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How to Process Black & White Film Negatives

The first few cannisters of 120 roll medium format film have passed through my recently acquired Zenza Bronica ETRS camera. The emphasis has moved from shooting using the sunny 16 rule onto loading a Paterson developing tank in a darkroom bag and processing my own medium format black and white film in the bathroom.

The Zenza Bronica ETRS shoots 4.5cm x 6cm with 15 shots onto a 120 roll film.

My source for this process is a photographer named Ted Forbes who has a video podcast series called The Art of Photography and is co-host, along with Wade Griffith, of the audio podcast series called The Photography Show.

Loading the Developing Tank in Total Darkness

Due to the extreme light sensitivity of film it needs to be handled with care. After removal of the 120 roll film from the back of the camera it was placed inside a 27″ x 30″ double lined darkroom changing bag along with a Paterson System 4 Universal Developing Tank (the tub, the screw on top, the seal ring, the lid and the film spool). Within the changing bag the film roll is carefully unrolled and fed onto the developing tank spool then placed into the tank’s tub and the tank is put together. This provides a lightproof environment that can safely be taken out of the bag for the film development process.

The System 4 Universal Developing Tank spool can be adjusted to feed on the following film – 35mm, 126, 127, 120, 220 or 620. Loading the spool is not difficult but it certainly proved advantageous to do it a few times in daylight with an old exposed roll of film before executing the procedure inside the darkroom bag.

The Nuts & Bolts of Processing Gear

The best place in your house to consider developing B&W film would be the bathroom. When steam is introduced into a bathroom it pulls the dust out of the air so it can offer the ideal dust free environment.

The tools to grab include three 500 ml pyrex jugs (one for developer, one for stop bath and one for fixer), a small measuring cup, a large container to rest the three jugs inside and bring them to temperature, a cooking thermometer and two clothes pegs to attach your film for drying. Essential is a clock with a second hand.

The chemicals you need include a developer, a stop bath and a fixer solution. You will also need a wetting agent for the very last step before you hang the film to dry. Discuss these with your photography supply retailer if you need advice on what to buy and how to use them. Prior to developing you may also want to watch Ted demonstrate the developing process.

How to Develop B&W Film in your Bathroom

Place your developer, stop bath and fixer solutions (at recommended dilutions) in the three pyrex jugs. For 120 roll film in a Paterson System 4 Universal Developing Tank the quantity in each jug needs to be around 500ml. Sit the three jugs inside a larger container that you fill with water to raise (or lower) the temperature to 20 degrees Celcius (68 degrees Farenheit). In Ted’s video he uses ice and water to lower the temperature to 20 degrees… but in Tasmania you need to boil some water and pour that into the larger container because the standard temperature in Winter can be around 10 degrees at noon.

When the solutions reach temperature take the three jugs and put them in order – developer, stop bath and fixer – on the sink.

Set the clock to 9 minutes and open the top of the developing tank… pour in the developer solution (taking around 15 seconds). Then slowly agitate the tank head-over-base (taking around 5-10 seconds per revolution) for the first 30 seconds and tap the bottom corner of the container three times on the bench to remove any bubbles that might sit against the film within the solution.

Through those 9 minutes agitate the tank head-over-base once every 30 seconds and remember to tap the base of the container on the sink three times. The developer is the most time sensitive in the process so be sure to stick to the time constraint.

Pour out the developer solution and pour in the stop bath solution. The stop bath needs to be agitated head-over-base for around 2 minutes to stop the developer from working on the film. So after 2 minutes pour out the stop bath (it can be reused if you have a light proof chemical storage container).

The final chemical is the fixer solution and its purpose is to wash away the excess silver and fix the negative into a stable state. Put the clock onto 9 minutes and pour the fixer solution into the developing tank. Slowly agitate the tank head-over-base (taking around 5-10 seconds per revolution) for the first 30 seconds and tap the bottom corner of the container three times on the bench to remove any bubbles that might sit against the film within the solution.

Through those 9 minutes agitate the tank head-over-base once every 30 seconds and remember to tap the base of the container on the sink three times. The fixer solution is also reusable so you might want to pour it into a light proof chemical container instead of down the drain.

At this point you can open the tank because the film is no longer sensitive to light. Place the tub with the roll of film under a cold tap for rinsing off the chemicals… you can’t over-rinse so this should be 30-40 minutes.

Finally, fill the developing tank tub with clean water and place a few drops of wetting agent to prevent water streaking during the drying process. Put the reel back into the tank’s tub and replace the top of the developing tank. Slowly agitate the tank at the same slow speed as earlier for around two minutes. Then pour out the water and let the drips fall off the film from one corner (still in the spool). Remove the film from the spool, pour the water over it with one hand while holding the top of the film in the other hand, and then attach a peg to each end of the unrolled film and hang to dry.

Ted Forbes lives in Texas and suggests an hour to dry film. In a cold Tasmanian winter you might want to make that a day or more.

The Pudding is in the Photography

Overall, the first roll of film was a success and considering I had never shot film before and had no light meter (so used the sunny 16 rule to guestimate exposures) there were a lot of positives to take away. I had two negatives taken at the market where I pushed too much light onto the film (one too many stops) and there’s one maybe that I’ll have to see in a photo editor to assess. Twelve of those 15 shots came out brilliantly and when I can save up for a top-lit scanner I might be able to share them with you.

Until then, I guess it’s more about the shooting than the printing. It’s more about cooking the pudding than plumping up my belly and looking for the pennies.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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