A step by step guide : How to develop black and white film.
This is how I develop black and white film in 120 (medium format) and 35mm formats.
Film development is a fairly simple and straight forward process that can be done with minimal equipment nearly anywhere (running water is nice but not required).
The chemicals used are not expensive or dangerous.
Here is a list of equipment and chemicals you will need to develop black and white film:
- Daylight developing tank (required)
- Stainless Film Developing Reel – This one is for 120 film (required)
- Darkroom Timer (or clock, watch, etc…) (required)
- Thermometer (Required)
- 3x Graduates (one for pre rinse, developer and fixer) – glass / poly preferred with cc/ml scale (required)
- Funnel for chemical re-use (required)
- Hose for rinseing film in tank
- Completely black / dark room or changing tent (required)
- 1 Litre Amber glass storage jars (needed for storage and reusing chemicals)
- Nitrile Gloves (nice but not required)
- Silver ph strips (nice to have but not required)
- Wetting agent – Kodak Photo-flo
- Film Developer – I primarily use Kodak D76 and Kodak HC110 depending on the film and results I am after (Pick a developer use it and stick with it.) Or Mix your own Kodak D76
- Stop Bath – Kodak Indicator Stop Bath
- Fixer – Ilford Rapid Fix
- Distilled or filtered water
I generally develop two rolls of 120 film at a time when developing black and white film. I use my stainless steel tanks with 800 ml of working developer. If you are using a single roll tank you would use 400ml.
So basically what we are doing is putting exposed light sensitive film into a daylight developing tank in complete darkness. Next we put the film through a series of chemicals in the tank in order.
- First the developer which develops / reduces the exposed silver to metallic silver making the black film grain and negative image. Then we “stop” the development with a stop bath and clear the developer.
- Next we put in a 2 bath fix to clear away any unexposed silver that was not reduced and up until this point is still sensitive to light. We wash away the fix and the film can be viewed in the light now.
- Finally we wash the film and hang it to dry.
This is a very straight forward process and once done a few times is very simple to complete. The two typical challenges at first are getting the film into the tank with out being able to see what you are doing and making sure the chemicals are at a working solution.
Steps For Developing Black And White Film
Getting things ready – Preparing chemicals
The first thing I do is get my chemicals prepared and I do this in my darkroom sink. If you can use a sink or countertop near a sink it will work best. Otherwise get a large developer tray to put underneath your tank and chemicals to avoid a big mess on the counter.
All of my development is done at 70 degrees Fahrenheit which is for the most part room temperature. I use the same thermometer every time to stay consistent. It has not been professionally calibrated. However I do have a hand full of other darkroom thermometers and all are within one degree of one another.
What this means is that my 70 degrees could be 72 to your thermometer. The point is to find a time and temperature that is working for you and stay consistent. My darkroom stays pretty close to this and I have my distilled water tucked away behind the sink so it stays at 70 degrees and ready to go.
By far the most important chemical in regards to temperature is your developer and the warmer it is the more active it is – simple.
What this means is if you develop your film at 68 degrees instead of 70 you will have to let it develop a little longer to get the same contrast. 72 degrees would need slightly less development time.
The thing to remember is to be as consistent as possible with your entire workflow. Settle on a developer temperature that works for you and stick with it. Get a good thermometer and stick with it. Be consistent with your agitation etc…
All your other chemicals should be as close as possible to the same temperature as your developer. However you need not obsess over this, just make sure there is not a huge fluctuation or it could damage the film.
Try to stay within a few degrees or the same temp if possible.
Some developers are powder that you mix into working solutions and others are liquid concentrates that you mix as a ratio like 1:9 ( meaning one part developer to 9 parts water) Either way you want to use distilled or filtered water when mixing these developers to take any variables out of the mix and stay consistent.
Typically I will mix the developer the night before I want to develop black and white film. You need to mix D76 at 52 degrees Celsius and this allows it to cool down to room temperature. You could also put it in a cool water bath or fridge for a bit to get the developer sooner.
Next, I bottle the developer in the amber 1 litre bottles to be used as needed. With the full bottles of D76 I feel confident in using them for two weeks after they have been mixed. D76 after about 3 weeks changes chemically and creates monoquinone. This can increase contrast and grain in your film. So to be consistent, always try to use fresh D76.
I typically use Kodak D76 in a 1:1 ratio. So I will take 400ml of stock developer and mix it with 400ml distilled or filtered water to make my working solution.
I use Ilford or Kodak Indicator stop bath to halt the development of the film. I mix up 1 liter at a time with 50ml stop : 950ml filtered water. This will be an orange color and can be reused until it turns color to purple. At that point it can be discarded and fresh stop bath made.
