Skip to content

Developing Black & White Film: Chemicals

by Bryan Bedell, Galewood Camera Club

Unlike all the gear on the equipment list, you’ll need to occasionally buy more chemicals, but they’re generally reasonably cheap and you get a good amount of use out of a bottle. If you’re not using a lot of film, you’ll want to use a ‘one shot’ developer that you mix, use, then discard, but ‘replenishable’ developers are also available that can be reused and ‘replenished’ with additional chemicals. Fixer and Stop can be re-used a certain number of times, and everything else is optional and/or pretty cheap.

Toxicity and odor are an issue on some of these, I don’t process enough film to worry too much about that. but if you do, take that into consideration when you’re picking (and definitely when you’re storing) chemicals. Freestyle sells a line of “environmentally friendlier” chemicals, but from my research, most common photo chemicals aren’t ridiculously toxic, aside from fixer, which you can reuse quite a bit before discarding.

DEVELOPER

It’s best to start with something easy to find and well-documented. I started out with Kodak HC-110 (liquid) because it was cheap, easy to mix in small batches, and seemed to have short times with most films. It worked great, but when I started shooting some different films, it worked too fast (you don’t want film developing too fast or you can’t control the timing accurately) so I switched to Kodak D-76 (powdered) which is even cheaper but you need to make a large amount of working solution at once. Lots of photo nerds swear by “Rodinal” which was a famously versatile AGFA developer. It’s out of production, but there are similar formulas still available. I’d say look at the various films you’re likely to use and find something that works with all of them and is easy to find. Different developers have different qualities, but I’m not experienced enough to see too much difference, that’ll come later I’m sure. Freestyle has generic versions of most popular brand-name chemicals, but they’re not much cheaper in small quantities, so I usually go with brand-name.

Fomacitro stop bath working solution (in graduated cylinder) with a sample of exhausted stop bath (blue, in film canister)

Some stop baths change color when exhausted.

STOP BATH (optional)

You can use water, but Stop Bath is pretty cheap, reusable, and allows you to reuse your fixer longer, too. There are many brands, I’ve been using Fomacitro, just because it’s cheap and seems to work fine. The Fomacitro and some other brands subtly change color when ‘exhausted’ but I usually just mark hashmarks on the bottle and use it 7-8 times, then discard it and mix up a new batch.

FIXER

Again, lots of brands out there, but most are based on the same couple basic formulas. I’ve tried Freestyle’s “Arista” brand, Kodafix, and Kodak Professional Fixer, and didn’t see any noticeable difference. You can reuse most fixers several times, so it’s fairly inexpensive. This is the only chemical I’ve found to smell pretty bad and be bad for the environment, so you may want to pay extra for an odorless and/or environmentally-friendly fixer.

HYPO CLEAR (optional)

“Hypo” is another name for a type of fixer, and “hypo clear” helps to flush out the fixer before the rinse. I don’t use it, but if you do, it cuts down on your rinse time, and thus saves a good deal of time and water. So I probably should.

WETTING AGENT

I’ve been on the same small bottle of Kodak Photo Flo for nearly three years, so it’s probably worth the investment. It reduces the chance of water droplets or streaks on your film as it dries.

STORAGE

Consider the storage of your chemicals and other gear, you’ll want to it all organized and out of direct light in a cabinet near your sink or in a lightproof box or bin. And be sure to keep it somewhere clean and safe from kids or pets. Most chemicals have a limited shelf life, which varies based on the chemical, the container it’s in, and the concentration. Unopened bottles of concentrated chemicals last a long time, chemicals mixed to working concentration generally have a shorter shelf life, especially a smaller quantity in a large bottle with lots of air in it. This shelf life is another important consideration when choosing chemicals, though in most cases, the estimates from the manufacturer are somewhat conservative and the solution will work (to some degree) longer than expected.

These chemicals, the other basic equipment, and some exposed film are all you need to start developing.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.