This posting is all about answering this question: "What kind of gear do you need to process your own negatives?"
The short answer is that for both B&W and C-41, you need pretty much the same kind of gear. Some people stress over having two different sets of gear, one for B&W and one for color to avoid "cross contamination" and while I can see that as a valid worry, if you are on a tight budget, you don’t need to go to that expense. Good, comprehensive washing techniques that you can develop (sorry about the pun) into a habit will cover you in this regard.
Throughout this short series, you’ll see that I am using the same gear for both types of processing and while I do have more than one set of most things, I’m going to show solidarity with the budget guys out there.
I see no point in discussing how to use a $1000 machine if only two other people have them. I'll be using the same, relatively cheap and accessible items and recommending you buy the minimum you need. You should budget to spend about $150 on everything and the only consumables are the chemicals, which come as a kit and are no more than about $25 once every 10 or 12 rolls developed.
The first thing to consider is the location. Without a really nice darkroom, out of the way of pets, children, the wife and with lots of running water and ventilation your results will always be terrible and you will leave nasty smelling stains on EVERYTHING!
Is this a cue for the Mythbusters TV show? You bet your life it is.
This is Myth Busting time and it is 100% absolutely: BUSTED!
You will need a sink and have access to hot and cold running water and often will run a fan but it’s not essential. In fact, when I was a teenager and before I had access to some really nice darkrooms at school and college (now we are talking the late 1960’s and early 1970's here), my mother told me not to even think of using her nice shiny clean sink for this "chemical stuff". I learned to process film (B&W in fact) using buckets of water in the back yard. It’s not the most convenient way of getting the job done, especially if it’s too hot or too cold for the process – or it’s raining (don’t ask), but it is possible.
While the best practice is indeed to have a "proper" darkroom, but like me, you can use the kitchen sink. Mine is a steel sink, the porcelain ones are much more likely to stain! Be careful.
My set up is simple. I clear a space next to the sink of everything food related and spread out some old towels. Have a nice, flat surface so you reduce the risk of tipping something over. Place a towel on the floor to take up any splashes is another good precaution to preserve domestic bliss and I also throw these towels into the washing machine as soon as I am done, so they are always ready for the next "session".
Again; You should move or cover up everything food related. Use lots of towels to ensure you don't ruin something when (not if) you splash some chemical and preserve the domestic harmony we all so desire.
However, I am getting a little bit ahead of myself. Your location is one very important thing, but you won’t need it until you actually process the film.
Getting the chemicals and gear first of all is essential as unless you live in New York City or close to a well stocked film camera store (in this day and age a rare thing indeed), this means mail order. Read what follows and then draw up a list of supplies to get.
Starting with the chemicals, I will be using the Tetenal Press Kit (about $24 from B&H or Adorama in New York) or the Unicolor kit ($19 from Freestyle) and interestingly, apart from the printing on the box, both kits are identical... Hmm.. Obviously, you will find shipping costs and possibly tax has to be added, so I'll let you work out where best to buy these from.
They are shipped inside a cardboard box and inside the box the chemicals are a dry powder contained in sealed foil bags. Do I have to tell you not to open the bags until you are ready to mix up the stock solutions?
Now a serious word of warning: Do NOT whatever else you do, be tempted to use food containers to store chemicals. In some countries doing so is actually illegal. WOW!
By not using proper containers, you’ll also risk small children thinking that this is a bottle of soda or the liquids leaking out and staining everything and also shortening the life of the stock solution greatly. Just don’t do it. Spend the few dollars involved on decent containers specially made for photographic chemicals.
For C-41, I use three of the dark brown plastic 1 liter chemical storage bottles that the better film photo suppliers (mentioned above) carry for storing stock solutions.
Here is a link to them:
The cost is under $4 each and there are other designs (like the ones that collapse to keep the air out and they cost a little bit more), but go with whatever works for you and your budget. You’ll need three of them.
Now before anyone asks, I know that these hold just UNDER one liter (32, not 33 ounces). While I am sure there is a good story about why these are a little bit less than an absolute correct amount, I don't know what it is. Sorry. You might be able to get true 1 liter versions in the EU or elsewhere, but as far as I can tell, it’s next to impossible here in the USA.
For use when it comes to B&W, I use different stock solution storage bottles. I use the one gallon (128 ounce) version of these bottles. Here is the link to them:
The cost for these is just over $5 each, but I only actually need two. I'll cover this in more depth latter. Still not too much of a bank account strain, is it?
What about a good thermometer? You need to spend between $10 and $20 on one. I used to use the classic glass tube/mercury design but a year ago and for another project unrelated to photography, I picked up a $15 electronic or infra-red beam one that looks like a pistol grip from eBay. It is as accurate as I could ever want (to within half a degree as far as I am able to test), and with a little care, so I am aiming the beam at the liquid and not the container, it seems to work just fine.
