How to Develop Black and White Film in the Dark Room

I decided to write this article because of the variables and choices that come into play after you have learned the basics of developing your own black and white film.  The general process for developing black and white film is to use a developer, stop bath, fixer and wash.  Now that you have decided to upgrade your photography to film it is a good idea to give yourself as many options as possible.

In practice, depending on your film and choice of chemicals for development it is a little more involved.  It may also depend on what you have available to you at the time of development.  My process in the lab is a systematic and consistent approach that does not vary.  However, when traveling on road trips my options at time may be limited or have to be altered based on the circumstances.

Developer

My primary black and white film is Tri-X.  When working in the lab I develop the film in XTOL at 1:1 for very sharp negatives when exposed at EI 200 or EI 400.  For push processing at EI 800/1600/3200 I use stock D-76.  When on the road I can’t carry and mix up XTOL or D-76 very easily so I develop using HC-110 dilution B from the syrup.

I decant ½ ounces in small glass bottles to mix with 15 ½ ounces of distilled water to develop one roll of 120 in a 16 oz steel tank.  My preference is XTOL for sharp and low grain negatives and D-76 stock for push processing.  I only use HC110-B on Tri-X when traveling because it is the only viable option that I have selected to use.  Just to be clear HC110-B is my standard for Tri-X large format sheet film.  If anyone can tell me the logic behind this approach you are no longer a grasshopper in training!

I use all my developers with distilled water and as a one-shot process.  I suggest the same to ensure consistency in your process.

Stop Bath

I have gone to a running water stop bath whether I am in the lab or on the road.

The approach for tank development:

1. Pour the developer out of the tank and drain

2. Refill the tank with tap water and agitate for ten seconds, then pour out the water

3. Repeat the sequence five full cycles before moving onto your fixer

If you prefer to use a stop bath then there are several options for making your own stop bath if that is what you want to do or just purchase one if that option is available to you.  I personally went to the water stop bath to keep my process as simple and consistent as possible when I am on the road or in the lab.

Glacial Acetic Acid (liquid)

Using glacial acetic acid is a little more dangerous than the other two options so be careful if you use this method.  Always wear gloves, eye protection and a mask.

Glacial comes in 99% strength so you will need to dilute to 28% first.  Mix 3 parts glacial acetic acid to 8 parts water to make the 28% dilution.

To make 1 liter of stop bath mix the following:

  • Water at room temperature – 750ml
  • Acetic Acid (28% solution) – 48ml

Citric Acid (powder)

Use 750ml of water with 15 grams of citric acid and then add the remaining water to make 1 liter

Use this as one-shot

Vinegar (household cooking brand)

Find cheapest vinegar possible at grocery store.  Heinz white vinegar is perfect

Mix 1 parts vinegar with 4 parts water

Use this as one-shot

Testing Life of Stop Bath

The stop bath is acidic and should not feel greasy.  Put two fingers in the stop bath and rub together.  If it feels greasy then your stop bath is exhausted.

Determining Clearing & Fixing Time of Film

Before moving on to the fixer it is important that you determine your clearing time and ultimately your washing time.  If your Tri-X has a pink cast to it after it dries, then you are not properly clearing your film.  This is not a huge issue, however it adds to your film base + fog density and if you start clearing your film properly then your readings and process could be wrong and cause inconsistencies in your processes.  Just clear it properly from the start and worry about making beautiful fine prints.

With the lights on, use a strip length equal to about 3 frames or sheet of film (Tri-X).  Just unwind a new roll and cut the film to length.  Enjoy it because you never get to do this stuff with the lights on!

Place your film in fresh fixer and with gentle agitation time how long it takes the film to become completely transparent, or clear. Just set your timer and daydream or listen to some music for a few minutes while you are doing this.  This is the clearing time for your film and developer combination.

Multiply the clearing time by 3 or 4 for your total fixing time. A general rule is to use 3 for rapid fixers and 4 for regular fixer.

Fixer

You will need to fix your film before it is light safe and remove the residual silver.  You can use a rapid fixer or a traditional fixer as mentioned above.  Rapid fixers generally work in about 3 to 4 minutes and traditional fixers such as Kodak fixer is much longer like 5 to 10 minutes.

Remember the fixing time is determined by clearing time test not by what the manufacturer says on the label of their product.

Before selecting a fixer you should consider your needs.  Most of the time I develop in the lab and use a rapid fixer but when I travel I am not able to take liquids on the airplane so I use a traditional fixer (Kodak) that comes in dry powder form.  The choice of fixer along with your clearing time test results determines how long to fix your film.

I do constant agitation during my fixing process and I suggest the same for you.  I reuse my fixer for up to a few weeks, but it may be less depending on the volume of my work.

Hypo Clearing Agent

I use the Kodak hypo clearing agent with my Tri-X because I am using an acid based fixer.  If you are not using an acid-based fixer then you don’t need to use the hypo clearing agent.

After fixing the film I remove the tank lid and wash in running tap water for 2 minutes.  I normally fill up the tank, dump, refill, and dump again for the 2 minute cycle.

After the rinse I pour in the hypo clearing agent and continuously agitate for 4 minutes.

Washing Time

Film should be washed in a running water bath.  Films fixed with an acid fixer followed by a one-minute hypo clearing bath should be washed for 10 to 20 minutes.  If your film is pink and not properly cleared, you should redo the clearing test and check your wash time.  I would error on the side of longer washing times if you have that option.

Film fixed in an alkaline fixer does not need a hypo clearing bath and only needs to be washed for 5 to 10 minutes.

Wetting Agent

If you want to protect your film for as long as you possibly can then move to the archival processing section now, otherwise use a working solution of a wetting agent like Kodak Photoflo.  Simply immerse your film for 1 minute and then hang to dry.

Archival Processing of Film

To ensure a long and healthy life of your negatives I recommend the process of using Kodak Selenium toner.  You need to be careful here and follow the dilution ratio very closely because Selenium toner can actually be used to increase the contrast of your exposure by one full stop.  I actually do this at times when I missed my exposure/development time.  It is a nice trick to have in your bag.  I typically apply this logic to sheet film when using the zone system, but you can do this on a single frame of 120 or even 35mm if you want to cut your negatives.

You can use Kodak Selenium Toner after your final wash, or the film can be rewet at a later date after it has dried.

Once the film is wet, tone it for three minutes in a 1:29 solution at 68F or 20C, with frequent agitation. You could put your film back on the reel and use your development tank or if it is a single frame, just use a tray.

Wash film for 30 minutes after toning because Selenium toner contains thiosulfate.

Then immerse your film for one minute in working solution wetting agent  (Photoflo) and then hang your film to dry.

Now you can head to the darkroom and make some prints or scan your negatives for your digital darkroom or make a contact print.  Either way, just enjoy it and have some fun.

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