Since this is a "quick and dirty" style guide, I will cover just
what you need to know.
For the uninitiated, here's what happens when you drop off a film at your local
photo lab. Your exposed film is run through an automated machine, which, through
chemical processes, makes the images permanent in the negative. This is the
"film development" stage.
For simplicity, we will be working with a black and white negative that has
already passed this stage. If you look around your parents' (or friends') old
things, you may come across old 6 x 6 cm negatives. They will work just fine,
so would 35mm b&w negatives cut in strips. Try not to use anything important
through - if you destroy your parents wedding negatives, they might want
to kill you.
After the film development stage comes the "printing" stage. The
paper used for printing photographs is light sensitive - just like the
film itself. You expose the paper to light, and through chemical reactions,
you make the changes permanent (just like developing the negative). That's exactly
what is done in the photo labs - it's just that they use automated equipment
to process large volumes of work.
This is where we come in. We will be printing the photographs. This
involves 5 steps:
1. Exposing the paper to light (and the negative)
2. Putting the paper in a "Developer" solution, which will bring
out the image in the paper
3. Putting the paper in a "Fixer" solution, which will wash out
the unused chemicals in the paper, and make the changes in the paper permanent
4. Washing the paper in water to get rid of all unused chemicals
It is that simple. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise yet.
Things you need
- A b&w negative (discussed earlier)
- A lab thermometer (0 to 100 degree C)
- A measuring flask or beaker (200 ml should be enough)
- 2 plastic trays or containers, large enough to soak your negative strips
in, and an inch deep
- A red bulb (also known as a "dim bulb") - 40 watts max.
- A bedside / table lamp
- A clean, clear glass slab - a photo frame will do.
- 3 plastic bottles (1 liter plastic Coke bottles will do)
- Old newspapers
- Good quality tape - 3M magic tape, masking tape or such
- Surgical gloves
- 3 funnels (optional)
- A watch, or a stop watch
- Clean cloth
- Universal developer (either liquid or powder)
- Universal fixer (either liquid or powder)
- Resin Coated (RC) Black and White Photo paper
The total cost should not exceed $20, depending on where you live.
Basically, you need the chemicals, paper, surgical gloves, lab thermometer
and a red bulb. Rest of the stuff can be found at home. For example, a kitchen
measure cup will do fine. Funnels can be made by rolling out magazine covers.
The chemicals can be purchased at a photo store. I recommend getting a small
amount of the chemicals in their liquid form for their convenience. If you can't
get liquid, powder is OK. Go for any generic product that says "normal"
or "standard". Avoid any product that says "quick" or
"hard". Don't worry too much about it though, almost anything works
OK - just ask for b&w paper processing chemicals.
Photo papers are usually sold in 8R (8x10") or 10R (10x12") sizes,
in packs of 10 or 20. Get some cheap paper, and mention RC (Resin Coated), normal
contrast and black and white (don't end up with color paper). If you don't have
a photo store in your neighborhood, try the Internet.
Making your dark room
This step will take about an hour.
Photo processing is done in a dark room, which you will have to make. This
can be done in a spare bathroom, because having running water at hand is very
convenient. Seal the windows with old newspapers and tape. Turn off the lights,
and wait for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Soon, you'll see that light
is leaking through the door edges and cracks. Seal those too. Once you are reasonably
satisfied (it does NOT have to be 100% light tight), put the red bulb in the
bedside lamp and put it in one corner. Check your workspace, memorize the location
of the switches, doors and things.
The reason we need a red light is because photo papers are not sensitive to
red light and we can work with the papers with the red light turned on. It is
also called a "safe light". You may want to work at night so that
the light leakage is minimum.
Preparing the chemicals
This step will take about 10-30 minutes.
Put on your gloves. You may be allergic to some of the chemicals, and you don't
want to find out. The universal developer contains salts of Sulphite, Bromide,
Carbonate, some Metol and Hydroquinon. The fixer (hypo) contains sodium salts
of thiosulphate and metabisulphite. If you are allergic to these chemicals,
proceed with caution.
Wash all the utensils with tap water. If you are using funnels, make sure they
Read the instructions. If you purchased the chemicals in powder form, you will
have to dissolve the powders in the water at a particular temperature (usually
40 degree C). Use normal tap water and a kettle to bring the water to the specified
temperature. Mix the chemicals. You may have two pouches in the developer pack.
Dissolve them in the order mentioned in the instructions. This is easy, and
should be done in 30 minutes. Store them in the plastic bottles.
