Processing Your Own Film

I recently had a query from someone on whether I would teach him how to process his own film.  Unfortunately I’ve only been at it for about 9 months, far too short to be in any position to teach on the subject.  But I can share what I know so far – and thought I’d summarize it all and put it in a blog post, in case anyone else needs the information.

First of all, why take photos with film, anyway?  My own reasons for taking up film photography had more to do with making old cameras work, than any particular attraction to the medium itself.  Though I do get a touch nostalgic sometimes.  And the cameras are basically free.  You can buy a 100-year-old camera, use it, and sell it for the same price you bought it for.  The DSLR you bought 5 years ago?  Throw it in the trash, nobody wants it.

The main reasons I shoot with film are:

  • working with completely manual cameras (I don’t even use a light meter) teaches you a lot about photography that you’ll never learn from a fully automatic digital camera.  In fact, much of what we know about photography is being forgotten, because our cameras do it all for us.
  • Shooting with film forces you to think differently about photography.  Rather than going out and shooting hundreds of photos in the hopes that there will be 10-12 real gems in the bunch is completely different from the way you approach photography when you’re walking around with a 70-year-old camera loaded with a roll of film that will give you 8 photographs.
  • there’s something satisfying and maybe a little bit magical about having good, usable images appear on photographic film after you’ve completed the entire process.

I still shoot with a digital camera when I want to be 100% sure I document something, because you can verify on the spot that you got the shot.  There are many other reasons to shoot with film.  For just about every other reason people shoot with film, check out this documentary:

So now we’ve established you want to shoot with film.  If you live in India, what’s the best way to get started?

  1. Acquire a film camera.  You can occasionally find them in big camera shops.  If you want to get a good deal, check out eBay (India).  I started with a film that uses 120 film, but I recommend starting with a 35mm camera (I’ll explain why later).  Do some googling on what’s on offer and make sure you get something that allows you to adjust everything about the photo, and consider whether the batteries are still available if the camera has a built-in light meter.  A lot of the SLRs made in the 1970s and 1980s are great to learn with.  My favorite is the Ricoh Kr-5 because it’s cheap ( a Pentax knock-off), takes great pictures, and makes a delicious sound when you press the shutter button.
  2. Acquire a developing tank.  This will be a little bit tricky but you need one.  What’s special about such a tank is that it allows you to add chemicals and pour them out, without exposing the film to light.  Old ones can be acquired on eBay (the US version) or American photo shops (see list later).  I know of no one in India that sells them (but if you find someone please let me know!)  If possible, get one where the spool can be adjusted for different film sizes, in case you decide to expand to 120 film later.  It doesn’t really cost more.
  3. Acquire film developing chemicals.  Again, I know of no place in India that sells in quantities that would be used by an individual.  Occasionally you will run across someone in this Facebook group that wants to split an order.  Fortunately almost everything can be bought as a powder.
    1. For black and white, you will minimally need a developer and a fixer.  I suggest Kodak D-76 and Kodak fixer.  You can also use a stop bath, which is basically a mild acid.  It only comes in liquid form as far as I know.  Black and white processing is easiest because it can be done at room temperature.  Go for the amounts needed to make 1 liter if possible – it’s perishable.
    2. For color I recommend the Tetenal C-41 press kit.  It has everything you will need, and is the only product I’ve ever used for film processing.  Color processing needs to be done at 39 degrees Celsius.  I use a water bath.  Some people say it’s too difficult to do color film processing at home, but I don’t have any problems.
    3. You will also need a thermometer that goes up to about 50 Celsius or so, and you can use discarded water bottles to store the chemicals, but I recommend something opaque if possible.  I use these bottles.  And you need a small funnel and a stopwatch.
  4. Now you need a room that’s completely dark.  Many rooms will look dark when you first enter, but wait 10 minutes or so and see if it’s still dark.  If you don’t have such a room, it is possible to buy a film changing bag, but I think these are a hassle if not necessary.  I use a windowless room and throw a towel in front of the door to block the light.

Ideally you will need a space with two sinks.  I do my processing in the kitchen.  I put water in one sink that is the temperature the chemicals need to be to process the film, and I use the other sink for rinsing the film when the process is complete.  They don’t need to be right next to each other, but be careful about dripping the film chemicals, which are technically toxic.

Now you’re ready to go.  I’m not going to recreate the process here, but will share the websites I used to learn how to develop film.  Black and White: The website I used appears to have been removed, but you can try two very detailed sites:  this one or this one.  You may note they list requirements I have not listed above.  I’ve given the bare minimum required.  Color Film:  Use either this website or this website.

I hang film to dry using clothespins.  Sometimes the water will leave spots (you can buy stuff to prevent that) so be sure and shake the film well.  You can use a soft cloth after it has dried a bit to carefully soak up some of the water.

Additional Notes

You may remember I said 35mm is better than 120 format film in India, at least to get started.  The reason for this is, while you’re acquiring your materials (probably you bought the camera first and are still looking for the chemicals), you can still take 35mm color film to your local photo printing place and they will develop it for you.  Where I live in Chennai, I know of no one who still develops black and white film, and I’ve never tried slide film.  But you can do color.  I don’t think anyone develops 120 format, black and white or color.  Eventually you may want to try 120 film, which can be a lot of fun because you can capture so much detail.  Many large billboards and travel magazines require the use of 120 film or larger.  Believe it or not, your DSLR doesn’t have the resolution that 120 film which has been used for 100 years has.  The other reason for using 35mm film is that 120 film costs about 600 rupees a roll in India and will get you from 8 to 16 exposures, depending on your camera.  It adds up.

So what do you do with those negatives?  You can have a photo shop scan and print them for you.  Personally I have not been happy with the quality I have gotten, and bought a scanner that does film.  I used an Epson V600 but there are other brands.  I asked the folks at B and H photo (by email) and that’s what they suggested.

Finally, where do you get the stuff you need?  I was surprised at the speed the digital camera revolution has swept through India.  1.2 billion people and there is hardly anyplace left where you can buy the supplies for home film processing.  If you want to get your film processed in India, I believe you can ship it to either Idea Creative (in Mumbai?) or SV Photographic in Delhi.  There may be other places – you can check with others on this excellent Facebook Group.  Or this other Facebook Group in Mumbai.

For the stuff you can’t get in India, I personally have experience with a few places in the United States.  I have no idea about shipping, customs or duties.  But you can get anything you need from B and H Photo, or you can try Adorama.   I have also gotten some things from Freestyle Photographic Supplies.

Happy shooting!

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