Developing black & white film at home

It's in the bag
It's in the bag

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Needed in the bag
Needed in the bag

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Cold water wash
Cold water wash

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It's in the bag
It's in the bag

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       You will need –

  • ​Suitable space to work eg: clean laundry.

  • access to clean water - hot & cold.

  • 4 chemicals – developer, stop, fixer, washaid.

  • 4 plastic 1000ml measuring jugs.

  • Light tight changing bag.

  • Developing tank and 2 reels for 35mm film.

  • Agfa Rondinax 60 for 120 MF film

  • Bottle opener.

  • Scissors.

  • Vinyl gloves.

  • Countdown timer.

  • Film clips.

  • Film squeegee.

  • Film strip archival preservers.

The mystery of film developing – the darkroom, the chemicals. Actually there is no mystery – it’s technical but quite simple. Not a lot of equipment, not a huge investment, not even a darkroom.

I am using Paterson Photographic gear – a large change bag and a system 4 tank and reels. The tank and reels are robust plastic, of a type to withstand photo chemicals. The Paterson name has been around for decades and their experience shines through with the clear instructions which come with the equipment and are also available on the Ilford website. For 120 medium format film the Agfa Rondinax 60 is the best choice. Adjustable reels for the Paterson tank are available which theoretically enables 120 film to be developed similarly to 35mm. I must say I have had no success attempting to load 120 film onto a plastic Paterson reel, or a stainless steel Hewes reel, in fact I ruined a couple of rolls in the attempts before I discovered the Rondinax. For chemicals I have chosen Ilford as I am shooting Ilford film, but there are other choices which may or may not be preferred as more experience is gained.


In these digital days the usual output wanted from developing your own, are the negatives or transparencies ready for scanning and printing if required. If you are printing your images the traditional way onto  photographic papers then a darkroom is needed.

The ‘darkroom’ for film developing is actually a changing bag which is purpose made to exclude light whilst allowing the photographer's hands space to work inside the bag in the dark. This takes a bit of practice because you cannot see what you are doing. The most important ‘in the bag’ job is getting your exposed film onto the developing tank reels, the reels into the tank then the light tight lid clicked into place. After this it is safe to work in daylight.

Practice several times with an old expired film to get the feel of the reels. There are two inward protrusions on either side of the reel which are the entry point for the film into the spiral. Feed about 6 cms of film into the reel then start working the reel ratchet backwards and forwards which winds the film onto the reel. The clever spiral construction of the reel creates a few millimetres  of separation between each layer of film which ensures the developing chemicals can reach in between each wind of film. Getting the film onto the reels can be a little frustrating but keep at it and you get the feel of the reels after a few practices and are soon ready for a live run. 

Developing day arrives - you’re a bit nervous as there are valuable images at stake. Don’t be – it’ll work out fine. Lay everything out before starting any part of the operation. Prepare your chemicals first and sit them in a water bath to bring to temperature, 21C. This is important as although lower or higher temperatures work too, the time in the developer alters. . Before starting refer to Ilford’s clear instructions about this aspect. Because I am in Auckland, New Zealand 21C is a good temperature to work with. Our tap water is usually around 18C. I am using Ilford, Ilfotec LC29 developer which is diluted 1:19. 600 mls of the dilution is needed to flood the 2 reel tank so put 600mls of water into a measuring jug and pour in 31.5mls of concentrate. Briefly stir. The same dilution is needed for Ilford Ilfostop . Ilford Rapid Fixer is diluted 1:4 so to make up 600mls, pour 600mls of water into your measuring jug then add 150 mls of Fixer. The developer is discarded after 1 use whereas the Stop and Fixer are saved for reuse. Measure the temperature of the chemical dilutions which will be around 18C. Stand the appropriately marked 3 jugs in a tepid water bath. It will take a little while (about 20 minutes) to raise to the required 21C. It's easy to overheat your chemicals which is important to be aware of as temperature is critical to developing time. If you find your developer has climbed to 22C, it's no problem, but the time in the developer needs to drop from 8 minutes to 6.