Once you have the "stock" solutions, you may have to dilute it
for usage. Do so according to instructions, pour the developer and fixer in
two different trays, and ensure that the depth is about an inch. Try to remember
which tray is the developer and which the fixer. Put this in the darkroom.
Your chemicals are now ready. If your room temperature is about 20 to 30 degrees,
everything is OK. If not, you need to put in hot or cold water in a bottle and
immerse the bottle in the chemicals to get the temperature within that range.
Remember, we are doing this for fun, not ISO 9002 certification. There is plenty
of margin for error.
Preparing the print setup
This step will take about 10-20 minutes.
The term "contact print" means exactly what it sounds like. The
negative and the paper is put face to face under a glass plate, over a hard
surface (to keep them flat). Room lights are turned on and the image from the
negative is projected onto the paper. Then the paper is processed chemically.
Here's a terrible diagram for the setup:
| | |
Film (emulsion facing down)
Paper (light sensitive facing up towards film emulsion)
Hard surface (toilet seat / a book / floor)
First, dry your hands and gloves. Take the piece of glass from the photo frame.
Take the negative, and stick it on the glass with tape (use only the edges of
Get your watch, the assembled film+glass, and go in your dark room. Turn off
the lights, turn on the safe light and take a piece of photo paper out of it's
box. Cut the paper into the size of the negative, put it under the negative
and arrange the setup as according to the diagram. The slightly sticky side
of the paper is the light sensitive side. Be sure to return any unused paper
in the paper box.
You are ready. This is the moment of truth.
The moment of truth
This step will take about 10 minutes.
The safe light is on, carried on from previous steps. All room lights are off.
Check your chemical temperature. If everything is OK, put on your gloves. Take
a deep breath. Turn on your room lights for 15 seconds, then turn them back
off. Your paper is now ready for processing.
Take the paper, and put it into the developer solution. Immerse completely
and agitate with your fingers. After about 1.5 minutes, an image will appear
in that paper.
This experience, gentlemen, is nothing short of magic. Gasp, choke, splutter,
but please don't lose the track of time. After about 30 more seconds, take the
paper and immerse it into the fixer. Slowly, certain portions of the negative
will seem to turn . After 2 minutes (total time in fixer), get it out of the
solution. Turn on your room lights, and wash the paper with cold tap water for
about 5 minutes. After that, you will need to mop the paper with a clean cloth
and leave it to dry, but you're already doing your victory dance, aren't you?
After you've made your first print, you may want to experiment. You may have
gotten an inverted image because you didn't know which side is the "emulsion"side
(now you do). You would want to try different exposure, development and fixing
time. You may want to get the temperature exactly correct as according to the
manufacturers instructions. Mess around till you get the best results. But do
save your first print - because nothing can recreate that experience.
You may feel like a mad scientist in the eerie red glow of your darkroom screaming
"1 0\/\/|\| j00 4ll!!!". You are entitled your bragging rights for
a job well done. However, those with a different mind set may feel strange remembering
that this is how things were done for a very long time.
If you want to take this as a serious hobby, you have a lot of possibilities.
There are quite a few resources in the Internet which goes in detail to explain
the art and science behind darkroom work. Getting a introductory book is recommended.
Film, chemical and paper manufacturers have quite a bit of information in their
You may be surprised to know that you can also develop b&w films using
these chemicals. However, you will have to do it in complete darkness (no safelight).
To get around this problem, you can get daylight film development kits for $25 onward (like Jobo). If you want to make larger prints, you need another piece of equipment
called the "enlarger" for $100 onward. This guide should give you
a taste of the things you can do for $20. If you think that you can commit yourself
to this line of work, go ahead.
Why do it?
That's easy. It's the same reason Rusty makes sourdough
- because it's geeky, and because you can. It's been said million times before,
and I'll agree - watching prints emerge from the trays is really a magical
Besides, taking prints from you inkjet won't make you feel like an wizened
pro or a mad scientist.
Water, electricity and chemicals make a fine combination. You should know what
you are doing. If you trip over your lamp, dive headfirst into the toilet, and
simultaneously drown, get electrocuted and poisoned, don't blame me. I told
you it could happen.
Chemicals may cause skin irritation or breathing problems, so be careful. Do not flush used chemicals down the toilet - even very small amount of silver (5 parts per million) is considered toxic by the EPA. Dispose them off as according to the guidelines of your local authorities.