Late developer

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.


Does anyone remember Jimmy Nail advertising Kodak film on TV? Would anyone believe that colour print film was a big enough competitive market to be worth advertising? Will it come back?

Like a lot of people who predate the smartphone, I started out on film. It wasn’t being worthy and I wasn’t a hipster: film was what made photographs. If I started now I would surely have begun with digital.

Film came in little boxes and many types, with strange names. You could buy film from a camera shop or a chemists, but it was like buying condoms: you wanted to appear like you knew what you were doing. I would learn the name of a film from a magazine then ask for one roll in the shop. I’d gulp at the price, keep a straight face and rush out to play.

It was always black and white film: that’s what real photographers used. The magazines said so. I was also working in a testing lab, so I had access to chemicals. Pretty soon I was making my own developer, then buying proper developer and processing my own film. Yet another reason to use mono film. My best friend had an enlarger, so I could print the occasional worthwhile negative.

Then I went off to university. Amazingly I had more money and film seemed to be cheap. I even shot colour, although as a purist this was obviously slide film. Then the madness began: I started experimenting with cheap film.

Lith film looked like an arty choice – 6 ISO, orthochromatic and develops in paper developer. Imagine a film that records only the highlights, and these are blocked and featureless. If it records anything at all. Or it might just have been that I was incompetent.

I bought a reel of motion-picture mono negative. It was somewhere around 250 ISO. It had also either expired in the Jurassic or been left on top of a radiator. Imagine a range of tones that ran from sludge to scum with a level of fog that looked like the camera was broken. Or it might have been that incompetence thing again. [I found a set of negatives from this recently when looking for something else. They had the film batch or serial number punched into the film as perforations every so often. Usually in the middle of an important shot]


Developing your own film is a joy and pleasure and a further step to achieving the apex of one’s craft. Unless the reel is damp or your hands sweat. Then you get marks where the film got creased and clear spots where two layers were touching. This is easily cured by putting the fixer into the tank first.

Film cassettes at the time were obligingly made so that the ends popped off to make them easily reusable. Unless you kept reusing them. Then you got scratches and eventually light leaks. Fighting a curly length of film from a dodgy cassette onto a damp reel in a snug changing bag was both formative for the character, developmental for the vocabulary and could result in bits of emulsion being gouged off the film base. It takes a lot of effort to achieve that, but so does winding a jammed film so hard it tears.

I stocked up on an unknown colour slide film for a holiday because it was cheap. The Orwo Chrome also came in neat alloy canisters, which were a tight fit for the film, especially when dented. These days you could just wave the Lomo name at pictures with extreme contrast and weird colour shifts. In those days I had fup duck.

I did go through a period, like everyone else I expect, of shooting only colour print and sending it off in a plastic envelope to get a set of prints and a replacement film. Eventually I learned that colour print likes plenty of light and low contrast. I had a Canon waterproof point and shoot camera that had the flash on by default. This did a brilliant job of fill-in and made great prints until the rear door catch broke off. Strangely an old Agfa Super Silette also did a great job and probably still does, but real men shoot mono, right?

Eventually I settled on a set of films that worked. Thank you Ilford. I also found and loved the best colour slide film of all time, Agfachrome 50s. If I could choose one film to be resurrected… I’d happily forgo a rebranded mono surveillance film or two.

So having tamed my competing desires for the cheapest possible film and the strangest emulsions I could find, what else could possibly go wrong?

Loading film into the camera  is always an opportunity for a duck moment. I have learned now to take up the tension on the rewind so that I can see it revolve on the first wind-on. Previous to that I used to enjoy the occasional everlasting film. I had one camera, a Praktica with their weird bit of wire on the take-up spool, that I never did get to load successfully.

I had a Zorki for years that was bottom loading, like an old Leica. The only way I could get the film to lie properly across the gate was to load it, set the shutter on B, take the lens off, press and hold the shutter release and work the film into the right position with my thumb. I did wonder how Leica had a good reputation amongst photojournalists: I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to reload like this in a hurry. It was years later that I learned about the long leader – and what a joy when it worked. I did feel guilty about the extra couple of frames I lost though.

