Picture the scene. You’re in total darkness, holding a thin, delicate strip of plastic in one hand and a small bobbin that resembles a Ferris wheel in the other. The task that you have to perform is to thread the plastic strip through a gap in the bobbin that is barely wide enough for it to fit through, and fully wind it on. You cannot see beyond the end of your nose and, to make things a bit more spicy, the temperature of the air is rising rapidly and there is no draft to cool it down. It’s getting hot in here, and the success of the operation hangs in the balance. Welcome to a process that can, and in my case has, reduced a grown adult to tears. We are developing film.
More accurately we have only just started the process by loading our film onto a developing reel, before we have any ideas about actually recovering our precious images from it. It may seem overly dramatic, but this stage is where many an issue arises. Firstly, our film has previously been exposed to light through the camera shutter when we took the photos and remains sensitive until it is developed, so we have to prepare it in complete darkness. The normal method of loading film takes place in a ‘dark bag’, which is exactly what is sounds like; a light-tight bag that is accessed via a pair of elasticated arm holes. It’s a bit like the bio-hazard box that our movie action heroes use to neutralise the infectious virus or diffuse the bomb, the only problem here being that everything has to be done by touch alone. We must take time and care over handling the film in the bag, avoiding touching the emulsion surface that hopefully holds our prized images, making sure the threading is done evenly so we don’t kink the plastic substrate, and winding slowly so that the film doesn’t jump out of the guides within the reel…etc. This effort in a confined space, makes us nervous, which in turn makes us start to sweat. Did I mention that getting the film wet in any way during this process makes it sticky and much, much harder to handle? Well, it does. So much so, that the ‘film sweats’ is a real phenomenon and I, like many, have suffered from it more than once. The increasing frustration with the now-humid bag, the sticky film and the reel that just won’t wind properly, must be eased somehow, because it’s one of those rare situations where perseverance actually gets you nowhere. When the sweats strike, the only real solution I’ve found is to carefully remove your hands and stick the whole bag in the fridge to cool down. It’s still not ideal, but luck may be onside, and the process might be recoverable. However if all goes well during loading, the reel goes into a developing tank (that’s in the same bag) and sealed shut, so that the actual process can take place in daylight (a darkroom isn’t needed for this process, contrary to popular belief).
The kit. The chemical bath with the three B&W chemicals, the reel and the developing tank.
Give yourself a pat on the back because we’re halfway there, right? Wrong. If the idea of blindly loading delicate film scares you, wait until you get into choosing chemicals, dilutions, temperatures, timings and all that jazz. Developing film is what could be described as a commitment, that is simple enough in concept but needs practice and care to get right. As the legendary golfer Gary Player pointed out, 'the more you practice the luckier you get'. So, why would any sane person put themselves through this torment the first place? Well, assuming that this question isn’t being asked of a solely digital shooter (that would be stupid), the answer is of course that developing your own film is a rewarding part of a creative process that started when you picked up a camera and chose a film that best matched your ideas. When it comes to developing, there are a variety of options to bring out the creative vision within your images, affecting sharpness, contrast, highlight and shadow, resulting in a crafted piece of work. For example, you could shoot a high contrast scene in black and white, deliberately underexpose the film, and compensate in development in a way that produces a grainy, but dramatic 'film noir' look. Known as pushing film, this technique highlights how the relationship between shooting and processing is symbiotic. Understanding how to process film is one of those specialisms where there is always something to learn and a huge number of resources available, even though film photography is a much smaller undertaking than it was in its pre-digital heyday. Fantastic reference books such as Steve Anchell’s The Darkroom Cookbook, with its custom recipes for developing chemicals, take us right back to our high school chemistry lessons and required a level of competence that I don’t really have (I spent most of my science lessons chatting up the girl I sat next to). However, through trial and significant error, a preferred developer or developers can be settled on easily enough. Some people prefer to use developers that are specifically designed for a film stock and others like to experiment, even developing in a coffee and Vitamin C solution (known as caffenol). My own experience to date has been to gain confidence in black and white development, experiment with pushing film as described before, and trying new film stocks. I dabbled in colour negative development for a short while, which in theory is simpler than black and white in terms of choice of chemicals and developing times, but my results were so inconsistent owing to its sensitivity to temperature fluctuations, that I’ve elected to get them done by a professional lab in future. Fortunately, the rise in the number of people shooting film has resulted in many great labs who develop a variety of formats, so this isn’t a problem to me. I’ve yet to try developing colour positive film (slides to those of a certain age), but I will at some point. Regarding my creative process, the truth is that despite the pitfalls and failures that I’ve encountered developing film, and there have been many, I enjoy the simple pleasure of making something physical. There is something about seeing the film come off the reel at the end, seeing the negatives on a light box for the first time and producing a finished work from them, that is for me more rewarding that downloading a RAW file from a memory card. When I was a kid, I thought of film photography, which was really the only medium available, as some form of magic and the chap in the local chemist who turned my 35mm cartridge into a packet of prints, some kind of wizard. When I develop film now, I still get that slight child-like wonder when all has gone to plan.
Attention!, shot on Kodak TMax 100 film in the Hasselblad 500c/m, developed by Yours Truly
My process, like many who don’t have a darkroom, is to scan the developed film and print from that using an inkjet printer. This may seem like heresy, or some might question the decision to move into digits after all that analogue stuff, but to be honest it’s a convenience more than anything. Although film is enjoying a revival and new stocks are being released or discovered faster than the discontinuations (I’m looking at you, Fujifilm), there has been a decline in printing papers that makes creating a darkroom seem a little limited to me. This is just my opinion though, as I know there are people taking up wet printing in community darkrooms, which I do think is a great idea. It’s just not for me.
You may be wondering why I’m writing about this now. Well, a nasty bout of Covid-19 has somewhat cramped my style this past couple of weeks, so I’ve been using the time to work through my backlog of film. I should really stay on top of it to begin with, but life does have a habit of getting in the way. Each roll I develop yields photographs that I’d almost forgotten about, which is a nice surprise when you feel a bit under the weather. I would hardly describe the process as therapeutic, though. It’s enough to make Mr Bond sweat.