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On processing: developing black and white films, and what can go wrong

On processing: developing black and white films, and what can go wrong

There are plenty of guides explaining how to develop black and white film. There are books too. French speakers: the best source of information is Philppe Bachelier’s classic “Noir et Blanc”. On my shelves there is also The film developing cookbook which is good but I prefer Bachelier’s book.

Daguerre was here

So why yet another guide? Well, one of the wonderful (I mean it) things about film is its unpredictability. Things will not always go perfectly. Here, I wanted to write down a few things I’ve learned myself over the past few hundred rolls. At the same time, I thought it would be a good idea to centralise some of the most useful information I’ve found. You see, after all this time talking about film a few friends have said to me, well, I’m interesting in developing film, do you have any hints? Great! Of course, this text is not meant to be prescriptive. This stuff may not work for you, yes, it may burn down your house and eat your cat. The thing about film development is there are a lot of variables, and unfortunately experimentation is essential. But here’s what I’ve learned…

So, if your aim is to get a perfectly developed negative free of blemishes and artifacts (i.e., you are not a Japanese photographer making photographs for Provoke magazine in the 1970s), then here are a few hints. I am assuming you know about the basic steps: loading the tank, developing, stop bath, fixing and washing. That’s easy (and the Kodak and Ilford website have a mountain of great information like this guide for example). But there is more …

These guys didn’t care too much about shadow detail (from the recent “Provoke” show in Paris)

Some general comments about developing and agitation

It’s important to select a development time which is at least five minutes or longer: shorter times are difficult to control accurately because you may spend a significant fraction of that time filling or emptying the tank. To figure out your times, the Massive dev chart is a good place to start as any, although adjustment will certainly be required. I keep a note on the computer where I record times and agitation for every film I develop, and this has been fantastically useful understanding when things go wrong.

Also pay attention to the minimum amount of chemicals required for development (e.g, you need around 6ml of HC110 and 6-10ml of Rodinal per film). Check the manufacturer’s data sheet for your developer. This means that for higher dilutions, i.e, 1+50, you may need to put in more water than is needed to cover the reels. It may not be obvious how to select the correct dilution, but for HC110 at least, with the equipment I have, I selected the dilution based on the size of the tank and development time I wanted. Changing dilutions does not seem to affect the contrast for me (the same is not true of Rodinal). Note, of course, that this developing should be done a standard solution temperature of 20 degrees (which you can check with a cheap digital thermometer). This is about right for Paris, where the tap-water usually comes out close to this temperature.

Machinery
Now that’s real processing and real machinery (in Bangkok)

Each manufacturer has a different recommendation for agitation, which is how the film development tank is turned during processing. As everyone says, pick a scheme and stick to it. For shorter development times (5-6mins), it is a good idea to agitate for at least one minute at the start of development, because you may spend a lot of that time filling in the tanks and (as I have found) this can lead to uneven development (this is the Anchell and Troop recommendation).

There is some debate as to whether or not there film should be soaked in water before developing, with some manufacturers (Ilford) suggesting that it’s not a good idea. I have not pre-soaked my films, but it might be useful if you have uneven development. Pre-soaking, as far as I can tell, can only do harm with special developers like Diafine.

Fixing and washing

I re-use my fixer and stop-bath. However, after the first forty or fifty rolls, I found it was better to use disposable bottles for the fixer (I use well-cleaned opaque plastic milk bottles) instead of always storing it in the same bottle. This is because you may get some silver in the bottom of the bottle, and if you are not careful these silver specks can end up on your film. You cannot wash them away, they adhere to the negatives. Worse, if you decide to dry your film with a squegee, it will scratch the film. So, when it’s time to renew the fixer after about 15-20 rolls, throw out the bottle and use a new one. You can find if your fixer is expired by doing a test like this.

I use plain tap water for diluting all my chemicals. I tried distilled water but it doesn’t make any difference to development for the developers I use. However, in the very last step, it helps a lot to use distilled water for the final rinse with a wetting agent. For this, I buy five-litre containers of demineralised water in the supermarket (filtered tap water doesn’t work as well). This step ensures that there are no drying marks on the film from carbonates in the water. And remember, I said do not use a squegee? Simply shake the reels when you take them out of the tank and then hang them up to dry.

I saw this bus but couldn’t get on it (shot on HP5+ !)

I have tried different schemes for washing the film at the end of the processing. However, in the end I have switched to the “Ilford” method, which is fastest, and seems to work well: fill the tank, invert, dump, fill the tank and invert 5 times, dump, repeat for 10, 20 times (or less if you are less paranoid). The advantage of this method is that it uses less water, is faster, and additionally you can easily control the temperature of the water you are using for rinsing (running water from a mixer tap is hard to control).

Drying

My most-used film is Kodak’s Tri-X, and this has a habit of curling in the perpendicular direction to film. Sometimes this curl so strong that at the end your film looks like roof tiles on a house in Provence. This adds a second, lengthy step of putting your negatives under heavy books, for several hours, preferably containing good photographs. The internet has a few suggestions as to why this happens, but it seems to be related to the speed and temperature at which the film dries. I’ve found that not washing the film in super-cold running water and ensuring that it dries as slowly as possible helps reduce the curling. So don’t leave the bathroom window wide open.

