B&W Film Photography, Part III: Film Development

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Jun 7, 2006
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By terri at Sat, 2006-10-07 11:46

Welcome to this installment of Jim Hannah's Black & White Film Photography! Enjoy the series!

Black and White Film Photography - a Primer
by Jim Hannah
Part III: Film development

Developing film is a lot like making canned soup or bottling a soft drink. The mark of real success in all three is consistency. No matter how good one batch of soda or soup or film turns out to be, it's whether the next batch will be just as good that really matters.

This article in the B&W series will cover a procedure for developing B&W film. If you follow it, every roll of film you process will receive the same development. Any roll-to-roll differences will be due to something else, such as the exposure. We'll explain the use of three different popular developers and one fixer. There are many other developers and fixers. Some of them may later prove to be better for you for any number of reasons, but none of them will be more consistent. And that's really what you need at first - something you can count on while you're learning the basic film development process. Later on, you can explore different developers, fixers and process procedures to your heart's content. By then, you'll have an established standard to judge them against.

There are six steps in the process: development, stop bath, fixing, rinsing, detergent dip and drying. Each step will be described in detail. Though we've used lots of words to be sure that each step is very clear, the steps themselves are really quite simple. Let's start with a description of what each step does.

A little chemistry
When exposed film comes into contact with a developer, a chemical reaction occurs. The sensitized silver salt in the emulsion layer [the salt grains that have received enough light] is slowly converted into pure silver. The un-sensitized silver salt doesn't react with the developer. The next step - the stop bath -- does just what it says: it stops the development.

In the third step - fixing -- the un-sensitized salt reacts with the fixer. The anti-halation layer is also removed. The washing step then rinses out the fixer and any remaining salts. In fact, it removes everything but the plastic film base and the silver grains in the emulsion layer. The silver grains now make up the photographic image. The film is then treated with a detergent to help eliminate water spots when it dries. Finally, the film is hung up to dry. As the emulsion layer dries out, it becomes hard and resistant to scratching. When a developer is used to process film, the chemicals in it are partially used up. The concentration of useful developer decreases. If the same developer is then used for another batch of film, the negatives will be lighter. There are ways to adjust for this. One is to add a separate solution called a replenisher. Another is to lengthen the development time. Both methods work well but require some record-keeping or add steps to the process. For consistency's sake, however, we'll elect to avoid the problem completely by using a tank of developer only once, and then discarding it.

Chemical reactions, such as development, are sensitive to time and temperature as well as to concentration. It's possible to compensate for different temperatures by changing the development time. Again, it can complicate the procedure and provides a chance to make a mistake. We'll bring the developer to a single standard temperature each time so the time will remain constant. As your skills increase, you can find out how to compensate for different temperatures and concentrations. For now, it's best to focus on learning the basic steps.

All set? Here's what you'll need to get started.


*Film developing tank and reel(s).
All tanks will work, but there are some differences between brands. Tanks which can hold two reels at a time instead of just one reel are an advantage if you intend to process a lot of film. Tanks made of metal are generally more expensive, but they're less likely to break if they're dropped. For some people, metal reels may be harder to load than plastic reels. Some tanks have reels with an 'auto load' feature. There is no one 'best' tank. All will do the job.

No matter which tank you get, please practice loading the reel in daylight using an old roll of film before you work with 'live' exposed film. You'll have to load exposed film onto the reel in total darkness. Your hands will need time to learn how to do this new task, even if your mind already knows it thoroughly. There's nothing quite as frustrating as fumbling around in the dark with an unruly roll of film.
Hint: Cut the 35mm leader tongue off before starting to load the film on the reel.
Hint: Remove 120 film from the paper backing and load it starting with the stiff, taped end.

* Thermometer. Get one which can read from at least 15°C (60°F) to 45°C (110°F) and has lines every 1 or 2°F or 1°C. There are thermometers made specifically for darkroom use.

*Clock, watch or timer. This should have a second hand or, if digital, it should read in minutes and seconds.

*Liquid-measuring containers. Your measuring containers will depend on whether you normally use ounces or cc's. If you use ounces, a 16 ounce container is about the minimum useable size, and a 32 ounce or larger container is better. If you use metrics, 500 cc's is the minimum, and 1 liter is better. Large photo shops carry these, usually in both plastic and glass. Some are marked in both systems. Plastic kitchen measuring cups will also work just fine. For small amounts such as 10 cc, kitchen measuring spoons will be accurate enough.

