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Cheap and Cheerful Film Developing

There are a million online articles and forum postings that tell you how to develop 35mm negatives. This isn’t (exactly) one of them. Rather than intimate that it’s dead easy (it is) but dismiss some of the details with a wave of the mouse (“simply pop the top of the canister off…”), I’m going to a) boast about how little it cost me; and b) tie some of the steps down to specifics for raw beginners.

Kit list

My philosophy when exploring new photographic pursuits is always to select the cheapest entry point, on the grounds that you don’t waste much money if you subsequently decide not to pursue that avenue. So buy only what you need, search around for best prices (particularly on the most expensive items) and ignore the fripperies. [Suppliers mentioned below are UK-based.]

  • Paterson Universal Tank: I lucked out here, finding a new tank for £8.99 in a tiny Aberystwyth photography shop. At “leading high street retailer” Jessops, you’d pay £18.99 - ironically, the shop in question became a branch of Jessops the next day, hence the stock clearance. This is the most expensive item so it’s worth looking around. (Paterson’s autoload reels are the easiest to master.)
  • Changing bag: The cheapest I found was £11.49 at 7DayShop (hint: it’s under Accessories, not Darkroom). Large size, 30”.
  • Thermometer: About £10 in a camera store, but only a few quid if you buy a beermaking thermometer from a discount homeware store like Wilkinsons. This should be sufficiently accurate unless you’re doing C41/E6 development.
  • Measuring jugs: Two or three covering 0.5-1l in capacity, from a homeware store.
  • Plastic, sealable beakers or bottles: Homeware again.
  • Large bucket: Buy new so it’s clean, and don’t use it for anything else (i.e. keep it away from sick family members).
  • Rectangular washing-up tub or closed seed tray: For a water bath.
  • Small scissors: Again, a dedicated pair that can be kept clean.
  • Two clothes pegs, one with a small weight attached (e.g. blob of Blu-tac).
  • 50-100ml graduated measuring cylinder: OK, a camera shop may be the only convenient option for this unless you work in a chemistry lab.
  • Negative archival pages.
  • Liquid developer (well-known brand): Ilford recommend DD-X but that comes in a huge and costly 1 litre size. Try a 250ml bottle of Ilfotec LC29, diluted 1+19, for lower initial cost and decent economy.
  • Generic (any brand) fixer & stopper.
  • Washing-up liquid: Borrow the bottle from the kitchen.
  • Roll of panchromatic (not C41) ISO 400 B/W film: Ideally something cheap, but preferably a type that has published times for the developer you are using. (I used Tura P400, but had to extrapolate the development time from similar film/dev combinations - I guesstimated ten minutes, which was fine.) Note that the “tabular grain” films like T-Max and Delta are said to be less tolerant of exposure and development variations, so you might want to start with a traditional emulsion like Tri-X or HP5+.
  • Film leader retriever: May or may not be required, see below.


