Beautiful Poison – Lessons in developing my first roll of B&W

Beautiful Poison
Beautiful Poison
Hasselblad 500 C/M, 80mm T*, f/4, Ilford Delta 100, D76 1:1

In a previous post, Lessons in Digital and Film,  I described some of the lessons I’ve learned from the process of using both digital and film. One of my lessons is not to underestimate the advantage of controlling every aspect of the process – from exposure to print. This revelation came as I was struggling to scan some negatives which, I believe, were not developed with the best of care (Ok, I think they were over developed bringing out more grain and contrast than the film should have shown). Then and there, I made up my mind to start developing my own negatives and begin to mature my own flavor of an analogue/digital hybrid process that I would control from start to finish.

This morning I developing my first roll of B&W film in 34 years. In my senior year in college I signed up for was Photography 101. The only requirement of the class was to end up at the end of the semester with a stack of hand printed and mounted B&W prints. We learned development, printing, and mounting. I don’t really remember any specific lectures or teaching sessions but I have a copy of “Upton and Upton” around here somewhere. I do remember always having my camera, shooting all around San Francisco, and the quiet slow mornings printing in the darkroom.

Oddly enough, I remember almost nothing about the developing process except those spiral steel reels. So I set off on some research to learn about developers and stop and fix and ordered up a bunch of stuff which arrived Friday. Yesterday headed out shooting and developed my first roll this morning.

Here is what I learned:

1) Find one development formula that seems reasonable and stop.

Everyone says its easy, and after this morning I’ll agree – it is. However, with today’s democracy of information, the ease with which anyone can publish information on almost any subject, what the newbe finds is an every wandering conversation of subtleties, nuances, variations, and opinions. It would be easier if there a dirth of information and the uninitiated was led into thinking that there is just one “MASTER RECIPE” per film that is found on the film manufacturer product sheet. I was a nerve rattling journey of fear, uncertainty, and doubt until I just stopped looking and locked down on my approach to chemicals and methods.

2) Just say yes to presoak.

I decided to do a presoak for one simple reason – seeing one video showing the dumping of inky-black presoak water into the sink. Mine was inky-black too. Just seemed like a clearer way to start.

3) The meaning of the phrase “clean negatives”.

Many sources of information suggested to open the tank and look at your film at the end of the fixing process to inspect that the film “was clear, not milking” and ensure that the fix was complete. One source even opened the tank before fixing (really!, I didn’t try that). Not one source, however prepared me to for the magenta tinged film base I would see. I also noticed that as I dumped some initial tankfuls of rinse water into the sink, that the water itself was was magenta, so clearly something good was happening and I was actually rinsing off the last of any remaining dye on the base emulsion. And lo, at then end of my 10 minute rinse under slow running tap water a clear base negative emerged. Ah that’s what they meant by “clean negatives”.

4) “I just want to say one word to you, just one word… Plastics” (from The Graduate)

When looking at tanks and reels, just go with the Samigon Universal Plastic Developing Tank and Reels. They are easy to load, the tank didn’t leak, and the recommendations of chemical volume on the bottom of the tank covered the reel perfectly and still left room for good agitation. Using plastic reels was way easier than what I remember of spiraling 36 exposures on to stainless steel reels. Also when you live in a warm climate (like me) I figure that plastic won’t conduct the warmer room and hand temperature like stainless steel.

5) Remove the film backing before starting to load the film onto the reels (applicable for 120 film only).

I practiced loading the reels several times with a sacrificial roll of film and I found the hardest part was not when starting, but when finishing the loading. I found it really difficult to get the film untapped from the backing paper and if I accidentally loaded the film onto the reel past tape it was really hard to recover. Then I saw a video where the guy just removed the film from the paper first, re-rolling the film into a reversed roll while he was doing this. Another trick was that when he got to the tape, he removed the tape from the backing paper first then from the film. This was much easier and I was left with a simple coil of film only ready for loading onto the reel. (Of course, all this happens in the changing bag!)

Here is my final recipe:

  • Presoak: 3–4 minutes in tap water at or near your development temperature. Fill tank, soak (3–4 min), dump, fill tank again and dump immediately.
  • Developer: Kodak D–76 @ 1+1 dilution, 68ºF/20ºC. Agitate first 60 sec, then 10sec per minute for remaining time (as per Massive Dev iPhone app @ 68F/20C)
  • Stop: Tap water. Fill, agitate, dump – 2-times
  • Fix: The Phtographers Formulary TF–4 Rapid Fix – 5 minutes
  • Rinse: open tank with running water – 10 minutes followed by a 30 sec soak with LFN