See Appendix A for conversion information.

*Empty, clean bottles. We'll describe these in the Preparation section.

*Funnel. You'll need this to pour solutions back into their bottles.

*Stirring rod. A length of dowel will do just fine.

*Film clips. Clothes pins with strong jaws make a good substitute.


*Film developer.
We recommend you start with one of the following developers: Kodak D-76, Kodak Microdol, or Ilford Ilfotec DD-X. The first two come in powder form. We'll use the 1 gallon size in this procedure. Ilford DD-X is a liquid. It comes as a concentrate in a 1 liter container. All three developers have a long history of successful use. There are many others which work just as well, but may not be as widely available. If you decide to use a different developer, read the data sheet and package carefully to ensure that you prepare it and dilute it correctly.

*Fixer. The time-honored fixer is Kodak Fixer in powder form. It's available in packages which make 1 liter of fixer and also in packages which make 1 gallon of fixer. The 1 liter size is the one we'll use [See Appendix B]. Like the developers, there are many other fixers available, but their mixing and use directions may be different.

*Short Stop. Short stop is acetic acid. A 16 ounce bottle of the 28% concentrate will be fine. The specific brand is not important. Some brands include an indicator which turns color when the acid is used up. Do not use vinegar as a substitute. It's not pure acetic acid.

*Detergent. A small 4 ounce bottle of Kodak Photo Flo (or similar) detergent concentrate is enough. Don't substitute dish or laundry detergent. They contain additives which might cause problems.


Before you can develop film, there are a few things to attend to first. You should check your tank so that you know how much liquid to pour into it. You will also have to make up the four chemicals required for the process. When you make up the chemicals, be sure to label and date the bottles so that you know what they contain and when they were made up.

*Tank Capacity.
The first thing you should do is find out how much liquid your tank requires. The literature which comes with it may tell you, but it's a good thing to check it yourself. You'll only have to do it once. The procedure is simple. Just put the empty reel in the bottom of the tank and fill the tank with enough water to cover the top of the reel. Pour the water out into a measuring container and write down the number of ounces or cc's. If your tank can handle two reels at a time, do the same thing with two reels in the tank. Write that number down, too.

Ilford Ilfotec DD-X. This developer is made up each time just before you use it. The dilution is 1 part of the concentrated developer and four parts of water. To calculate this, divide the quantity of liquid you will need for your tank by 5. Pour that quantity of concentrated developer from the bottle into a measuring container. Then just add water until you reach the amount your tank requires. Stir gently to mix.
Hint: It's easier if the final number of ounces or cc's you make up is a number divisible by 5. It will avoid trying to measure out the developer in parts of an ounce or cc. You can discard any extra developer if it will overfill your tank.
The temperature of the prepared developer should be 20°C [68°F] when you pour it into the tank, so try to have the water close to that temperature when you add it to the developer. It will make the final temperature adjustment easier and quicker.
One liter of concentrate will process about 20 rolls of 35mm or 120 film, depending on your tank.

Kodak D-76 and Microdol You'll need a clean 1 gallon container with an air-tight lid or cap. Plastic milk containers work very well. Use your measuring container to measure out and add one gallon of water to the container. Mark the container with a permanent felt-tip marker to show the liquid level. Then empty the water out. The container is now marked to contain exactly one gallon.

Next, read the instructions on the back of the developer package. Measure the required amount of water at the recommended temperature into the marked gallon container. Use mixed hot and cold water to do this. Try to have the temperature near but not above the upper range limit. It will speed up the dissolving process.

Hint: Mark the container with this liquid level, too. You won't have to measure the water next time you make up a batch of the same developer. You can do the same thing with the fixer bottle when you make up your first batch.

Next, slowly pour the dry chemical into the water, a little at a time. A funnel will help. Stir gently between additions. Don't stir so hard that you whip air into the liquid - - developers do not like oxygen! When all the powder has been added, stir until the powder has all dissolved. Finally, add cool water until the liquid level reaches the 1 gallon mark. Cap the container and gently turn it upside down and back a few times to ensure thorough mixing.

