Developing Film

So you've shot some film and you'd like to develop it yourself. With black and white film, this is actually easier than you may have thought. Once you have bought all your necessary supplies it works out as a fantastically cost-effective way of shooting film. However, you may need to buy a scanner in order to digitise your film once processed. So what do you need to process film? You'll need the following (prices in GBP):

  • Developer (about £10, depending on developer type and quantity). I use either Ilford HC, Fotospeed FD10, or Diafine. Rodinal is probably a decent first choice as it lasts a long time, and is relatively cheap.
  • Stop (optional - about £6 for 1 litre of Fotospeed SB40)
  • Fixer (about £6 for 1 litre of Fotospeed FX20 Rapid Fixer)
  • Developing tank (about £20). I use a Paterson Super System 4 tank which will develop 2x 35mm films, or 1x 120 film
  • Film spool (about £10). I use Paterson plastic spools because you can use them with 35mm and 120. They must be bone dry before use, as any moisture will cause your film to get jammed while spooling. You usually get a spool included with your developing tank
  • 3 x measuring jugs (around £1 each from supermarkets)
  • Chemical storage bottles - Jobo bottles or concertina bottles work great (£2-£6 each from photo suppliers, or eBay)
  • Thermometer (£2-£4 from supermarket)
  • Some film clips for hanging your film to dry (about £5 for a set of two). Pegs or bulldog clips will do if you don't want to buy proper film clips
  • Washing up bowl for storage of chemicals, and to keep your sink chemical free (£1 from kitchen supply stores)
  • Changing bag for spooling your film (£10 from eBay)
  • Sink

You can pick up most of these supplies cheaply from eBayCraigslist or if you are really lucky, Freecycle. But even if you have to buy new, it shouldn't cost you more than about £50.


There are many different types of developer, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Rather than discussing all the different kinds of developers, my advice is join the DIY Black & White group on Flickr. The people there are friendly and know a lot more about this stuff than I do. They will also be the best to tell you where to get photo chemicals in your country. Developer is usually regarded as a 1-shot chemical, and as such it is usually discarded after use: see the instruction leaflet that accompanies the developer for more advice.

As for the stop chemical, you can buy stop bath which halts development instantly, or you can use water. I use Fotospeed SB40 instead of water not only because it halts development almost instantly, but more importantly it prolongs the life of my fixer chemical. It also contains a dye which changes colour when it's exhausted. Stop chemical can be re-used until exhausted.

You may buy any type of fixer - it doesn't have to be the same manufacturer as your developing chemical. I personally use Fotospeed FX20 fixer as it's both quick and cheap. Where I work, we use Ilford Hypam Fixer, which is also pretty good. Fixer chemical can be re-used until exhausted. You can check the health of your fixer by cutting off the leader from a 35mm film and dropping it into fixer. Time how long it takes for the film to go clear and then double that time to get your fixing time. Once the fixing time doubles the manufacturers quoted fix time, it's time to make a fresh batch.

Finding developing times

The first step in developing is finding out how long your film needs to be in your developer chemical for. Most developers come with instructions for common films, but the greatest resource for film/developer combinations is the Massive Dev Chart. You choose your film and developer from the drop down menus on the left hand side, and then it tells you how long you need to develop for at 20°C, and at what dilution.

If your chemicals are not at 20°C you will need to adjust your development time. You can find how much you need to adjust by using the Temperature Compensation Chart on the Digital Truth web site. For example, I recently needed to develop some Ilford HP5+, rated at 800 ISO. The quoted time for that film in Ilford HC (1+31 dilution) is 9.5 minutes at 20°C. However, my chemical was at 22°C, so my adjusted development time was 7 minutes 45 seconds.

Loading your film onto your spool

NOTE: This first step must be done in complete darkness. You can use a changing bag to do this, or a completely dark room. Changing bags are safer as you can guarantee they are light safe. If  you do this in a dark room, any kind of light entering the room completely ruin your film, so it's probably best to do it at night with thick curtains, or a basement. Rather than trying to explain how to spool a film, I'll show you a video. I've included instructions for both 120 and 35mm film.

TOP TIP: When rewinding 35mm film, try not to wind the leader back into the canister. My technique to avoid this is to start winding slower when I feel the film is almost back in it's canister. Now put the camera up to your ear and wind slowly until you hear a 'click'. This usually means the leader has detached from the take-up spool and the back can be popped open. Of course this is even easier with a Holga as you have to wind the film back manually anyway! If you do wind the film back into the canister it can be popped open using a bottle opener, as shown in the video, but it is a little tricky.

Before switching on the lights, make sure your Paterson tank has clicked into place when you put the top on. This confirms that the top will not come off while you are developing. Other developing tanks usually screw into place, so make sure the top is screwed in securely. Also if you are using Paterson Super System 4 tanks make sure your centre spindle is in place. If it's left out then your tank is not light-proof. Now you may switch on the lights.