Whatever you choose to use (I still have both types of thermometer but use the electronic one mostly now), will be fine, just make sure it is as accurate as possible in the 60 to 110 degrees F range.
There is a growing trend for pound or dollar stores (often called by different names depending on your local currency), but you can get almost all the rest of the jugs and measuring tools you’ll need from them. I got a collection of cheap $1 plastic measuring jugs (they have all sorts of measures printed on the side up to 500ml) as well as a glass one for $3. Get three or four in total.
What else do you need? You might find it useful to get a Measuring Graduate... I use one for making sure I am diluting my B&W developer properly (one part dev to one nine parts water for example), but there is no need for it with C-41. I'll let you look about online for one when the time comes for that.
My wife has a collection of plastic storage tubs and while I could use one as a water bath to heat the chemical bottles, I don’t want her to think that I am using "her stuff", so I got my own! A few dollars from the dollar store again and make sure its deep enough so you can submerge your bottles in it. They can go in on their side, so it doesn't have to be all that deep. On the subject of water baths, how to control the temperature of the water?
A tropical fish tank water heater that goes up to at least 105 degrees is ideal, but for the ultra budget start-up process, no, you don't need one. If you do want one, go ahead but you'll bust my $150 target for the initial budget.
Now to store everything when not in use. I got a 5 gallon "orange" painters bucket from Home Depot (and it gets used for used chemicals in B&W but more about that latter in the series), as well as the space underneath my sink in the bathroom. Easy! I store the 1 liter bottles in the bucket between developing "sessions" along with a lot of the other plastic/glass wares.
Now we get to the expensive stuff, thankfully all of it is one time or relatively rare purchases; You’ll need a changing bag and a developing tank.
A good changing bag, made out of two thick layers of solid material, with tight elastic at the arm holes is a great thing to have. You'll be able to sit there in front of the TV and able to share "quality" time with the family while you curse and wrestle, trying to load the films onto the spiral of the tank. If you have never done this before, its very much a right of passage that you get it wrong a few times and doing that while distracted by your favorite TV show is essential.
I purchased the Patterson one from B&H:
They are available from other vendors and should cost anything from $20 to $25.
I got my first developing tank used, from a local school that was selling them as they were no longer teaching about film on arts courses. It cost me $5. Funny thing is that within a year, they ended up buying a whole new darkroom set up as the demand for "art" related photography (meaning film) came right back! Who would have guessed it?
Since then, I also purchased new a Patterson "Super System 4" two reel tank which can handle 120 or 35mm film.
At nearly $27. That is probably the single most expensive item of all you will need to purchase!
Does it have to be THIS tank? No. The aluminum ones work the "other way round" to the plastic ones and some people swear by and at them. I'm not going to takes sides over this as they all "work". Whatever design is good for you is good for me.
So what else to buy? Look around for the best "archival" storage bags or binder sheets that the negatives will go into when they are dry. About $10 for a packet of 25 pages of storage is it.
Do you need the special weighted clips to ensure the film dries as flat as possible? No. Clothes pins (clothes pegs to my UK friends), work just as well, as do Bulldog clips. There. I just saved you from spending $6 per clip on eBay.
Do you need rubber gloves and chemical proof smocks or even hazmat masks and suits as some commentators would have you think?
Is this a cue for the Mythbusters TV show again? You bet your life it is. This is Myth Busting time and the result is: PLAUSIBLE.
I cannot tell you that not using any kind of protective gear is the way to go, as some people are indeed very sensitive to the chemicals and just cannot handle the liquids involved. Only YOU know if this means you.
If so, then the answer is yes - get the protective gear, otherwise, it's up to you.
If you have never done any photographic development yourself before, you might like to get some lightweight rubber gloves if nothing else and putting some really old clothes to one side for this. Until you know how or even if you will react to the chemicals, you won't know if you do need anything else. I personally don’t find any problems with these chemicals whatsoever! If you are nervous or worry about skin irritation, then go ahead, take all the precautions you are comfortable with – whatever balance works for you is the right one. The "Whatever works for you" mantra is kind of how it is. I cannot tell you what works for you, just know that it will take all sorts.
I also have a small double sided rubber squeegee to wipe away excessive liquid from the negatives once the process is complete, but it cost me nothing at a yard sale.
There is also an argument for putting on thin cotton gloves (no talcum powder please), whenever you handle the negatives for loading onto the spools or into storage bags or when scanning. Again, I'll leave that decision to you, but you would not be considered a "Whacko" if you did that.
In the next part of this short series, I’ll cover basic chemical handling and mixing up the chemicals into stock solutions, and I’ll also cover getting the film out of the canister or off the spool and into the light tight developing tank.