Developing B&W Film – 7 Tips To Do It Well

Mar 10, 2020
10 min read

Internet is full of tutorials on how to develop your black and white film but few highlight the important parts that make it work, or show you how to make savings and/or improve quality.

These tips are based on a classic development with 3 baths + rinse:

  • Development bath
  • Stop bath
  • Fixing bath

1 – Being Thrifty With The Developer

Today, there is a large bunch of developers on the market and they can be very different from each other. The important thing is to know what you can really do with the one you have chosen. It’s the most critical bath.

Do I need to dilute it? If so, what ratio? What will it change?

For example:

To illustrate things better, I will use one example. Recently, I’ve worked a lot with Kodak Xtol. This developer can be used as stock or diluted (1+1). Depending on the number of rolls I had to develop, I would use one or the other, whichever was the most cost effective.

Kodak Xtol - Tips to use and develop BW film

Diluted, this developer can be used only once, whereas when used as stock it can be used several times.

So, when I had only one roll (120) to develop, I used it diluted (1+1). This way, I used only 250ml of Xtol for a tank of 500ml.

But when I had 4 or 5 rolls, I used it as stock and I could develop all my rolls one after the other in the same 500ml of product. Of course, I had to apply a development time increase for rolls 3, 4 and 5 but it is very cost effective and just as efficient!

Some people do not even know that Xtol as stock can do more than one roll, and can end up using up to 2.5l for 5 rolls. Or they may try to be cost effective by diluting it (1+1), but they still use 1.25l where they could have used only 0.5l.

Now, if you develop only 4 films per year, let’s be honest, it’s not a big deal and it’s even better not to be economical because once opened, the developer does not last that long. But if you are developing more than 100 rolls, or you are part of a shared darkroom, it will make a huge difference and will be much appreciated by other users!

Note: I do not reuse a developer from one session to another even if I only developed 3 films. I always start a session with a fresh batch.

2 – Getting To Know Your Developer

As I was saying, due to thanks to the wide diversity of the market, you might need some time to find a combo dev + film you like.

Personally, I really like:
Xtol + Acros 100 (Grain? Where?)

Kodak T-Max developer + TriX 400 (same development time for 400 and 800 ISO and the flexibility of this combo is super nice!)

Ilford DD-X + Delta 3200 (low light magic combo)

A really important advice for the development bath: watch the temperature. Most of the black and white developments are at 20°C and I highly recommend starting any development at 20°C precisely. This way you will get a great regularity in your results.

Here is the most useful website to know all development times: The Massive Dev Chart

In the left column, enter your film in the field “Select a Film” and your developer in “All developers”, then a table with all the magic numbers will appear!

Small warning notice, all the times given in this table are for reference only, you will need to fine tune them to get the result you like. The small variations are due to the measuring tool used or even the quality of the water.

For example, The Massive Dev Chart (and Kodak) give you a development time of 6 minutes for the Kodak TriX 400 in Tmax dev (1+4). Personally, I extend to 7 minutes instead because I prefer the added contrast. All these small adjustments will come with time and experience. Do not hesitate to try things to refine your results.

Once you have found a combo you like, keep using it until your master it!

3 – Stop Bath

If you have a stop bath like the Ilfostop, you can reuse the same mix from one session to the other.

Most stop baths are diluted with a ratio of 1+19 from their base product. It makes them very cheap to use even compared to simple kitchen vinegar that some people use.

The stop bath can be used and reused without hesitation as long as they are yellow. If it’s yellow, it will do the job.

Can stop bath go bad?

But when it starts to turn purple, it’s exhausted and must to be discarded. A fresh mix is needed. Do not wait for it to be totally purple, renew it as soon as it becomes pale.

If you are curious to know how purple it can turn, at the end of a session, pour some used developer in it… It’s beautiful!

I can’t remember the last time I controlled the temperature of the stop bath. Room temperature will always be fine unless you are in very hot or very cold area. Between 15°C and 25°C, I’ve never had any problem. As long as it is yellow, it’s good to go!

4 – Fixer Bath

Like for the stop bath, the fixer bath can be reused from one session to the other. The main difference is that the fixer does not contain a colour indicator… You will need to test it!