  1. This isn’t a complete guide. Go to Ilford’s web site and download their excellent PDF guide to “developing your first BW film”. Print it out and keep it handy. (You may also want the PDF info sheet on their liquid developer range, as it contains some useful charts of dilutions and times.) What follows only covers the steps that are different or incomplete in the Ilford advice.
  2. Shoot the film. Just burn up the roll around the house, and don’t take anything you can’t easily repeat.
  3. Set up a place to hang the film after development. It should be warm and reasonably clean. E.g. A length of string hung across the inside of an airing cupboard.
  4. Opening the film canister and winding the film on to the reel in total darkness is, by consensus, the most difficult part and the one where you are most likely to damage the roll. So don’t make it harder than necessary: leave the leader out of the canister when rewinding and start it on the reel in the light. If you have a manual camera, simply stop rewinding when the crank goes stiff and then completely slack. If the leader has already been wound into the canister (e.g. by a motorised rewind), use a film leader retriever to pull it out. (Label the exposed reel if not developing immediately!) Assuming you started taking pictures when the frame indicator said ‘1’, there are about five inches of blank film that can be pulled out before the first frame. Trim the end of the roll square and round off the corners; don’t cut across a sprocket hole.
  5. Once the film has caught in the reel mechanism, transfer it to the changing bag. Also insert: development tank; central spindle; funnel lid; scissors (write this list out and visually check the items off as you put them in the bag). You might find it easier to put all the other items inside the tank, so you can locate them easily. (Remember to take them out before inserting the reel.)
  6. Wind the film on to the reel inside the bag, keeping the canister aligned straight with the feed. Pull the canister away occasionally and check that it is drawn back towards the reel as you wind to verify that the film is feeding on. At the end, cut or tear off the canister (mind your fingers and if the worst happens, don’t bleed on the roll). Sooner or later, everyone encounters a roll that won’t wind on to the reel without jamming. Forcing it leads to kinks in the film, usually on a critical part of an image. To minimise the chances of this happening, it is critical that the reels are completely dry and clean before use. Always wash them well after a developing session. Before starting, warm them with a hairdryer to remove moisture; this also expands the plastic slightly. Ensure that the ball bearings which grip the film move freely, and avoid touching the inner tracks (if your hands sweat, try wearing cotton gloves). Bend the end of the roll back slightly to reduce the curl before loading. As you turn the sides of the reel, gently pull them outwards. If the film jams, try more outwards pressure and a few taps to free it. Otherwise, you may have to pull it all off and try again: take a deep, calm breath and resist the urge to throw the whole thing across the room (which is how I lost a complete film once). In the worst case, if it simply won’t go on, cut the film and wind the remainder on to a second, spare reel in the bag. You’ll lose a frame, but at least the roll will be unmarked.
  7. Once the reel is in the tank and the lid is in place, leave it. Fill the bucket with water and adjust hot/cold until its temperature is around 21C (to allow for cooling). This may take a while but there is no time pressure right now. Use only this water from this point. Mix the required developer/fixer/stopper solutions with it now, in the right concentrations (do them all together because you won’t have time midway through, and to ensure that you have sufficient quantity of each). Also pour some water into the tub or tray and put the developing tank and the beakers or jugs containing your solutions in there.
  8. Pour in each solution in turn and agitate as per the instructions. If you have suitable airtight storage bottles, you can retain the fixer and stopper for reuse. (Ilford suggest there’s little value in reusing developer unless you’re doing volume processing.) Follow Ilford’s three-wash cycle at the end, again using the water from the bucket. For a final rinse, squirt a small amount of washing-up liquid into the water to prevent drying marks.
  9. Unwind the film from the reel, taking care not to let it touch the floor (yes, there should be actual images - woo! - visible on it). Wash and wet your fingers, then run them along the length of the film to squeeze off the excess water, or use a wet paper towel. Be careful with the emulsion side, as it is easily rubbed off while wet.
  10. Hang the film up in your drying place using a clothes peg. Attach the weighted peg to the bottom; it should be just heavy enough to stop the film curling up without stretching it. Leave until dry on both sides, then carefully cut into strips and archive.


Most photographers like to have contact sheets of their negatives to act as a reference. If you’re not using a wet process, my preference is to scan each strip in VueScan at the lowest resolution, with “Index file” and JPEG as the only Output options enabled (remember to reset the counter), for previewing. When complete, load the index file into your image editor, adjust the levels if necessary and apply some minor sharpening before printing it out on photo inkjet paper.

My initial choice was to scan every negative at full resolution and generate both processed and raw output files. However, this takes forever and uses a lot of disk space. Given that “if there are three keepers, it was a good roll”, this is largely wasted effort. It’s much easier to scan once quickly for the contacts and then go back and scan the individual shots you want properly later.

Other bubbles

  •’s guide is one of the most thorough, although it differs from Ilford’s method in a few minor details; this shows that a precise technique isn’t critical.