Hand-processing is Easy! (a how-to guide)
Published in Workprint, Summer 2005

I’ve written a few articles fo the AFCOOP newsletter toting the wonderous values and benefits of hand-processing film, but I’ve never explained “how” to do it…. So here’s “how”!

Did you know?

  • there are many different developers on the market and that the same film stock can have many different looks depending on the developer you choose to use.
  • For $40.00 you can hand-process the same amount of film that would cost $400.00 at a lab.
  • By hand-processing you can push or pull your film easily without any extra cost just by changing the length of time in the developer.
  • There are many different methods of hand-processing with results ranging from scrappy and scratchy to clean and consistent. 

So what are you waiting for? 

You say you don’t know how? 

Well, let’s unravel the mystery!

The Basics:

All the chemicals you need for hand-processing black and white or colour film are available at your local photo supply store in the darkroom section.  To keep things simple I will only discuss processing black and white film as negative, but if you’re interested in processing colour you can buy an E-6 kit for colour reversal and a C-41 kit for colour negative, and just follow the directions (when processing colour you need to be incredibly precise with temperatures and practice great caution as colour chemicals are quite toxic). 

Chemicals are sold as either liquid concentrates or powders that you mix into stock and working solutions by diluting with water.  Mixing chemicals is no great mystery.  You generally just have to “add water”.  Follow the directions on the package in terms of measurements and temperatures and you should be just fine!

Quick and dirty:For a simple “slop test” all you need is a room that’s dark, some developer, some fix, and some water. It’s not archival but it gives you an image so you can check your work without waiting for a lab.  Simply dunk your film in developer, wash it in water, slosh it in the fixer for a few minutes, and wash it again.

Archivally Anal:  At the other end of the spectrum you can be very meticulous with your chemistry following these steps:

  • Pre-Wash (causes emulsion to become porous for even development) 1-2 min.
  • Developer (develops the latent image by turning exposed silver halides black)  time varies depending on developer type, temperature, and film stock
  • Stop (you can use water or a combination of water and white wine vinegar)

30 seconds if using real stop bath

1-3 min. if using just a water wash or vinegar

  • Fix (clears the film of unexposed silver halides – this preserves the image from darkening over time:  if you don’t fix the film, it will all turn black when the lights come on)  You can turn the lights on after one or two minutes in the fix.

5-10 min. (if the film is still purply and opaque, it’s not done)

  • Wash (in running water) 1-3 min.
  • Hypo Clear (reduces washing time) 1-3 min
  • Final Wash (very necessary for archiving – washes away the unexposed silver that the fix loosened but did not remove)

5-10 min. if you used hypo clear

45 min. if you did not use hypo clear

  • Dry (hang your film in the shower, or pin it to the wall to dry for several hours)

I’ve heard of somepeople drying film with a hair dryer or in a clothes dryer on the delicate cycle… but you have to be careful because heat can cause the film to warp enough that it can’t be projected… I just air dry it in the shower.


Film must be handled in total darkness until you hit the halfway point of the fixing process (unless you are using orthochromatic film which you can handle in red safe light).  So somehow in the dark, you need to get your film evenly covered by the chemicals.  Here are a few options to get you started.

Buckets:  also known as the spaghetti method.  Mix some buckets or trays of chemicals and slop your film around in them like spaghetti.  This makes for a scratchy look and many people like the unpredictable results and uneven development.  The drawback to this method is the exposed surface of the chemistry that creates vapours for you to breathe in.  To combat this, I cover the buckets when not in use.

Stills Film Tank:  jam a wad of film into a stills film tank (unravel it and bunch it up like spaghetti first – the more tangly and messy the more even the coverage).  Put the lid on and process like you would stills film.  This method has no vapours, and is cleaner, but there will be various little black bits and silhouettes of sprocket holes that slide back and forth across the image where the film has touched itself.  It’s best to use the stainless steel tanks as film tends to tangle around the spindles of the plastic tanks.

Morse Rewind Tank:  This is a tank specially designed for processing 100 feet of 16mm or 35mm motion picture film.  AFCOOP has one, so ask for it by name!  In the dark, slide the end of the film into the slot on one of the spools, and click the top lock into place by pressing counterclockwise on the nib. To wind the film onto the spool, I place the Morse spool and the daylight spool into the tank, and spin the Morse spool to load 100 feet of film onto it, emulsion out.  Once the film is off of the daylight spool and onto the Morse spool, take them both out of the tank, and attach the loose end of the film to the other spool, lock it, and place them both in the tank.  Once the lid is on the tank you can turn the lights on.  Pour chemistry into the hole on the top, crank the film back and forth from one spool to the other, and then drain the chemicals from the bottom.  Even though the film is touching itself on the spool, it develops evenly because it is constantly being agitated as it travels from side to side.


  • Always work in a well ventilated area and wear a respirator if you have respiratory disorders like asthma. Take breaks for fresh air often.
  • Always wear gloves (latex gloves are no good as they are porous enough to allow chemicals to pass through).  Use nitrile or neoprene gloves.  You can buy tight fitting disposable nitrile or neoprene gloves at a safety store.  Photochemicals are corrosive (developer and fix are alkali while stop is an acid).
  • Don’t eat in the darkroom and don’t store chemicals in pop bottles that you will be tempted to drink from.
  • Don’t process film if you are pregnant.

MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets)

These are sheets prepared to North American Standards and are available for all chemicals sold to organizations and individuals.  They are prepared by the manufacturer and contain information regarding chemical contents, identification, safety precautions, environmental precautions, transportation, disposal, and first aid measures.  You can get these from the place you buy the chemicals or online at the manufacturer’s website.  It’s a good idea to keep MSDS with your chemicals in case of emergency.  If you have to go to teh hospital for some reason for a chemical related injury, they can’t treat you without the MSDS, so make sure to keep it readily accessible.

Disposal of Chemicals:

Exhausted Developer should not be dumped down the sink because it contains lots of silver particles in it, amon other chemically things.  You can ask a local photo lab or art school if they would take your developer, because they often have silver recovery systems designed for dealing with just such issues.  If they won’t take it, try a hazardous waste plant.  Don’t forget, you can recycle develoer by working with “Replenisher” that you can buy from your local photo supply sotre.

Stop Bath and Fix  “can” be dumped down the drain if diluted with plenty of water.  Fix is essentially ammonia and is similar to household bleach.  So it’s still not a great thing to be dumping down the drain.  Ideally you should check with your local waste management and toxic waste facility to find out about enfironmental options at your disposal.  Have the MSDS hany when asking questions.

Final Notes:

That’s it.  It might look a little complicated at first but it’s super easy once you get going!  For more information, I have left a more detailed version of this article and some textbook chapters on safety, processing and sensitometry in a binder at AFCOOP.  You should also check out Helen Hill’s “Recipes for Disaster: a handmade film cookbooklet” which has all sorts of fun information on ways to play with, attack, love, and manipulate your film by hand.  AFCOOP has a copy in their library, or you can order one from Helen herself for $10.00.