One gallon of developer will process up to 14 rolls of 35mm film or 7 rolls of 120 film, depending on your tank. [See Appendix C]

Fixer. For a 1 liter size package of fixer, you'll need a clean 1 liter bottle for the solution. An empty soda bottle will do just fine. Use your measuring container to measure out 1 liter [or 34 ounces] of water and pour it into the container. Mark the container with a permanent felt tip marker to show the liquid level. Then empty the water out.

Next, read the instructions on the back of the fixer package. Using mixed hot and cold water, measure the required amount of water at the required temperature range into the liter container and mark the level in the bottle. Then slowly pour the dry chemical into the water, a little at a time. Stir gently between additions to prevent the powder from forming a cake in the bottom of the bottle. When all the powder has been added, stir until the powder has all dissolved. The liquid may not be clear at this point. Cloudiness isn't a problem. The solution will clear with time.

Finally, add cool water until the liquid level reaches the 1 liter mark. Cap the container and gently turn it upside down and back a few times to mix thoroughly. One liter of fixer will process about 20 rolls of 35mm or 120 film, depending on your tank

Note: If you are using the DD-X developer, discard the fixer and make up a fresh batch when the developer bottle is about half empty. That way, you will not run a risk of using exhausted fixer as you near the end of the bottle of developer.

Stop bath. This is best prepared in 2 liter quantities. A clean 2 liter soda bottle will do nicely. It's not necessary to be very accurate with the stop bath. The dilution will probably be something close to 95cc [3 ounces] of concentrate to make 2 liters of solution. Just follow the directions on the label.

If your stop bath includes an indicator, you must make up fresh stop bath when the indicator changes color. If your stop bath doesn't include an indicator, make up a fresh 2 liter batch every time you make up a gallon of developer or use up more than a half bottle of Ilford DD-X.

Detergent. Make up one liter of the detergent in a clean soda bottle. If you're using Photo Flo, the dilution is 1part of Photo Flo to 200 parts of water. That translates into 5cc [1 teaspoon] of Photo Flo to 1 liter [34 ounces] of water. If you're using another brand, check the label for diluting directions. Detergent solution has no limit on the number of rolls you can process with it.

OK. The preparation is complete. The solutions are made up. The bottles are labeled and dated. The tank capacity has been verified. It's time to put everything to work.

Development procedure

Load the exposed film onto the development tank reel in total darkness. Loading will usually be easier if the reel is completely dry. When the film has been loaded onto the reel, place the reel in the tank and put the cover on. Be sure that the cover is properly seated on the tank and then turn on the lights. Darkness is not needed for the rest of the procedure.
Hint: Factory-loaded film cassettes are difficult to open. An old-fashioned one piece bottle/can opener can be used to pry an end cap off. Stop by your local photo finishing place and ask them for a couple of empty cassettes. Use them for practice.

Developer step.
Measure out the quantity of developer required for your tank. If you are using the Ilford developer, it means diluting some of the bottled concentrate as described above. If you are using either of the Kodak developers, your developer is already at the correct strength and all you have to do is pour out the correct amount.

Check the temperature of the developer. It must be 20°C (68°F) when you pour it into the tank. If it isn't, adjust it by placing the measuring container in a bowl of cold or warm water as required and stir the developer gently until the temperature is correct. This may take a couple of changes of water in the bowl if the adjustment required is large.

Set a timer* for the development time for your film and developer combination.

*Note: Take a moment to study the information provided by your film's manufacturer that accompanied your film. There will usually be several time/temperature combinations offered according to which developer you are using. The times listed are those recommended by the film and developer manufacturers. They assume that you have exposed the film at its normal ISO rating. Depending on your particular camera and light meter, you may wish to expose the film at a higher or lower ISO rating depending on your experience with the negatives.

Measure out the required amount of stop bath and keep it handy. The stop bath should be close to room temperature.

Pour the developer into the tank and begin timing when pouring is completed. Agitate the tank in accordance with the directions included with your specific tank. If you're using a capped metal or plastic tank, that usually means turning the tank upside down and back four or five times initially and then two or three times thereafter. If your tank uses a rod to rotate the reel, follow the directions provided. Tap the side of the tank gently against something firm or jar it by hitting it with the heel of your hand to help dislodge any air bubbles clinging to the film. These bubbles will keep the developer from reaching the film and will show up as clear dots on the final negatives.
Hint: To maintain the correct temperature during the developer step, put the tank in a bowl containing water at 20°C (68°F).

