Observation, meditations and interpretation through imagery and occasional words.
I shoot digital and analog, 35mm and medium format, usually black and white film which I develop myself.

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Back to the Future on Flickr. More about my black and white film workflow (you, too, can try this at home)

Various people online and in real life have expressed some interest in how I process film photographs. You should skip the rest of this if that doesn’t resemble you…

When I decided to start shooting and developing film again, I wanted to come up with a “low overhead” approach, minimizing working space, hazardous materials, environmental controls, storage, and that was manageable without major household disruptions. What you see above is most of what you need to process 35mm or 120 roll film. I don’t have room for an enlarger and trays, so this all applies to a mixed analog / digital workflow in which the film is developed then scanned for digital post processing.

Here’s the list of what I use for chemistry:

1 - Paterson universal tank
1 - 6 ml measuring syringe (can get from pharmacy, in the baby section)
1 - lab thermometer (get a real one, they’re inexpensive and important)
2 - 1000ml measuring beakers (could also use regular water pitchers)
1 - large changing bag (could also use a dark closet)
1 - 35mm film opening tool (could use a bottle opener)
1 - 64oz chemical storage bottle
2 - metal film clips (could also use office binder clips)

You also need actual chemicals, I started with a small bottle of HC-110 and TF-5. Also Photoflo, which is optional.

If you want to try this yourself, which I encourage, the total start up cost to purchase everything new is about $150 from Freestyle, B+H, Adorama, or your local photo store if you still have one. If you get used items on eBay or a local thrift shop it will cost less; the chemistry itself is about $35 and will last for between 50 and 100 rolls.

For working space, you’ll need something with a sink and a flat surface. A few square feet in the vicinity of your bathroom sink would work. You’ll also need a flat dry surface to cut the film afterwards, like a table or desk. For storage, you’ll need a milk crate sized box.

I use HC-110 for a combination of versatility (use different dilutions for different results), storage life (essentially infinite), and relatively low toxicity / environmental impact (about as dangerous as household cleaners, only needs 4 to 10 ml of concentrate per roll). The syringe is used to measure small quantities of developer which is mixed up fresh for each batch. It’s liquid, so there’s no powders to measure or mix or get into the air. I process everything at room temperature, which means it goes up and down depending on the weather. So for each batch, measure the water temperature, and adjust the developing time. There are various formulas available online, and keeping good notes is also useful. Filmdev is a good place to look for what combinations of film, developer, time, and agitation other people have used.

TF-5 is a modern rapid fixer, which doesn’t require an acid stop bath for film, is also very stable in working solution, and which doesn’t have the classic darkroom odor (basically odorless, unless it’s about to go bad). The fixer chemistry itself isn’t particularly dangerous, but used fixer goes to the local hazardous waste drop off, because it’s full of silver which kills off “good” bacteria in the sewage treatment system. You can mix a half gallon of working solution and store it in the storage bottle at some point before processing your first batch, you will be reusing it, and it will last for around 30+ rolls of film.

The actual end-to-end processing time for a roll of film ranges from 45 to 90 minutes from start to finish, including getting things out of storage, loading film into the tank, mixing chemicals, developing, water stop, fix, wash, hang up the negatives, and putting everything away again. HC-110 at standard dilutions takes only 5-10 minutes of developing time, so the fix / wash time is often much longer than the developing itself. I use the “Ilford” method of washing, which requires less water, but requires that you actively agitate the tank (as opposed to letting water run through the tank for a while). Used fixer goes back in the storage bottle to be used another day. I keep a log of how many rolls have been processed, but you can also test it with a small piece of exposed film such as the film leader.

An interesting alternative method is “stand development”, in which a highly diluted developer is used, with minimal agitation, and left untouched for the duration, typically an hour or so. You should be using this method because you want the look that comes with stand development, but it also has the useful attribute that once you’ve put the solution in the tank, you can go away for a fairly long time. This means that you can spend 10-15 minutes getting everything set up, then go away and have dinner or do something with your family, as long as you come back at more or less the right time (stand development is also relatively insensitive to small changes in developing time, just don’t move the tank).

I soak the film in Photoflo before hanging it to dry, it helps reduce water spots and streaking on the negatives. I don’t use a squeegee or fingers to wipe off water, Photoflo is sort of like dishwasher drying agent and helps the water run off on its own. After a couple of minutes in Photoflo, I hang the film from a rod above the shower. (Showers tend to have fairly low dust and low foot traffic.) You need at least 5 feet of vertical clearance for a 36-exposure roll of film. 120 film or 24-exposure rolls only need about 3 or 4 feet respectively. At this point you get your first look at the results. As long as the film isn’t completely black or completely clear, you now have some sort of image to look at. Hooray!

Most of the time I process film in the evening and let it dry overnight. In our household I need to plan on getting the film out of the shower in the morning, so this usually works out to at least 8 hours of drying time. When I take the film down, I take it to a clean table and cut it into strips for scanning and storage. Film doesn’t go into the storage sleeves until after scanning, though, as it’s easy to scratch while it’s still got a little moisture left in it.

I use a Canoscan 9000F Mark II scanner. These have a built in backlight for film scanning, and can accomodate both 35mm and 120 film. The absolute quality of the scan isn’t quite as good as the Plustek 8200 I used to use, but it is still very good, and it can scan 10 35mm frames or 3 medium format frames at a time without intervention. (The Plustek required moving the film holder manually for each frame.) It’s also inexpensive, about $150 new, under $100 used.

I don’t try to optimize the scan to make it look best. Instead I try to retain the maximum tonal and feature detail in the scanned image for post processing. This means moving the white, black, and contrast to spread the levels across the full range, and turning off any built in noise reduction, spot removal, and sharpening. I usually scan to TIFF format at 3600+ dpi. Disk storage is cheap, and I’m often interested in preserving film grain and edge effects. I use pec pads to clean the scanner before each batch, and also use a rocket blower on each set of negatives. I have an anti-static brush and Tetenal also, but have never needed these on newly developed film.

Scanning a roll of film at high resolution takes around an hour on my setup, but you only need to manually intervene 3 or 4 times per roll. Again, this means that you can go do something else, like take a shower, get coffee, have breakfast, or run the batch in pieces as you come and go during the day.

I process and archive everything using Lightroom. As a minimum I start by adjusting black, white, contrast, and look for dust spots to remove. There are always dust spots, even if you wipe down everything. After that, I’m not a purist about post processing film but will tend to stick with things I could have done in an analog print process - crop, rotate, dodge, burn, vignetting, gradients, and limited blurring and sharpening. It’s much easier, faster, repeatable, and doesn’t burn through piles of work prints. It also means that in theory I could use the digital version of a given “print” and construct a similar result through an analog printing process with the original film negative.

This isn’t the only or the best workflow for all purposes, but it can produce a wide range of great results without taking over your home or all of your spare time. If you’ve ever considered breaking out a film camera and processing some black and white film yourself, it can be done with very little equipment, space, and no home remodeling or lifestyle changes, so give it a try!

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