Introduction: Developing Black and White Film at Home

Picture of Developing Black and White Film at Home

Manual film processing was once a common practice among photographers and hobbyists. Now, with the advent of digital camera technology, the process of manual developing has become a lost art. While the hobby is not as popular as it once was, the equipment and chemicals are still available, and are cheaper than ever. Mastering this process will give you a greater appreciation and understanding of the true art of photography. This Instructable aims to cover the actual developing process in detail, but it is beyond the scope of this Instructable for me to cover camera operation and film selection in great detail. Instead, you will notice that I have posted links to excellent resources throughout the guide. Those unfamiliar with a particular concept should refer to these articles for reference. Any further questions are always welcome in the comments.

Step 1: The Camera

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You will need to have access to a film camera. Most people still have one laying around, but they can be picked up on eBay, Goodwill, or even the drug store for not much money. I still use an old Canon AE-1 Program, and it gives me excellent results. Don't worry about all the fancy bells and whistles; just find one that works. If your camera has an automatic mode like mine, just let the camera do the work. Some older cameras do not do the auto metering, so you will need to handle that yourself. The basic rule of thumb is the "Sunny 16" rule. This simply means that you should use one, over whatever speed your film is, as the shutter speed, and an aperture of f/16 on a sunny day outside. For example, on a sunny day, I choose to shoot with 250 speed film. My exposure will be for 1/250 with an aperture of f/16. Unfortunately, a more detailed explanation of manual camera operation is beyond the scope of this Instructable. For more information, I find this website to be an excellent resource (be sure to read all of the articles; there are nine.)

Step 2: The Film

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Black and white film is very different from color film. It is a common misconception that you can develop color film with black and white chemicals, and get a black and white image. This is not the case; you will get a ruined roll of film. Instead, use only black and white film. For this Instructable, I chose to use ISO 100 film, which is a good all around film for outdoor shots, or indoor ones with a flash or tripod. Remember to use the slowest speed film that will satisfy your requirements. The higher the film speed, the higher the chance for a grainy image. Again, film selection is rather complicated, so I'll refer you to this article, which will probably explain it better than I will.

Step 3: The Chemicals

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The process that we will be using involves three chemical steps. First, a developer will be added to bring out the exposed portions of the image. Then, a stop bath is added to stop the developer's chemical reaction. Finally, the filmed is cleared with a fixer (sometimes called "hypo".) This is a very basic explanation, and I encourage you to look into the actual chemical processes to further familiarize yourself with the chemistry.

For this instructable, I used D-76 developer, Kodak Indicator Stop Bath, and NH-5 Fixer (without the hardener.) I felt like this was a good combination of chemicals, and I would recommend reading up on the developing process a little more before making alterations to my list. This is because the steps for processing may be a little different than the ones I have outlined.

Mix the chemicals according to the manufacturer's instructions. Generally, this evolves filling a bottle with 3/4 of the required water, adding the concentrated chemical, and then adding the remaining water required. I prefer to mix my photography chemicals in dark opaque bottles, because I find that they have a slightly longer shelf life this way. If you don't see yourself working with the chemicals very often, make only what you will need to develop the number of rolls you have, because the chemicals have a far longer shelf life when concentrated. Make only stock solutions, with no dilution. Let the bottles sit in the room you will be developing in overnight to equalize the temperature, and insure that the chemical is properly mixed.

Step 4: The Equipment

Picture of The Equipment

You will need a few pieces of equipment to develop the film, and I will go over them, piece-by-piece, below.

Changing Bag - This is used to provide a light-free environment so that you can transfer the film from the roll in the canister to the reel in the tank. If you are cheap, and feeling daring, you could do this at night, in a room, under the covers, with all the lights turned out, instead of using a changing bag. I've never done it this way, but I've heard of it working for some people.

Developing Tank - This is the container that will hold the film for the duration of the developing process. It has a light proof lid, a spout to allow chemicals to be poured in and out, and a reel, which will hold the film. The tanks I use are about as simple as they come, and I don't really feel like I've ever needed one with any other functions or features. Make sure you read the instructions very carefully, because every tank is a little different.

Scissors - To cut the film while you're in the changing bag. I strongly recommend using a shorter model, with a rounded tip for safety. You know, the kind kindergartners use.