Continue to agitate the tank for about 2-3 seconds every 30 seconds. This will insure that the film surface is regularly exposed to fresh developer.

At the end of the development period, pour the developer out of the tank and discard it.

Stop bath step.
Immediately pour the stop bath into the tank. Agitate the tank and allow the stop bath to remain in the tank for at least 30 seconds. It can remain longer if necessary.
Measure out the required amount of fixer. The fixer should be close to room temperature.

Pour the stop bath in the tank back into its bottle.

Fixer step.
Pour the fixer into the tank and begin timing when pouring is completed. Agitate the tank in accordance with the directions included with your specific tank. Continue to agitate the tank for about 2-3 seconds every minute. This will insure that the film surface is exposed to fresh fixer.

At the end of 10 minutes, pour the fixer back into its bottle.

Wash step.
Follow your tank instructions for washing, or place the reel(s) in a bowl large enough to allow it to be completely covered with water. Place the bowl under a faucet and allow a slow, gentle stream of water at or a little below room temperature water to flow into the bowl. Start timing when the water begins to overflow the bowl. Wash for 20 minutes.

Detergent step.
Pour enough of the prepared detergent solution into your tank to cover the reel(s). Gently lower the reel(s) into the solution. Do not agitate. This can create a froth which clings to the film and affects drying. Allow the reel(s) to remain in the solution for 45 seconds to 1 minute. Then gently lift the reel(s) out of the tank. Pour the solution back into its bottle.

Drying step.
Unwind a few inches of film from the reel. Attach a film clip or clothes pin to the end of the film and slowly unwind the rest of the film from the reel. Handle the film only by its edges. When you reach the other end of the film, attach a film clip or clothes pin to it.

Hang the film up by one end in a place where it will not be exposed to dusty air currents.

The drying period should be at least 30 minutes, though high humidity may lengthen the time required.

Film is best stored as cut strips in clean #10 envelopes. Hold the film only by the edges while handling and cutting it. 35mm strips can be 6 negatives long. 120 film strips can be 3 negatives long for 6cm x 6cm negatives and 4 negatives long for 4.5cm x 6cm negatives.

The next topic in this series will be B&W contact prints.

Appendix A. Measurements.

Metric System to English System
5 cc = 1 Teaspoon
10 cc = 2 Teaspoons or 1 Deciliter
30 cc = 2 Tablespoons or 1 Ounce
100 cc = 3 Ounces + 1 Tablespoon or 10 Deciliters
500 cc = 17 Ounces or 1/2 Liter
1000 cc = 34 Ounces or 1 Liter
2000 cc = 68 Ounces or 2 Liters

Appendix B. Saving money on fixer.

You'll find that the gallon size of Kodak fixer is not much more expensive than the 1 liter size. If you expect to be processing a lot of B&W film, you can save a little by buying the 1 gallon package of fixer. Just use the general procedure for the Kodak developers above.

When you have the gallon of fixer fully dissolved, transfer it to two 2 liter soda bottles. Use one bottle of fixer with the gallon of developer or half-bottle of DD-X and then discard it.

Use the second bottle with the next gallon of developer or the rest of the bottle of DD-X.

And yes, the 1 gallon size will actually produce almost 4 liters of fixer. But before you're tempted to make 4 1 liter bottles of fixer and then use 1 bottle with each gallon of developer, remember that this amount of fixer will process almost 80 rolls of film. Fixer has a shelf life, and unless you're shooting loads and loads of film, it will probably become outdated long before you can use it all up.

Appendix C. Pre-measuring developers and fixers.

One way of measuring out developer and fixer is to make them up in gallon sizes and then immediately portion them out into small bottles which contain just enough for a single tank of film. As an example, some metal tanks require about 15 ounces of developer. Snapple™ comes in 16 ounce glass bottles with very sturdy caps. One gallon of developer will fill 7 of these bottles with a little left over. The fixer can also be prepared in the gallon size and then individually bottled in the same way. One bottle of developer and one bottle of fixer are then used for each tank of film and discarded. The convenience may well offset the increased cost of the fixer per load.

Small bottles can be found in other sizes to fit the requirements of tanks which have a higher or lower capacity.

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