Developing your own film – A bought experience – Pt. 1

My grandmother used to say “experiences are bought”; which means that to learn something requires time, effort and more often than not money.  This statement is even more valid when there is no one to teach you or somewhere to go and experiment, as it is the case of developing black and white film in El Salvador where allegedly there is only one university lab that still does so and only two small photo studios process (poorly) B&W negatives.

There is a lot of information on line about how the process is done, videos, tutorials, advice in forums, however everyone must  walks his own path, sort out the obstacles of its own geographical area and work with the tools at hand.  In this post I will share with you my experience in developing my own film.

  1. The Reason

I will start with the following facts:

  • I love film and I will try to stick to it as long as possible.
  • Due to the lack of infrastructure to build my own dark room and provided that there are no accessible dark rooms in El Salvador of the digital era, I decided to scan my own negatives

My first approach was to focus on shooting and to send my negatives to a local studio to do the film development process. I did this for almost two years; however the poor results obtained on the negatives which almost always had spots, scratches or some sort of defect lead me to take the plunge and try to do my own film developing.

2.      The Learning

In short you need 3 things: the equipment, the chemicals and know the process.

A.    The Equipment

Another saying that applies to this process is “cheap is expensive”. Do not go cheap in your equipment, my poor judgment in this area cost me money and 2 or 3 films completely lost and another 4 with pictures lost, which to me is a lot given that I shot 2-3 rolls tops in a month, and a stop of one month in my development process while I got my new reel.

The equipment that I am using with good results is the following:

The loading

  • Hewes – 35mm Stainless Steel Developing Reel.
  • Kalt – Stainless Steel 35mm Tank with Plastic Cover
  • Kalt – Changing Bag Double Zipper with Elastic Arm Holes
  • Scissors
  • Cotton Cloth Gloves


To develop film you first have to extract it from the canister and load it into a reel and then place it into a tank where the chemicals will be poured and the developing process will be performed. There are plastic and steel reels and tanks. I chose the steel version because they seemed sturdier; I have no experience with plastic tanks and reels.

If you are using a manual rewind camera such as a Leica, the first recommendation goes way back when the film is still in the camera. When you finish your roll do not rewind it until the whole film gets into the canister, you will hear a distinct sound when the film disengages form the take up spool and you will feel less resistance in the rewind knob. Then open the camera back and extract the film, it will look just as when you loaded it to the camera but a little bent in the end. If you use an auto rewind camera or you fully rewind the film then you will need a film retriever to extract the film lead from the canister, or a film cassette opener which is just like a bottle cap opener that you use to open the rear end of the canister and extract the whole film at once.

Loading Film onto the Reel

The second recommendation goes to the reels. If you chose to go with steel reels do not but any other brand but Hewes. The first time I bought generic brand steel reels and they were a catastrophe; I believe they were slightly bent and therefore could never be able to properly load a single film on them, even when I thought I had; when the reel is not properly aligned some sections of film will touch other section and those sections will be totally fogged. The steel reel needs to be well built and this quality control cost money, so save yourself some pain and frustration, not to mention your precious film and images, and buy a quality reel.

The film loading on a Hewes reel is really easy and intuitive. The things you have to keep in mind are: the reel is loaded form the center to the end border; the reel follows a direction, which from my perspective is counter clockwise: in the center there are to pins that fit exactly where the sprocket holes of the film are, following the counter clockwise sense you will see where the reel starts to take the film and goes on as a spiral, should you try to load the film in the wrong sense your film edges will bent and at some point it will be impossible to load, say goodbye to that film.

Since film loading must be done in complete darkness, it is recommended to get used to the “loading mechanics” with the lights on using some wasted film. Do it! It is better to ruin one unexposed cheap color film than a precious B&W film with the pictures of a month or an special event. Once you are used to the process then it’s time to try it in the dark.

The film loading follows these simple steps:

  • Get the film ready. Take the leading tongue outside the canister, put your cotton cloth gloves on, pull some film out of the canister and cut the lead tongue in order that you have a straight cut end.
  • Then place the film, the reel, the tank, its cap, and the scissors inside the changing bag.
  • Now grab the canister with is flat bottom facing down, grab the end and slightly bend the film towards its center and hook the sprocket holes into the two tips that the reel has in its center for said purpose, you will just feel when it happens, the film won’t go if you pull it, and it’s really easy. After you have secured the end of the film, you are good as done, pull out some film from the canister and roll it into the reel by just turning the reel counter clockwise, you don’t need to push the film it will just fall into place by turning the reel. If the film is misplaced you will feel that it goes out from the reel line borders, in such case just unroll it and roll it back in.
  • When you reach the end of the film, cut it with the scissors and then place the reel into the tank and close it tightly.

Next: The Chemicals


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