Waiting for your film to return from the lab is exciting — for the first few days. After that, it’s just too long. Fortunately there’s a great home alternative for analog photographers. And it doesn’t require a darkroom.
If you have the following items, you’re on your way to processing film: sink with running water, thermometer, some type of glass vessel, funnel, and scissors.
Note about the funnel and glass — these will never be used for consumables again. They are now dedicated lab tools. Better yet, add the thermometer to that list as well.
Two additional things will need to be purchased. The first is a nifty item called Lab-Box. It’s available all over the Internet for $179. That may sound like a lot at first, but since most folks pay around $20 a roll for processing at a lab, you can see quickly that the math will work in your favor.
The second item is the developer/fixer monobath that goes in the Lab-Box along with the film. I realize that one-bath processing sounds a lot like single-wash shampoo and conditioner, but it works great. I’ve been using CineStill DF96 Developer and Fix Monobath Single Step Solution for my black and white film, mostly Kodak Tri-X. The Monobath runs $20 a bottle, and I get at least 10 rolls of film out of it.
The workflow is fast and fun. Load your roll of black and white in the Lab-Box by clipping the film leader on to the spool. You can do this at your kitchen table. Once it’s set up, attach the light-tight lid to the top of the Lab-Box. The final step of this phase is to turn the outside winding knob to transfer the film from its canister to the processing spool. There’s a built-in cutting tool to separate the end of the roll from the canister once winding is complete.
I like to have the monobath ready to go before I load the film. That consists of pouring 16 ounces of the solution into the glass vessel and warming it to 80 degrees. A bowl of warm water works great for increasing the temperature.
When you hit 80 degrees, it’s go time! Start the timer, pour the solution into the Lab-Box (it has a light-tight pour spout), and agitate for 3 minutes. After that, pour the monobath back into the bottle and rinse the processed film with water. I like 4–5 baths of fresh water before hanging it up to dry.
I attached a spring clip to my shower curtain rod to hold the processed film. I remove excess water from the surface with my fingers. The finger squeegee method works quite well. Use the forefinger and middle finger like a pair of scissors and pull them down the length of the film.
Once the negatives are dry, it’s time to bring them to life. I have a Kodak Scanza for the first round of digitizing. You can get one for $160, and the quality is quite decent for sharing images online and for making snapshots.
Total time investment for this project is an hour. The processing phase takes about 30 minutes from start to cleanup, and then I spend another half hour scanning and enjoying the pictures. I could do this part faster, but why? It’s magical to see the images appear on the screen.
There are variations to this process. The type of film you use, temperature of the solution, and how much agitation during the developing all can change the numbers. But they have charts for that.
I keep it simple. Tri-X film, DF-96 monobath, 80 degrees, and that clever little Lab-Box. In the world of analog photography, it doesn’t get easier than that, with the notable exception of instant film cameras. But that’s something else all together.