Church Key - Those things that you use to open cans. You will use this to open the film canister.

Step 5: Transferring the Film to the Reel

Picture of Transferring the Film to the Reel

This is going to vary from tank manufacturer to tank manufacturer. I will describe the process with my generic tank, and it should be close to the process that other tanks will use. I recommend cutting a piece of paper to exactly the size of a piece of film first, so that you can practice on something that won't be damaged by light if you fail to load the reel. Insure that your reel is set to the proper setting for your type of film before you try to load it.

First, load the scissors, church key, tank with all pieces, and the film canister into the changing bag. Zip both zippers closed.

Put BOTH of your arms through the elastic arm holes.

Arrange your tools so that you know where they are. I prefer to lay my tools towards the front of the bag, closest to me, so that they will be out of the way, yet still accessible.

Open the film tank and remove the reel.

Using the church key, pry off the BOTTOM of the film canister. This is the side WITH OUT the little nub poking out of the center.

Using the scissors, cut about three inches of film off of the beginning of the reel and discard it.. This is the leader, which is the funny shaped strip of film at the beginning of the roll. Cut the corners off of the end of the remaining film, so that the film moves through the reel more easily.

Start the film on the reel, insuring that you are wrapping with the natural curve of the film. Begin loading the reel using the procedure outlined in the manufacturer's instructions. This generally involves a ratcheting wrist motion.

Once you have reached the end of the roll, cut off the plastic reel at the end, and load the tank's reel back into the tank. Close the lid. Double check that your film is now light-safe.

Open the bag and remove your tools. You are now ready to process the film.

Step 6: Pre-wash

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Put your film in a kitchen sink, and turn on the faucet to a setting that is close to room temperature. Allow the water to fill the tank, then shut the water off. Agitate the tank by moving it from side to side for several seconds. Then, discard the water. The pre-wash process insures that you won't develop air bubbles on your film, which form when you add developer to dry film.

Step 7: Developer

Picture of Developer

Look on the side of the tank, and you will see a table, comparing the size of film to the required amount of liquid to cover it. Using this guideline, use only the amount of chemical required for your film for the following steps. If you are unsure, err on the side of too much.

Get your timer out. I used my iPod because it has easy-to-read numbers. Zero it out, and then place your tank in the sink. Pour in the required amount of developer, and then start the timer. Allow the developer to sit in the tank for a total of 6 minutes 30 seconds. This is assuming that you are developing your film with D-76 at stock strength in a room which is 68-70 degrees F. Agitate the film for 10 seconds every 30 seconds by shaking the tank slightly from side to side. In the last 30 seconds of processing, agitate the film continuously. 10 seconds before the timer gets to "6:30" begin pouring out the developer. Insure that you are doing this while the water is running.

Step 8: Stop Bath

Picture of Stop Bath

Immediately after the developer is gone from the tank, add the stop bath. Shake continuously for 15-20 seconds. Time is not critical. Dump the stop bath out under running water.

Step 9: Fixer

Picture of Fixer

Add the fixer to the tank. Agitate the tank continuously for 30 seconds. Dump out the fixer under running water.

Step 10: Rinse

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Put the tank under running water for several seconds and flush water through it. Then, open the lid, and allow water to run over the reel. Every few seconds, plunge the reel in and out of the tank. After the film has rinsed for about two minutes, you can shut off the water.

Step 11: Removal and Drying

Picture of Removal and Drying

Remove the film from the reel. Hang it in a relatively dust free environment. My house is relatively dust free to begin with, so my favorite place is to hang film on pant hangers in the door jam of an unused room. You may wish to use a film squeegee to eliminate water spots and speed up drying time. Allow the film to dry completely.

Step 12: What to Do With the Developed Film

Picture of What to Do With the Developed Film

There are several routes that you can take at this point. You could say "hmm, that was fun" and throw the film away without ever looking back. Another option is to take the film to your local drug store or photography store and have enlargements made. Just go through the same process that you would to have reprints made.

If you are going to have prints made at a lab or drug store, it is best to leave your film in one long strip. It is easier on the film techs to run the film through the paper processor in one long strip, rather than five or size smaller strips. After you have your prints made, you may wish to cut the negatives into strips of five or six frames for easy storing. The film tech may even offer to do it for you after they have finished processing your film. Whatever you do, make sure that the strips have no fewer than four frames a piece. Otherwise, you run the risk of getting the film strip stuck inside the paper processing machine.

