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Processing Film in a Developing Tank

If you are paying through your nose to develop analogue film, or are put off shooting analogue due to the processing expenses, you should consider buying a Paterson Super System 4 Developing Tank.

The Kit to get you Processing 35mm and 120 roll film

The Paterson Super System 4 will set you back around AUD$50 – mine cost $35 second-hand. The tank can process 35mm, 120 and 127 film rolls. You will need a reasonably large darkroom bag that will cost around $55 (mine is 27 inch by 30 inch). You will need a developer solution, a stop-bath solution and a fixer solution. They are used in that order – developer, stop bath and fixer. You will also need a few drops of wetting agent.

I use Ilford chemicals for black and white printing. Colour is a little harder and a lot more toxic so I suggest you stick to black and white; a good photo lab can still process any colour rolls you want to shoot.

Ilfotec LC29 (500ml) is a basic and stable developer… I use it at 1+19 (one part in 20) and at a cost of $38 it makes 10 Litres. This will process around 20 rolls of 120 medium format film, 27 rolls of 127 medium format film or 30 rolls of 35mm film. However, if you’re looking for the best Ilford developer the cost is approximately double – Ilfotec DD-X. This was developed for the Delta series of film but is recommended across the Ilford film range for best results.

Ilfotec Ilfostop (500ml) cost $20… it’s also used at 1+19 and makes 10 litres. However, I re-use this a second and third time so the value is tripled.

Ilford Hypam (5 litres) cost $55 and is used at 1+5 so it makes 25 litres. If you buy this in 5 litres it will cost about half per volume of the smaller bottles.

At the end of your processing you are going to need 2 small drops of a wetting agent before hanging the film to dry. Ilford Ilfotol 1 litre cost $31 but it’s a lifetime supply. If you can acquire it in a smaller and cheaper bottle then all the better.

You’ll also need (something similar to) three 500ml Pyrex jugs, a ceramic baking dish, an oven thermometer, a small measuring cup and a small medicine measuring cup, an eye dropper and a clock with a second hand. Finally, chemical resistant latex gloves.

The Process in Easy Steps

Assuming you have 120 film to process, you need to put the pieces of the developing tank inside the darkroom bag so your film won’t be exposed to light. Alternatively, you could do this in a pitch dark room. Feed back the paper until you reach the film and feed it onto the spool using the back-and-forth feeding motion.

Once the film is on the spool and safely inside the light-tight environment of the developing tank you can head to the bathroom.

Measure out the correct quantities and fill the three pyrex jugs to appropriate levels of chemical for the type film being developed (35mm, 127 or 120). Place the three jugs, in order, into your ceramic baking dish and submerge the end of the oven thermometer into the developer. The temperature needs to be approximately 20 degrees celsius (68 degrees farenheit).

You should consult the Ilford Film Processing Chart or the Massive Dev Chart to see how long your specific film variety and speed need to be developed in the specific developer you are utilising. If your quantities, temperature and time are controlled the results are more predictable.

The process of using the developing tank is simple (Google will offer up a number of instructional videos).

Pour the jug of developer into the top of the developer tank and slowly rotate end over end for half a minute then tap the bottom of the developing tank three times on the sink to release bubbles from the film surface. Every 30 seconds slowly rotate the tank one more time and tap three times on the sink. For example, if you shot Ilford Delta Professional 400 then your development time as indicated on the Ilford Film Processing Chart will be 7 and a half minutes.

Then remove the top cap to pour out the developer. Pour in the stop bath solution and continually but slowly rotate the developing tank for two minutes.

Again, pour out the stop bath solution and pour in the jug of fixer. Rotate the developing tank for the first 30 seconds and tap three times then continue to rotate the tank once every 30 seconds for the next 9 minutes. Don’t forget to tap the bottom of the tank three times onto the sink after each rotation. At the end of the 9 minutes, pour out the fixer solution.

At this point the film is processed. Unscrew the top off the developing tank and, under running water, agitate the roll of film inside the open tank for 15-20 minutes to remove any traces of chemical.

Finally, fill the open tank with water (you may use distilled water if necessary) and add two drops of the wetting agent to stop the film drying with unsightly water marks. And hang your film overnight… or until dry. I use a home-made film drying cabinet to prevent unnecessary dust on my negatives.

The next day I use an Epson Perfection V600 scanner to bring the images into software for minor editing & dust removal. Voila.

Developing Film is Easy & Affordable

The big take-away from this article should be that processing black and white analogue film is easy and affordable. It costs somewhere between $3-$5 to process a roll of film into negatives… a little bit more if you want to use the best developer Ilford offer. I have a small jar and every time I process somebody’s film I just drop in $5 to help replace the chemicals.

Yes, there are initial outlays for kit including the tank, the darkroom bag and ongoing consumables. But compare that to the cost of going to the processing lab with every roll of film you want to shoot. And factor in the benefits of owning the kit – just like you own and control your own camera equipment.

All I can do is encourage you to give shooting analogue film a go… the worst that can happen is you get a few flat photographs and give up. The best? You discover the tactile experience of analogue photography. Also, if we shoot film they’ll continue to make film… if we shoot only digital then we’ll lose the choice.

My next article will be a number of small tips on getting the best out of your experience at processing your own film in the developing tank. Small things that can save you from bumps and bruises along the way.

You might also find my following article Tips for Using a Developing Tank quite useful.

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About the Author

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

My name is Steven Clark and I live in the Derwent Valley in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a mazer & a yeast farmer (making beer, fruit wine and mead as by-products of continuous improvement in my farming practices). I'm a photographer, although my film cameras are currently silent. I do not tolerate idiots. I do not tolerate bigotry. I do not tolerate excuses. Let's be clear, if you sit with my enemies you my are my enemy for life.

Blogger. Thinker. Brewer. Drinker. Life partner to the amazing and incredible Megan.

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