Adventures in Film Development – Part 1


Following the acquisition of my vintage Rolleiflex Automat I was naturally very keen to get a roll of film through the camera and see the results. Quite apart from wanting to see what this lovely piece of photographic engineering was capable of, I wanted to see that everything was light fast and working as it should. It all seems to be okay, but I won’t know for sure until I’ve shot a roll of film and seen the negatives.

It was no problem finding somebody who would process the film for me and the price wasn’t too bad. However, the two week wait before I got to see my results was something of a downer. I paid my money and sent my film off, but this got me thinking about processing my own film.

After doing quite a bit of research I decided to take the plunge and invested in a batch of the required chemicals and various basic bits and pieces of equipment. The main investments on equipment would be a developing tank and a changing bag. My aunt said that she had her old changing bag and I was welcome to have it. For the development tank I went for the Paterson “Super System 4 Universal”. It seemed a popular choice and I can see why. The tank is very well thought out and seems to make everything very easy and secure. It’s capable of handling both 35mm and 120 roll film using an ingenious adjustable spiral (it’ll take 127 film too).

The basic process is as follows :-

  • Remove film from camera.
  • Place film, development tank, developing spiral and very importantly the lid in the changing bag.
  • Within the light fast changing bag, unfurl film from spool and wind it onto the developing spiral.
  • Place film, now on spiral, into developing tank.
  • Snap on the light tight lid of the tank.

Once this is done the developing tank can be removed from the light tight changing bag and the chemical processing can begin in normal day light / room light conditions whenever you’re ready. Your film is safe and secure in a light free environment, so you can wait a while before kicking off the chemistry if you want.

The tricky bit in this is getting the film onto the spiral. I sacrificed a roll of 120 film so that I could see how the paper backing was attached and get used to winding the film onto the spiral. Keep in mind that I have to do this blind with my arms stuck inside a light tight changing bag. I got to the point where I could do this with my eyes closed fairly easily and decided that it was time to try it in the changing bag my aunt had given to me.

Oh dear! The bag was made out of very heavy duty PVC and must have been at least 40 years old. It did appear to be light tight, but it was very cramped once I had everything I needed within. And then the real problem became apparent. Humidity. Once your hands are inside the changing bag they start to sweat and the sweat has nowhere to go. This might not seem to be too much of a problem – until you realise that the humidity increase makes the film jam as you try to wind it onto the spiral.

So I had to order a new changing bag. I actually went for more of a “changing tent” which gave the advantage of being a bit roomier to manipulate things in. The fact that it had a supported “roof” would also help as I found the heavy PVC of my aunt’s old changing bag kept falling on top of my hands, and the film as I worked. 120 film is much wider than 35mm film and this makes it a bit trickier to work with as it is. Things become very much harder once you add a heavy PVC bag falling onto it from above and all the humidity which is trapped inside the bag.

The changing “tent” arrived today and I was keen to give it a try. I thought that the modern fabrics and the extra space within would sort out any problems with humidity. I was wrong!

It was certainly way better and much easier to get the film “started” onto the spiral. But from that point on there was no change. The film kept jamming. And of course the more this happened the more frustrated I became and the longer the process took so the more my hands sweated and the worse the situation got.

I tried plunging my hands into some very cold water and drying them well before starting, but that didn’t really help.

I tried blasting a fan at the back of the tent but that didn’t help either.

Finally I decided to try cooling the tent using a couple of ice bricks from a cooler box. I popped them into a plastic bag and left them on top of the tent for a few minutes. My thinking was that cool air sinks so it should cool the interior of the tent. My hands would sweat less and cool air holds less moisture than warm air.

It seems to work!

Now I’m just waiting for my thermometer to arrive before I can have a bash at processing my own film. I’m sure my hands will be sweaty as heck when I come to trying this for real using a film which has potential photographs on it. I’m certainly going to have to be a whole lot more careful about handling the film than I have been with my practice roll.

For the record I am shooting on Ilford FP4+ ISO 125, 120 roll film in the Rolleiflex. I still have my old 35mm SLR camera so if the processing goes well I can see myself trying some of the 35mm equivalent or maybe some Ilford PANF+ which is rated at ISO 50 and should give some of the finest grained results possible. It’s also quite important for me to make sure I use a fairly slow film with the Rolleiflex, especially when it’s bright. The fastest speed the shutter is capable of is 1/500 which might cause a problem if I use a fast film and want to shoot “wide open” at f3.5. ISO 50 rated film would be ideal.

Oh, and following a bit of a vote on Facebook, my Rolleiflex is now named “Helmut”. With a bit of luck you’ll be hearing more about him and seeing some photos he has helped to create in the near future (my fingers are incredibly well crossed).

Helmut seemed a good choice of name for a vintage German camera which was a bit shabby looking but solidly built. The first Helmut that sprang to mind was Helmut Kohl, and he is certainly solidly built (I know nothing of his politics so this took no part in my decision). Then there is the photographer, Helmut Newton and last but not least “Helmut” sounds very similar to “helmet” which meant that I also got the benefit of a bit of amusing double entendre by naming him thus.

I’ll be back with a “Part 2” to this story one way or another over the next few days.


4 thoughts on “Adventures in Film Development – Part 1

  1. I find the most important thing when loading film is to make sure the reel is 100% dry. I always put my reel infront of a heater or hairdryer for a couple of minutes before I load it. Makes masses of difference. Sorry I forgot to mention that one earlier 🙂
    Good luck

    • Thanks for that, and thanks for all your helpful tweets too. I’ll add this to my routine, although the reel was perfectly dry – until it got into the changing bag with my sweaty palms :^) But, anything that might help!

  2. Hahahaha Helmut! Love it! Good on you for developing your own film (or trying, anyway) – I’m not quite there yet, but would sorta love to try. I’m intrigued, but clumsy.

    • Simone, it was something I’d long wanted to do anyway so finding that I was having to wait for 2 weeks to get my negs back just gave me a bit of a prod. I’m pretty clumsy myself, or at least I have big hands and big fingers which have never been coordinated enough to learn to play guitar (for example). As long as my thermometer arrives before the weekend I’m hoping to give it a go. Just wondering Simone, what film are you using in the Voigtlander?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s