An Overview of Developing Film

Developing Tank

Since I added C-41 developing kits to the store the other day, I’ve had a few emails about developing your own film. I’ve been developing my film (Black & White initially, and then Colour) for a while now, but I can still remember the time before I did, and how daunting it was. For me, part of the problem was that initially, I saw a lot of very in-depth instructions on the web, as well as videos, but I just wanted to figure out a general overview. I hope this article will help with people in my situation, and I’ve decided to word some of it in a Question/Answer format.

Is it hard to develop your own film?

Nope! There are a number of steps you have to follow, but they’re all easy steps. To me, calling something “hard” means that you have to practice it before being able to do it, and also that you have to make choices/decisions along the way, which you might get wrong.

Developing film is not like this. You just do certain pre-defined steps, and as long as you do the correct things, your film should turn out perfectly.

What’s more, there’s less room for error than some people let on. People make some very scary claims about how perfectly, precisely, exact you must keep your water temperature, especially when developing colour film, but a lot of those claims are very exaggerated (in my opinion, some people like the idea that they have mastered a very tough process where you can’t vary your temperature by 0.5 degrees or else your film will be completely unusable).

The thing you’ll notice if you spend any time discussing home developing online is that 99.9% of people say “you should do it, it’s great!”, and almost nobody ever says “Oh it was a disaster, sooo hard!” It just really is something almost anyone can do.

Can you give me a really broad overview of the process?

Sure! So first, you take a bunch of photos. You probably knew that step haha.

Next, you have to transfer your film to a developing tank. This is basically a plastic jar that is designed to not let any light in. It has plastic reels inside that you spool your film around.

Now that your film is in the developing tank, you pour in developing liquid and wait for a certain amount of time (between 3 and 10 minutes depending on the film and developing liquid). While you’re waiting, you agitate the tank once or twice per minute, by turning it over a few times.

Now, you pour out the developing liquid, and you put in another liquid. The next liquid might be a few different things – it varies depending on whether you’re doing Colour film, or Black & White, but once it’s in there, you do the same thing: Leave it in for a certain amount of time, while agitating the tank 1 or 2 times a minute.

Now, there’s one more chemical liquid to pour in. Again it might be one of a couple of things (Fixer or Stabilizer generally), and you leave it in for a certain amount of time, then remove it.

Now you can open up the tank and you have negatives! You hang them up to dry.

There are a couple of parts where you pour water into the tank during the process as well, to rinse the negatives. This might be at the end or the middle, depending on B&W or Colour, but it’s the easiest thing possible.

Do you need a darkroom?

No, you don’t. There is only one step of developing film that requires darkness, and that’s when you transfer your film to the developing tank. This only takes a few minutes, and you can do this a couple of ways:

The easiest way is to use a changing bag. This is a special, light-proof bag that you stick your developing tank and film in, along with a few other things (scissors, can opener to open the film can). It has holes with elastics around them, so you can stick your arms inside the bag without letting any light in.

If you don’t have a changing bag handy though, it’s fine, you just need to black out a room for a few minutes. Personally, I’ve done it in both a bathroom, and a walk-in closet. In both cases, I just put a towel on the ground to block light from coming in the door, and I also put electrical tape up to cover the door cracks. While this is a dark room, it’s easy to set up when you need it, and isn’t the same as setting a complex darkroom with sinks and lots of equipment, like some people imagine it. That sort of darkroom is only needed when you actually print traditional darkroom photos (instead of scanning your negatives and sharing them online, or printing them on a printer).

So wait, I have to transfer the film to the developing tank in total darkness? Isn’t that hard?

You do indeed have to perform this step in total darkness (you can’t use a red light like you may have seen in movies, etc.- that’s for doing darkroom printing).

This is the trickiest step, and the ideal situation is to have a cheap, or wasted, roll of film that you can practice with in the light. What I personally did was to watch a few Youtube videos very carefully, so that I was pretty sure I knew what to do, and then I tried it on a long-expired roll of no-name film I got at a camera show. I did it once in the light, and was very confident that I knew what was going on, so I took a regular roll of film I had shot (that wasn’t too important and wouldn’t kill me if I ruined), and I tried doing the procedure for real, in the dark. Watching the Youtube videos and practicing once paid off, and I transferred the film just fine, and it came out perfectly.

