Lo-Fi Photography

Beginning Black and White Development – A Simple Step By Step

Posted in Tips & Tricks by Ray on 04.30.2010

One of the joys of black and white photography for me is how easy it is to develop film at home without having to take it to the photo lab, which involves wait time, is expensive, and has greater potential for problems (no one will be more careful with your film than yourself). The development process is also an accompanying craft in the artistic endeavor of photography, and I gain personal gratification by doing it myself.

Here’s an introduction to basic black and white film development. While there are countless chemicals and methods (many of which I hope to see discussed here at Blackandwhiteology), this is my personal approach, which has worked well for me. In this day and age, I suppose I should provide a disclaimer: You should follow these steps at your own risk and I’m not responsible for any damage to your film, equipment, health, etc. But it’s really simple, if I can do it, anyone can do it.

PART I – Assembling the Equipment

The equipment below should be available through B&H, Adorama, Freestyle, and your local photographic supply store.

Essential Equipment:

Mix Up Cups ($11) – Delta set of 10 graduated measuring cups from 30 ml to 600 ml.

Thermometer ($6) – Delta 6” precision darkroom thermometer.

Stainless Steel Tank Kit ($23.50) – General Brand steel tank with plastic lid, kit with two 35mm reels.

120 Reel ($10) – Stainless steel reel for 120 film.

Bottles for Chemical Storage ($2 each) – Plastic liquid storage bottles for the chemicals.

Free Equipment (household items) – Scissors (to cut the 35mm film from the canister), bottle opener (remove the 35mm canister ends), clothe hanger and binder clips (these two items to hang the film for drying).

Additional Equipment:

Change Bag ($15) – If you don’t have a darkroom, windowless bathroom, or simply prefer not to work in the dark, a change bag allows you to get your film onto the reel and into the developing tank without risk of exposing the film to light.

Hewes Reels ($50 + $25) – Stainless steel reels come in various qualities, and it’s worthwhile to spend more for a sturdy one with high manufacturing tolerances that allow the film to be wound easier, and reduces the chance of mistakes (remember, you are working in the dark). The cheap ones can get bent out of shape and the welds are not finished as nicely, both of which can cause the film to not track correctly, and film that isn’t separated will likely be ruined. I use ones made by Hewes in the UK, and there’s a Hewes Student Processing Kit from Freestyle with two 35mm reels, developing tank, and archival sleeves for $50. The 120 Hewes reel is an additional $25.

Safety Equipment – It’s a good idea to have some protective wear when working with chemicals. I encourage the use of goggles, latex gloves, bib, and mask (especially if the work area is not well ventilated).


Ilfosol-3 ($8.50) – This is a fine grain developer and I use primarily FP-4+, so it’s good to keep it in the family. It’s also a one-shot developer (use once and discard so it’s fresh for development).

Ilfostop ($6.50) – Low odor citric acid stop bath to stop development immediately and neutralize the developer to help maintain the activity of the fixer bath.

Ilford Rapid Fixer ($10) – Non-hardening rapid fixer.

Kodak Photo-Flo ($8) – Added to the final wash when processing black & white films. It acts as a wetting agent by foaming up and protecting the film from dust and scratches while hanging to dry.


PART II – Preparing the Chemicals

Okay, now that you have the equipment, it’s time to get to work. The chemicals are supplied as liquid concentrate, so they will have to be diluted with water for use. It’s generally recommended you use distilled or filtered water, since tap water can contain chemicals, minerals, and other impurities that may affect the chemicals (if anything, this is most important for the developer and final rinse). However, I must admit to having used just tap water for everything as well.

Here is the four chemicals we are working with: Ilfosol-3 (developer), Ilfostop (stop bath), Ilford Rapid Fixer (fixer), and Photo-Flo (wetting and rinsing agent).


The reason I recommended the set of mix up cups is because you’ll be mixing different quantities of chemicals, and different measuring cup sizes will make it easier and more accurate. I use the 600ml cup as the main mixing container; 100ml cup for measuring the fixer; 50ml cup for measuring the developer, 30ml cup for measuring the stop bath, and another 30ml cup for measuring the Photo-Flo.


The recommended ratios are summarized below. I tend to make small batches of 500ml because (1) that’s about how much the developing tank holds, (2) I prefer not to have too much toxic chemicals around taking up space in my apartment, (3) I develop probably less than 24 rolls a year, so would rather make up fresh chemicals more frequently, and (4) the developer is one-shot anyway (use and discard).

Each of the following should be mixed separately into the 600ml measuring cup and then poured into their designated bottle. I recommend opaque plastic bottles such as the Datatainers or ones in the equipment list. They should be labeled and used for the same chemical in the future. The 600ml cup should be thoroughly rinsed before mixing the next chemical.


Start by measuring out the amount of water in the 600ml cup then pour in the chemical (that’s been measured in one of the smaller cups).

