The story of the film: A beginner’s guide to black and white film development

May 27, 2017

David Travis

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

The story of the film: A beginner’s guide to black and white film development

May 27, 2017

David Travis

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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I love the immediacy of digital photography. In fact, I’m puzzled how anyone managed to gain expertise in the days of film: it takes hours, sometimes days, to get any feedback on the shot you’ve taken. By that time, I’ve usually forgotten about the camera settings I used or even what I was trying to achieve with the photograph.

That said… there’s something about the tangibility of using and developing film that’s missing from digital photography. I find film photography thoroughly more enjoyable—even if the resulting images are no better than I could get with a digital camera. It feels like there’s more craft and expertise involved.

About this time of year, when the days are lighter, I get the itch to load a film camera and mix up some chemicals. So this week, I thought I’d tell the story of how I develop a black and white film. I’ve found lots of great advice on the internet, but there was little for absolute beginners, so that’s where I thought I would start.

Getting prepared

I used a Canon EOS 1N. Back in the day (1994), this was a professional’s camera, but now you can get them on eBay for £150. That’s about 10% of what it cost when it was released. All of my existing Canon lenses work with this camera, so for me, it’s a relatively low-cost way to shoot film.

I don’t have a darkroom at home, so I use a Patterson tank and a changing bag to develop the film. The Patterson tank is like an oversized cocktail shaker that allows you to add and empty chemicals while preventing any light from entering. A changing bag is like a lightproof t-shirt: you zip everything up in the bag and then load the film by touch.

When I first started, I often found it difficult getting the film on the reel. So now I cut the end of the film into a kind of arrow shape and find it glides on. The Patterson tank comes with two reels, so you can develop two rolls of film at once if you are an overachiever.

These three images show the reel loading process. Of course, you do this in the dark or in the changing bag. I used an old piece of film here to show the steps.

Developing the film

I processed the film at 20-degrees. Everything I read about film development tells me that temperature is the most important variable, so I get the water to the right temperature in a 5-litre bottle. I then tip the water out of the bottle as I need it. In practice, I think the temperature only really matters for the first, development, phase so I don’t check the temperature as I go on.

First in is the developer. I used a readymade developer called Ilford Ilfosol 3. My film (Fuji Acros 100) needed 5 minutes in the developer. After adding the diluted developer (1:9) to the tank, you need to agitate the tank for 10 seconds every minute. At first, I wasn’t sure what “agitation” meant in practice, but after watching some YouTube videos, I now interpret this to mean fairly vigorous shaking.

After the development time, I drain the tank into a bucket and add the stop bath. The stop bath neutralises the developer and so halts the development of the film. You leave the stop bath in the tank for a minute or so, then drain the tank and add fixer (which prevents the film being light sensitive). Finally, you give the film a good wash.

If you’re curious about actual timings and steps, I created this crib sheet.

I downloaded a free lab timer app for my phone to get the timings right.

The moment of truth…

It’s important to do this final step in a dust-free environment like a bathroom. A couple of years ago when I developed my first film, I was so overjoyed that it had worked that I proudly showed my family the result, only to discover that the wet film attracted dog hair and dust. That pretty much ruined the film.

I hang the negatives to dry in the shower. This usually takes about 4 hours, but the weather was so warm on the day I developed these that they were dry in a couple of hours.

This is the kind of mess you face when you return to clean up. I think it looks like a emergency room in a hospital show on TV when the patient has died.

The reason I use a bucket rather than just throw the chemicals down the sink is because I have a septic tank at my house. So I need to dispose of the chemicals more carefully.

Scanning and printing the images

I use an Epson Perfection V550 scanner. This has a dedicated holder for various size negatives. In the past, I’ve tried photographing the negatives with a digital camera. I know that some people can get good results with a digital camera, but I find it cumbersome.

The white gloves keep fingermarks off the negatives and reinforce my delusion that I’m a magician.

In the scanning software, I turn off every option I can find about automatic dust removal and noise reduction. I’ve found these options add artifacts to the image, and are no better than what I can do using a dust blower and Lightroom’s spot healing tool.

After importing the scans to Lightroom, I use a custom print template to print a contact sheet. As you can see, most of my photographs are of my long-suffering dog whose hairs appear on my negatives.

The end result

The first image is the original scan of one of my favorite images from the set above. I made some basic adjustments in Lightroom to get the version below that. I don’t want to come over all pretentious, but I do think there’s a texture to film that’s hard to emulate with digital.

But most importantly, it’s terrific fun.

About The Author

David Travis is a portrait and editorial photographer based in Staffordshire, UK.  In 2017, he publishes a photo story each week, and you can check out the project here. For more of his work, visit his website, follow him on Instagram and 500px, and like his Facebook page. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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14 responses to “The story of the film: A beginner’s guide to black and white film development”

  1. Ralph Hightower Avatar
    Ralph Hightower

    20 degrees Fahrenheit is freezing, so I reckon that you are using Celsius.

    1. David Avatar


  2. Hector Macias Avatar
    Hector Macias

    Set the camera from color to black and white ?

  3. Danny Madison Avatar
    Danny Madison

    While I don’t like the shell of developing chemicals, I absolutely LOVE the smell of newly opened film ?

  4. Alfonso C. Betancort Avatar
    Alfonso C. Betancort

    It’s a pity, but you are still missing 60-70% of the magic of film photography and its difference with digital output. Try to enlarge, manipulate and print the picks using the film procedure (analog) and use the scanning just to keep archival (backup) copies of your negatives.

    You will never want to scan and digitally print your best film pictures again. There’s a magic, texture and smell to a black and white picture printed (transferred) on baryta film paper that you cannot get with a digital process yet.

    1. David Avatar

      It’s true that there’s a ceremony to using a darkroom that some people may yearn for, but I don’t agree that it makes a significant difference to the final print. I’ve spent time in a darkroom using an enlarger to print negatives, and then done a direct comparison where I scanned the negatives and printed them on an ink jet printer. The two prints were indistinguishable. I’d argue that the aesthetic of film comes from the negative, not from the darkroom print.

      1. Alfonso C. Betancort Avatar
        Alfonso C. Betancort

        Get back to the darkroom and re-read Ansel Adams’ The Camera, The Negative & The Print. Processing a the negative is less than half of the story after you take the picture, exposing, filtering, masking, processing the positive (the print) is like 70% of that tale.

  5. Bruce Kinnaird Scott Avatar
    Bruce Kinnaird Scott

    film photography made sure you learned fast from your mistakes especially where time and money was involved

  6. Kristine Stone Avatar
    Kristine Stone

    Oh I miss the smell of developing film. Digital is not the same.

  7. Dick Blom Avatar
    Dick Blom

    I love the smell of Rodinal in the morning ! Or was it D-76 I forget …It’s probably the fumes Doctor

  8. Amy Jones Avatar
    Amy Jones

    The smell of magic :)

  9. Alfred Dodds Avatar
    Alfred Dodds

    It was easyer to use a daylight developing tank than the tank used here.

    1. David Avatar

      This *is* a daylight development tank. You still need to load the tank in the dark. :-)

      1. Alfred Dodds Avatar
        Alfred Dodds

        You load the tank in daylight David. thats why they call it so.It is called a Rondinax 35U made by Agfa, and they make one for 120 film too. I have both.