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A Beginner’s Guide to C-41 Developing at Home (It’s a Lot Easier Than you Think!) - Part One of Two

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.

Materials

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.

written by blueskyandhardrock

37 comments

  1. neanderthalis

    neanderthalis

    I am curious how you handle disposal of used chemicals.

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  2. blueskyandhardrock

    blueskyandhardrock

    @neanderthalis glad you asked. it differs from city to city. i recommend checking with your city's hazardous disposal waste guide. here in LA, we have to dilute chemicals like these with bleach before pouring them down the drain. :D

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  3. tracyvmoore

    tracyvmoore

    Wow...AWESOME article! Thank you so much for doing this.

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  4. neanderthalis

    neanderthalis

    My understanding is Hawaii requires non-businesses to hold them till quarterly collection sites are open.

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  5. kibs

    kibs

    So glad you published this! Can't wait for part 2 :)

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  6. istionojr

    istionojr

    this is exaclty fit for my level.
    and the time is just perfect as I plan to do a color home developing. cc: @08thzolt
    thank you for share with us, gonna read all the series in carefully.

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  7. blueskyandhardrock

    blueskyandhardrock

    @tracyvmoore @kibs @istionojr glad to do it! Stay tuned for part 2!

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  8. joush

    joush

    funny you mentioned freestyle. last time i read a tipster about developing your own color negative film I went straight to freestyle in LA to get the stuff to develop color. And i was high discouraged into doing so. The guy almost made it seem as if professionals were allowed to do it. So he set me up with B&W developing things. I'm definitely going to have to try this with some test rolls of course. So after do this for about a year, were you able to recycle any silver?

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  9. mafiosa

    mafiosa

    Thanks for sharing!

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  10. blueskyandhardrock

    blueskyandhardrock

    @joush was it the bald guy with the beard? Cos he was the one who tried to discourage me. He said I should start with B&W first. But I told him no and that I made up my mind with color. I'm glad I didn't listen to him. It's as easy as b&w!

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  11. blueskyandhardrock

    blueskyandhardrock

    @mafiosa glad to do it! Did u figure out what the problem was with the filter?

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  12. lostinprint

    lostinprint

    Someday I'm definitely going to experiment more with the development side of things. Thanks for writing this!

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  13. fishexposure

    fishexposure

    i still develop my BW 135/120 rolls. but color is such a hassle in terms of ingredients/temperature/cost of materials. costco charges 1.60$ per 135 roll done in 1hour, analogue dream!

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  14. aguillem

    aguillem

    Since I changed city, I'm looking for a good photographer to handle my films... maybe he's sitting on the same chair as me?

    But I'm thinking about where I can do it??
    I know people usually do it in a bathroom since they need dark and water.
    I live in a shared flat, with a big bathroom which has a bathtub, a sink, and a window with shutters.

    Beside the technical possibility, would my flatmates hate me? Does it smell bad, is it dirty, does it make the bathroom occupied until the day after... ?

    Thanks a lot for the well written article, and when I see your results it's very encouraging!

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  15. joush

    joush

    @blueskyandhardrock yes it was him! talks quite bit too.

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  16. evagaresp

    evagaresp

    I definitely need to try this... in my city, the development of each roll is 12 dollars... :(

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  17. aguillem

    aguillem

    @evagaresp Carzy! You could even save money by sending them abroad ;) in Italy I found a lab which does it for 2€, even with +1stop, cross processed...

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  18. kevinhodur

    kevinhodur

    Thanks for doing this. I've saved so much money developing my own film (no one within 100 miles of me does it professionally), and it's remarkably easy to do. For anyone looking to do 110 film, pick up the Yankee reel and drum set. It's not the best one in the world, but it's the only one I've seen that adjusts down to 110.

    To anyone who hasn't tried it, it's really easy to do! And a lot of fun in a zen kind of way!

