People are often surprised that I develop and even cross process my own negatives in the comfort of my own home, especially after they've seen my photos. And I am often surprised that they’re surprised, considering how easy it is to do.
And believe me, it is easy. Easier than what others have led you to believe. Easier than that guy at Freestyle Photo Supplies had implied when he warned me that I should start developing with black and white chemicals first. And anyone, including somebody with absolutely zero background in film development – meaning me, can do it!
Of course, before I went off spending my hard-earned cash on chemicals and darkroom equipment, I did a lot of research on the Internet first. I read a lot of articles about C-41 film development and I watched a number of YouTube videos. And when I thought I was ready, that’s when I bought all the materials I needed.
I’ll be completely honest with you. The first couple of times I did it, it was tricky. I had to have a cheat sheet next to me so I could remember the important things – the number of minutes each solution should stay in the tank, the order of chemicals, etc. – and it felt like I needed an extra pair of hands since developing often requires performing two tasks almost simultaneously.
It was tricky but definitely not hard at all. In fact, the first roll I developed did not look at all like it was developed by someone who didn’t know what she was doing! And by the third try, I had already figured out a flow that worked for me and everything was easy.
Now, I am in no way claiming to be an expert on film development. There are probably a hundred or so people like stouf and ck_berlin in this community who have a more advanced knowledge of it than I do. But because people are often surprised when they learn that I develop (and have been for more than a year now!) my own color negatives, I thought I’d share what I know and how I do it by way of another beginner’s guide (check out the one I did for star trail photography), so that those who are intimidated by film development would realize how easy it is and be inspired to do it themselves.
That being said, let’s get right on it.
Since this is more of a tutorial or a crash course rather than a tipster, it’s going to be a bit long. So I’ll have to split it into two parts. The first half, this half, will cover the introduction, which you just read, and the “materials” you’ll need for C-41 film development while the second half, which will be published shortly after, will cover the actual film development process.
Of course, before you can actually start developing film, you’ll need an actual exposed film to develop. So that is our first and most important material – a roll of exposed film. (I know what you’re thinking. No DUH! But I’m not taking it back.)
The rest of the stuff, you’re going to need to buy from a photographic supplies store in your area or online. If you’re getting them online, I would recommend B&H since their prices are competitive and their shipments are surprisingly fast. Lomography’s Online Shop have them too but I just checked today and they didn’t have any in stock.
You will need the following:
01. Changing bag – Changing bags are cheap, easy to use and come in different sizes. They are portable darkrooms. You use them to load your negatives in the reels and into the tank without worrying about light leaks or exposure. Also they can be very handy during shooting emergencies!
02. Developing tank with an agitator – Developing tanks come in plastic and stainless steel. I use the plastic ones, which are cheap and you can get used and cheaper off of eBay if you’re trying to save. Both types are easy to use. Tanks also come in different sizes. There are tanks that could fit 3 120 rolls while there are some that can only hold 1 35mm. For beginners, I would recommend getting one with two reels that could fit two 35mm rolls or 1 120 at a time.
03. Reel/s – Reels usually come with developing tanks but they can be purchased separately. They also come in plastic and stainless steel. While both are easy to use, the plastic reels would have to be really dry before use; otherwise, your film will stick and will be harder to load. Reels are built so they can be adjusted to fit a 35mm or a 120 roll.
04. Clear plastic measuring pitcher that can hold 1 Liter of fluid (bottom left) – This is important when you’re mixing your solutions.
05. Thermometer (on top of the dish towel, bottom right) – An accurate and preferably fast thermometer is the one thing you cannot forget when you’re developing your films as you will need to measure the temperature of your chemicals as that greatly affects how your negatives will turn out when you are done. In the photo, I have one regular thermometer and one with the circular head. I prefer using the one with the circular head as it measures the temperature quickly and i can just leave it dangling on the mouths my chemical containers.
06. Funnel (middle top) – Since you’re going to be recycling your chemicals at least 16 times, you’ll need a funnel when you’re pouring your chemicals from the developing tank back into their respective containers. You won’t need a special funnel. Any kitchen variety funnel will do as the chemicals you’ll be using are NOT the burning-through-plastic kind.
07. Negative squeegee (bottom middle) – When you take your developed negative out of the tank, it will have lots of excess water. It’s very important to get rid of this excess water else it’ll take longer to dry the negative and it will have a lot of water stains when it dries. You’ll need to use a squeegee – not your fingers, not a kitchen sponge – to get rid of this excess water.
08. Dish towel (bottom right) – Film developing is a messy wet business and while a dish towel is not a necessity, if you’re a neat freak like me, you’re going to want it around.
09. Clothespins and hanging wire – You will need a set of regular clothespins like the one above and a makeshift hanging wire that is set up at least 5 inches away from the wall. You’ll need these to hang your negatives to dry.
10. Chemicals – The most important materials you’ll need for film development, aside from the film of course, are the chemicals. Since this is a beginner’s course, I don’t want to confuse you with chemical technicalities so I’ll use a chemical kit. When you’ve become quite good at developing color negatives, then maybe you can move on to buying individual chemicals and doing more advanced stuff. For now, I would recommend using a chemical kit. They are great starter kits and render great results still. In fact, I use them on all my negatives. Also, they are super cheap – a 1L Unicolor C-41Powder Kit is less than $20 and you can develop at least 15 negatives with it. That’s $1 per roll! I can even stretch mine up to 25 negatives and the photos still come out looking great!
11. Chemical containers – Last but not least are the chemical containers. For the chemical kit, you will need three – one for the developer, another for the blix, and the third for the stabilizer (I will explain what these three are for in the second half of the tutorial!). You will probably be tempted to just use any empty containers you can find at home but I wouldn’t recommend those. The chemical containers are made thick and dark to preserve the chemicals so that they last longer. And these containers are made of sturdier stuff so they won’t soften or melt when you’re heating up the chemicals, which you’ll need to do. Premark these containers “Developer”, “Blix”, and “Stabilizer” with a permanent marker before you start dealing with the chemicals. You wouldn’t wanna risk using the wrong chemical or intermixing them.
These are your C-41 developing equipment. Now that you’ve gotten to know each one better, are you ready to dive head on to the actual developing process? Don’t be nervous. Like I said, it’s easier than you think!
Stay tuned for the second half of A Beginner’s Guide to C-41 Developing at Home.