Are You Even a Film Photographer If You’re Not Processing Your Own Black and White?

Of course, any photographer who enjoys shooting film is just as much a film photographer as anyone else. Processing your own black and white, however, is a rite of passage for film photographers.

Why Shoot Black and White Film?

There comes a point for every photographer who tries film when they eventually shoot black and white. Yes, yes, I know: there are plenty of people who seem to exclusively shoot C-41 (color). For those that shoot black and white, they know that it can be addictive. Whether you prefer Ilford HP5+, Delta 100, Kodak Tri-X, T Max 100, or any other black and white film, there are so many more to choose from compared with color film stocks, and each of them has their own personality, so much so that you’ll likely find that there are stocks you like and prefer and those you don’t much care for. Similarly, everyone else has films that they like and those they don’t care for. The best part of all of it? Everyone has their own tastes and preferences, which really gives more opportunity for diversity.  

In addition, the black and white film feels transportive compared with color film stocks. For example, Kodak Tri-X has been around since 1954. Similarly, the current Ilford HP5+ evolved out of its original emulsion, which made its debut in 1935. Both of these examples have gone through updates to the emulsions, but at their core, they are still quite similar to their previous iterations. Other film stocks you can pick up today, like Fujifilm Neopan Acros II and T Max P3200, are new within the last couple of years, but are based on previously discontinued film stocks, and they still have a beautiful vibe to them. 

In addition, while the majority of C-41 and E-6 films are daylight balanced, black and white is not at all white-balanced, so you don’t have to worry about whether it’s sunny, cloudy, or anything else. That may not be as big of a deal where you live, but where I live in the Midwest, it is cloudy for several months out of the year, so black and white became my go-to until the sunny weather arrives. Similarly, color film can get quite saturated and may experience strange color shifts when it’s underexposed. Black and white film, as you can imagine, does not have any such issues. In fact, because it lacks color, you can really push the boundaries of what you can and cannot do. Lastly, and this is a big driver for many people, black and white film is considerably cheaper than color negative or slide film.  

Why Should You Process Your Own Film?

This question generally has one of two answers: it allows for a substantial amount more control over how your photograph looks and it is much cheaper than paying someone else to develop your film for you. I do appreciate having more control over the final product; however, I must say that what I find the most attractive is the ability to do it on the cheap. There are different developers, and all have their costs, but no matter what, it’s less expensive than mailing it out. I’ve found that I really enjoy using Rodinal, which, more than most other developers, can be diluted to such a degree that you would be genuinely shocked just how far you can stretch it. Next up on my list of developers to try is HC-110, which is similar to Rodinal in that it has a long shelf life and can process a ton of film. Though I’ve not yet used it myself, I’ve heard a lot of good things about it and know several photographers who swear by it. 

An additional benefit that I don’t usually hear from others but means a lot to me is how quickly you get your results. Most local labs that process C-41 won’t do black and white, and even if they do, it can take a while for them to get around to it or for them to collect enough film with similar processing requirements. If you’re into mailing your film off to a lab, you’re limited by the postal service and go into the back of the queue when the film arrives. When you process your film yourself, you can finish the processing usually within an hour of starting, and after a couple of hours of it drying, you can get to scanning. That is to say, you can easily shoot your film, process it, and scan it within the same day. There is absolutely no way you can do that when you’re working with a lab. 

How to Process Your Own Black and White Film

Before you get started, you’ll need a few tools:

  • Paterson Developing Tank (You can get a kit to get started doing two 35mm or one 120 rolls at a time or you can buy a larger tank and reels separately.)
  • Reels (I highly recommend this reel or any other one that has larger feeders at the beginning if you plan to shoot 120.)
  • Developer (I recommend Ilfotec DD-X, Kodak HC-110, or Rodinal.)
  • Stop Bath
  • Fixer
  • Film Retriever
  • Changing bag
  • Measuring cups
  • Pitcher for water
  • Plastic container to catch spent fixer
  • Optional but highly recommended: wetting agent, second pitcher to catch the developer and stop bath, gloves, and safety goggles. 

First things first, you need to have everything laid out and ready to go so that you’re not wandering around trying to locate your supplies for the next step as you need it (this includes loading your film on the reel and in the tank). The second step is to look up your developing time (the time for the stop bath and fixer doesn’t matter). For this step, I highly recommend looking at the film stock datasheet if your developer and film stock are from the same brand. If there’s a mismatch, you’ll need to look up the time online; I recommend the Massive Dev Chart. Once you’ve looked that information up, you’ll need to get your water in your pitcher and at the correct temperature. You can mix your chemicals up at the beginning, or as you go so long as you can make quick work of it. 

