My Film Processing Setup

Paterson Universal Tank, Samigon reel, thermometer, nitrile gloves
Paterson Universal Tank, Samigon reel, thermometer, nitrile gloves

When I started shooting film again my developing was done right where we all left off almost ten years ago – the local drug store.  That lasted about three weeks until me and my dad grew tired of the inconvenience of heading into town and back, even if the results were acceptable.  As we moved on to professional film emulsions and medium format, it became more of a necessity to home develop our rolls.  Fortunately the Dalgarno abode is blessed with a disused soapstone sink in the basement, presumably for doing laundry before the proliferation of automatic washing machines.  After a quick trip to the Home Depot for a laundry mixer tap fitting and some surreptitious acquisitions of unneeded lab equipment we were all set for our first adventure in color film.

Circulator, Chemicals, Tub
Circulator, Chemicals, Tub

Time and temperature are critical to the developing process of color film, standardized to “C41” chemistry that one can purchase in powdered or concentrate form from photo suppliers.  To control time smartphone/tablet timer apps do the job.  For temperature, a sous vide water circulator sitting around from previous adventures in molecular gastronomy keeps the water bath within 0.1° of the target temperature 39°C/102°F.  Lots of people get by simply topping off their water bath with hot water but given the presence and consistency of our circulator we may as well use it and this write-up will differ from other tutorials.  It is also necessary to wash the film at the same temperature, which is where the mixture tap comes in.  It’s irritating to go back and forth between adjusting temperature at the sink and agitating the film every 30 seconds, but it probably gives more consistent results than having a large supply of water at the right temperature and changing the water at once several times.  Again, this is a divergence from what many people do.  During our wash the taps are blended to the proper temperature and the flow is sent through some pipe fittings and laboratory vinyl tubing straight into the filling hole of the Paterson tank, hopefully displacing water from the bottom up and rinse the film as consistently as possible.

Sink setup
Sink setup

On the topic of consistency, the instructions for each kit recommend processing a dozen 36-exposure 35mm or 120 films (or the equivalent area in sheet film) over a two-week period for best results.  However, the rolls from the meetup photo walk in a recent post were developed in chemicals mixed up six months earlier plus exceeding that film capacity and they came out fine.  The chemicals decay by exposure to air and light rather than with time, so we keep them in amber solvent bottles that are designed for the sole purpose of preserving chemicals.  Like the instructions state, when to safely dispose of the chemicals and switch to a new kit is determined solely by the degree of satisfaction with the results, and with proper storage and no contamination one can greatly exceed the manufacturer’s recommendation. Given that the typical amateur photographer doesn’t keep a backlog of a dozen films needing processing, careful selection and storage of the chemicals is essential but not difficult or compromising to results.

Another time I’ll find a trusty assistant to take pictures as I go, but for now I only have the setup beforehand.  First, loading the film.  The technique differs slightly between 35mm and 120 but the idea is to get the roll from the light-tight canister/spool onto the multi-use reel.  My experience as far as plastic goes is that Paterson reels are best for 35mm but Samigon is better for 120.  I’ve had a lot of trouble with Paterson reels and 120 film before; it’s almost as if the Samigon has looser tolerances which make it easier to insert and advance the film.  Either way, here’s the procedure:

  1. Gather materials – for 120 only the tank/reel and film are necessary but for 35mm scissors and a bottle/canister opener are also required.
  2. Put everything in your changing bag. I’ve heard tell of blankets, closets, and trash bags but this is really much better.
  3. Videos are best suited to this purpose but what I do is rip the seal on the 120 roll and pull out the backing until I can feel the film. Then I collect the film and backing in two separate rolls as I keep pulling the setup off the spool, until I reach the tape.  Tear the tape, then set aside the spool-backing combo.  Now load the film into the reel, tape-end first, pulling it most of the way around before beginning the ratcheting movements to wind it on.  When it’s on, put the reel in the tank, seal it, and open the changing bag.
  4. In the end there should be the film in the tank and the backing paper on the spool; I check the bag to make sure I have everything anyways but this is especially important with 35mm since there will be more detritus from the canister and film ends.

Now I don my personal protective equipment, open up the taps to warm up the tubing, start the timer for the pre-soak and off we go.  After the processing is done I clip the weighted film clip to the exposed end of the reel (which is the last frame on both 35mm and 120 with my technique), then carefully open the reel to adjust the width – just wide enough that the film will curl itself onto the central spool of the reel.  Then it’s trivial to pull the film up and clip the other end.  Originally I dried the film hanging off pipes on the ceiling, but there were problems with dust sticking to the film as it dried.  Some people run their shower to get dust out of the air, but if you have space for a clothes storage bag setup I would recommend it.  All I did was take the clothes bag and cut a hole in the bottom for a 12cm computer fan, then affix the fan to a cardboard rectangle with a fan filter (you can find both at a computer store or supplier).  Air is pulled up from below over the film then out the bag.  I was looking into batteries to power the fan, but there was a cheap 12V power supply sitting around so I appropriated that.  Drying times aren’t accelerated as with a heated dryer, but the film dries dust-free.

Clothes bag, fan and power supply
Clothes bag, fan and power supply

Eventually I’ll get my trusty assistant and go through each step of C41 and E6, but this should give a good idea of the setup and tricks I use.

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