I use a two bath fixing regimen because two bath fixing is the most efficient and archival way to fix film and papers. The second fixer clears any exhausted fixer from the first bath and ensures that it is cleared all the way. You can monitor the first fixer bath with Ag (silver) saturation test strips. Discard the first bath once it has reached a silver saturation of 1.5g per litre (not above 2g per litre) and replace it with the second bath. I have found this is typically every 4 rolls of film. The second bath is replaced by fresh fixer. I keep my Ilford Rapid fix mixed in 1 litre bottles at a film strength of 1:4 and ready to go.
Getting the film in the tank when developing black and white film
Once you have your chemicals and prep work done the next step is to roll the film onto the reels and put them in the daylight tank. I typically wear nitrile gloves when mixing or prepping chemicals but still usually wash my hands with soap and water just prior to handling the film. I do make sure my hands are as dry as I can get them and not sweaty at all ( it makes handing the film much easier). Just make sure you do not have developer or fix on your hands. I find using clean dry hands is the best way to handle film. You should always try your best to only touch the very edges of the film. If you touch the front and back do not sweat it, it has never caused any problems for me.
***This step must be done in complete darkness – no safelights,timers, etc …complete black***
It might seem tough at first but it is really easy once you do it a few times. The key is to lay everything out so that you know exactly where it is by memory and feel. I always start with the two reels in front of me with the reel clips facing the same direction towards me. I put the two rolls of film just to the right of the reels. The tank, lid and lifted right behind the reels. I still take a deep breath and take a good look at everything before I flip off the lights.
You can do this in a film changing bag if you do not have a totally dark room to use.
120 film – developing black and white film
Tear the paper where it has been sealed to open the roll. You can cut it if you prefer – just be carefull. Next unroll the paper untill you feel the film. Keep unwinding the paper and film seperating the two and at the same time start to rewind the film back into itself. Take care to handle the edges of the film and use clean dry hands.
It helps to be in a cooler room if possible to avoid your hands from getting sweaty. You can let the paper do whatever and just focus on unwinding and rolling the film back up the other way by itself. Once the whole roll is re-wound you will come to a point where the film is taped to the paper. Pull the tape off the paper and fold it over the edge of the film ( I have found that this works best for the stainless reels).
Now stick that end into the reel clip in the center with your thumb on top of the film in the middle. Once it is secure hold the edges of the film and pull it lightly straight out holding the reel with the other hand to ensure you do not start winding crooked. Gently and slightly curve the film and at the same time start rolling it on to the reel. It should go on efortlessly and with no issues. If it starts to kink or feel funny – unwind, straighten and start again. Roll untill all the film is on the reel
35mm – developing black and white film
You will need a bottle opener to pry the cap off of the bottom of the film canister. Remove the film being carefull not to scratch it on the edges. Once it is out take a scissors and cut the lead part square. Some stainless reels have the same clip as the 120 reels in the middle and are done the same as explained above.
The ones I prefer have little metal posts you can hook the sprocket hols on. This is much easier to make sure you start the film out straight and avoids problems down the way. (especially with longer 36 frame rolls. Hook the holes evenly and gently curve the fim and start feeding it on to the reel.
if you feel it kinking or being goofy in any way back it of and re-do that part. Finish rolling untill you get to the end and take scissors and cut the film from the cassette.
It is highly recommended that you practice with some scrap film and your reels untill you really get the hang of it. Once you get it down it is like second nature and very easy to do in the dark. Just remember if something does gowrong in the dark, do not panic, just back up as far as you need to and start over.
Next put the film in the daylight tank and put the lid on. You can now relax and do the rest in the light!
Developing Black And White Film – The Process
Get all of your chemicals ready before beginning any of these steps. This way everything will go smooth. I use nitrile gloves while mixng chemicals and developing film. While the chemicals we are using are typically not dangerous, they can leave you smelling like chemicals. – You’ve been warned.
The times in this example will be what I use for Ilford HP5 (shot at ISO 400) developed in D76 1:1 @ 70 degrees F for 15 min. ( use a Gralab timer that counts down, but any timer will do.) I have included my developing times and temps at the end of the page for my most used film/dev. (this is for darkroom printing with a diffusion source enlarger – your development times might vary greatly depending on what you are doing)
I can not stress enough that although the techique is important when it comes to development times, temperature, and agitation. It is far more important to be consistent in everything you do from roll to roll – enough said.