If you don’t have a spare roll of useless film, it can seem painful to waste a roll to test this out. What I’ve always said is that hey, you can get a cheap roll for $5 CAD (even cheaper in US dollars), and I think you might as well just get one and shoot a bunch of quick snapshots, and chalk the few dollars up to learning a new skill. Having said that though, I still have a handful of unusable rolls handy that would be perfect for practicing, so if you make an order on Buy Film Canada, just make a note that you’d like one, and I’ll send it if I have one (I’ll also try to remove this part of this blog post when I run out, so if you see this, I probably have one). These rolls have been completely exposed and rewound, so photos will come out completely white from them, there is 0% chance of any photos coming from them, so please only request one if you need to practice transferring film to a developing tank.

How much does developing your own film cost, is it cheaper?

There’s an up-front cost that can run between $0 (if you find someone dumping their old stuff on Craigslist/Kijiji) to maybe $120 if you buy all the equipment brand new. Buying new is quicker and convenient, but old equipment does the job just as well, unless it’s damaged.

Paying the up-front costs might not be fun if you buy everything new, but you can do what digital shooters do: Pay a bunch of money up front, and then magically forget that it happened, and pretend that everything you do from then on is free haha.

Once you’ve paid the up-front costs, the actual cost of developing each roll is definitely cheaper than doing it at a lab. It depends what you use, but I would say that at most it’s going to be half the price of doing it in a lab, and a lot of people use chemicals very efficiently and spend much less than that (especially with B&W film).

If you also figure in the costs of travelling to a lab, maybe paying for parking, etc., it definitely winds up a lot cheaper for most people.

The main thing to really consider other than price is: Do you enjoy developing film? I used to think it was going to be a hassle, but I thought “Oh well, the round trip to a lab takes me 40 minutes, then another 40 minutes to go pick up the negatives later!” and did it. What I found out was that the process is very fun and relaxing to me, and it’s something I look forward to now. Other people might find the complete opposite though.

What equipment do I actually need?

The basics are:

  • A developing tank with reels. The most common of these are Paterson brand, and Buy Film Canada can actually special order these for you (and we’ll stock them if there’s enough demand). There’s also AP brand which are very similar, and also fine.
  • A changing bag (optional). This is convenient to have, but if you can black out a room for 10 minutes, it’s not necessary.
  • A timer. You can use your smartphone for this.
  • A can opener to remove the lids of 35mm film cans.
  • Scissors to cut the film from the canister.
  • Some sort of clips to hang the negatives to dry. (I need to clarify this, but people do use laundry clips.
  • Some containers to hold the chemicals – you can buy special ones fairly inexpensively, but I believe some people do use empty plastic pop bottles (thoroughly cleaned of course).

What chemicals do I need?

If you want to develop colour film, there’s basically only 1 choice for home developers, that’s called a C-41 Press Kit. We sell them on Buy Film Canada, and they contain everything you need to develop colour film.

For Black & White, there is a larger range of possibilities. You buy B&W chemicals piece by piece, and you need 3 things: A developer, a stop bath, and a fixer. A typical shopping list for these might look like this:

  • Developer: Ilford Ilfosol 3 or Ilford DD-X or Kodak D76 or Kodak HC-110 or Rodinal (also sold as Blazinol). There are many other developers, these are the most popular.
  • Stop bath: Ilford Ilfostop or Kodak Indicator Stop Bath
  • Fixer: Ilford Rapid Fixer or Ilford Ilfostop Stop Bath or Kodak Fixer or Kodak Kodafix.

As you can see, there are a lot of options, but they’re all decent choices. To start, you probably just want to pick whichever you can find most easily.

Buy Film Canada doesn’t sell any B&W chemicals right now, but we have access to them, so if you’re interested, drop us a note, and if a few people are interested, we’ll stock them!


Well, that’s about it for now. I hope this accomplished the goal of just sort of giving a wide angle overview of developing.

For me, the toughest part was actually just getting myself in gear to buy the equipment and do it. Once I did, it was just as easy as everyone says, plus a lot more fun than I expected. If you have any questions about this article, please email andrew@buyfilm.ca

C-41 Developing Kits Available for Sale Now

Since I started this site, the most common request I’ve received has been for C-41 developing kits. I’m finally found a decent way to get them to Canada, and they’re in the store now.

The kits are standard Unicolor kits, and contain several pouches of powdered chemicals. These are the kits that almost everybody uses to develop colour film. There are other kits available (mostly in Europe from what I’ve seen) that provide the chemicals in liquid form, but these cost a lot more, and as far as I can tell, they don’t really have any advantage. These Unicolor kits produce excellent results, and I don’t honestly know what advantage there could be to be honest.