Once everything is set and laid out:

  1. Pour in the developer and agitate for 30 seconds
  2. At 1:50min, agitate for 10 seconds
  3. Repeat the process of letting the film rest for 50 seconds and agitating for another 10 seconds
  4. Once your total processing time has been reached, pour your developer into your second pitcher, which should be empty. Pour in your stop bath into the tank and agitate for one minute. Pour the spent stop bath into the second pitcher to render the developer inert. Following this, you can dilute this mixture to be extra cautious, but in the end, it can go down the drain. Finally, you need to apply the fixer. Follow the same instructions for developing at 5 minutes.

The fixer, unlike the developer and stop bath, needs to be collected separately and disposed of safely. Once you’re done with that, you just need to rinse the film. I prefer to use the method Ilford lays out, but you can really do it however you like so that you get all of the fixer off the film. If you picked up a wetting agent, make sure to use that on the very last rinse. After that, just hang up the film and let it dry! There’s a great short film by Ilford that outlines these steps along with the illustrations. If the film makes it seem too easy, it’s because it’s a very easy process. 

Conclusion

I’ll be the first to admit that getting started seemed a bit daunting. I remember saying for months that I was right on the cusp of getting started. I had processed a couple of rolls of 35mm at the College of Charleston when I was teaching statistics classes there years ago, but I had their lab tech right there with me to show me the ropes. With the time that had elapsed, I did not trust myself to remember all the steps of the process, which fed right back into my putting it off. Eventually though, I did give it a go, and by the time I had done two batches of film, I felt like a pro. It is so easy to do that upon reflection of that time, I really should have just tried it sooner.

Do you develop your own black and white? If you don’t, have you ever done it previously? I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments section.

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45 Comments
Christian Lainesse's picture

I'm a digital photographer, yet I don't write my own processing software.

Adriano Brigante's picture

Very flawed analogy. You use digital developing techniques and I use chemical developing techniques. The goal is the same, it's just different tools.

Also, it's funny that you say that, because I'm a film photographer, yet I'm writing my own piece of processing software :)

paul aparycki's picture

Back in the day . . . you are a photographer, or a darkroom tech . . . and that still holds true. I am an excellent tech in the darkroom and can make exquisite prints, but I don't, . . . I hire a very good lab . . . same with digital. I can't afford to sit for hours in front of a screen. I pay someone to do it.

Tamas Nemeth's picture

:D

James Madison's picture

Not sure that's an accurate analogy. I'm not suggesting people make their own B&W processing chemicals. haha.

I would think a more accurate comparison would be to digital photographers doing their own post processing rather than paying for a service to do it for them.

Christian Lainesse's picture

These days you still have to postprocess the scans of your negatives/prints if you want to show them online. In any case, I remember reading brouhahas about "pro" photogs who blamed others for editing "mistakes". That means they leave the postprocessing to others. I guess these guys are not real [film or digital] photographers? It's getting increasingly hard to tell.

Alex Kartashov's picture

I'd love to process my own film, however it is not easy (or cheap) to buy the equipment needed to regulate water temperature.
Not to mention I live in a desert area, dust is my life. Any film I'll put up to be dried will be covered in a layer so thick I could draw on it.

James Madison's picture

Regulating the temperature for processing B&W is no where near as important as when you're processing C41 or E6. I typically just get my pitcher of water at the correct temp and just roll with it. I don't know anyone who tries to do any more than that for B&W.

As for dust, could you hang it to dry in your bathroom? I hang mine in the shower and don't have any problems. Even my friends in Arizona can do this without a dust problem.

Alex Kartashov's picture

Thanks for the Bathroom tip.
I know that B&W is easier to develop, but I also have color film I'd like to work on. Is there any way to cheaply regulate water temperature?

James Madison's picture

An inexpensive sous vide works well for me when it comes to getting the chems to the correct temp. I just put them in the water about an hour before hand and check it before I move forward. That said, I rarely do C-41 or E-6.

Irene Rudnyk's picture

it's actually way cheaper to do your won processing and not as hard as everyone makes it to be. I do my own and I'm still a noob at film
Dust, not a big problem. My house is always messy and my film is fine, just give it a swig of swiffer duster before it goes into a scanner :)

Ludwig Hagelstein's picture

Try an anti static cloth or brush. Works wonders.

Roger Jones's picture

You can use a drying cabinet with a hair dryer and a filter. It's very easy to make and cheap. Or use plastic and Duck tape. As for water temp use a waterbed heater they stay at 68 degrees. I've been processing my own film sense 1970 and everything your talking about would cost around $25-$30 total, or less.
Enjoy

James Madison's picture

Ah! That's a good idea too.

