B&W Processing Tips for Beginners

Developing B&W film can be complicated, but it’s not rocket science. Ultimately, everyone has their own way of doing things, but sometimes these unique practices come from misinformation or bad habits. With that in mind, here are some tips for those who are new to it all.

  • Conventional B&W film is best developed by you (at home) or by a lab with whom you have a good relationship. If neither of these are possible, you should avoid conventional B&W film and instead use a C-41 process B&W film (like Ilford XP2 Super or Kodak Black and White). The C-41 process is standard, while conventional B&W film processing is anything but, which makes it hard to track down problems and get consistent results unless you know exactly how your film is being treated. The C-41 B&W films are excellent. Use them until you have the time and resources to process your own B&W.
  • The best way to learn how to develop B&W film at home is to take a class or learn in-person from someone knowledgable. Books and Internet guides are fine, but things like loading film and mixing chemicals are much easier if you can get instant feedback from an expert. Ask someone you know to spare a couple of hours of their time to teach you.
  • If you want to get good B&W results quickly, choose one film-developer combination and stick with it for at least 25 rolls before trying anything new. All of the common B&W films and developers are capable of excellent results and there are no “magic bullets”. If you are getting bad results with your current combination, making refinements to the EI, processing time, temperature and agitation will improve your negatives more quickly than changing to a new film or developer will.
  • Start with a conventional 400-speed film like Kodak Tri-X, Ilford HP5 Plus, or Fuji Neopan 400. The Eastern European films (including the Arista.EDU and EDU Ultra series) are good, but have a smaller user base, so I would avoid them until you have more experience and are able to determine your own developing times. I would also avoid the TMAX films (too sensitive to development variables).
  • Don’t be seduced by ultra-fine grain. Beginners (myself included, many years ago) often search out the finest-grained films they can find. In reality, extra-fine grain can often decrease apparent sharpness in an image (have a read through Edge of Darkness by the late Barry Thornton for an explanation of why this is the case.) Stick with a good 400-speed film — they give you the extra speed you need to be able to work hand-held. When you really need super-fine grain, it’s time to look at larger formats.
  • You do not have use chemicals from the same company that made your film, but you should start with a developer from a major manufacturer so that others can help you troubleshoot when things go wrong. Powder developers are fine if you have a dedicated space to do your developing in and don’t mind a bit of dust in the air — good powder developers are Kodak D-76 or Ilford ID-11, Kodak Xtol (mix with distilled water) and Ilford Microphen. If you are developing in your kitchen or bathroom, a liquid concentrate may be more useful. I recommend Kodak HC-110 (keeps forever) or Ilford DD-X.
  • Rodinal, Ilfosol, Microdol, Perceptol and TMax are probably not good developers for beginners to start with. They all have issues with either extraordinarily coarse grain, short shelf life, or low effective film speed. Diafine is probably also not ideal because while it is easy to use, you don’t learn anything about processing technique or variables by using it.
  • Beginners should use developers one-shot only for the most consistent results. Dilute stock D-76, ID-11 or Xtol 1+1 with water and dump the working solution after one use. Syrupy concentrates like HC-110 or DD-X should be diluted just before use, used once, and then dumped. (Don’t dilute the whole HC-110 bottle! Make “Dilution B” by mixing the syrup 1+31 with water just before use.) Mix up only the working solution you need for each session.
  • The brand of stop bath and fixer you use is not critical, but try to use odourless stop baths and non-hardening fixers. Hardening fixers make washing films take longer and are not necessary for modern films. To determine fixing time: take a small piece of film (from the leader), dump it into some fixer, and swirl it around a bit. The time it takes for the last trace of cloudiness to disappear from the film is called the clearing time. Multiply the clearing time by three to find the actual fixing time. Hypo clearing agent is not necessary if you use a non-hardening fixer.
  • If you use a non-hardening fixer, follow the Ilford washing method. Fill the tank with water, invert 5 times, and pour it out. Re-fill with water, invert 10 times, and pour it out again. Re-fill with water again, invert 20 times, and pour it out one last time. This method saves a lot of time and a lot of water, but only applies if you use a non-hardening fixer. If you use a hardening fixer like Kodak’s, you will need hypo clearing agent and a much longer wash.
  • The last liquid your film should touch is a solution of wetting agent in distilled water. You only need a tiny bit — 10 drops of wetting agent concentrate per litre of water is good. Soak the film for a minute. This step prevents water spots and mineral deposits. Rinsing after this step defeats the purpose of the wetting agent, so don’t do it!
  • The best place to dry film is a shower stall that has recently been “steamed up” by running hot water for a minute or two. The steam helps to settle the dust in the air. Hang the film in the shower stall from clothespins attached to a stiff wire hanger, using more clothespins on the bottom of the film to weigh it down. Close the shower door and avoid stirring up dust or lint in the bathroom while the film dries.
  • Store processed film in clear sleeves. Get a pack of Print-File (or similar) neg sleeves that have a little frosted window to write notes on. I use this note area to write down the camera, subject, film and developer (with times and temperatures), date, and a serial number for each roll (e.g. 0631 for the 31st roll in 2006). Each frame then has a unique number (e.g. 0631-15 is frame 15 on roll 0631) which you can use for naming scans and prints and lets you find the processing information very quickly (this is David Vestal’s numbering scheme).
  • If you are interested in reading more about B&W processing, I recommend the books by David Vestal, Henry Horenstein, and Bernhard Suess. Check your public library.

I would appreciate hearing your comments on this article.