in Film

Things I wish I had known about black and white developing

These are of course just In My Experience, but I like to think they’re at least close to correct.

  • You can re-use developer. It may say on the bottle “always mix fresh each time” but this is for absolute best results. You can keep the mixed developer in a sealed bottle (I use squeezy ones that you can push the air out of after filling) and use it for several rolls – it doesn’t get “used up” as such.

  • You can’t re-use developer indefinitely, though. After a while, even in sealed bottles with only a tiny amount of air in, it goes off and you get horrible grainy negatives. Even if you’re just snapping aimlessly with a Holga, this is not what you want. Seeing as how you can only develop your negatives once and then you’re stuck, and developer is not all that expensive, with my Ilfosol 3 and LC29 I think a week or maybe two is enough before throwing it away and mixing some fresh stuff.

    So, the rule I follow is: mix new developer if (a) you can’t remember when you mixed the old stuff or it’s a week or more, or (b) you’re developing a really important roll.

  • Fixer and stop will last for ages, pretty much indefinitely. Some people don’t use stop at all, just water or citric acid or vinegar or something else acidic. I’ve not tried this.

  • A final wash with a few drops of washing-up liquid stops drying marks. (I believe Americans call this “dish soap”.) I’ve messed about with wetting agents in different concentrations, but I always get drying marks with the Ilford one, at least. A few drops of washing-up liquid in about 500ml of water, four agitations, leave for a bit, then pour out and shake off, leaves me with no drying marks. However, it is important not to wipe this off between your fingers when trying to remove excess bubbles… do this very gently, if at all.

  • The process is quite forgiving of times and temperatures. The fact that times are all in multiples of 30s should indicate that these are not measurements that are absolutely precise to the second. Similarly, if the temperature is slightly off, I wouldn’t worry too much. It’s not worth watching every tick of the timer so as not to leave it for a moment too long, or using hot and cold water baths to get the developer to precisely 20C. Just don’t make vast mistakes. Which leads to:

  • The whole thing is generally very easy. It’s surprisingly hard to really mess it up. The only times when I have ruined negatives have been when I:

    1. Completely got the times wrong, say four minutes instead of six;
    2. Used horrible old developer;
    3. Bent the film horribly when loading it onto the reel (and this doesn’t completely ruin it, just adds some odd lines to a few pictures).

    You are much more likely to mess up taking the pictures in the first place, underexposing, opening the back by mistake, leaving the lens cap on etc etc.

  • Lastly, it can be fun but not always. Sometimes I enjoy the process of developing film. I set the timers, pour out the liquids and listen to Radio 41 while I am standing around in the bathroom shaking things occasionally. At other times I just can’t be bothered and let half a dozen undeveloped films build up in the sealed bag in the fridge. Initially, the whole magic of taking a piece of magic plastic and making pictures appear on it entranced me, but after over a hundred rolls the novelty sometimes fades. So it is best not to assume that you will always have the energy, even if, overall, you enjoy it, which I do.

  1. Of course this depends what is on. Gardener’s Question Time makes this less fun.