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Developing Black & White Film: Equipment

by Bryan Bedell, Galewood Camera Club

Here’s a list of the basic equipment for black and white film processing. Total cost is just over $100 if you go with these recommendations. If you don’t wanna spend that much, skimp on the bottles and squeegee, and get a cheaper thermometer. Some of this can be found around the house or at dollar stores, much of the photo-specific gear can be found super-cheap at garage sales, estate sales, Craigslist, or eBay if you want to save some money.

DEVELOPING TANK with reels

($20-60, $30 as recommended)
Either plastic or stainless steel should be fine, as long as it’s decent quality. I’ve been using the Paterson Universal Developing Tank. The item description at Freestyle says it comes with one adjustable reel, so I bought an extra one, but then it came packaged with two and I ended up with three, so you might not need the extra reel. This is a good size because you can do 1 or 2 rolls of 35mm, or one roll of 120, by twisting and re-aligning the adjustable reels. Larger tanks are available if you’ll be doing more film at once, but this size is a good place to start. The Paterson plastic reels are also much easier to load than metal reels.

I later picked up a couple stainless steel tanks and reels at garage sales. I sort of prefer them because they’re sturdier, more compact, and require a bit less of the chemicals. The stainless reels are a definitely a bit trickier to load than the plastic (and not adjustable, you need separate reels for 35 and 120) but they’re not nearly as difficult as some people make them out to be. With a little practice in the light, you’ll get the feel for it in no time. If you suspect you’ll be using them often, the stainless tank/reels are probably worth the investment.

CHANGING BAG or truly DARK ROOM

(Free-$100, $22 as recommended)
I’d suggest a changing bag, they’re not too expensive and easy to use, but if you want to save a few bucks, you’ll need to really lightproof a room by taping over doors and covering windows and sitting inside for ten minutes to make sure no light is leaking through once your eyes adjust. Just buy the bag and you can do it on your lap on the couch as you watch TV. More expensive ‘changing tents’ have sturdy walls to hold them open, but that’s more for loading larger-format sheet film, the one linked above is $22 and double-layered/double-zippered and works just fine.

THERMOMETER

(free-$75, $20 as recommended)
At least one. Photography-specific ones are nice because they’re generally easy to read. You’re generally shooting for 68°F (20°C), so don’t use a candy or meat thermometer with a higher range, I have two, one mercury and one dial thermometer, but I usually just use the mercury one to calibrate the dial one because that one’s easier to read hands-free.

TIMER

(free-$200, $5 as recommended)
An easy-to-read clock with a second hand would theoretically work. A real darkroom timer or stopwatch is much better. But I LOVE the Massive Dev Chart Timer app for IOS and Android. Not only does it include a huge archive of recommended processing times (which are usually–but not always–reliable, more on that later), it also allows you to plan out your times, mixtures and agitation intervals ahead of time and SAVE them as customized processing instructions, then it walks you through the process step by step. It can even automatically recalculate times based on water temperature and does a alot of the chemical mixing math for you. It removes a lot of guesswork and panic out of the process. All for five bucks. (The only downside is there’s a lot of water and chemicals involved in this process, so you’ll need to take care to keep your phone dry!)

GRADUATED CYLINDER

($6-20, $11 as recommended)
Get at least one that’s as big as your developing tank. I find myself wishing I had a couple more sometimes. For the tank above, each roll of 35mm film uses 290ml of chemicals, and 120 uses 500ml, so if you’re doing 2 rolls of 35mm, you’d want a 600ml graduated cylinder, at least. I also like to keep a 10ml BABY MEDICINE SYRINGE around, it’s great for metering out smaller quantities of chemicals (again, once you use it with photo chemicals, don’t use it for babies). Some will argue that you need separate measuring cups for different chemicals but i haven’t had problems so long as I keep my equipment *very* clean.

BOTTLES

(free-$8 each, get at least 4)
Mixing chemicals beforehand (and bringing them to temperature) makes the whole developing process easier and less stressful. You’ll want a few 1-gallon or half-gallon bottles, depending on the quantity of premixed chemicals you want to have ready (some go bad over time if you don’t use them). The lightproof brown or black bottles made for photo chemicals are best (especially the expandable ones that keep out extra air) but in a pinch, or to start out, you can get by without them. Milk jugs, orange juice containers, and other beverage containers (carefully washed and rinsed) work OK if you’re just mixing up what you need while you work, but being thinner and not lightproof, they probably aren’t great for longer-term storage for some chemicals.

Label them (and their caps) because once you use a bottle for one chemical, you shouldn’t use it for another chemical. I don’t mind re-using my (thoroughly washed) measuring cup for various chemicals, but these could sit around for months with chemicals in them!

DISHTUB

Any clean basin will do, but a dollar-store dishpan with a drying rack is useful for a bath to bring your chemicals to temperature, and then you can use it at the end to wash/dry your equipment.

SQUEEGEE

($7-12, $9 as recommended)
Used to remove water from negatives w/o streaks. Not entirely essential, but nice to have. I use this one but I’m not in love with it, I feel like my fingers worked just as well.

NEGATIVE CLIPS

(free-$7) (50¢ as recommended)
Who buys these? Get some clothespins or similar spring clips at a drugstore or craft store. They just need to be springy enough to securely hold the negatives, and heavy enough to weigh down the bottom so the film doesn’t curl.

FUNNELS

(free-$5)
Not entirely necessary, but very handy for mixing, and to pour reusable chemicals back into those narrow-mouth bottles. (As with all this stuff, once you use it for photo chemicals, don’t use it for cooking.) It’s really best to not use the same funnel with different chemicals. You can buy a set of funnels for a buck at the dollar store and label them “DEV,” “STOP” and “FIX”, so you don’t need to scrub them in a panic while you’re working.

BOTTLE OPENER and SCISSORS

(for 35mm only)
Any “Church Key” or keychain bottle opener will work great. You don’t need one from a camera store. To be honest, I always forget to put one in the changing bag so I usually just pry the canister open with my bare hands, but that’s barbaric and i’ve pinched the film a couple times. 120 film is taped to a roll of paper and doesn’t require a bottle opener or scissors when loading the tank. In either case, you’ll need a nice, clean, sharp pair of scissors later to cut the negatives apart for scanning and storage.

All this, along with some chemicals, and some exposed film are all you need to start developing.

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