Developing your film

Measure your chemicals out so they are ready to go; in a Paterson System 4 tank you will need about 300ml for one 35mm film, or 500ml for one 120 film. The required quantities for various films are usually embossed on the bottom of your developing tank. Check the temperature of your developing chemical once more and adjust your development time if necessary.

NOTE: the following instructions assume you are using the same chemistry as myself. You may not need to invert as often as I need to. Read the chemical manufacturers instructions for more advice. For example, if you are using Diafine then you may not want to invert the tank 4 times each minute.

  1. Pour in the developer and start the timer, then quickly put the lid on your developing tank. Now carefully invert the tank 4 times and lightly tap the bottom of the tank on a workbench to dislodge any air bubbles. Carefully invert the tank another 4 times at the start of each minute.
  2. When you get to 10 seconds remaining, start pouring out your developer.
  3. Now pour in your stop chemical and keep inverting for the time recommended, which is usually about 30 seconds.
  4. Pour out your stop chemical back into your chemical storage bottle and then pour in your fixer. Invert the tank 4 times every 30 seconds. Fix for as long as recommended by the manufacturer, which is usually about 2-4 minutes.
  5. Pour your fixer back into your fix storage bottle and rinse your film. There are two ways to do this - one is by using a film washer (or running water) for 10 minutes, the other way is the 'Ilford method'. The Ilford method involves pouring water in your tank then inverting 5 times. Now empty the water and pour fresh water in. Invert 10 times then dump the water again. Put fresh water in the tank again and invert 20 times. Now dump your water and your film is ready.
  6. If you live in a hard water area, you'll need to use wetting agent (Photo Flo, Ilfotol, or a couple of drops of washing up liquid). What I do is agitate the film in a tank of wetting agent for about a minute. You only need a couple of drops to fill a 500ml tank. When you take the film out of your wetting agent, twist open the spool and squeegee the film using wet fingers. Don't use an actual squeegee, as you wont be able to feel if there is any dirt on your film, and you could scratch the soft emulsion.
  7. Now hang your film up to dry. The best place for this is your bathroom. Run the shower for a minute or two before hand to steam up the room and clear out any dust. Make sure you hang a small weight at the bottom of the film to help it dry flat.
  8. Once your film has dried completely you may cut your film into strips and place in archival negative sheets (available from most photo retailers, or eBay). If your film is curly, put it in a negative sleeve and put it under a few thick books for a week or so. That should flatten it enough for you to be able to scan.

Now all that's left to do is to wash out your developing tank and leave it to dry. Make sure you rinse your spool thoroughly, as any remnants of wetting agent may make the spool sticky which will make spooling your next film impossible. If you've been developing in your sink, make sure you flush the area with plenty of water.

TOP TIP: blast your spools with a hair-dryer for a few seconds before trying to spool a roll of film. Paterson spools need to be completely dry before use. If it has any moisture at all your film will get jammed and kink.


If your film doesn't turn out quite right, you will need to determine what went wrong, in order to learn from your mistakes. Here are a couple of common problems:

  • Film has white spots on it - this are usually drying marks. Make sure you use wetting agent after rinsing to help reduce this problem.
  • Film is completely blank - this can happen if you mix up the order of chemicals and use fixer first instead of developer. If the film is blank but has a film code at the top (e.g. it says Ilford HP5+ at the top and numbers at the bottom), then your Holga has under-exposed your film.
  • Film looks 'milky' - this is probably due to insufficient fixing. Try fixing the film for a couple of minutes longer, and if it doesn't clear, make up a fresh batch and re-fix as soon as possible.

If you are still experiencing problems, join the DIY Black & White group and ask for help there.

Health & Safety

While black and white chemicals aren't extremely dangerous, they must be handled with care. I always use disposable vinyl or nitrile gloves when using chemicals. When mixing up chemicals I always wear eye protection to protect against splashes. When mixing up powdered chemicals, it is recommended that you use a particulate respirator, rather than just a dust mask which would be ineffective (thanks Matt!). Make sure the chemistry never comes into contact with your eyes or mouth. Also don't get it on your clothes because it may stain. Just treat the chemistry the same as strong cleaning products - keep them away from children and animals, and always read the label.

As for disposal; you can usually dispose of small quantities of developer down the sink. The only exception for this is if you have a septic tank system. If you have a septic tank system, do not pour chemicals down the sink. Ever. You also may want to check with your Local Water Authority to make sure disposing of chemicals down the sewer is okay. Stop bath may be poured down the sink when flushed with plenty of water.

Fixer however, cannot be poured down the drain as it contains silver. The best thing to do is phone your local authority and ask if they offer waste collection/recycling for photo chemicals. If that fails, ask local photo labs or schools if they wouldn't mind adding your fix to their chemical waste. Providing it's low quantities you should be okay. A common way to deal with this chemical is to pour it into a bucket and drop some steel wool into the bucket. After a couple of days you'll end up with a black sludge. This black sludge can be discarded safely in landfill. This steel wool trick works by replacing the silver content with harmless iron. Another method would be to empty it into a bucket and leave it outside to evaporate. Obviously this last method is not appropriate if you have children or animals.