I started developing my own film when I realised that the lab I worked in used to serve the works’ photographer – remember when companies would have one of those? He left behind a load of chemicals in the stores that we had no use for in the routine QA tests we did. So I made a batch of D76.
The opportunity came when my friend’s sister took part in a point-to-point race. For anyone thinking she was a jogger, this is cross-country horse racing and seems to be one of the most dangerous sports you can do (other than running while black in America). I had my first SLR, its 50mm lens, a x2 teleconverter and a few rolls of HP5. Being England, it was overcast. So I pushed the HP5 and stood close enough to the jumps to fill the frame as the horse and rider came over them. This was also before health and safety had been invented.
It was magic! OK, so none of the shots were that great but I had airborne horses, stern riders and printable negatives. The bug had bit.
The story from that point followed three streams: what combination of film and magic developer would compensate for my underexposure habit; what magical development regime would give me a full Zone System range of tones (because every good photograph had to have all of the Zones in it; and what on earth did I do wrong this time?
I suppose there was even a fourth strand of ‘how the hell do I load this film onto a reel when what I really want to do is throw it on the floor, stamp on it and scream in rage?’. The fourth stream will be familiar to everyone who has ever loaded film onto a plastic spiral in a sweaty changing bag, or onto a plastic spiral that was not perfectly dry. 35mm film is a bit more forgiving – sometimes if you wait a minute it seems to absorb the damp spot and can be persuaded to continue loading. 120 roll film has attitude and wants you to know it – it’s wide enough to ruck-up and jump out of the spiral in the reel and there’s no real chance to wind it back into the cassette, dry everything out and have another go. The one thing I never thought of was wearing a pair of latex gloves inside the changing bag.
But getting back to part one of the four-part trilogy (a nod to Douglas) – I did seem to shoot a lot of pictures in marginal lighting. I would typically have some highlights in the negative and empty shadows – as in, clear film base empty. I tried a few different developers but it was all too easy to go a week or so without developing and then find it had expired. Microphen, D76 and both red and blue flavours of Neofin failed me on reliability. Or I failed them – I was basically inconsistent and useless. Luckily I settled on Aculux which came in a bottle with good instructions tucked up inside the cap and mostly worked. And if it was more orange than straw-coloured when I poured some out it was time to buy some more.
In later years I tried two-part developers, again mixed from raw chemicals. When fresh and with a heartily-overexposed film they worked very well. The problem came from not knowing if one of the components had expired. I seemed to be able to get one, maybe two rolls developed from the brew and then the next film out would be blank. So I had basically been experimenting with a rather expensive one-shot developer. And besides, if I was going to over-expose a film I would live somewhere with year-round sunshine. Or sunshine.
Following the Zone System is a seductive rabbit hole that will lead you into the madness of not being able to take a photograph in N-1 lighting when you have an N+1 film loaded. If you don’t know what this means, walk away now and don’t try to find out. How many rolls of film did I shoot of grey cards and numbered scales of tones? How many precisely-detailed development times and dilutions did I write in my notebook? Looking at it now I find a neat little table showing the lighting range of the subject against the adjustment to ISO rating and developing time needed to capture the full range of tones. Eventually you realise that a picture in the fog doesn’t need to render as twelve zones on the negative, and won’t look foggy if you do. Likewise, harsh sunlight could be rendered as British Standard Cloudy or you can leave it to look like what it is.
I think what broke me of that habit was shooting some Ilford XP2. The technically finest print I have ever made was a straight print from an XP2 negative. It had shadow and highlight detail and just worked. So it was a picture of the arse end of a boat, but it was camera-club-tastic.
As for the final part of the trilogy (still with me?), this continues to bite me in the boat. Exhausted developer? – buy some Rodinal. Stop experimenting with weird brews that promise a million ISO and no grain.
Streaking on the negatives? Stop agitating it like you’re mixing a cocktail. But do agitate it: using that little swizzle stick to rotate the reel is a bad idea. All hail Eris, goddess of agitation.
Exhausted fixer? Keep a count of how many films have gone through it. Also, drop the cut-off leader from the film left-over from loading it into tank into a saucer of fixer. Measure how long it takes to clear the film. Fix for twice as long as that. Chuck the fixer and use fresh if it doesn’t clear within say, four minutes. Incidentally, if you keep your fixer in a glass bottle it can plate the inside of the bottle with silver over time and turn it into a mirror. Then you can pretend to be an alchemist.
Make-up the developer in a jug and keep the fixer in a bottle or completely different container. Write FIXER on it. Or put the fixer somewhere out of reach when you are developing. Remember – fixing usually comes last in the process.
And when the time comes to hang those perfect negatives up to dry, try to stay away from people who are beating carpets, drilling into walls or shaving a dog. And out of reach of cats.
And with all that, I find I can’t help myself: I want to try stand development. I have seen some amazing results from using it. Terry Cryer – the finest printer you have probably never heard of – did some amazing work with stand-developing (as well as him being good enough to teach the gods how to make mono prints). So it’s Rodinal 1:100 here I come and hoping that nobody thoughtfully empties that plastic drum I left in the sink.
News flash – just developed my first film by the stand method and got exactly the same-looking results as I got earlier in the week by my usual time and dilution. So when they are dry they will be into the scanner and compared.