Film development 101 - Part 1

You’ve got your film out of the camera and you need to develop it. We need to get it into the developing tank without exposing it to light. 

To start, I want you to make sure you have the film tongue sticking out of the film cassette. If, when your camera rewinds the film, it sucks the whole film into the cassette (and you cannot set the camera to leave the tongue out) you are going to need a Film Leader Retriever. This useful device pulls the film tongue back out of the cassette without damaging the film in any way. You’ll understand why we need the tongue out later. 

Film canisters

Some books recommend opening the film canister with a bottle opener. Until you are sure you can get the film on the spool don’t do it! The way described here, is far safer.

The developing tank

There are many types of developing tanks available and the loading techniques are quite diverse. I will concentrate on one of the simplest to work with, the Paterson Universal Developing Tank. This is a light tight drum which holds the film inside on a reel or spool. The film has to be loaded by threading it along the grooves of the reel. The reel is placed on a spindle, locked down with a collar and put (reel side down) into the tank. The lid is then screwed on to keep the light out. Most tanks will have two lids (one main and one small waterproof lid) andPaterson’s tank is no different. As the main lid does the job of keeping the light out it is the only one that needs to be placed on the tank after loading the film. Remember that the film can be loaded the night before. You may in fact have to do this if it’s the only time you can get total darkness in your darkroom. 

When you load the film you must make sure everything is absolutely dry. Any dampness at all makes the loading-reel sticky. Gently warming the spool with a hair drier will help remove any residual moisture or condensation. As long as it is dry, your film can stay in the tank for as long as you want.

Total darkness

Clearly, the film is extremely sensitive to light and must not be exposed to light until after it has started fixing. Therefore, we have to get the film into the tank in total darkness. TOTAL DARKNESS! No safe lights, no glints of light under a door, no curtains drawn!  Any light will fog the film spoiling your negatives.

How dark is dark?

 To test how dark your darkroom is turn off the lights and pull out a little unused film from a new cassette. Six inches should suffice. Cut it off. Sit there with it in the darkroom for about 10 minutes, load it up and develop it. Comparing it to the normal film gaps between frames should show whether it has been fogged or not. They should be the same.

If you are a beginner, you probably have no darkroom yet, or maybe you just want to scan in the negatives from your developed film and never intend printing on photographic paper. You will need to find a room that is absolutely light tight. Easier said than done, I know, but it is essential. The best way to do this is to use your eyes. Your eyes become more sensitive to light after a few minutes of darkness so, when you have found a possible contender, sit in the blackness and wait to see if you perceive any light coming in. After a while (10 minutes or so), you may see light filtering under a door or perhaps around a blackout at the window. Block it up and wait again. Eventually you will have made the room light tight and can make a mental note of what was required. If you are having trouble getting it dark enough, you could wait until it is dark outside. This might be all you need to do to stop that chink of light that will ruin your negatives.

Loading the reel

Stacks Image 7

You need to get an old film and practice loading it onto the reel. Watch what you are doing carefully and learn how the reel works. The film has a natural curl so make sure you are not fighting this - it should curl in towards the reel. Some reels (including the recommended Paterson one) need you to push the film in two grooves, and twist the reel back and forth pulling the film on and into the spiral. Others need you to push the film into a catch in the centre of the reel. With the film slightly curved through your fingers, twist the whole reel round and round loading the film from the inside ridge, out towards the edge. These are somewhat harder to get to grips with but are popular once the knack has been found. 

Whatever type you have, practice until you are confident that you can do the whole operation with your eyes closed because soon you will be in that darkness! The loading of the reel and tank is the hardest part of the development process. Once you can do this the rest is a walk in the park.  

Loading the reel

With 35mm film, cut off the funny shaped film leader and chamfer the film corners to help them load smoothly. Do this before turning out the light.

Loading Steps:

1. Before loading the reel ensure that it is absolutely clean and dry. Residue can form on the reel if you don’t keep it spotless after developing sessions. These residues or any dampness will cause the film to jam. Use an old toothbrush to keep it scrubbed and clean. Dry the reel gently, with warm air from a hair drier, making sure the reel does not get at all hot or it might melt. A dry and clean reel is a happy reel.

2. Set up all you need on the surface you will be working on (See fig. 1 below). Remember, in pitch darkness you will have to feel your way around so place everything in a logical order and in such a way as to not fall off the table top if you knock them. I place mine in this order:

a. Film in canister
b. Reel
c. Safety scissors
d. Reel stem and collar (you must use the collar)
e. Open developing tank
f. Developing tank main lid

3. With 35mm only: Start the film off just on the reel grooves before turning out the light - but do not pull it out too far. There’s usually a few inches of blank film before your exposed frames start. A 120 (or 620) film must not be unrolled accept in the dark!
4. When you switch the light out, do not pull all the film out of the film canister! It will curl and twist and wrap itself around anything it can. Instead, just pull out 3 or 4 inches at a time as you load it on the reel. This keeps everything under control. 

5. If you hit a problem trying to load the film (and we all do) then stop, pull the film off (by opening the reel if it allows - usually a 1/4 twist clockwise unlocks it and it opens out), load the film back into the canister (carefully leaving the end protruding), turn on the light and work out the problem. That’s why we don’t open the film canister with a bottle opener. There’s no rush, take your time, it doesn’t matter how long this takes.

6. When you reach the end of the film, cut it carefully with scissors and finish off loading it on the reel with a few more twists. This ensures it is away from the edge of the reel (and therefore the tank) and helps the movement of developer around it.

7. Place the reel on the stem and push on the retaining collar all the way to the reel, so that the reel cannot move around. Pop everything into the tank, reel side down.

9. Screw the tank lid back on carefully so as not to cross thread it. I turn mine the wrong way a half turn until the thread engages and screw it up. It does not have to be very tight. Just screwed up all the way. 

Congratulations... the hardest part is over!