Skill Acquisition: Developing Film

So, I finally did it. I started developing my own black-and-white film.

It’s difficult to express the feeling I had pulling that first roll of photo negatives off the reel and seeing the images in the light—it’s a little inane, but it actually felt unbelievable, like it couldn’t be possibly be real that I had carried these images all the way from real life to the tiny facsimiles in my hand.

After all, I’m just the guy who presses the button for the shutter release, aren’t I? I’m not the magician behind the counter at the camera shop who makes my images real, so how could I be capable of this magic?

But I am, now—and the weirdest part? It was easy.

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The journey leading up to this is a long story for another time, but it suffices to say that I had been shooting film without really know what I was doing for a few years before a friend of mine gave me a roll of Fuji Acros 100 and then home developed it for me. He told me that the process for developing black-and-white film was relatively simple, and if I spent about $50 on a small setup that I’d be able to do it my bathroom.

Depending on who you are, that information is either insane (“You can really do that? Without a darkroom?”) or exceptionally basic (“Um, yeah dude, I’ve been developing B&W since I was a fetus…”). In any case, I didn’t have the money outright—college, am I right—and I shelved the idea altogether, returning to it every year or so just to put it off again.

That is, until about a month ago. My first roll was fraught with excitement and dread. I’d read stories of how “everyone ruins a roll when they start out,” and given my less-than-stellar grade in high school chemistry, I thought I would be in that camp as well.

In the first draft of this post, I had written out a long list of supplies and where to get them, followed by step-by-step instructions of how I started, but truthfully? That list was boring, and that information can be found in abundance by people way more qualified than I am.

For the interested: If you’re a visual learner like me, I recommend Eduardo Pavez Goye’s and Matt Day’s YouTube tutorials on black-and-white film developing. Goye’s is especially useful to me because it is the “brute method” (his words), discarding exact precision in favor of a more fun, easy-going process. Day’s tutorial is more precise, perhaps less so than Ted Forbes’s video, but still easily consumable. I watched all three of these guides about 10 times apiece for a while before I actually started.

Of course others’ will vary with individual preference, but my process is a healthy balance between the down-to-the-second precision of the more traditional guides and the experimental nature of the Goye’s brute method. I, for example, opt to use clips instead of hanging film from the front of a bookshelf, unlike Goye. But unlike the more traditional guys, I find no need to use distilled water or stop bath. Part of the reason why I’m able to use the brute method is that, like Goye, I use Kodak D-76 developer, which is a very forgiving developer.

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The problem with some of the more traditional, detailed film developing guides out there is that they don’t take into account that most of the time, for beginners developing a few rolls a month with basic chemicals, small variations in time or temperature aren’t going to sink the whole roll. As long as you’re aware of what you’re doing, a warmer developing temperature (72°F instead of the recommended 68°F) won’t matter that much, as long as you adjust your developing time accordingly. But for all the language about precision being paramount in developing film, I haven’t been all that careful about everything being perfect, and I’ve yet to have a roll of film come out even remotely unacceptable.

But that’s enough technical talk; back to me and the first roll in my apartment bathroom. The process is so familiar to me now even after a couple months, but that first time was torture. How do I know I wasn’t messing it all up? What if I pulled the film off the developing reel only to find out that all of the images had disappeared? What if I didn’t use the right chemical proportions? What if the temperature was wrong?

Paranoia gripped me as I went through the necessary steps of what feels like a ritual to please the unseen photography deity: pouring and waiting and agitating and waiting and pouring back, rinsing and rinsing and rinsing and rinsing…

The moment arrived. I pulled reel out of the tank. For a moment I saw nothing, just murky brown. A sinking feeling, like I had flown too close to the sun, like I was falling…
But then I saw the rectangles appear on the roll. I hastily pulled the film off the reel and examined the images. Here I saw my girlfriend at our dining room table, there another portrait of her sitting by the window, there again our friend at her own apartment.

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Somehow, I’d done it. And I’ve kept doing it, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop.

A lot of the time people talk about photography in terms of digital and analog, about how film photography is either dead or isn’t, but in my eyes the two are almost completely separate art forms, and neither one is more legitimate than the other. Just because we have Adobe Illustrator doesn’t mean that painting is dead, does it? (This is about to get real pretentious, so if a millennial waxing poetic over why analog mediums are great, divert your eyes. But also, why are you even reading this?)

Just as there will always be painters, and people reading real books, and people invested in creating physical objects instead of digital ones, we will have analog photography.

But it’s strange: In a way not unlike digital photography, developing your film presents you with ownership over the photographs. Where it diverges is in the feel of the process—because you took the film the whole way, with no sensor taking up the image and imposing its own mask, the images are deeper, more imbued with meaning, more yours. No one at the counter handing your negatives back to you with their editorial mark already stamped on the pre-edited scans or prints in the envelope. Just you and your eye, the ritual with the bottles of chemicals and some silver-halide crystals doing all the work.

Alright, that was a fun few paragraphs to write. Truthfully, though, learning this had a profound and unexpected result in my photography. I didn’t think something would change in me the way that it has since I started developing, but now that I feel this sense of ownership, I find it difficult not to bring a camera with me everywhere I go. (There is also an economic factor to this; if I can develop a roll of film for next to nothing except the cost of the roll, what’s the harm in a few throw-away shots?) It’s practically like I’ve been reborn, and all I ever want to do is shoot and develop and shoot and develop.

Up next, color? Maybe in the spring. But for now, fall is here and monochrome is king, and I’ll let the guy at the counter handle my color film.

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