450ml water : 50ml Ilfosol-3 developer (this is a 9+1 dilution)
475ml water : 25ml Ilfostop (19+1 dilution)
400ml water : 100ml Ilford Rapid Fixer (4+1 dilution)
500ml water : 2.5ml Photo-Flo (200+1 dilution)

To stir the chemicals, you can use clean stirrers of some kind or simply use the thermometer as I do. The thermometer is used because the developer is calibrated to work optimally at the recommended time at 20 degree Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit). Temperature deviations over and under would require changes in development times (this will be discussed further in the development section).

That’s it, you are ready to get your film into the tank and develop your film.

PART III – Getting the Film Into the Developing Tank

120 Film:

Let’s start with 120 film. You have two options (1) completely dark room or (2) use a change bag. In either case, you’ll want to make sure you have everything you need in front of you: film, 120 reel, and the developing tank. Note that it’s color film in the pictures, but obviously you want to do this with B&W film. I’d also recommend washing your hands with soap and rinse well in advance of handling the film to minimize fingerprints and dirt.


You’ll want to familiarize yourself with how the film is constructed, so I highly recommend taking apart a test roll and practice getting it on the reel. Unrolling the paper backing past the lead portion, you’ll see the film attached to the paper with tape. Removing the film, you’ll want to make sure the tape is either still on the paper or safely out of the way so it doesn’t end up in the reel with the film.


You’ll want to position the reel in the right orientation to wind the film along the correct direction of the track. There is a spring clip in the center axle of the reel as seen in the picture.


Typically I’ll press the lead portion of the film on top of the cross bar above the clip to get it into position and slide it under as I push down on the clip, allowing the film to be inserted.


Once secured in the clip, start winding the film. I find it easier to rest the roll on a stable surface where I slowly rotate the reel with my left hand and feed the film with my right. Note how I’m pinching the film with my index finger and thumb, using the rail as the guide. Pinching the film will allow the film to be wound into the tracks more easily. Wind gently, the goal is to get the film to follow the spiraling tracks, allowing separation of the film, and not to overlap. If the film surface is touching, it will not develop properly. If at any point you feel the film has jammed or is not winding correctly, you should unroll it and start winding from the clip again. Also keep in mind that as the film is winding onto the reel, you’ll be separating the paper backing from the film at the same time.


Here’s the film fully wound on the reel. I sometimes feel across the side of the reel to see if the edge of the film is resting between the tracks properly. If the film is wound properly, you should be able to rotate the film slightly back and forth in the reel and feel the film sliding between the tracks. If it feels jammed, you should unroll and start from the clip again. This will be from experience, so I recommend practicing out in the open until you figure it out, then wind the film in the dark or in the change bag until you can successfully do this with some level of confidence.


Once the film is fully wound, drop it into the developing tank and put the lid on. Make sure the lid is on securely before turning on the lights or taking the tank out of the change bag.


35MM Film:

With 35mm film, you’ll want to make sure you have in front of you or in the change bag the following: film, two 35mm reels, developing tank, a pair of scissors, and a bottle/can opener. Again, I have color film in the picture for illustration purposes only, you’ll have B&W film.

What’s the bottle opener for? Besides opening a bottle of beer to celebrate after the film is developed, it’s to pop open the bottom cap of the film cartridge.


You can remove the caps at both ends or just the bottom, after which point you should be able to push down on the plastic winder and get the film out.


You should cut the lead portion of the film.


Familiarize yourself with the 35mm reel, which is different from the 120 reel. Instead of a clip, the reel has pins to catch the sprocket holes of the film.


Here’s the film latched onto the pins. Once securely on, you can start winding. Again, practice this with a test roll in the light then in the dark or change bag until you feel comfortable doing this with a real roll. It’s important to check the orientation of the reel before you begin the process, so you’ll be winding in the right direction along the track.


Same with the 120 film, I rotate the reel with my left hand while feeding the film with my right. Again, pinching the film with the index finger and thumb will allow the film to get into the reel easier. Wind gently, the goal again is to get the film to follow the spiraling tracks and not overlap against itself, if the film surface is touching, it will not develop properly. At any point if the film doesn’t seem to be winding correctly, unwind and start from the center again.


The end of the film is taped to the spool. Here’s where the scissors come into play again, and you cut off the end and wind the last part of the film onto the reel.


You should use two 35mm reels with the tank even if you are just developing one roll. Put the reel with the film in first on the bottom of the tank and the empty reel on top.


Once the lid is securely on, you can turn on the lights or take the tank out of the changing bag.


The above can be frustrating at first (especially in the dark), but take a deep breath and take your time. Now you are ready for the actual film development.

PART IV – The Development Process

If you haven’t already, this is the time where you get all your equipment near a sink. I prefer the bathroom to the kitchen for two reasons (1) I don’t want the chemicals to potentially come into contact with food and (2) the bathroom is less prone to dust due to the steam generated from the shower or bath…and you want to keep the film as dust free as possible.

Before beginning, I set up my equipment to aid in my work flow. I set the bottles of the diluted working solution chemicals (refer to Part II of the tutorial) in sequence next to the sink, so (1) developer, (2) stop bath, (3) fixer, and (4) Photo-Flo.

