Sunday, January 24, 2016

Simplified Film Development At Home


This article explains how to develop film at home in a “minimalist” style.  Like everything in photography, film development is an ocean of valid approaches with associated trade-offs. Developing black and white film is surprisingly easy, and everything you need can be had for less that $75.

This approach optimizes for:

  • Excellent Results with slower films (e.g. ISO <= 100)
  • Low Cost
  • Minimal chemical usage
  • Easy-to-follow instructions that are tolerant to mistakes and still give good results

In trade for

  • Longer wall time for development (but not time that takes effort - similar to “baking” in cooking)
  • “Subjective” results with high-speed films (e.g. ISO >= 400)

The technique is known as “Rodinal Stand Development”.  Links at the bottom are provided for those who are hungry for additional detail.

Let’s get started!

High-Level Overview

Here we cover the process at a high level. Right after that, we start looking at details. The "big picture" is useful because film-development is very modular. For example:

  • You might decide to use a different developer chemical (such as D-76). This only affects the "development" step, the other process steps stay the same
  • You might decide to try 120 film development. This only changes the loading step (slightly). The other steps stay the same.
  • and so on...
Without further delay, the steps are:

  • Load : Get the film from it's container to a development tank that will allow chemicals to be added
  • Develop : Add a developer chemical that causes the "latent" image to become visible.
  • Stop : Add a chemical (or just water) to stop further development.
  • Fix : Add a chemical that finalizes the film, making it insensitive to light

Minimalist Equipment

Click image for enlarged view
  • A: Developer ($14).  This process uses Rodinal developer because it’s economical, forgiving, and produces beautiful results.  See “tradeoffs” below for details...
  • B: Development Tank ($25).  I use a Patterson Series 4.  Other tanks will work fine too.  Plastic reels are supposed to be easier to load.  The Patterson reel can be extended to handle both 35mm and 120 film.
  • C: Scissors ($0): To cut up the film and remove leaders. Not needed for 120-sized film.
  • D: Can Opener ($1): For cracking open the film canister.  Obviously not needed for 120-sized film rolls.
  • E: Timer ($0): Your mobile phone or any timer will do.
  • F: B&W Film ($5): Color film is not compatible with this process.  Nearly all B&W film will work great.  Want a recommendation anyway?  Fuji Acros 100 or Ilford Delta 100 are a good place to start.
  • G: Small Measuring Instrument ($2):  Something that can measure ~ 5ml, like the little plastic things that come with cold medicine.
  • H: Measuring Cup ($5) with ml markings.  500ml is a good minimum size.
  • I: Fixing Chemical ($14)  I recommend TF-4 (or TF-5), which works well and does not need a stop chemical!  Get the 1 liter size.
  • J: One Gallon Jug ($1)  The TF-4 mixer needs to be diluted, expanding it's needed capacity to 1 Gallon.  You can go with glass or just a plastic milk jug (well-cleaned)

Cost above are estimates based on what I paid. You might pay more or less, but probably not much. The total of everything above, minus film, was $62 and will be enough for ~ 100 rolls of film. Note that the shelf life of TF-4 is ~6 months and Rodinal is good for years.

    Extra Stuff - Also Consider

    If you have the spare cash, here are some extra items to consider:

    • A: Changing Bag ($25) : A changing bag makes it possible to load film in a fully-lit room - convenient!
    • B: One Roll of “Ruined” film - This will give you a stress-free way to practice loading your reel - practice that will pay dividends when it’s time for the real deal.  Of course, the cheaper the better :)
    • C: Hanging Clips ($2) - These hang the developed film,  You can probably use a chip clip, close hanger, etc, but these are cheap and maybe-less-likely to drop your film to the floor.
    • D: Wetting Agent ($10) - Such as LFN.  A few drops of this will lessen the occurrence of water spots on the dried film. Note that some people also just use a drop of detergent.
    • E: Thermometer ($10) - to keep everything at 68 degrees. This process is a bit tolerant to the temperature being off, but 68 degrees is the recommended temperature.
    • F: Distilled Water ($2) - TF-4 recommends using distilled water for mixing.  You might want it for your final rinse too (to help avoid water spots).  It’s pretty cheap ($2?) so maybe worth the investment...

