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It's been three weeks since I started developing my own black and white film, so by internet standards I'm now an expert and should write an article to pass along my wisdom. This is that article.

Developing film isn't that hard. In fact, even how-to articles that say it isn't that hard make it seem harder than it is. For example, this is a decent article on a good site. That's a link to part two; don't worry about reading Part One because it's just a long shopping list of affiliate links.

So my first pearl of wisdom: you don't need that much stuff. 

They'll want you to buy three graduated cylinders, for example. You'll only use them one at a time, so one is fine. You'll have time to wash it. I use powder developers, but don't own a special stirring tool. Film clips aren't necessary; binder clips or clothes pegs will work fine. I don't own a canister opener or a leader extractor tool, because it's really not that hard to just leave the leader out when rewinding your 35mm film. 

The general rule is: photography's already expensive, so don't buy any more than you need to. Reuse and re-purpose as much as possible. My one deviation from this was to get a new pair of scissors. My general household ones have blades that are too thick to easily cut between 35mm negatives, and are too pointy for comfort in the dark bag. Instead I bought a pair of haircutting scissors, which are thin, sharp, and have rounded tips.

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The most stressful part of the process will be loading the film in the dark bag, but even that's not that hard. There's no need to "place your scissor, the film developing tank, and spirals into the changing bag in an order that you’ll be able to recognize by touch." Sure, you'll need all of those things in your dark bag, but if they're jumbled up you can probably tell your tank from your scissors even under pressure. And if you're using a dark bag the contents aren't going to stay in a neat little row anyway.

And if you can't find your scissors in the dark bag, just stand up. Or do some other action that lifts the entire dark bag up off of the surface it's resting on. Voila! Your scissors can now be found at the bottom of the bag.

Just try not to think of the adventures of James Herriot, Country Vet, while you're elbow-deep in your dark bag.

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Here is one genuine tip that I haven't seen elsewhere: with 35mm film you can start loading your reel before you put it in the dark bag. Don't open the top of the can, but if your leader is out you can trim it square and start it on the plastic ratcheting spool in the light. After all, you've already exposed the first two or three inches when you were loading the camera. Just don't let the canister go ribboning off across the floor and you'll be fine. (It won't do this unless you really want it to. Probably.)

As long as you're not shooting colour Cinestill – if you are, I can't help you – should always be leaving the leader out on your exposed film. It's so much easier to work with. Just fold the end of the leader over so that you don't mistake it for an unexposed roll.

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So here's what I do, in the four times I've done it.

Starting from Ilford Perceptol or Microphen as a powder means I mix the developer in one litre of tap-hot water the day before and let it cool overnight. (This will mix enough to do 4-to-10 rolls, so I may already have enough on hand.) Then at the appropriate time I get the tub that holds my chemistry set out of the closet so that I have everything in one place. If it's 35mm I start the film onto the reel before putting it, the tank, and the scissors in the dark bag; if it's 120 then I need to fumble it onto the reel in the dark. This is as annoying as it sounds, but it's less stressful than cleaning your digital camera's sensor.

With the tank loaded, sealed, and out of the dark bag I start the bathroom faucet running to get up to temperature. I live in a condo, and the temperature does tend to fluctuate. While this is running I pour out the appropriate amount of developer into my one graduated cylinder – the amount I need is stamped on the bottom of my Paterson tank – and measure its temperature. I'll then try to adjust the temperature of the water that I'm adding so that it all winds up around twenty degrees, but if it's a degree or two off that's okay. I have Ilford's time-temperature chart printed off with my darkroom kit.

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So pour the developer into the tank, cap it tightly, and do four bicep curls every minute until it's done. I use my meditation timer app, which is set to chime every minute and gong once the set duration is up. While this is happening I've also washed the graduated cylinder and fill it with room-temperature water that's been briefly exposed to the bottle of photo-flo. Seriously, it only needs a little bit.

With the timer done I dump the diluted developer, give it a couple of quick fill-and-dump rinses with running water instead of using a chemical stop bath, and then pour in my pre-mixed fixer. Like the developer, this lives in a clearly-labeled wide mouth HDPE bottle that I bought from Mountain Equipment Co-op before they were stripped of their assets and sold off for parts to an American chain. Fixing isn't time-sensitive, so I just let it sit for a while, flip it occasionally, and decide that it's done when I've gotten tired of waiting for it.

Just like cooking chicken.

I reuse the diluted fixer, so it goes back into the bottle that it came out of. Because I live in a shared space and fixer smells bad, I rinse everything thoroughly and keep that bottle capped whenever it isn't actively needed.

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Finally there's the rinse. While I was capping the fixer I had the developing tank under the faucet, so I dump out that water and refill it. I'm solidly Team Ilford, so from here on I use their suggested wash method: fresh water, cap tank, five inversions. Fresh water, ten inversions. Fresh water, twenty inversions, and done. Next is that appropriate amount of very lightly soaped water that I had set aside. This doesn't need enthusiastic agitation, or much time, but while I'm rolling it around I'll get the squeegee out and run its blades under the water to ensure that they're clean.

I dump the tank for the last time, and then open it up. The first time I did this I was distraught that the negs came out completely black – but no, it just looks like that because they're wrapped around the spool and I was looking through fifteen layers of them.

Carefully extract the negs from the spool, taking a little bit of care not to crimp them when they go past the loading point – lightly bending it from the side is easy enough. 120 negs are fairly short and manageable, but a 36 exposure film strip is about five feet long. This can be a challenge to smoothly squeeg, but it's doable.

Hang them up somewhere convenient for an hour or two to dry and that's it.


Way less difficult than cleaning a digital camera sensor.