Summary of things which have gone wrong … for me

Here’s a description of all the things I have had personally go wrong with my development. Of course there are even more things which can go wrong, this list is not meant to be exhaustive. Hairs and dust are the most common things you see on the negatives: I have found you can minimise this by passing a lint-free cloth over your scanner glass (if you are using a flat-bed scanner) every time you scan a new film. Small occasional defects like these can easily been removed in post-processing in Lightroom, they are obviously more problematic when printing, so carefully examine your negatives before putting them in the enlarger.

What it looks like on the negativeWhat causes itHow you can fix it
Many small black dots randomly distributed over the frame
Silver particles contaminating the final wash
Use new bottles when you replace your fixer
Small black crescents
Film was bent during loading
Be careful!
Large fuzzy black spots with holes
Water drying spots
Use distilled water in the last washing step with photo-flo
Uneven density
Insufficient agitation
Agitate more
Agitate more
Film is still slightly pink or not completely clear after washingInsufficient fixingFix longer, or renew your fixer
Very large black blobs filling the whole frameFilm was loaded incorrectly and film was touching in the spool Load the film correctly
Long straight linesFilm was scratched, either during loading or dryingBe careful !

 

How can you tell if you have done it right?

So, the last question: you have developed your negatives, and they are clean. How can you tell if you have done it right? This is the hardest thing to learn: how to distinguish between underdeveloped, overdeveloped, underexposed or overexposed film. In addition, scanning the negative can hide many things that can go wrong, because if you are not careful the scanning software will equalise all the intensity levels. Your negative overexposed by five stops will look (almost) normal, but will be very hard to print in the darkroom.

This is a great description about how to assess your negatives, with examples. This is another reason why simply looking at scans on the internet mean that it is very hard to tell what any particular developer and film combination looks like. Again, of course, it depends on your artistic intention, but in general preserving details in the shadows and not blowing out the highlights depends on finding the right balance between exposure and development time.

Contact prints at the observatory darkroom

The best way to figure out if you have correctly exposed and developed your film is to make a contact print on “Grade 2” paper, where the contact print is exposed to ‘maximum black’: the darkest part on the image must correspond to the same black level as the film sprocket holes. This is the definitive guide from Tom Halfhill. I’m lucky to have access to a darkroom, and I try to make at least one set of contact prints for each developer and film combination that I try. For darkroom printers, your aim in developing and exposure should be simply to make a negative which prints with normal contrast (good shadow detail, highlights which are not blocked) on grade two paper.

Parting words

Starting out, I hadn’t thought to write quite as much as this. But I hope it’s useful to someone, somewhere !

Japan (July 2017)

Japan (July 2017)

And now Japan, in the forests (Kyoto and the Kumano Koda):

and in the cities, Osaka and Kyoto:

Bangkok (July 2017)

Bangkok (July 2017)

Here are some photographs from our recent trip to Bangkok.

First, a series of photographs taken (mostly) in and around the markets in Bangkok. It’s really wonderful taking photographs there, there are so many things to see. Returning to Paris, one feels that the city is strangely empty.

But what did the city feel like? Something like this, I think:

Now to post some photographs from Japan, too…

Discovering Ferrania’s P30 film

Discovering Ferrania’s P30 film

I don’t deny that I have a deep appreciation of Italy and of the Italian language and culture. I learned a lot during my two years in Bologna more than a decade ago. Today, I enjoy every trip that I make back there. Each time I return there is a chance to speak Italian with Italians in Italy and to re-immerse oneself again in that complicated, beautiful, contradictory country. I don’t hesitate to repeat to everyone, in three different languages, the perhaps apocryphal quote from James Joyce: The only difference between Ireland and Italy is the weather and the food.

Ferrania in 1918 (from Ferrania’s excellent history page)

And so to Ferrania. At one time this company was the largest manufacturer of film in Europe, and thousands worked in their vast factory in the woods in Liguria. In Italy, the Ferrania name is associated indelibly with film. So, when I learned that two friends Nicola Baldini and Marco Pagni had launched a kickstarter to buy all the old Ferrania machinery and re-start production at a scale appropriate for the digitally-dominated early 21st century I was intrigued. Their first product would be… Ferraniacolour film. I was interested, but you know, colour is not really my thing. Then, at the beginning of 2017, came the surprising announcement: In fact, Ferrania would start by producing black and white film, and not any black and white film, but P30, the stock used by many famous Italian neorealist directors, among them Michelanglo Antonioni.