      Prep Work

      • Mix up your TF-4 by shaking it up and pouring it into the gallon jug.  Then fill the original bottle three times with water, shake again, and pour into the gallon jug.  When done, the gallon jug will be full.
      • Read all process instructions below before diving in.
      • Recommended:
        • Try the loading process described below with ruined film.  Practice it in the light a couple of times, then in the dark a few.
        • Practice filling the tank with the measuring device, agitating it, pouring it out and getting the temperature right just using plain tap water.  This practice can help make things go very smoothly during the real thing… :)

      The Process

      Load Film

      IMPORTANT: When developing for real, you’ll need to be in total darkness (or use a changing bag for these steps) until the film is in the tank.

      First use a can opener to remove the flat end of the film

      Now cut off the leader with scissors.  Feel to make sure you have a nice smooth edge.  If not, cut a little more (you have several inches before hitting actual images).

      Line the film edge up with the two “starting tabs” on the reel.  In the dark, you’ll want to feel for them and make sure they are lined up nicely.  Get the film under these tabs.  The natural curl of the roll should match the reel for easier loading.

      With you thumbs on the tabs, start rotating the reel back and forth.  The small ball-bearings in the reel catch the film and pull it onto the spiral of the reel.  If things don’t sound or feel smooth, get the film off and try again.  Practice on a bad roll of film in full lighting will really help this along.

      You will eventually have no more film to load.  Use the scissors again to cut the film away from the reel.  Load that last little bit up past the two little stops.

      Prep the reel as needed.  For the my Patterson tank, this means putting it on the spool and adding the other (unused) reel on top.  Do what you need to do :)

      Put the reel in the tank and put on the top.

      Now the film is loaded.  

      Feel free to return to the light with the closed tank.

      Prep Chemicals

      Get your measuring cup.  Put in 500ml of water.  Ideally, you want this water at 68 degrees but some claim it's not critical (I personally error on the side of caution). Next, add 5ml of Rodinal to the water.  Now you have a 1:100 mixture.

      Optional: If you have two, sinks add 68 (or cool) water to one of them.  If you put your tank in this water, it will keep the temperature stable throughout the process.  Some say this reduces the risk of gradients (uneven development).


      For a few minutes, run some cool tap water into the tank and pour it out now and then.


      Pour the Rodinal mixture into the development tank at a smooth, medium speed (err on the slow side).

      Next, let's review the term “Agitate”. Agitate means to get the liquid moving over the film in a smooth an consistent way. There are several valid way to do accomplish this. One easy way is to rotate the tank upside down, and all the way around to the original position a smooth motion. This should take around 2-5 seconds.

      Note: The pictures below don't show it, but I always hold my other hand on the lid...

      “Agitate” continuously for around 30 seconds. In other words, smoothly turn the tank end-to-end for 30 seconds.

      Now agitate once every 20 seconds (or so).  Do this around 10 times.

      Now just let the tank sit for around an hour.  If you wait 45 minutes or 90 minutes, it will probably still be ok but 60 is a good "first attempt" time.

      Here, I'm letting the developer sit in a cool water bath to keep the temperature stable.  I'm using a weight to hold it down in the water.  This is optional but can help you avoid issues of uneven development.

      While waiting, let’s prep the fixer!  Just pour 500 ml of fixer into the measuring cup.  I used to add the cup to the sink to get it's temperature at the same level, but lately I've left the fixer temperature uncontrolled and the results are fine.

      Rinse, Part II

      After the 60 minutes has passed, pour the developer down the drain.  For about a minute, use cool tap water to rinse away the developer. Note: If we were in a traditional process, a "stop" chemical would be used here. With Rodinal and TF-4, this chemical is not necessary (yay!).


      Pour in the fixer from the beaker and fix for around 4 minutes, agitating every 20 seconds or so.

      Do not pour the fixer down the drain.  Instead pour it back into your gallon jug, it’s reusable many times (until it gets milky). Also, it should never be poured down the drain but instead disposed of in an environmentally friendly way.

