When I got back into film, the idea of developing my own film was always present. And I had all intentions of doing this a long time ago. Heck, I bought most of the supplies to do it by the end of 2020. But it took until right about now for me to actually go through with it.
Like a lot of DIY stuff, sometimes I get lazy. I know, it’s more satisfying when you do it yourself. Believe me, as someone who has been involved in DIY culture for a quarter-century, I get it. And there’s the whole rugged Self-Reliance thing ingrained in the (white) American psyche, especially here in the west. But sometimes I don’t want to futz with things, even if it’s a simple repair job on my bike. And I don’t ever envision myself as one of those home improvement mavens, taking down walls, rewiring houses, etc. Sometimes I want to give someone else money to do the thing, especially if it’s a good local business.
And here’s another thing: Portland has made me spoiled when it comes to film photography. If I lived in a place with no local labs I would be a lot more motivated to home develop. But Portland has four film labs, the closest only two miles from my house. Not only that, for color I can still get next day processing, even on a weekend.
But the continuously escalating prices of film 1 has gotten me to think of ways to save some money. Home processing is cheaper, once you do enough to offset the initial purchase of certain materials, like developing tanks and scanners. And while I can get color processed within 24 hours, black-and-white can take up to a week or so. If I want to see a quicker return on monochrome images, home developing is the way to go.
Last week I had the house to myself. I figured that this would be the best time to give home developing a try: No one would be in my way and hanging rolls to dry in the shower wouldn’t cause protests. I dug out all the materials and gave it a go.
Back when I bought all my home developing supplies I got the basic Ilford/Paterson starter kit. This has all you need to start, minus a “dark bag” for loading film or a scanner for converting to jpgs. But I had also bought a vintage Agfa Rodinax 35U daylight developing tank. With this kit, I could easily develop a roll of 35mm film without having to load a developing reel around in a dark bag, something that just felt a wee bit daunting. I have to rotate the reel constantly, which is a slight annoyance, but an annoyance I was willing to deal with. A bonus: the Rondinax uses less chemicals than a standard tank, so I can stretch out my supply usage.
I watched a YouTube vid or two about loading and using the Rondinax. I loaded my first roll, a partially exposed roll of Rollei RPX 400, taken during my Boise trip in September. (I figured this would be low-risk, especially since I don’t remember what I shot.) I mixed the chemicals: Ilford Ilfosol 3 for the developer and Ilford fixer. (I used water as the stop bath.) I took the temperature: 68F/20C, room temp. And I got to work, 5 1/2 minutes of semi-constant rotation for the developer, 2 pour out, 3 a minute of fresh water for stop bath, pour out, five minutes of fixer, pour out, five minutes of rinse, pour out, and then open the tank.
Now the moment of truth: Did I get anything? I pulled out the roll from the reel, and by golly, yes there were images! I was so happy and excited. I did this. I hung the roll in the shower to dry. I processed another roll the next night (a roll of Kentmere 400 from the Smena 8M) and more images were presented.
After drying it was time to scan the negatives. When I picked up all the processing equipment towards the end of 2020, I also picked up a Kodak Scanza scanner. It’s a small self-contained unit that can scan 35 mm negs and slides along with 110 film. The box had all sorts of cables and film trays. What it didn’t have was an SD card, which was needed to save the images. I thought I had an old one lying around from my days of digital cameras, but nope. So I had to go get one. And man, they are more expensive than I thought! I got the smallest one, a 2 gig card, for $13, compared to the 32 gig one I saw online for just $6. Thankfully 2 GB is really all I need, as I can transfer the files easily to my laptop.
The scanning went fine. You don’t have to remind me that the Scanza is not a “pro” level scanner, but for the $100 I paid, it will get the job done. The scans came out decent–sharp enough, though if you really want to zoom in, you can see how it doesn’t measure up to the scans I get from the lab. That’s okay. Perhaps someday I’ll get a better scanner?
I did a little tweaking of the jpgs in Photoshop, basically a batch conversion to greyscale with auto tone. A few pics needed a bit more tweaking, but I kept the rest as-is as I liked how they looked.
And now I have developed my own film. And…it wasn’t that hard! There was nothing to be scared of. Sure, if my first few rolls were mishaps, I’d be singing a different tune. (Especially if I had to fumble and load traditional reels in a dark bag.) But I think I made film developing out to be such a big thing in my head, I got intimidated. It’s nice to get past that point.
I’ll keep on developing my own black and white at home. I may still have the lab do it if it’s for a print project, but otherwise I should be just fine with my Rondinax 35U and Kodak Scanza. Maybe I’ll try developing color film at home too. But what I’m really interested in doing next is making prints. I don’t think I’ll go the home darkroom setup just yet. I’d first like to take a class or two and use shared equipment. This is what The Portland Darkroom does. They have workshops and also a Wednesday night “open darkroom”–for $30 you can print as much as you want (you have to bring your own paper, though.) Unfortunately the Darkroom went dark (ha) when the pandemic started, and they have yet to reopen to the public. But I’m guessing that should be fairly soon.
1 Thankfully the lab’s pricing has not gone up yet.
2 Because of how the Rondinax operates–the roll is only half-submerged in chemicals and requires constant rotation vs. the off-on agitation of a traditional tank–it’s recommended to reduce the developing time by 15%
3 No, I did not dump down the sink.
Congratulations Shawn, pulling that first roll of negs out of the tank is a magical experience!
Way to go!
I do recommend saving up for a better scanner. The Scanza and its ilk are minimally okay.
Perhaps I’ll get that better scanner at some point. But I think I’m okay with that “minimally okay”. A friend of mine who’s been developing for way longer than me has used it extensively and likes it.
Instead of investing in a scanner, consider photographing the negatives with a digital camera. I’ve recently switched to doing that and I find it both faster and better (how often can you say that?) You would need: a tripod, a macro lens, and pretty much any digital camera of the past ten years that you can mount the lens to. I’m not sure what you have around, but if you were to buy this stuff used, it would cost about the same as a scanner.
Another thing to check… I recently discovered that my public library has a decent Epson scanner that’s set up for negatives that you can use for free. Might be worth seeing if Portland’s library does as well.
Interesting. When I was looking into “what scanner to get”, the whole DSLR angle came up. I avoided that, since the whole idea of getting into film was to NOT get a DSLR. It could be a viable option when I get around to upgrading.
But honestly folks, getting a new/different scanner is not a priority right now. I’m going to keep on using that Scanza for a while. Maybe if I came from a more “pro” angle, I’d be looking down at it. But for someone who has never developed their own film before, the “wow” factor of it all is intoxicating.
So folks, please let me revel in my honeymoon for a bit!
I know it’s chemistry and time… But I still think it’s awesome I can process my own film.
Another thought on scanning: some labs will do that too as a service. I don’t know what it’d run you; but it may be an option (though I don’t think it’d be too many before you’d have your scanner).
My local lab will scan negs. But it wouldn’t be that much more to have them develop it.
Yeah, I figured. My local lab borders on what I consider ridiculous for scanning (When coupled with processing)… so I haven’t done it.
My scanner is a CanoScan 8800F I picked up off ebay for ~$50 (I think).