I plan to have some blog posts up soon covering the process of home developing C-41, so keep your eyes open to this blog, but feel free to email support@buyfilm.ca in the meantime with any questions on how these work, what other equipment you need, etc.

C-41 Processing Kit – 1 Liter

C-41 Processing Kit – 2 Liters

Pushing/Pulling Film vs. Under/Overexposure – a Quick Definition

I’ve tried to keep this post brief and basic, and just explain what the difference between these two terms is. I’m going to follow it up with a couple of posts explaing why you might choose one of the other of these for colour or B&W film. They should be linked below once I write them.

A lot of people new to film get confused at the difference between overexposure/underexposure and pushing/pulling film. This is understandable, because the terms refer to very similar things, with one main difference. I’m also going to use the term “box speed” here:

Shooting at Box Speed means that you use the official manufacturer ISO for the film (ie. the ISO on the box).

Underexposing film means that you change your settings so that less light than recommended hits the film.

Overexposing film means that you let more light than recommended hit the film.

Pushing film means that you underexpose it, but also develop it for a longer time, to compensate for the underexposure.

Pulling film means that you overexpose it, but also develop it for a shorter time to compensate.

So basically, when you use the terms pushing and pulling, the key difference is that the actual development process is different than normal.

When you overexpose, or underexpose film, but don’t compensate for it while developing, you’ll get photos that look brighter, or darker than if you shot at normal box speed. If you push or pull however, your photos should look mostly the same as shooting at box speed, but the amount of contrast and grain will be a bit different (I’ll explain that later).

Probably the most time that you hear about pushing or pulling is when people talk about pushing Black & White film. I’m going to explain a typical situation where you might do this:

Pushing B&W film: An example

Imagine you are out with your camera one evening, and you have a roll of Ilford HP5+, and you want to take some photos. You check your camera’s meter, and it says that if you shoot at box speed (which is ISO 400 for HP5), your shutter speed will be 1/15 seconds.

“Oh no!” you think, “I know from experience I can’t hold my camera steady for a fifteenth of a second. My photos will all be blurry.”

Pushing your film is the solution to this situation! All you have to do is to trick your camera into thinking your roll of film is a higher ISO, perhaps ISO 1600. This is 2 stops higher than the box speed, so you can use a much faster shutter speed. For each stop, you double your shutter speed, so you can now take pictures at 1/60s (four times faster than 1/15s).

A common way to trick your camera is to set the ISO dial to 1600. If your camera doesn’t have an ISO dial but does have an exposure compensation setting (which is often marked as EV+/-), you can set that to -2.00. Finally, some cameras have neither of these options, and just read the film’s ISO directly from the DX Code on the canister (a simple bar code), in which case you need to learn about DX Code hacking (a whole other topic).

So now, once you’ve tricked your camera into thinking you’re shooting ISO 1600 film, you go about your business and shoot the film. Once you’re done, you make a note that you have pushed the film 2 stops, and now it’s developing time.

Most labs that develop Black & White film will do the next part for you. You just have to tell them “Please push process this, I shot it at 2 stops above box speed, ISO 1600”, or something like that – it’s probably extra smart to marker this onto the actual film canister too.

If you develop film yourself, you will just need to leave the film in the developer solution for longer than normal. How much longer depends on how many stops you pushed the film by, and what film and developer you’re using. The Massive Dev Chart is the ultimate reference for this, so just consult that.

Once your film is developed, you will now magically have a bunch of photos that look like they were exposed at box speed, even though you didn’t have enough light to do so.

There are a couple of trade-offs however. Your images will have more contrast when you push the film, and will also be more grainy. This is not necessarily a bad thing, depending on what you’re looking for, and some people will push film just to get this effect.

Pulling B&W Film

Pulling film, as you may have guessed,  works basically in the same way, except you’re adjusting everything in the opposite direction. So your camera will take longer exposures, the film will spend less time in the developer (whether you or the lab is developing it), and your photos will have less contrast and grain.

In practice, pushing B&W film is much more common than pulling.

What about colour film?

Pushing or pulling colour film is entirely possible, but not as common either. One reason may be that photo labs tend to develop colour film in large, automated machines, and they don’t have the flexibility to leave some film in the machine for longer than everything else. This isn’t the case with B&W film, because all the different types already have different developing times, so labs don’t really stick these in big machines, they tend to use a more manual process.

If you develop C-41 colour film yourself though, you can certainly push or pull it, and the instructions that come with your home developing kit should cover that.

