Save Money And Get Better Results, Too
Processing Your First Roll Of Black And White Film

A few of the developers commonly found in camera shops. The liquid concentrates are a bit more convenient but the results are just as good with the powders. I do recommend using distilled water to mix your developer. It's also a good idea to pick one developer and stick with it long enough to learn its properties.
Photos © 1999, Joseph A. Dickerson, All Rights Reserved

It seems that as technology strives to make picture taking easier and more digitalized there is a backlash among many photographers toward rediscovering techniques and processes of the past. Therefore, I thought this would be an opportune time to share my technique for processing black and white film.

Keep in mind that the methods I am going to describe are a distillation from many sources and influences. They are not the only techniques that will work but, at least for me, they have stood the test of time. So what constitutes the test of time from my perspective? Well, it's a system that gives consistent and repeatable results. I want my film to come out the same way every time with no surprises.

The first parameter in good film processing is to eliminate variables. The more variables you can eliminate the more repeatable and reliable your system becomes. A concept that holds true in every aspect of photography.

In the section "Supplies" you will find a list of the materials and equipment you need to process film so I won't repeat it all here but let's take a quick overview of the steps and discuss what happens in each.

Although not essential, a wash aid and a wetting agent will speed up your processing and help prevent water spots. While many photographers use an acid stop bath when processing film I suggest plain water instead.

The first chemical is the developer. The developer will convert or reduce the exposed silver halide crystals in the film's emulsion to black metallic silver. This changes the invisible or latent image to a visible one. Developers, like film itself, can be classified by their applications. There are high-speed or high-activity developers designed to get the most out of a film's inherent speed but they tend to increase film grain. There are fine grain developers that use silver solvents, usually sodium sulfite, to reduce the apparent grain in the film but these can cause a loss of sharpness. High acutance developers work in conjunction with slow, thin emulsion films to enhance the sharpness in prints but often at a loss of some film speed. The most popular class of film developers are what are known as the general purpose developers. These give good results with a broad range of films and for many photographers are the only developer they require.

The chemical that is often recommended after the developer is stop bath. This is generally acetic acid diluted with water perhaps with another chemical added to indicate its acidity. Kodak Indicator Stop Bath is an example. Notice I said "often used," many photographers prefer to use plain water instead. The acidic stop bath reacting with the residual developer may cause the formation of gas bubbles in the emulsion which can leave pinholes which will print as black spots on your enlargements. Water is nearly as effective in stopping the developing action and it eliminates the pinhole problem.

Stainless steel processing reels have a reputation of being hard to load and it can be a bit tricky at first. If you choose a plastic tank make sure that, like the Patterson tank pictured, the tank can be inverted to agitate.

Next, to render the film no longer light sensitive and the images permanent, we use fixer. I prefer a rapid fixer as it reduces the time that the film is wet which helps to minimize the film grain. To further reduce wet time it is a good idea to use a hypo clearing bath of some sort after the fixer which will cut down on the time that the film has to wash. So much for the overview, let's get to work.

Step one, with the lights out and in total darkness, load your film onto the processing reels. You have a choice of plastic or stainless steel tanks and reels. Whichever you choose practice loading with an out-of-date or scrap roll of film. In the dark with your Aunt Matilda and Uncle Harry's 50th anniversary photos is not the time to learn the peculiarities of your processing tank. OK you've got the film on the reel and the reel in the tank with the lid on--now you can turn the lights on.

The next step is to pre-wet the film with water. This step is not absolutely necessary but I feel that with a one minute presoak you will get more even tones with better gradation in your negatives. Pour the water out of the tank after one minute and as quickly as possible, add the developer.

This environmental portrait of Model Kimi Fredericks is successful because the negative was carefully exposed and then processed to make sure that the tonal range fits the printing paper. This kind of control is only possible if you do your own processing.

I suggest a general purpose developer and highly recommend that you mix your developer with distilled water rather than tap water. This eliminates another variable and gives more consistent results. With most developers the recommended processing temperature is 68°F but check the instructions that came with your chemicals. Once the tank is full rap the tank on the counter gently to dislodge any air bubbles adhering to the film and begin inverting the tank. Note: some tanks cannot be inverted and with these it is very difficult to get even development of the negatives. Agitation of the developer is crucial and must be the same every time or your results can vary wildly. With most films two to three inversions in 5 sec is the proper rate. However, with T-grain films, such as Kodak T-Max or Ilford Delta, the agitation should be more vigorous about five inversions every 5 sec. Continue agitating the film for the first 30 sec that it is in the developer. Remember there are three things that control the developing process: time, temperature, and agitation. Keep all three controlled and consistent and your negatives will come out every time. After the initial 30 sec set the tank down, give it a quarter turn, and wait 30 sec. After 30 sec has elapsed pick up the tank, agitate it for 5 sec using the same inversion rhythm as before, set it down, and again give it a quarter turn.