Store your negatives completely dry in a dust free environment. I like to separate the individual film strips with paper, but that is optional.

Step 13: Modifications and Other Information

Picture of Modifications and Other Information

-Due to availability of certain chemicals, you may wish to recalculate developing times. You will need to do this if you use a film or chemicals that are different from mine, or you develop in an enviroment that is greater than 4 degrees F different from the standard 68 degrees F. The website that I like to use has most all types of films and chemicals, and even handles process C-41 (color.)

-You may wish to omit using a stop bath. Instead, rinse the film for about one minute in between the developer and the fixer.

-The alternative is to use something called an alkaline fixer, such as TF4, which does not require a stop bath; only a rinse in between the developer and fixer.

-Some advocate the use of a hardening fixer. I see this as a waste, personally. If you elect to use a hardening fixer, do so after you've processed several rolls without the hardener component. If you use a hardening fixer, I strongly recommend using a hypo-clear rinsing agent as well.

-36 exposure film is more difficult to load than 24 exposure film due to the longer length.

-Black and white film is difficult to find at a drug store or grocery store. You'll probably have to order it, along with your chemicals, online. Be sure to check if the company will ship chemicals (B&H will not.) Order several rolls so you don't get stiffed on shipping one roll of film. Even if you decide that processing the film yourself isn't for you, you can still take it to a photo lab and have it processed like normal people do.

-Remeber to experiment with different types and styles of photographs. You don't have much to loose; film and chemicals are cheap.


Wild-Bill (author)2017-10-27

I haven't used a film camera much since 1983 except for a few weddings where I rented equipment. I haven't been in a darkroom since around 1978. I just recently acquired a Leica 3 (pretty ancient) with the idea of getting back into B&W photography. I thought of going large format but the cost seems too extreme, especially as I will not be earning any money with the camera. 35mm film equipment is easy to come by if one is patient. I just snagged 5 filters for my camera, a grain magnified and a film tank at an auction just the other day for $20. I am starting to see more people using film again. I was a bit concerned with you dumping chemicals down the drain back in the 70s we were very cautious about chemical disposing. Have things changed in that regard with different formulations? Thanks for the instructable.

StigM4 (author)2017-09-28

How to do the next stage at home?

Processing onto photographic paper?

I did this in college and want to start doing it again.

TheAznOp (author)2015-10-17

Thanks heaps to you and Instructables. I have heaps of undeveloped negatives. I miss old-school photography and it's processes. Next step is hunting for the chemicals. ?

shootfilm (author)2014-09-21

One note: I leave my cell phone outside the darkroom when I'm in there. Once someone called me at the wrong moment, which made the phone light up and ruined my image.

Great article!

joeofloath (author)2014-05-01

"It is a common misconception that you can develop color film with black and white chemicals, and get a black and white image."

Well, actually...

onemoroni1 (author)2013-11-12

I have had my own darkroom for a couple decades. Recently I bought 100' roll of B/W and spooled up a few rolls and started shooting again. Have to get the chemicals when I'm ready. There is nothing like a hand printed B/W, nothing compares to it, not even the best digital.

blodefood (author)2013-05-02

I still have my Minolta SRT 100. I remember doing my film at home and taking the negs to the J-school darkroom to print them in the enlargers. Yep! That was a while ago.

ultraorange (author)2012-10-21

Actually you can process c41 with b&w chemistry. There are a few flikr groups and online tutorials.

jephey (author)2008-08-30

WARNING: It is dangerous and illegal to pour fixer down the drain! It contains silver which is dangerous to people and wildlife! If you have a septic tank this is a definite no-no.

What can I do?!
Pour your used fixer and developer into a container (with a lid) that can be easily transported by automobile. Take the container to a photo lab (or even a pharmacy with a one-hour lab) and ask the lab tech for it to be dumped in the Waste or Silver Recovery unit. Don't ask a cashier! If you can, call ahead and ask for the lab supervisor.

If they ask questions:
Say you do your film at home, that it should be safe to pour in, they can ask their supervisor, and it's more money for them because of the silver it contains. The people aren't giving you a hard time, there is often all sorts of warning signs about mixing chlorine/bleach containing chemicals, with another type of chemical, that is all Greek to them. Be patient and let them double check, it's worth it for the environment.