One last, important thing to remember

If you choose to push or pull a roll of film, you have to commit for the entire roll. That’s because you’re going to be putting the entire roll in the developing chemicals for a longer or shorter time.


There are a number of stylistic reasons that you might want to underexpose or overexpose a photo, without compensating for it later. If that’s the case, you don’t need to deal with pushing or pulling the film.

I hope this explains the difference between these 2 things decently, and I guess I sort of veered into explaining the whole concept of pushing and pulling. I still plan to write a couple of posts about doing this with colour film though, so if they’re not linked below, they should be soon!

 

New Lower Shipping Rates

I wanted to mention that the shipping rates have gone way down in the store (about 40% lower) in the past few days, and I’d like to explain why. (Of course orders over $99 still ship free).

Originally, we charged exact shipping for Canada Post + 10% to cover the cost of shipping materials, like boxes. I wasn’t so sure about the 10% thing, but it was recommended by experts, so I just shrugged my shoulders and went with it.

I noticed immediately that almost everyone was going with the $99 free shipping method. This was fine, and it meant that everyone was buying a lot of film, which is good for the store, but it made me think that there were probably a decent amount of people who wanted smaller quantities, but were getting quoted $11 shipping (a typical example in Ontario), and thought that was too high.

So that’s great for people who want to buy $99 of film at once, but I felt like it might not be so fun for people who just wanted a few rolls. So what I did was to adjust the shipping so that now, whatever the actual shipping rate from Canada Post is, the store actually takes 30% off that price, instead of adding 10%.

So now, a lot of people are getting quoted $6.75 for shipping instead of $11 (again, this is a typical Ontario price), and I can already tell that people like it, because many more people are putting in small orders.

It’s actually been dramatic how many people are putting in small orders now. I think there’s a certain cutoff where shipping suddenly isn’t a pain. One customer actually brought it up to me and said this:

I was very happy with the shipping cost, it’s cheaper than it costs for me to pay for gas downtown and pay parking. Me and my brother split the order too. Can’t believe it came in 1 day, good work mate.

And yes, I know that I left in the complimentary stuff as a subtle brag, sorry 🙂

The only real downside to this change is that for me personally, it feels better to be packing up big $100+ orders, but I think this makes it easier for people to get and shoot film, and that’s the whole point of this store anyway!

So let me know what you think (andrew@buyfilm.ca), or if there’s any way I could change or improve things.

Buy Film Canada Has a Newsletter Now.

I’m going to go ahead and admit that this isn’t the most exciting blog post ever, but we have a newsletter now, which I’ll be using to send out news when we get new film, add cameras to the store, etc. The signup form should be at the bottom of each page, but I’m going to paste it in at the end of this post, too.

One thing I should mention: If you bought anything from the store before this list existed, you didn’t see a “Join our newsletter?” option when you went through the checkout. Once I created the list, it automatically imported everyone who had already bought from the store, and subscribed them. I discussed this with a couple of people, and the general consensus was that nobody should be too annoyed at this, but if this does actually bother you, let me know, and I’m sorry!

Also, I know that basically every mailing list in the world says “Sign up for great discounts and cool exclusives!” but then doesn’t actually ever offer these things, so I am not making a big deal about that, but I do have a few plans to add some cool stuff to the list. One thing I was thinking was that each time I sent out an email, I’d have some special codeword and the first person to put in an order and mention that codeword would get a free roll of film thrown in. I don’t think that’s actually a great promotion though, because if multiple people try it, someone is probably going to be disappointed, and they might not even know right away that they weren’t the first. Also people who only see the newsletter a day late will probably not even care.

But if anyone has any ideas of cool little promotions like that, let me know (andrew@buyfilm.ca)! Here’s the form:

 

Subscribe to our mailing list


Bulk Loading Film – an Overview

I’ve had several people ask me whether I can sell bulk rolls of film. Actually, now I think of it, everyone has specifically asked about bulk rolls of Ilford HP5+.

I can indeed get bulk rolls from Ilford, so for now I have listed them in the store as a special order, but I think I may also buy some to stock normally, so nobody has to wait to get them.

Once I added them to the store, someone wrote me asking about them and how they work. I wrote him back, and I’m going to paste the important parts of that email here, for anyone else who is not familiar with bulk loading film. Let me know if you have any questions, I hope it helps. Also if anyone is interested in me carrying supplies like bulk film loaders and empty film canisters, let me know in the comments, or email support@buyfilmcanada.com

If you buy a bulk roll, it comes in one long roll that is enough for about 18 rolls of film, of 36 exposures each. You need a bulk loader, which is kind of a light-proof box with a handle. You put the bulk film in it, then you crank it out, into empty film canisters.

