blows warm air down through the reels and takes the drying time down to about 5 minutes instead of a few hours. The heated blowers are pretty hard to get your hands on these days though but if you do find one on eBay or some-such, they aren’t horribly expensive.
That about sums it up. If I could get give one word of simple advice it would be to be patient. Don’t rush through it and take the time to make sure the chemicals are measured and the temperatures are correct, you’ll thank yourself later.