The unit at professional labs zaps the waste with electricity and using magnets collects the silver and the rest goes down the drain. Not only does the silver not make it into the water supply, it is saved in large canisters which are picked up for recycling!

In the United States: Both Federal and State government agencies regulate the handling and disposal of photographic chemicals. For more info on proper disposal of photographic chemicals, see here (PDF).

jakebaldwin (author)jephey2012-01-07

Bumping an old comment, sorry about that.

It isn't only fixer that's dangerous. Any chemicals used in the process should be handled this way. The developer itself washes away chemicals with it, and even if you use an eco-friendly developer, the chemicals it washes away will make it just as bad for the bay as your standard chem developer. Unfortunately, I learned this after dumping a few gallons of used Caffenol into the gutter.

Good comment, by the way. I was a little shocked seeing such a nice Instructable with pictures of the author pouring everything he used down the sink.

ebenostby (author)jakebaldwin2012-10-10

Regarding fixer - you can reuse a liter of fixer around 20 times (that is, process 20 rolls of film with it). Since it's relatively expensive, it's almost silly not to. Then when you're done, you really do need to take it somewhere where it can be properly dealt with. (This could be an Instructable in itself). Where I live, the local county provides toxic waste management centers where materials like this can be taken.
Fixer in particular can be managed by plating the silver out onto steel wool (the silver is toxic in solution).

dqvid (author)jephey2010-10-18

@jephey: thanks for this information! now if only there were a way to promote it to the top...

onemoroni1 (author)2012-07-13

Yeah, good old sunny 16. I have a couple all manual cameras and it works great and not too hard to interpolate stopping up or down with the aperture and/or shutter speed to get what you want.. Also don't forget rule of thirds. Pay attention to composition if you want a stunning image instead of a record.

frisbeechamp1983 (author)2012-01-16

I remember as a kid I always wanted a Canon AE-1 Program. I just got mine with another Canon A1. BTW nice lens cap, '84 olympics?

urbanfarmer18 (author)2010-08-15

building a bw darkroom in a bathroom. what are the staining risks with slate floors/countertop and with porcelain sinks? is there a clean up routine to prevent staining? better surfaces (aside from ss, plastic and fiberglass!)

All of those materials are fairly porous, and thus will soak up the potent die present in many brands of stop bath. New developer and new fixer generally has no color. Interestingly enough, the active ingredient of stop bath is acetic acid, CH3COOH, which is also the active ingredient of household vinegar, a colorless and harmless replacement for stop bath. Will you be making enlargements as well or simply processing negatives?

so if i use vinegar instead of stop bath, no staining issues? what about coating and sealants for the slate or the porcelain?

LinuxH4x0r (author)2008-07-27

Now if only I could do color.....

darkroommike (author)LinuxH4x0r2010-08-02

Color negative film is easy to process, three steps. Time required is even less than for black and white. The times are very short so a few practice runs are a good idea. The only detail that's a little difficult is the temp control, most kits are used at 100 deg. F +/-.25! You need a water bath to keep temp tolerance like that (maybe a future Instructable?). And most film scanners work better with color film than they do with black and white. But the whole why bother thing comes up since most one hour labs will "process only" color negative film for a couple of bucks.

KMaq (author)2010-02-16

how can i develop a 5x7 paper without a lightproof developing tank? i hear that pressing it anda a blank sheet together between glass works. 

darkroommike (author)KMaq2010-08-02

Get a color paper processing drum (tube), load the paper in the drum in the dark (or use a changing bag) and once the cap on the drum is replaced you can process the paper in normal room light.

komecake (author)2009-10-24

  Ahhhh, this brings back memories. I actually found a HUGE original B & W developing book at a thrift store  on the film I used back in tech school. I just need the chemicals and a film reel. I'm willing to hide in the dark in my bathroom. :D

DeSaint (author)2009-10-16

What I do is to scan the film with a Canon 8800F, that way I transfer it to the computer and voila! a digitalized photo

plasticjack (author)2008-11-20

just a note: you can skip the stop bath all together and just use running water. works just as good and saves you money on chemicals!