Deleted Account's picture

Are you even a film photographer if you are not doing your own optical printing?

Your headline is perilously close to clickbait.

James Madison's picture

I'm in the midst of writing an article now on making wet prints! I'll try my best to adjust the title to one that doesn't bother as easily*

Howard Shubs's picture

Watching the image come up on photo paper under a safe light is something I miss.

Adriano Brigante's picture

You forgot the thermometer in the list of tools. ;)

Developing is even cheaper when you use stand (or semi-stand) development. It's basically the same process, except you increase the dilution by putting much less developer in the same amount water, and you let the film soak in it much longer. It's not suitable for all situations, like if you want to pull/push your film, but it gives very good results.

James Madison's picture

Oh snap! You're right! hahaha. Hopefully anyone who reads the article sees your comment as well!

I've not tried doing any stand developing. I'll try it at some point but I'm generally too impatient about waiting to see the film once I've started. haha

Ed C's picture

When I did shoot B&W film I did process it myself as well as loading the canisters from a bulk loader. I don't want to go back to it. Don't miss it at all.

James Madison's picture

To each their own. haha. I've not done any bulk loading. I want to try too many films too often to buy that much!

Roger Jones's picture

I did, so I went back. Digital is boring. The cameras doing everything for you.

Ed C's picture

Then that was your choice not to do it right. I choose my lens, my framing, set my ISO, set my shutter speed, Set my aperture and develop all RAWs with Capture One Pro.

James Madison's picture

Nice! Are you shooting 35mm or MF or LF?

JL Williams's picture

I think developing your own black-and-white film is like attending a Harlem Globetrotters game: Everybody should do it once — ideally when you're young and as the guest of someone else — but after that there's no need to do it again unless you really enjoy it.

Good reasons NOT to develop your own black-and-white film: You have kids. You have pets. You have sensitive skin. You don't have a suitable place to work. You don't have a lot of spare time. You don't like things that make a mess. You don't enjoy tedious, repetitive activities.You don't shoot enough black-and-white film to make it worthwhile.

Don't worry, you're still a photographer.

James Madison's picture

Harlem Globetrotters game, huh? haha

All those reasons are valid. I likely wouldn't do much own if any of those were the case for me. While it's not a necessity, I think it's a good thing to try for every film photographer. That said, I don't do any of my own C41 or E6.

Roger Jones's picture

"You don't enjoy tedious, repetitive activities" Sounds like digital PP

Roger Jones's picture

"You don't enjoy tedious, repetitive activities" Sounds like digital PP

Deleted Account's picture

I'm just glad the word Analog wasn't used!!!

Ludwig Hagelstein's picture

Sadly, the article is borderline misleading in many points. First, there is absolutely zero connection between developer and film brand. Even the times given on the box or the data sheet may vary, one of the most important variables is water hardness which can greatly influence developer activity and thus can lead to over and underdevelopment. Second, there is no "white balance for color film, and shots under cloud cover with CN film are correctly balanced because it's about spectral sensitivity. Third, black and white processes can be quite temperature critical, and temperature alters development times drastically and be very efficiently used to produce certain results on purpose. At least knowing the temperature is critical. Not even using a thermometer is just stripping yourself of control even further and doesn't help at all in understanding the processes at hand. Fourthly, the developing process you suggest is flawed as well: There are many approaches and methods, both in terms of agitation and other process values and some developers can be reused multiple times, while other developers might require safe disposal as well. Mixing it with stop bath merely renders the developer inactive, but not chemically "inert" whatever that may mean. Fixer, on the other hand is a reusable chemical as well.

Howard Shubs's picture

I've been doing this on and off since the late 1970s, mostly with Kodak chemistry. However, now I'm switching to all Ilford, all the time. Still using my Patterson system 4 tank, too.

Out if curiosity, why do you specify a Patterson tank? I mean, I agree with you, but I don't know what else is available, since my 40+ year old tank has been just fine.

Stefab Hibner's picture

C-41 is regular developing process - not for colour exclusively.

Ludwig Hagelstein's picture

No, it's for color negatives only. You can cross process slide film in C-41 and will get a negative yes, but you can't process black and white film in C41 chemistry, at least not in a full C41 process cycle.

Max Duguay's picture

This is a really interesting read, especially as BW processing is so expensive at my lab. How do you go about scanning your photos afterwards though? I find the scans to be very convenient from my lab. Thanks!