So I buy film that works and load it properly. What else could possibly go wrong? That’s when you forget what is in the camera. Oh, I’ve got a clever Pentax with a little pocket that holds the end of the film box as a reminder. I’ve got another camera with a sticky pocket that came with a magazine. But who sticks to sensible cameras? After many a fup duck I discovered white insulating tape (electrician’s tape). It sticks well but not too hard and doesn’t leave a glue residue. I can write on it with biro or marker. If I do something weird with the film, I can stick it to the plastic carton. Go me! It’s only taken a donkey’s lifetime to bring me close to competence.

Oh, and I still have a bulk film loader and some ortho lith film. I can hear the siren’s quack…


Thank goodness for Photoshop

My first big oops

Camera vs bicycle

Or, camera vs bicycle.

I was such a cool dude. Not only had I bought a proper SLR, but I had a neat rangefinder compact as my carrying-around camera. It may have lacked that expensive red dot on the front, but it was like a good camera (bad pun, but work with me here).

I had read everything I could find on people like Don McCullin and seen his battered cameras surviving bullets and worse. So my little rangefinder could live in my messenger bag. With a bit of luck the black paint might wear and show some brass on the corners. Then people would know I was an experienced photographer.

So the messenger bag went on the rear carrier of my bicycle. It was full of books and binders, and made a nice flat load. Except for the little camera. This wiggled itself into a drooping scrotum of canvas that brushed the spokes and was drawn into the gap between the wheel and the stay supporting the rear carrier.  Those skinny little wire spokes wiped the lens right off the front of the camera body.

This was the first and last time I had insurance on a camera. The small amount of money I got back went towards an Olympus XA2. This had a sliding cover over the lens – no fool me; I wasn’t going to get caught the same way twice. There is a saying though that if you want to make the gods laugh, tell them your plans. Or a certain duck I was coming to know.

I was on holiday with friends. We were at the seaside. The waves were fantastic – crashing into the sea wall and occaionally spraying up over the promenade. Dave and I leant over the wall – Dave to look, me to get a photo of the waves and spray. Just as we leant over, there was a deep booming noise below us. That would be the wave that climbed the wall and hit us so hard we got salt water up our noses.

The poor Olympus was flooded. I believe I got one picture of Dave with it, then rewound the film and tried to get it dried out. I was nearly succesful: the electronics continued to work, the lens was clean and I seemed to have escaped the touch of the duck. Until I lent the camera to my parents. They mentioned an odd cracking noise when my mum tried to move the focus lever, which then moved freely up and down. The brass thread that focused the lens had seized with salt water, and the little arm and pin that turned the lens to focus it snapped under the strain.

I did what any misguided idiot would have done and tried to repair it. The camera came apart easily enough and a wee dribble of WD40 freed the focus thread. Careful work with a piece of alloy from a beer can and a dab of Araldite made a new focusing arm. But it didn’t really work very well and the (infamous) shutter button began to play up.

It’s replacement was an Olympus XA – the proper one with rangefinder focusing. I still have it and I have beeen very happy with it. I have avoided feeding it into moving machinery and generally kept it away from water. You will be pleased to learn though that this was not the last camera I flooded, but more anon.

What’s it all about?

Shoot back
Not me, by the way, but the spirit of curiousity lives in us all.

and why Fup Duck?

Well, if my mum asks, it’s because I’m a film-using photographer.

So, I’ve been taking photographs for a while now. Film faded, digital came along, then film rose again. I’ve had access to cameras since I was quite young: my mum gave the family camera for a school trip to France and was horrified when I came back with pictures of waste bins. I have owned, destroyed, swapped and sold a range of photographic gear. It’s an interest (OK, a hobby) that has never left me.

In all this time I am largely self taught. As in I have never done any formal study or been on a course. The library and various magazines were my friends as I explored fail-space vigorously. Every time I would try something, Fup Duck was peering over my shoulder. Each time I did something horribly wrong, I knew I had Fup Duck.

But while Fup Duck was my frequent foe, the duck was a good teacher if you listened. But you had to listen to yourself, as ducks can’t talk (although you can often hear them laughing). So every time I opened the camera back or the developing tank to see a smiling Fup Duck, I would try to think what I’d done wrong so that I could avoid doing it again. Unless I meant to do it, in which case I called it art.

So hereinafter are the tales of Fup Duck.

I hope you enjoy them and possibly avoid the ones you haven’t experienced yet.


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