How To Develop Film At Home: A Simple Step-By-Step Guide

Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 30 September 2022

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While digital cameras are convenient for both amateur and professional photographers, developing film can be an exciting and unique way to take pictures. If you have an interest in the analog photographic process, you can learn about how to use a darkroom to develop film. By understanding the technology of film development, you can master the art of projecting negative images on light-sensitive photo papers to create fascinating film photographs. In this article, we discuss how to develop film in a darkroom in analog photography and become technically proficient in this vintage photographic process.

How to develop film

Because learning how to develop film is a complicated process, it can be beneficial to start by developing black and white photographs. You can use a film that is made of thin, transparent plastic and coated on one side with a gelatin emulsion containing light-sensitive silver halide crystals. Every time the camera takes a photograph, a latent image gets imprinted into the emulsion. The following steps can show you how to develop film:

1. Assemble the film processing tools

Aside from the 35mm film that is ready for processing, you require specific equipment and materials that you can purchase online or from a speciality photography shop. These tools include a developing tank, film reels, changing bag, chemicals, measuring vessels and storage bottles. You may also need a thermometer, scissors, film clips, a bottle opener and tap or distilled water.

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2. Mix the film processing chemicals

The chemicals you need for developing film are a developer, a stop bath and a fixer. You can buy these in liquid or powder form, use a measuring beaker or cylinder to get exact quantities and mix them. If any extra chemicals remain, you can store them in neatly labelled opaque plastic bottles. Handle them carefully as they can be toxic.

Dilute the mixed photography chemicals in water as per the manufacturer's instructions. You can use tap water for it, but distilled water might be a better choice. Tap water may have a high mineral content that can leave mineral spots on the film. Generally, the water has to be at a set temperature, and you can heat or cool it to bring it to the required 20 degrees Celsius.

3. Use the changing bag for film transfer

Unless you have a proper darkroom for developing film, it's best to have a changing bag to transfer the film from the canister. First, place the film canister, developing tank, bottle opener and scissors into the changing bag. Zip it up to ensure complete darkness when transferring the film from the canister into the developing tank to ensure there is no exposure to light.

4. Remove the film from the canister

In the changing bag, open the film canister using your fingers or the bottle opener and remove the film roll. Make sure that you only touch the edges of the roll. With the scissors, cut off the extra film at the start of the film roll. This portion is known as the film leader.

5. Fit the film into the film reel

Place your film inside a film reel for easier processing in the developing tank. The reel allows the chemicals in the tank to come into contact with the entirety of the film surface. You can use a plastic or metal reel and feed the film into it. If you are a beginner, you may find it easier to load the film on a plastic reel than on a metal one.

Start by finding the two reel nubs and slide the film into the reel entry point. After pushing a few inches of the film into the reel, you can pull the remaining film into it by twisting the reel's sides back and forth. Get all the film into the reel and use scissors to cut off the hanging spool at the end of the film roll. Then you can twist the reel sides a few more times to pull the film end into it.

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6. Put the film reel into the developing tank

The developing tank is a container that keeps out light and which you use for processing the film. It has a post at the bottom, and you can slide the central hole of the film reel into this. Twist the tank's funnel cap into place to seal it tightly. After you are sure no light can enter the developing tank, you can safely remove it from the changing bag.

7. Add the chemical developer to the developing tank

Pour the developer into the developing tank until the liquid reaches the top. Replace the lid and tap the tank bottom several times on a solid surface to remove the air bubbles around the film. For the next 30 seconds, agitate the tank by shaking it repeatedly in a twisting motion right side up and upside down. Use a timer to get the correct time. Then tap the tank again on a solid surface to remove air bubbles.

Repeat the agitation process for 10 seconds every minute for the duration of the specified development time. You can pour the developer out of the tank. If it is reusable, pour it into an opaque plastic bottle. Otherwise, let it go down the drain.

8. Pour the stop bath into the developing tank

The stop bath halts the effects of the developer to prevent the photo film from getting too dark. Pour it into the developing tank, set the timer for 30 seconds and agitate the tank for that time. Let the developing tank sit still for the next 30 seconds. You can pour out the stop bath from the tank afterwards.

9. Pour the fixer into the developing tank

The fixer holds the image in place during film processing. It dissolves and removes the unexposed silver halides crystals in the film, which makes the image both permanent and resistant to light. After this process, the film cannot react further to light, and the chemicals on the film do not alter any further. After you pour the fixer into the developing tank, agitate it for 30 seconds. Then shake it right side up and upside down every minute for the next five minutes.

Pour the fixer from the developing tank into an opaque plastic bottle for reuse. It is possible to reuse the fixer up to three times in film processing. The film is now developed and ready for washing.

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10. Wash the film with water

Hold the developing tank under running tap water for five minutes to wash the developed film. Pour the tap water out of the tank and add a wetting agent to it. Let the wetting agent remain in the tank for around 30 seconds. It can prevent watermarks from forming on the film as it dries. It is best to avoid agitating the tank while the wetting agent is in it. The wetting agents tend to foam when agitated, and the foam may impede the proper processing of the film.

11. Open the developing tank and remove the film

After opening the developing tank, carefully remove the film from the film reel. What you now have is the negative film. Check if there is any excess water on it. You can gently sponge the film to absorb all of it. You can also buy a specially made film squeegee for the purpose.

12. Dry the film negatives in a dust-free place

In a dust-free room, hang up the film negatives using a string, hangers or a curtain rod. Fix them in place with film clips and weigh down the bottom of each negative with a small object to prevent the film from curling. Leave the negatives to dry completely. The process may take several hours. While the film is drying, it may look like it has a sticky substance on it, and it may even warp. It is essential to avoid touching the film or wiping off the substance since these developments are a normal part of the drying process.

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13. Cut and scan the film negatives

After the filmstrip is dry, you can cut it into smaller sections. Using a film scanner, you can scan these film negatives to create raw digital files of your photographs. If you do not own a film scanner, have the negatives scanned in a photo lab. You can then edit the digital files as required on the computer.

Tips for developing film

The following tips may help you more effectively develop film:

  • Learn to process black and white film first. Working with colour film is more complicated, so you may benefit from becoming proficient first in black and white film development.

  • Wear an apron, gloves and safety glasses when working with the toxic film processing chemicals.

  • Store negatives in protective plastic sleeves in ring binders or paper envelopes of archival quality.

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