The first advantage of this is price. In the case of Ilford (the most popular bulk loading option by far I believe), you can get 18 rolls for the price of about 12. You do have to buy a bulk film loader, and these cost maybe $75 – $100 new, although if you can find one used you might pick it up for peanuts. You also need empty film canisters, but you can use these a number of times.

The second advantage is flexibility. Once you have the film in the bulk loader, you can make canisters with any amount of frames you want, up to 36 (if you go over 36, there can be big problems, although I forget offhand what they are). So if you feel like just making a roll with 12 exposures for instance, you can do that. A common reason to do that might be to quickly test a camera without having to use a whole roll of film.

One thing to note: Every roll of film wastes a certain amount of film while loading it (the stuff that you see while the camera is open basically), so if you get a bulk roll and do rolls of 18 frames instead of 36, you’ll have double the wastage.

Also by using a lot of short rolls instead of a smaller amount of long rolls, you’re going to increase your workload if you develop the film yourself.

These things might not be the biggest deal to you though, especially if you really prefer shooting shorter rolls. If you send your film out to be developed, it’s much more economical to use longer rolls, but most people who are bulk loading B&W film are probably developing their own film.

I’m going to also link 2 popular videos on bulk loading, which probably cover this more in depth than I have!

The Economics and Quirks of Pro-Packs vs. Single Rolls

Two people have written to me this week about pricing on pro-packs. I figured that if two people actually bothered to email me, then it’s probably worth writing about here!

First of all, for those who don’t know, a pro-pack is just the name for a 5-pack of film that comes in a cardboard box. Kodak and Fuji (and maybe others I can’t think of) sell some of their film this way, and it looks like this:

Not every film manufacturer sells pro-packs. Ilford, for instance, sell film in “bricks“, which consists of 10 rolls of film held together by thin, transparent plastic. Bricks don’t look as cool as pro-packs, but they’re efficient, and many brands use them. Here’s a picture of a brick of JCH Street Pan:

JCH Street Pan 400 Black & White Film (35mm Roll Film, 36 Exposures)

A brick of JCH Street Pan 400 – sorry for the small size, this was the only photo I had handy.

 

I don’t have many pro-packs listed on the store, but I do carry  them. I should probably add them specifically, but how it works right now is that if you order 5 individual rolls of a film that comes in a pro-pack, I will just send you a pro-pack.

Someone asked me whether there’s a price break for pro-packs, and unfortunately, the answer is no. There’s no real price break as to whether film sellers like me buy single rolls or pro-packs from the manufacturer, and that’s why if you check any online store, the price of a pro-pack is almost always the same as 5 individual rolls.

There is one exception to this – I’ve seen places online that do have a discount for a pro-pack, but what’s really happening is that they’re just kind of charging a bit more markup for a single roll – this isn’t common though, and mostly happens with big camera store chains that only kind of carry a couple of types of film begrudgingly.

Now the quirky bit about pro-packs relates to which films are sold this way. This has always confused me, especially when it comes to Kodak, which have a sort of confusing setup for this. Here’s the basic rundown:

  • Kodak Portra is mostly just sold in pro-packs. This is why if you buy a single roll anywhere, it just comes in the little plastic container (or the foil container in the case of 120 format).
  • But wait! For some reason, specifically Portra 800 in 35mm format comes in a nice little individual box. It still comes in pro-packs for the 120 size though, which is confusing.
  • Kodak Ektar 100 is sold in pro-packs if you get the 120 size, but as far as the 35mm size goes, it just comes in individual boxes, which are packaged in bricks of 10.
  • When it comes to B&W film, Kodak are a bit less confusing: Both Tri-X and T-Max are sold as pro-packs in 120 format, but comes in individual boxes in 35mm format.

I still haven’t quite figured out the reasoning behind what Kodak chooses to package as a pro-pack vs. an individual roll, but I imagine that it’s probably based on whether people are more likely to buy a single roll vs. an entire pack. For instance, Portra 800 is a premium film and costs more than Portra 400, so it makes sense people might buy it in smaller quantities. Although I’m not sure if this really extends to Ektar, since in my experience from running this store, people tend to buy multiple rolls of Ektar, I guess because it’s relatively cheap for such a nice, high quality film.

I guess I’ll never really know why it’s done this way. Or maybe someone will probably comment on this post with an extremely obvious, logical answer within 10 minutes of me posting this, and then I’ll know haha.