Jon Winkleman's picture

Do you consider Robert Mapplethorpe a “real film photographer”? He did not develop his own film. In fact many famous photographers hired master printers who are masters of darkroom processes to process and print. Film photographers should absolutely be encouraged to learn how to develop so they better understand the medium. The headline and premise of the article are overstated and insulting to the many talented photographers who have let others develop their images

J S's picture

Disposing of fixer is not easy for many folks to do and it's a big barrier to home film development for a lot of people.

Rhonald Rose's picture

Yes, I still am a still photographer. Post processing is not a requirement for photography and it depends on the shooter. Outsourcing post processing does not make someone not a film photographer.

Andrew Urban's picture

once upon a time i developed many a black and white rolls as a student. started with developing them in the lab at school then purchased the necessary tools and chem to develop at home so i could maximize my time printing in the lab... but that was well over a decade ago. now, i ain’t got time for that. i will say that it if you have the means and the time, do it! gaining a new skill set and furthering your knowledge of the photographic arts is always a good thing. but now a days, my film workflow goes something like this... shoot, drop off at the lab (develop only, no cut), cut & sleeve at home, make digital contact sheets on the light table, make selects, scan selects (archival linear scans via silverfast & canoscan 9000f markii), invert and color grade in capture one pro.

Dave Palmer's picture

I've got an old 1960s ish Polaroid SX-70. Does sixty seconds under my armpit count as processing?

Roger Jones's picture

I went back to shooting film and processing my own B&W and printing my images in the darkroom. I'll do color later. Digital is soooooo boring. You don't have to know anything the camera does it all for you or the program does it. For most people 3-4 clicks of the mouse and WALLA!! instant professional prographer. I do use digital for snapshots and pretty flowers, but for my serious work I shoot film mostly B&W, I find it sells better, and I feel like I've accomplished something. I also mix my own chemicals as well both for film and prints. In the past, say 3-4 years ago I helped write PP programs for digital camera companies, to help make it easy for people to use, and for profit. With software the profits are in the continues cost of the new updates, and programs. Say for example having to pay for the cloud, and you cannot buy the program out right on a CD or whatever so you own it, to reuse over and over. I love the royalties I get. Anyway each his own, but if you haven't tried processing on your own B&W film, give it a go, you may like it, and get hooked, oh honey I converting the garage into a darkroom. Oh ya, by the way I been in the business 48 years, you may even use some of the software I worked on.
Have fun, be safe, and enjoy.

iris-imaging's picture

I shot B&W for 25 years and processed my own personal film, shooting mostly Kodak Tri-x 400 for over 20 years. I also had business developing retinal images at night sometimes 20 rolls in a rack that held up 36 rolls in rubber Kodak tanks that I had to constantly agitate. Unless you are doing something unique like making your own developer it is a pain in the ass.

My love was creating the print, It is a lovely art especially when you get beyond the basics. There are a lot of ways to work an image with a developer. The chemicals were hard on my hands, created a chlorine gas once cleaning a tray and it took years for hands to heal.

I like digital photography I shoot a hell of a lot more images and instant results. Now I spend the time processing images in photoshop some things that would take hours, days, or weeks to do are mere keystrokes.

Douglas Goodhill's picture

Amen about making the fine print!

Owain Shaw's picture

"Back in the day" at school and university, I developed and printed black and white (and printed colour too, though not as much as I could/should in hindsight) 35mm and 120. Having access to a darkroom was fantastic.

Since then, I've moved around a lot (including countries) and live in rented accommodation. A developing tank, mixing tubes, and bottles of chemicals as well as a scanner are extra things to move and find space to house - and often space and storage is tight. This, added to the fact that I mostly use colour now means that I'm happy to outsource for the moment. When I settle down and get my own place, I can definitely see there being a darkroom though.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Hmmm...let me see. For about 60 years I was loading film, taking photos and, at times, developing my own until I got too busy. I DO remember taking photos for different companies and getting paid for it (a novel idea). I also remember plenty of photojournalists taking photos and sending the rolls to their newspapers, etc. I believe they also got paid. So....yeah, I suppose you could say that I and the rest are photographers. By the way, when you finally felt sufficient at processing and developing film at the college, did they give you a certificate or degree declaring you are now an official film processor/developer?
Processing and/or developing film is just that - processing and/or developing film. Try not to confuse it with the 'process' of being a photographer.
PS. When I want critical editing, I do my own work.

Douglas Goodhill's picture

Your comment about b&w emulsions is misleading, especially if you are a beginner (my experience is 50+). The differences are to subtile when use correctly. The big difference in films (and chemicals) are access. Use what you can buy locally, if you are lucky enough to have one.