Now back to the changing bag. In the bag you need the Paterson tank, the tank lid, the tank centre column, the 2 reels (spirals), an old fashioned bottle opener, a pair of scissors and 2 exposed films in their canisters. Place all these through the zip end of the bag into convenient positions inside the bag. Zip up the bag, fold over and Velcro. Now sit in front of the bag and manoeuvre your hands to half way up the forearm through the arm holes. Ready to go. First the film canister end must be removed with the bottle opener – easy. Take out the film on it’s spool and feel for the film leader which tapers down to half the film width at it’s start. Trim this back to the start of the film – taking care not to trim your fingers as well! Locate the first reel, and holding in both hands find the entry lugs on the inside edge of the spiral. Taking the end of the film between thumb and forefinger , feed about 5 – 6cms into the spiral. Keeping the film aligned with the reel, ratchet the film into the spirals until you detect the end still attached to the film spool. This will pull off. Briefly continue the ratchet action until you are sure all the film is on the spiral. It is not as hard as it sounds – simply take your time, there is no rush. Repeat this with the second reel. Now locate the reels onto the tank centre column and place into the tank. Put on the lid, funnel end down, and turn until it clicks into place. Wow, you’ve done it. From now on you can work in daylight as the exposed films are safely in the light tight tank.


Medium format (120 film) is a little different. It is 6 cms wide rather than 2.4cm and this difference greatly increases the difficulty of succesfully loading your 120 film onto the expanded multi purpose Paterson reels due to film buckling. Another problem is the 35mm film has sprocket holes along both sides of the film which engage the ball bearings guaranteeing a positive ratchet load sequence - no sprocket holes on the 120 film. Because of this the wider film does not positively engage with the ratcheting reel load action. Much frustration, potential irretrievable film damage is the result. I have also tried the expensive stainless steel Hewes reel where the film loads from the centre out. From all accounts a better outcome but I have yet to be successful. Enter the Agfa Rondinax 60 - a daylight developing tank created by German Agfa in the 1950s. Revolutionises 120 film developing. Everything can be done in daylight, from loading the film through to the complete development process. Perfect outcome everytime. After developing 10s of rolls I have not lost a roll or damaged any film.

We have prepared a short video about using the Rondinax. If you are developing 120 film you will never regret buying a Rondinax 60.

​If you have any questions, or comments about the developing process you can contact me here - Alex Donald

Time to start working with the chemicals you have prepared. Check temperature - great, exactly 21C. Don gloves and pour in the developer and immediately start the timer, 8 minutes. Before securing the tank lid, connect the agitating axle through the light tight lid to the locating lug in the top of the centre column. Agitate briskly 3 or 4 times. Now secure the watertight lid and invert 4 times, then tap the tank to dislodge any air bubbles which may have formed on the film. As each minute goes by repeat the inversion proceedure.

​When the timer rings pour out the developer and immediately pour in the stop solution, seal the lid and invert. The stop only requires 10 seconds. This is minimum, a little longer doesn't matter. Pour the stop solution back to storage and pour in the fixer. Lid on and invert. Fixer requires 3 minutes minimum and as with stop a little longer is OK. Use the timer for the 3 minutes - when it rings pour the fixer back to storage. Now for washing - pour in the washaid solution and agitate briskly. Washaid is not strictly necessary but ensures the film dries streak free. Now run tap water into the tank to overflowing and continue for a few minutes. Time to remove the film. It really is majic to see your images materialised on the film. Taking care not to touch the images with bare hands hang the films to dry using the Paterson film clips - 1 either end. Run the squeegee slowly down the film to remove excess moisture. You're done - now simply leave to dry, preferably overnight. A dust free environment is important and I find a clean laundry is the answer. The last job is to wash and dry all your developing gear, ready for next time.

Next morning cut and sleeve your films ready for scanning. Cut into strips of 6 images and insert into the archival preservers, inserting emulsion (dull side) down. I use Printfile, made in USA.