A couple of years ago, a friend of mine asked if I would consider writing about how to process your own film at home. I told her it was easier than she imagined.
In the business, processing film is called “souping,” and you “soup” film, and say, “it’s in the soup.”
To process your own film, black-and-white or color, you need…
• The film itself. This is becoming a scarce commodity, and freshly-manufactured film is getting very expensive.
• A darkroom or a dark bag, sometimes called a film changing bag. This is essentially a place to transfer your exposed film, in total darkness, onto a spiral reel (in the case of roll film) or a film holder (in the case of sheet film) before immersing your film in developer.
• Reels or holders, tanks, and a way to wash the film in running water. There are two kinds of reels: stainless steel reels, which are harder to use but easier to keep clean, and plastic reels, which are easier to use but tend to accumulate developer stains that are hard to remove and potentially contaminate the process.
• Chemicals. This item tends to be the most intimidating for beginners, since it can seem like alchemy or magic, but it’s not. Photographic chemicals require careful handling, but if you can read and understand basic instructions, using them isn’t any more difficult than making cookies.
• Black-and-white darkroom chemistry is the simplest, since it requires only a few steps, and is usually done at room temperature. The chemicals include developer, stop bath, fixer, and water for washing, and in our hard-water environment, a wetting agent like Kodak’s Photo-Flo.
• Color negative processing, called C-41, can seem more intimidating, but the number of steps for color negatives is the same. The main issue with color is the need to tightly control temperature, usually at approximately 100ºF. When I processed color all the time, my processing tanks sat in a bigger tank full of water with a temperature control unit in it, which automatically kept everything at 100º. The chemicals include developer, blix (a combinations of bleach and fixer) and stabilizer. Processing color slides can be more daunting because there are more steps (around 12, depending on who you ask), but the principals all remain the same.
• Putting film onto developing reels might be the hardest part of the process. You can practice using an exposed roll of film with the lights on, then practice with the lights off. Despite this, many photographers new to film will experience difficulty with this.
• Once your film is wound onto the developing reels, it should be placed, in total darkness, in the developer. Most film processing tanks have traps at the top that allow you to pour chemicals into and out of them while maintaining a seal against light. One way to work this is to place the film on the reel, put the reel in the tank, then pour developer in through the trap.
• Follow the instructions that came with your film or chemicals, or you can find good time and temperature recommendations here (link).
• After thoroughly washing your film, you’ll need a way to dry it. If you don’t have a dedicated film dryer, you can use a blow dryer on a medium setting, but be careful not to stir up too much dust. It will cling to the film and be difficult to remove later.
A note about chemicals: in my decades of processing film in various shared darkrooms, I can tell you that many people don’t realize how easy it is to contaminate chemicals with everything from other chemicals to food. Many people don’t seem to understand that clear liquids in photography might not be water. They get it on their fingers and transfer it to other containers or onto film, never with good results.
Over the years I experimented with all kinds of combinations of film and chemicals. Some of my favorite black-and-white films were Kodak Verichrome Pan Film (which was discontinued decades ago) and Ilford FP4. My favorite developers for black-and-white were Kodak HC-110 and Kodak D-76, and I had a soft spot in my heart for a fine-grained developer called Microdol-X.
Finally, I am of the opinion that if you scan your photographic negatives once you have them processed, they become digital photographs, somewhat rendering the idea of using film in the first place a moot point. If you really want to remain true to the roots of film photography, the final step almost has to be printing your images with an enlarger.