In our most recent poll, I asked Why Don’t You Develop Your Own Film? We’ve had a great response in just one day, and it is our goal to address most of the answers to that question.
But before we dive into the technical how-to stuff, I wanted to chit-chat about the reasons for developing your own stuff. Primarily, we’ll be talking about black and white negatives, but it’s likely that we’ll bleed into C-41 and E6.
[update 05/13/2010] Check out our follow-up article: “5 Reasons to Have a Lab Develop Your Film”
So let’s dive in! Here are my 10 main reasons for developing my own film.
1. Lower Cost
The initial investment for developing equipment appears to be a little steep, but the long-term costs are much lower than taking film to the local lab. You can get up and running for around $50 ($100 max if you really want to splurge on the extras). From then on, the only cost comes from the chemicals. Worst case scenario, if I were to develop only 4 rolls of b/w film per mix, I would spend about $0.50 to develop each roll. If I save up 8 or more rolls of film, I could cut that cost in half. Not bad, right?
Color film will run me about $1.00 per roll if I manage to save up 16 rolls of exposed film — $2.00 per roll if I get impatient. Still not bad.
If you only shoot 5 or 6 rolls of film per year, it obviously doesn’t make sense to develop your own stuff. But if you’re shooting several rolls per week or month, it’s probably worth it.
2. Higher Quality
Not to look down on local film labs, but self-developed film usually turns out higher quality. I’ve encountered everything from scratches to incorrect development. Aside from the “little things”, labs will often use a single set of chemicals for any film that they develop. With black and white developing, this isn’t always the best way to go. Sometimes you want to have control over your contrast or grain formation. With a lab, you just don’t have that option.
3. More Control
To expand on the previous point, self developing offers much greater control over the developing process. Not only can you control the contrast and grain, you can also adjust exposure. Push/pull, stand developing, and varying developers and dilutions will all change the outcome of your film. When you take your film to a lab, you typically don’t have any control over this stuff.
4. Push/Pull Options
To expand even more on the previous two points, certain developers are better at pushing and pulling films. Some chemicals don’t do it at all, while others will allow you to push or pull more than 3 full stops. It’s most likely that you’ll be shooting extreme under/over exposures on purpose with the intent of push/pull processing. When you do your own developing, you’ll know just how far you can stray on your exposure. When you have a lab develop your film, you might not have the option to compensate during development.
5. Alternative Processing
Most competent labs will let you cross process slide film, but a lot of the mainstream places won’t do it for you. When I wanted to have some color film bleach-bypassed, I couldn’t find anybody to do it for me. Labs aren’t really set up for doing alternative process developing — just go to your local lab and ask them to develop a roll of b/w film with Caffenol… yeah right. But when you do your own stuff, you have the ability to mess with the process and try different things.
6. Obscure Films
Most “off the shelf” films can be developed with “off the shelf” chemicals, but not all film fits into that category. Some of the more obscure stuff requires special attention, and film labs might not be able to accommodate you. Black and white film developing is actually much more tedious than color negative developing because each film/developer combo requires a certain time/temperature. Most labs won’t be able to develop that obscure orthochromatic film you just got from eBay (or from a good friend on the other side of the world).
7. Chemical Sampling
Developing black and white film is a bit like being a wine connoisseur. Mixing the chemicals, finding a good dilution, getting the right temperature, figuring out the perfect agitation sequence, hitting the right development time… it’s an art in itself. Different chemicals yield different results, and it’s sort of fun to mess around with different stuff.
8. Refined Process
As you go deeper into self-developing, you’ll do more experimentation, ask more questions, and push the envelope more often. Sometimes you’ll fail miserably. And sometimes you’ll discover an amazing combination of camera, film, chemical, and process. When that happens, it’s hard to shoot anything else. My personal favorite is shooting Ilford PanF+ in my Autocord MXS or Hi-Matic 7sII at EI-25 and developing with Rodinal at 1+100 dilution for 15 minutes. It’s magic.
9. Darkroom Education
Developing film doesn’t really require any darkroom skills, but it certainly helps to get you ready for the real deal! The process of mixing chemicals, paying attention to times, being mindful of light-sensitive materials, chemical disposal, cleanup, and a basic understanding of the exposure/developing process… these are all important skills to have if you want to print.
10. It’s Fun, Darn It!
Ok, so here’s the thing… it’s really fun at first. Exciting stuff and all that. Then it gets to be a pain in the ass and you hate it. But if you stay with it for a while longer, it gets fun again. Once you get over that “boring” hump, you begin to realize that developing is part of the creative process too. Then you start to experiment, learn, and refine. Eventually, you’re a grumpy old film photographer intent on using one specific film with one specific developer at one specific process… I hope to be there some day.
What are your reasons for developing your own film? What are your reasons for taking it to the lab?