The Dark Arts

When I first got into photography back in 2001 I was of course using film, and because I was a true beginner I did what everyone else did and bought muli-packs of consumer colour film from Boots and took it back there for them to develop.

As I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog like everyone else I moved into digital but have since got back into film because I love the sense of anticipation when you first see the developed images and I love the sense of achievement when you get a great image which you have manually created.

Nikon FE
Nikon FE

When I first got my Nikon FE over three years ago I knew that I wanted to use it for black and white photography to try and create that “classic” look and so bought a few rolls of Ilford HP5+ which seems to be the standard film, at least here in the UK. Once a roll was finished I sent it off for processing and awaited the return of the prints with bated breath. This was great but sending film off to be developed is not cheap so I decided to investigate how to develop film myself. Not only would this save me money (after the initial outlay for equipment and chemicals) but it would add the the sense of satisfaction because I would have done more of the process myself.

Fortunately for me my Dad used to develop his own film and prints so I knew that he had a box somewhere in his loft containing development equipment which was just gathering dust. He was only to happy to pass this on to me. So after a few more purchases on eBay I now had everything I needed to develop my own black and white film – everything that is apart from the chemicals.

Tools of the trade
Tools of the trade

Here is where the real research starts. What developer should I use? What fixer? What stop bath? Which of these goes best with which film? Should I change my chemicals or change my film? How long do I need to do each process? How often should I agitate? How hard should I agitate? At what temperature do these chemicals need to be? How diluted should my developer be? How long do these chemicals last before they go off? What about stand development? What about push processing? The amount of questions is mind-boggling!


There are some really useful websites out there, such as The Massive Dev Chart which for practically any film/developer combination will tell you how long to develop the film for and at what temperature for many film speed and developer dilutions. It really is invaluable. To answer all the other questions you can spend literally days trawling through Flickr discussion groups, blogs, and websites trying to find a definitive answer.I can save you a bit of time here – there is no definitive answer.

Bolton Abbey
Bolton Abbey

For every person who says you need to do X with Y at Z there will be someone else who says that they find the results with that combination to be awful and you must use A with B pushed to C. Even the figures quoted on The Massive Dev Chart are widely disputed. Is developing film more of a mystery than rocket science? Brain surgery? Alchemy? The Dark Arts? You would be forgiven for thinking so.

So what do you do? Give up and go back to digital because it is all too complicated and you don’t want to waste your time and money by shooting film only for the results to be “wrong”? Of course not. Here is what you do – get some film, get some chemicals, look up the figure on The Massive Dev Chart and go for it. Like the results? Great! Could be better? Trawl the net, try and filter out the noise, and tweak what you did with your next roll of film. Any better? Magic.

Of course it is not entirely trial and error but what I am saying is that the best way to work out how to get good results is to try different combinations and methods and see what works for you. There will be hundreds of people on the net who would tell you that you are doing it wrong but you have the results in front of you and they don’t. If it looks good then you are doing it right.

La Resistance
La Resistance

Just in case you are interested here is what I have found works best for me – Kodax Tri-X 400 (shot at box speed) developed in Rodinal (Oneshot R09). I pre-wash the film for a few minutes in water and use the stand development method – 1/100 dilution, agitate for the first 20 seconds then leave alone for 1 hour. A quick rinse in Ilford Ilfostop, then I use Ilford Rapid Fixer (timed to be twice as long as it takes for the film leader which you cut off earlier to turn transparent). I follow this with three rinses in water – the first I do 5 agitations, the second for 10 agitations, the third I add a few drops of Ilford Wetting Agent and do 20 agitations. It is important to keep all the chemicals and water at 68 degrees F.

The reason I choose to use Rodinal is twofold – firstly it lasts forever (I have read about bottles lasting 40 years) and because I do not develop a lot of film all other developers would go off before I would get to use it all, secondly it is highly concentrated so it comes in a tiny bottle which doesn’t cost in delivery charges.

So feel free to comment but I know that for me this combination works, it might for you but if not experiment and see what does work. Welcome to the Dark Arts!


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