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  19. marcus_loves_film

    marcus_loves_film

    Great article! I've been developing my own film for 8+ years and I don't think beginners should be too intimidated by it. Just do your research and ask lots of questions and you'll get the hang of it. This is lomography so if you make a mistake in the temperature or time perhaps it will look real cool:)

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  20. marcus_loves_film

    marcus_loves_film

    Advanced Tip: when cross processing any E-6 film or C-41 film made before the year 2000, you should use a stabilizer that contains Formalin. This is for greater stability of the dyes to prevent color shifts and fading. No labs I know of use stabilizer with formalin nor do any of the premade kits. I use Kodak Stabilizer III which contains formalin or you can make your own using Formalin + Methanol + Photo Flo 200.+H2O
    Reference: http://www.apug.org/(…)c-41-a.html

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  21. alicevsalice

    alicevsalice

    really interesting! I'm waiting for the second half... :)
    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  22. virginielyse

    virginielyse

    Thanks for sharing! Will most certainly jump the cliff too!

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  23. doumieuh

    Please, a french explanation would be really great cuz the technical language is hard to understand...
    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  24. stouf

    stouf

    Wonderful post! And I'm humbled by your referring to me : ) Cheers

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  25. ropi

    ropi

    oh! I can't wait for the 2nd part!! I haven't tried to develop color or slide film because I know you need to keep the temperature a bit high, and that makes me feel intimidated!! :/ so I want to know how you manage that step!! and the film squeegee is really interesting. I only knew that the paper ones existed, I don't know if here are available.... I'll be waiting for the 2nd part!:)

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  26. worried_shoes

    worried_shoes

    Awesome write up! I was also surprised when I first tried it out that it wasn´t more difficult. At the time, I spend alot of time on forums for professional photographers. Almost everyone there told me it is not worth trying out, and if the chemicals are off by a 0.1 degree in temperature it wont work etcetera etcetera. It is not dead easy, but it is certainly not impossible either. It could probably take alot of practice to fully master the trade, but if the purpose is to experiment and maybe save a buck or two, there is no reason for not trying home development out.

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  27. gaz

    gaz

    Great, I'd love to know how to process my own. Can I be so rude and ask when the second part will be? I' ve checked this Tipster page everyday since I read part one!

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  28. blueskyandhardrock

    blueskyandhardrock

    @gaz not rude at all. I have already submitted the second part two weeks ago. Unfortunately it isn't up to me when it'll be published. I'm sure though that lomography will publish it soon. I'll let you know as soon as it's available! Xo

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  29. gaz

    gaz

    @blueskyandhardrock oh, ok cool, can' t wait to have a go at cross processing myself x

    about 1 year ago · report as spam
  30. blueskyandhardrock

    blueskyandhardrock

    @worried_shoes the funny thing is i have tried changing the temperature of the developer slightly and the results are pretty much the same! no lie! so i don't know what the fuss is all about!

    about 1 year ago · report as spam
  31. blueskyandhardrock

    blueskyandhardrock

    @doumieuh i will try to see if somebody can translate both parts for you! :D

    about 1 year ago · report as spam
  32. kf4kco

    kf4kco

    What do you use for heating the water?

    about 1 year ago · report as spam
  33. kf4kco

    kf4kco

    What do you use for heating the water?

    about 1 year ago · report as spam
  34. kf4kco

    kf4kco

    What do you use for heating the water?

    about 1 year ago · report as spam
  35. aguillem

    aguillem

    I finally did it myself! I developped 4 films so far, and everything went fine :) (except when I opened the tank, but that's because I'm stupid...)
    Here are the 2 rolls I uploaded already:
    http://www.lomograph(…)development
    http://www.lomograph(…)ady-in-love

    12 months ago · report as spam
  36. aguillem

    aguillem

    @kf4kco I use hot water from the tap. In my flat I've to mix it with a bit of cold water. Then I keep all the chemicals bottles and the tank in an ice box.
    If the tap water isn't hot enough, you can use a kettle. But if you use Rollei Digibase, you can do it from 25°C. This means that in summer you can do it at room temperature!
    http://www.lomograph(…)development

    12 months ago · report as spam
  37. badjuju

    badjuju

    Amazing! Thank you for sharing and I cannot wait for part 2!

    12 months ago · report as spam

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This is the original article written in: English. It is also available in: Deutsch, Nederlands, Italiano & Spanish.