      Rinse, Part III: the Final Rinse

      More rinsing, just like before.  Let's go with 3-4 minutes.

      For the very last fill up, you might want to add a couple of drops of wetting agent (such as LFN), to aid the drying process (prevent water spots).  You might also opt to use distilled water for the final fill up -- your choice.

      Hang to Dry

      You’ll have to get the film off the reel.  There are two ways.  Some reals come apart - e.g. Patterson plastic reel come apart when turned clockwise.  The other way is to work the end past the bearings and pull it off smoothly.

      For handing, bathrooms are recommended because they usually have less dust than other rooms.  Expect about an hour to dry, but humidity will play a factor.

      Some people "squeegee" their film with fingers or a tool. I find this unnecessary (and a bit risky), especially when using a couple of drops of wetting agent in the final rinse.

      Now you have developed film!  Since it’s as clean and scratch-free as it will ever be, now would be a fine time to scan it :)


      I recommend a large bin (with a cover) to put everything together in. This will keep things from getting misplaced, will keep the chemicals out of the light and will help keep the chemicals away from people in general.

      Some Example Results (35mm)

      Lets start with an "artistic" shot:

      Note the nice tonal range, even though the original scene had a large dynamic range with both sun and shadows.

      Onto some "pixel peeping" (grain peeping?) Fuji Acros 100 has very fine grain and looks great to me even while "pixel peeping" at 16MP. Here is a somewhat technical example that is intended to showcase the detail:

      and here is a 100% crop of the image, scanned by a DSLR at 16 MP:

      For a high-iso example, Ilford HP-5 (ISO 400) has a more-pronounced grain, but I don't personally have a problem with it.  Here is an example with HP-5:

      and a 100% crop (16 MP):

      Here is another example in medium format (645 format, Fujifilm Acros 100).  This one was scanned in as a 40 megapixel image

      and a tiny 100% crop:

      For more examples, including full-resolutions ones.  Check out my companion gallery here.

      A Bit More On Trade-offs

      This process uses Rodinal stand development instead of the popular D-76 agitated development.  This provides the following benefits:

      • Fewer chemicals: Rodinal lasts  long time and you only need a tiny bit each roll
      • High Sharpness: Stand development has high “acutance” which means that images get nice sharp details.
      • Highlight protection:  The stand development process causes developer chemical to exhaust at the highlights, and not be replenished by agitation.  This means that the highlight will keep detail as the shadows continue to develop.  This leads to a lower contrast image with more retained details - a nice property for development as contrast can easily be added later in both analog and digital processes (where recovering lost details is, let's say "not easy").
      • Very forgiving and flexible: The stand development process causes developer in developed areas to slow down.  This makes a large range of development times “work out”.  You can even process film that is only partially “pushed” and have both pushed and unpushed framed develop well - how nice is that! This also means that if you miss an exposure, the process will do a nice job of helping save it.
      • Develop different films at once. I usually develop multiple films in the same development tank at the same time. With stand development, these film can be of different brands and ISO speeds, no problem!

      Now for the negative

      • Halos at high contrast areas.  Where very dark meets very light, there can be some bleed over.  This is pretty subtle with low speed films but get more obvious as film speed increases. I personally am not offended by the effect.
      • Grain effect on high speed films.  Unlike D-76, Rodinal does not break down film grain so you see a film’s “true grain”.  On slow fine-grained films the result is usually very pleasing,  On higher-speed films with larger inherit grain it becomes, let’s say “a matter of taste”. Personally, I like the look of Tri-X (400 speed) but find Delta 3200 to be "too much". It's all subjective.
      • Longer end-to-end time:  For D-76, development time is around 10 minutes (depending on film).  Of course, you’ll be busy agitating during that 10ish minutes.  In stand development you can spend your hour of wait time doing whatever you please. That said, you always have the option of using a less dilute Rodinal mixture (with agitation) to get the times down. See this chart for basic recipes at different dilutions.


      Rodinal stand development has been in use since the late 1800’s.  Thus I did not invent anything I said here and neither did the people in the links below.  That said, these resources helped me learn and can help you learn more.  Check them out!

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