Place a timing device in front of you, something easy to read. You should review the time needed for each part of the development process. For different film and developer combinations check out Massive Development Chart. I’ve also downloaded the Massive Dev Chart app for the iPhone and it allows me to customize times for my film and developer combinations and provides a timer for the different steps of the process (and has both visual and audible reminders to agitate the developing tank).


You’ll also want to set up your drying station by hanging a wire hanger on the shower rod and putting some binder clips on it.

I recommend wearing latex gloves (disposable ones you see at the doctor’s office), goggles (or glasses to protect your eyes from accidental splashes), mask if the room is not well ventilated, and an apron if you care about staining the clothes you are wearing.

Developing – Ilfosol-3 (Time Varies, Check Massive Development Chart)

Using the thermometer, make sure the developer is at 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit). If the temperature is off, you can (1) put the bottle of developer into a pan of hot or cold water until the developer is at the recommended temperature or (2) adjust the development time to compensate (approximately 30 seconds for each degree Celsius). The Massive Development Chart linked above provides an Ilford time/temperature adjustment chart as well as other useful information, such as Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion.

Pour the developer into the tank through the light proof spout (remove the cap on top of the lid only, do not take the lid itself off!). You’ll want to do this over the sink and have the tank at an angle so the developer doesn’t bubble up and impede the pour. The developer should be topped up to make sure it covers the film inside. When it’s done, put the cap back on the lid and make sure it’s secure.


Agitate for the first 30 seconds (I don’t mean taunting it or poking it with a stick). I recommend inverting the developing tank by turning it upside down (this is also why the lid and cap should be on tightly).


When you bring the tank right side up again, give it a 1/3 turn and invert again. This way after 3 inversions, the tank has been turned a full 360 degrees. The reason for the rotation and inversion is to make sure the developer is washing over the film evenly on all sides. At the end of 30 seconds you can tap the bottom of the tank against the sink a few times or use your hand to tap the bottom sharply. This tapping will help dislodge any bubbles on the surface of the film (bubbles on film will affect the development in that area).


At the end of the first minute, pick up the tank and agitate for 10 seconds. It’s usually enough time for me to invert 3 times, tap the bottom, invert 3 more times and tap again before setting it back down on the counter. Agitate for 10 seconds for each minute of development (i.e. if it’s a 4 minute development for Ilford FP-4+, agitate after minute #1, #2, and #3).

At the end of development, remove the pour cap (do not lift the lid because the film is not yet light safe until after it’s fixed) pour the developer back into the bottle or down the sink (although Ilfosol-3 is a one-shot developer, I find that I can do a couple of rolls with it before discarding).

Stop Bath – Ilfostop (30 Seconds)

After emptying the developer, I pour in the stop bath and invert a few times, tap, and set the tank on the counter for 30 seconds. Once done, pour the solution back into the bottle. You can reuse Ilfostop for a number of rolls, it’s got a color indicator and will turn from yellow to purple when it’s exhausted (though I generally just mix up a new batch before then).

As others have suggested, you can also use plain water or 2% vinegar solution for a stop bath.

Fixing – Ilford Rapid Fixer (5 Minutes)

Pour in the fixer and invert and tap for 30 seconds before setting it on the counter. Like with the developer, agitate 10 seconds for each minute of fixing. At the end of 5 minutes, pour the fixer back into the bottle. As with the stop bath, the fixer will last at least a dozen uses.

At this point the film should be light safe and you can open the tank to inspect the film to see if the development worked (but do not take the film out of the reel).

Rinse – Water and Photo-Flo (30 Seconds)

Fill up the tank with tap water from the faucet, put the cap back on and invert 5 times. Pour out the water into the sink (I lift the lid partly so I can get more of the water out). Fill the tank again and invert 10 times then empty. Refill for a third time and invert 20 times before emptying the water.

For the last rinse, pour in the working solution Photo-Flo. It’s a wetting agent that prevents water spots and speeds up drying. You don’t want to agitate too much in this case because Photo-Flo will foam up. Pour carefully and tap the tank several times to dislodge bubbles. Put the tank on the counter and wait 30 seconds before pouring the Photo-Flo back into the bottle.

Drying – Hanger (Few Hours)

After the final rinse with the wetting agent, take the reel out. Some people like to squeegee the film to make it dry faster, but I wouldn’t recommend this. Why run the risk of scratching the film? Instead, I shake the reel over the sink to get some of the water off. Then I clip the first part of the film to the hanger and slowly unwind the film (you can also buy film clips that pierce the film to hold it more securely, but I’ve never had a problem with regular binder clips).


Try not to touch the film where the images are when unwinding the wet film, once completely unraveled, put another clip on the bottom of the film to weigh it down so it hangs without curling. If the film is particularly curly, you can put another clip on the bottom until it hangs straight.


Wait a few hours until the film is completely dry and you are DONE!