First posted 15 October 2009
One of the most important areas of photography is the processing of negatives. The quality of your images is dependent on how much care and attention you take with your developer, dilution, times, temperature and agitation. Following much of the literature which has been published on the matter though, could give you too many things to fuss over and possibly inconsistent results in some cases.
Each established darkroom worker has their own way of doing things which they have adapted over time and which they have found to work for them and I am going to share mine with you. I can offer a few tips and hints collected from over thirty years of processing. If you have a well tried and tested method, then you don’t need to change a thing, but if you are having some inconsistencies then it might be worth seeing if anything I have in my routine may help.
Beginners often have negatives which are very dense and contrasty, often mistakenly believing that to ‘give a little bit extra time in the dev, just to make sure’ is a good thing. It is not.
Over development causes the most heavily exposed areas of the film to develop to a black, meaning that very little light can pass through at the printing stage. This causes prints to have a very high contrast, ensuring that burning in of skies or white clothing becomes almost impossible. Negatives need to have their development curtailed when the densest areas are dark grey, so that any tone, texture or detail there can be easily printed through. Slight underdevelopment is actually preferable (correct is best).
The other problem beginners have is pale, empty negatives. Thin negatives are more often than not caused by underexposure. Cameras with automatic exposure or users who don’t understand where to point a light meter often get underexposed negatives as a result of too much sky being included in the frame. Shooting towards the light or pointing up at a building will cause the light meter to misread. The meter recommends a faster shutter speed or a smaller aperture because of the brightness of the sky, but this prevents enough light from reaching the film in the non sky areas, leaving them empty, this prints as very dark or black.
A simple and accurate way to meter in many situations is to read from the grass. The camera will give a very accurate light reading from grass, as long as it is receiving the same light as the intended subject.
Another method which takes a little longer, but gives really nice results is to use a spotmeter. With this, the reading is taken from a very dark tone in the scene (not completely black) and then adjusted up two stops. If the meter says the reading is 125 at f8, the correct reading is 125 at f16. This sounds a little more complicated than it actually is -but it soon becomes second nature.
Once the light level has been established, the image can be composed and exposed, regardless of what the light meter in the camera now indicates. Once the film has been properly exposed, the important part can begin, -the processing.
The following is my own personal method which has been adapted as I have gone along. It produces consistent results if I stick to the important points.
I have all three of my solutions mixed up, with the developer at slightly more than the necessary quantity. During agitation the developer can often froth up quite a bit and cause underdevelopment along the top edge of the film. I get the developer to 20.5 C because in the UK a darkroom is often colder than 20C As the developer goes into the tank it drops about half a degree to 20 and is then at the working temperature.
Agitation is ten times at the start, then three times each minute, with a twisting action to get the developer flowing along the length of the film as well as up and down through the spiral. This gives much more even development.
I don’t bother getting the stop bath to the correct temperature, it will work perfectly well through a wide range. Some believe that having too much of a temperature difference between dev and stop will cause reticulation, but it is actually the strength of the stop bath which causes it (the sudden change from alkaline to strong acid contracts the emulsion), not the temperature, this is why I always mix it weak. My stop bath is lighter in colour than lager. Because of this it becomes exhausted more quickly, but I usually have a large quantity mixed up and I can discard and replace as necessary.
Similarly, I don’t worry about the temperature of the fix. Temperature does affect how quickly or slowly the fixing action takes place, but there is a simple way round this; As soon as the fix goes into the tank, start the timer. Agitate the tank vigorously for a minute and then remove the lid. Check the film to see if it is still milky, if so, put it back in and continue the agitation checking occasionally.
When the milky look has gone from the film, check how much time has elapsed. Double this time in the fix and you will have a properly fixed film every time. When fix times exceed 8 minutes for ‘rapid fixer’ the fix is exhausted and needs replacing.
The wash sequence is as normal, washing for ten minutes, changing the water a few times, using hypo eliminator and final wash for ten minutes. The films are hung to dry overnight in the darkroom where they will not be disturbed.
There are many other ways to process films, but this is the sequence I have settled on for roll and 35mm films.