christydeering (author)2008-07-16

sorry to keep commenting, but i wanted to add a little tip that helps keep those troublesome bubbles on your film at bay. After each agitation, tap the bottom of the tank lightly on a hard surface, like the side of the sink. It loosens any bubbles and keeps them from ruining your film. :)

dont forget to raise the edge of the tank when you tap it on the table or the air bubbles will not escape from the tank i think this is great that so many peoples are still interested in the anologue process i realy like the monocrome get a great buzzzz in the darkroom when the image begins to appear keep it going for the future peoples to enjoy. from me codwithchips

osgeld (author)2008-08-17

this is a great instructable, well put together, and very informative great work ! eventho i personally will never do this :)

riggita (author)2008-08-02

Yay! This is so helpful. I took photography at college a few years back and have all the equipment except a dark place to roll my film. Thought I had to build a darkroom but now I know about a wonderful thing called a changing bag. Thanks!

jeoncs (author)2008-07-30

This was a great help thanks a ton!

dchall8 (author)2008-07-19

FUN! When I was in high school I was lucky enough to have free access to a professional darkroom where my dad worked. I had to buy my film but the chemicals and paper, up to 24x36, was free and usually only one day beyond expiration. Here's an idea for college students interested in photography. When I went to college I discovered a dark room, never used since the building was built, in the basement under the offices of my department. They had an enlarger but no lenses. I approached the department at one of their regular meetings and offered to become the official department photographer if they would spring for two lenses (35 mm and 2.25 square), chemicals, paper, tongs, and trays. They didn't even blink and allocated $200 for me. That probably wouldn't go very far at today's prices but I had plenty left over. I used my cans and reels for developing film. I also bought a bulk roll of 35 mm film and a loader and began to roll my own loads 30 pictures per roll. For the most part I used 2.25 square format for much better quality prints.

lasersage (author)2008-07-17

awesome, well done on the instructable. For once I don't have some comment to add - except the well done :D Don't fear there is a strong following of the pure photography techniques. Me and my girlfriend have 3 enlargers between us, and many friends with equipment, all be it in tinfoiled windowed bathrooms and toilets. Beware light sources, our bathroom has a boiler that comes on and gives off light, fogging films, wrist watches with glowing hands can do the same!

I toasted a roll of film one time with the glow from my watch. It doesn't take much light to mess up film. Thank you for your kind comments.

dan moulton (author)2008-07-17

Nice one, i still develop and scan heaps of film. You can get great film camera gear really cheap now as people "trade up" to digital.

christydeering (author)2008-07-16

Most commercial fixers want you to fix for at least 2 minutes. Is 30 seconds really enough? My film always fogs if I skimp on this step.

NH-5 is a rapid fixer without hardener. According to the instructions, 30 seconds is sufficient, but you could go up to about 5 minutes without problems. I've never had problems with the film clearing in 30 seconds with NH-5.

awesome! that's good to hear.

christydeering (author)2008-07-16

oo, this is my favorite site for film developing info!

christydeering (author)2008-07-16

You can also find negative sleeve pages at any friendly local photography supply store. If not there, go online and find some. You can get them in lots of different sizes, and it helps to be able to slide them in the sleeves, label the top, and store them in a binder.

christydeering (author)2008-07-16

if you have a completely dark room with no light leaks, you can do this on a clean, flat surface in there, too. oh, and if your tank has room for more than one reel, MAKE SURE you put the reel with FILM on it on the bottom of the tank, or your chemicals won't fully cover the film. and....remember to put that second, possibly empty reel in the tank anyway, even if there's no film on it. It's part of the tank, and needs to be there for things to function properly. (you don't want light leaks!) Cheers!

christydeering (author)2008-07-16

You can also soak your film in a solution of Photo-Flo for 1 minute before hanging up, to help eliminate spotting.

Weissensteinburg (author)2008-07-16

Nice job! Our instructables go hand in hand.

Also, you might look into archival sheets for the film, I always use Print File. They're plastic sheets with sleeves for strips of film. Each one can hold (at least) 28 frames (a single roll). Five frames is the standard strip sized, so I might suggest sticking with that, only so that they will be compatible with all types of storage.

killerjackalope (author)2008-07-16

Damn and blast! You've beaten me to it, we're in the process of building up a nice darkroom in the downstairs toilet... Nice 'ible, rated... and featured.

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