Mix your developer as instructed. ***I do this before adding the presoak.*** I mainly use Xtol these days but most developers work very similar – just follow the directions for dillutions, etc…
I use Kodak D76 1:1 (1 part stock developer solution to 1 part distilled or filtered water) So I pour 400ml of stock developer into a graduate and then add 400ml of water to bring it to 800ml for 2 rolls of 120 film.
Now I do this step in total darkness:
- I pull the reels out of the tank in the dark.
- Pour the developer in the tank.
- Drop the reels back in and put the lid on.
- Start the timer and agitation immediately
This will ensure even start time for the entire film area and promote even development
For the entire 1st minute, Invert the tank from one hand back to the next. I use a pendulum inversion with a half twist. I usually shoot for 25 Inversions. (again not as important as being consistent!) After the last inversion of the first minute give the tank a good whack while putting it down. This will dislodge any air bubbles that have formed on the film. Then leave it be still for an entire minute.
Every minute following the first invert the tank four times over ten seconds and give the tank a whack when putting it down. Once the 15 min is nearly up I turn the lights back off and remove the lid. I dump the developer and immediately pour in the stop bath. I recommend using most developers as one shot and discarding.
Once the stop is in the tank put the lid back on and agitate for 20 – 30 seconds and dump through the hole in the lid. Now you can have the lights on for the remaining steps.
I use Ilford Rapid Fix mixed 1:4 (one part fixer to 4 parts water) For the two rolls of 120 film I mix 200ml stock fixer to 800ml distilled water. These should be within 5 degrees of the developer and other chemicals
After draining the stop bath, pour in the first fixer and agitate for 30 sec then rest for 30 sec. Repeat this for 2 1/2 min. Drain Fixer back into the fix 1 Amber Bottle. Add the final fixer and repeat same as the first for 1 min. Pour fixer back into the final fix amber bottle and cap for future use.
Two Bath Fixing
I use a two-bath fixer whenever I develop black and white film. It is one of the most archival and thourough way of fixing. It ensures of complete fixing. At the same time the second fix bath ensures any argento-thiosulphates left from partially exhausted fixer are cleared from the film or paper.
You monitor the silver level in the first fix using silver content test strips. Once the first fix reaches 2.0g of silver per litre you discard it ( I store it in a large bucket and than bring to city hazardous waste once the bucket is filled ). Mix fresh fix for the final fix bottle and move the final fix to the first fix bottle.
If you do a single bath Fix make sure your fix is not exhausted before use.
You can now take the lid of the tank! Rinse the film in the tank by filling it and dumping it a couple times. Now if you want you can take a quick peak at your film…just be carefull. I usually unwind just a few frames and hold it up to the light to see the alchemy that has occured!
If everything went right from exposure to development you sould have some banger negatives!
Alternatively you can fill and dump the tanks 5 times per the Ilford archival method.
Final Rinse & Dry
Dump the rinse water. Mix 1 litre of distilled water with 2 drops of Kodak Photo-flo and add to the tank. agitate the film reels by lifting them up and down (my two reel tank has a lift rod – for one reel just grab on the reel) for one minute. Pull the first reel out of the tank and shake it in the sink. Unroll the film carefully and hang to dry. Repeat with second roll.
I do not really recommend squegeeing film with tools or sponges… I have had way clearer film by just Photo-flo and air drying.
Places to hang after you develop black and white film
This is something I often see ignored by other film developing tutorials online. Probabally because many people today are scanning film and dust might be less of a problem.
You want to hang your film in a dust free enviroment!
I have a film drying cabinet built into my darkroom. Most people will not have this.
What I did for years and probably works better is to use a shower stall. Before hanging the film turn the shower on as hot as it goes for a few minutes to steam up the whole room. Let the steam settle and you should be good to go as far as dust is concerned.
Take a coat hanger or wire around the shower head that you can clip the film to and add some clips to the other end for a little weight.
Try not to disturb the shower area or film for a few hours if possible.
Once dry to the touch (I usually wait overnight, but takes a few hours depending) You can cut the negatives up store and label them in sleeves!
My favorite film, development and times to develop black and white film
D76 at 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Kodak T-max 100 – Shot at ISO 80 – Kodak D76 1:1 – 10 min
- Ilford HP5 – Shot at ISO 400 – Kodak D76 1:1 – 15 min
- Ilford Delta 3200 – Shot at ISO 800 -1250 – Kodak D76 Stock – 14 min
(Please note these should be used as a starting guide only. Test and see what works best for you and your final output.)
Hope this helps you develop black and white film. Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments below!
*** Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means at no extra cost to you, I will make a small commission if you click them and make a qualifying purchase. If you have a different purchase in mind, please consider using these links as it helps create more free content! ***