Film Development, Briefly


Somebody once said that "foolish consistency was the hobgoblin of small minds" **. I know what that person meant, but if you want to develop film yourself, consistency is probably the single most important factor, especially with modern films such as T-Max.

When you go to develop your film, be a hobgoblin (whatever that is). Write down exactly what you are doing in a log.

I don't have the patience, or the desire to try and write about all the film/developer combinations, or the Zone system, or the nature of silver halide. This is just a summary of what you need to get started, and how I've been developing film for the last few years.


This is a short list. I use a small plastic (I know, stainless steel is better but I don't use it) tank that holds two 35mm reels. I'm actually not sure if it's a Patterson or a Yankee tank because it doesn't say on it and I've had it a long time. It has a red lid on it and a nice little white clip that goes on the spindle to keep the reels from moving up and down.

I also have a Gravity Works washer. I really like this gizmo, because it empties and fills the washer once or twice a minute, as opposed to other washing systems where you are running water through the film constantly but you don't really know how many times the water has changed.

And you need a thermometer. I use an old plastic thermometer that I've had for years. Haven't gone digital in this area.

What else? A couple of graduates, and a couple of 1/2 gallon pitchers. Label the pitchers so that you always use the same one for each chemical. A bottle opener to open the film canister. Scissors to cut off the film leader. Some clothespins and a string to hang the film strips up to dry. That's pretty much it. You can easily buy all of this for less than $100.


Film Developer. Short Stop (some experts claim that a water bath is all that's needed), Fixer, Wash Aid and PhotoFlo.

XTOL. I buy it in the 5 liter package. Mix it in a plastic garbage can, and pour it into five one-liter Evian water bottles. I then put those bottles somewhere under my kitchen sink where it's dark.

Doesn't make sense to talk about XTOL without talking about the film I'm using. TMY (T-max 400). I rarely shoot anything else. I expose it normally. That is, I rate it at 400. But as I'm shooting, depending on the subject's lighting, and depending on what is important in the scene, I may over or under-expose as much as two stops from what the meter shows. This is a subject for another time.

Every developer/film combination is a compromise between film speed / grain / contrast. I've settled on Xtol for a few reasons: 1) I can rate TMY at 400 and still get good shadow detail. 2) The "appearance of grain" is minimal. 3) I'm happy with the tonal range. And 4) it is cheap. For years I used TMAX developer which is much more expensive.

After you get your film loaded on the reels (obviously in the dark), and into the tank, I mix 1 part xtol and 1 part water. In this case, with this size tank, I'm using 700 ml. There are some stories about Xtol not being effective if you don't use a certain amount. I don't know what this amount is.


Now -- temperature. This is critical. One degree will make a difference in the contrast of your film especially with TMY or TMX.

Consistency of agitation is also important. I use the inversion method, i.e. turn the tank over 4 times per thirty seconds, and no agitation during the last minute. You would be amazed at the difference that agitation makes in film development.

For example, if you were to agitate 2 times per thirty seconds, you will end up with less contrasty negatives.

For normal devlopment, my times/temperatures are:

4 inversions every 30 seconds, but no inversion for the last minute. Pour developer out at 8 minutes. Temperature: 72 degrees. I use New York City tap water. The water you use can greatly effect your results.

TMY (rated at 400)
XTOL 1:1

For two rolls 450 ML xtol / 450 Water

Temp Time Agitation
72 degrees F 8 minutes 4 inversions in 10 seconds, every 30 seconds

Pouring chemicals out. Probably the right way to do this, is in the dark. You take the cap off, drop your film in, and pour your chemicals in. Same thing for emptying the tank. I don't do this. I basically do all my timing based on when I start to pour the chemical out, and when I'm finished pouring the chemical in. Since I'm only developing two rolls at a time, the difference in time between when the first roll is covered and the second roll isn't much, but if you want to be exact, or you are developing more rolls at a time, plunk the reels into the developer in the dark.

All of this doesn't matter much for the short stop and fixer, but being able to duplicate exactly how long your film is actually in the developer is important.

It's usually recommended to rap the tank a few times when you first pour the chemicals in, or dunk the reels in to dislodge any air-bubbles. Not a bad idea.

I toss the developer, pour in the short-stop for 30 seconds or so; pour it out, and pour in the fixer for anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes. I generaly use Ilford Rapid-Fixer for about 4 minutes with TMAX films. If you've got purplish stuff on the film when it comes out of the fixer, you should keep the film in longer. Agitate the film while its in the fixer, about the same as when you were developing it.

After you pour the fixer out, you can wash it for about a 1/2 hour, or use a wash-aid which helps remove fixer. The main thing about the washing process is that the water should be completely changed about once a minute. I like the Gravity Works washer as mentioned earlier.

Water spots are a problem for me unless I use photo-flo.

That's the nuts and bolts of it. Hang the film up someplace where there isn't a lot of dust, and when its dry, cut it into strips and slip into sleeves.


Think of this little page as an outline. Almost any paragraph in this piece could be expanded into a chapter, or a book, something that I don't have the patience, or the knowledge to do, and don't see any purpose to doing since others have done it already. This is just to give you a flavor for what my processing technique, and give you a starting point if you are thinking about developing your own film.

**" "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds". Ralph Waldo Emerson [thanks for the correction by an anonymous reader]

Here are a few more quotes from Emerson that I might have fit in had I known about them:

"To the dull mind all nature is leaden. To the Illumined mind the whole world burns and sparkle with lights."

"Art is a jealous mistress, and if a man has a genius for painting, poetry, music, architecture or philosophy, he makes a bad husband and an ill provider."

"Every great and commanding movement in the annals of the world is the triumph of enthusiasm. Nothing great was ever achieved without it."

"We are shut up in schools and college recitation rooms for ten or fifteen years, and come out at last with a bellyfull of words and do not know a thing." has been my supplier for archival mats, frames, and photo albums for over two years. I highly recommend them. If you order through this link I receive a small commission which helps defray the cost of running the site.