C-41 negative processing – The simple guide.

I am surprised at how many people continue to keep saying that developing color negatives at home is impossible or so hard to do that it scares them away from the prospect of doing it themselves. Actually nothing could be further from the truth. It’s easy. In some respects it’s easier to do than good old fashioned black and white.

The big problem for most people is the relatively high temperature of about 100 degrees Fahrenheit (about 38 degrees Celsius), for the developer and bleach/fix solutions. To be specific about this, the liquids needs to be kept to within one or maybe two degrees of the actual temperature that the kit of chemicals you use requires for about 6 minutes in total. A water bath (think small plastic tub) with 4” of water at 120 degrees F or about 48 degrees C is perfect for the job. Make sure the film, already loaded into the developing tank of course and the chemicals (inside containers) come up to the temp you need (you could always microwave them but be careful over time or they’ll get over hot) and then simply use them.

Will it help if you have an expensive machine with calibrated heaters to do this? Sure it will, but it’s nowhere near essential unless you are processing a dozen films at a time, more than once a week, in which case, you might like to think about automation, if only to speed things up. When it comes to a thermometer I use one of the infrared “gun” like devices that fire a red dot at a subject and reads the temperature at that spot on the subject, which is then displayed on an LED at the back of the handle. It cost me under $20 from an eBay vendor. It works well, but is it calibrated? Even if it’s one degree “out” its going to be better than a needle on a dial where I cannot be sure if its 98 or 102 degrees.

So with that said, what is the process of C-41 developing? Well, you prepare the film exactly as you would for black and white. It gets loaded onto a spiral and into a light tight tank (done in a changing bag or dark room in total darkness), and then the chemicals get warmed up and poured into and out of the developing tank as per the instruction sheet that comes with your kit. You reuse the chemicals, so have some way of quickly pouring them out of the developing tank and storing each liquid while the next one is poured in. Timing is important so don’t hang around. Dump the chemicals out at the appointed time and pour the next chemical in quickly, but carefully.

The developer and stabilizer chemicals are most likely to be harmless to you, but with kits like the Unicolor one where the Bleach and Fixer ends up as one liquid (called “Blix”), it’ll both stain bright or dark red anything it touches (shirt, counter, floor, dog or cat) and have a heavy odor that may make you cough, splutter and perhaps make your eyes water. Best to process in a well ventilated room, just as it is with all things chemical and photography. A well designed darkroom with an extraction fan is ideal but if like many people, your darkroom is the bathroom, have the extractor fan working or once you are ready to process, as the tank is (certainly should be) light tight, you can open a window or door and have a fan blowing the stale air out.  

My personal experience has been that my skin is NOT sensitive to these chemicals, but yours might be, so wear some kind of protective gloves. Not the huge heavyweight rubber things meant for protection against dangerous acid spills but something plastic that will keep any light liquid spills off your skin. An apron will also protect your clothes. I also use old yard work clothes when I am pouring chemicals in and out of containers and mixing them up. This way I know I don’t care too much if the worst should happen. I also do everything over a thick bath towel and have plenty of paper towels handy to wipe up any splashes.

So mix up the chemicals as per the instructions. Store them in clean photographic chemical bottles.

When you are ready to develop your first film, again, follow the instructions. Pre wash at the right temperature. Pour the water out. It might be colored water when it comes out. Pour it all out into a flow of running water.

This is the pre-wash water being poured away. Note the blue color.


Now comes the developer. I am assuming everything is at the right temperature, so pour the developer in and follow the instructions for the developer phase. Agitation is not like it is for Black and white. This is a process that was originally designed for machines, so variation from the instructions is much less desirable. No “special” agitation scheme or magic dilutions needed. Follow the instructions about agitation of the tank and time. When the time is up, pour the developer into a holding jug and pour the Blix in.

Pouring the developer back into a jug at the end of the 3.5 minutes. It'll go back into the storage bottle once the blix is in.

Same remarks about agitation as for the developer apply. Get the developer poured into the longer term storage bottle (don’t be silly – avoid spills and use a funnel), and put the lid on. Don’t forget the agitation once every 30 seconds. Wash out the jug and funnel you used to rebottle the developer. At the appropriate time, pour the Blix into it’s holding jug (I use a different one from the developer) and put the developing tank under the running water (watch the temperature) and let it run to clean the film, while you bottle the Blix. Remember the Blix will stain, so wipe up any drips and spills. Watch out for the chemical “aroma” from the Blix. WASH YOUR HANDS. Make sure that there is no left over chemical on your fingers and then you can sneak a peek at the film.

Now the stabilizer is going in, as you get a great view of the blix stain! This is why I advise you to ALWAYS use a towel.

It may well look a bit foggy and not at all have that characteristic orange tint we expect for C-41 color negatives. Don’t panic. Have faith that if YOU have followed all the instructions properly it’ll be fine. Let the wash finish as per the instructions and use the Stabilizer. No need to wash the stabilizer off, let the film dry in a warm, dry and dust free environment. The stabilizer should be the last liquid to touch the film; don’t wash it off. Hang the film up (after shaking off all the bigger drops) and as the stabilizer includes a detergent, it will also have the same effect as Fotoflow does in black and white processes. Bottle up the stabilizer and wash everything spotlessly clean and put it all away.

Back at the film, the negatives will clear as the strip dries and will appear much more orange. Once it has dried, you can cut the strip for storage again, as per black and white negatives and there is really no more to it than that.