It’s one of the most valuable advice I received when I started to develop my films: I had to test the fixer.
I usually do it at the start of every session, or every 4 rolls.

It’s very simple, you need to cut a piece of the film that you are putting in the tank. For the 35mm, you can cut the lead and for 120, you can cut the piece with the tape. You don’t need more!

The Test:
You need a timer and the fixer bath. When you are ready, dip the piece of film in the fixer and start the timer. When the film becomes clear, stop the timer.

Double that time to get your fixing time! If after 2 minutes your film isn’t clear, it is time to renew your fixer with a fresh mix.

The time you obtained by multiplying by 2 is the minimum time you should use for the fixing bath. I always add a little more to play it safe since there is absolutely no issue leaving it a little longer. Too long is better than not long enough when it comes to fixing!

Like for the stop bath, there is no criticality in the temperature. As long as it is between 15°C and 25°C it’s all good, especially if you used the time given by the test!

I also advise you to run the test on a fresh batch. Since that product has a really long shelf life, it could be exhausted. However, it wouldn’t be dramatic since you can re-do a fixer bath after rinse and dry if needed.

Note: about the colour – don’t worry if the fixer turns purple or yellow. It’s due to the natural “contamination” from the stop bath.

5 – Do Not Contaminate Your Chemistry

It seems like a trivial advice but I have done some chemistry before and I kept a couple of good habits.

So, ok, there is a bit of developer in the stop bath and a bit of stop bath in the fixer, it’s all part of the process.

What you must avoid is the fixer in the developer and any chemistry in the last rinse bath…

Make sure to rinse your hands with clear water regularly especially if your tank leaks a bit (like mine).

Do not use the same towel to wipe everything, and you should not dip the thermometer in a product then in another, without rinsing it.

Be aware also of all the kind of chemistry that accumulates on your working surface during the development. After 3 or 4 rolls, the surface is all wet and inverting the tank can project chemistry. Do not put your jugs in the projection trajectory.

6 – The Gear

– Thermometer

You need a very accurate thermometer. It’s the most important tool to get the best regularity. Unless you work in a perfectly temperature controlled darkroom all year long with a water supply set at 20°C…

– Measuring jug

To put your chemistry during the session, I would advise you to use 3 measuring jug dedicated to your darkroom. Mark them so you will always reuse them for the same chemistry (dev-stop-fixer).

I would also advise you to calibrate these jugs. I discovered that some of them are not really accurate. Put them on a kitchen scale and put 500 grams of waters in them. It will give you the mark for 500ml (Feel free to adapt to the level required in your tank).

Additionally to the fact that these jugs badly calibrated must let down some of the best cooks… they could cause serious damage to your development. If there is not enough chemistry in your tank for a development, the film is not fully immersed and the top band will be under-developed. If this happens, there is nothing you can do to save the roll.

– Storage bottles

To store your stop bath and fixer bath between sessions, you can either use 2 storage bottles:

– Collapsible storage bottles which can adapt to the quantity of chemistry so it’s practically air tight. Specifically made for that use, they can be found on any good analog gear website.

– Dark sparkling water bottles, ideally of the size you need, either 500ml or 1l. You can find them in any shop which sells water!

7 – Rinse, Then Rinse More

For a good conservation of your films, they must be thoroughly rinsed. There are several methods: leave under running water for long enough, or for a more efficient method you can use the Ilford method (fill – invert 30s – throw away / at least 5 times).

Once the roll is well rinsed, the most important is the last bath. On my side, I tried several things but my 2 preferred ones are:

– Last bath in distilled water, nothing else. It works really well, no white marks when drying.

– Last bath with a wetting agent (like Fotospeed RA 50); the shelf life of this product is incredible! I use this second method when I don’t have distilled water.

If you want to get rid of the excess of water on the film before hanging it for drying, you can do it with your fingers or a film squeegee.

If you use a film squeegee, make sure it is perfectly clean and smooth. Run your finger along the squeegee to make sur there is no hard point or anything that could damage the film. The emulsion is very fragile when wet and the squeegee can really damage it.

Thank you very much for your reading and I hope you found some useful tips here!


The original article was also published here in French.

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