Processing Film yourself - Part 6.

This is the last part of the “developing yourself”  series and deals with developing traditional black and white (B&W) film.

The biggest challenge and also therefore the biggest opportunity for the photographer with developing black and white (B&W) film themselves is that you can use a variety of chemicals and techniques to vary the result you get, whereas with color (C-41) negative film and also black and white C-41 film, the chemistry and process is supposed to be the same, no matter what. Oh sure, cross processing is well known and yes you can push and pull color film too, but the limits about what you can get away with before things start to get out of control tend to be much more restrictive than with the traditional B&W before the image quality suffers “too much”. At least that’s my view, and for sure, if I am not paying careful attention to time and temperature with C-41 the results certainly are less than optimal.

What do I mean by “traditional” B&W film? I mean Kodak Tmax or Ilford FP4+ are two well-known examples. These are films that are NOT designed to use C-41 processing, but can actually be developed in all sorts of chemical mixes and combinations. Just consider Cafenol and all its variations. Think about how you can develop things? Lots of agitation in a motorized drum, partial agitation in a small tank and stand development are just a few. Push processing to get more speed or pull processing to lower the speed, increased or lowered temperatures are also variations on a theme that B&W film can be subjected to so you get the result that works for the subject or effect you want. All this variation means that the possibilities are many, yet one other aspect of B&W (and also color) film processing is that before you dive in and experiment with these changes to the “regular” way of doing it, is that you should master the “regular” way first. As with my words earlier in the series about C-41 and getting things repeatable, the same is true for B&W. Unless you are going to experiment every time you develop a roll of film, I don’t think I could handle the ulcers waiting for the negatives to emerge each time, you will want to be absolutely practiced and confident in basic developing techniques and chemistry.

Speaking for me and me alone, I tend to use Kodak D76 or Ilford ID-11 and Kodafix as my basic B&W chemistry. These chemicals are easy to obtain from just about every photographic supplier and are cheap in price. Both are also somewhat less “aggressive” than C-41 Blix and while there can be some nasty brown stains from them, will probably do less damage than Blix if spilt. Opinions are divided about the need for a chemical stop bath and I use just plain water with good results. Whatever you choose to do, once you arrive at a process that works for you, you should stick with it.

Mixing the chemicals up into stock solutions is a process you should do following the instructions provided with them. I use gallon storage bottles of the same type as I mentioned in my C-41 articles. I also use filtered water and get all the powder dissolved and poured into the containers. Easy.

As with my C-41 process, I load the film in exactly the same way into my developing tank and the set-up for a developing session is about the same. Note that I use my big orange painters bucket as a part of the process here to contain my waste liquids… more about that in a moment. I dilute my developer and fixer chemicals into the measuring jugs 1 to 1. That is 50% water and 50% stock chemical and bring it up to temperature (68 to 70 degrees F is fine), which once you get a working process that is right for YOU, should be the same each time.

In goes a pre-wash of regular water for a minute. Agitate for a few seconds, tap to free air bubbles and leave until it gets to a minute. I dump it out into the bucket. This is because I am on a septic system at home and we are not connected to a city sewer system. I want to maintain the integrity of the bacteria in the septic tank as it all has a very important, if gross, job to do. I'm sure they enjoy doing it too!

Once the pre-wash water is out, in goes the developer. Agitate, tap as per the recommendations – you can find the routine for this that works for you and stick with it. Once the time (I leave the developer in for 7 minutes) is up, the now used developer gets dumped into the bucket.

Next the water “stop” bath gets poured into the tank. The idea here is to wash the film, so the developer is removed or any left in the tank is so diluted that it’s not going to affect the image. At about a minute, it gets poured into the bucket.

Now in goes the fixer. Same as with the developer regarding technique but usually it’s in for a longer time. Again, follow the timing and agitation recommendations that are either supplied with the chemicals or from the  blog site you are following. I’m going to say right now that I leave the fixer in for at least 6 minutes. More is often considered better for archival quality results. Modern films are fine with a little bit less and a lot of hysterical comments from “old timers” about “must leave it in for less than or much more than X minutes” (where X is equal to anything from 3 to 10), relate to film stock made before the 1990’s. Again, experiment a little to find what works for you. At the appointed time, it gets poured into the bucket.

I fill the tank with water and swirl it about a few times. This water has the most surplus chemical on it and gets dumped into my bucket. I do this another couple of times and so far nothing has gone down the drain. All that is about to change!

At this point, you can open the tank and take a quick look at the negatives if you like. They are quite safe in terms of being out in the light, but as the film is still wet, they are very susceptible to scratches, so be careful. I now wash the roll in the tank as if it was in a regular darkroom. I let the water flow from the faucet into the tank and overflow into the drain. It gets at least 10 minutes like this. I’ll empty the water out of the tank and let it wash again for at least another five minutes before I dump it out and let the water flow into it again. Don’t trust your nose to tell you if the roll is clean of all chemicals. It’s the last 5% you can’t smell that will destroy the roll of negatives after 15 years or so, just when you want to do some more printing from then. Some people do this washing cycle for several more times. I’m not sure if it needs all that amount of time washing, but more certainly can’t hurt.

Most cities or even counties in the USA have disposal sites for chemicals like this and some of the workers at my local one have even suggested that diluting things even further makes it safe for putting down into my septic tank, but I’m not going to do that. Whatever you find, if you can pour it down your sink drain and forget about it, consider yourself lucky.

My roll of processed negatives gets hung up just as my color negatives do to dry. I cut the roll up as with color negatives and they get stored in a binder until I am ready to go to the next stage, but that is another story entirely.

Back to Part 5