A still from M. Antonioni’s L’eclisse

Antonioni is a little different from the other directors of his era. Antoniennui say the detractors. Nothing much happens his films, but then should it? Life is not always about fighting wars, saving the planet, being heroic. A few years after I arrived in Paris I discovered all his films at the Champo cinema, and I even wrote about them on this blog. Although probably my favourite now is wonderful (colour) film “The passenger” with Jack Nicholson, the trilogy of L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse are for me one of the high points of cinema. Each scene of each film is so carefully, cooly framed. And, as I discovered reading the Ferrania web-site, shot in P30! You have to understand why this is important: one of the reasons Italy is so unique is because of that aesthetic sensibility so deeply ingrained in the culture and attitude. There is different approach towards beauty, something which is at the same time casual but profound. Different again I think from France or Japan, for instance. I follow with interest the announcement of new photographic films, and Ferrania P30 immediately announced itself as something different, a film with a uniquely storied history, from a country with a long and important cinematic tradition.

The handwritten formula for P30 (Ferrania)

I ordered five rolls just as soon as I could. Yes! Like the old Ferrania publicity, my photography would be transformed (or perhaps not)! And then last week, returning from a meeting, I found my film waiting for me, just in time for the weekend. Ever better, bright sunshine was forecast, and I had a friend visiting who wanted to walk around Paris with me and take photographs. Appropriately, I broke out my second Leica M6, together with the wonderful fifty-year-old Summicron-M 50mm lens that my friend Jean-Francois has loaned to me, and loaded it up with P30. My friend an I walked around the Marais on a hot Sunday afternoon where there were a lot of people and not many of which paid attention to me and my camera. Soon enough, I had shot my first roll of P30.

But first: these days, many people scan film. It is the easiest way to get the images into a computer, and good-enough scanners can be had for a few hundred euros. But scanning does not tell you the full story about the film, how it has been exposed, what it looks like. I’m fortunate: I have access to a darkroom. So a few days after developing my first roll of P30 in Rodinal at 1+50 for 8mins in the kitchen of our small Parisian apartment (sorry for the technical details, but it’s important to mention them) I made a trip to the observatory darkroom which I maintain. Despite having already scanned the roll a week previously, I am old-fashioned, so the first thing I did was to make a set of contact prints, following the rule that one should expose enough so that the sprocket holes are as dark as anything in the frames. I like looking at contacts, although I admit they are not very practical today.

Contact prints from my test roll of P30

Looking at the print with the light on I realized that something was wrong: the images looked underdeveloped (underdeveloped and not underexposed, because in most cases the shadow details are still visible). The developing time quoted by Ferrania in their “best practices” for Rodinal seemed too short. And in fact, when I got out of the darkroom I discovered that this was the case: the data sheet has been updated a day or two ago and the new times in Rodinal are almost double the old ones. But I could already see from these underdeveloped contact sheets and from the scans I had made earlier that P30 was something special.

Rather than showing scans of the negatives, I thought I would show here scans of the prints which were made, appropriately enough, with an Italian Durst enlarger. Remember, these emulsions were formulated to be printed and not scanned, of course! In the dark-room, trying to adjust the focus and looking through the grain enlarger I discovered that I almost couldn’t see the grain. Ferrania P30 must the be finest grain film I have ever used (although I admit I never tried film slower than 100 ISO before). Peering through the grain enlarger I could well understand why such a film was so attractive to cinematographers. I made all on the prints with a grade 2 filter: the contrast is nicely reduced. Eagle-eyed folk will note the notch on the left-hand side of the images: my friend’s camera has a hole cut in the shutter, so you can easily tell which photograph was taken with which camera. Apparently, many photographs did this once…

Beaubourg
A certain Parisian elegance (but don’t smile)
Listening
On the street, with a cat.

(I think it’s fun scanning the prints, but you’re even more at the mercy of bits of dust and imperfections; of course it is time consuming. I think the best thing to do with prints is to give them to people, or put them on the wall. For reference, the scanned version of the first one of these images can be found here)

So, what do I think of the film? Like it says in the wonderful Ferrania video, it is a beautiful film. It is beautiful not just because it is fine-grained, it is beautiful because how light looks in the photographs. The scans do not do it justice. I have tried a lot of different films in the last two years, and Tri-X is probably my favourite; but after this one roll I am thinking that P30 might just might be my preferred slower film. Of course, an 80 ISO film is not ideal for shooting street photography in Paris in winter, but in bright sunlight I can just about make it work!

I have so much admiration for Film Ferrania and what they have managed to do in re-creating this film. I know how hard it can be sometimes in Italy to achieve something like this, and perhaps not everyone appreciates this. The Film Ferrania founders write modestly on their website how they were supported by the local government but to achieve something like they have achieved requires much determination and perseverance. I wish them much success, and as soon as the shop is open again, I will be buying more P30!

And I’ll be taking my other rolls of P30 with me on my up-coming one month trip to Japan and Thialand. To paraphrase Gary Winogrand, I will take photographs of these places to see what they look like when photographed… on P30.

Note added later (August 2016): As mentioned in the text, the The Ferrania P30 “Best Practices document” has been updated since I wrote this. The recommended time for P30 in Rodinal 1+50 has now been increased to 14mins. I’ve since developed two further rolls under different lighting conditions, it seems to me that 14mins is perhaps now a touch too long. Midway between the two numbers might be right! I need to make further tests in the darkroom…