This same regimen will be followed for the duration of time that the film is in the developer. Follow the manufacturer's recommendation for time and temperature. Most developing instructions recommend maintaining the chemical temperature within plus or minus two degrees but I suggest that you try to keep them within one half a degree if possible. This is especially important with T-grain films which are very sensitive to changes in developer temperature or agitation. After the developer time has elapsed pour out the developer and fill the tank with water and dump it. Repeat this step twice more. Be sure to keep the water within two degrees of the developer temperature. After the third rinse fill the tank with fixer and agitate as before for the first 30 sec.

The instructions for the fixer will indicate a range of times, usually five to 10 minutes with standard fixers and less with rapid fixers, but there is a better way. We want to fix the film for the minimum time it takes to get complete fixing. This will further reduce unnecessary wet time. The way to do this is to visually check the film after one minute in the fixer. Look at the film by taking just a little of it off the reel, not too much as it will be hard to get back onto the reel when it's wet, and look to see if it's clear or milky. This will be easily seen in the unexposed areas such as the edges or the space between the frames. If it is clear, you return the film to the fixer and fix for one more minute and then wash it. If it is still milky, return the film to the fixer, check it again after one more minute, and if it is clear fix for two minutes more. The trick is to fix the film for twice the time it takes it to clear. In other words, if it takes four minutes for the film to clear, you will fix for a total of eight minutes. After fixing we need to wash the residual fixer out of the film or it will eventually fade or stain.

You can simply run water into the film tank but a more efficient way is to first use a wash aid such as Kodak Hypo Clearing Agent, Orbit Bath, Perma Wash (BKA), or Edwal Hypo Eliminator (by Falcon). Any of these, or other similar products, will chemically alter the residual fixer and reduce the wash time to around five minutes.

After your wash it's a good idea to treat your negatives in a wetting agent before you hang them to dry. A wetting agent will break up the surface tension of the water and help prevent hard water spots on your negatives. Follow the instructions on your wetting agent carefully as using too much can result in a soap scum-like residue on your film.

Well, that wasn't all that bad was it? And I bet your negatives look pretty good to huh? To make it even easier next time I've included a section, "Processing Steps," with just the steps listed. Feel free to cut it out and tack it to your darkroom wall. Remember this certainly isn't the only way to process black and white film but, "by golly, I gaur-on-tee it'll work."

Processing Steps
· Step One: Load film. In the dark; roll film on reel(s) and place in tank. Place lid on tank. Lights on.
· Step Two: Water pre-rinse. Fill tank and let it sit for one minute. After one minute pour out water.
· Step Three: Developer. Mix the developer as per manufacturer's instructions. Make sure the temperature is correct and as rapidly as possible, pour into tank. Agitate as per text.
· Step Four: Rinse. After developing time has elapsed pour out developer and fill the tank with water and dump. Repeat three times.
· Step Five: Fixer. Fill the tank with fixer and agitate as per developer. After one minute inspect the film. Fix for twice the time it takes the film to clear. Pour out fixer.
· Step Six: Wash aid. Treat film in wash aid as per manufacturer's instructions. Pour out hypo eliminator.
· Step Seven: Wash. Wash film in running water for five minutes. Water should be between 65°-75°F.
· Step Eight: Wetting agent. Treat film as per manufacturer's instructions and hang to dry.
· Step Nine: Dry. Dry your film in a warm, dust-free place. Film should then be cut into strips of five or six negatives and placed in negative preservers.

· Developer
· Stop bath or plain acetic acid (water can be substituted, see text)
· Fixer
· Wash aid
· Wetting agent

· Film tank and reels (plastic or stainless steel)
· Thermometer (good photo lab quality is essential)
· Scissors (for trimming 35mm film)
· Can opener (for opening 35mm film cassettes)
· Film clips (for hanging film to dry. You will need two per roll for each roll you will process at one time.)

Agfa Photo Division
100 Challenger Rd.
Ridgefield Park, NJ 07660
(201) 440-2500
fax: (201) 440-6703

Brandess/Kalt/Aetna Group (Heico Perma Wash)
701 Corporate Woods Pkwy.
Vernon Hills, IL 60061
(800) 621-5488
(847) 821-0450
fax: (800) 762-4711
fax: (847) 821-5410

Darkroom Innovations
PO Box 19450
Fountain, AZ 85269
(602) 767-7105
fax: (602) 767-7106

Doran Enterprises
2779 S 34th St.
Milwaukee, WI 53215
(414) 645-0109

Dot Line Corp.
9420 Eton Ave.
Chatsworth, CA 91311
(800) 423-2624
(818) 700-9997
fax: (818) 700-9797

Eastman Kodak
343 State St.
Rochester, NY 14650
(800) 242-2424
fax: (716) 724-5629

Falcon Safety Products, Inc.
25 Chubb Way
Branchburg, NJ 08876
(908) 707-4900
fax: (908) 707-8855

Ilford Photo
W 70 Century Rd.
Paramus, NJ 07653
(800) 631-2522
(201) 265-6000
fax: (201) 265-3443

JOBO Fototechnic, Inc.
PO Box 3721
Ann Arbor, MI 48106
(734) 677-6989
fax: (734) 677-6963

Photographer's Formulary, Inc.
PO Box 950
Condon, MT 59826
(800) 922-5255
(406) 754-2891
fax: (406) 754-2896