Darkroom Series – Developing Your First Roll – Part 1

As promised, here’s my next instalment in what I late last night decided to call the “Darkroom Series”.

First of all, if you haven’t got anything, I’d say start with the most basic of films and developers. This, in my world, means a Kodak Tri-X like film and a Kodak D-76 like developer. And don’t worry about these names yet, I’ll explain them in a moment.

So, as I said in my last post, all you really need when it comes to developing your own film is the following.

  • Tank
  • Developer
  • Fixer
  • Water

and additionally, you need a dark room (bath room, closet, a thick blanket in a semi dark room) to load your film into the tank in, something to time your process with, as well as exposed film (duh.).

The process is as follows;

  1. Select your film, tank and chemicals
  2. Load film in tank
  3. Pre-soak film in water
  4. Develop film in developer/water mix
  5. Stop development in water
  6. Fix film in fixer/water mix
  7. Wash film in water
  8. Optional: Wash the film in diluted washing liquid and water

Let’s go through the steps.

1. Choosing your materials

Well, there’s no real right or wrong here (as you might have guess already), but I’d say keep it simple for starters until you get the hang of things. This means, as I said earlier, Tri-X and D-76, but what does this mean then?

Kodak Tri-X is a black and white film made by Kodak, and was for many years the go to film for photojournalists and the like, so if you’ve seen any black and white pictures in the newspapers during the last 40-50 years, you have most definitely seen Tri-X. It’s also very forgiving when it comes to exposure and development, so no matter what you do to it, it will work perfectly.

But hold on, I said “Tri-X like” film earlier, didn’t I? Well, as you will find out sooner or later, most of the manufacturers out there all make pretty much the same films, and the differences between them are fine to be honest. But this also means that you can basically just use whichever of these films that you can find/afford, and your results shouldn’t vary that much either way!

So, these are the Tri-X like films I’m familiar with;

I’d say start with either of the two first alternatives, and you’ll be fine. Click the links if you want to see examples of the results look!

The, again for the developer, I said D-76 like developer. Well, again, this is the standard developer made by Kodak, and it’s very simple to use. Ilford makes an almost identical version called ID-11. Both work like this; you mix 2 bags of powder in hot water, and let it cool, and afterwards you just mix that solution with water to make developer. The stock solution can be stored in any kind of canister, I use big brown glass bottles from a apothecary (drug store for you Americans) simply because they are really cheap and easy to clean.

But why do I recommend this instead of Rodinal, HC-110, or anything else? Because first and foremost, D-76/ID-11 is a lot cheaper, and beginners generally want to keep their initial investment low, and secondly the dilutions are much easier to work with (1+1 or 1+4 instead of 1+63 or something). It’s also a bit more predictable than the more arcane one-shot developers.

The tank then? Well, here it’s kinda up to you depending on what formats you want work with, and how many rolls you want to do at a time, but for the beginner just starting out I’d recommend the Peterson System 4 tank that takes two spirals. All the other tanks I’ve tried have been either leak-prone, or hard to load. The Peterson is neither, and the spirals adjust so that you can do both 35mm and 120 film with them. Having two spirals have the added benefit (aside from being able to process two rolls of 35mm in one batch, duh) that you never have to wait for the spiral to dry before being able to process the next one.

Aside from these you will also need fixer, but that’s easy, if you can, get Ilford Rapid Fixer, it’s what I’ve always used, and it works fine. Mix up one 1 liter batch of it for starters by mixing 2 dl concentrate with 8 dl of water. You don’t have to be very accurate here as with the developer, so a mixing jug is fine.

2. Load your film

This I’m not going to show you, as there are plenty of videos on YouTube that shows you how to do it, they cover all different types of formats and tanks, and finally, I don’t happen to have any fogged film to show you with, and I don’t want to waste it. However the basic idea is to get your film onto the spiral, and into the tank without exposing it to light. I’ve always used a windowless bathroom, but some people prefer so called “changing bags” which are basically light tight fabric bags with holes for your hands.

3. Presoak Your Film

Okay, so you are ready to start developing, you have your film in the tank, your developer and fixer mixed and ready to go, now what?
Well, I always start by presoaking the film in water (which is at process temperature) for three minutes to allow the emulsion (the gelatin coating that contains the silver halide that makes the image) to swell and to wash out some of the chemicals that are added to the film to make it more sensitive to light but that are of no use when it comes to developing the film. In theory, this should even out your results between different batches of film and developer, but I haven’t experimented enough to be able to say anything about that. Still, I like the idea of it, and I’ve always done it, so I recommend that you do it too.
After the three minutes are up, just dump out the water, which should by now have quite a funky color depending on you brand of film. Remember to agitate it a bit during this step (you’ll learn what agitation is in a bit).

4. Developing the Film

This no more complicated than chucking the developer in the tank for a specific amount of time, except for this one thing called “agitation”. So, what does agitation mean then? Well, it’s basically a fancy word for “shaking the tank in a specific and repeatable manner”. Why do we need to do this then? The main reason is because when the developer transforms the silver halide in the film into metallic silver, the developer solution gets depleted (“worn out”) close to the film and stops doing its thing. The way we fix this is to shake things up so that fresh developer gets its hands on the film. So, why can’t we just shake it all the time just randomly? Because agitation increases the grain of the film, which isn’t very pretty looking, so we want to this as little as we can while still getting even development. But how do we balance these two things?

I do it one way and one way only, and it has never led me wrong. You agitate by inverting the tank upside down, and back, twist the tank 1/3 of a full rotation and repeat. You do this continuously for the first 30 seconds and thereafter 10 seconds at the top of every minute. 4 inversion should take about 10 seconds.
And finally, don’t listen to me for all eternity, experiment after you get your feet wet, but stuck to my rule for your first tries so you get a baseline to compare your results to. Every photographer I know has a different style when it comes to agitation, and after a while, so will you.

Then we come to the time part. Time and temperature controls how much your negative develops, and more of either means more silver in the film until it becomes opaque. The trick is balancing these two things to get a fully developed negative that’s not too thick to thin to scan or print. Longer times means that the developer has more time to react with the silver halide and therefore produce more silver. Higher temperatures makes the developer do its thing faster (for every ten degrees centigrade higher temperature, chemical reactions happens twice as fast), thus more silver in a shorter timeframe. Luckily, you don’t have to figure these things out by yourself, as almost all manufacturers of developers has already posted times for popular films in their developers. And if you want to do cross-brand, (Kodak film in Ilford developer for example), and the times for your film isn’t listed, head over to The Massive Devchart or filmdev.org, they both list times and temperatures for almost every combination known to mankind. Another thing to be mindful of is the strength of the developer, or dilution, as these also affect the development process (stronger stuff = more speed). These you will find online listed as “1+63”, “1+4”, or “1+0”, but they are really simple, they just mean parts developer stock solution to parts water, so 1+4 means that you just mix 1 part developer stock with 4 parts water (developer stock solution means the liquid you mixed from powders or bought in a bottle, depending on the developer).

This has become so extremely long winded that I’m gonna split this intro into two parts, so, stay tuned for part 2, which is coming later this week.

If you think I left something out, was unclear about something, and/or that I’m a bloody idiot for even thinking of doing things this way, leave a comment below so that I can see the error of my ways. Otherwise, the mental beatings suffered from my prose will continue until morale improves.

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